Slater Bradley, Give Me a Leonard Cohen Afterworld, 2003-04, chromogenic print, 14 x 20 inches
Kurt Cobain’s suicide was our generation’s Kennedy assassination. MTV news anchor Kurt Loder assumed the role of Walter Cronkite, soothing the heartache of frantic viewers. On 8 April 1994, a beleaguered audience was held attentive through short retrospective segments, hastily prepared with reels of file footage from live shows and interviews. Two days later, thousands of mourners filled Seattle’s Flag Center Pavilion to hear a tape recording of Courtney Love reading the now infamous suicide note, complete with expletive-ridden asides.
Ten years have now past, and I can still envision my downtrodden, middle school jazz band, painfully performing in a crowded gymnasium only a few hours after hearing the tragic news. Upbeat jazz numbers could not substitute for the solace of a darkened bedroom, illuminated only by continuous MTV coverage. For many young fans, decked out in tattered jeans, flannels, and Mudhoney tees, a musical and stylistic icon was now dead, sending a shockwave through adolescent systems across the world.
In Stoned and Dethroned, Slater Bradley’s recent exhibit at Chelsea’s Team Gallery, the photographer pays homage to the artist on the 10 year anniversary of his untimely death. Bradley has previously explored the themes of identity, suicide, and the tortured musician, as in his work concerning Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, in the exhibition, Here Are the Young Men (2002).
In addition to merely reiterating the importance of Nirvana in the rock music canon, Bradley’s work explores the Cobain’s enormous impact on “the formation of millions of identities”. Statistically, it would be intriguing to determine how many fingers plucked guitar strings for the first time between the years 1991 and 1994, beginning with airing of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. The drastic upswing could be akin to the post-war baby-boom. Although, instead of starting families in safe, suburban enclaves, bands were formed in unfinished basements and Fender guitars flew off the shelves.
In the photographic works, a Cobain imposter, Benjamin Brock, adopts famous poses that were later immortalized in magazines and music videos. Fittingly, upon entering the show, several actual magazine covers from the time period surrounding Cobain’s death are framed. The five covers look small when compared with Bradley’s large prints that occupy the main room. Despite being comparatively miniscule, the actual covers serve a vital purpose, a reminder that his event actually occurred, and was covered by almost every media outlet, from People to Rolling Stone.
Slater Bradley, I Hate Myself and Want to Die, 2003-04, chromogenic print, 84 x 60 inches
Adding to the visual imagery, Bradley’s photographs take their names from Nirvana lyrics or song titles. In “I Hate Myself and Want to Die, 2003-04”, Bradley’s muse stares awkwardly at the camera with his hair in his face, Sonic Youth shirt, and thrift shop sweater. Here, Brock impersonates Cobain with remarkable likeness, in knowing, disaffected fashion.
In “Give Me a Leonard Cohen Afterward, 2003-04”, Brock lies on stage in a fit of exhaustion, guitar in hand. Like a wounded soldier, Brock lifts the guitar, poised for another battle. Despite being knocked down on stage, Cobain usually rose again. The scraggly, thin man with tattered clothes was capable of transcending the small frame with a mighty scream and deafening feedback. Renowned for impassioned performances, including stage dives, or jumping headfirst into Dave Grohl’s drum set, the image of Cobain enraptured in mid-fall is a classic rock ‘n’ roll shot that adds to the mythology of the tortured musician, surrendering everything, even his weary body for his art.
However, most remarkable in capturing the likeness of Cobain is “Phantom Release” (2003), a three minute long “live performance”. Gallery attendees sit in a darkened room and watch Bradley’s short, live video for “Negative Creep”, a song off Bleach. It is difficult to dissassociate Brock from the impassioned frontman, while the other members are blurry and resigned to the back and side of the stage.
“Phantom Release” is visually similar to a performance from the European tour video made with Sonic Youth, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. In the tour documentary, Nirvana, having only recently gained revered rock status with the release of Nevermind, tours alongside Sonic Youth, the seasoned, indie rock band. Sonic Youth influenced Nirvana amongst many others, and flirted with the mainstream in the early 1990s, only to later return to conceptual noise, and lo-fi mastery. Although Nirvana influenced many fans to dig into the vaults in search of records by the Meatmen, Raincoats, Pixies, and Vaselines, their own recordings still attain the strongest following, from the mainstream rock stations to the indie crowd.
For Stoned and Dethroned, Bradley has claimed inspiration from digitalnirvana.net, a website where devoted Nirvana fans discuss and trade bootleg recordings and assorted rarities, from the1988 “Love Buzz” single on Sub Pop to countless Geffen promos. While perusing the site, it is clear that Nirvana’s music will not see the record store bargain bin anytime soon. New fans are becoming devotees and the older ones with extensive collections of rare and recently unearthed recordings are continuing to buy, sell, and trade. Digitalnirvana.com also includes a “phantom” section of mythic recordings that most likely do not exist.
Slater Bradley, Love You So Much It Makes Me Sick, 2003-04, chromogenic print, 30 x 40 inches
While it is not surprising that the music remains foremost on the minds of most fans, young and old, Cobain’s death in still debated fervently on screen and over the internet. Many will recall Kurt and Courtney (1998), Nick Broomfield’s startling documentary that began raising questions surrounding what had been originally, and quickly been reported as a suicide. Although eager to unearth someone with a definite means and motive to murder Cobain, the film instead poked around at a couple of possibilities, made a few casual insinuations, but nothing concrete. There was no smoking gun, and the controversy dissipated in the mainstream rock press. Other rock stars—most of them also aged 27—died of mysterious circumstances, with drugs and suicide as the two most probable factors.
Some believe the reported suicide should be more hesitantly described as a “suicide”. There are plenty of websites that keep the music alive, while others give life to a litany of conspiracy theories ranging from the impossibility of being able to pull the trigger with the amount of heroin consumed, to pontifications on other’s motives. Sites such as justiceforkurt.com and cobaincase.com offer extensive investigations of the police reports, casting doubt on the official story. However, like Broomfield’s seemingly explosive film, none of the theories have been able to provoke a reaction that would sway the popularly held belief—that a self-inflicted shotgun blast ended the life of a depressed young man who testified in song that he would “rather be dead than cool”.
Where you were when, rather than how he dies seems more relevant after a decade without any new Nirvana songs (barring last year’s posthumous release, “You Know You’re Right”). When I was younger, I remember overhearing my parents and their friends discuss where they were when they heard the news on that fateful day in Dallas. Similarly, many Gen-X alum can remember the precise time and place when they heard about the suicide in Seattle. They may also attest to creating make-shift shrines from torn apart Spin and Hit Parader magazines, or lonely, candle-light vigils, tearfully watching the Unplugged special into the early morning hours.
If seeming melodramatic, perhaps some residual angst is seeping out; however, the fact remains that the suicide left a lasting impression. For many it was the first death of someone held in iconic stature, akin to John Lennon, or Elvis Presley. Despite only a few studio albums at the time, Cobain’s musical and cultural influence cannot be contested, with his influence only growing over time. Although he publicly eschewed the generational spokesperson role, and showed only disdain for a media that was eager to rest the responsibility of millions upon him, he will nonetheless be remembered as an icon for young, tormented teens. Oh well. Whatever. You know the rest.