Kurt Cobain and the Ghosts of the Nineties

We are surrounded by the ghosts of the nineties. Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, Dolores O’Riordan, Scott Weiland, Adam Yauch, Tupac Shakur, Shannon Hoon, Bradley Nowell, The Notorious B.I.G., and of course, Kurt Cobain. The reason I picked up an instrument was because Kurt Cobain killed himself. There was something inside me that wanted to keep his music alive—so I bought a guitar

In terms of pop culture, some see the 1990s as the last great decade. I tend to agree, and the reason why I think this may be the case is because the era serves as a time capsule inside of which resides the career highs of many of the most iconic artists who died long before they should have.

In a sense, every generation views itself with a sense of biased reverence; however, there is no denying the cultural impact that music in the early 90s had on a generation of teenagers. There has not been as important a cultural movement since. There was a zeitgeist in the 90s. Teenagers—the kids of the baby boomers—were supposed to be all right, but their white picket fences were hiding a darkness that was growing, a darkness that the music of that era touched on in ways that are difficult to articulate. I was a teenager at that time and we felt alienated, and the songs of the time encapsulated that alienation. It was ironic: we all felt alone, but since we all listened to the same music, we were not alone.

This is an important distinction. The majority of popular music that bubbled to the surface at the time confronted depression, angst and death head-on. There was no sugarcoating. The sugarcoating was the job of our parents. We turned to music to discover the unvarnished truth. If you take another listen to Nirvana’s In Utero, each song sounds like its own suicide note. The mood of bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden tapped into a collective feeling of depression, disaffection and, arguably, suicidal ideation. This feeling even crept into hip-hop at the time. In The Notorious B.I.G.’s song, “Suicidal Thoughts,” he writes: 

I swear to God I want to just slit my wrists and end this bullshit/
Throw the Magnum to my head, threaten to pull shit/
And squeeze until the bed’s completely red/
I’m glad I’m dead, a worthless fuckin’ buddha head.
The stress is buildin’ up, I can’t—I can’t believe/

Suicide’s on my fuckin’ mind, I wanna leave.

It was once the consensus of the mainstream that the best kinds of art come from the worst kinds of tragedy. The idea of the tortured artist was accepted, and in some cases, the path considered noble. There is no doubt that many music listeners believe Kurt Cobain walked this path.

April 5th, 2019 is the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death; death by suicide. Not unlike the fans that mourned John Lennon’s death, I was one of the countless Nirvana fans that erupted into tears upon hearing the news of Kurt’s death when he was discovered on April 8th. The notable difference between the responses to these two events was that we were not surprised when Kurt took his life. Shocked, horrified, and experiencing denial, of course, but his looming death was baked into his songs. After all, the album that became In Uterowas originally called I Hate Myself and Want to Die. The record label made him change it; however, the songs themselves still said it all.

Kurt Cobain’s suicide was a cataclysmic event. It was almost as if his music telegraphed his death; we just didn’t see it. Or if we did see it, we refused to accept it. The notion that our generation’s biggest talent had ended his life—and subsequently the life of his music—at the very peak of his career was unfathomable. Perhaps music wasn’t the answer to our alienation? Perhaps music—like any other antidepressant medication—just masks the symptoms and prolongs the inevitable.

Kurt Cobain was the manifestation of everything we know the ‘90s to be. There is no better person, event, or work of art that encapsulates the thoughts and feelings of a generation than the suicide of Kurt Cobain.

I think a lot of people who say they don’t think about suicide, think about suicide. I’m not saying they think about committing suicide, but the idea, the notion, the concept, is pervasive in our culture, and frankly, our DNA. It’s there, bubbling underneath the surface. As I write in the opening lines of my book, No Alternative:

Suicide is a universally human phenomenon. It’s what separates us from the animals, despite the fact that people shun it and cloak it in taboo. Animals do not commit suicide, at least that’s the common wisdom. It is this received wisdom that reveals something about our attitudes on the subject, as suicide is most always painted in the light of shame and pity, something we reserve for lesser beings than ourselves. In actuality, suicide is a refined and selfless act, usually a result of many thoughtful hours, days, months, or years of meticulous and steadfast preparation. Suicide is not thoughtless; it’s precisely the opposite. 

Perhaps I think about suicide more than others—I wrote a novel and made a movie that explores the theme, in an attempt to prevent others from succumbing to self-harm. My idol killed himself when I was fifteen years old. His suicide not only united many alienated teens in 1994, but it also tragically led to a number of copycat suicides. I refer to the teenagers who came of age in the ’90s as The Suicide Generation—we were all united by the one thing that threatened to separate us forever. 

Music as we knew it died on April 5th, 1994. The day the music died and grunge was born, grunge as a catchphrase. It was the beginning of a movement. Back when MTV actually aired music videos, rather than the onslaught of reality television they broadcast now. They stopped airing their music videos and Kurt Loder commandeered the airwaves to impart a Special Report to a legion of slacker viewers: 

The body of Nirvana leader, Kurt Cobain, was found in a house in Seattle Friday morning dead of an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. Cobain’s body was discovered by an electrician carrying out repairs at the musician’s house. Sources claim he had been missing for several days. e singer, whose band achieved global fame with the release of its album, Nevermind, in 1991, recently survived a drug and alcohol-induced coma in Rome last month. A statement from Nirvana’s management company said: ‘We are deeply saddened by the loss of such a talented artist, close friend, loving husband and father.’ Police found what is said to be a suicide note at the scene, but have not yet divulged its contents. 

I think those of us whose lives were informed by the ’90s, who lived through and were permanently effected by Kurt’s death, have a greater insight into suicide than any other generation, and therefore we have a responsibility to lead the movement toward a greater awareness of the subject. We have a responsibility to help lead the charge to eliminate the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness at large.

Kurt’s death lasted in the air, in the news, in the zeitgeist; whereas today the deaths of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and Chester Bennington come and go, only to be replaced by the latest scandal or breaking news piece. 

We need to keep suicide in the zeigeist, just as it was in ’90s, as a means of preventing others from succumbing to the desire, to the hopelessness, to the fear of talking to anyone about it. The facts are: the desire can be overcome, there is hope to be found and there is always someone to talk to. However, we must be proactive in our effort to make sure those who are suicidal know these things to be true. We must prove it them.

Let’s get out there and prove it to them. Stream No Alternative for FREE on Amazon Prime Video: https://amzn.to/2HX7uSV

William Dickerson is a writer and director whose debut feature film, “Detour,” was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner and “authentic” by The New York Times. His first novel, “No Alternative,” was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ’90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. He recently adapted the book into a film released by Gravitas Ventures: https://apple.co/2Ht37hs. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @WDFilmmaker and visit his website. You can also follow “No Alternative” on Twitter and Instagram @NoAltFilm,

What are your thoughts?