and way out in seattle, young kurt cobain
snuck out to the greenhouse, put a bullet in his brain.
snakes in the grass beneath our feet, rain in the clouds above,
some moments last forever, but some flare up with love love love.
This past April, I had planned to write an entry on R.E.M.’s “Let Me In.” Obviously, I didn’t. Not for any good reason, it’s just that the words never seemed to come out right. It was like trying to explain what it felt like to stand inside a hurricane, watching the sky turn dead-television grey. I can do that in a sentence (and you have proof, presuming your short-term memory works all right), but it doesn’t ever seem to match the original, emotional connotation. So, no entry came. I can tell you, right now, that this entry is going to do a whole lot more than what it says on the tin. In fact, it’s probably going to be two entries. But seeing as it’s the Mountain Goats track that brought everything to a head, I’ll let it rule the subject line. Goats are probably use to lofty places, anyway – especially mountain goats – and I’d hate to tinker with nature.
As I detailed in my entry on the Econo Mix, the time when I was thirteen was one of profound dweebdom. There’s no getting around it, and I won’t even try. Even so, I had a newfound hunger for “contemporary/alternative/indie/not-your-mom’s-at-least-for-another-month” music, and it was more than lucky that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released only a month after I received the tape. It was perfect. Sublime in the way that it must’ve been to have gone to your first gig in Liverpool to see a little band called The Beatles. Or, indeed, sublime in the way that it is when your Slush Puppie has just the right ratio of puppy-to-slush. (1) More than that, though, was that sense that came with the shift in music – the sense that something was actually happening. Until this point, radio and I had a pretty familiar routine. I would turn it on, drift past my mother’s awful “girl” music, and find one of the pre-approved “rock” stations. These stations would do a reasonably good job of reminding me of my Dad, and that would be that. Non-threatening and comforting – my life in fm.
This changed, however, with the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Many stations took a cue from college radio, and “alternative” rock overtook everything. Metallica, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston – the seventh seal had been opened, and those of us who were lucky sat at the right-hand of the Space Needle. Or, in my case, the right-side of the dial (101.7 fm was just right of 100.7 and 101.1 – the only place where, geographically, alternative was to the conservative side of Lynyrd Skynyrd). I remember thinking I was incredibly lucky that all this music was happening right at the time I showed up to hear it. That it was mine. And, I guess, I still feel like I have personal ownership of that period in a way that interlopers from other decades don’t get to share. (This is both elitist and silly, but I also feel it’s a necessary part of caring about music. Oh well.)
I suppose I took this to fairly reasonable lengths – the same set of feelings that teens in the seventies felt about Dark Side of the Moon, or what some sad people in the eighties felt about Party All The Time. However, I seemed to be in a minority with respect of my level-headed devotion. There was a guy in my high school called Ed, and Ed was usually in possession of three things: 1) Pink Hair. 2) A Cardigan. 3) A demo for his band “Crumb.” (2) In March of 1994, there were spotty reports that Kurt Cobain had died of a drug overdose in Rome. By the end of the school day, we knew that he was going to be ok. It was terrifying. I remember worrying about Ed, but mostly I had an unnameable fear for the future. In a way, I guess Kurt was the John Connor of the early 90s. He just had to live, or else Arnold would show up, and I wouldn’t understand him, and he’d probably kill me. (Eh, you get my point.)
Kurt was found dead on a Friday morning in April (the 8th) (3). The news was there by the time I woke up, and Kurt Loder was generally speechless. This impressed me, as it would impress me on 9/11 when none of the TV personalities could really do anything but stare at the smoke for many silent minutes. I felt this silence in my heart, and I stayed motionless on the couch. There could be no school that day. (Somewhere, I hoped that Ed was ok. He was the biggest Nirvana fan I’d ever met, and I worried that he would take the Roman way out of the situation. Thankfully, he didn’t.) It was the first time I’d ever really lost a public figure that I truly cared about. More than that, it was the first time that I realized the amazing mutability of artists and art. Kurt was gone, and there could never be a Nirvana again. You were there, or you weren’t, but that was it. The boundaries would only ever be marginally expanded by releases of rarities and box sets. Kurt would never put his stamp on the late 90s, and we were powerless to protect ourselves (and our airwaves) from boy bands. For all the people in the world who identify themselves through their aesthetic choices (and there are thousands), this sort of thing is much like discovering that you’ve lost memories because you suffered brain damage. Or, worse yet, that you have amnesia.
Looking back on it, I suppose that the initial shock eventually gave way to a sense of “now what?” Kurt’s exit left the rest of us wondering how to move forward without losing what had happened. But just as you begin to forget things about loved ones once they’re gone, the memory of that time was slowly overtaken by many third-generation “grunge” bands who never really got it (though they may have, in fact, gotten rich). When I really hover over it, I realize that this sentiment was born out of the fear that comes from suddenly realizing the need for self-reliance. It hurt so much to lose Kurt, but not because I knew him. No, it hurt so much because I was just getting to know him, and that I knew that I’d lost a part of myself – an innocent part that just wanted to cover itself in music and dance forever. Kurt’s death is, for me, and I’m sure for many others, a moment of self-re-definition. It was an imposed stock-taking, and it often revealed the need to turn off the autopilot. Just as Nirvana had shaken up the music industry and redefined “rock,” their absence would now define the terms on which the 90s would unfold. Well, for music fans, anyway.
When I think about it, the greatest concert moment I’ve ever seen was at R.E.M.’s 1995 show at Great Woods (Now, the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, MA). They were on the Monster tour, and Courtney Love (who shall not appear elsewhere in this entry) had loaned them Kurt’s famous blue-and-white stratocaster. Kurt and Michael had been friends, and they were even working on some “acoustic demos.” “We’ll never hear them,” I thought, as the spotlight poured down on the guitar which feverishly groaned out “Let Me In” – the rest of the stage in total darkness. It was upside-down so that Buck could play it, and, even though I mostly think better of it, I will say that I felt the same way. The world had to be inverted for this to happen. I saw so many people crying, and Michael finished the song from his knees – and he stayed there for two whole minutes. The audience was silent, and it was exactly what a wake was supposed to be. The song was followed by Country Feedback, and I don’t remember many dry eyes once we reached the first “It’s crazy what you could’ve had.” The song was for someone else, but it fit this moment perfectly. It was crazy what Kurt could’ve had… and I suppose that’s exactly what killed him.
Before we move forward, go ahead. Listen to “Let Me In.”
Yeah. And that song, which still strikes me dumb, is exactly why the Mountain Goats surprised me. There’s this tiny little song, “Love Love Love,” and there’s this off-the-cuff mention of Kurt… and it doesn’t hurt. In fact, in the broader context of this song, it makes perfect narrative sense. The moment of Kurt’s death followed by a sense of peril, and a sense of foreboding. But these images are also symbolic of innocence, and of the struggle of man v. nature. If you want, it’s the garden we found again once the Bobby Browns of the world were swept away in a flood of distortion. (Wow. Would you believe that few girls have ever responded well to my poetry? Weird, huh?) But then there’s that final line… and some moments do last forever, like the slush puppies, and some flare up with love love love. Maybe Nevermind isn’t an immortal record – In Utero certainly wasn’t, and I dare say that Bleach may not be either – but they were loved, and this love makes them immortal. But maybe there’s also a hint of how we perpetuate these myths and legends, and how they’re really part of our love for ourselves (and, of course, our youth).
What amazes me is that this lyric doesn’t make me sad. I used to have a hard time listening to Unplugged in New York, because it is one of the three greatest rock records ever (recorded in one take even!), and it came at the end. And it could’ve been the middle. I love the record, but it used to make me so sad when it ended – largely because the stamp of permanence was all over it. It wasn’t just the end of an album, it was the end of an era. ClichÃ©, but true. And while those thoughts are still there, something’s changed and I don’t feel full of misery. And this silly little song made me realize that. Kurt’s been gone for thirteen years, and I have loved bands far more passionately than Nirvana, and I’m all right with that. (4) And while I’ll always wonder what could’ve been, I have love love love to see me through – and that will make the moment last forever.
(If you want, love will make the puppie last until the end. (5))
Here, let the Goats tell you:
And, of course, you need this (6):
- This may seem a far cry from The Beatles at the Cavern Club, but I assure you that green Slush Puppies (mmm… green) informed my youth in far greater measure than The Beatles. In fact, I would say that the ritual of driving around late with friends, going to the Little Peach (the only open convenience store), sitting outside to drink the Slush Puppie, and then coasting around with that post-puppie afterglow was probably one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. (Not everyone gets born into Nazi Germany, the early years of Punk, or the monarchy.) Listening to The Beatles was informative, but drinking Slush Puppies was essential. Maybe that’s why I remain a fan, and not a performer? Either way, I can make the puppie last straight to the end of the drink. Can you? [Back]
- The only demo ever made that makes mine look like Vs. Ed’s sound was much like that of a fork in a garbage disposal. Consequently, we were all a little worried about Ed. Usually, this worry was for his eardrums, and his neighbors. This did not, however, stop us from yelling “Ed Roux” whenever we happened to drive by his house. A ritual I still observe, though I’ve forgotten why it began. [Back]
- This is one of two musical holidays I still think of. The other is “Frank Mills Day,” which is also my Mom’s birthday. I’m sorry to say I usually remember the former before the latter. [Back]
- I’m pretty sure they are, too, though we don’t bring it up at parties. [Back]
- Really, few women cared for this stuff. Well, whatever – never mind. [Back]
- It’s impossible to choose just one. Dig around, huh? [Back]