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Republican Nation: Save Our Symbols

S.O.S.: Save Our Symbols
January 10, 1995

THE NIGHT AFTER THEIR REVOLUTION, Esther and I washed dishes in Laura’s kitchen. It was Laura’s birth­day, and we’d celebrated (because, fuck it all, we needed to). Now, we were talking about the fact and the fairy tale of what had happened. We threw around the common predictions — social repression, economic depression, the dismantling of civil rights. I tried to make fun of fundamentalists, but ended up retreating into the dislocated feeling I’d first experienced way back when I was 20 and nobody I knew elected Ronald Reagan. My country, their revolution: here it came again, supposedly the spawn of a Middle America I couldn’t see in my kind, tolerant, working-class Wisconsin cousins, or in my freedom-loving Northwest family, all middle class and raised religious, with different opinions about abortion and the welfare state, but none of them this inhumane or this foolhardy.

“What’s being said,” Esther muttered into the soap suds, “makes me feel erased.”

“I know what you mean,” I replied.

“No,” she said. “I mean by our side. By the left.”

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This is how believing in their revolution hurts us. Esther spent the Reagan-Bush years — her twenties — as an activist and a cultural progressive, organizing for ACT UP, hanging out in an experimental arts collective, teaching junior high, and designing workshops to promote racial tolerance. Like me, like our friend Laura the Middle East activist and new-music promoter, Esther was very busy during the ’80s. She endured failure and dissension within her various communities, but she also saw progress. She wasn’t just living in a boho fishbowl; her efforts educated, expanded the discourse, and often effected real change. And she wasn’t alone — across America progressives created different versions of this synthesis of radical culture and political organizing. Yet she was being told that the left she’d helped preserve during a decade of very hard times was dead; that street activism and identity politics, not to mention a too-strong focus on culture, had in fact destroyed the left long ago. And that the only way to reclaim power was to disregard the importance of the very ground people like herself had won.

“The ambitions of the left have been political and their triumphs cultural, while the ambitions of the right have been cultural and their triumphs political,” Adam Gopnik wrote recently in The New Yorker. This aphorism elegantly de­scribes the way much of the left currently sees itself. The duality it expresses makes possible the judgments self-styled leftsavers are making about activities they deem “cultural.” This cordoning-off of culture from politics leaves no room for the evolving reality of left politics since the early ’70s, as it’s been shaping up in the imagination and on the streets. It dismisses the power of the arts to effect consciousness, and questions the importance of lifestyle, education, or any kind of socially oriented work that falls outside the the traditional political arenas of the voting booth, the picket line, and the halls of power.

Yet the very slipperiness of the term culture highlights its capacity to jump and blend boundaries, emphasizing the interplay of knowledge, belief, and behavior through which a society emerges over time. The split between culture and politics is an unnatural one; this is the rudimentary lesson of feminism, queer liberation, and movements led by people of color. If such a split is reasserted, it will once again devalue these groups, who’ve often been dismissed by hard-line politicos, in a very old-fashioned way: by marking their pre­occupations as frivolous. (Did I hear someone say “too fem­inine”?) And it will narrow our political vision on an even deeper level. What we’ve developed by taking culture seri­ously is a view of the political as a web, connecting individ­ual identity to community concerns, and personal passions to a larger social agenda. Exploring this web has kept the left alive during an era of vicious attack from the right. More than that, it’s made the left a more inclusive, multifaceted presence in American society.

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SOME MAY SAY TALKING about the links between lifestyle and activism, or the symbolic and the material, is mere distraction in our current state of emergency. But dis­missing this conversation as irrelevant not only makes it hard to understand our weaknesses, it denies our strengths. The syncretic view is what fed the heart of the left as it beat within direct-action groups like ACT UP, WAC, WHAM, and Queer Nation; in those doing clinic defense, guerrilla environmentalism, and immigrant advocacy; in the oft-maligned academy; and through the work of artists ranging from Karen Finley to Public Enemy and Roseanne. What these various figures and groups shared was the radically democratic notion that politics could happen wherever a person’s strengths and interests led.

This principle is elemental to our nation of individual­ists. It became progressive through the social critique orig­inating in the civil-rights movement and the counterculture. Those of us schooled in this history invested less faith in electoral politics than we did in the changes that sprang from conversations across women’s kitchen tables or in the neigh­borhoods where community workers lived, or, yes, through the words and visions of artists who have helped us under­stand the structure and experience of oppression, and the possibility of freedom. Our faith came from witnessing how change happened in our own lives.

The decentralized approach many activists have adopt­ed since the ’70s suits our moment. Direct action efforts like abortion clinic defense, for example, require loose net­working that can easily adapt to changes in agenda. Battered women’s shelters, free clinics, or needle exchange services all originate (and thrive) through the efforts of a few dedicat­ed people who see a need right there, right then, and fill it. When such methods work, they offer an antidote to the big­-government approach the right accuses the left of backing: grassroots organizing reduces bureaucracy in favor of a hands-on, usually nonhierarchical, practical approach.

So much of our daily lives contradicts the old defini­tion of a common culture as a homogeneous whole and de­mands a new model for community. Technology makes mi­crocosms. Architecture subdivides. The marketplace places us in niches. We need a model that accepts difference and seeks the common within it — a key to the new language that arises from mixing things up. Multiculturalism tries to imag­ine such a model. Rather than the downfall-of-the-left naysayers accuse it of being, multiculturalism is at heart a complex lesson in the art of empathy, essential to forming a vital movement in divided times. Multiculturalism starts with a simple method: listen and learn. It uses culture’s tools (the story, the image, the custom) to ground analysis. The process takes time. As we unlearn the rhetoric of Barbie Dolls and a vengeful God, we replace it by hearing other tales, discovering other icons, celebrating other realities. If we really want a broad-based left, this is the first, most prac­tical step.

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SOME OF US DRAWN to the left since the 1970s studied politics or stumped for the Democrats in school; more often, we learned our values from what the left’s stern commentators would label “cultural.” Sometimes the way the web works is very clear, as when homocore punk band Team Dresch offers a self-defense workshop (women only!) to open a gig, or the San Francisco conceptual art team Margaret Crane/Jon Winet de­sign tiny, elegant placards inscribed with AIDS prevention information and distribute them in restaurants. Less easy to prove, but nonetheless traceable, is the path that leads from being a Pearl Jam fan to volunteering at a center for child abuse victims, or from frequenting the Body Shop to becoming an environmentalist, or from reading a Toni Morrison novel to organizing against racist policies in your local school district. (Or reading a Morrison novel and hating Clarence Thomas; your public opinion isn’t just based on watching the nightly news, after all.)

It’s not just Lollapaloozers who believe that your life can be changed by rock and roll, or a great book, or even a TV show. Ad people know that ritual and image influence how people structure their opinions and their lives. So does the Christian right. In fact, the right un­derstands that in the 25 years since Janis Joplin died, pop­ular culture has helped shape a more liberal public. Anita Hill’s fall followed the summer of Thelma & Louise, and al­though the hearings themselves favored a horrifying con­servatism, you can bet that the women and men watching at home — those who, in the next election, chose more women than ever before — took what they’d felt and learned from the confluence of imagined scenarios and cold, hard facts into the voting booth.

Now, the right aims to possess the leaky means of ideological distribution known as the popular. The right knows the value of culture; that’s why it uses talk radio and television and religion now, and why, before Clinton became the only punching bag that mattered, it fought so hard against lightning rods like Karen Finley, hip hop, and Murphy Brown. Conservatism’s superstars attract their supporters by making their narrow-minded viewpoints fleshy, fun­ny, and moving — ex­actly what rock and roll, street fashion, and strains within all of the common arts have done for radical thought over the past third of a century. For the moment, the right’s wet weekend with pop has given it a ruddy glow. But the mass appeal they’re mining is a cruel one, based around bullying. Their fun is a gouge in the eye — a shtick that’s always appealed to crowds, from Shakespeare’s time to the present. Such mean-spirited fun appeals to the weakness in people, which is certainly vast, but ultimately un­satisfying. The aspect of culture that’s about learning, about expanding the self, isn’t honored here. That’s why figures like Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy fell, and why Rush and Howard will someday, too.

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Progressive movements have been far more successful in changing people’s worldviews. In fact, the loose web of attitudes reflecting some tie to post-’60s left politics has so successfully invaded the main­stream that it’s got its own market niche: alternative. This term, dread­ed by all who feel protective of the margins, encompasses everything from earth-friendly toilet paper to postpunk music to the Internet. Its impact remains hard to bottle: there’s been a sea change in attitudes about gays and lesbians since Stonewall, for example, obvious in the wide defeat of antigay legislation in the last election as well as in the popularity of Philadelphia and k.d. lang. Yet that legislation keeps pop­ping up, and as the tussle over gays in the military showed, many people aren’t willing to open the doors of American institutions to new values. Still, radical culture’s energy keeps regenerating, and when it’s tapped it can bring new people into the left, sustain those who are already com­mitted, and sway those on the fence.

The feeling on the left right now may be that we need to abandon our cultural focus and get seri­ous. I think we need to get serious about culture — as serious as we’ve ever been. We can see Melissa Etheridge at the Garden and feel uplifted, or give Mom a copy of Cor­nel West’s new volume and possibly affect one point of view. But we know that’s not enough. We need to retain the critique of capitalism that helps us recognize consumption as part of the system, not freedom from it. Then we need to take the next step, not abandoning the cultural but politicizing it further. That next step can lead in many different directions — toward intervening in institutions, seizing the means of pro­duction, changing our family lives, our sex lives, ourselves.

Artists and activists must be fearless now. Retreating isn’t the so­lution, and neither is penitence. We need to devise ways to make the symbolic a potent political weapon once again. The legacy starts here. ❖

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No Future

Originally published in the April 19, 1994, issue of The Village Voice.

People couldn’t believe the photograph. The day after Kurt Cobain shot himself faceless in his million-dollar home, his friends and the hundreds of rosy, downcast kids who mourned him found a nasty slice of evidence on the front page of the Seattle Times: a shot taken from above the glass doors of the garage where Cobain died, revealing the suicide scene. Two detectives hover like shadows. But what’s cruelly fascinating is the body. The image is only a fragment: one dirty-jean-clad leg with a white sock and a badly tied Converse, one arm from the elbow down in a light blue thrift-store shirt, one clenched fist. Near a detective’s foot, another photograph can almost be seen, an official snapshot on a driver’s license. The body and the license, both so small they don’t seem real, feel unknowable, the definition of not enough.

“That picture was so tacky, I was shocked,” says Kim Warnick on Sunday afternoon, as she bides her time until five, when the candlelight vigil would begin. Warnick fronts the longtime Seattle band the Fastbacks, and she works as a sales rep at Nirvana’s former label, Sub Pop; we’re discussing the media frenzy, the possible motives, the usual stuff. “But you know what really got me about it? His ID. You can see his wallet opened up to his driver’s license, right by his body. Kurt didn’t want any mistakes about what he was doing. He wanted to be perfectly clear.”

It’s a strange bit of the typical that Kurt Cobain would worry that killing himself with a shotgun was an act that might be misinterpreted. Suicide, especially one as violent as Cobain’s, is the loudest possible invocation of silence; it’s a perfectly clear way of turning your life into a mystery. His commitment to contradiction got him in the end, but even as he cut himself off forever he was trying to make himself speak.

Here are some facts: Kurt Cobain, 27, singer/guitarist/writer for the world’s most successful “alternative” band and Seattle’s current favorite non-native born Native Son, killed himself Thursday, April 7, at his home near Lake Washington. He was not the first rock star to commit suicide at the top of his game. His body was discovered by electrician Gary Smith the next morning. Cobain is survived by an angry widow, Hole singer-songwriter Courtney Love, and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, as well as his divorced parents, bandmates, and various friends in the local and national music scenes. Immediately before his suicide, he had fled from a Southern California drug-treatment facility; his path up the coast to death remains unclear. Six weeks before his death, Cobain had been hospitalized in Rome after entering a coma brought on by a mix of alcohol and prescription drugs. Shortly after that, Love called the police to Cobain’s and her home because, she claimed, he was trying to kill himself. The police found four guns and 25 boxes of ammo on the premises. Six days before his body was found, Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, filed a missing persons report with the Seattle police. After his death, O’Connor was quoted as saying, “I told him not to join that stupid club,” a media favorite later surpassed by the last words of Cobain’s suicide note: “I love you, I love you.”

And now, here are some rumors, flickering around and beyond the facts: Kurt Cobain killed himself because Courtney had finally given up on him and was filing for divorce. Courtney had been in L.A. or even Seattle the day before Kurt’s death, not London, as reported. Cobain had spent at least one of his last nights at his and Courtney’s country house with an unidentified companion. The band had broken up at least a week before the death. He’d never really kicked heroin; the supposedly accidental overdose in March was actually a suicide attempt. He killed himself because of writer’s block.

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There are other facts, and other rumors. And then there is the wall. It’s made of friends’ grief, fans’ confusion, journalists’ embarrassment, and what several writers call a “veil of silence” created by Gold Mountain, Nirvana’s and Hole’s management company. Above all it builds off the special Northwest penchant for keeping things in. The wall looks like another photograph of Kurt, this one torn into pieces and pasted back together, nothing left intact or clear.

“Kurt Cobain is not a person,” says Daniel House, owner of Seattle independent record label C/Z. “He’s turned into something that represents different things for different people. I understand the press is going to be all over it, but I wish they would leave it alone completely. Because that attention is why Kurt died. He had no life, no peace, constant chaos. He had become a freak.” House’s view, which was duly cited in Time magazine the Monday after Cobain’s death, is very popular in Seattle: Kurt had his troubles, but if his band had never exceeded normal expectations, like maybe headlining the thousand-seat Moore Theatre once a year, he could have been saved.

In our century, “fame kills” is almost a mantra; add Cobain’s name to the pantheon and sign him up for a page in Hollywood Babylon. But it’s hard, especially in a hometown, to pinpoint the moment when a star like Cobain slips into that nether realm, becomes flat and reproducible, something read instead of someone known. And Cobain spent his short career pulling away from this transformation, jumbling his statements, turning his back. For most stars, even the tragic ones, the transformation magnifies; for Cobain, it worked as erasure. His death can be viewed as the final step on a chain of denials that are echoed in the story of his adopted town, his scene, his generation, every one radically unwilling to speak for itself. So it’s no surprise that in the days following Cobain’s death, nobody emerges to speak for them. Even the journalists hesitate in the face of such grief-benumbed wordlessness.

“It’s a much different thing here, with the rock scene,” says Sub Pop publicist and former Nirvana fan club head Nils Bernstein about the process of mourning. “It’s one thing to suffer these losses on your own, and another to do it with MTV in your face. People who didn’t know Kurt feel like they did. His death is an ongoing event.”

Bernstein, who holds to the Sub Pop view that Cobain was “suicidal forever,” is tired and would like to retreat to Linda’s Tavern and drink a Red Hook with a tight circle of friends. But in a painful coincidence, this is the Saturday long since scheduled as the date of Sub Pop’s sixth anniversary party. “Yesterday, everyone was pretty dazed,” he says. “Everyone just got drunk.” They’ll do the same tonight at the Crocodile Café, at a party that becomes a wake in a sideways manner well after the camera crews have abandoned their positions outside the windows: no speeches, no photographs held aloft, just old buddies getting around to the subject gradually.

“There was a great vibe there,” says Warnick the next day. “It would always come into the conversation, but everyone was very respectful of everyone else. It was really insulated very well.” Warnick’s right—the party felt better by far than any other moment in the weekend following Cobain’s death. For a semi-outsider like me, born and raised in Seattle but now a decade gone, it felt like a welcome earned by my willingness to be cool. Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop, Warnick’s husband Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and numerous other band members, label types, and writers—all would smile, give a brief hug, murmur, “Weird day, isn’t it?” and move on to more manageable subjects.

The jovial skepticism, downing another microbrew and telling a joke rather than analyzing or grieving too obviously, was pure Seattle. Native Northwesterners cultivate this say-no-more attitude, the roots of which I always identify in the historic drive toward seclusion that pushed the area’s pioneers across the map. It’s not the rain—it’s the mountains. A full, snow-capped range on either side of the municipal area. They hold us in.

Seattle’s indie-rock scene reenacts, on a smaller level, the balancing act inherent in every Northwest community, whether as big as Seattle or as small as Cobain’s native Aberdeen, between the interdependency of an isolated group and solitary individuals’ preference for total self-reliance. “It’s a really tight community,” says one local scenester, “but when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure how much people will help each other.” Her words make me think about the phrase that I’ve come to consider Kurt Cobain’s motto, from “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”: “Hate, hate your enemies, save, save your friends.” This phrase means to build a fortress around a group of like-minded people; the problems come when you find yourself at odds with your friends and thrown into contact with strangers who may or may not be enemies (and if you fear the world it’s very hard to tell).

The Northwest’s growth over the past decade, attributable partly to rock’s ascendancy but mostly to the encroachment of Microsoft and other software companies, has shifted the area’s balance. It’s become a mecca for the young, the affluent, a forest of espresso stands and specialty boutiques. Yet at heart, it remains a company town—Cobain’s death was bumped off the top of the news Saturday morning by the unveiling of Boeing’s newest jet, the 777. And it retains a working-class suspicion of pretense and opportunism that’s shared by the musicians and even the businesspeople who dominate Seattle’s rock world. So they find a way to stand outside themselves, as if all this success wasn’t happening to them, almost as if they don’t want it.

“People don’t let each other cross over the line, away from reality,” says Ken Stringfellow, whose own fine band, the Posies, embraces pop and polish much more readily than most Seattle acts. “What makes Nirvana interesting is that they didn’t have to be unrealistic to be extraordinary.” Later, though, he admits that the dichotomies don’t always work out so neatly. “Sometimes people’s skepticism overwhelms them, and they can’t enjoy what’s happened.”

“We lived cloistered away for so many years and nobody gave a damn,” Warnick adds. “And because of all the resources we have here, people are really against all the Guns N’ Roses stuff. All that compromise.”

Because of the city’s growth and Seattle’s current dominance, of course, compromise is unavoidable. But the way Seattle has become a mecca differs from the East Coast norm, in which small groups import their culture, take over a corner, and slowly integrate. There are plenty of new immigrants in the Northwest, many of them Thai or Vietnamese, but the city’s self-conception obscures these communities. And among the young, Seattle isn’t a place where you can come as you are: you come to integrate yourself into a vision based on affinities you believe you share. For someone like Kurt Cobain, the college community of Olympia and, later, Seattle represented a chance to go inside after a childhood in the cold as a small-town outcast. And perhaps inspired by his expression, kids have flocked here to join what he sardonically called “our little tribe.”

From outsider to insider, though, is always a tricky move. It’s the same jump that indie rock, the music Cobain claimed lifted him from the dung heap of conformity, keeps trying to manage. Indie never really did away with rock stars—it just located them at eye level. As a young indie fan, Cobain idolized his own favorite bands, thought of them as the basis of his community. Just like the kids who now idolize him, he didn’t perceive the gulf between artist and audience, and eventually he became part of the indie-rock elite, an elite that in many cases still denies its own elitism. But he was sensitive enough to be bothered by the distance now that he could see it between himself and the kids who thought he was lifting them out of their own shitty lives. And so he felt even more isolated.

“Kurt didn’t have any friends anymore,” says one close acquaintance. When people go over the edge, they’ve usually alienated even their most intimate companions, and at one level this remark doesn’t reflect anything beyond Cobain’s particular illness. But it also makes him an indie rocker to the core, deeply troubled by that shift into broader resonance that characterizes every successful artistic act. Rich Jensen, Sub Pop’s general manager, views the problem as a struggle with the sacred. “Kurt viewed his favorite bands as icons,” he says. “An icon is something you own, or it’s a false idol.”

The Seattle music community has been shattered by death many times in the past five years; part of the vigilant self-protectiveness I sense feels like the fear of yet another disaster. In 1990, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose. In 1991, poet and longtime scene habitué Jesse Bernstein shot himself. Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch overdosed in 1992. And last July, Gits singer Mia Zapata was found strangled on a Capitol Hill side street. Wood, Sargent, and Zapata were all the same age as or younger than Cobain, and because they hadn’t reached the level of stardom that separates people from their regular lives, their deaths were, in fact, much more directly felt among local artists. They’re remembered, too: Andy comes up in conversation at least four times over the weekend’s course; 7 Year Bitch’s soon-to-be-released C/Z album features a song about Stefanie and one about Mia. It’s even called Viva Zapata.

“Mia’s death affected all of us so much,” says Matt Dresdner, bassist for the Gits, who continue to play as a three-piece; their debut album, recorded mostly before Zapata died, is out on C/Z. “She knew so many people; so many would say, ‘Mia was my best friend.’ Person after person, and they really felt that way. She was very accessible always and very honest.”

Partly because it was a murder, Zapata’s death genuinely transformed the smaller, more local scene in which she was a leading light. A women’s self-defense program is now in place, and friends continue to raise money to investigate her murder; Nirvana even played one of the benefits, last fall at the Kind Theatre. There were also negative effects on the scene. “A lot of bands, coincidentally I imagine, broke up after she was killed,” says Dresdner. “I do think Mia was a catalyst and inspired people to do stuff.” Talking about Kurt with people in clubs and cafés, I actually feel his presence less than Zapata’s. She is mentioned over and over. Posters asking for information adorn the wall of the Comet Tavern and Moe’s; on some street corners, you can see the flyers made by friends a long time ago. There’s Mia’s warm, big, charming face, and the words: “Damn! Damn! Damn!”

These intimate shocks, which don’t draw jets full of confused rock critics and bill-waving TV tab reporters, have stayed with Seattle musicians in ways that seem to affect their daily lives. These griefs really do belong to them. Kurt Cobain’s another story. The rage Zapata’s friends feel is not for her, and it’s not existential. It’s a hopeful anger, one they can imagine doing something about.

“Fuck Kurt Cobain. I can’t get a job.”

Gregory Askew is slumped against the side wall at the Café Paradiso, Capitol Hill’s grooviest late-night caffeine station, the night of the announcement. The 20-year-old moved here from New Jersey a year or so ago, but he’s had it with bohemian utopia. “I’m going down to Eugene, just to find a mellow town where everybody’s not competing.”

Askew’s hardly the only kid who’s unimpressed with Cobain’s departure from the world; this reaction has been so common on the West Coast that the San Francisco Examiner did a feature on it Saturday. Like every generation of cool teens, these young fans have invented their own strange style of tuning out. They wear the clothes, play in the baby bands, hang out at the bars and coffee houses, all the while perfecting the art of indifference. When that lackadaisical attitude is personified in figures like Winona and Ethan or Courtney and Kurt, the kids still look up. But they keep their glances quiet and speculative.

In Seattle, these teen-to-twentysomethings are major players in moving the economy from industry to service, working in the bars and record stores they frequent, maintaining the circular flow of cash. “They’re making the town what they thought it would be,” says Rich Jensen as he sits in one of the current hot spots, a laundromat-café called Sit & Spin. Sub Pop’s inexhaustible entrepreneurship is just one example of the attitude: you want a job, open a store. It’s indie at its most vibrant, a culture tossed up in storefronts and basement rooms.

But some kids, like Askew, remain discouraged. The recession hit Seattle a little later than the rest of the country—Boeing laid off 11 percent of its work force last year and there were quieter adjustments at Microsoft as well—and although slacker jobs may seem unlimited, there are only so many gigs available pulling espresso. One Paradiso customer, 16-year-old Nathan Hatch, escaped from a dreary life much like the young Cobain’s to find some people “even close to weird.” He dropped out of school in Elma, near Aberdeen, in ninth grade, and moved to Portland with a skater dude named Paul. Now he’s looking for janitorial work. “I’m hopeful,” he says. “But I’m pretty drunk right now.”

Busy with their own anxieties, Seattle’s club kids don’t seem interested in making Cobain a hero. Maybe, as Nils Bernstein thinks, they’re already over the mystery that not long ago fueled much of the average outcast’s passion for rock and roll. “I’ve seen 12-year-old kids on the bus discussing record deals, dollar amounts,” says Bernstein. “The know way, way, way more than they should about the industry.”

If an idol demands distance, an icon wants to be put inside a devotee’s pocket. The kids I found who did mourn Cobain, hovering behind police lines at the house where he’d died or building shrines from candles and Raisin Bran boxes at the Sunday night vigil organized by three local radio stations, seemed to think of him more as a lost friend than as a candidate for that dreaded assignment, role model. In fact, they seemed a lot like he did: small, unsure, bowled over by the need to feel, but worried about what to say. “When we found out, my friend Blair and I went out to our fort and just played some CDs,” says Dave Johnson, a blond boy from Puyallup who’s in a baby band called Thrive. “Kurt took the wimpy way out. He could have gone somewhere to gather his thoughts. I know places like that to go.”

Johnson and about a dozen friends sit around a heap of flowers, votives, notes, and Xeroxed photographs of Kurt. The girls don’t say much; they look like they’re about to cry. The boys are enjoying all the chances to be interviewed. Even though it comes so awkwardly, through the death of a loved one, they tentatively embrace this moment of prominence. But they agree that, like Kurt, they wouldn’t be able to handle it full time.

“Being a rock star would be kinda stressful,” says Johnson. “I’m not really looking for it. I’m in it for the enjoyment and fun.” I wonder if he was inspired by Cobain’s suicide note, which Love read to the 7,000 vigilgoers in a taped message. “I haven’t felt excitement in listening to as well as creating music . . . for too many years now. The fact is, I can’t fool you, any of you.” And the weary, too-wise kids in the audience really don’t seem fooled.

The speakers at the vigil—a preacher, a poet, a suicide prevention specialist—have nothing to do with why the kids were there. Even a brief taped message from Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic seems beside the point. Only Love’s statement has a visceral effect. But the weirdness of 7,000 people standing around, looking at an empty stage, listening to a tape recording of a grieving widow and of the band they wouldn’t hear new music from again, pushes the crowd out of its grief into an anger that soon turns playful. Near the end, a bunch of kids overrun the Seattle Center’s biggest fountain, climbing on top, forming a mosh pit to no beats and no guitars. “Kurt Cobain!” they chant, then, “Fuck you!” when a security guard tries to move them along, then just “Music!” Would Kurt have felt honored by this action? Well, he was a punk, he liked disruption. But the spirit that moved these kids had nothing to do with Kurt Cobain. It was simply their own spirit, the only one they feel they can trust.

At first, after the suicide, Courtney Love tried to stay behind the veil—not simply out of decorum, but out of genuine grief. Love’s been made into such a cartoon by malevolent rivals, gossip hounds, and media whores that her strength in this ordeal has been, in some ways, its biggest shock. Because Courtney, who knows fakeness well enough to make it the major theme of Hole’s brilliant DGC debut, Live Through This (scheduled to be released, in the cruelest of ironies, today), refused in the end to play like a lady, and did something that finally made Cobain’s death—and her survival of it—seem real.

Strangely, Love performed her heroic act in absentia. The tape-recorded message she prepared for the vigil offered the weekend’s only real catharsis and not only because it bore Cobain’s pathetic, soon-to-be-famous last words. What Courtney did was argue with him, dispute the terms of his refusal; in doing so, she opened up a view of what he must have really felt, the disorder that consumed him. She would read a little from the note, then curse the words, then express her sorrow. “The worst crime I could think of would be to put people off by faking it and pretend as if I was having 100 percent fun.” “No, Kurt, the worst crime I could think of was for you to continue to be a rock star when you just . . . hated it.” Like some heroine from Euripides, furious at the gods, Courtney provided some guidance to escape the dark. Some of what she said was disturbing; she’s clearly not anywhere near solid ground yet. After reading the note, she revealed her own remorse. “We should have let him have his numbness, the thing that helped his stomach and stopped his pain, instead of stripping away his fucking skin,” she sobbed. “Just tell him he’s a fucker, say fucker, he’s a fucker. And we love him.” Courtney was the only one who made the vigil’s audience cry.

As much as the loss of Nirvana, the dissolution of the Love/Cobain partnership is an artistic tragedy. These two were exploring the male-female dynamic together, as musicians and as public figures, with insight, daring, and a sometimes fruitful incomprehension. Just as it’s mercilessly unfair to blame Love for Cobain’s death, it may be in bad taste to point out that he committed suicide the week her album was to be released. Whatever the particulars of his anger, if her career is stalled, that will also be a significant loss.

Listening to Love’s tape at the vigil, I began to think about women’s silence versus men’s, and the balance of power that causes women to speak when men feel they can remain silent. Powerful men can keep their words to themselves; power speaks for them. Part of Cobain’s personal tragedy was his inability to feel his own power; at this moment, Love’s achievement is to be able, across the black expanse of her sorrow, to maintain a sense of her own.

In his painful last love letter to a world he couldn’t grasp, Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” “That’s bullshit,” Courtney said to her ruined husband as she read the note aloud. Truth is, Cobain didn’t even burn out. He fell out of our lives, unfinished. All the media attention, the vigil and the memorials in print and the endless rounds of MTV Unplugged, only recalls his absence, the lack he stood for and could never fill.

A few years ago, a friend of mine died of a heroin overdose. He’d been long gone before he actually left the earth. His old lover said, Ted died because he could never find the words to say what he really wanted. Kurt’s whole struggle, the same one rock’s going through in its most serious moments these days, was to cut into himself until he found a vocabulary that might offer those words. Sometimes a few of them would gush forth. In the end, though, silence swallowed him alive.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Never More

As part of our Kurtain Call package, we’ve reprinted this Village Voice report from Seattle, published just after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The article originally appeared in Issue 16, Volume 39, April 19-25, 1994.

People couldn’t believe the photograph. The day after Kurt Cobain shot himself faceless in his million-dollar home, his friends and the hundreds of rosy, downcast kids who mourned him found a nasty slice of evidence on the front page of the Seattle Times: a shot taken from above the glass doors of the garage where Cobain died, revealing the suicide scene. Two detectives hover like shadows. But what’s cruelly fascinating is the body. The image is only a fragment: one dirty-jean-clad leg with a white sock and a badly tied Converse, one arm from the elbow down in a light blue thrift-store shirt, one clenched fist. Near a detective’s foot, another photograph can almost be seen, an official snapshot on a driver’s license. The body and the license, both so small they don’t seem real, feel unknowable, the definition of not enough.

“That picture was so tacky, I was shocked,” says Kim Warnick on Sunday afternoon, as she bides her time until five, when the candlelight vigil would begin. Warnick fronts the longtime Seattle band the Fastbacks, and she works as a sales rep at Nirvana’s former label, Sub Pop; we’re discussing the media frenzy, the possible motives, the usual stuff. “But you know what really got me about it? His ID. You can see his wallet opened up to his driver’s license, right by his body. Kurt didn’t want any mistakes about what he was doing. He wanted to be perfectly clear.”

It’s a strange bit of the typical that Kurt Cobain would worry that killing himself with a shotgun was an act that might be misinterpreted. Suicide, especially one as violent as Cobain’s, is the loudest possible invocation of silence; it’s a perfectly clear way of turning your life into a mystery. His commitment to contradiction got him in the end, but even as he cut himself off forever he was trying to make himself speak.

Here are some facts: Kurt Cobain, 27, singer/guitarist/writer for the world’s most successful “alternative” band and Seattle’s current favorite non-native born Native Son, killed himself Thursday, April 7, at his home near Lake Washington. He was not the first rock star to commit suicide at the top of his game. His body was discovered by electrician Gary Smith the next morning. Cobain is survived by an angry widow, Hole singer-songwriter Courtney Love, and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, as well as his divorced parents, bandmates, and various friends in the local and national music scenes. Immediately before his suicide, he had fled from a Southern California drug-treatment facility; his path up the coast to death remains unclear. Six weeks before his death, Cobain had been hospitalized in Rome after entering a coma brought on by a mix of alcohol and prescription drugs. Shortly after that, Love called the police to Cobain’s and her home because, she claimed, he was trying to kill himself. The police found four guns and 25 boxes of ammo on the premises. Six days before his body was found, Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, filed a missing persons report with the Seattle police. After his death, O’Connor was quoted as saying, “I told him not to join that stupid club,” a media favorite later surpassed by the last words of Cobain’s suicide note: “I love you, I love you.”

And now, here are some rumors, flickering around and beyond the facts: Kurt Cobain killed himself because Courtney had finally given up on him and was filing for divorce. Courtney had been in L.A. or even Seattle the day before Kurt’s death, not London, as reported. Cobain had spent at least one of his last nights at his and Courtney’s country house with an unidentified companion. The band had broken up at least a week before the death. He’d never really kicked heroin; the supposedly accidental overdose in March was actually a suicide attempt. He killed himself because of writer’s block.

There are other facts, and other rumors. And then there is the wall. It’s made of friends’ grief, fans’ confusion, journalists’ embarrassment, and what several writers call a “veil of silence” created by Gold Mountain, Nirvana’s and Hole’s management company. Above all it builds off the special Northwest penchant for keeping things in. The wall looks like another photograph of Kurt, this one torn into pieces and pasted back together, nothing left intact or clear.

“Kurt Cobain is not a person,” says Daniel House, owner of Seattle independent record label C/Z. “He’s turned into something that represents different things for different people. I understand the press is going to be all over it, but I wish they would leave it alone completely. Because that attention is why Kurt died. He had no life, no peace, constant chaos. He had become a freak.” House’s view, which was duly cited in Time magazine the Monday after Cobain’s death, is very popular in Seattle: Kurt had his troubles, but if his band had never exceeded normal expectations, like maybe headlining the thousand-seat Moore Theatre once a year, he could have been saved.

In our century, “fame kills” is almost a mantra; add Cobain’s name to the pantheon and sign him up for a page in Hollywood Babylon. But it’s hard, especially in a hometown, to pinpoint the moment when a star like Cobain slips into that nether realm, becomes flat and reproducible, something read instead of someone known. And Cobain spent his short career pulling away from this transformation, jumbling his statements, turning his back. For most stars, even the tragic ones, the transformation magnifies; for Cobain, it worked as erasure. His death can be viewed as the final step on a chain of denials that are echoed in the story of his adopted town, his scene, his generation, every one radically unwilling to speak for itself. So it’s no surprise that in the days following Cobain’s death, nobody emerges to speak for them. Even the journalists hesitate in the face of such grief-benumbed wordlessness.

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“It’s a much different thing here, with the rock scene,” says Sub Pop publicist and former Nirvana fan club head Nils Bernstein about the process of mourning. “It’s one thing to suffer these losses on your own, and another to do it with MTV in your face. People who didn’t know Kurt feel like they did. His death is an ongoing event.”

Bernstein, who holds to the Sub Pop view that Cobain was “suicidal forever,” is tired and would like to retreat to Linda’s Tavern and drink a Red Hook with a tight circle of friends. But in a painful coincidence, this is the Saturday long since scheduled as the date of Sub Pop’s sixth anniversary party. “Yesterday, everyone was pretty dazed,” he says. “Everyone just got drunk.” They’ll do the same tonight at the Crocodile Café, at a party that becomes a wake in a sideways manner well after the camera crews have abandoned their positions outside the windows: no speeches, no photographs held aloft, just old buddies getting around to the subject gradually.

“There was a great vibe there,” says Warnick the next day. “It would always come into the conversation, but everyone was very respectful of everyone else. It was really insulated very well.” Warnick’s right—the party felt better by far than any other moment in the weekend following Cobain’s death. For a semi-outsider like me, born and raised in Seattle but now a decade gone, it felt like a welcome earned by my willingness to be cool. Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop, Warnick’s husband Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and numerous other band members, label types, and writers—all would smile, give a brief hug, murmur, “Weird day, isn’t it?” and move on to more manageable subjects.

The jovial skepticism, downing another microbrew and telling a joke rather than analyzing or grieving too obviously, was pure Seattle. Native Northwesterners cultivate this say-no-more attitude, the roots of which I always identify in the historic drive toward seclusion that pushed the area’s pioneers across the map. It’s not the rain—it’s the mountains. A full, snow-capped range on either side of the municipal area. They hold us in.

Seattle’s indie-rock scene reenacts, on a smaller level, the balancing act inherent in every Northwest community, whether as big as Seattle or as small as Cobain’s native Aberdeen, between the interdependency of an isolated group and solitary individuals’ preference for total self-reliance. “It’s a really tight community,” says one local scenester, “but when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure how much people will help each other.” Her words make me think about the phrase that I’ve come to consider Kurt Cobain’s motto, from “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”: “Hate, hate your enemies, save, save your friends.” This phrase means to build a fortress around a group of like-minded people; the problems come when you find yourself at odds with your friends and thrown into contact with strangers who may or may not be enemies (and if you fear the world it’s very hard to tell).

The Northwest’s growth over the past decade, attributable partly to rock’s ascendancy but mostly to the encroachment of Microsoft and other software companies, has shifted the area’s balance. It’s become a mecca for the young, the affluent, a forest of espresso stands and specialty boutiques. Yet at heart, it remains a company town—Cobain’s death was bumped off the top of the news Saturday morning by the unveiling of Boeing’s newest jet, the 777. And it retains a working-class suspicion of pretense and opportunism that’s shared by the musicians and even the businesspeople who dominate Seattle’s rock world. So they find a way to stand outside themselves, as if all this success wasn’t happening to them, almost as if they don’t want it.

“People don’t let each other cross over the line, away from reality,” says Ken Stringfellow, whose own fine band, the Posies, embraces pop and polish much more readily than most Seattle acts. “What makes Nirvana interesting is that they didn’t have to be unrealistic to be extraordinary.” Later, though, he admits that the dichotomies don’t always work out so neatly. “Sometimes people’s skepticism overwhelms them, and they can’t enjoy what’s happened.”

“We lived cloistered away for so many years and nobody gave a damn,” Warnick adds. “And because of all the resources we have here, people are really against all the Guns N’ Roses stuff. All that compromise.”

Because of the city’s growth and Seattle’s current dominance, of course, compromise is unavoidable. But the way Seattle has become a mecca differs from the East Coast norm, in which small groups import their culture, take over a corner, and slowly integrate. There are plenty of new immigrants in the Northwest, many of them Thai or Vietnamese, but the city’s self-conception obscures these communities. And among the young, Seattle isn’t a place where you can come as you are: you come to integrate yourself into a vision based on affinities you believe you share. For someone like Kurt Cobain, the college community of Olympia and, later, Seattle represented a chance to go inside after a childhood in the cold as a small-town outcast. And perhaps inspired by his expression, kids have flocked here to join what he sardonically called “our little tribe.”

From outsider to insider, though, is always a tricky move. It’s the same jump that indie rock, the music Cobain claimed lifted him from the dung heap of conformity, keeps trying to manage. Indie never really did away with rock stars—it just located them at eye level. As a young indie fan, Cobain idolized his own favorite bands, thought of them as the basis of his community. Just like the kids who now idolize him, he didn’t perceive the gulf between artist and audience, and eventually he became part of the indie-rock elite, an elite that in many cases still denies its own elitism. But he was sensitive enough to be bothered by the distance now that he could see it between himself and the kids who thought he was lifting them out of their own shitty lives. And so he felt even more isolated.

“Kurt didn’t have any friends anymore,” says one close acquaintance. When people go over the edge, they’ve usually alienated even their most intimate companions, and at one level this remark doesn’t reflect anything beyond Cobain’s particular illness. But it also makes him an indie rocker to the core, deeply troubled by that shift into broader resonance that characterizes every successful artistic act. Rich Jensen, Sub Pop’s general manager, views the problem as a struggle with the sacred. “Kurt viewed his favorite bands as icons,” he says. “An icon is something you own, or it’s a false idol.”

The Seattle music community has been shattered by death many times in the past five years; part of the vigilant self-protectiveness I sense feels like the fear of yet another disaster. In 1990, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose. In 1991, poet and longtime scene habitué Jesse Bernstein shot himself. Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch overdosed in 1992. And last July, Gits singer Mia Zapata was found strangled on a Capitol Hill side street. Wood, Sargent, and Zapata were all the same age as or younger than Cobain, and because they hadn’t reached the level of stardom that separates people from their regular lives, their deaths were, in fact, much more directly felt among local artists. They’re remembered, too: Andy comes up in conversation at least four times over the weekend’s course; 7 Year Bitch’s soon-to-be-released C/Z album features a song about Stefanie and one about Mia. It’s even called Viva Zapata.

“Mia’s death affected all of us so much,” says Matt Dresdner, bassist for the Gits, who continue to play as a three-piece; their debut album, recorded mostly before Zapata died, is out on C/Z. “She knew so many people; so many would say, ‘Mia was my best friend.’ Person after person, and they really felt that way. She was very accessible always and very honest.”

Partly because it was a murder, Zapata’s death genuinely transformed the smaller, more local scene in which she was a leading light. A women’s self-defense program is now in place, and friends continue to raise money to investigate her murder; Nirvana even played one of the benefits, last fall at the Kind Theatre. There were also negative effects on the scene. “A lot of bands, coincidentally I imagine, broke up after she was killed,” says Dresdner. “I do think Mia was a catalyst and inspired people to do stuff.” Talking about Kurt with people in clubs and cafés, I actually feel his presence less than Zapata’s. She is mentioned over and over. Posters asking for information adorn the wall of the Comet Tavern and Moe’s; on some street corners, you can see the flyers made by friends a long time ago. There’s Mia’s warm, big, charming face, and the words: “Damn! Damn! Damn!”

These intimate shocks, which don’t draw jets full of confused rock critics and bill-waving TV tab reporters, have stayed with Seattle musicians in ways that seem to affect their daily lives. These griefs really do belong to them. Kurt Cobain’s another story. The rage Zapata’s friends feel is not for her, and it’s not existential. It’s a hopeful anger, one they can imagine doing something about.

“Fuck Kurt Cobain. I can’t get a job.”

Gregory Askew is slumped against the side wall at the Café Paradiso, Capitol Hill’s grooviest late-night caffeine station, the night of the announcement. The 20-year-old moved here from New Jersey a year or so ago, but he’s had it with bohemian utopia. “I’m going down to Eugene, just to find a mellow town where everybody’s not competing.”

Askew’s hardly the only kid who’s unimpressed with Cobain’s departure from the world; this reaction has been so common on the West Coast that the San Francisco Examiner did a feature on it Saturday. Like every generation of cool teens, these young fans have invented their own strange style of tuning out. They wear the clothes, play in the baby bands, hang out at the bars and coffee houses, all the while perfecting the art of indifference. When that lackadaisical attitude is personified in figures like Winona and Ethan or Courtney and Kurt, the kids still look up. But they keep their glances quiet and speculative.

In Seattle, these teen-to-twentysomethings are major players in moving the economy from industry to service, working in the bars and record stores they frequent, maintaining the circular flow of cash. “They’re making the town what they thought it would be,” says Rich Jensen as he sits in one of the current hot spots, a laundromat-café called Sit & Spin. Sub Pop’s inexhaustible entrepreneurship is just one example of the attitude: you want a job, open a store. It’s indie at its most vibrant, a culture tossed up in storefronts and basement rooms.

But some kids, like Askew, remain discouraged. The recession hit Seattle a little later than the rest of the country—Boeing laid off 11 percent of its work force last year and there were quieter adjustments at Microsoft as well—and although slacker jobs may seem unlimited, there are only so many gigs available pulling espresso. One Paradiso customer, 16-year-old Nathan Hatch, escaped from a dreary life much like the young Cobain’s to find some people “even close to weird.” He dropped out of school in Elma, near Aberdeen, in ninth grade, and moved to Portland with a skater dude named Paul. Now he’s looking for janitorial work. “I’m hopeful,” he says. “But I’m pretty drunk right now.”

Busy with their own anxieties, Seattle’s club kids don’t seem interested in making Cobain a hero. Maybe, as Nils Bernstein thinks, they’re already over the mystery that not long ago fueled much of the average outcast’s passion for rock and roll. “I’ve seen 12-year-old kids on the bus discussing record deals, dollar amounts,” says Bernstein. “The know way, way, way more than they should about the industry.”

If an idol demands distance, an icon wants to be put inside a devotee’s pocket. The kids I found who did mourn Cobain, hovering behind police lines at the house where he’d died or building shrines from candles and Raisin Bran boxes at the Sunday night vigil organized by three local radio stations, seemed to think of him more as a lost friend than as a candidate for that dreaded assignment, role model. In fact, they seemed a lot like he did: small, unsure, bowled over by the need to feel, but worried about what to say. “When we found out, my friend Blair and I went out to our fort and just played some CDs,” says Dave Johnson, a blond boy from Puyallup who’s in a baby band called Thrive. “Kurt took the wimpy way out. He could have gone somewhere to gather his thoughts. I know places like that to go.”

Johnson and about a dozen friends sit around a heap of flowers, votives, notes, and Xeroxed photographs of Kurt. The girls don’t say much; they look like they’re about to cry. The boys are enjoying all the chances to be interviewed. Even though it comes so awkwardly, through the death of a loved one, they tentatively embrace this moment of prominence. But they agree that, like Kurt, they wouldn’t be able to handle it full time.

“Being a rock star would be kinda stressful,” says Johnson. “I’m not really looking for it. I’m in it for the enjoyment and fun.” I wonder if he was inspired by Cobain’s suicide note, which Love read to the 7,000 vigilgoers in a taped message. “I haven’t felt excitement in listening to as well as creating music . . . for too many years now. The fact is, I can’t fool you, any of you.” And the weary, too-wise kids in the audience really don’t seem fooled.

The speakers at the vigil—a preacher, a poet, a suicide prevention specialist—have nothing to do with why the kids were there. Even a brief taped message from Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic seems beside the point. Only Love’s statement has a visceral effect. But the weirdness of 7,000 people standing around, looking at an empty stage, listening to a tape recording of a grieving widow and of the band they wouldn’t hear new music from again, pushes the crowd out of its grief into an anger that soon turns playful. Near the end, a bunch of kids overrun the Seattle Center’s biggest fountain, climbing on top, forming a mosh pit to no beats and no guitars. “Kurt Cobain!” they chant, then, “Fuck you!” when a security guard tries to move them along, then just “Music!” Would Kurt have felt honored by this action? Well, he was a punk, he liked disruption. But the spirit that moved these kids had nothing to do with Kurt Cobain. It was simply their own spirit, the only one they feel they can trust.

At first, after the suicide, Courtney Love tried to stay behind the veil—not simply out of decorum, but out of genuine grief. Love’s been made into such a cartoon by malevolent rivals, gossip hounds, and media whores that her strength in this ordeal has been, in some ways, its biggest shock. Because Courtney, who knows fakeness well enough to make it the major theme of Hole’s brilliant DGC debut, Live Through This (scheduled to be released, in the cruelest of ironies, today), refused in the end to play like a lady, and did something that finally made Cobain’s death—and her survival of it—seem real.

Strangely, Love performed her heroic act in absentia. The tape-recorded message she prepared for the vigil offered the weekend’s only real catharsis and not only because it bore Cobain’s pathetic, soon-to-be-famous last words. What Courtney did was argue with him, dispute the terms of his refusal; in doing so, she opened up a view of what he must have really felt, the disorder that consumed him. She would read a little from the note, then curse the words, then express her sorrow. “The worst crime I could think of would be to put people off by faking it and pretend as if I was having 100 percent fun.” “No, Kurt, the worst crime I could think of was for you to continue to be a rock star when you just . . . hated it.” Like some heroine from Euripides, furious at the gods, Courtney provided some guidance to escape the dark. Some of what she said was disturbing; she’s clearly not anywhere near solid ground yet. After reading the note, she revealed her own remorse. “We should have let him have his numbness, the thing that helped his stomach and stopped his pain, instead of stripping away his fucking skin,” she sobbed. “Just tell him he’s a fucker, say fucker, he’s a fucker. And we love him.” Courtney was the only one who made the vigil’s audience cry.

As much as the loss of Nirvana, the dissolution of the Love/Cobain partnership is an artistic tragedy. These two were exploring the male-female dynamic together, as musicians and as public figures, with insight, daring, and a sometimes fruitful incomprehension. Just as it’s mercilessly unfair to blame Love for Cobain’s death, it may be in bad taste to point out that he committed suicide the week her album was to be released. Whatever the particulars of his anger, if her career is stalled, that will also be a significant loss.

Listening to Love’s tape at the vigil, I began to think about women’s silence versus men’s, and the balance of power that causes women to speak when men feel they can remain silent. Powerful men can keep their words to themselves; power speaks for them. Part of Cobain’s personal tragedy was his inability to feel his own power; at this moment, Love’s achievement is to be able, across the black expanse of her sorrow, to maintain a sense of her own.

In his painful last love letter to a world he couldn’t grasp, Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” “That’s bullshit,” Courtney said to her ruined husband as she read the note aloud. Truth is, Cobain didn’t even burn out. He fell out of our lives, unfinished. All the media attention, the vigil and the memorials in print and the endless rounds of MTV Unplugged, only recalls his absence, the lack he stood for and could never fill.

A few years ago, a friend of mine died of a heroin overdose. He’d been long gone before he actually left the earth. His old lover said, Ted died because he could never find the words to say what he really wanted. Kurt’s whole struggle, the same one rock’s going through in its most serious moments these days, was to cut into himself until he found a vocabulary that might offer those words. Sometimes a few of them would gush forth. In the end, though, silence swallowed him alive.

 

 

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Old Ceremony Anew

Egyptologist J.D. Ray once wrote, “To distinguish between the rational and irrational, between the world of the prosaic and that of the gods, is not the ancient manner.” Nor is it the manner of Björk, whose interest in connecting ancient and postmodern has characterized her career. Music was foremost among the communicative forms that, for the ancients, united everyday consciousness and the divine: This corporeal art allowed the gods of ritual and heroes of epic to enter the flesh of its makers, in a way that was not at all otherworldly but reliably immediate. Björk, who is in the midst of releasing an enormous CD and DVD series that demands a consideration of her place in not just the pop but the art worlds, also believes in an expressiveness that can eradicate the divides of consciousness— though like a true Romantic she frames hers in terms of instinct and emotion, not holy spirit. Many artists treat music’s magical ground as a given, but Björk harps on it, clearing the obvious roads back to the source—fairy tales, nature worship, erotic ceremony. If you consider such interests pretentious twaddle, don’t bother with Björk at this late date. Her increasingly serious attempts to capture the sound of how the gods enter us will just ruffle your rationalist feathers.

Björk’s career offers one crucial lesson that’s more about music than mythology, as the just-released four-CD Live Box and the performance DVDs Vessel and London Opera House reveal. Music, this work proves, is not a universal language. Rather, its basis in the body renders it radically individual—no voice or hand that makes it, nor ear that hears it, is shaped exactly the same. Perhaps because her own vocal quirks prevent her from emulating others—she manages her breath in bursts, almost percussively, and her native Icelandic has a guttural quality that blunts her English intonations—Björk has consistently looked to different players for artistic reconstruction. Burdened with a talent that seems less than versatile, Björk has used her collaborators to rearrange her own impulses, transforming her folky, arty sensibilities into club trendiness, laptop avant-gardism, postcolonial world music, easy listening, show tunes (the music she sings, apparently, when she’s drunk), chamber music, and back to folk. Showcasing collaborators as varied as tabla player Talvin Singh, jazz eminences Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, remix master Mark Bell, harpist Zeena Parkins, and microbeats crafters Matmos, Live Box eschews rarities in favor of useful repetition. Pristinely recorded, the collection demonstrates that Björk’s real musical distinctiveness is as an arranger—an artist eager to see what happens to her music when it occupies other bodies, and becomes not a personal expression but a slippery vernacular whose meaning changes as it moves among minds through flesh.

Björk’s own flesh is the matter manipulated in her videos, and Volumen Plus, which collects all of them to date, exposes her growing fixation on how singing expresses and stimulates a kind of mystical eroticism. An accomplished pianist, Björk never plays onstage or in her videos, keeping the focus on the effect her voice is having on her body. From the beginning she and directors like Michel Gondry, Nick Knight, and Spike Jonze have made metamorphosis her theme—she’s subsumed into a bear’s belly or a river’s current, ribbons unspool from her nipples, she’s growing horns, being built as a robot, dissolving into cyberspace. These changes cause both wonder and pain. At first, Björk mugged her way through such fantasies, unable to lend human subtlety to the special effects, but the videos from her most recent album, Vespertine, are both more explicit and more relaxed. The extraordinary “Pagan Poetry” short by Nick Knight, which features (artfully veiled) actual sex, and M/M’s sublimely still “Hidden Place,” in which mercurial substances migrate through Björk’s facial orifices in a striking image of passion’s pleasurable distress, elaborate on the ages-old art of linking the breath of song with the rising energy of arousal to capture eroticism’s force as it moves beyond words.

Words are the problem for Björk, her detractors claim. It was wise of her not to offer printed lyrics with any of her current releases, not because they’re unreadable (that depends on whether you know how to distinguish between proverbs and platitudes), but because, more than usual in pop music, they’re empty until sung. Just as she cultivates the changes subjectivity wrought on musical structures, her vocal language highlights dislocation, mispronunciation, artlessness. Slipping into Icelandic or her own private idioms, employing dynamics to push syllables into distortion, Björk shows how language is always grounded in another ancient place, the tower of Babel: Through words, we struggle to relate our interior realities, but words ultimately separate us. Björk’s immigrant tongue speaks of the centuries-old, irresolvable tension between language’s will to unite and power to isolate.

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Fight Songs

At the screening of Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony that I attended in Seattle last year, director Lee Hirsch and producer Sherry Simpson asked the audience to shout “Awethu!” whenever they heard “Amandla,” thus completing the South African version of the slogan “Power to the People.” Hirsch and Simpson risked skewing the screening’s mood, but it paid off: For the next 100 minutes, the room rang out with voices increasingly moved by the calls to action on-screen.

Amandla! is a wake-up call, as well as an act of historical preservation and a heartfelt salute. Black South Africa’s long march against apartheid is a subject with its own shelf in the pop-culture shop—in the 1980s, it became the stuff of Broadway musicals and pop songs. Hirsch, who began work on Amandla! a decade ago, at age 20, refreshes the story with some stylistic tricks (he’s also directed music videos). Mostly, though, it’s his choice to make song itself the most important presence in a story packed with memorable people and heart-wrenching events that lends Amandla! the exhortatory power of music itself.

The high drama of the 1998 transfer of Vuyisile Mini’s remains from a potter’s field to a proper resting place sets the film’s tone of justice being served. This writer of many key freedom songs was executed in 1964; one of Amandla!‘s few ironic moments comes when a white military trumpeter plays a dirge at Mini’s belated hero’s funeral. Mini went to the gallows singing, insisting on music’s power to outlive one voice. His example is Hirsch’s touchstone.

Amandla! traces the development of the freedom movement song by song, from the melancholy swing of ballads of displacement like “Meadowlands”; through the defiant dignity of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” the “people’s national anthem”; and on to the more militaristic music that followed the 1976 Soweto uprising. Songs transform as needed; as one freedom fighter observes, take out a reference to the Bible, put in an AK-47, and a battle cry is born. The film’s energy peaks with footage of the “toyi-toyi,” the marching dance the ANC’s military wing used during protests in the 1980s, which resembles a massive moshpit turned toward a purpose more urgent than most punks could comprehend.

The songs’ own biographies interweave with those of South African freedom fighters. Famous exiles Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Abdullah Ibrahim enter into dialogue with lesser-known activists and artists. Stories of horrible brutality mix with homages to the human spirit; with very rare exceptions, those tales of extraordinary courage turn on musical invocations. Interviewees constantly burst into song, and Hirsch edits segments together to merge disparate voices, showing how for this movement, music was no universal language—it was specific, pointed, and almost paranormal in its power.

The choice to mostly ignore South African music not directed toward protest results in some loss of context. But that doesn’t override the vital importance of Amandla!, especially here and now. America needs to revitalize its own freedom song tradition to suit the present crisis. As usual, Africa gives us the template to form our own call and response.