“No amount of effort can save you from oblivion.”
By Maria Popova
On February 20, 1967, legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain took his first breath. Twenty-seven years later, after a debilitating struggle with addiction and depression, he took his own life with a shotgun to the head and became the tragic patron-saint of the grunge generation. The posthumously released Kurt Cobain: Journals (public library) offers an unprecedented glimpse of the modern icon’s inner life, from an anatomy of his eclectic influences — John Lennon, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, PJ Harvey, Public Enemy, David Bowie — to a chronicle of his tumultuous psychoemotional landscape to sketches and drawings that would later grace Nirvana album covers and that, like those of Sylvia Plath, Queen Victoria, and Richard Feynman, have been acclaimed for their artistic acumen.
The book begins with a meandering letter Cobain wrote to Melvins drummer Dale Crover in 1988, discussing the first glimmers of fame, the mediocrity of late-night television, the superficiality of publicity, and the decision to name the band Nirvana:
Hello, this is me saying ‘everything is basically raining, dull, and OK.’
In another piece, Cobain offers a mediation on culture underpinned by deep self-awareness with undertones of self-loathing:
I like to complain and do nothing to make things better. I like to blame my parents generation for coming so close to social change then giving up after a few successful efforts by the media & government to deface the movement by using the Mansons and other Hippie representatives as propaganda examples on how they were nothing but unpatriotic, communist, satanic, inhuman diseases, and in turn the baby boomers became the ultimate, conforming, yuppie hypocrites a generation has ever produced.
What might at first appear as an inability to embody the ideals of Bertrand Russell, Galileo, and Eleanor Roosevelt regarding conformity, opinion, and conviction is in fact Cobain’s subversive strategy for changing the status quo from the inside:
I like to calmly and rationally discuss my views in a conformist manor even though I consider myself to the extreme left.
I like to infiltrate the mechanics of a system by posing as one of them, then slowly start the rot from the inside of the empire.
In what reads like the more hopeless counterpart to David Foster Wallace’s meditation on popular taste, Cobain bemoans the American propensity for fads:
The conspiracy toward success in America is immediacy. … Here today, gone tomorrow because yesterday’s following was nothing more than a tool in every individuals need for self-importance, entertainment, and social rituals. Art that has long lasting value cannot be appreciated by the majorities. Only the same, small percent will value arts patience as they always have. This is good. The ones who are unaware do not deserve false suggestions in their purchasing duties.
Cobain notes the warped mythologies of fame, which disguise for the mainstream the enormous role of “minorities” — who were really creative majorities in many regards — in shaping the history of modern culture:
I like the comfort in knowing that women are generally superior and naturally less violent than men.
I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll.
I like the comfort in knowing that the Afro American invented rock and roll yet has only been rewarded or awarded for their accomplishments when conforming to the white mans standards.
I like the comfort in knowing that the Afro American has once again been the only race that has brought a new form of original music to this decade.
(For an inspired and timeless testament to all of the above, look no further than reconstructionist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “grandmother of rock and roll.”)
A grim, angry, fragmented note laments the cult of commercialism:
The late 1980’s
This is a subliminal example of a society that has sucked & fucked itself into a rehashing value of greed.
You get the overall feeling that you paid way too much for literally nothing stimulating.
The jokes on you so kill yourself
No amount of effort can save you from oblivion. …
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On page 204 of Journals, which writers were reportedly forbidden from reproducing due to the controversial nature of a self-portrait it contains, Cobain cites six cut-and-pasted lines from Alicia Ostriker’s stirring poem “A Young Woman, A Tree”:
Passing that fiery tree — if only she could
Be making love,
Be making a painting,
Be exploding, be speeding through the universe
Like a photon, like a shower
Of yellow blazes —
But perhaps most moving of all is Cobain’s strikingly earnest and aspirational, if also strikingly misspelled, list of life advice — reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s 1942 New Year’s Resolution list — followed by a disclaimer that applies to just about every aspect of living with personal integrity:
Dont be prejudice
Dont be sexist
Love your children
Love your neighbor
Dont let your opinions obstruct the aforementioned list.
The brilliance and tragedy of Cobain’s inner life unfolds further across the remainder of Kurt Cobain: Journals.