“Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent” – Calvin Coolidge
I, like you I’m sure, had always heard about the 60′s as a crazy time, with phrases such as ‘Hey, I survived the 60′s’ or ‘Well, it was the 60′s’ indicating that this was indeed a period of much nuttiness, but it wasn’t until recently that I truly grasped what happened during this much-discussed decade.
After picking up the excellent and engrossing book ‘Storming Heaven’ by Jay Stevens, my mind was blown at the reality of the social movement spawned from those years. Ever since I found a personal revelation in psilocybin mushrooms, I’ve had an image in my mind of an entertainer who preached the usage of them as a lifestyle conversion, roaming around the country attempting to enlighten and evolve our species through ingesting them and seeing the light. The idea seemed exciting, dangerous and ripe with truth underneath its burning sensationalism.
Lo and behold, this was something that Timothy Leary had already done with LSD decades upon decades before the idea was even gestating in my head (no idea’s original, kids). It wasn’t the fact that he’d already done it that resonated so deeply with me, it was how far he’d taken it.
‘Storming Heaven’ left my jaw agape as I flipped through page after page documenting what happened when, for a moment in time, it seemed as if this bizarre counterculture movement was actually picking up steam, and that the love-and-idealism-drenched hippies were actually…winning?!
Hunter S. Thompson’s painfully beautiful and concise Wave Speech from ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ sums up this phenomenon better than I ever could, but suffice to say it was a unique, surreal, and radiant moment that slipped away all too quickly under the weight and pull of the natural order of things. Imagine it! An entire nation living in fear that the psychedelic mentality was taking over, that peace and love and every other simple concept that seems to continually elude us were actually worming their way into the national collective consciousness. It must have been, as Hunter put it, ‘a very special time and place to be a part of’.
A while back, a friend of mine who was never really a fan asked me why exactly I was so obsessed with Kurt Cobain. It was one of those interesting moments where a question is so dripping with potential for you to operate and rant inside of your passionate wheelhouse that it seems almost sexual to ask it.
I had to pause and wonder myself. Obsessing over and preaching about Cobain had become as commonplace as going to the bathroom for me: you don’t think about it; it’s just something you do. My mind raced through the various reasons I might have chosen to bestow such a religious-like reverence for this particular fallen icon.
Should I talk about the scream that seemed to be a living thing, crawling and squirming its way out of Kurt’s throat, much to his own discomfort, entering this world like a missile of raw angst and truth? Perhaps the innate, tribal quality of the music, with its power-chord-simplicity and fuzzbox crunch, seemingly made to inspire an organic bout of gleeful teenage-level moshing as much as pornography is meant to inspire an erection? Or maybe discuss the inspiration I got from how much art meant to Kurt, a feeling that’s only grown brighter in the face of a pop music scene overly concerned with material gloss and pre-approved radio hits?
While all of those are legitimate reasons, I don’t believe they hit the nail on the head of why, in the end, I feel he is deserving of such attention. No, the real reason for Kurt’s appeal lies in going back to the 60′s example – it was a beautiful moment that wasn’t supposed to happen.
If you really think about the way of the world, Kurt shouldn’t have been successful. A scrawny, whiny, hypersensitive, depressed, sickness-ridden, artsy idealist, he seemed like a melting pot of every characteristic that was looked down upon by the go getters. With a permanent unshaven stubble, messy, long, unwashed hair, and a wardrobe just a few holes in the jeans short of homeless, he didn’t look like a star, he looked like someone that should have been playing guitar in the middle of a park with a hat out to drop spare change into. Parents should have walked by him with their kids and said, “Look there. You work hard in life or you’ll end up like him.”
Except he wasn’t that. He was a star. He was omnipresent on magazine covers and MTV. Star wasn’t even a strong enough term. In his time, he was ‘it’, that person with the undeniable, undefinable X factor who descended upon the culture like a tsunami, changing and influencing it. Here was, like in the 60′s, a society abuzz with the ideas normally reserved for the underdogs and the forgotten. Here was a man who introduced art and commercialism and actually got them to shake hands. To see Nirvana sweep the glam metal bands of the 80′s off the charts was to see the Free Love movement gain enough momentum to worry the suits.
It wasn’t Kurt’s talent that was special, it was the position it got him to. Sure, Kurt had raw, throbbing passion, but so do a lot of other artists. Go support your local music scene enough and I guarantee you you’ll find Cobains. I know Cobains. I am a Cobain. The difference is you’ll mostly see these people screaming their lungs out in dive bars and going back to day jobs, as opposed to being plastered on every entertainment medium possible and heralded as cultural game changers.
As time passes, I think it’s easy to see that we haven’t seen a superstar like Kurt since his death. Everyone I see nowadays has at least a hint of commercial sheen and polish. There is always a sense that they have been groomed a bit with an eye towards making an appealing product. Even Eminem, who experienced a very similar zeitgeisty moment, has always, despite his obvious talent and passion, been a keen observer of what would help his medicine go down with the general public, something that has become all the more noticeable in recent years (teaming up with Rihanna). While Kurt definitely had a brain that was always thinking about this as well, his music seemed more like an asteroid that struck the Earth completely by surprise, a natural disaster we all had to learn to live with, as opposed to a carefully calculated product.
Nowadays, with online pirating almost completely destroying the music business, everyone is terrified of not conforming to the set-in-stone formula for commercial success. Wanting to save music is looked at as moronic, anti-business idealism. But those of us who grew up in the 90′s were lucky enough to witness a period where, perhaps due damn near entirely to Mr. Cobain, being artsy was in, was popular, was the thing to do, so much so that in the end he couldn’t take the pop culture phenomenon his angst had become and ended his life. We got to see what it was like when someone who actually gave a shit about art had the limelight’s harsh glow cast upon him, and it created a moment that was very special to be a part of.
If you weren’t there to experience it firsthand, it might be hard to explain, but it was never Kurt’s angsty, artsy, cerebral loner aura that got us hooked. It was the beauty of actually being able to witness, for a brief moment in time, what it looked like when that artsy loner was, by some weird momentary glitch in the system, voted Prom King, the crown looking glorious on top of his unkempt head before the system corrected itself and snatched it back, placing it once again on top of the skull of a popular jock.
I’m obsessed with Kurt because he proves, just like the 60′s did, that every once in a while, the stupid idealists might just come close to winning, that the system is occasionally beaten, and that you can actually witness magic happen in this world, albeit all too brief and temporary.
Long live the King.