The below was delivered as part of the AA’s Summer program, Format, which I direct. The 2014 issue looks at four iconic individuals and how they renewed their worlds and ours with it. The first of these was dedicated to Kurt Cobain, 20 years after his death in 1994. I was joined by the brilliant Sophia Al Maria – who wormholed with her own moving letter to Kurt – and the equally brilliant Tamara Barnett-Herrin, who sang versions of ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Come as You Are.’ I’ll add the video link when it’s up.
You are seventeen years old. You are programmed to feel awkward, gangly, and angry. You wear anger like you wear hair mousse. Because you think it makes you cool; this despite the fact cool totally sucks. Cool is for the crowds. The corporate masses.
You are an individual.
To the horror of your South Asian parents, you grew your hair two years prior, down to your shoulder and you started shaving it underneath. Why? So that you can tell the world in the clearest possible way:
I am not like YOU.
I am like me.
I am like Kurt.
Kurt Cobain is like US.
One day, you switch on the TV and you see this:
Your hair, Kurt, is long, bleached blonde and doesn’t seem to care about things that hair is meant to care about.
But everything in this song—like mulattos and albinos and mosquitoes and libidos—and everything in this strange video—like, where is this? High school in hell?—everything about it makes us care.
And what IS Teen Spirit?
You all assume it’s that anger or frustration or awkwardness you’re programmed to feel throughout your endless teens.
If you were smart with words like the poet Rimbaud was when he was 17 you’d turn those feelings into art.
But you’re not. You’re you. You’re all just you. You need Kurt – and everyone like him, before him — to say what you can’t say, not because nothing is there. But especially because everything is there. Everything that hasn’t happened to you yet. But you hope will.
Many years later, when you are not 17 anymore, you discover that Teen Spirit was the deodorant Kurt’s girlfriend Tobi used to wear…
… and Kurt’s friend Kathleen sprayed the phrase ‘KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT’ on his rental wall. Oh well. Nevermind.
And now you’re 39 years old, sitting in front of an audience, twenty years after Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, killed himself, when he was 27 and you were 19.
Is this what you’d look like now, Kurt? We will never know. Because you’ve been frozen in a Kurt shaped box that means even as the rest of us age — and look more and more like this picture — you won’t.
Since time is vast and the past keeps increasing in size, in depth, sometimes overwhelming us, we’ve invented tools to make time tangible to our minds and in our everyday lives. Without these tools, we’d drown in time’s gooey unknowability. Anniversaries are navigation instruments. They help you against the random accumulation of time.
Here you are now, still the same age sitting in front of the same audience. Many of you were born between 1991 and 1994 and some even afterwards. You’re thinking what does this mean to me? You weren’t there. You weren’t anywhere — yet. But in 20 years time, you will be somewhere, and someone you never knew will have marked you and many other like you. Individuals. Crowds. And you might also wonder: why? How?
Well. For a start. There’s your cardigan Kurt. That green-yellow-mustard Mohair cardigan you’d wear again and again. The lumberjack, flannel shirts made sense. They were from your hometown, Aberdeen, once known for its timber industry, then already in decline when you were born. But cardigans were from somewhere else.
Cardigans were not rock and roll. Cardigans were the opposite of leather jackets. Cardigans were what Morrissey once wore. An anti-uniform alchemised by sensitive types, with Keats and Yates on your side.
Then there’s the “angst.” And angst is great until someone tells you that you’re angsty. Doesn’t angst always sound better in a German accent?
Then there was that whole “voice of a generation” thing, which the early 90s was crazy about, as though history was rebooting itself, the century’s last hangover before it collapsed into pre-millennial anxiety. And here’s a generation — your generation? — steeped in… what? Postmodern irony? Consumer numbness? The end of history? You said you never chose to be this voice for this or any generation. But you were.
You were also… a feminist? You never used the word, but, there’s this straightforward outright hatred for sexism and sexual violence that was not only rife everywhere but enshrined in the credo of sweaty, male American rock.
You read Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume 10 times and there’s even Camille Paglia in one of your songs.
A lot of this is down to the influence of your wife, Courtney Love, whose band Hole were as blistering and brilliant as your band were at the beginning.
You were a girl-boy unit with an obvious precedent, but, somehow, amidst the clichéd trashing of Seattle hotel suites, there was an old fashioned romance.
You chose to not take a limousine to NBC’s studios for the Saturday Night Live gig. You kind of kept wearing the same clothes, the same cardigan, your hair changed colour a bunch of times, but you never got all nouveau riche. In the language of the time, “You kept it real,” and, for everyone who had no choice but continue to live out their lives surrounded by their reality, this mattered. I hope you know that it mattered?
In 1993, Nirvana do this MTV Unplugged gig, and, you’re sitting on a stool surrounded by lilies and candles. You’re funny and drink tea and are touchingly real. You only play one of your well-known songs. Many are cover versions of unheard of bands. You’re a portal to other music — The Vaselines, The Meat Puppets, The Marine Girls, The Pixies, Neil Young, Sonic Youth, The Raincoats, Beat Happening, Daniel Johnston. Your generosity also seems real. You introduce and re-introduce forgotten music the way a friend used to make a mixtape for another friend or lover.
Then on April 5th 1994, after several other attempts, you end it all, in a greenhouse with linoleum floor at the bottom of the garden.
You are Douglas Coupland, aged 33, the author of Generation X, and soon after this news, you write a public letter to Kurt Cobain, in which you say:
And then yesterday I heard Nirvana pulled out of the Lollapalooza Tour. And I figured something was up.
And now you are dead.
I was in San Francisco, driving up the 101 past Candlestick Park when the news came over the radio, LIVE 105 – the news that you had shot yourself. A few minutes later I was in the city and I pulled the car over and tried to figure out what I felt. I had never asked you to make me care about you, but it happened – against the hype, against the odds – and now you are in my imagination forever. And I figure you’re in heaven too. But how, exactly does it help you now, to know that you, too, as it is said, were once adored?
Yes Kurt. Does it help? Does it help that you are still adored? For maybe the wrong reasons? The same reasons that hover like a halo around other “tragic heroes”? Surely one of the worst things about not being alive is not being able to defend what happens to you in death. You’re resuscitated, cloned, egregiously mythologised, made to advertise detergent powder or credit cards, doomed to spent eternity on T-Shirts sold at Topshop. With no apologies.
You’re also sitting here, 20 years later, addressing an audience who think you smell like middle-aged nostalgia. But you want to explain that something happens to past time. New adjacencies emerge. Unknown causalities between unrelated points on earth and its people. Undiscovered ricochets. Not only is the world flatter but history is flat too. A month is 2.5 seconds eye-scanning. A year is scrolled through in a few minutes. The history of everything is a sequence of bullet-points. This distillation: new, strange, entanglements of retrospective destiny. Maybe it’s all happened before. We’re in the future looking back. Rest in peace. You’re lost. That’s OK. We are too.
And you remember the time you sang Smells Like Teen Spirit it in a tiny karaoke bar in Japan. And you wonder: Do all great songs die with their singers and then die again and again as karaoke classics?