A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine killed himself.
I didn’t know him that well. He wasn’t a really close friend, and I hadn’t seen him for years. But for a while, in the early 90s, I saw him a lot. We both contributed to Throwrug, the Bellingham ‘zine that was Goth House’s original home. We shared an affection for the Addam’s Family pinball game. I think we might have both summoned Kurt Cobain for the infamous posthumous Ouija Board interview.
No, it’s not online. Stuff wasn’t online then. It’s in a chapbook. We survivors spent a lot of time last weekend flipping through Throwrugs and marveling at how young, sarcastic, stupid, and sometimes even a little bit hilarious we were.
The early 90s was a great time for me in a lot of ways. I had just started dating Paul. I got my first real job, as a technical writer and illustrator at a little Bellingham software company. I was old enough, and young enough, for bar shows. My friends still had the energy to, say, drive to Seattle on a Tuesday night for an Infamous Menagerie show, then drive all the way back to Bellingham at 2, or maybe 3 or 4 if we went to Beth’s or The Hurricane first.
There was a lot of music I liked in those days. Seattle had great venues, Bellingham had great venues.
I saw Nirvana once, in 1990 or 91, when they opened for Sonic Youth. I was there for Sonic Youth; I had barely heard of Nirvana. I knew there was this "Seattle sound" that people were talking about, and Sub-Pop, and all that, but I had only a vague idea of what it was or what it meant. (Nobody was calling it grunge yet. I’m not sure exactly when that started.)
We had kind of terrible seats, way up in the balcony of — I want to say The Moore but I’m probably wrong. There were a couple of hard rock bands that were okay, and then Nirvana, and I remember having this exact thought: I don’t know if I’d normally like this kind of music, but I’m really enjoying this.
Then I kind of fell asleep during large portions of Sonic Youth. I left the theater a Nirvana fan.
There used to be a record store called Cellophane Square — there was a Bellingham location and a Seattle location and the Bellingham location was better. The final Bellingham location (they moved several times) was at what is now Everyday Music, across from the downtown bus station. They had a mixture of used and new stuff, good prices, diverse selection. My vinyl and CD collection is probably 90 percent Cellophane Square. Maybe 95 percent.
They used to have this thing where you could do inventory for them and get a gift certificate that was good for an album or two. I’m not sure why I did this, exactly — the pay rate came out to maybe five bucks an hour, tops — but a lot of my friends did it, so, peer pressure. It was also vaguely cool. You know, all the local scenesters would be there.
So, one time I was doing inventory in September of 1991, and Nevermind, Nirvana’s first major label release, had come out maybe a day or two before, and they played the album over, and over, and over, and over.
Did I mind? Hell no. If I had bought it myself and brought it home I’d have done the same damn thing.
I left humming "Lithium" and told Paul he had to hear this album. Maybe a week later, we were listening to this show on The End called The Young and the Restless, and they played either the whole album or an album side. He agreed it was fantastic but he thought that "In Bloom" was clearly the best song. We bought it shortly afterward. We still have that same dumb, good-natured argument over what the best song on the album is.
At the time, I rented a room in a house that had MTV, and also at the time, MTV played music videos. (Believe it or not, kids, "Music" is what the M stands for. Crazy, huh?) Some time later, maybe November or December, I was doing the inking on a Goth House and half-watching MTV, and the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit came on. I think I might have already seen the video during 120 minutes (their "alternative" show) but this came up during the regular rotation.
I remember getting a strange feeling, a prickling at the back of my neck, as I contemplated what that meant. I’m not sure how popular the song was at the time, yet, but I could see it was on the path to being a breakout hit. I was a little giddy, not just about what this meant for Nirvana, or Seattle music, but about what it meant for pop music in general. Pop music had suddenly mutated to be able to accept Nirvana.
For the first time since the early 1980s, pop music and my personal tastes were in alignment. So it was the first time this happened when I was an adult. And it was the first time I was there to watch while it happened. Where pop culture crystallized around what me and my friends were already doing. Coffee. Seattle music. Computer programming. ‘Zines. We were at ground zero of pop culture, and I swear it had to be a little like being at Haight Ashbury in the late 1960s. Both awesome, and, in a way, not as important as it might seem at the time.
Sure, you do some cool stuff, you add to the sum total of art in the universe. But pop culture is like a shark, and it’s going to keep moving and probably leave you behind. If there’s anything in your life you care enough about to hang onto, someday it won’t be the “in thing” anymore. It will be retro. Of the past. Classic rock. In a museum.
I was inspired to write this when I started writing a comment on Keffy Kehrli’s excellent post on Kurt Cobain and it kind of exploded. Cities are like people; they have distinct personalities, with their own set of positive and negative characteristics. LA is fun and flashy and great in many ways, but empty in others, like a brilliant actor who just shuts off when she’s not performing. New York is vibrant and smart, but brusque and a little unforgiving, like one of those professors half the students love and half the students hate. New Orleans is your fabulous but slightly dotty aunt: old, a little worse for wear, a little old-fashioned and slightly disreputable, but she’s been everywhere and done everything and she has the best stories and she’s your favorite relative to visit. (And she always gave you brandy, even when you were underage.)
Seattle is smart and artsy and beautiful and outdoorsy, but a definite introvert, and highly prone to depression. Of course Kurt Cobain is our local saint: he’s not only the most iconic artist we have ever produced, but he is Seattle. His character is her character.
When he killed himself, I was shocked but not surprised. I guess I was disappointed more than anything. He had certainly given enough signals that he was planning something like that. Sometimes I think he shot himself, rather than using heroin, because he just wanted to make sure that everybody knows he did it on purpose.
A suicide seems like the most easily prevented of all preventable deaths. It seems like you should just have been able to say the right thing, offer the right gesture of support, be there when he called, noticed he was feeling bad, reached out — it seems like somebody should have been able to stop it from happening. But so often, when somebody kills himself, there were people trying to stop it. There were people trying to get him help, people trying to reach out, people trying to say that one magical thing, people who loved him as hard as they were able to love. And it didn’t work anyway. It didn’t stop it from happening.
It seems like there should have been something you could do. But there was probably nothing you could do.
Every year since Kurt killed himself, I have enjoyed pop music a little less. I keep thinking it’s going to hit bottom and start climbing up again, but it’s like waiting for the Republicans to hit maximum insanity and start getting saner again. It’s just not going to happen.
The shark swam on. And I’m still here. Kurt was born in 1967. I was born in 1966. We were a cohort. We were the same generation.
I’m going to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson:
Every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave … So now, seventeen years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Seattle and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.