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The Shot that Echoes: Remembering Kurt Cobain 20 Years Since His Suicide

Rock and Roll's ongoing struggle with authenticity and artistic freedom.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Curmodgeon NIRVANA; Screenshot / YouTube.com

 
 
 
 

Saturday marked 20 years since Kurt Cobain took his own life. In June 1995, Rock & Rap Confidential published a special issue, consisting of a 5,500 word exploration written by editor Dave Marsh. Read the reprint below.

Live Through This

Last April 6, Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head. On April 8, a workman discovered his body. In millions of heads, including my own, the echo of that shot still has not died.

For all that’s been written about Cobain’s death, its foreshadowings and its aftermath, what’s inside that echo has barely been explored. The power that his death holds over our emotions and imagination remains, for the most part, a mystery. It doesn’t come down to anything quite so simple as great songs, a great band, a great singer, or "the voice of a generation." The answer doesn’t lie in poring over the details of his life, either. There was nothing simple about what drove Kurt Cobain to leave this world; there’s nothing simple about what leads any person to choose death (or, in the most desperate instances, to reject death and continue living).

But if we can never know what combination of biochemistry, family background, drug addiction, neglect, celebrity and self-hatred caused Kurt Cobain to obliterate himself, it’s still worth pondering what it says about the rock world, stardom and our own complicity in it — as fans, critics, partisans, brothers and sisters within a generation and across the gap. If we can’t figure out what Cobain’s suicide says about him, we should at least try to grasp what it says about us.

Alternative rock may believe that it discovered the idea that stardom is lethal, that embracing fame and fortune represents a death wish not only for the star but for everyone involved in the process, but that’s a joke. The idea is there in the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, and before that in the story of Icarus, who soared too high in emulation of birds and the gods. But there is something new about the current rock scene’s attitude toward stardom, fame, and its own sense of community. The night that the electrician found Cobain’s body, someone who worked for him approached me in real distress. "I don’t understand how this happened," he said, in genuine mourning. "How do you get through to a guy who feels like a bigger and bigger failure the more people respond to him? And the more he says he’s a failure, the bigger the response."

For me, that exchange became part of the echo. It determined how I interpreted his suicide note, and that note deserves more analysis than it’s received. The excerpts Courtney Love read at Cobain’s memorial service last April reveal a lot about the thinking that led him to kill himself. And while it would be crazy to take anybody’s suicide note as the last word on why they did it, it’s equally crazy to ignore it and refuse its implications.

"This note should be pretty easy to understand," he wrote. "All the warnings from the Punk Rock 101 courses over the years since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and embracement of your community, it’s proven to be very true. I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing something, for too many years now.

"I feel guilty beyond words about these things — for example, when we’re backstage and the lights go out and the roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and adoration of the crowd ... " At which point in her reading, Courtney Love paused and commented, "Well, Kurt, so fucking what — then don’t be a star, you asshole."