Cobain Versus Cobain 

In the pre-Nevermind post-punk scene, indie cred and sense of self were inextricable.

Two words that should never be used again: "After Nirvana ... " Maybe the only good thing to come from September 11 is that now every one says "after 9/11" instead of alluding to a post-Cobain existence. Sure, it was a big deal for commercial music, spawning imitators and giving the New Yorker crowd a handy way to define young people (sarcastic, disaffected, afraid to grow up).

But for those kids who desperately clung to the underground music scene it was -- God forbid -- one more annoying thing to deal with: that this great band on Sub Pop signed to Geffen and Hot Topic began selling its T-shirts. I was one of those kids -- in my early twenties, living in Illinois -- when Nirvana hit big. Me and my friends were what the grits (rednecks) at my high school called "punk rocks," and we all graduated into the Champaign-Urbana bar scene. (There really isn't much to do in that town if you don't like Big Ten sports, except drink Old Style and form a band.) We eschewed the mainstream, wore flannel, the boys grew their hair long (sound familiar?). Probably the best band we had was the Didjits, on Touch & Go, which along with Sub Pop was probably the most respected indie label in the late '80s and early '90s. That's me on the cover of Little Miss Carriage, one of their last EPs, head back, crying in grief while spilling out of a prom dress, surrounded by dead pigs.

There's something to be said for the psychology that kids who try desperately to be different have self-esteem issues, and that was also me. That, along with being young 'uns, made us elevate people in bands to some sort of mythic level of cool -- something that I'm glad I don't do anymore, and on the other hand I kind of miss. What a rush it was to be at the same barbecue as Steve Albini, or to be completely ignored by the guy from Urge Overkill who wears his sunglasses indoors, or to have a beer spilled down my back by an unapologetic David Yow of the Jesus Lizard. Man, for an insecure girl who defined herself through other people, that was livin'.

I had sort of forgotten about all of this stuff until I read the recently released Kurt Cobain Journals. Just take the very first entry, a letter to Dale Crover of the Melvins, a band the author worshiped. Cobain does that odd mix of describing in great detail how big his band is getting (this is before Sub Pop, even) while at the same time downplaying anything that could be construed as rock star: "... then flashes of camera go off [at the show] and this girl from Backlash says "Gee can we do an interview?' Yeah sure why not. and then people say good job you guys are great and now we're expected to be total socialites. Meeting people, introducing, etc. FUCK I'M IN HIGH SCHOOL AGAIN! I want to move back to Aberdeen."

Kurt Cobain wanted Dale Crover to know that his band was doing well, but to come out and actually say that would be too uncool, so he described it in detail and then knocked it down.

That is entirely how the post-punk scene worked. It was mostly a sham. I'm not saying there isn't a difference between Twisted Sister's Dee Snyder and Kurt Cobain. It's just that the scene disregarded basic human nature. It's natural to want recognition, so the punk ideal that any sort of success is evil goes against the chi. Look at Albini, someone who wrote treatises on the evils of major labels but somehow found it acceptable to produce In Utero. His excuse is usually, "Hey, I'll record anyone for money." But the truth is that even he can't live up to the Shangri-la of punk idealism. And, by the way, he truly reveled in being one of those mythic, cool, indie-rock guys. But what skinny, stooped, bespectacled nerd wouldn't?

So now, finally, I buy the tired explanation for Cobain's suicide: that he couldn't handle fame. I really and truly buy it, because it was hard enough to keep up the indie mind-set, and then to have that completely upset by mainstream success? It must've been a total brain-bust.

The truly sad thing in all this is that I grew up, and he would have, too. He would still like the music he liked, maybe even move into jazz or experimental, but he wouldn't give a shit what people thought anymore. Isn't that what you are supposed to tell people that are threatening to kill themselves? That it won't always be like this?


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