This September’s 20th anniversary of the album Nevermind by Nirvana was anticipated in a very unlikely place: a diocesan newspaper. It’s a little more understandable when you realize it was The Catholic Key, the excellent newspaper of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Santiago Ramos wrote the piece, which gave me high hopes for it.
The piece is called “In Defense of Kurt Cobain’s Sadness.” Ramos wants to defend American youthful angst on its own terms, without analyzing it or explaining it away.
“The significance in Nirvana’s music lies in the fact that millions of people found in it a moment of beautiful sympathy with their own sadness. … but sympathy requires more than feeling sorry— it requires an effort to understand. The worse thing we can do on the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, and in Kurt Cobain’s wake, then, is to misunderstand that angst or — to paraphrase Gide — to understand it too quickly.”
Fair enough; we should not try to understand Kurt Cobain’s angst too quickly. I don’t want to commit the cardinal sin of Catholic commentary and decide right away that “of course Kurt Cobain was unhappy. He had a God-shaped hole in his heart that he was trying to fill with guitar feedback.”
So forgive me for saying: Of course Kurt Cobain was unhappy. He had a God-shaped hole in his heart that he was trying to fill with guitar feedback.
Jody Bottum in a recent post here calls Bob Dylan “the most God-haunted American pop music artist ever.” The case could certainly be made. But that seems a little like picking one guy as “the most carb-haunted customer at Cracker Barrel” — maybe, but he has a lot of competition.
From the “Heartbreak Hotel” to the “Hotel California,” from “Backstreets” to the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” the best pop music is endless commentary on the fact that something Big is missing from our lives.
Kurt Cobain, who was changed by the divorce of his parents at age 8 and who briefly lived with an Evangelical Christian family, advertised his worries about God. You don’t write “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” or “Lithium” unless you are desperately trying to dismiss God from your mind.
Besides, if we want to have any respect at all for Kurt Cobain’s angst, we need to explain it somehow. The most thorough treatment of his angst might be his own suicide note, with commentary by his wife, Courtney Love, when she read it at his funeral. Here are excerpts:
Kurt’s note: “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.”
Courtney: “Well, Kurt, so f–ing what? — then don’t be a rock star you a–hole.”
Kurt’s note: “The worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.”
Courtney: “Well Kurt, the worst crime I can think of is for you to just continue being a rock star when you f—ing hate it, just f–ing stop.”
Kurt’s note: “There’s good in all of us and I simply love people too much.”
Courtney: “So why didn’t you just f–ing stay?”
Kurt’s note: “So much that it makes me feel just too f—ing sad. Sad little sensitive unappreciative Pieces Jesus Man.”
Courtney: “‘Jesus man’? Oh, shut up, bastard!”
I like that Ramos wants to give some respect to middle-class suburban youth angst. It is too universal and too heartfelt to simply be shrugged away. But it seems there are two ways to look at it. Either I’m right, and the Kurt Cobains of this world are deeply wounded by the culture of divorce and disbelief, crying because something real has been torn away from them, or Courtney Love is right … and they are just spoiled rotten “a-holes.”