[5 June 2012]
It’s difficult to read or write about Kurt Cobain without feeling one is adding to the cheapening commercialization of a legacy. Those of us who loved Nirvana and knew in our bones Cobain would exit through door 27 were deeply affected by his suicide in that peculiar way one is impacted by an artist’s death. We had—have—intense personal attachments to the music, which articulated something we felt but had difficulty expressing—the dmz line between famously talented musicians and the hoi polloi: the great musicians could express what the rest of us only felt.
But the famous suffer from the hoi polloi’s ardor when we project our wishes, fantasies, and dreams on them. Some develop coping mechanisms, hire bodyguards, move to the remotest possible places. Others, fragile to begin with, crumble.
When Kurt Cobain committed suicide in April 1994, the disc jockeys on Los Angeles’s alt-rock station, KROQ, dropped their on-air personas. All pretense at afternoon radio halted. Instead, DJ’s begged listeners not to emulate their idol. They gave out suicide hotline numbers. They gave out the station phone number and implored suicidal listeners to telephone them.
I had never heard such naked emotion on the air, and did not again until one fine September morning seven years later. Now, the infant daughter Cobain left behind has grown into an adult whose resemblance to her father is a gut punch. FM radio is dead, along with countless musicians populating its airwaves. The world, to quote Stephen King out of context, has moved on.
Given how strangers felt about Cobain’s death, it’s difficult to imagine what his loved ones endured. Eric Erlandson, who co-founded the band Hole with Courtney Love, lost Cobain, bandmate and dear friend
Kristen Pfaff (Nisid Hajari, “Love Hurts Again” EW.Com, 8 July 1994) and several friends and acquaintances to suicide (Pfaff’s death has been ruled an accidental overdose. Nonetheless, one does not toy with heroin.
Erlandson’s book of prose poems, Letters to Kurt, is an effort to understand Cobain’s suicide and arrive at some kind of peace. Initially I wrote closure, then deleted it. Closure is an inaccurate adjective. There are losses we never recover from. Instead, we abide them, going through the mundane business of our days while our pain tirelessly marathons alongside.
Erlandson introduces Letters to Kurt briefly, explaining first his relationship to Courtney Love, with whom he was romantically involved, then his meeting Cobain. Erlandson acted as a sort of sane chaperone to the couple, “a perverse butler”, until everything ended. Erlandson is careful to note he has no wish to vilify Love or glorify Cobain’s decision to kill himself. Erlandson now lives in Los Angeles, where he is a devout practitioner of Nicheren Shoshu Buddhism.
In describing what moved him to pen 52 prose poem letters to Cobain, Erlandson writes: “I’m talking to myself really. But I found Kurt to be the perfect muse. He was someone that I knew briefly, yet loved and admired immensely, a friend whom I wanted so badly to help, yet in the end failed to understand.”
As such, Letters To Kurt is a deeply personal document whose chosen medium, the prose poem, isn’t always immediately accessible to the casual reader. In choosing the form, Erlandson joins other musician/writers like Nick Cave, Henry Rollins, and Jims Carroll and Morrison. The prose poem, in the hands of all but the most talented, can degenerate into word salad. While Letters To Kurt suffers the occasional descent into sentence mashups, these moments are quickly redeemed. Erlandson has studied creative writing, and clearly done his time with Blake and Bukowski. The effort shows in the cultivated, observant eye he brings to more than Cobain. Letters to Kurt is an angry book: about American society, the vagaries of fame, the inability to shake a past that “has a way of seeping up through the floorboards when you least expect it.”
Some readers may be drawn to Letters To Kurt for the wrong reasons. Those seeking dirt can read one of too many biographies, or seek out Cobain’s disturbingly childlike Journals, which Erlandson wishes he’d had the foresight to throw out. Erlandson does offer tidbits only an insider would know: Cobain attempting to board first-class airplane seating, only to be dismissed due to his infamously disheveled appearance. Bad behavior, including noting he could purchase the airplane, did not resolve matters. Later, Erlandson describes cleaning up after Cobain in the Seattle home he shared with Love, a phenomenal mess of discarded frozen dinners, half-eaten muffins, empty pill bottles, abandoned art projects, and a “secret” closet holding shoes and rifles.
Present at Frances Bean Cobain’s birth, he writes witheringly of the infamous Vanity Fair article that shone a frightening, unflattering spotlight on the couple. Erlandson tells of Bifida the cat, terrified and heartbroken, cowering at the veterinarian’s office after Cobain’s suicide. We’re told poor Bifida died of heartbreak and was buried in the flower garden. Then,” Erlandson writes, “I sold the house.” The finality is a slammed door on the public, the invasive press, the grieving mother, the sobbing wife, the toddler, even the cat.
Literal visions of Cobain’s suicide surface repeatedly, in variant, grotesque waking nightmares. After penning a suicide note in red ink and ingesting a large dose of heroin, Cobain successfully aimed a shotgun bullet into his skull. Erlandson revisits the resulting mess in unsparing prose, as if repeatedly imagining the horrific scene will lessen its brutality. It doesn’t. Instead, it slams home the reality of suicide: it ain’t pretty. You might want to die young, but abandon the notion of leaving a beautiful corpse. Instead, be kind to those left behind: arrange for professional carpet cleaners.
Erlandson also discusses Cobain’s funeral, the clothes Cobain was dressed in, the weeping mourners, his own inability to do anything but sit rigidly through the service. I would hope, as Erlandson does, that any reader enamored of suicide or darkly envisioning his or her funeral would be sufficiently moved or mortified to seek help instead of opting out.
Like life, Letters To Kurt is nonlinear, jumping from past from present. Memories of life with Cobain, his death and the attendant fallout are mixed with observations about Los Angeles. Writing about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, touched off by the police beating of Rodney King, Erlandson disgustedly observes that “A cheap video (of the beating) is all that remains.” He pokes fun at yuppies buying organic salads and the Santa Monica police officer who opts for a raw vegan dessert over the traditional cop’s doughnut.
Erlandson is not fond of the digital world. The newspapers, he writes, grow thinner and thinner, their pages increasingly covered with advertisements. (As I write this, New Orleans’ daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, has announced it will print only three times weekly, after 175 years of daily publication.) More than once Erlandson refers to writing Letters to Kurt in a notebook, implicating himself in the clear-cuts he sees while visiting Washington state, where logging is a major industry. He writes scathingly of the self-referential behaviors tied to blogging and social media even as the public grows numb to the world’s horrors. “Almost anything you never wanted is online and one big LIE.” Worse, we are “wasting away in digital nostalgia.”
In writing about fame, Erlandson describes memories of the Beatles deplaning to mobs of adoring fans. The reality, for most musicians, is a demoralizing arc, moving from poverty to glory, with a gradual return to anonymity. Along the way, individuals are subject to public scrutiny, tremendous pressures from record company executives, and great interest from the Internal Revenue Service. As for Cobain, he’s become a tourist attraction in Seattle, Washington, where visitors may board the “Sub Seattle” tour bus to cruise by Cobain’s final residence or make pilgrimages to Seattle Center, where thousands of bereft fans gathered immediately following his death.
Others can visit the Seattle Viretta Park Bench or take in the sign welcoming you to Cobain’s hometown: “Welcome to Aberdeen. Come as you are.” Mockingly, Erlandson writes that in 50 years Cobain will either be forgotten or infamous. Sixteen years later, it appears the latter is true.
Nowhere is Erlandson angrier than when discussing his friend’s decision to die. “By killing yourself you proved quite capable of loving your enemies and hating your friends.” He calls gate 27, that awful portal which so many troubled musicians pass through, stupid (italics Erlandson’s). Yet that Erlandson misses his friend is painfully clear: he sees Cobain’s ghost everywhere, at one point mistaking his own sneakers for Cobain’s infamous Converse All Stars. Writing about Cobain’s 43rd birthday (today he would be 45), Erlandson writes “The missing years become lifetimes.”
The book closes with a long list of acknowledgments, some heartfelt, others ironic. The final page, headed “Condolences”, expresses empathy for anyone impacted by suicide, offering reading and resources for prevention and healing. One not need be a Nirvana fan to appreciate Letters to Kurt. You need not be one of the people who recalls precisely where she was on 5 April 1994, when she heard the news (driving south on Zelzah Boulevard in California’s San Fernando Valley). You need to care about literature enough to read this painfully personal book, then reach out to those in need. Your efforts may not be successful, but there is small comfort in knowing you tried. Sometimes small comfort is all we get: for Eric Erlandson, it will have to suffice.