Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago this week—just before the internet became a part of our daily lives. Yet here I am, still clacking away my grief online.
“There’s been something on the radio. They found him at his house. Kurt Cobain died.”
And my hand covered my mouth, my face puckered, everything went whoosh and I fell to my hands and knees on the showroom floor. The co-worker who delivered this news, who was new to America and presumably new to Nirvana and all things noisy and unwashed, looked at me with a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. Who is smacked over with shock and grief by the death of a rock star?
No, the the shotgun blast that spattered our junkie prince birthed a new sound that was a whoosh, a yodeling ping, a blast of static. . .
What my co-worker didn’t know or understand is that I loved Kurt Cobain and yet I never met the man; I never even saw him play live. I reacted to his death the same way I reacted to my brother’s sudden death, which had knocked me down eight years before.
That Friday we got the news was the second and last time I was kicked by that kind of grief. It also was the last time I would sob over thwarted hero worship. When you are the same age as your favorite band, it’s your time. Well, my time was over. Some other time was coming in the wake of the dead star.
Cobain’s death wasn’t like my mother crying over her handle of Gallo when Elvis died. She had forgotten about Elvis in the 60s and 70s and then he croaks and she was a teen again, keening drunkenly at the TV during his televised funeral. The hearse piloting his massive corpse down a street named after him. Unless I’m hallucinating this, which makes it more real, of course.
That wasn’t the way I grieved for Kurt Cobain, who was never far from my mind, whose “doll steak/test meat” couplet was often on my lips or chasing the blinking amber cursor on my large beige computer at work. A co-worker and I would type Nirvana lyrics back and forth to one another on our computers. I never met this co-worker or heard her voice. We would type and pretend to be casual about the fact that we were hundreds of miles apart and talking, not by mail, not over the phone - but on our computers. All day long with the Nirvana lyrics, with my unknown co-worker and fellow Nirvana fan.
Meanwhile, there was no public funeral, no procession down Kurt Cobain Boulevard. Instead, there was a death scene photo, the suicide note as performance art, read by his widow, disheveled kids dancing in a Seattle fountain, and heroin where the cocaine used to be. And a lot of shitty-assed music that truly made April 1994 the year punk choked and music died. No matter; it was time for private grief in some new space that was more than public; certainly more public than what we saw on snowy VHF. Now it’s everywhere, but it started 20 years ago with a new kind of soundtrack: Not Nirvana, not Soundgarden’s elegies, not even the joy of Ween.
No, the the shotgun blast that spattered our junkie prince birthed a new sound that was a whoosh, a yodeling ping, a blast of static, another yodel echoing into space, and a pause containing multitudes: The sound of the modem, the sound of you trying to get on AOL for a low per-minute rate.
America Online: That’s where we grieved for the dead music and where a new addict pastime would be born, post April 8th, 1994. You know, nodding out out over your nicotine-stained, food-smeared keyboard, clacking out your grief, your confusion, your shock. Online, no one had to see how emaciated/bloated/inchoate you really were. Who were you clacking to? It didn’t matter.
Courtney Love led the charge, oversharing her guts out on AOL in the spring and summer that followed her husband’s death. I was two years clean when Cobain died and I first saw AOL, which I recall as a mysterious amber and light blue skein of riveting cursory crap; bursts of half sentences and typos shepherded not by names but by “screen names,” like CB radio come to life. Twenty years, man, of online handles - do you remember your first persona? How did you come up with the name? I bet Kurt Cobain never had a screen name. Kurt Cobain probably never saw the Internet. That’s why he could be sort of like us yet he’s 27 forever in perma-’94, old school, afflicted with the opposite of ADD. Attention Surfeit Disorder. Think of his eyes widening and becoming sternly blue as he breathes deep and looks up from the final yelling lyrics of the Leadbelly cover at MTV Unplugged. He was probably into talking with people face to face or not talking to them at all; content to nod out over a meal or a crib or a guitar - but not over a computer keyboard. Writing (not typing) his suicide note in that undulating style that looks like the lyric fragments in the inner jacket on Nevermind. Did the 21st century start after he died?
Oh well, whatever. In the years that followed, a bunch of us would relapse and nod out in front of our keyboards. For the practicing junkie today there is a veritable feast of online crap to nod out to; years ago, for those wishing to emit a ping for help, there were only the NA chat rooms where I used to troll and flame, until the evening I crowed to the wrong screen name about how great it was to shoot dope and how much NA sucked, and the cursor stuttered back, “then what are you doing here?”
That’s the only correct question of course, and there was only one answer: “I just want to talk to a recovering addict before I die.”
Which is precisely what I typed back as I cried Maybelline-streaked tears all over my cheeks and yes, onto my keyboard.
In any case, it’s been 20 years since another dead blond showed us a new way to mourn.