issue 259 - September 1994
Rebel without a clue
The suicide of millionaire pied piper Kurt Cobain left a whole
generation bereft of a false prophet, argues Stephen Hill.
Rock n' roll stars loom large in the psyche of America's youth. The pied pipers of rock have been poets and jesters for each successive generation. The Beatles, the Stones, the Doors, the Who, the Sex Pistols - the gallery of rock n' roll Hall-of-Famers became millionaire heroes, singing anti establishment songs and mining an inexhaustible vein of teenage angst.
In the 1990s few rock stars reached a higher pinnacle of success than Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. Like so many other rockers, Kurt Cobain became a success by the standards of the establishment he railed against. When on 5 April 1994, at the age of 27 he committed suicide, he effectively abandoned his 15- to 30-year-old fans - known as 'Generation X'. They had come to rely on his furious lyrics, his primal-scream singing and his power-chord slams to express their sense of alienation.
Generation X has a lot to feel alienated about: drive-by shootings, street violence and suicide, Prozac-happy therapy, the haunting specter of AIDS - where an act of love can become an act of death - Beavis-and-Butthead mean-spiritedness, absentee parents trying to make it in the two-income economy. Generation X is the one that will suffer most from present government policies of free trade and from 14 years of Reagan-Bush-Clinton economics. Kurt Cobain wailed, thumped and slammed his guitar against the walls of a decaying society.
I was one of thousands who gathered on 10 April at the Flag Pavilion of the Seattle Center for a memorial to Kurt Cobain. The mood of the crowd was somber. Never have I seen so many stand so quietly at the usually-festive Center.
It occurred to me how much Cobain exemplified the lack of substance rock n' rollers generally offer their fans. Rock stars get great big houses and fancy cars. Cobain's garret was a palatial spread overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Lake Washington. Fans hung out at the bottom of his long driveway or at Tower Records where he sometimes shopped, hoping to catch a bit of his glow.
But though rock stars may promise freedom and hippiness, the rocker usually ends up dead, burnt-out or waltzing off into the sunset with the booty. Rock n' roll has never been able to deliver what it promises. What members of Generation X need is an understanding of why their government is ruining their future in order to enrich the new robber barons.
One of Cobain's lyrics hints at what seems to be rebellion: 'You can't fire me because I quit, throw me in the fire, and I won't throw a fit.' But this is exactly what the corporations want - workers of the world slotted into the role of disposable, carbon-copy units fit for stoking up the fires of the profit machines.
Generation X seems to have little understanding of such matters. MTV (which is owned by communications giant Viacom, which also owns Nickelodeon and Showtime and recently acquired Paramount for a hefty $10 billion) isn't about to tell them, and neither did Kurt Cobain. Cobain's relentlessly self-probing and self-effacing lyrics were about being lost, a loner, a misfit. They were long on angst, short on direction. Cobain was a rebel without a clue, part jester and part pariah. That quality gave his music a certain sweetness and wit rolled up inside the fury. But when the song ends and the primal screaming stops the noose around the neck of Generation X, around us all, is just that little bit tighter.
Cobain has gone but his generation has not. They deserve more substance than Cobain had to offer. They need poets and rockers who are really in rebellion against a corporate structure that's prepared to auction them off on the trading block.
Cobain's suicide note said: 'It's better to burn out than to fade away.' But Generation X has another option - it's called 'fighting back'. It's not as easy as laughing and singing Nirvana songs or throwing toilet paper into the air, like the revelers scaling the Seattle Center fountain after Cobain's memorial. It's not as sexy as orgasms and getting high. It will require more effort than rolling over and playing dead.
The shotgun is pointed at their head. Will they allow the trigger to be pulled or fight back? The world needs you, Generation X. Don't pull a Kurt Cobain.
Steven Hill is a thirtysomething freelance writer living in Seattle.