Kurt Cobain’s Sadness

Kurt Cobain by Vahl (wiki commons)

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.”

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9 thoughts on “Kurt Cobain’s Sadness

  1. Jonathan says:

    Can someone say “reduction” ? This is terribly reductive Tom.

  2. Brandt Hardin says:

    Kurt changed my life with his insightful and surreal music and lyrics. I only wished he could have stuck around to make more to listen to for future generations. I was compelled to compose a portrait of him In Memoriam recently on the anniversary of his death on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/04/in-memoriam-kurt-cobain-and-lane-staley.html Drop in and tell me your memories of his music and how it’s affected you.

  3. Scott W. says:

    Christians ought to retire the “God-hole” meme. It’s become a fossilized cliché and we have long overplayed our hand by locating faith primarily in the emotional or instinctual. In a sense, it is like a negative Mormanism. If you have ever thought “burning in the bosom” was a silly way to arrive at Truth (and you ought to), then things are not improved by invoking a lack of burning in the bosom (the God-hole in the heart.)

    1. Tom Crowe says:

      Scott W.— I find your characterization of the “God-shaped hole” notion as a “meme” or “cliche” a bit odd. Christianity is fairly clear that the sum of all our desires is God; that “our heart is restless until it rests in [God]“; that we undertake all actions out of a desire for the greatest good, and the greatest good is God; etc. Also, we routinely characterize our motivation for things we do as “I have a lack” or because of an emptiness inside, i.e., a hole. If we believe that human persons cannot be truly happy unless they are coming to know and love God more and more, and if we liken our motivation for seeking to an emptiness, then it seems like the phrase “God-shaped hole” is and shall remain quite appropriate. ———— But then it also seems that perhaps you have a different understanding of the “God-shaped hole” notion. I don’t think it is like the “burning in the bosom” that Mormons invoke at all. I wouldn’t say that we are seeking a burning in the bosom to know that we have found God, but rather recognizing that the reason we feel an emptiness is because we lack God and the emptiness we are seeking to fill can only really be filled by coming to know and love God. Does that make sense?

      1. Ryan Haber says:

        I’m not sure what Scott W. meant, exactly, though it strikes me that he was not arguing with Christian theology. I agree with him, though, that the actual phrase – “a God-shaped hole” – is cliche. It is cliche because it is so often overused. That takes away from its power to penetrate the heart and mind. Authentic witness is best served by authentic communication of authentic experience, not just using someone else’s clever turn of words. In this case, the turn isn’t even that clever. Augustine said it more eloquently, and almost anybody says it better when saying it in his own words.

  4. Name *Iisascheid says:

    Wasn’t “God Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” a cover, not a nirvana original?

  5. JohnnyZoom says:

    >>”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.””

    It should be noted that those two ways are not mutually exclusive.

    1. Panda Rosa says:

      Even spoiled A-holes can feel real pain. Just because they may not like the cure doesn’t mean they don’t need it, or shouldn’t have it.

    2. Ryan Haber says:

      I agree. My guess is that Courney Love wasn’t trying to say that he wasn’t in pain.

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