paper angel, rock, scissors: reflections on kurt cobain

Maybe everyone gets a someone like Kurt Cobain in their life. That man or woman who has to be dancing to feel alive in the fire. How much will burn. How much it will hurt. How much can they, can we, can a person take?”


by john brown


Them bones…

You would have to listen with both ears. Filter out the distractions. The deep thump of bass. As the motivating tune gets switched from the boom box of a back room onto an arena P.A.. The eager crowd and the call and repeat of the haggard chorus;

“P ..A..A..AIN” “P.. A..A..AIN.” The encouraging chatter of the entourage as they head towards the ring. The respectful, the curious, the concerned. The pale champion, just a black and white photo now, carried in procession. Hands. Hands everywhere. Palms outstretched needing. They demand more. They deserve more. And then, as the cacophony from the carousel seems to sustain itself, hanging midair, a sound like a kiss, or the backward scrape of scissors blade. You can hear it as loud as can be. As loud as it was before. Pull up a chair. Have the waitress tie your bib. The sucking of them bones has begun, again.

Paper covers Rock

Maybe everyone gets a someone like Kurt Cobain in their life. That man or woman who has to be dancing to feel alive in the fire. How much will burn. How much it will hurt. How much can they, can we, can a person take? We watch while they drift in and out of our life like smoke from a distant blaze. Sometimes it smells good like leaves burning in the backyard of the one happy house on the street. Sometimes it’s like plastic, and hair. To late to worry. Too late for a prayer? So we stand on the curb. Wishing words. Encouragement. We have to love them, from there on the corner, from the crowd, where we just stand.

For someone who has had their feet in the fire, “Heavier than Heaven” (Charles R. Cross Hyperion press) might prove to be, too heavy a read. The pages will stick themselves together. The book will spit out its mark. Opening only to those pages that were hardest to read. To relive. You will keep reading though, bravely stealing yourself against the next scene. Picking away at the dried black and white parts around the wound that you know should be left alone. For those fascinated by broken glass on the highway, for those who like to glue together crimes from the colored pieces, Mr. Cross will walk you through it. Crunching along the same side of the street, on the same sidewalk. Places maybe we have already passed, and nothing ever happened. Let us not even ask, “why.”

As fans or bystanders, we have a couple of questions, but Charles Cross doesn’t try to answer them directly or theorize. He doesn’t stir up a single controversy. There wasn’t one. We knew Kurt. What I was curious about was his relationship with Courtney Love. Did she push him over the edge? Was she at all to blame? Knowing our own personal Kurt, we already have the answer. There is a anecdote that illustrates the answer to that question perfectly. In it Kurt and Courtney are walking the streets of L.A. after shooting up together. In the black hole weight of a heroin high, they come to a dead bird on the sidewalk. Kurt bent down and plucked out three feathers from the thing. One he said was for her. One for him, and one was for the baby they were going to have. These aren’t the things that drug addicts notice, dead things are what make a drug addict stop. For Kurt and Courtney it was a beginning.

Cross is an efficient reporter. With an easy clear and concise manner of speaking that seems to have elicited the same in response to his questions. He begins with the mundane and the ordinary in his queries and leads to the bigger truths of experience. I like that. And God forgive me, this is starting to read like a review. (For a real review buy a New Yorker magazine.) I kept asking myself where he was getting his information. I took notes. It would have been better break tradition and put the source notes up front, they are easily missed back in the index.

We fit relationships into our lives. I’ll love you until death do us part as long as I get what I need. We’ll always need more. We are born incomplete. Christians believe, born separated from God. We bumble and crunch along through life trying to find that lost part. Fitting in pieces that we think will fit. For the Kurt’s in our lives, we hope they will find the person, the peace that will make them complete. That is wrong, but it is something. It’s what we know. Kurt and Courtney were a lot alike. For Kurt, he thought it was Courtney. He was wrong. For awhile, they were the same. Painfully beautiful at times, fragile as the paper angel a child might make for your tree. It’s almost December, 2002, and Kurt Cobain is still dead.

Scissors cut Paper…

Looking at the dead black and white of his eyes, they seem to follow us, as the procession of pain passes. There is a lot of commotion. It’s feels like being back in church as a youth. Parked with my friends on a slippery pew. The bustle and activity of Catholicism. Not quite knowing when to sit, or when to kneel, when to stand. Can I partake in this sacrament? Am I eligible? Prepared. Do I get this grace? When do we get to hear the stories about Jesus. Shoot, what was the page? Do we get to hear more music from Nirvana? Did it all get burned? Did he have his say?

Boomers ask “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Out of vanity I rarely reply. When I do, it’s ” I was like three.” But I do remember. I was in the kitchen, sitting in my high chair. My mother had brought the small black and white and perched it on the back counter, near the door to get some reception. And she cried. She said “my God poor Bob,” “poor Bob is going to be devastated.” The Bob she spoke of was my father. Then the phone rang and she cried. She hung up and went to the neighbors. When she came back, we stayed in the kitchen quietly until my dad came home early. They held each other in the kitchen and cried and cried. The world had gone crazy and I was not afraid. It all seemed so natural. Bad shit happened every day. What was I? I was like three.

Where were you when Kurt Cobain died doesn’t seem so significant. I hope in time that doesn’t change. Where were you when you first heard that voice or smells like teen spirit, maybe a cultural weather vane. Especially now turning on the radio dial seems like in ten years nothing has changed. Four of the top five songs on the charts are from the Seattle scene, back in the day. I’m afraid for what that means. Where was I? Heading for California.

The best out of three….

When you fly into San Francisco, you rarely see much. The Golden Gate yawing over the clouds. The green knob of the peninsula, then, the black canvas of asphalt, color blocked, the artisan economics of transportation. Avis red. Hertz yellow. National green. Chevy. Ford. Chrysler.

In the terminal there’s little to distinguish me from the sea of other business travelers. Lord knows I tried.

Finding a car is easy. Choose the correct colored pick up bay (bus stop), find the lettered lot, identified by the colored square around the lamp post, find the numbered space; “H-lot.” “Please step clear.” Space 34 – white Taurus 4\D #834. I wonder, how many of the keys fit how many of the cars? I fake it, getting into get into the wrong car #835 white Taurus 4\D. Doesn’t fit. It’s oddly comforting. It makes me happy, but a part of me is still in the gray green chill of the Northwest rain with the white noise buzz of road spray under my wheel wells. It’s a Monday and I miss home.

It takes awhile to adjust. The Bay area this time of year. Perhaps any time of year, is, is…nice. 72 degrees. Sun. Uncertain and stuck in traffic I reach for the radio. RADIO. “San Francisco Radio.” Another small comfort to a traveler. The state of radio has been grim. It’s no surprise that “talk radio” is the hot format. There were, as I remember a couple of good stations that would occasionally insert new and local rock acts into their format. To an outsider, that appeared to be part of their radio identity. Something new to bring home would be cool. 105. Point what? The rental car stereo automatically scans blurbs of M.C. Hammer, Whitney Houston, boy bands and the unescapeable country scene that seems so popular again. Then, 105 point? I still can’t remember the rest of the address, or the call letters, but I do remember most of the words I heard that day in 1991; Aberdeen, Olympia Washington and something about Butch Vig. I remember laughing. I had to come 1000 miles to here something new from my own neck of the woods. That laugh turned into a cheer. What I would learn was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” quickly became the missing anthem of my youth. A spitting voice of discontent directed at, almost, everything; the radio, pettiness, prejudice, and especially, at myself. What I was. What I had become. My shitty little goals. My shitty little expectations and the choices that make our cookie cut-out, paint within the lines, predictable and shrinking world go round. Hallehluiah.

Finding the CD proved to be until I got home. I had to describe the lick to the record store kid. The Seventeen year old knew exactly what I was talking about and handed me a copy of Nevermind from a stack right at the counter. He also suggested Bleach, although, as the teen was quick to point out “you couldn’t get it here.” Happy, I rushed from the mall with a new C.D. wrapped in a picture of a naked baby wiggling in the deep end of a pool grasping at a dollar bill. Perfect.

It’s 1991 and punk rock is finally available at the mall. Nirvana.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Three
December 2002



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