Kurt Cobain Back from the Dead
Fourteen years after his suicide at the age of 27, Kurt Cobain is still a joke that America keeps telling itself. The joke goes something like this: there was once this scrawny kid from some nowhere town a hundred miles outside of Seattle who wanted to be a rock star, who worked really hard at being a rock star, and when he finally succeeded and got everything he finally wanted (a hit record, money and fame), he found he couldn't handle it and he killed himself! And you know what? He used a gun to blow his brains out, even though in one of his songs -- a really sincere one, right? -- he kept saying "And I swear that I don't have a gun"!
In the last week, a new joke has been added to the old one: not only does Kurt Cobain his life back, he also wants money and credit cards and a mansion! It started on 5 March 2008, when Cobain's widow, Courtney Love -- a joke in her own right -- revealed that the Los Angeles Police Department was finally taking seriously her claim that thieves had stolen Kurt's identity (his social security number) and were using it to get credit cards (188 of them) and buy lots of neat stuff, including a $3 million mansion in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Apparently these thieves have stolen over $36 million from the Cobain estate, which was created to benefit Courtney and Kurt's only child, Frances Bean, who is now 15 years old. To make matters worse, or funnier, depending on your perspective, Courtney claims that she became aware of the identity theft and reported it to the police back in 2003, but "nobody believed me," because she had been, in her own words, "cuckoo, bananas." As if she is nothing but sober and sane these days! As if she herself has not stolen musical ideas from Kurt and the rights to his songs from his fellow band mates!
"I would like to know how [this could happen]" Courtney now says. And then, abruptly switching from the theft of her husband's identity to his apparent return from the dead, she joked, "He should probably get his ass back home if that is the case."
It didn't take long for the other jokes to start. "Kurt Bought a House Last Year," said The Sun on 7 March 2008. "Kurt Cobain Back From The Dead," announced the celebrity-baiting blogger Perez Hilton 8 March. "Kurt Cobain Lives An Hour Away From Me, Apparently," stated a blogger who writes for Cinema Blend on 9 March. "Kurt Cobain is alive and well" and "Kurt Cobain Going to Rutgers, Apparently," proclaimed The Philadelphia Weekly on 10 March 2008. "Kurt Cobain Still Living -- and Spending -- Like a Rock Star," announced a blogger writing for seattlest.com on 11 March. And, last but certainly not least, laaaadies and gentlemen, "Kurt's Zombie Identity Stolen. . . by Thieves," heckled a blogger writing for something called . . . hecklerspray.com on 12 March.
Surely there will be people who find none of this funny, sad, shameful or even interesting, because they don't give a shit about Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love or either one of their rock bands, Nirvana and Hole, respectively. As Greil Marcus wrote in an essay originally published in Rolling Stone in 1994 and later reprinted in Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives (2000),
"Driving for six hours from Kansas City to Fayetteville on Sunday, April 10, the day after the story [of the suicide] was front page all over the country, there wasn't any Kurt Cobain. Radio is now so demographically segmented its formats are absolutely resistant to events in the world at large [...] On Your Favorite Oldies, Best of the '70s, Lite Rock, not to mention 24-Hour News, talk radio, Adult Contemporary, country, or hip hop stations, Kurt Cobain didn't die, and neither was he ever born."
The only ones who know or care that Kurt Donald Cobain was born on 20 February 1967 and committed suicide on 5 April 1994 are "the kids," the "punk rock kids," in bloom every May, who fork over $50 million every year for Nirvana CDs, making Kurt Cobain the highest-grossing dead rock star in the world. In death, or complete nonexistence, he even makes more money than another joke America loves to tell itself: the one about Elvis Presley.
There are, of course, significant differences (as well as similarities) between Kurt Cobain and Elvis Presley. With Bill Clinton still alive and still in the news; with the incredible popularity and likely nomination of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, America doesn't need Elvis Presley to remind it once again of its (failed) promises and potential to unite white and black, rich and poor, urban and rural. No, what America needs today -- what America needed fourteen years ago and still needs in 2008 -- is someone who can dramatize what almost everyone is either feeling or perpetrating upon others: humiliation, abjection, guilt and shame.
In another essay reprinted in Double Trouble, Greil Marcus notes that, though "it might be months [...] before you begin to catch what's being said in Nirvana's songs," "what the music says by itself" is "the feeling of humiliation, disintegration, of defeat by some shapeless malevolence." (As we will see, though that malevolence is indeed shapeless, it can still be named.) In still another essay reprinted in Double Trouble, Greil notes that "the drama played out in Cobain's performance" (the one captured in the video compilation Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!) "was a drama of abjection and abasement, of worthlessness and redundancy, a drama of surplus population, be it that of a solitary nobody who nobody liked or a generation the economy didn't need and the culture didn't want." As southern white trash, Elvis Presley was certainly familiar with these conditions, but his music did not dramatize social or personal exclusion. Elvis Presley's music was about pride, over-coming, and especially dignity. But Kurt Cobain knew nothing or wanted nothing of these things. The theme of shame runs through all of Nirvana's lyrics, starting with the first two songs on the band's first album, Bleach ("Blew" and "Floyd the Barber"). Shame also features prominently in Kurt's private journals, which were published in 2002 under the name Journals.
Though the members of Nirvana clearly thought that it was one of their best songs (it was placed first on the demo tape that the band submitted to Touch & Go Records), "Floyd the Barber" is not given its due, perhaps because the scene it dramatizes so outlandish.
Bell on door clanks, come on in
Floyd observes my hairy chin
Sit down chair, don't be afraid
Steamed hot towel on my face
I was shaved (repeat 3X)
Barney ties me to the chair
I can't see, I'm really scared
Floyd breathes hard, I hear a zip
Pee-pee pressed against my lips
I was shamed (repeat 3X)
I sense others in the room
Opie, Aunt Bea, I presume
They take turns in cut me up
I died smothered in Andy's butt
I was shamed (repeat 3X)
Once you begin exploring the strangeness of this story, you find you can't exhaust it. Everything is mixed together and indistinct. Is this a joke (a calculated and imaginary outrage, thought up by an adult with a perverse sense of humor) or is this a serious allegation (an evocation of one of the ways a child might describe the outrages that were perpetrated on him by real adults)? Is this a private matter (a shameful secret that no one knows) or a public scandal (a parody of the innocence of the characters on a well-known TV show from the '50s and '60s)? But perhaps the strangest, the most ambiguous aspect is this: is the death reported in the last lines metaphorical or real? Is a part of the narrator (his innocence) dead or is the narrator himself dead (a walking corpse)? Note well how the song ends, with the drums continuing on their own for a bit, as if not yet realizing that everyone else has stopped playing.
In his book Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999), the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes that "there is certainly nothing shameful in a human being who suffers on account of sexual violence," because it is the abuser, and not the victim, who is or should be full of shame for his actions (this is precisely what the narrator of Kurt's song "Polly" is struggling to understand). "But if he [the victim] takes pleasure in his suffering violence, if he is moved by his passivity [...] only then can one speak of shame" (Agamben, page 110). And so perhaps the ambiguity or indistinctness of the themes in "Floyd the Barber" dramatizes Kurt's painful awareness that 1) he found himself excited (either at the time or retrospectively) by the abuse he once suffered or 2) he is excited by the repulsive scenario that he has imagined. Either way, the fantasy of Floyd's Barbershop of Horrors is ultimately unsatisfying: in the first, his mind ("No rape/physical distance desired now") and his body ("Yes feels good/involuntary physical excitation") are at odds; and in the second the unification of his desires comes too late (the era of The Andy Griffith Show is over, thank god). And so a cycle -- sometimes soothing cycle, certainly vicious -- is set in motion. Kurt is a sincere, out-spoken and brave anti-rape crusader in the rock music business: "Don't rape" is at the top of a list of six commandments that Kurt draws up on page 114 of his journals, and the plain and simple plea "Don't fuck your children" was the last line in Kurt's liner notes for the Nirvana album Nevermind (1991) that he sketched on page 165 of the journals. And Kurt is young man who is abused, angry, sexually frustrated and depressed enough to fantasize about threatening to rape: "please don't fuck with my freedom or Im gonna have to Rape, torture & mutilate your family," Kurt writes on 129 of the journals, speaking to the right-wing Republicans who have been in power ever since 1980, except for the first two years of the Clinton Presidency. Inevitably, this split or cycling dominates Kurt's poetry: "My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions. theyre split down the middle between very sincere opinions and feelings that I have and sarcastic and hopefully humorous rebuttles towards cliche -- bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years" (Journals, 46). The cycle goes through moments of self-loathing ("Stain," "I Hate Myself and Want to Die"), self-confidence ("About a Girl," "Love Buzz"), and self-parody ("On A Plain," "Dumb").
Speculations about "Floyd the Barber" are rendered even more problematic by Kurt's self-conscious, art-school declaration in his journals that "when I say I in a song, that doesnt necessarily mean that person is me and it doesnt mean im just a storyteller, it means whoever or whatever you want because everyone has their own definition of specific words and when your dealing in the context of music you cant expect words to have the same meaning as in everyday use of vocabulary because I consider music art and [...] I feel this society somewhere has lost its sense of what art is, Art is expression" (page 120; see also discussions of linguistic "shifters" in John Keats' letter to John Woodhouse dated 27 October 1818: "As to the poetical Character [...] it is not itself -- it has no self -- it is everything and nothing -- It has no character"; in Ingeborg Bachman's Frankfurt Lectures: "An 'I' without guarantees! What is the 'I', what could it be?"; in Arthur Rimbaud's letter to P. Demeny: "for 'I' is another"; in Emile Benveniste's Problems in General Linguistics: "What then is the reality to which I or you refers? It is solely to a 'reality of discourse,' and this is a very strange thing. I cannot be defined except in terms of 'locution' [...] I signifies 'the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing I'"; etc. etc.)
Let me be plain. "Floyd the Barber," "Polly" (both the electric and the acoustic versions), "Negative Creep," the infamous "Rape Me": these songs (and others) resonate with people because of their own private experiences with sexual violence. And precisely because so many children and adults in America are the victims of sexual violence, Nirvana's music is "popular with" (emotionally gripping for) people, not everyone, but certainly enough to be significant. They find this music both cathartic and depressing, while other people find it just depressing.
But the presence of the theme of struggling against sexual humiliation doesn't fully explain the full intensity or duration of Nirvana's appeal, nor does it exhaust the sources of shame thematized and dramatized in the band's music. In his journals, Kurt describes himself as feeling "guilty for being a white, American male" (page 109). Such people do more than rape women and children of both genders: they also harass and degrade homosexuals, and lynch black men. But the sources or causes of Kurt's shame go even deeper than that. In his sketch for a possible record sleeve ("Floyd the Barber" is listed as the first song), he writes "I'm Ashamed to be a Human" (page 85; note that the words "I'm" and "a" are crossed out but are still legible). And why? Because humans not only rape, torture and mutilate each other, but also other species, plants and animals, even the whole fucking planet.
Here we begin to get a sense of the awesome dimensions and depth of Kurt's shame. In the words of his journals, he is "pregnant with shame" (268). But neither the words nor the music of "Floyd the Barber" fully express it; it can only be adequately or fully expressed by gestures of inexpressibility, that is to say, by the hollowing out of words. "I'll start this song off without any words," he sings at the very beginning of "On A Plain." But Nirvana was not an "instrumental" band, nor did they record a single "instrumental" track. ("Tourette's" is the exemplary song here: the words are reduced to almost nothing and the voice is freed to "play" like any other instrument. Like Iggy Pop in the Stooges' "LA Blues," Kurt sounds like a ranting, wordless maniac, a feral child or a wild animal.) Words quite obviously remain in their music, but they are twisted, bent and sometimes broken by groans, screams, cries and shouts. In his journals, Kurt writes,
"I don't have the time to translate what I understand in the form of conversation. I had exhausted most conversation at age nine. I only feel with grunts screams and tones with hand gestures and my body. Im deaf in spirit [...] I cant speak, I cannot feel. Maybe someday I'll turn myself into Hellen Keller by puncturing my ears with a knife, then cutting my voice box out." (pages 124 and 125)
What's left after the ears and voice box are gone? Nothing but "hand gestures and my body," that is to say, the movements and physical presence of Kurt's body. As he says in another journal entry, "I make up words -- that Arent ever heard" (page 201, emphasis added). We can only feel what Kurt is feeling by literally feeling him and, from a distance, by seeing him move around and make gestures. We can only be impossibly close to and/or far away from him: "with the lights out, it's less dangerous" to be in such intimate proximity.
But even this is too much: Kurt doesn't want -- or can't bear -- to be seen. "Whoever experiences shame is overcome by his own being subject to vision," Agamben writes in his book on Auschwitz (page 107). And so, when the mass media eventually focuses its cruel spotlights on Kurt's private life and reveals him to be (in his own words) "a notoriously fucked up heroine addict, alcoholic, self destructive, yet overly sensitive, frail, meek, fragile, compassionate, soft spoken, narcoleptic, NEUROTIC, little piss ant who at any time is going to O.D., jump off a roof and wig out, blow my head off or all three at once because I CANT HANDLE THE SUCCESS! OH THE SUCCESS! THE GUILT! THE GUILT! OH, I FEEL SO INCREDIBLY GUILTY! GUILTY for abandoning our true comrades. the ones who are devoted" (text entitled "OH THE GUILT," signed by "KurDT disclaimer-boy," page 195 of the journals), his response is to demand (ironically?) that the media "Rape Me." The ambiguity or indistinction here is fairly shocking and certainly unpleasant: if rape is something perpetrated on an unwilling person, what can "rape" mean if the victim is literally and explicitly asking for it? "I'm not the only one" Kurt insists in "Rape Me." Not only one whom the media has raped, or not the only one who ironically declares he wants to be raped?
It is in "OH THE GUILT" that Kurt denies he is a heroin addict and explains that he is simply someone who has periodically used heroin to treat a longstanding, irregularly occurring and life-threatening stomach disorder that completely mystifies all of the doctors he has gone to see. Only heroin relieves the terrible pain he experiences and suppresses his hunger, which he could satisfy in any event, for fear of further irritating his inflamed stomach. Towards the end of "OH THE GUILT" he prays:
"Please lord! To hell with hit records, let me have my very own unexplainable, rare, stomach disease named after me. The title of our next double concept album could be called "COBAINS DISEASE." A rock opera all about vomiting gastric juices, being a borderline anorexic-Auschwitz-grunge-boy. And wit this epic, an accompanying ENDOSCOPE rock video."
Auschwitz?! Is the terrible and terribly misunderstood specter of Auschwitz (the Nazi death camps) evoked here in the casual manner in which Kurt's journal refers to the "Nuremberg's rallies" (page 102) held in America in the aftermath of its supposed victory in the Gulf War? No, it appears that Kurt is trying to speak as honestly as possible about his condition. "There were many times that I found myself literally incapacitated in bed for weeks vomiting and starving [...] I was literally starving to death" (pages 207 and 208 of the journals).
Agamben reminds us that "Auschwitz" does not simply refer to the horrible spectacle of naked bodies stacked like cordwood. The dead could not have been murdered without first being turned into something else, that is, sub- or non-human beings. And not just sub- or non-human at the level of such abstractions as "civilian," "citizen," "German," or "Aryan" (the realm of politics and the polis) but also at the concrete level of the human body (the realm of naked or bare life). This is Agamben on "the decisive function of the camps in the system of Nazi biopolitics":
"[The camps] are not merely the place of death and extermination; they are also, and above all, the site of the production of the Muselmann, the final biopolitical substance to be isolated in the biological continuum. Beyond the Muselmann lies only the gas chamber." (page 85)
Der Muselmann (literally "the Muslim") was the word -- the argot -- by which other prisoners (or at least the German-speaking Jews) in the camps named the unspeakable person -- the "staggering corpse," one of the "mummy-men, the living dead" (Agamben, 41) -- who had been starved into a state of such advanced malnutrition that he or she was "giving up and was given up [on] by his comrades" (Amery, quoted in Agamben, 41). In the words of Ryn and Klodzinski,
"No one felt compassion for the Muslim, and no one felt sympathy for him either. The other inmates, who continually feared for their lives, did not judge him worthy of being looked at. For the prisoners who collaborated, the Muslims [Muselmanner] were a source of anger and worry; for the SS, they were merely useless garbage. Every group thought only about eliminating them, each in its own way." (quoted in Agamben, 43, emphasis added)
Despite the fact that the production Muselmanner (or the transformation of healthy and sane human beings into Muselmanner) was the decisive function of the camps, the latter have largely remained elusive, not only to understanding, but to perception, too. The very indirectness of the word "Muslim" is telling in this regard: it designates a Semite but not a Jew; a Jew who is no longer Jewish. The irony is ferocious: "the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews" (Agamben, 45), even though they were consigned to Auschwitz precisely because they were Jewish. "Muslim" also carries the stigma or shame of a "foreign" language: not Hebrew, Yiddish or even German, which were the dominant languages in the camps, but Arabic, and so radically 'other.'"
One hears from survivors of the camps that the Muselmanner grimaced, moved very slowly and did not protest; mostly there were silent. Though there are plenty of photographs from 1945 of piles of naked corpses, in and out of pits, there are no pictures of the Muselmanner. Nor any paintings. Agamben writes:
"Aldo Carpi, professor of painting at the Academy of Brera, was deported to Gusen in February 1944, where he remained until May 1945. He managed to survive because the SS began to commission paintings and drawings from him once they discovered his profession. Carpi [...] wanted to paint the actual scenes and figures from the camp. But his commissioners had absolutely no interest in such things; indeed, they did not even tolerate the [very] sight of them. 'No one wants camp scenes and figures,' Capri notes in his diary, 'no one wants to see the Muselmann'" (page 50).
The Muselmann had to be invisible, not simply because individual SS officers found them offensive, disgusting, worthless or simply uninteresting, but because Nazi biopolitics was a spectacular politics: the spectacle of absolute power. It required a kind of blind spot or "black hole" for it to shine. Wolfgang Sofsky writes in The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp:
"The Muselmann embodies the anthropological meaning of absolute power in an especially radical form. Power abrogates itself in the act of killing. The death of the other puts an end to the social relationship. But by starving the other, it gains time. It erects a third realm, a limbo between life and death. Like the pile of corpses, the Muselmanner document the total triumph of power over the human being. Although still nominally alive, they are nameless hulks. In the configuration of their infirmity, as in organized mass murder, the regime realizes its quintessential self." (quote in Agamben, pages 47-48)
In the realization of absolute power as "its quintessential self" (the society of the spectacle), even or especially language is confiscated: the Muselmanner were without "proper" language. In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi remembers a child dubbed Hurbinek.
"Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and had no name; that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralyzed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, as thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency" (quoted in Agamben, page 37, emphasis added).
Agamben recounts that "Now at a certain point Hurbinek begins to repeat a word over and over again, a word that no one in the camp can understand and that Levi doubtfully transcribes as mass-klo or matisko [...] Despite the presence of all the languages of Europe in the camp, Hurbinek's word remains obstinately secret" (page 38). Levi reports, "Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine" (ibid.). Levi survived, not by collaborating with the SS (painting nice pictures), but by collaborating with Hurbinek: Levi had to survive the camps so that he could live to bear witness to Hurbinek's existence, experiences and death. Like the Muselmanner, Hurbinek was a "complete witnesses" to Auschwitz, to the truth of Auschwitz, while survivors such Levi could only ever be partial or indirect witnesses. They did not directly witness the atrocity itself; they witnessed those who did. In a certain way, they were "witness[es] to a missing testimony" (Agamben, 34). In fact, some never testify, never talk about the subject again.
Despite the apparent nobility, dignity or exoticism of being a witness, of living to tell the tale -- despite the cult of the "survivor" (see Greil Marcus' discussion of the bleak state of rock music in the middle of the 1970s) -- Primo Levi noted in The Awakening that shame was a powerful feeling among the prisoners who weren't Muselmanner.
"It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the [completely arbitrary] selection [of who was to die that day], and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man's crime, at the fact that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the word of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have [been] availed in defence" (quoted in Agamben, page 88).
Twenty years later, in The Drowned and the Saved, Levi returned to those who survived the camps, and found that their shame had not ceased, and indeed that shame was now their dominant sentiment. Indeed, there was a lot to be ashamed of: secretly wanting the Muselmanner to be eliminated while they were still "alive"; entering and dwelling in what Levi calls the ethical "gray zone" in which prisoners collaborated with the torturers in order to survive, especially in the Sonderkommando. "And certainly the intimacy that one experiences before one's own unknown murderer is the most extreme intimacy, an intimacy that can as such provoke shame" (Agamben, 104). Even the very fact of surviving, when others -- many, many others -- did not, was perceived as shameful. But the survivors weren't the only ones who were ashamed, or who should have been: the Nazis who perpetrated these crimes against humanity (but had no or "did not know" shame), and all those who failed to stop the Nazis from perpetrating them. In Means Without End (published a few years before Remnants of Auschwitz), Agamben writes: "Primo Levi has shown [...] that there is today  a 'shame of being human,' a shame that in some way or other has tainted every human being. This was -- and still is -- the shame of the camps, the shame of the fact that what should not happen did happen" (page 132).
Who then was Kurt Cobain? He was a kind of Muselmann; he was little Hurbinek if he survived the camps, grew up and became a punk rock musician. This is not a mere pleasantry: it explains a lot, starting with why Kurt Cobain sometimes called himself "Kurdt." He was clearly likening himself to the Kurds, a stateless people who were attacked or abandoned by all sides in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988. The fate of the Kurds remains an urgent matter, twenty years later. (As I write these words, the Turkish military has entered Iraq, a "sovereign" nation, and is slaughtering Kurdish "militants" and "terrorists" at will). One is right to associate the Kurds closely with the Bosnians, Gypsies, Armenians, Palestinians, Basques and Jews of the Diaspora. All of them -- unlike the country of Kuwait, which is a state without a people -- can "be oppressed and exterminated with impunity, so as to make it clear that the destiny of a people can only be state identity and that the concept of people makes sense only if recodified within the concept of citizenship" (Agamben, Means Without End, pages 67-68). There is an awful irony here: it was by diverting Kurt Cobain's "state identity" (his social security number) that thieves were able to rob his estate.
Kurt-as-Hurbinek also sheds an interesting light, not on each and every one of Nirvana's songs -- I'm with Kurt when he says "mistrust All systematizers" in his journals (page 184) -- but on certain ones, especially "Paper Cuts," which contains some of Kurt's most gut-wrenching vocals.
At feeding time
She pushed food through the door
And I crawl towards the crack of light
Sometimes I can't find my way
Newspapers spread around
Soaking all that they can
A cleaning is due again
A good hosing down
The lady whom I feel maternal love for
Cannot look me in the eyes
But I see hers and they are blue
And they cock and twist and masturbate!
I said so (repeat 3X)
Nirvana (repeat 6X)
Black windows of paint
I scratched with my nails
I see others just like me
Why do they not try to escape?
They bring out the older ones
They point at my way
They come with flashing lights
And take my family away
And very later I have learned
To accept some friends of ridicule
My whole existence is for your amusement
And that is why I'm here with you!
To take you with me, you're right
Nirvana (repeat 8X)
Several of the central themes I have identified are here: food and starvation ("sometimes I can't find my way"); spectacle and darkness; shame ("Cannot look me in the eyes") and shameful words and shameful sex ("cock and twist and masturbate"); and even "enjoying" shame ("To accept some friends of ridicule"). But the key detail is the indistinctness of the location. Is it a prison or a concentration camp? A detention camp? Maybe a refugee camp? Just the basement of someone's house? Whatever it is -- and it must be unbearable because the mood and sound the music is as dark heavy, dark and brutal as these musicians could make it -- this place has a name: Nirvana.
The "other side" or the contrary of "Paper Cuts" is Nirvana's best-known song, which is also one of its very best songs, as well: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991). Though the title doesn't appear as one of the song's lines, it opens the song's space: the space of shame. Among teenagers, all smells are (potentially) embarrassing or shameful, but especially those associated with the body's "private parts" (armpits and crotch). Though he didn't know it when he wrote the song -- Kurt got the phrase "smells like teens spirit" from a female punk musician who knew Kurt's ex-girlfriend and who spray painted the phrase "Kurt smells like teen spirit" in his room to remind him that he still smelled like his ex, because she wore "Teen Spirit" deodorant -- "Teen Spirit" was a very recently launched deodorant targeted at "spirited" teens. Kurt thought that "Kurt smells like teen spirit" meant that he was a rebel, that he had the "scent" of a rebel. In either case, his song was a spirited rejection of shame: a refusal to be ashamed, in particular by a certain "dirty word." But that "dirty word" did not refer to the human body or one of its "shameful" or "private" parts or bodily functions. Thanks to the close association in Kurt's journals of the song's lyrics with the phrase "revolutionary debris litters the floor of Wall Street" (page 146), and the idea that, because "This is the first generation that has brought musical unity between them and their Parents. Today There is no generation gap" (page 162), "Revolution is no longer an embarrassement" (page 137), we know that revolution is that "dirty word." The song's celebrated ending ("A denial! A denial! A denial!") is Kurt's way of showing he is not afraid to say.
To conclude: perhaps the most important thing that Kurt-as-Hurbinek provides us with is a clue as to why Nirvana's music was, is, and always will be so appealing to so many people. Not counting the Sex Pistols' brutal, shameful "Belsen Was a Gas" (1977), Nirvana's music was the first to catch up to and express the truth of Auschwitz: Auschwitz isn't in the past; it isn't limited to Nazi Germany; it is here, today, and it is everywhere. That is to say, the production of Muselmanner is still going on. Kurt certainly knew it when he saw it.
"Ethnic cleansing is going on right now in the inner cities of the United States. Blacks, Hispanics and others are being exterminated before they can reach the fifth grade. The Right wing republicans Are responsible for releasing crack and Aids in our inner cities. Their logic is better to kill living breathing, freethinking humans rather than unknowing unstimulated, growing cells, encased in A lukewarm chamber." (Journals, page 273)
And so I say to you, America, that Kurt Cobain wasn't brought back from the dead by identity thieves. He came back because he wanted to; because he knew it was time to take his revenge; because you, America, you deserve to burn; you will burn. Remember Kurt's song "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle"? "She'll come back as fire / Burn all the liars / A blanket of ash on the ground."
What's happened since 5 April 1994? No, that's too easy. Everyone knows that November 1994 (the mid-term Congressional elections, which were swept by reactionary Republicans) began the six-year-long period in which President Bill Clinton was publicly shamed. Then what's happened since 2003? A second war against the people of Iraq; the use of sex to bring about intense shame at Abu Ghraib; the use of waterboarding as a means of interrogating Muslims in secret detention centers; and the construction and operation of "Camp Delta" (otherwise known by its location in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), America's very own concentration camp. What happened in 2006 (the mid-term Congressional elections again)? The voters of America spoke: they wanted an end to all this, immediately, and they voted for Democratic politicians, who quickly, utterly and ignominiously failed to end anything. The war goes on; torture is "not illegal" and can be practiced by "our" forces; Guantanamo Bay remains open. Today, America's shame is a hundred times what it had been just a few years ago. How could America allow that which happened, but which never should have happened, to happen again? And how could it, of all nations, be the one who has made it happen? The only possible answer is that "America" is no longer America; "America" is dead. Think of the TV interview with the policeman in Night of the Living Dead (1968): like any walking corpse or zombie, America will "go up real easy."
-- NOT BORED!
13 March 2008