Come As You Are
Twenty years after Kurt Cobain's suicide, the author tries to walk in an icon's shoes.
WE ARE PERIODICALLY GOADED ABOUT the accuracy of our costumes and their fidelity to the times. My colleague Jagg and I have been asked to dress like the nineties, which means tattoos and ripped jeans to the organizers. To Jagg, I think it means a cross between Siouxsie Sioux, Courtney Love and, well, Jagg. To me, it means Kurt Cobain.
My participation here depends, to a certain extent, on being a good sport; normally, I would dread the act of dressing up. Fortunately, my wife Laura has never felt that way. Six days prior to the Ryerson School of Journalism’s sixtieth anniversary cocktail party and teacher-populated, decades-reflecting fashion show, she insists we visit the costume shop everyone in Toronto sees on the south side of the Gardiner Expressway—the one with the oversized purple King Kong on its roof. I have never been there, but you would think that it must have some kind of wig, right? After a short search, there it is, the “grunge” wig. Meaning, actually, the “Kurt” wig, but the company that produced it would never be granted permission by Courtney to say this, as my eighteen-year-old daughter Justine would later point out. The generic term “grunge” is code for “Kurt.” I put it on. I look in the mirror nearby. Relief. Yes, maybe this will work.
My wife tells me I must walk the walk in black Converse All Star low-cuts. She telephones a warehouse of theatrical props. Of course they have a pair of black Converse All-Star low-cuts, size twelve, complete with cool, worn, faded look—seventeen bucks, tax included, for two weeks’ rental.
Across from the rental—the Value Village, where I used to go to drop off old clothes and search for bargain books. The place was a headache, but I have a laser-like focus now. I’m looking for faded straight-leg blue jeans—there, that pair, try them on, bang. I marvel at myself in the mirror; this is the first pair of blue jeans I have worn in twenty-five years (black has been my colour since the punk era). My wife then presents me with a girl’s long-sleeved t-shirt, thin stripes in black and white. I throw it on—yup, just like Kurt’s. I may have to not-eat for a few days but it’ll work. On a roll, I find in quick succession, beside one another, a brown belt with silver rectangular buckle and a pair of oversized, white-rimmed sunglasses. Done.
My green flannel shirt, soft as peach fuzz, purchased from Monod’s in Banff twenty-two years ago, I retrieve from a pile of work clothes in the basement. I toss it all on my old self. I look in the floor-to-ceiling mirror in the front hallway. I’m a bit off-balance. Giddy. In the mirror, I’m Kurt. Well, Kurt-ish. Ghoulish, I know.
Also in the basement, in a small closet, forty-four rows and thirty-six metres of shiny plastic cases are lined up on four wooden Ivar utility shelves, purchased from IKEA in the era when LPs were out and CDs were in. I grab the batch of Nirvana—Bleach (June 1989), the grunge intro; Nevermind (September 1991), the grunge break-through; Incesticide, the cover-versions Christmas stopgap (December 1992); In Utero (September 1993), the Steve Albini–abetted, anti- radio-friendly about-face; MTV Un- plugged in New York (November 1994), the soft, painful, post-mortal document; and From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (October 1996), the antidote to the acoustic set, a querulous final blast of power-trio noise and grunge-punk fury. I insert the discs into one of those booklets—you remember them, yeah you do—the ones with forty-eight clear plastic sleeves, the ones people used to keep in their cars as fuel for CD players—before iTunes and iPods and jacking in. I start to listen—again: Na na-na, chikka, na-na na na-na, chikka-chikka, na na-na, na na-na na na-na Bappa! Ba-Dappa!! Ba-Dappa!!! Ba-Dappa!!!!
Smells like Dave Grohl tearing up the kit.
I MAKE MYSELF AWARE of the real world of Nirvana. That a quixotic real estate agent put the house in which Kurt grew up on the market for half a million bucks, about seven times the going rate for the neighbourhood (contains real wall-defacements scrawled by Kurt!). That Aberdeen, Washington has declared February 20, Kurt’s birthday, to be Kurt Cobain Day. That nearby Hoquiam will hold its annual Nirvana Day on April 10. And that, on September 24, 2013, Geffen Records issued a twentieth anniversary three-LP edition of In Utero. I follow the bread-crumbs of online commercial information. There have been twentieth anniversary deluxe editions of Nevermind and Bleach. There probably should not be any more twentieth anniversary editions, but come November, Geffen and the Nirvana camp may be unable to resist a three-LP edition of Unplugged.
As I survey Nirvana-land online, I see Kurt looking happy and playful in pictures, but more often troubled and scornful—of fame, of photography, of narcissism, of celebrity (especially his own). Maybe he’s wise beyond his years, but it’s dicey to read too much into images of a guy whose biography is called Heavier Than Heaven. Everybody who receives Kurt has chosen to receive him as brooding, but I think we must remember the bullshit-detecting sense of humour he dispensed to people hanging on to his every word. The fact that there were masses looking to him for wisdom and how to live a decent life in a phony world was perplexing for him: how best to act, how best to respond?
A LOUD-SOFT-LOUD (or soft-loud-soft) formula won Kurt and his bandmates widespread popularity, but eventually he began to scoff at the ease with which he could fling these dime-a- dozen (for him; not others) guitar-wrenching anthems to the tribe. As the arrangements constructed for the Unplugged performance suggest, Kurt seemed more satisfied when he created memorable soft tunes such as “Come as You Are,” “Something in the Way” and “Dumb.” Lyrically, his preoc- cupation with weaponry can speed a chill: “He likes to shoot his gun,” and “I swear I don’t have a gun,” and “I killed you, I’m not gonna crack.”
I haven’t thought about Nirvana/Kurt and what it/he accomplished, almost single-handedly, for years. How it/he changed the course of music, making it cool to be a slacker not a striver, making it cool not to be so nakedly ambitious and cutthroat and money- grubbing and worried about every little fashion detail and eating exactly the right kind of food and obsessing over health and body self-worship through constant tune-ups, obsessing about whose nail art is the best (for laughs, Kurt wore red nail polish with the white framed glasses), whose make-up is perfect, whose pulled-pork is best, which hipster boutique has the best handmade preserves. That is where we are now, in the wake of Nirvana.
Yes, I know, we’ve had a Brooklyn revolution, those anemic, experimental bands, Animal Collective et al. I accept that. I don’t have to listen to them. I don’t have to listen to Nirvana, either. And I didn’t—until I had to channel Kurt. I had forgotten what was so great about the cultural phenomenon of Nirvana. I don’t mean the copycats, Bush and Silverchair and half the bands on the Modern Rock playlist for the decade after April 5, 1994, the day the music died.
WE MODELS AGREE TO MEET at the school’s lounge around 4:30 pm, before the show, to try on our wardrobes. We have two senior students from the School of Fashion helping out—one installing make-up on evolving faces; one supervising the twelve profs (two for each decade of the school’s existence). The latter woman, holding a couple of cellophane packages of temporary tattoos, says, “You will need some of these, won’t you?”
I should back up a bit. When I walk from my office to the lounge, these are the conversations:
“I didn’t recognize you.”
“Who are you?”
This is the reply:
“I’m Kurt Cobain. I’m the nineties …?”
I look through the tattoo-brandishing style woman with a blank gaze. First, I’m wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, so there is a practical issue here. And second, I hate tattoos and want them to die. I never planned on wondering what kind of tattoo Kurt would wear—I mean, am I trying to be Tommy fuck- ing Lee here? Or those Chili Pepper morons? No, I’m trying to be the long-haired dude with the recession-friendly lumberjack look from Aberdeen/Hoquiam/Seattle, Washington. Kurt was not a tattoo guy. He probably wanted them to die, too.
Style woman doesn’t get it. This is the trouble with representing an entire decade in one look—what if people are either too old or too young to recognize Kurt? Twenty years ago, grunge is not an anti-fashion statement but a way of looking at the world. Grunge is anti-consumer revolt, a cry for sanity, a way for people to dress down, to embrace normalcy, not yuppie perfection. Starbucks? What the hell is that? We are five or six years before Naomi Klein and the Battle for Seattle and the revolt against neo-liberal corporatism. Grunge means old ratty jeans are okay. Grunge means old tees are okay. Grunge means check shirts and other bargain wear. Grunge is a statement against the shiny and the new and status based on money. Grunge is A-OK by me. And, apparently, grunge is now okay with Abercrombie & Fitch—teen spirit is more than deodorant. Mac DeMarco knows what I’m talking about.
As we adjust our costumes in preparation for mockery, the fashion school style woman approaches me, her right arm jutting forward, iPhone facing me, picture of Kurt staring out. Long, dirty blond hair. Oversized white frames. Four-day beard. Horizontal stripes on long-sleeved tee. Blue jeans. Converse All Stars.
“This is you!” she tells me. “I get it now!”
THINKING ABOUT KURT, seeing the world, however briefly, facilely, through Kurt’s eyes, I listen. I erase my regular playlist from my iPod Shuffle and drop in the Nirvana catalogue. I run fast through High Park to the monstrous stomp of “Bleed,” I wince at the intensity of In Utero as it reveals itself again: the assault of “Friendly Radio Unit Shifter” balances the tunefulness of “Dumb.” I remember the commercial rock stations and how they finally got with the program by pounding quiet tunes like “Come as You Are” into the zeitgeist. I remember being the editor of a hip alternative weekly and looking up from my computer one afternoon when one of my writers barges into the office to bellow, “It’s over!...It’s all over!” I did not believe him.
You know why? Because I didn’t want to, that’s why. I wanted Kurt to be superhuman, to transcend weakness, to carry the torch of rock ’n’ roll, to be the grand everyman to guide us into the new millennium. We feel invulnerable, until we do not.
That spring day, I walked down Queen Street with two of my best writers and we lamented the end: “There really was something going on, wasn’t there?”
“Yes, there was.”
“It felt like we had it all for a while, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it did.”
Kurt killed himself. Kurt killed him- self. Kurt killed himself.
Why? Why? Why?
Oh fuck, it’s over.
I have tried to avoid thinking about why a man takes his life. I have tried not to be angry. I have tried not to take it personally. But it is hard when you look in the mirror and you see Kurt. I can do no justice to our last, greatest rock star, the one who belittled and dwarfed the idiotic consumer bullshit of our culture until he could not take it anymore.
Howard Devoto, of the punk band Buzzcocks and the postpunk band Magazine, once sang, “Twenty years ago/ I used your soul.” Twenty years on, I use Kurt's.
April 5, 1994. I remember.