So often in life we tie elements of popular culture to points in our own life. Thus, they take on extra significance, we can begin to forge a bond with this album/movie/television show, and in times of nostalgia we can look to these elements of pop culture for comfort or even use these emotional ties to give these pop culture elements an inflated sense of greatness or importance in our lives.
There is no doubt that for me there is one band that I return to again and again in times of happiness, sadness, anger or pac-man related frustration. That band is Nirvana, and has been for the better part of seven years, when an awkward, stout young boy decided that 50 Cent wasn’t as cool as his other favourite band The Beatles and began to broaden his musical horizons.
I was aware of Nirvana, and naturally aware of Kurt and his eventual self inflicted demise. But as a 13 year old who mainly watched Friends and occasionally Adam Sandler movies if my parents let me stay up when they were played fortnightly on Channel 10 (seriously, did Adam Sandler have a sex tape of Channel 10’s programming director or something? Billy Madison was almost played as much as Neighbours), journeying into the deep abyss that was Nirvana would be a journey that would take years. I started with the songs I heard played sporadically on Triple J, got a friend to burn them to disc and the cycle would eventually continue until I had a fully complete Nirvana collection and my obsession was total. I began to read biographies, listen to in depth online interviews, purchase t-shirts from overseas and generally act like an obsessive fan.
It was around this time, when I was seventeen or eighteen, that I began to realise the gravity of Cobain’s suicide. As a teenager verging on adulthood, I began to feel many of the range of emotions that would usually turn me toward Nirvana. Anger, depression and yes that familiar frustration that usually only comes with being trapped in a corner by two ghosts just as my time runs out began to rear its ugly head. I began to somewhat despise a man I revered for a) taking the easy way out and b) robbing generations, and mainly me of future Nirvana music (In a Rolling Stone interview published in 1993 Cobain discusses at length making a new album and ’embracing his pop sensibilities.’ He points to R.E.M’s Automatic for the People as inspiration. I, personally, would have loved to see this version of Nirvana the band. n.b In this article he also makes graphic and numbered references to killing himself. This, plus his two earlier suicide attempts in 1993, has led me to believe that everyone surrounding Nirvana was legally deaf, dumb and blind for the years of 1993 and 1994).
Through discussion with friends, strangers and browsing forums online it is clear that discussion of Kurt’s suicide amongst Nirvana fans is almost omnipresent, yet like any divisive issue there are clear, defined sides. Many admonish him for taking the easy way out of life, many despise him for leaving them while others are more sympathetic. Those people, a camp I am apparently a part of, are colloquially admonished as ‘mourners’. If we didn’t know Kurt, then why on earth would we be sad? It is a natural reaction from those opposed, but like Will Smith’s parents, I’m gonna argue that they just don’t understand.
Though time, research, maturity and the love of a fine wine has allowed me the Nirvana fan to move past the range of emotions that came with his suicide. Whilst I could not possibly imagine going through it as a fan in 1994, as a person who has loved the band for eight years, and therefore loved Kurt, it is natural, especially as a teenager to go through some kind of grieving process, but like any process there is always the final stage…acceptance.
Yet today if found out a rather interesting fact. It is the reason I wrote this piece. For all the biographies, journals, diaries etc I have read, for all the veritable stalking I have taken part in that seems to have been deemed socially acceptable thanks to his premature death, I had missed one important fact about Kurt Cobain. A fact that oddly enough is at the forefront of my mind when it comes to facing my own mortality.
Ever since I listened to Desert Island Discs (whereby guests are allowed on to discuss seven records they would choose to spent eternity on a desert island with) and read a passage in a Chuck Klosterman book (where he asserts that he always carries his iPod, just in case he is faced with a life or death situation, so he can listen to Tomorrow Never Knows by The Beatles one last time) I have plotted out my final minutes on this earth, ultimately to no avail. I once, on a long car trip with a friend, attempted Desert Island Discs, but could not narrow it down and gave up. I came to the conclusion that I will live to age 85 with no problems, whereby I will slowly Euthanise myself over two years in an orgy of the best film, television and music that has ever existed. (You don’t have to be jealous you didn’t think about it, i’m sure falling of a ski mountain at 66 is still a good plan man.)
All jokes aside, I do think quite regularly about it, and it came to light recently (to me anyway) that the last thing that Kurt Cobain ever heard was R.E.M’s Automatic for the People (the very same album he gushed over in the Rolling Stone interview).
This is an album I already have a great affection for, as it holds two of my favourite R.E.M tracks of all time, the utterly flawless Nightswimming, and the haunting album opener Drive. The depth of the album is also astounding. It has the brilliant if not overplayed Everybody Hurts and Man on the Moon, the uniquely paced and oddly intriguing Ignoreland and one of the finest album closers in R.E.M’s catalogue, Find the River. It is a magnificent album and surely is the bands greatest achievement.
I am sure it is, for your typical R.E.M fan. It is just a phenomenal album that the band have put out for people who like listening to bald dudes to enjoy. But for me it now means a whole lot more. It may make me sound like a douche, but it has changed the historical meaning of that album for me as a Nirvana fan dramatically, and only time will truly tell how dramatically.
As I listen to the album as I write this piece, the songs all sound the same, but there are distinct differences. Lyrics have taken on second meanings, the slightly dark songs sound much darker and I feel sadness as album closes. I sit and I wonder what Kurt was thinking as he listened to these amazing songs, why he chose this album, what was actually going through the head of a man who had everything, fame, fortune, historical recognition, critical praise and the simple pleasure of playing in a fucking rock and roll band, and threw it away.
But as history will perhaps suggest, it is because Cobain achieved all this; family, fame and fortune, yet still could not find happiness, and would perhaps assume that he never would, that he took his life. For Kurt, that light at the end of the tunnel would seem kilometres away and eventually be extinguished by $50 worth of Black Tar Heroin, a shotgun and R.E.M‘s Automatic for the People.
As I argued at the start of the piece, pop culture often takes extra significance when paired with points in our life. Yet, in this case, a pop culture element has taken extra significance because of its significance in another pop culture elements life, and that elements significance to my life.
This ostensibly means three things
1. I wrote Inception.
2. I really need to get out of the house more and find some real humans to communicate with.
3. It is clear that thanks to this new piece of knowledge, my relationship with Automatic from the People, and possibly its implication, meaning and quite definitely its significance has been forever changed.
I will try not to breathe
This decision is mine. I have lived a full life
And these are the eyes that I want you to remember, oh”
R.E.M – Try Not to Breathe