Difficult to believe as it is, April 5, 2002 marks the eighth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The event was seized upon by the media at the time as being of earth-shattering significance: the death of grunge, the defining moment of Generation X, and the end of one of the most promising musical careers of recent years. In some ways, Cobain’s death was a relief, or at any rate not much of a surprise, to anyone who had been paying attention to the turbulent events of his life in the previous six or so months. At the start of the ’90s, Kurt Cobain appeared to be the savior of rock ‘n’ roll. He was a beacon of hope to the black and flannel set, who saw him emerge from the fog of macho groups like Guns N’ Roses as the only guy who could wear liberalism on his sleeve, begging sexist, racist, and homophobic rednecks not to buy his records, while still gaining their admiration by rocking fucking hard. When Cobain and his soon-to-be wife, Hole singer Courtney Love, appeared on the cover of the hip, intelligent teen magazine Sassy in April 1992, it confirmed that the pair were the new king and queen of rock.
That is why it was so painful and shocking to watch his downward spiral, which was well documented in the press. Just five months after the Sassy article was published, an interview with Lynn Hirschberg in Vanity Fair implied that Love abused heroin during her pregnancy with the couple’s daughter, Frances Bean, born August 19,1992. While Hirschberg obviously had an agenda of portraying the couple as the Sid and Nancy of the ’90s, the events that followed made it clear that Cobain, despite his disdain for the trappings of rock stardom, was poised to fall into an all-too-typical nightmare of drugged-out celebrity excess. While flattering features in Spin and The Advocate portrayed the Cobains as a happy if offbeat family, the truth was that Kurt Cobain had a serious drug problem. Nearly a year after her husband’s death, Love admitted in a Spin interview that Cobain had overdosed several times; while in the hospital for stomach problems on the day of Frances’ birth, he arranged for a dealer to inject a needle into his IV, and while in New York for a show on July 23, 1993, he collapsed with his eyes still open.
Somehow, he managed to keep working. Nirvana released its third studio album, In Utero, on September 21, and taped a memorable performance for MTV’s “Unplugged” on November 8. It wasn’t until March of the following year that the public became aware of the severity of Cobain’s problems. On March 3 or 4, Cobain overdosed on tranquilizers and alcohol while on tour in Rome. Despite claims to the contrary at the time, it was later confirmed to have been a suicide attempt. In the February 1995 issue of Spin, Love revealed that Cobain had even written a note: “It was on hotel stationery, and he’s talking about how I’m not in love with him anymore, and he can’t go through another divorce [referring to his parents]. And then the next page is like how we’re destined to be together, and how he knows how much I love him, and please don’t take this personally, and how Dr. Baker [a senior psychotherapist at Canyon Ranch, a health and wellness resort the couple attended] said that like Hamlet, he had to choose life or death, and that he’s choosing death.” (p. 51)
Things only got worse after Cobain returned home. After he locked himself in a room of the couple’s home in Seattle on March 18, Love called the police, who seized three handguns, a semiautomatic rifle, and several boxes of ammunition. Reaching a breaking point, Love called for a “tough love” intervention on March 25. Cobain entered rehab in California on March 28, but ran away just 36 hours later. According to Love, he attempted to phone her Beverly Hills hotel room on April 2, but was unable to get through. Three days later, in a room above the garage of the couple’s Seattle house, Cobain shot himself in the head. On April 7, Love was treated for a suspected overdose in Beverly Hills and subsequently arrested for possession of drugs. The following day, an electrician discovered Cobain’s body. In a case of very good or very poor timing, Hole’s second album, Live Through This, hit stores on April 12.
Because of the timing of its release, it is difficult to interpret Live Through This as anything other than eerily prescient. In some ways, Hole’s breakthrough album and Nirvana’s final studio statement, In Utero, stand as two sides of the same coin. Together, they provide a fascinating look into the breakdown of a rock god and his marriage from the perspectives of both the hero and the heroine. They are also arguably two of the finest albums of the ’90s.
Whether or not his lyrics can be interpreted as purely autobiographical is debatable, but Cobain had suggested that this element of his songwriting existed in the April 1992 Sassy interview, and made a wildly inaccurate prediction about his future musical direction. “My songs have always been frustrating themes, relationships that I’ve had,” he said. “And now that I’m in love, I expect it to be really happy, or at least there won’t be half as much anger as there was.” (p. 79) Anyone who read this statement must have been even more shocked upon hearing In Utero for the first time than those who were expecting Nirvana to deliver Nevermind, Part II. Few albums that achieved as much airplay and sales as In Utero are so unrelentingly abrasive, and while the musical side of the assault was achieved in part because of the choice of Steve Albini as producer, Cobain’s pained lyrics are every bit as affecting.
From the opening lines of the first track, it’s obvious Cobain is willing to talk about his disillusionment with fame: “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”, he sings on “Serve the Servants”. He even refers to his chronic stomach problems on “Pennyroyal Tea”, singing, “I’m anemic royalty / I’m on warm milk and laxatives / Cherry-flavored antacids”. Thus, it’s difficult not to assume his allusions to the confining nature of romantic relationships are personal as well. The most obvious example of this is “Heart-Shaped Box”, which mixes symbols of love and confinement. “She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak / I’ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for a week”, Cobain, who was in fact a Pisces, sings. There is also a disturbing mixture of birth and death images in the line “Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back”.
Cobain also seems to play with the popular perception of his relationship with Love on the scathing “Milk It” (“I am my own parasite / I don’t need a host to live / We feed off of each other / We can share our endorphins”) and in the clever line “Bi-polar opposites attract” in “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”. The latter song also sums up the general consensus about the pairing of the reluctant rock idol and his more resilient wife: “I love you for what I am not / I do not want what I have got”. The song that had the most emotional resonance after Cobain’s death, however, was the closing track, “All Apologies”. Reading like a precursor to his suicide note, the song includes such self-loathing lines as “Everything is my fault” and “I’ll take all the blame”. Stunning, too, is how Cobain takes the idea of love as entrapment explored in “Heart-Shaped Box” one step further, singing “I’m married / Buried”. After such an emotional workout, it’s a comfort that Cobain ends the song, and the album, with the refrain “All in all is all we are” as though it were a mantra to sustain him. Too bad it didn’t.
While Live Through This explores the same themes of frustration, pain, and self-doubt as In Utero, it differs drastically because it is fueled by Love’s ferocious self-determination and will to survive. Like Cobain, Love admitted to the existence of an autobiographical element in her songs when she told Spin in a February 1995 interview, “I may lie a lot, but never in my lyrics.” (p. 45) What we glean from them is picture of a woman under attack but not, like Cobain, “all apologies”. “I made my bed / I’ll lie in it” she growls on “Miss World”, then asserts on “Gutless” that “You can try to suck me dry / But there’s nothing left to suck”. Like Cobain, however, Love mixes words relating to relationships and family into something horrific, like on “Jennifer’s Body”, where she sings “My better half has bitten me”, “Sleeping with my enemy — myself”, and, most chilling in light of Cobain’s suicide, “With a bullet, number one / Kill the family, save the son — himself”. It’s hard not to interpret “Asking for It” as one of Love’s comments on the price of fame, where she sings “Was she asking for it?” and “If you live through this with me / I swear that I will die for you”.
The song that really hit a nerve with the public, however, was the second single, “Doll Parts”, the most emotionally naked track that Love has ever recorded. “I fake it so real, I am beyond fake / And someday you will ache like I ache” she asserts. Hearing that song after Cobain’s death brought home the fact that, no matter what her faults, Love had been through a hell of a lot more than most of us could comprehend. In those first post-Nirvana months, it was a comfort to hear her simple answer to Kurt Cobain’s struggle with fame; “Yeah, they really want you”, she sings, “But I do too”. In the end, though, fame won.
In the final words of his suicide note, Cobain had written, “Please keep going Courtney, for Frances, for her life which will be so much happier without me.” Not only did Love keep going, but with Live Through This she expressed and helped purge the grief her husband’s fans were feeling. There could hardly have been two more timely albums than In Utero and Live Through This, but their impact has not lessened in the years that have passed since their release. The raw emotional energy their creators invested in them precludes that. So, while Cobain is no longer here to share his talents, and Love has moved on to other projects and only makes music sporadically, the music they recorded in the early ’90s continues to engage, drain, and ultimately uplift their fans.