Friday, February 20, 2009, marks the 42nd birthday of Nirvana rock legend Kurt Cobain. 15 years after Cobain's death, we know his memory continues to touch lives when a guitar he once smashed the hell out of recently sold for $100,000 at an auction.
I have to be honest, Kurt was a pretty important part of my life once. He was something of an inspiration for me during my disaffected and cynically idealistic youth. Not because he was an icon or wrote platinum albums but because of his brilliance in seamlessly channeling the youthful angst and rebellion of a generation into timeless sonic waves.
No singer since Robert Plant could match his wail and few in history have had his mesmerizing stage presence. More importantly, few musicians embodied my sentiments during that period of my life like Kurt did. I can hardly quantify how much Nirvana I listened to in high school. As a budding guitarist and vocalist who loved punk rock and grunge in high school, he carried many qualities I admired. In some ways I viewed myself as a less talented and less extreme version of him. Looking back, I'll never forget the lessons I learned from him.
I don't blame Kurt for his drug addiction and self-destruction. He had psychological problems that dated back to his early childhood and medicines and drugs represented a shelter from those problems since a very young age. He was disillusioned by his idealism and felt every moment and every emotion much more deeply than nearly all of us. Of course, the problems only compounded as time went on, as did his need for escape.
It took me a while before I came to terms with the coexistence of his talent and his many, many personal problems. I used to think some were born with greatness, and experienced life on a purely different level. It took me till after high school to fully realize that this isn't the case. We're all just people; where we have strengths, we have compensating flaws and vice versa. Some people have incredible strengths, but they all have equally significant flaws.
That's part of the problem with society and popular culture. We're quick to immortalize and deify individuals who possess certain traits we admire. It's because we yearn for idols and want people to look up to. But behind those traits are many things we're better off without, and we tend to ignore those. Kurt's musical talents were paled in comparison to suicidal tendencies, his profound discontentment for life and his inclination toward self-destruction. Was it worth it?
Not to Kurt. All he wanted was to be a normal guy who wasn't so dissatisfied with the world. We would probably never know who Kurt was if that were the case, and my childhood experience would have been somewhat different without any Nirvana records in my collection. But that's what he wanted, which shows he cared nothing for the fame and hollow adoration he received. That's what helped me realize this. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, idolized him and he hated it. He knew that with all his flaws and problems, he was no idol. He wrote songs expressing his contempt for the people who raved about his music but didn't understand it, and didn't understand him.
I learned through Kurt Cobain that there's a dark side to every light, and a silver lining to every cloud. He significantly shaped views on pop culture (before Thom Yorke, Noam Chomsky and a few others helped seal them) and gave me the insight to see how shallow and vacuous the world of glamour and celebrity-dom is. More importantly I learned not to get sucked in to the notion of immortalizing anyone and instead be critical of people's flaws while learning from their strengths, especially those that are glorified by the media. Chances are that you and I have some qualities they secretly (or non-secretly) envy too.
Kurt once said "I'd rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not" -- words that have stuck with me and always will.
Shine on, you crazy diamond. Happy birthday.