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Christopher Sandford on Kurt Cobain

On April 5, 1994, Kurt Donald Cobain killed himself at his home in Seattle, echoing the sentiments in his handwritten suicide note, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

In 1996, two years after Cobain’s death, Christopher Sandford published a book on the Nirvana frontman appropriately titled “Kurt Cobain.”

In 2011, I purchased Sanford’s book from my local library for a few dollars. And this year, feeling nostalgic for the artist who was dead at 27 when I was alive at 6, I read the piece in full.

Thursday marks 18 years since Cobain died. Like many books of the sort, “Kurt Cobain,” attempts to reveal the true character of the artist. The account struggles, in my belief, with its repetitive and unorganized structure.

Still, it fills in some of the details that fans may not have known about the musician or the band. In his text, Sandford draws constant parallels between Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, a Washington-born artist who faced a similar fate. He also explores the bond between Courtney Love and Cobain, which was comparable to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s relationship but with an air marked by toxicity. Some text is focused on the many musical influences of Cobain, including The Breeders, Sonic Youth, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin.

It’s a weird thing to assume that you know Cobain better than he knew himself. In as much ink that has been used on the artist and his work, it is still without complete success that he has been figured out. Even those who had active roles in Cobain’s life seemed confound by his complexity and multi-dimensional personality. He was everything and nothing simultaneously.

Photo by Michel Linssen (Redferns / Getty Images)

The only certainty we have of the inner workings of Cobain is what he shared with us.

He was sickly as a child, diagnosed with scoliosis and chronic bronchitis, thought to be bipolar, possibly misdiagnosed as a sufferer of attention deficit disorder, and in constant agony from stomach pains. Early on, he learned that self-medicating was the answer to his problems.

“What Cobain never knew was contentment,” Sandford writes in the book.

In many regards, Cobain is considered a legend. His music is eminent.

The artist whose being was constantly questioned by others, found his answer in suicide at 27 years old. “According to the doctor who performed the autopsy, ‘it was the act of someone who wanted to obliterate himself, to literally become nothing’“ (Sandford 9).

Below, read some excerpts from Sandford’s book…
  • Cobain in person was nothing like Cobain the legend. He was an intensely shy man, poorly educated, and prone to the same vanities and excesses he despised in others (Sandford 16).
  • There is a Kurt Cobain today on every street corner in Seattle: a morose pale-skinny man dressed in a winter coat whatever the weather, hunched, mumbling, and raging against something. Cobain succeeded because, unlike theirs, his voice tapped the eternal themes of frustration, bewilderment and anger. Suddenly a sizeable part of the world’s youth had a hero figure they could related to. The adulation had just the opposite of the desired effect on Cobain. When he realized that, for the first time in his life, perfect strangers not only admired but worshipped him, he was confronted with all his old feelings of inadequacy and doubt, and it was this weakness that killed him (Sandford 17).
  • He was not, of course, the first rock musician who could claim humble origins nor the first to exploit them, but few have been able to distance themselves so completely from their roots while maintaining so many of their childhood traits (Sandford 58).
  • One of the most striking things about Cobain was his urgent need to achieve a sense of belonging by attaching himself to a movement, a crusade, an elitist culture (Sandford 93).
  • To say that Cobain’s taking up music was governed by a rejection of ‘dumb-ass morals’ is not to say the he had no principles of his own. His career flowed from his belief in his exceptional talent and his willingness to do anything needed to succeed (Sandford 94).
  • Cobain’s drug habit seems to have been born partly from weakness, partly boredom and partly from his morbid desire to find a wound that matched his bite (Sandford 128).
  • It was one of the peculiar paradoxes of Cobain’s life that while everything got easier, he saw it as having worsened. Never had he been more successful, never did he seem more miserable. Never had he been more popular, never did he look more woebegone (Sandford 134).
  • To another friend he admitted he wanted to be the impossible: an average, ‘normal,’ uncomplicated human being who could experience simple contentment (Sandford 142).
  • Like a rock and roll inkblot test, Nirvana could mean a number of things in the eyes and ears of audiences (Sandford 151).
  • What all of the critics missed were the cover’s three simple themes — and the themes that dominate all of Cobain’s writing: the sacredness of youth, whatever its form; the disappointment that invariably follows high expectation; and the corruption of innocence (Sandford 188).
  • His years in the limelight were characterized by frequent confessions of weakness and of his need to change. The problem was that Cobain never sustained that momentum. Every advance was matched by a relapse. His insights were marred by paralysing bouts of blindness and self-deception (Sandford 242).
  • Calling Cobain a chameleon implies there was something false about each appearance he took on, as if such inditities were motivated by an impulse toward subterfuge. There was play-acting and vanity in his internal make-up. But it was also the case that all the facets of the prism produced an equally true picture of Cobain, and that the real man was the sum total of everything he did (Sandford 256).
  • Apart from drugs, Cobain’s only other long-term relationships were with his wife and daughter (Sandford 293).
  • The honours heaped on him by others failed to silence the small, nagging voice that whispered within that he had never done enough. His chronic discontent drove him to succeed, yet robbed him of the capacity to enjoy success (Sandford 298).
  • Cobain had worn his celebrity as a burden (Sandford 306).

 

2 Comments

  1. 18 years have passed since lead singer of Nirvana Kurt Cobain died. Visit his memorial @ http://www.respectance.com/kurt_cobain/

    • I discovered an entire story about Kurt in this book that is taken word for word from a 1973 bio of Lenny Bruce by Albert Goldman. I am in shock that this story appears with Kurt’s name substituted where Lenny’s was in the other. I’m even more amazed I remembered it was also in this book after all these years. In 5 min I had it on Kindle and found the page with the plagarized story.

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