BY LYDIA A. CYRUS
Artists die all the time: Elvis is dead by forty-two, Jerry Garcia by fifty-three, and Frank Zappa by fifty-two. After death, records sales and biographies surge through bestseller lists as relatives emerge from the woodwork to claim a stake in the fortunes of those who have passed. Since their recent deaths, stars like Tom Petty and David Bowie have seen a surge in tributes and covers. But sometimes, the death of an artist is powerful and influential enough that their fate becomes repeated by others: copycats. Such is the case for the late grunge rock legend Kurt Cobain.
The theorist Roland Barthes maintains that readers should separate the author from their text: In order to understand the text better we’re supposed to divorce it from the writer altogether. But how do you separate Kurt Cobain from suicide? It’s possibly the most widely known act he ever performed and twenty-three years later we still talk about the inner workings of the Cobain household—about Kurt Cobain’s personal life.
In April of 1994 Kurt Cobain’s body is found with a shotgun lying next to him: the media tells everyone that Kurt shot himself and his wife reads his suicide note for all to hear. In the years that follow, young women, professed Nirvana super fans, commit suicide in the same manner in which Kurt did. Blew holes in their heads, the media says, dead at twelve and thirteen. To ask why that is so would be to ignore the sheer value art has in the lives of everyone. Art endures all things.
In his final letter to humanity, Kurt writes at the end of the letters, “I’ll be at your altar.” If he is speaking to humanity he must be referencing the altar of religion, of fate. If he is speaking to his wife he must mean the altar on which they built their lives: the one filled with drugs, rehab, and guitars. But maybe he’s speaking to his daughter, just a two year old girl at time of her father’s suicide, and he means he will be at her crib, her bedroom altar, waiting for her like a father feels he should. Kurt was a mystery for most of the world. Though many of us would argue we knew him all along.
The former bassist for Nirvana, Krist Novelsic, has said in the past that Kurt was incredibly self-conscious. He would look at photos of himself and cry: too skinny, too pale, whatever it was. Krist said he witnessed it once, that Kurt found a photo of himself that he actually liked. The moment touched Krist in such a way that he never forgot it. This event might be fiction, there are no concrete sources to prove it, but even if it isn’t true don’t we all believe it anyway? Don’t we sympathize with it anyway? The idea of never liking what you see in yourself, of hating how you appear. Isn’t that why we love Kurt Cobain so much? Because he is us, or the us we tried to bury in the mirror. I think that’s the missing key: we can’t let Kurt go because it would mean losing a piece of ourselves. Maybe we can’t stand to think that after everything, even Nirvana can fall apart.
I read this comic book series once where these two teenage boys decide that life cannot go on without Kurt. It’s all over, I mean, if the Heaviness of Being can kill off the one voice of guidance then there is no hope, right? Kurt was supposed to be the voice of the generation: a nihilistic voice coming over the airwaves to soothe our neuroses. One boy sticks a gun in his mouth and aims upwards: he dies standing straight up. His friend, having watched his closest companion die, places the gun under his chin. He lives, horribly disfigured for life.
I don’t believe Kurt meant for anyone to commit suicide, I doubt Kurt woke up that day and intended to shoot himself in a secluded bedroom where it would take days for his body to be found. Who can really say what he intended to do anyway? His suicide note, after all, gives no indication of where we can find him in the afterlife anyway. If we can’t find him then, who is to say we ever knew where he would be in the present life?
Artists die everyday and yet Kurt’s life is shrouded in suicide. Perhaps as a society that used to bury the suicides with the witches and the homeless folk in a potter’s field, we are unable to accept the life of those who take actions into their own hands. I guess the question I want an answer to is why? Life goes on. 1994 is not forever even though many people didn’t think so. Maybe the bitter part of it all is that even Nirvana falls apart. Even the best things perish. Dave Grohl, the drummer for Nirvana, goes on to spend a whole year in studio recording an album by himself. This was his way of grieving Kurt. Out of the album, a new band arose. The Foo Fighters go on to sell millions of albums and win numerous Grammys. Art, it seems, will always endure: it will always find a way to each of us.
Jerry Garcia dies at age fifty-three in the year of my birth, 1995, of a heart attack. His music, older than Kurt Cobain, has reached millions by this point. Even my stoic history professor followed the Dead around like worshipers who were following Billy Graham. They took acid by pressing their thumbs onto the drug and stood in rain and shine just to hear their favorite band play. Jerry dies in a room at rehab clinic after suffering from drug addiction, sleep apnea, and diabetes. No one commits a copycat death in the wake of the loss of Jerry Garcia. Perhaps his death was a slow burn and is harder to replicate. Nonetheless, everyone remembers Jerry for his life’s work and not the way he died.
Lydia A. Cyrus is a creative nonfiction writer and poet from Huntington, West Virginia. Her work as been featured in Thoreau's Rooster, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Albion Review, and Luna Luna. Her essay "We Love You Anyway," was featured in the 2017 anthology Family Don't End with Blood which chronicles the lives of fans and actors from the television show Supernatural.
She lives and works in Huntington where she spends her time being politically active and volunteering. She is a proud Mountain Woman who strives to make positive change in Southern Appalachia. She enjoys the color red and all things Wonder Woman related! You can usually find her walking around the woods and surrounding areas as she strives to find solitude in the natural world. Twitter: @lydiaacyrus