One thing that makes these essays an engaging read is that, with some of them, it’s almost impossible to tell going in what the actual theme of the essay is going to be. Klosterman likes to start off with a little riff that relates to, but isn’t actually, his intended topic. “Oh the Guilt,” for instance, begins with a discussion of guitar-smashing. “People wreck guitars to illustrate how important guitars are supposed to be,” he writes.
But this essay isn’t actually about rock stars smashing guitars. Except that it kind of is. Specifically, Klosterman wants to talk about how the band Nirvana used to smash their equipment — what smashing their equipment meant when they were a poor, struggling, unknown band, and what it meant when they were one of the biggest bands on the planet.
But this is all just an extended segue into the subject of Kurt Cobain and his sense of identity in context of his fame, success, and mainstream popularity, studied against the backdrop of the recording of Nirvana’s In Utero album, which Klosterman describes as “the first album actively promoted as a product I needed to buy because I was not going to like it.”
Oh, and somehow this is all tied to David Koresh and the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco by the U.S. government.
Klosterman’s overarching thesis about Cobain is that he was miserable because he was ashamed of and could not deal with his commercial success. He believes In Utero was a product of that shame — he calls it “Guilt Rock” — an album that was deliberately conceived as a repudiation of the kind of success Nirvana didn’t want, and the kind of fans Nirvana didn’t need, and as a way to retain — or regain — Nirvana’s credibility as anti-mainstream champions of the punk ethos, even as they had become the most mainstream band in the world at that time.
When Nirvana released their Incesticide compilation of B-sides and miscellaneous oddities in 1992, early pressings included a liner note written by Cobain (Geffen removed this note from the CD sometime in the mid-90s), a lengthy, rambling collection of rants and raves, including a defiant defense of his embattled wife, Courtney Love, and an exhortation to any homophobes, bigots, or misogynists listening to his music to please go away.
The bulk of the text is a story of how Cobain got a vinyl record by the Raincoats sent to him from London, and a long list of experiences that receiving this album was as rewarding as: touring with Shonen Knife and Sonic Youth, playing with the Vaselines, Daniel Johnston sending him drawings, and so on. (Cobain probably would have had a pretty entertaining weblog if he’d stuck around for the Internet era.) This obscure recording made Cobain
…happier than playing in front of thousands of people each night, rock-god idolization from fans, music industry plankton kissing my ass, and the millions of dollars I made last year.
Much of Klosterman’s essay is taken up with trying to figure out what fueled Cobain’s monumental self-loathing and discomfort with his success. This note, I think, says as much as anything else about what made Cobain hate himself so much. To me, what this note says is that Kurt Cobain was a huge, ultra-sincere music geek. He never stopped being a wide-eyed fan of the punk bands he idolized in his pre-megafame years, as well as his contemporaries who embodied his own anti-commercial, anti-mainstream values. Yet Nirvana’s success isolated Cobain from his heroes and peers to a greater degree than any other rock musician I can think of.
For an ambitious mainstream rock band like, say, U2, achieving massive global success brings them closer to their heroes. But when your role models are bands like The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, there can’t be anything more confounding and non-validating than finding yourself ushered into the top tiers of pop culture royalty, where your new peers are the likes of Garth Brooks and Britney Spears. When you make the kind of music Nirvana aspired to make, and end up where they did, you have, in every important way, failed as an artist.
Which is not, of course, to say that artistic integrity and commercial success can’t coexist. Prince, as far as I can tell, has never wavered from his singularly strange musical vision, no matter how it’s evolved over the years. He may have changed courses many times during his career, but never, as far as I can tell, in order to appease a record label or his fans.
And the reason for that, I think, is that he’s so supremely dedicated to his vision, and confident in his abilities to realize that vision, that there just isn’t room in his ego to accommodate the desires or opinions of others. He’s supremely media savvy and concerned about being understood by his audience 1, but his concern is solely about being accurately seen, not about being seen a particular way.
Cobain, on the other hand, was unable to process his stardom in a way that would allow him to exist as both a rock star and an artist of integrity, because he lacked the necessary egotism to disregard the opinions and demands — or in some cases, the very existence — of his audience and critics, and simply follow his muse.
Klosterman illustrates his thesis in a pretty clever way. By putting Nirvana’s schtick of trashing their instruments during their concerts side by side with their attempt to record a deliberately abrasive, anti-commercial followup to their commercial smash, he makes the case that Cobain’s fatal flaw was his inability to not engage with his fans.
He could not stop himself from caring about people who would only appreciate his work if he were a mainstream failure, just like they were.
Why did Nirvana continue to destroy their instruments after becoming famous? It wasn’t a punk gesture anymore — Nirvana could afford to smash truckloads of guitars. Post-success, it was a totally meaningless spectacle. Yet they continued to do so, because it was expected of them. And instead of just making whatever the hell album they wanted to make, Nirvana tried to make an album that would elicit a specific response from their audience and their critics.
It’s conceivable, maybe, that Cobain could have pulled back from the abyss had he been able to say “fuck the audience, fuck the critics, I’m just gonna do what I do, and they can love it or leave it.” But he couldn’t do that. In Utero is the final product of that inability. Nirvana set out to create something abrasive, unlistenable, and uncommercial — not as a musical statement, but a cultural one. It wasn’t representing Nirvana the band so much as “Nirvana,” the rock-pop phenomenon. And this album, whose selling point was its uncommercial artistic credibility, ended up selling 4 million copies and being faintly praised as a decent pop product by a mainstream band.
Although I, along with practically everyone else in America, played the shit out of Nevermind throughout 1991 and 1992, I wasn’t much more than a casual fan. Reading this essay moved me to listen to In Utero in full for the first time since probably 1994, when Cobain killed himself and I, along with everyone else, dug out their CD to rummage through it for portents of his impending self-annihilation.
At the time the album came out, I liked the same songs everyone else did — “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Rape Me,” “All Apologies,” and “Pennyroyal Tea.” I think they still hold up pretty well. Listening to the album now, though, I find that the songs that really kick my ass are the abrasive, “ugly” ones. They’re the ones that still sound fresh and exciting.
The one that hits me hardest is the second track, “Scentless Apprentice.” Not so much because of the music or lyrics (inspired by Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume), as the way the song builds to the explosion of Cobain’s raw, throat-shredding scream — the actual words barely discernible — that comprises the chorus.
I know it’s cheesy, but I can’t help hearing the chorus as Cobain howling desperately, over and over, into an indifferent windstorm of guitar riffs and drumbeats, as if he’s projectile vomiting the demons consuming him from the inside only to have them flung back into his face. A howl of despair, agony, rage, and utter helplessness.