Like a lot of people who were moved by Nirvana's music, I was left with profoundly mixed emotions Friday when I heard of Kurt Cobain's suicide. At first, I felt anxious, then upset, then sad. Thinking about what Cobain's wife, singer Courtney Love, must have been going through filled me with sympathy; thinking about what Cobain's 1-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, would face as she grew up just about broke my heart.
But as the weekend wore on, I realized that I was also angry -- not just at those who should have paid closer attention to the singer's suicidal tendencies, but at Cobain himself.
There's a tendency in rock 'n' roll (and rock criticism) to glorify the self-destructive aspects of stardom. All too often, people speak of Keith Moon's drunken excesses or Keith Richard's junkie cool as if there were something wonderfully heroic about self-abuse. Even the sort of deep depression that drove Joy Division's Ian Curtis to take his life is often transformed into morbid romanticism in light of the band's music.
Such thinking is incredibly stupid. Kurt Cobain killed himself because he couldn't stand being alive. Where's the romance in that?
Ironically, part of what made Nirvana important to so many people was the way Cobain's songs helped his audience deal with its own frustration, despair and feelings of worthlessness.
There was solace to be had in the likes of "Come As You Are" and "Lithium" and "All Apologies" -- not just in the lyrics, but in the roar of his guitar and the ragged beauty of his voice.
But that's gone now. Sure, the songs still sound the same, but the comfort they once bore has disappeared, washed away with the knowledge of their author's death.
After all, how could anyone sit through the final "And I swear that I don't have a gun/No, I don't have a gun" chorus to "Come As You Are" without wishing he in fact hadn't had one?
Rolling Stone editor David Fricke made the observation that a large part of Cobain's appeal lay with the fact that "he was his audience" -- that he and his listeners thought the same way, rocked the same way, and hurt the same way. Why couldn't he get the same degree of comfort from us that we got from him?
Instead, the opposite seems to have been the case. Love read excerpts from her husband's suicide note in a taped message that was played at a public memorial in Seattle on Sunday. Part of it consisted of an apology to Nirvana's fans.
"I haven't felt the excitement for too many years now," Cobain wrote. "I feel guilty beyond words about these things . . . The fact is I can't fool you, any of you. It simply isn't fair to you or to me."
Given the wealth he earned and the crowds Nirvana attracted, it may be hard to understand how Cobain could have felt that way. But when you have low self-esteem, fame and success doesn't buoy you up. It makes you feel like a fraud, like you're not fooling anyone. Worse, the louder your fans cheer, the phonier you feel.
Of course, none of us will ever know precisely what made Cobain pull the trigger -- whether it was drugs or depression or marital troubles or even the chronic stomach trouble that plagued him the last couple of years. Nor is it fair to presume we would have made better choices had we been in his place.
But we do know what his music meant to us -- whether it lifted our spirits, gave hope, or merely acted as evidence that there was someone else out there who felt as we did. Maybe that's why I'm just as mad at Cobain as I am sorry for him.
Because if he'd only been able to hear what we heard in his music, maybe his life wouldn't have ended up such a waste.
To hear samples of the music of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6222 after you hear the greeting.