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The Day the Music Died

Posted: April 08, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Editor-in-Chief

Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago today? I do. I remember it vividly. I was living in New Orleans then, working a horrible job -- graveyard shift, weekend nights, at a copy shop. I had to go to work that night, and to make matters worse, I had to attend a work-related training class earlier in the evening, which meant I was trying very hard to get a sufficient amount of sleep that afternoon when my friend Laurence Station called to share some bad news: Kurt Cobain had apparently killed himself: He'd been found dead of a shotgun blast, with a suicide note close at hand.

Well, so much for sleep. I tossed and turned, and ultimately got up, red-eyed, dog-tired and oddly restless, and drove to my class. Along the way, I tuned into the local "alternative rock" station, which was already deep into memorials and a ton of Nirvana songs. I sleepwalked through the class and drove to work, where I had to lock myself away in a dark room for a bit to decompress. At that moment, I imagined, I could empathize with the way Cobain must have felt a lot of the time: Overwhelmed by life's sensory overload, desperate for a retreat to some darkness free of expectations, disappointments and desires.

Aside from sleep deprivation, what shook me, what stuck with me that day, was this one feeling: While the news wasn't entirely unexpected -- Cobain had been in the news frequently at the time, acting out, checking into rehab -- his death was somehow all the worse for that. It'd have been one thing if his death had come out of the blue, but the really sickening thing was the feeling that all the signs where there. Someone, I thought -- we all thought -- should have been able to do something. We all watched the train wreck happening in slow-motion. We read the accounts of his drug-influenced behavior, his increasing antipathy toward his overwhelming fame, his moods, his constant stomach pains, and somehow it felt like no one had put all the pieces together.

That's not true, of course. Some of Cobain's closest friends had staged an intervention at the height of his substance abuse. Clearly, he had a support system. But the best support system doesn't work, to paraphrase Alcoholics Anonymous, if you don't work it. And unless you're one of the conspiracy theorists who vehemently claim that Courtney Love masterminded Cobain's death, then it's clear that he didn't work that system enough to save his life.

Whatever. I'm not here today to point fingers, or try to answer questions none of us, ultimately, can answer. I'm here because like so many people back then, my life was altered by Kurt Cobain's music, and again by his passing. Both of those things changed many people's lives -- mine, less than some and probably a little bit more than others. I wasn't a Nirvana devotee, like those who made the pilgrimage to Washington state after he died. I was, and still am, just a guy for whom Cobain blew open the doors of perception.

Through the visceral complexity of his music and his words; through the blatant ambition of his songwriting and the passive-aggressive ambivalence he showed for what that ambition brought him; through the raw, naked expression of a conflicted soul at his most hopeful, turbulent, cynical and vulnerable; through the serrated metal bombast of Nevermind's slashing chords and the scratchy humanity of his rasp; through all those things, Kurt Cobain changed my awareness of, and my capacity for belief in, what was possible.

In music, for sure, but also in life. Not because he was the "voice of a generation" (a title he hated, by most accounts), but because he was a voice. Period. Yes, we were the same age -- I was only a month younger than he was. But what I took away from Kurt Cobain, and from Nirvana, was more universal than that. I never felt that he spoke for me, specifically, or for my peers (whoever they were). But I found some strange comfort in the multitudes he contained. He was both intelligent and, in his music, often brutal. He was, like Johnny Cash and countless other musicians before him, a seeker of truths whose disappointment and dissatisfaction with -- well, most everything -- disguised his questing nature as a primitive, animalistic restlessness. He could be caustic and oddly tender, jaded and romantic, ambitious and withdrawn. And in that joining of yin and yang, of feminine and masculine, he was ultimately, unmistakably human, in ways that reminded many of us, often uncomfortably, of ourselves.

Post-Script: That would be a good point at which to end this little remembrance, except for one thing that, once again, no one seems to be addressing. On the tenth anniversary of our discovery of Cobain's death, it can't escape our notice that Courtney Love seems to be steering an eerily similar path. I don't mean to suggest that she's headed for suicide, not at all. But her actions of late: the drug use, the bizarre public behavior, the occasional copping of a victim mentality -- they're all a little too familiar. And what we all seem to be doing -- myself most definitely included -- is pointing and whispering at the oncoming train wreck.

Our schadenfreude culture aside, do we really want to wake up one day wondering why, once again, we stood by and let a public figure self-destruct? Do we want to one day feel oddly complicit in some decade-spanning Sid & Nancy tragedy? Love has been both fascinating and exasperating, her actions (and, frankly, her music) verging on the desperate. But she's still a human being. One hopes that she, too, has a support system in place. And if we can't all be an active part of it, we can at least hope that this time, it's allowed to work.

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Archived Editorials
December 03, 2006: Happy Feet
November 22, 2006: Half Decade Anniversary
October 07, 2006: Jessica Simpson
September 30, 2006: New Orleans and SNL
June 2, 2006: Dixie Chicks
May 7, 2006: Are Yahu Serious?
February 16, 2006: Bill O'Reilly & Brokeback Mountain
February 12, 2006: Totally '80s (Grammys)
January 31, 2006: Freyed Oprah
November 27, 2005: To Be Continued... (Bringing back movie serials)
November 21, 2005: Fourth Birthday
November 05, 2005: TV Remakes
August 13, 2005: Ten Commandments of Rock
July 05, 2005: Live 8
May 05, 2005: Term Limits (for Rock Stars)
April 29, 2005: Pearl Jam Redux
January 26, 2005: Oscar Grouching
October 31, 2004: Three More Years!
September 27, 2004: Cleaning Out My Closet
August 25, 2004: Shaking Through Mailbag
June 23, 2004: Summer Reading List
June 11, 2004: World Without Heroes (Bill Murray and Garfield)
April 23, 2004: Sold Out (Bob Dylan, Victoria's Secret, & Iraq)
April 08, 2004: The Day the Music Died (Kurt Cobain)
Mar. 17, 2004: Copping Out
Feb. 27, 2004: The Passion of Howard Stern
Jan. 30, 2004: Sex and the City
Nov. 17, 2003: California Über Alles
Nov. 7, 2003: Not-So-Terrible Twos
Sept. 19, 2003: Magic & Loss (Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon)
Aug. 17, 2003: Those '70s Shows
May 27, 2003: Patriot Games (Darryl Worley)
May 24, 2003: American Idol
Mar. 23, 2003: Non-cents-ical (Dixie Chicks-50 Cent)
Feb. 8, 2003: Where's the Love? (Pearl Jam)
Jan. 1, 2003: High Resolutions
Dec. 16, 2002: All I Want for Christmas
Nov. 27, 2002: Things to be Thankful For
Nov. 8, 2002: Near Wild Heaven (Nirvana)
Oct. 21, 2002: Happy Birthday to Us
Sept. 11, 2002: The Little Things
Aug. 20, 2002: King for a Day
July 9, 2002: Bill of Rights
Apr. 18, 2002: Celebrity Skim
Apr. 15, 2002: We Will Never Lie To You
Jan. 6, 2002: Something to Believe In
Nov. 3, 2001: Who We Are