A generation's voice tells us once again how little we learn

April 15, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

It is a week now since the death of Kurt Cobain, who has already slipped into legend.

Dying young is everything they say about being a great career move.

Nirvana album sales are booming. And middle-aged social critics who knew little of Cobain or his music routinely call him the voice of a generation.

Those most familiar with Cobain say that's everything he wouldn't have wanted. They say he hated the hype. He didn't want to be anyone's voice but his own, and a singularly anguished voice it was.

But the thing about death is that you lose any rights to your future.

Besides, this death was headed in only one direction from the start. I mean, the voice-of-a-generation tag (sounds like a Pepsi commercial, doesn't it?) seems to make great sense, especially if you don't think about it too hard.

Isn't Generation X the one that no longer buys into the American dream, the generation for which despair is considered a real option?

Didn't Cobain's music speak to that despair?

The answer is, of course, yes.

And, of course, no.

Actually, I don't know much about his music. It's not my kind of rock 'n' roll. I'm from the Chuck Berry school -- I need a back-beat, I can't lose it. But I know something of the lyrics and of Cobain's musings on death. They are musings as old as poetry.

It was death that made Cobain more accessible to an older audience.

The story was certainly easy to place. Cobain dies. He dies of his own hand. He dies a heroin user. He dies at 27, like Hendrix and Janis and Jim Morrison before him. He dies after writing lyrics like "I'd rather be dead than cool."

For boomers, there's a certain nostalgia about dying young that, if unspoken, is still undeniable. Tell me: Would you rather be James Dean or Marlon Brando?

For some, Cobain's death gave him a certain almost, well, authority.

But the problem is, defining a generation is not a serious business. Generations are fashion. They're different only in look and feel. Some might live through a war or through a depression or through mood rings. Some might lean more left or right, but that's just politics. The music can be jazz or rap, doesn't matter.

When you're young, romance and despair fit as neatly as life and death. Or they ought to. It's a time to write poetry, drink too much and stay up all night. That's every generation, or the most interesting segments of it, anyway.

What's true is that generations end up the same. Life becomes reduced to the quest for a house with a two-car garage and for a baby-sitter on Saturday night.

What's also true is that generations want to be different, and maybe better. That's what my generation wanted, and you can see what happened.

But certainly self-destructive rock stars can't herald anything new.

A young writer in Seattle discovered the essence of Cobain's death, even before the singer/suicide/voice-of-a-generation had pulled the trigger.

His name is Eric Fredericksen. He wrote about Cobain after the Rome incident, in which Cobain slipped into a coma after taking a lot of drugs. We later learned that, too, was a suicide attempt.

Fredericksen wrote: ". . . what I mostly wish for the tortured artist figures of my time is for them to age ungracefully, not burn out but fade away. We would then hear and see their work itself, not endlessly recount myths about boys who felt too much, who left us while young and beautiful and just beginning to reach for the peak of their art -- the bull -- that prevents a realistic appraisal of all our predecessors' dead, the bull -- that would confirm what many of us already fear: We're no different than anything which came before us."

It's tough being young and having to figure these things out. There's no course in college that quite covers it.

My daughter, who's of Cobain's generation, told me of a piece in her college paper about how the Generation Xers face their own Catch-22.

The idea -- actually, the joke -- behind Generation X is that it doesn't really exist. If you believe it doesn't exist, though, that makes you a Generation Xer.

Cobain probably didn't get the joke. He got all the anguish instead. Like van Gogh. Or Plath. It's an old story. It's still a sad story. Now, it's their story, too.

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