I have only a few days in the last 20 years that I can say I remember with any precision. There are periods and seasons, eras and ages—all of which are generally memorable—but only so many definitive days. April 8th, 1994 is one of those days. I know exactly where I was and what I was doing. It was the day the world discovered that Kurt Cobain killed himself. He died three days earlier, on the 5th.
I don’t know what I was doing on April 5th, 1994 but chances are it was a lot like the 8th. I was 23, skinny and had what I thought was “good hair.” It was really greasy and long, like Kurt’s or maybe more like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites. I was cultivating a timely “slacker” persona and wore Doc Martens boots, a black leather jacket, smoked constantly and wore a flippant “I don’t care” demeanor like a suit of armor. I was also broke. Ironically, I had to beat the girls off of me—a fact I would recall bitterly as I walked a path of righteous honesty later in life.
At the end of 1993, I had moved back home to Boston from New York City. In New York I’d been cultivating my first real heroin habit while attending NYU. I hoped the familiarity of home might help get my life back on track. One night, I walked into a party and met a cute brunette wearing a thrift-store outfit who greeted me by asking, “Where have you been my entire life?”
With that, she and I started dating and I moved into her place. It was better than living at my mother’s house. Despite being basically homeless, I complained about the location as it was in the less desirable “Lower” section of Allston. The apartment was also kind of a shithole with broken walls and beat-up floors stuffed with second hand furniture. It was dark, cold and drafty in the miserable New England winter and poorly served by public transportation. The relationship was heaven for about a week and then it wasn’t. I began using dope on the sly, but predictably it wasn’t so sly.
Suzanne didn’t care for my behavior.
She came home from work early one day to find me nodding off in front of the television. “I thought the whole reason you moved back to Boston was to get off of that shit,” she said.
“Uhh,” I replied, wiping the drool off my chin.
“Screw this. I didn’t sign up for this. I’m quitting my job and moving to Oregon.” Oregon was a reoccurring motif with her.
“Can I come?” I asked.
“No!” And with that, she followed through on her threat. I didn’t blame her. I would have moved to Oregon on me too if such a thing were possible.
I took over the lease from Suzanne and paid her a pittance for her mattress and bedding. My new relationship was over, just like the eight or so that had preceded it. All of those had ended in a similar way, variations on a theme.
By April, things were pretty bleak. I owned nothing except my used bed and some sprouts out on the fire escape that I hoped would one day become pot plants. My new roommate, a quiet guy named Darren, was intensely depressed and spent days in his bedroom sleeping, only darting out occasionally for food. I viewed this as an asset; I had the place to myself! I was drinking a lot, but was telling myself that was okay because I was mostly staying away from heroin. At least we had cable.
In the years leading up to that time, grunge and Nirvana were a perfect storm for me. I was 19 in 1990 when I heard Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick.” It was the song that changed everything. I had been a hardcore kid—a diehard fan of hardcore music (the direct descendant of punk) and skateboarding—but by 1990 it was clear the music needed a refresh. With the Mudhoney song though, it was clear something was different. It’s what was coming next. While “Touch Me I’m Sick” was the canary in the coalmine, the explosion came the next year with the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
As I struggled with young adulthood through the next few years, my identity became strongly intertwined with Kurt Cobain’s. I read every interview that I could find. I searched relentlessly for B-sides, concert footage—anything I could get my hands on. I read the Come As You Are book when it came out in 1993. “This is it,” I thought. This was the music that summed it all up and made sense of the world for me.
An aspect of Kurt’s legacy that often gets forgotten and one that he was concerned with while alive was the ironic blowback of “Nevermind.” Like me (and a lot of other kids), Kurt grew up feeling like a freak and a weirdo. We learn in adulthood that those feelings weren’t terribly unique but kids don’t have the luxury of context and as such, all emotions seem novel. Our reaction was to wrap ourselves in that outsider image—I saw a clear dividing line between “us” and “them” and punk rock formed the dividing line. If you played football, you were one of them and you were my enemy. If you liked Whitesnake or Bon Jovi or U2, you were an idiot and the enemy. Punk was mine. “Nevermind” railed against them in its lyrics and attitude but ironically, its unbelievable popularity and universality changed the game. “They” loved it! Suddenly Kurt wasn’t talking to his tribe but also to the meatheads that had taunted him and called him a “fag.”
That Kurt’s musical creation could, in what both felt like and was an incredibly short period, turn into the cultural norm was distressing to him. Within the span of months, the billboard top 100 went from metal to alternative. It was a huge change. All of a sudden, Motley Crüe and the hair-metal bands of the 80’s were a joke (and believe me, a lot of people took that shit seriously). Overnight, bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were filling stadiums. Unintentionally, Kurt had destroyed what he held most dear: his outsider status. He was acutely aware and absolutely sensitive to that fact. Back then, the term “sell-out” was a hurtful insult; it meant giving up your D.I.Y. credibility. It seems laughable now but it was the reality; Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi had (and has) indie cred in spades. Despite growing up in a trailer park and wearing his heart and music on his sleeve, Kurt suddenly had none. He cited his distress in interview after interview.
Nirvana’s bassist Krist Novoselic has shared Kurt’s confession to him before the release of “Nevermind” that maybe one day the band’s esteem could be on par with that of the Pixies. No offense, but the Pixies, who I love, were a smallish band that was barely out of the clubs at that stage in their careers. They were critical darlings but far from wealthy and maintained a firm grip on their indie cred. That story gives you a bit of an insight into the gulf between Kurt’s wildest ambition and reality. In between the release of the band’s first record “Bleach” and the second “Nevermind,” Kurt lived for a time in his old Dodge Dart. He became a millionaire in the space of a month.
The other cultural factor specific to the time that’s often forgotten is the Generation X moniker epitomized by the title “Nevermind.” We were a numerically smaller generation, dwarfed by our boomer parents. Popular media was focused on the Boomers eating our proverbial economic lunch. A recession welcomed Gen X’s graduation from college and the economic good times were declared officially over (sound familiar?) It was a change signified by a marked lessening in cultural optimism and a turn towards an increase in the use of heroin. Kurt, much to his chagrin, became the poster boy for this cultural malaise.
Kurt’s journey, in a way, is an apt metaphor for my generation. His trademark screech, the wailing howl that he used to such affect in his music, symbolized our existential pain—the pain of youth and not understanding where you fit in the world. It’s nothing new, nor is its manifestation in popular song, but it was what we had to go through in order to get to the other side, admit our cluelessness as human beings and then get busy building our lives. The destruction of what we thought made us special allowed us to build anew.
I recall sitting in that dark living room in Allston, Massachusetts. I didn’t have to work at my shitty retail job that day. It was overcast and rainy. I was alone and hung over. I spent the night previously getting soused at The Model, a local bar up the street. I sat on a ratty couch, smelly with spilled beer and dropped pizza crusts, as MTV broke the news in the early afternoon. I was affixed to the television for the rest of the day. “How could he?” I asked, along with a million others.
I had been abandoned by my idol, the man who clearly understood my emotional pain precisely. He had fucking checked out—and with a shotgun no less. It was an unequivocal “Fuck you” to life. I remember the tears, head in my hands, life seeming so bleak I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t seek out friends. I called my drug dealer.
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