in Frieze | 07 JUN 94
Featured in
Issue 17

Live Through This

Hole, Geffen Records Inc.

in Frieze | 07 JUN 94

I never met Kurt Cobain, and I don't know why he killed himself; and if I had spent time with him I probably still wouldn't know. Moreover, I don't want to speculate about it. So I'm entirely unable to write about the suicide itself, and even if I could I wouldn't: it's not the sort of thing about which one should have a theory. Skip the sighs, the stupid Generation X analyses, the stereotypes; skip the jokes, the answers, the outrage, the editorials.

Almost no one can. A sudden, unexpected death tends to bring out the worst in the living: it makes us stupid - vain, petty, know-it-all, cruel. The pressure to act appropriately, to say something wise, or smart, or emotionally true, puts more pressure on our better instincts than they can generally bear. When the death is the deliberately private act of a public figure, it's even more difficult to get at the deed. In the end it's something about which no one can comment.

Or at any rate, it should be. The American media's response to Cobain's death was immediate and almost uniformly predictable. About the only memorable moment was the sight of a somewhat shocked, and deeply worried-looking Dan Rather gravely intoning the phrase 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. It gave one the absurd hope that he might adopt it as part of his sign off: 'This is Dan Rather, reporting from New York for CBS News. Smells like teen spirit. Goodnight.' The rest was platitudes: a troubled life, a shame, obvious talent, fame and success didn't make him happy, his poor wife and child, etc. All true, of course, but so obvious that even saying it seems pathetic.

The attempts to explain why Cobain might have killed himself were equally shallow, and considerably more grotesque. A hateful and stunningly ignorant Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes suggested that he was somehow spoiled by a life in which things came too easily; the equally hateful New York Post implied that he did it because his wife was a bitch; gossip columnist Liz Smith was sure that it had to do with his stomachaches; some self-important clown in the New Yorker insisted it was because he couldn't kick heroin (the answer he wrote pompously, 'lies between him and his dealer'); and Newsweek, ever eager to jump on the latest pop-psychological fad, suggested that Cobain might have suffered from too-low levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin.

Such explanations are beside the point, and within a few days I found myself avoiding the newsstand so that I didn't have to hear them any more. But if his death had any impact on you, you'll have to take it seriously, however hard it may be to find the right way to do so, and I'm surprised at how affected I was. It was just pop music, someone I didn't know, and I'm not a teenager. But, yeah, I listened to Nirvana's music, and I loved it. It was one of those rare pleasures that just about everyone I cared about felt as well, along with millions of other people about whom I don't really directly care much at all. So there is something to say - not about Cobain, that would be presumptuous - but about what happens when someone like that dies. Lester Bangs almost had it when he wrote about the death of Elvis Presley: 'If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to...whoever seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies...But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything the way we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.'

Well, 'Good-bye' may be a little strong. The bond of mutual appreciation between us is just loosened a little bit when one of our pleasures disappears; it's never entirely severed. But what I miss - already - is not so much the music itself as the experience of sharing it with my friends. Something will surely come along, but that just makes the damage elusive; it's just one more element in the mixed measure of being.

Besides, here is Courtney Love and her band Hole, whose album Live Through This came out the week her husband died. Again, we can pass on the obvious ironies, both in the title and lyrics, right down to the last one, a tender, hesitant, whispered 'Good-bye' that closes the final song. It's all going to mean something different now anyway, a fact not entirely fair to Love, who after all was trying to make the best music she could, not to hand down final wisdom on the dead.

It's a strange record, and I can already imagine how it's going to sound, cranked out of car radios and apartment windows over the coming months. With the acoustic guitars, the high reverb on her voice, the jumps from caterwauls to singsong harmonies, it sounds like it was recorded by some kids, trolls, who lived in a cardboard box that had been left by the back of a record store; or like one of those deranged psychedelic albums that came out of California at the beginning of the 70s, guileless hippie pop giving way to Manson-era psychoses. The difference is that Love seems to have gotten there by moving in the opposite direction, away from anger and towards innocence.

She's always flirted with the idea of the little girl, from her famous baby-doll dresses to the picture of her as a child that graces the back cover of Live Through This. It's a blatantly sexual tactic, of course, and to the extent that it is, it's both manipulative and self-destructive. But behind it there seems to be a genuine wish, a will to naiveté, and in fact she seems to grow younger as the songs progress, grow old again, and then force herself back to youth. The metamorphoses must be excruciating, and the music strips down, tears its tendons and turns itself inside out to match them. You'll have to listen to it.

I don't know. Summer's coming and everything's going to change again. In New York, as I'm writing this, it's getting hot and bright, and droves of people I've never seen before are starting to show up on the streets of my neighbourhood. Live Through This is a beautiful album, and while I can't say what, if anything, it might mean to you, to me it feels like one of those things that you know is going to be a memory, even before it becomes one.