"You won't catch me crying over Kurt Cobain," he told me 15 years ago this week, lingering on the words "Kurt Cobain," his voice dripping with a disdain for anyone who might feel sympathy for the emotionally tortured rocker who had just killed himself. His coldness took me aback.
If this had been some conservative crank on the opposite side of the culture wars, perhaps it wouldn't have made as much of an impression. But the fellow who made this statement was a prominent member of the Seattle hipster intelligentsia who owed much of his success to the Grunge music movement, if not indirectly to Cobain himself.
This kind of reaction to the Nirvana frontman's suicide was, to say the least, atypical. On April 8, 1994, a dreariness darker than the usual cloud-cover fell over the Seattle music scene. People reacted with sadness, anger, hyper-devotion. Cooler-than-thou types were suddenly prone to open displays of remorse.
Cobain's death wasn't just the loss of a talented musician, although that was part of it. Depending on who you asked, Kurt symbolized Generation X, the Grunge music movement, the Alternative Nation, even Seattle itself.
Perhaps what he symbolized most was success with integrity. He was authentic. Of all the Sub-Pop "losers" (as the label's fans proudly called themselves back in the day), he was the winner. He conquered the world without compromising.
It's human nature to project ourselves onto larger-than-life figures we admire. If you valued Cobain's principled talent, it would be hard not to be affected by the fact that despite all his success he was still driven to blow his brains out.
I moved to Seattle in 1991; the Emerald City was a mecca for creative, open-minded twentysomethings and, in retrospect, it felt like what I can only imagine Haight-Ashbury must have felt like in the sixties (albeit with more rain, gloomier music and flannel instead of tie-dye).
Hearing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (from "local band Nirvana") debut on Seattle radio didn't bowl me over on first listen. I was so not a Nirvana fan that when I heard they were performing a free Nevermind record-release gig at a Beehive store just two blocks away I blew it off. (I regretted that one almost instantly. But just this week I discovered the gig lives on YouTube. I'm not sure if finally being able to see it 17 years later made me feel better or worse.)
As Nirvana broke, the national media swooped into Seattle, creating, at times, a circus-like atmosphere (the whole thing is captured for posterity in the documentary film "Hype!"). Just a twenty-four year-old fresh from Minnesota, I had never experienced anything like it.
And I didn't again until 1994, when a second wave of national attention hit the Pacific Northwest. Only this time the media swooping in felt like vultures, back to pick at the bones of the monster phenomenon they helped create.
In 1995, I left Seattle for New York City, where I live today. Media sensationalism and exploitation is part of everyday life. And after watching the twin towers fall from my window, and eight years of George W. Bush, it's hard to conjure up the same kind of passionate emotion about Kurt Cobain's death that I felt 15 years ago.
There's a strange paradox: we know that rock stars lose their magic as they age past their prime. Yet we can't stop fantasizing about what died-in-their-prime rock stars would have accomplished if only they'd lived a full life.
Reflecting on all this inspired me to create a cartoon imagining what could have been for the Village Voice. Please check out, "In Bloom: The Alternate History of Kurt Cobain" at:
And if you're interested in seeing some of my Kurt Cobain-related cartoons from back in those heady and tragic days of 1990s Seattle, please visit my facebook artist page.
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