I was driving east from Queens last week and it took three hours to move thirty miles. If I was riding a horse that would be impressive, but I was driving an automobile. I wasn’t impressed at all.
This turned into a brief existential crisis. I’ve driven east and west during Long Island rush hours in my life and it’s hard to find the meaning in millions of people moving slower than cyclists toward places that most of them don’t want to spend any time in.
So, I went through that crisis again. There was a man to my right driving a newish Lexus. He was in his late 50’s in professional clothes with a wedding band on his ring finger. He didn’t look particularly unhappy, he just looked tired.
I thought about how he would be considered to be a very lucky person by most metrics. Apparently he had money. He was married. Presumably, he had children and if so he probably loved them. It would be hard to believe that he didn’t own the home he lived in. Living in a home at all is pretty good when you consider how bad things can get.
But there he was. I thought that it was likely that he woke up at 5:30 AM to get to work on time, and that he still would have been late to work, because it’s impossible to be on time when you’re fighting that kind of traffic. And he would have spent his day in those uncomfortable clothes practicing copyright law or taking part in some other very boring and probably unimportant thing. Come 6:00 PM he would have gotten back in his Lexus and spent another two to three hours going home, just in time to open mail.
I was listening to FM radio (the novelty!) and feeling sad that I didn’t want to sing along to classic rock anymore when the DJ came on and said that it was the 28th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain. It feels important to say something about this, if only to the hypothetical you that will (hopefully) read some of this when you’re around the age that I was when he died.
He was the frontman of Nirvana and the music he made will probably be buried under the next seven years of American culture when and if you read this. When I was your age I thought it was the most amazing stuff I would ever hear. Now it sounds flat and uninspired, which I think is what happens when record industry executives wave piles of money in an artist’s face and tell them to make music.
12 year old me thought Kurt Cobain was as close to perfect as a person could be. I don’t actually remember much of my life from before this hero worship developed, and I don’t remember when I first came in contact with his band. All I remember is that I was intensely in love with a man who I would never meet and my whole identity revolved around my ideas about him.
He was everything I hoped I would be in my life: Adored, fearless, unapologetic, beautiful, and not just tolerated but beloved. I was too young to see any flaws or have any skepticism and I hung on every word he spoke like it was gospel truth when in hindsight a lot of it was just expressions of damage and immaturity.
And a thing happened in connection with my worship of the man: All my awkward insecurity and terrible fear made a little more sense. I think I became more accepting of myself. I had this personal hero to consider. I had someone to emulate.
MTV was a thing when I was 12 and hasn’t been for a while now. Good riddance to it. But back then it was an arbiter of American youth culture. I watched it all the time. They played Nirvana videos every five minutes, and when he went missing after checking himself out of rehab that fact was on constant rotation and I was sincerely freaked out, because anyone with any insight into anything knew that he was dead.
A few days later his remains were found and it was ruled a suicide. I imagine you have some understanding of what suicide is and what it means. And what it says.
It is easy to minimize the impact of this event in the present, and everyone did minimize it at the time. But it destroyed me. Anyone who observed my reaction would have thought it was ridiculous. I didn’t know the man, could never have known him, and he was a strung out guy in his late 20’s who made music of dubious quality, not a Kennedy or a parent.
I was unable to stop crying for a week. I refused to go to school. My first day back another student taunted me with a joke about the suicide and I punched him in the face, and so I was suspended and back home, able to cry some more.
This was a pivot point in my life. Again, it is easy to see it as silly and out of proportion in early middle-age, and people said that to me at the time, failing to understand the situation. I hated them for it, and I think this is where that pivot was: I became very angry. The pretty artist who mocked dull conformity was lost and aggression seemed to be the only other outlet for addressing all the things I hated about myself and the world. I became dangerous.
The dark things about the man were the things that became attractive to me, because success and love had done nothing for him. All the self-destruction in his past had made him a legend and all the happiness in his future made him a corpse. I had received a lot of messaging in my life that I was worthless, and I decided I would be excellent at worthlessness. From there it was easy to set out on a decade of self-destruction and bad decisions.
From the vantage point of 2022 I have a better understanding of this event and, I think, of myself.
The man that I idealized in 1993 was just 27 years old. I have made it up to, past and through that age. At 27 I know for a fact that I was an absolute fool. I thought I understood the world and myself and I didn’t. I was immature and impulsive, casually cruel and thoughtless and couldn’t conceive of the fact that I was led around by my damage. I wasn’t fit to be anyone’s hero, and neither was he.
But we don’t get to choose that sort of thing. It happens. A person meets the responsibility of being an idol or they fail and become a tragedy instead. All he would have had to have done was survive and he could have given all the young people that emulated him a precious gift: He could have said, “I’m not a hero. I’m fucked up. I’m heartbroken. I’m going to keep living and try to fix it and I’ll tell you how it goes.”
I don’t judge people for deciding to leave in this way. What’s the point? They’re gone, and releasing more shame into the psychic atmosphere isn’t going to help anyone. But I do think we have a responsibility to make the world not just liveable but amazing. I want it to be a place that you’d be crazy to want to miss out on.
And it’s not that right now. It can be terrifying, boring and painful, and in large part it is that way because powerful people make decisions that make it so. Don’t let them win.
Be skeptical of heroes. Try to find things to idolize in the people around you instead of in celebrities, athletes and politicians. While I can say with complete certainty that they will be deeply fallible and will absolutely disappoint you, with any luck they’ll know that they have a responsibility to you to stay alive and try to refine themselves over the years.
And as for Kurt Cobain, I hope that there is peace for him, even if that peace is nonexistence. He was a beautiful, broken person who the entertainment industry slapped a label and a price-tag on before they dolled him up as a culture hero, and a bunch of other beautiful, broken children bought a package deal of heartache and disappointment from them. It would have been better for the world had this fake rebellion never turned into mainstream rock anthems and vapid rock journalism. They manufactured and sold hopelessness. Don’t buy hopelessness. It’s a shitty product.