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Kurt Cobain’s Journals Reveal a Man Worthy of No Admiration

Kurt Cobain, the front man of the groundbreaking 1990s Seattle grunge band Nirvana has been considered the “spokesman for a generation” though his fame only lasted for roughly two and a half years before his inevitable 1994 suicide. His music was revolutionary and his fashion quickly became imitated by the mainstream, but Cobain was far from worthy of adulation. He was an extremely troubled person. He was depressed and angry, narcissistic, hateful, antisocial, poorly educated, hypocritical and self destructive with a major drug addiction, but a knack for writing catchy tunes.

I’ve always liked Nirvana’s music, but I’ve never cared much for Cobain as a person. I did eventually acquire all five Nirvana albums, but I have never worn their t-shirt. I say this to illustrate that I’m not just some Nirvana hater. I can separate the man from the music, and this article is about the man as he chose to present himself, his thoughts, ideas and values in his own words. I just don’t think there is much to admire about Kurt Cobain outside of his musical success. That was my opinion at the height of his fame, and after reading his “Journals,” published in 2002, that opinion wasn’t changed. It simply provided more evidence and details to confirm my earliest thoughts.

The Positive

I’ll begin with a positive note regarding what was admirable about Cobain. He was driven and he did seem to have a plan which he followed unwaveringly to eventual commercial success. He did what a lot of musicians and bands don’t do but should; he wrote out his vision for Nirvana. He crafted his business mission statement as it was – he thought out his distinct musical identity, his image and the values he wanted to project. He clearly identified his influences and what he wanted to influence his music. He wrote out steps and tactics in his journals. He thought about distribution, exposure, and reaching fans in an era before the internet made this much easier. He didn’t just do this once; as time went by he revisited and revised his plan as he figured out more about his tastes, styles and abilities instead of just drifting aimlessly in a chaotic musical landscape. Sadly, however this one paragraph is all that I found admirable in Cobain’s journals. The rest of his character was tragically flawed, and ventured into dark and evil places.

Obsessed with Grief

The most noticeable character trait displayed in Cobain’s journals is his overwhelming obsession with grief. His early preoccupation with suicide is evident by page 5, written no later than 1989, exclaiming “kill yourself,” a sentiment that is repeated multiple times throughout the Journals. He was fixated on everything “bad” to the point it seems he had no room left in him for joy. He hated everything. He hated himself. He was ashamed to be white, ashamed to be male, and ashamed to be American. I think this grief and self-hatred is the root of all his many other issues. When a person hates himself it leads to an inability to enjoy anything. It leads to nihilism, self abuse and eventually if left untreated to complete self destruction. Kurt Cobain eventually became dark, uninspired, and hopeless.

Obsessed with Division

Cobain was obsessed with creating division in the world. Though he portrayed himself as an advocate for love, tolerance and inclusion, it’s obvious he thrived on strife and division. He was especially preoccupied with creating division between the generations. This seems to originate from his personal issues with his own parents and upbringing. He wasn’t satisfied with his own sense of isolation; he wanted everyone else to feel that isolation too. He hated his parents therefore everyone of his generation should also hate their parents. Misery loves company.

Rape Fetish

Cobain was obsessed with rape, conflating it with traditional masculine sexuality to which he claimed to be opposed. He mentions rape repeatedly. He even imagines himself as a rapist, and writes about a time in high school when he tried to take advantage of a young girl who was considered “retarded,” though supposedly undiagnosed. At a later point he decided it was Nirvana’s job to “teach boys not to rape.” Apparently his method was to write songs like “Polly” and “Rape Me” that are so ineffectual they sound as if they are romanticizing rape. He later acted perplexed when listeners didn’t comprehend these were supposedly “anti-rape” songs.

Between pages 90 and 95 Cobain wrote the most bizarre part of his journals, a story about a fictional serial murderer, rapist a child molester he named Chuck Taylor. Apparently Chuck became this monster due to his father’s influence. It includes a very graphic scene in which Chuck is forced to watch as his father beats, rapes and sodomizes his mother while extolling the virtues of being a “man” and abusing women. In another entry (pg 109) he says he likes to make incisions on an infants’ stomach and then “fuck the incision until the child dies.” It’s another peek into Kurt Cobain’s grotesque dysfunction.

I got the sense that Cobain had a rape and murder fetish that haunted him, contributing to his self-hatred. He related this to himself “as a man,” and projected that upon the idea of masculinity. Since he saw “right wingers” as representing traditional masculinity he could project his sickness and self-hatred onto them as an “other” thereby gaining a false sense of virtue and self-righteousness for hating them instead of addressing his own demons.

Hypocrisy, Self-delusion and Terrorist Advocacy

Hypocrisy was another of Kurt Cobain’s worst traits. In multiple entries, Cobain says that to him “punk rock means freedom.” It’s another recurring thought in his journals. This would seem to be a motive for his hatred for “right-wingers,” because he saw them as trying to restrict his freedoms through pro-life and other religiously based legislation. But he wasn’t very considerate of other people who chose to live in a manner in which he disapproved.

There are multiple entries in which Cobain expressly advocates for and glorifies Left-wing terrorism. Amongst the many examples of people Cobain said he wanted to kill, he wrote a disturbing passage describing how he wanted to go through high schools and put guns to the heads of popular kids and force them to renounced their “gluttonous” lifestyle or be killed (132). He didn’t write this as a frustrated teenager. He was a grown man well into his twenties expressing a desire to murder kids who simply used their freedom to make different choices than he made. Here, Kurt Cobain’s reoccurring hypocrisy is on full display in one of the most disgusting of ways.

Cobain’s writings also show a strange obsession with the KKK and outlandish caricatures of “right wingers” and misogynists. He really was a product of the west-coast’s socio-political atmosphere and ideology which helped warp him into someone who seemed to be barely clinging to his humanity.

Cobain’s self-delusion is most evident when he wrote about his place in the music industry. Of course he wanted to be successful as a musician, but he felt guilty for that so he tried to rationalize his ambition to fit his radical ideology. Rather than honestly admitting he was desirous of fame and fortune, he instead tried to portray his major-label aspirations as some form of punk-rock Trojan horse strategy. He liked to say he was working on the inside to “rot” and destroy the industry, while in reality he was sitting as the cherry on top of Geffen Records, raking in all that gluttonous money he wanted to shoot children for enjoying.

He liked to pretend that he was in polar opposition to the rockstar excesses of the 1980s, but that was really just his form of gluttonous stardom. He wasn’t the wild, pussy slaying, private jet flying party animal. Instead he portrayed himself as the neopunk rock star; prepackaged rebellion, and feigned social consciousness. He knew he was playing a role that didn’t align with his real identity, and he felt pressured by the image he constructed of himself. That kind of cognitive dissonance must certainly be hard to live with.


Lack of Depth

There was a common misconception in the 1990’s that Cobain’s lyrics were mystical script of otherworldly genius that had to be decoded in order to truly perceive their great depth. I never bought it. While I could enjoy the energy of his music, I always thought his lyrics were haphazardly written, sloppily thrown together into a reckless word-salad. In his journals and other interviews he clearly reveals that his lyrics were quite often retched out at the last minute or adlibbed onstage until something stuck. He was frustrated by people who tried to analyze his lyrics because he knew there was nothing there worth analyzing. Cobain’s lyrics seem disjointed and jumbled because they are disjointed and jumbled. He mumbled and slurred a lot of his words because it really doesn’t matter if you understand them. Don’t look for depth and insight in Cobain’s lyrics because there is none.

He Loved His Ignorance

One of the more disappointing aspects of Cobain’s personality is that he preferred to remain ignorant. He mentions repetitively that he is not particularly well educated, and the grammar, and spelling throughout his journals is evidence enough of this. He wrote “I purposefully keep myself naïve and away from earthly information because it’s the only way to avoid a jaded attitude” (pg 125). That’s just dumb. Cobain liked to have strong opinions that resulted in a radical ideology and violent attitude, but didn’t want to actually have the knowledge by which to evaluate those ideas. He preferred to keep his miseducated opinions that fueled his desire to murder children because it made him feel good. Kurt Cobain was an idiot.

To go along with his multiple displays of ignorance and irrationality, Cobain liked to disparage musicians who actually bothered to learn music. He specifically ridiculed Eric Clapton who not only helped to forge modern rock and roll, but also managed to survive the test of time even while battling the same vices (heroin) that Cobain was too weak to overcome. Cobain regurgitated the same clichéd wannabe punk rock jargon that music theory is “bullshit.” The irony seems lost on him when he also complains about not being a very prolific songwriter. He never made the connection that music theory gives a person more tools to work with to create more original music instead of rewriting the same song over and over again while feeling like a fraud. Cobain’s inability to write new, significant music after “In Utero” contributed to his final mental breakdown and eventual suicide. It’s an example of how Cobain consistently made decisions and embraced attitudes that lead him steadily down a path of self-destruction.

To his credit, I suppose, Cobain knew all this about himself and through all his ignorance, hypocrisy, self-deception, delusions and his antisocial personality he freely admitted it. He told us as much in his lyrics.

“I’m a negative creep”
“I’m a liar and a thief”
“I think I’m dumb”
“I hate myself and I want to die.”

Rooted in self-hatred, fear, ignorance, left wing politics and drugs every decision he made was another step toward his early suicide.

Maya Angelou said “When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” Kurt Cobain showed us time and time over again. There is nothing there to be admired.


Keith Richards: Life, a Candid Autobiography

Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography Life is a solid exposé and memoir on the life lived by the Rolling Stones guitarist. Weighing in at 547 pages of narrative, it’s clear that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer intends for the reader to come away with a full picture of himself, not just as a founding member of one of the greatest rock bands in history, but as an individual apart from that legend.

The autobiography kicks off with a scandalous story from the road of when Keith and Stones’ rhythm guitarist Ronnie Wood were arrested with a number of illegal substances in Fordyce, Arkansas in 1975. It’s one of the more exciting stories in the book and it sets the tone for numerous tales of drugs and legal issues to follow it.

After that, Life immediately shifts to Keith’s childhood, adolescence until he meets and begins playing music with Mick Jagger (p. 77). This was the hardest part of the book for me to get through. It seemed overburdened with trivial details about Keith Richards the child. While some meaningful events and information is relayed her such as his initial introduction to music and guitar a lot of it seemed unnecessary, but then it is the story of his life, not just of his adult music career.

This makes for an autobiography that is well balanced between the author’s personal life and ideas and his superstar music career. It’s not written in a manner that tries to glorify the rock and roll lifestyle or to revel in fame, but it doesn’t shy away from it or wrap itself in false humility. Keith opens up and tells us quite a lot of personal information about himself, his origins, his philosophies, his loves, his strengths, and his weaknesses. He writes intently on the subject of music and how he came to it with passion, the origins or the Rolling Stones, his often adversarial friendship with lead singer Mick Jagger, his addiction, resulting arrests and subsequent rehabilitation.

The book is chocked full of stories and candid details. Some of the points I liked the most include the following.


The Rolling Stones didn’t write their first song until 1963 when their manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked Keith and Mick in a kitchen together in Willesden and told them to “come up with a song.” Before that, Keith thought songwriting was someone else’s job. This is easy enough to understand since up until this time in music history it was very common for the songwriters to be different people from the performers. Truthfully before the Beatles made it fashionable popular bands rarely composed any of their own music.

Keith makes it quite clear that there was never any rivalry between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, or between any of their respective members. They were friends. Keith refers to the two bands as being a “mutual-admiration society.” He even says that they would call each other up and plan their single releases so to not compete with each other (pg 141). Any amount of rivalry that may have seemed to exist was nothing more than media hype.

As mentioned above, Keith speaks very candidly about his drug addiction. Early on in his life, Keith experimented with recreational drugs, alcohol and cannabis. He was introduced to amphetamines while on tour in the US with R&B acts including Little Richard and Bo Diddly. He talks a bit about LSD in the 60s and a particular three-day trip he took with John Lennon which was so significant that neither of them could quite remember what all had happened. His terrible addiction to heroin however came about in a far less cavalier manner. It happened the same way it seems to happen with the opiate epidemic plaguing the US today; from an injury and overmedication. He was in a car wreck and afterward was in such pain, having a nurse come to clean his wounds everyday that he was prescribed morphine. After several weeks on the drug he became hooked. When the doctor took him off the medication he had severe withdrawals which he treated with underground opiates and eventually heroin which he continues using for the next several years.

I really love that Keith talks about his experiences with Reggae and Rastafarians in Jamaica where he lived for some time. He speaks very highly of the culture, philosophy and most especially the music of the Rastas he became friends with, and how that was a major influence on him and helped him get his head straight from years of excess.

If gleaned properly there is probably a solid handbook’s worth of advice and information on beginning in music, theories on how to approach playing guitar, songwriting, performing live, recording and band dynamics. Keith doesn’t come across with any rock star pretentiousness to speak of. He does get a little preachy and high minded at points, but otherwise stays well-grounded even when telling tales of times when Keith was anything but grounded.

Life is a thorough trek through the years of Keith Richard’s history. It’s sometimes a little wordy, a bit snide, and long. It isn’t always a page turner, but it does hold a reader’s attention fairly well and it delivers all the juicy, candid details a fan of the Rolling Stones, or just rock and roll history will enjoy.


Dr. John: Under a Hoodoo Moon, Review

The funky bluesman Mac Rebennack, otherwise known by his stage name Dr. John is a much-honored part of the cultural fabric that is 20th and 21st century New Orleans.  His autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon chronicles Rebennack’s life from his time as a child coming of age in The Big Easy, through a young struggling musician’s career, and eventually building a legacy as one of America’s most treasured musical icons.

Under a Hoodoo Moon is written in a loose manner with a bit of Rebennack’s New Orleans vernacular, giving it a sense of authenticity and the playfulness that is characteristic of funk music in general and New Orleans music specifically.  The book for the most part follows a linear path, but it repeatedly backtracks to cover stories that Rebennack decided were more relevant at a later point in time. In some cases this seems like a less efficient method, but it does not detract from the overall presentation.

At times Rebennack’s story seems to focus more on the development of his career, business associations, projects and the politics surrounding the music industry, without any emphasis on the personal, philosophical, emotional and inspirational experiences that contributed to the making of the man.  Then he very candidly writes about his struggle with heroin addiction that plagued him for thirty years until he finally kicked it in 1989, but not before doing a stint in Louisiana “Angola” State Penitentiary.  In his writings, it seems Dr. John tended to compartmentalize his professional activities from his more illicit affairs. He introduces the reader to an assortment of characters, hustlers, and junkies along with the musicians he calls family.

In his early days, Rebennack paid the bills by gigging with racially integrated bands at a point in American history when such groups were technically outlawed, and by working as a session musician for countless popular acts. He paints a picture of a golden era of New Orleans music in the 1950s and early 60s before the musicians unions caused so many problems which drove national recording acts to take their business to other cities such as Memphis and Los Angeles.

In 1965, after Rebennack was released from prison, with the music scene dead in New Orleans he too set out for the west coast.  In California he made contact with several colleagues from back home and began working as a session musician with many of the top acts of the day.  These included The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Sonny and Cher, the O’Jays, Frank Zappa, and Iron Butterfly just to name a few. Dr. John offers some interesting and often humorous observations about some of these acts and his experiences working with them.

During his tenure in Hollywood Rebennack created and adopted the persona of Dr. John, a New Orleans hoodoo medicine man from the 1860s and recorded his ground-breaking Gris Gris album. This is a point in the story where more strictness toward a linear narrative would have improved upon this biography.

Though Dr. John rose to fame on the popularity of Gris Gris with all its voodoo and hoodoo imagery, there is very little in the first two-thirds of the book about his experiences with those traditions.  Up until this point what is mentioned amounts to a brief reference to making goofer dust, a companion burning a black candle to curse the police during a drug score, and more humorously a brief description of a joint ritual in California with another musician who practiced Aleister Crowley styled ceremonial magic in order to curse a producer who had screwed them both in a deal.  It’s not until chapter nine, well after he covers the recording of Gris Gris that Dr. John goes into any detail about his personal connection to a Voodoo temple, and his investment in a voodoo curio shop in New Orleans which really inspired the album.

Under a Hoodoo Moon is a great read, and also provides a fair bit of ethnographic gems covering the roots of the New Orleans musical tradition. He describes his first experiences with the Black Indian Tribes, Mardi Gras Krewes that competed for marching routes during the annual Mardi Gras festivities and pioneered second-line drumming that gives New Orleans music much of its uniqueness.  He also dedicates a significant chunk near the end of the book to speaking nostalgically and reverentially about his time playing with Professor Longhair, the New Orleans pianist who had more influence upon him than anyone else.

I enjoyed reading every page.

          


First Fieldwork; the misadventures of an anthropologist

First Fieldwork; the misadventures of an anthropologist by Barbara Gallatin Anderson

First Fieldwork is a first-person account of the author, Barbara Anderson’s experiences and misfortunes as an anthropologist in the field during her graduate thesis.  Although fictionalized, it is a clear testament to the perils of being an anthropologist thrust unprepared into the field.

During her fieldwork studying the effects of urbanization upon a small Danish Island village, Anderson is faced with challenge after challenge to fitting into the regular patterns and expectations of the people.  From the beginning she nearly catches her family’s cottage on fire.  As a means of better adjusting to the community she takes a cooking class, only to quit the course due to a series of embarrassing episodes beginning with a disastrous meatloaf resulting form her mistaking the Danish word for flour for the word for sugar.

        

I was especially amused by the chapter about the Danish bathhouse in Copenhagen.  A situation like this, without much knowledge of the culture or the language is a perfect example of just how alien one can be even within another Western country.  And just as the bath attendant announced to the other patrons in the pool as Anderson entered; “Here comes an American lady” could just as easily have been the second title for this book, perhaps with “Look out!” preceding it.

Overall First Fieldwork was an entertaining read with insights into fieldwork and the potential problems to be encountered as profound as they are humorous.  The lesson for me was that although fieldwork can include a series of embarrassing and uncomfortable events, it is often those very things that can be of the most value in learning to effectively navigate and describe a culture.