19 years ago, in April of 1994, Glens Falls Post-Star columnist Mark Freeman wrote about the death of Kurt Cobain and the subsequent reaction. This is a document of my correspondence with Mr. Freeman on this subject, starting with Freeman’s newspaper column.
“Death of ‘grunge rocker’ is not a tragedy” by Mark Freeman, The Washington County Curmudgeon—
One thing I’m sure all columnists do is read other columnists. I read every one in this paper. Some, like Tamara Dietrich and Mike Royko, usually please me. Others, like George Will and Charley Reese, frequently make me angry, but I read them all. In addition, I read Molly Ivins, Calvin Trillin, Coretta Scott King, Mark Russell, Art Buchwald, and many others.
Sometimes my reaction to a column is “Wow, I wish I’d expressed that idea that beautifully!” Sometimes it’s “Oh, come on; I can write better than that.” Occasionally another columnist uses the same identical thought and phrase that I did. I never flatter myself that it’s plagiarism; instead I use the smaller flattery that great minds think alike.
Andy Rooney is one of those I’m ambivalent about. I often agree with him, but I find myself disagreeing with him more often than I used to. That means one of us is changing, and I don’t think I’m the one.
The Rooney column that appeared in this paper last Tuesday was headlined: “Cobain suicide was simply a waste.” I don’t blame Rooney for that, any more than I blame myself for the misspelling of “Kingsbury” in the headline over this column a week ago. He and I aren’t responsible for the headlines.
But Andy Rooney says, “It is apparent from what I’ve read now that he (Cobain) was talented and his death was a tragedy.” I don’t think Cobain’s death was a tragedy, and I don’t think he was talented, except in the most minor way. I don’t think Andy Rooney thinks so either, and I wish he wouldn’t be a hypocrite.
In case there is anyone out there who doesn’t know, Kurt Cobain was the prime mover in Nirvana, a “grunge-rock” band. Apparently, an important part of being a grunge rocker is wearing dirty, torn, ill-fitting clothes that look as though they came from a second-hand store, although they probably cost thousands.
I try to be broadminded about modern popular music; after all, my parents weren’t crazy about Glenn Miller and Harry James, who were the musicians I admired. I have problems, however, with so-called “musicians” for whom costume, lights, smoke bombs or gyrations are a major part of the “music.” All Harry James did was plan an amazing trumpet; even those of us who worshiped him admitted he was kind of dopey-looking.
I’m not sorry Kurt Cobain is dead. Pause, while some readers are shocked and others pretend to be. I’m sorry for his wife and child, although as he was a drug addict who was fascinated by violence, it could be argued that they are better off. In any case, they won’t starve, since they will profit from all the TV specials that will now appear, “suggested by real events.”
I’ll save my sympathy for the dead in Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa and hundreds of other places, including the ghettos of America. They didn’t want to die. Kurt Cobain did. He had tried to kill himself at least once before, with a massive overdose of pills. This time he succeeded, with one of the many guns he kept around. MTV treated his death as a national tragedy, preempting all programming for many hours.
TIME magazine, which is rapidly becoming the “Entertainment Tonight” of news magazines, devotes three pages this week to Cobain, using words like “brilliant,” “genius” and “poet.” It cites these lyrics as some of his best work: “And I forget just why I taste/oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile/I found it hard, it was hard to find/oh, well, whatever, never mind.”
Sorry, TIME, that isn’t poetry, or if it is, it’s very bad poetry. I probably taught a thousand high school kids who wrote better poetry than that.
This is poetry: “I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true
Men do not sham convulsion,
Nor simulate a throe.
“The eyes glaze once and that is death.
Impossible to feign
The beads upon the forehead
By homely anguish strung.”
If you’re a fan of grunge rock, it’s astonishing that you’re reading this, but you’re probably saying something like, “Yo, man, but who are you to say one poem is better than another? It’s just whatever turns you on.”
I refer you to another column of Andy Rooney’s, which flattered me, inadvertently, by expressing an idea that I had previously expressed: there is better cooking and worse cooking, better poetry and worse poetry, better basketball and worse basketball. There is such a thing as quality, and it can be determined, although not infallibly, by those who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to a study of the subject.
That poem was written more than a century ago, by a spinster in Amherst, Mass. I chose it because the sentiment expressed is at least as shocking as anything Cobain wrote about.
Emily Dickinson further shocked many of her contemporaries by refusing to state publicly she was a Christian. Although she was as much a rebel as Cobain, she did not find it necessary to take drugs, have guns around, decorate the walls of her home with graffiti, fight physically with her loved ones or take part in wild parties.
She also did not find it necessary to commit suicide. Perhaps that’s because she knew she was not a fraud.
I’ve been reading your Sunday column since it began and have found myself agreeing with your opinions at least 85 percent of the time. I’m not sure I’m even in disagreement about the column I’m writing about here, but I do wish to comment on it.
I don’t consider myself a fan of “grunge rock” because at 28 I think the genre, if you want to call it that, is a little out of my realm of experience. I don’t think Kurt Cobain would have wanted to be lumped in with the rest of the so-called grunge rockers anyway. It is clear now he didn’t want to be lumped in with anybody.
But at 28, and with an 8-month old daughter, I found myself discovering after his death a number of parallels in his life that I found disturbing. Our ages, our babies, our inability to make sense much of the time of the world in which we live. If you’re saying to yourself “Well, lots of people are in their late 20s with kids and confusion about life,” well, Mark, that may just be the point when it comes to the issue of Cobain’s talent.
Briefly addressing some factual errors in your piece, the clothes Cobain wore were the clothes he always wore, because he came from an economically distressed northwestern town where it was cold, so he wore flannel shirts. He was poor, so he kept his clothes when they developed holes. I have a few items like that myself. I agree that it might have been an affectation, but he was a rock singer for Christ’s sake—you don’t think Sinatra has any affectations? Or any of the other older performers you mention for that matter. Who among us is totally incapable of that kind of vanity?
I understand you can’t relate to Nirvana. I found, only a few months before Kurt Cobain’s death, that I could. I found your quote of lyrics a bit unfair—again, to bring up the Sinatra analogy, would it be fair to judge his abilities simply by quoting “Fly with me, come fly, come fly away?” And he didn’t even write it!
What’s more important than the lyric alone, as you well know, is the intonation, the delivery, and the emotion delivered to the listener. Music isn’t poetry, Mark, and I don’t believe Cobain ever called himself a poet. That was written by editors and reviewers, and people like the one that misspelled Kingsbury. But people think you write the headlines, and perhaps you make the same mistake when you judge a man by what others called him.
I am sorry Kurt is dead, because I am sorry he was unable to beat whatever demons it was that haunted him. I’m sorry he won’t be around to enjoy the success that his talent gave him, and I’m sorry he won’t be around to comment on the disastrous society that produced him, as he did so well for such a short time. As the first line of the new Nirvana album said, “Teenage angst has served me well, now I’m bored and old.” That may not be poetry, and it may not even be well-written, but it perfectly expresses what a lot of us are feeling, whether you can relate to it or not. Cobain illustrated in his lyrics and in his music a visceral anger and disgust for the rotten world we live in, and speaking as someone who went to college to learn about radio, got a job in that field and has worked in it for over eight years, yet is still unable to make enough money to get by, I can relate to someone disgusted by society. I like this area, want to stay here, and yet find that to be financially secure and still work in my chosen career, I have to leave. That makes me angry. It was a pleasure to find music that spoke to me, and now I’ll still be listening, but a profound voice has been silenced, at its own hand.
That really disgusts me.
Dear Mr. Doane,
Although I deplore the custom of not answering letters, I answer fewer than half of those I receive; I simply don’t have the time. I try to answer those that are written well and display intelligence a category yours falls into. (unlike many people, I don’t think “intelligent” and “agrees with me” are necessarily one and the same.) If you’d like to see what the average writer does, there will be a letter on Kurt Cobain and me in the Post-Star quite soon. As you read it, bear in mind that an editor at the paper had to correct spelling and usage in almost every line.
I am gratified and somewhat surprised to learn that someone 28 years old agrees with me “at least 85 percent of the time.” Maybe there’s hope for the future, although you don’t seem too optimistic.
I’d like to discuss, which of course means disagree with, a few of the points you made. You say you are 28 and have a new daughter, and suffer from an “inability to make sense of the world.” Let me cheer you with the certain knowledge that it’s not your age; most of us feel that way most of the time, and that was true in the time of Socrates. Did you feel more certain of things when you were a teen-ager? Most people just muddle through, doing the best they can to be decent and raise decent kids. They are the heroes. The others kill themselves or others; as you probably know, suicide and homicide are closely related.
Your choice of Sinatra was understandable but unfortunate; I can’t stand the man. But I would argue that whatever affectations Sinatra, or Tony Bennett, or Wynton Marsalis may have, they are not an important part of their talent.
I did not select Cobain’s “best” lyric; TIME did. Blame them. Like you, if I may say so, I know nothing first-hand about Cobain; all I know is what I have read about him. I don’t understand your reference to “Come fly with me.” As you say, Sinatra didn’t write it. Nobody ever called Sinatra a poet; apparently many thought Cobain was a poet; he wasn’t.
I’m not sorry Cobain’s dead; I am sorry that he, or any person, led a miserable, self-pitying life that, in my opinion, produced nothing that will stand the test of time. People still listen to Mozart. Duke Ellington is still regarded as a great musician. I will bet you twenty dollars that, in twenty years or less, nobody will be playing Nirvana’s music.
Aside from that, we waste too much time and energy in hypocrisy. Nixon is probably dying. Will you be sorry when he’s dead? I won’t. Do you think Kurt Cobain would have been sorry if you had died?
I am sorry you can’t, at present, work in your chosen career, live in the area in which you would like to reside, and make enough money to get by, but your situation is far from unique in either space or time. You say you have to leave. That is one alternative. More and more people are choosing, rather, to select the area in which they want to live and the lifestyle they want, then finding employment that will enable them to gratify those first two needs, even if it wasn’t what they studied in college. If you will forgive a personal reference, that’s why my daughter, who majored in English, now lives in Seattle and works for the county in water pollution abatement.
Most creative people in this area, among whom I include you, find that they have to do a little of this, that, and the other thing to make ends meet. If you get a job in radio in NYC or LA, you will get what seems like a lot more money, but you still won’t be able to make ends meet.
Finally, I’m sure I can’t mention this without its sounding snotty to you, although I assure you it isn’t meant that way: If you have been reading my column since it began, you should have seen the one about my distaste, shared by most people my age, for being called by my first name by people I don’t know very well.
Thanks again for your letter. I’m glad to know that there are young people out there who can read, write and think.
My Reply To His Reply
Dear Mr. Freeman,
Allow me to thank you for your quick reply to my letter regarding Kurt Cobain. A reply was certainly hoped for, but a speedy one was a pleasant surprise.
My apologies if my familiarity in regards to the use of your first name offended you; perhaps you might come to see it as a complement. After reading your column for so many months, I guess I felt I had come to know you in a way. I’d estimate I’ve taken at least 5000 phone calls while on the air at one radio station or another and I’d guess maybe 2 people have ever called me Mr. Doane, one of which calls to ask the temperature about every two hours. Presumed familiarity is a professional hazard for those of us in the media, I’m afraid.
On the other hand, it’s also how I met my wife, so I can’t complain.
Some days, anyway.
As to the topic which was at hand, let me nail shut my half of the conversational coffin on this subject with a few comments and/or clarifiers.
My reference to being unable to make sense of the world was an attempt to demonstrate the relevance of Cobain’s art (or “art” if you prefer) to people of my generation. Confusion about life is without a doubt common to all generations, yet no other popular artist in my lifetime has so well commented upon the apparent state of things as Kurt Cobain, hereinafter referred to as KC. For me, anyway, his music both lyrics and melody (and yes, there were a few) said a lot that someone outside of a narrow age band (younger or older, this isn’t a swipe at older folks) might not appreciate.
Or, to put it another, shorter way: Well, I liked him, anyway.
As for your point that 20 years from now no one will be playing Nirvana’s music; would you have made the same bet about The Doors? They’re more popular now than they ever were when Jim Morrison was alive. The same goes for the Beatles. And make no mistake, for many people of this 20-something generation, KC was on his way to becoming another John Lennon. I may not agree with that sentiment, but it’s clear that his death, no matter what the cause, will only serve to widen his audience and “shine up the legend,” as it were. And of course many music historians feel the Beatles will still be around in another 100 years, never mind 20. I agree that Nirvana might not stand the test of time, but then how many of Mozart’s contemporaries are still listened to and studied the way his music is? Popular music in particular, and popular art in general, is by its very nature highly perishable and subject to a decay of its relevance to future audiences. As someone who’s been playing popular music for a living for the better part of a decade now, I can tell you that the vast majority of music released is forgotten immediately, never mind in 20 years.
That KC’s music has endured as long as it has (NEVERMIND, Nirvana’s breakthrough album from, I believe, 1991, is still on the top 200 charts, its resurgent popularity of course fueled by the death of KC) indicates to me that at least someone will be listening to them in 20 years. If KC had decided to face up to his problems and had continued to write and perform, I have no doubt that his music would have endured. How, we shall just have to wait and see. But in popular music, 1991 is the stone age, so as I say I believe there may be some lasting appeal there. Landfills are filled with CDs, records and tapes of literally thousands of groups you never heard of; now the world has heard of Nirvana, at the cost of a life. It’s unfortunate that KC’s greatest fame isn’t for the success of his art but for the failure of his life.
I had an overwhelming hunch I was barking up the wrong tree when I picked Sinatra, but I tried, anyway. My quoting of Come Fly With Me was to demonstrate the inherent unfairness of judging an artist from one line in a song. I can’t relate to Sinatra or appreciate him in the way, say, my mother did. And believe me, she did! But taking him out of context adds apparent legitimacy to saying he isn’t much of an artist, and the same is true for KC. And TIME may have selected the lyric, but you didn’t point that out in your piece, and besides, maybe you should have dug a little further if that was the only lyric you exposed yourself to before judging whether or not he was a poet. My guess is it wouldn’t change your mind no matter how many lyrics of KC’s I showed you (hence I quote him not), but it would gbe playing a little more fairly in my opinion. Again, KC never called himself a poet—it’s clear he hated himself a lot, so he probably didn’t even consider himself a craftsman at what he did, never mind an artist. But why judge him on what others called him? Exactly what was the point of your piece if that’s your jumping-off point? KC’s affectations were not meant to be a part of his talent, and I didn’t mean to say they were. Again, I can’t say for sure, but it’s my hunch his manner of dress had more to do with intellectual and physical laziness more than any attempt to jump on any fashion bandwagon or start any trends. I have noticed since his death that in various TV appearances he was wearing the same shirt a lot. I suspect he probably just didn’t care what he looked like to anybody. Don’t we all have days like that?
And I suspect many people WOULD call Sinatra a poet. Ask Bruce Matthews at WWSC. The people that love Sinatra love him completely, so far as I can see. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years KC will be remembered in much the same way by the kids (to use the term broadly) that appreciated him before his death. As for those who jumped on after, who can say where their true loyalty, musically speaking, will be ain a couple of decades? I don’t know if I’ll still like Nirvana in 20 years. They only released 4 albums, and I myself only like about half the material found on two of them. But martyrdom is a funny thing, and you can surely see James Dean is hardly worthy of the acclaim he is given. I’ll take you up on that bet, though—we’ll see in 2014 who does and doesn’t remember KC.
Of course, if I’m wrong I’ll pay you off in 1994 dollars, so don’t expect much.
In closing, let me say it is an honour to correspond with you, and I hope I can look forward to another reply, speedy or not. We’ll be on a first name basis any day now!