On April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain’s body was discovered at his home in Seattle by an electrician who arrived to install a security system. Kurt had shot himself in the head and his body had been lying there for three days. He was the lead singer, guitarist, primary songwriter of the band Nirvana, and the king of grunge, but there laid Kurt, the man, the husband and father.
Nirvana established itself as part of the Seattle musical scene in the late 1980s, and became widely known with the lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from album Nevermind in 1991. Nirvana’s success popularized alternative rock and Kurt was acclaimed in the media as the “spokesman of a generation”. He did not seem to agree:
I’m a spokesman for myself (…) It just so happens that there’s a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times because I’m just as confused as most people. I don’t have the answers for anything. I don’t want to be a fucking spokesperson. (“Nirvana: Inside the Heart and Mind of Kurt Cobain”)
Nirvana struck a chord with Generation X—also called MTV Generation—the generation coming after the baby boom with birth dates ranging from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Gen X is more heterogeneous than previous ones, openly acknowledging and embracing social diversity in race, class, religion, ethnicity, culture, language, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
… a generation whose worldview is based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, AIDS, a generation in search of human dignity and individual freedom, the need for stability, love, tolerance, and human rights for all. (Wikipedia, “Generation X”)
For a brief moment in the early 90’s, Gen Xers dared to dream that the world could be a better place. The grunge ethos roared, but it was just a dream, just a moment. The world is a very hard place to change, and the apathy and carelessness of grunge was not the best way to do it. Earnestness and ambition came quickly to replace sarcasm and slack.
While Cobain’s dead body was lying at home, disappeared and forgotten, on April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying the then Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Hutu president of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down as it was about to land in Kigali. Everyone on board was killed and that same night the Rwandan genocide began. From April to July 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the east-central African nation of Rwanda murdered as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. (The rate of killing has been estimated to be five times higher than during the Holocaust of Nazi Germany.)
Nothing but my mind relates the two events, nothing but the fact that they happened on the very same dates. And a couple of months ago, news brought together the echo of those two unrelated events like a faint wave of a remote disturbance. Seen in retrospect, that date—April 1994—appears like the end of a certain world. 20 years ago, when I first learnt that Kurt had gone, I did not immediately realise it, but then, while MTV repeatedly broadcasted “Unplugged in New York”, I began to feel that Kurt had been like the umbilical cord which connected me to my youth.
Why did Kurt kill himself? In the suicide note he left behind, he said he didn’t feel passion and he alluded his stomach pains from an undiagnosed stomach condition:
Thank you all from the pit of my burning, nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the past years. I’m too much of an erratic, moody, baby! i don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
The quote “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” from Neil Young’s song “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”(1) expresses an intense feeling of melancholy, of lost opportunity, of impotence. It is the feeling that the world cannot be changed, only battled, and that you are but a heartbeat in a never-ending battle. It is the same feeling behind Viking’s wish to die sword in hand, the same feeling that floods Gabriel at the end of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”:
Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age, (James Joyce, “The Dead”)
If you think about it, you need a bombproof stomach to go through things like Rwandan genocide and continue with your life as if nothing has happened. At the age of 27 you begin to feel that pressure, that pungent contradiction that you are going to have to put aside too many things to go through. Maybe Kurt’s death was but his boldest act as spokesman for Gen X.
(1) Don’t look for the song’s lyrics, you will only be able to hear those words in the acoustic “My My, Hey Hey” (linked above)
Featured Image: Sketch of Kurt Cobain by DieDiablo