When you’re a kid, you don't know anything about the world and you're blissful because of it. Then you become a teenager and still you don't know much about the world, but now you're angry because of it. Eventually, life drags you into adulthood and still you don't fully comprehend the world, but now you're probably just too complacent to care. Kurt Cobain entered my life during this second stage, when I was angry, alienated and confused about the meaning of my existence. At least in this sense, we had a lot in common.
It was because of his rock band Nirvana that I first picked up a guitar and understood the true liberating power of music. Kurt subscribed to the classic punk ethos that all an artist really needs is to find his voice, have a message to convey and do it with passion. Technical wizardry was not necessarily required and sometimes it could even be detrimental. If life is a pursuit of meaning, then the ultimate objective of an artist is to connect with a fellow human being by expressing something meaningful about the human condition. Make no mistake: if you can feel pain, others can too. There is a special way in which only art can lessen the burden and, in true divine democratic fashion, there is a spark of artistic beauty in each and every one of us. We just need to learn how to express it.
Then on April 8th, 1994, all of the above came crashing down. Kurt Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at his home in Seattle. I remember the restless quietude of an empty apartment, the first solitary night of many solitary years. My parents gone for reasons I cannot recall. The omnipresent oracle of digital truth was not yet taking questions from the public. All I had left was the analog alternative once called the TV. I was left in shock watching flickering images I could no longer decipher, pupils dilating to embrace the light of a world I desperately wanted to ignore, hearing dissonant sounds that no longer carried any meaning, gyrating in space and time as I silently asked myself what exactly had I just seen. I dared not call anyone. In fact, I detached the phone cord from the wall. Why underestimate the power of denial? I decided to wait for the late night newscast. This just could not be. It just could not be. But it was.
Those who saw me in High School that semester witnessed the miracle of a walking corpse attending a funeral procession. My gaze never raised beyond ground level, my eyes a prison for tears, my voice muted in class, the silence invading my ears. I walked through crowds in empty hallways; I was indifferent to the objections of peers. The day a mythological maze, the night a monastery of fear. Lament for all that was gone, lament for all that would never be. Twin brothers who overtly conspired, never again, to set me free. All for a mentor I never met, all for words imprisoned in me. All for the music that said, it’s alright to disagree.
This sonant funeral procession only ended when colorful memories reappeared. Life was not a litany of sorrows, a litany of sorrows it could never be. For the music in so many ways, had in my heart, spoken to me. It reached out during my adolescence and taught me it is all right, to be free. If they call you an outcast, occasionally alienated from your midst, remember that sheep were meant to follow; human beings were meant to lead. Don’t define yourself tomorrow; define yourself today. All they offer you is a hollow, sense of social acceptance, anyway. This is what Kurt taught me, this is the choice I made. This is the choice before you, this is the music I played. A morphine drip and an adrenaline rush, both calming and insane.
And so his music continued, in good times and in bad, but the admiration that I nurtured for him eventually began to erode, for reasons I couldn't fully grasp. Then one day, a close college friend dropped the bomb:
- "Andre, how long will you live in denial? You're talking about a selfish man, addicted to drugs, who abandoned a wife, child, friends and family, walked away from a successful musical career and wrought untold emotional damage on thousands of fans across the world. This is the man who you're putting on a pedestal? A man who became an icon of death in the longstanding Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, live fast, die young rock and roll tradition?"
Silence. This was my muted response to his question. I knew there were almost three times more suicides than homicides in the land of the American dream. But what did I really know about suicide? What had Hemingway taught me? Before his final farewell to arms, the weary soldier waged a losing battle on two fronts: while his ailing body conspired against his once adventurous lifestyle, interminable unwanted bouts of electroconvulsive therapy racked his mind, crippling his creative swagger. This shocking torment effaced his memory. It was responsible for a genocide of characters, the carpet-bombing of settings, the unlawful incarceration of words and the obliteration of entire plots. Upon his release from hospital, his parting words to his psychiatrist could not conceal his acrid disillusionment: “It was a brilliant cure, but we lost the patient.” A few days later, the soldier was a soldier no more.
The Hemingway family curse had lived on. Five members of his family having taken their lives over the course of four generations. This could not have been a genealogical coincidence. Would the battle-scarred veteran have swallowed that shotgun barrel had it not been the familial precedents once set? The same somber question applied to Kurt. Three of his relatives had taken their lives, his great-grandfather having done so in front of his own family. This foreboding history of violence led me to one sobering realization.
When someone you care about commits suicide, he opens an infernal portal into your life. From that point on, the idea is planted deep inside your subconscious mind that if the pain is ever too great, there is always a way out. Nobody who cares about you should ever open that portal. I felt defenseless before my friend’s searing accusation. Grasping for words, only reticent bitterness and disappointment came to my aid. I felt guilty as charged, the walls of silence closing in.
Several years later, during the 20th anniversary of Kurt’s death, I found myself absorbed in a moment of quiet contemplation. So much had changed, but so much remained the same. He had lived before the internet, before 9/11, before the mindless oil grab in Iraq, before the financial meltdown, before the Arab Spring, before the election of Barak Obama, before the war on terror became a war on privacy, before the rise of smartphones and social media. He had lived before it all, in a world that no longer existed.
Despite all this, the fundamentals of life remained the same. The dictionary was not the only place where the primordial definitions of human emotions remained unaltered. Nirvana’s music still smelled like teen spirit, Hemingway’s epic battle with the sea still captivated readers’ attention. A world transformed, hearts unchanged. As Kurt himself once sang, “All in all is all we are.”
But what had I become? A living music video for a collage of prescient classic rock songs. I had exchanged a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage. I had been shown a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical. Always running around to catch up a sun that was sinking. These are the exact lyrics from the songs alluded to. If ownership lines seem blurred it is only because these words became such an integral part of my world, that the absence of quotations seems justified. Legal ownership is not under dispute, but existential entitlement is. One that I so desperately wanted to avoid.
It now occurred to me that the origin of my malaise was that caustic question my friend once asked. The question that had gone unanswered for so long. An ancient wall of silence erected at great personal expense. A hermetic enclosure I now tried to tear down, conscripting old memories to my aid. In Kurt’s suicide note, he insinuated that his belief in the liberating power of personal artistic self-expression had been utterly shattered. His final words did not quarantine his contagious disillusionment. As I unpacked my new music player, a solemn truth was heard: my old guitar and I estranged, an old couple at loss for words. I had become a muted listener, one who just had to let it go. In a world that worships money, who values art over gold? The artist merely a servant, his voice a whore, his freedom sold. I exchanged inner peace and quiet, for the extraordinary desire, to ascend a social ladder that only took me down. Down a pit of sorrows, happiness a distant tomorrow, priced and tagged, displayed for show.
Never mind a pound of flesh, the price of silence had been my soul. An infuriating emptiness, a dark long winding road. When the world screamed at me, I could no longer scream back. As I reached for my old guitar, I had an enemy to attack. Abandon an instrument a week, and it abandons you a month. Reconciliation always seeks atonement for past wrongs. Life is never bleak, if the music remains strong. My swagger only returned when I finally regained my song. But if the music is to continue, there is a debate not to prolong. A question to be answered: fallen men to be reborn.
To live in denial, is to deny life itself. The dark epilogue of a man’s life, should not condemn all light to hell. A paragon of virtue, he most certainly was not, cast the first stone if forgive him you cannot. He was a sensitive artist, but so blind he could not see, all those destined to love him, now, forever, eternally. In a moment of solitary desperation, what he did he never should. But he taught me in death, what in life he never could. If you can learn from the mistakes of others, then the darkness in their lives, had a purpose that transcended, the limitations of their light.