Kurt Cobain would have turned 45 this week. Does he still represent my generation? Did he ever represent my generation? Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” he was writing about Neal Cassidy but if those words represent anyone from Generation X certainly Cobain is the most qualified. For a short period of time he was the cultural touchstone of my generation.
When I think of Cobain I think of the early 90’s, when my friends and I would hang out at the local coffee shop, drinking espresso and playing pinball. Everyone had goatees and wore Doc Martins, everyone wore plaid shorts and t-shirts with the advertising slogans and mascots from a generation before. Irony was at a premium. Obviously the word grunge hung heavy in the air but so did words like disaffected, apathetic, ironic, overeducated and underemployed. We were the children of the Reagan revolution and grew up knowing what a world looked like that contained crack, gangs, homelessness and AIDS. We were perhaps the first generation born that knew we were haunted by the original sin of our parents. And yet, when we chose to select the man whose face would forever be associated with our generation we chose Cobain. Cobain was the antithesis of the generation before him and us. John Lennon could have written a canon about the ills left by Reagan and his cronies. Instead, Nirvana’s most famous lyric? “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us, I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us.”
At 45 would Cobain still have wanted to be represented by that song? At 45 what would he have thought of the generation that chose him as their figure head? At 45 would he still choose irony over substance? At 40 did this song ever represent me? Would I care about Cobain and what he thought? Would the world even care about Cobain anymore?
Funny thing about most of the artists that were supposed to have represented my generation—rather than burn out most of them faded away. We don’t hear much from Douglas Coupland anymore, Beck might still be singing about how he’s a loser but if he is it’s to a much smaller crowd, Johnny Depp’s making kids movies! If Cobain hadn’t offed himself (or to be more conspiratorial—have been killed by Courtney Love to cash in on his royalties for all eternity) I’m not sure he’d have had much staying power. His biggest probably would have been the same that it is now—David Grohl’s Foo Fighters, a band that’s had a much bigger impact on modern music than Nirvana did. I digress though.
To me Cobain is more a memory stick than anything else, a marker for the past. I think for a brief period of time we all thought that the world we were going to live in was going to end up much hipper than it is. We were going to tear down the constructs created in our parents world, we were all going to gulp coffee while riding in eco-friendly trains. We would answer questions ironically and prove how hip we were by discussing what Lollapaloozas we attended. Turns out that Lollapalooza went belly up and Cobain ended up with a self inflicted hole in his head (or, as I said, a hole put there by his widow). We grew up, got jobs and had kids. The pressure of the world got to us and the need to get to work in a timely manner have forced us to drive cars that gobble oil and gas. Turns out the world isn’t much different than the one we were born into.
At some point my son is going to grow up and his generation is going to have idols. They’re going to feel their pain so deep and write about it and sing about it in coffee houses or internet cafes or virtual coffee cafes; they’re going to be convinced that they’ll change the world; they’re going to think their irony is so much cooler than it is…and then…they’re going to get jobs, get married, have kids, trade their combat boots for dress shoes and their plaid shorts for suits. The world will keep spinning, gas prices will keep going up and Kurt Cobain’s face will continue to be on the side of purses and the front t-shirts. On second thought, maybe not being John Lennon and standing for anything means he can stand for anything, how ironic.