If you'll permit me to ramble on about something that isn't at all Science Fiction related for a moment here, it occurs to me that had Kurt Cobain not killed himself sixteen years ago last month, he'd still be dead by now.
It might have been 9 years ago, or 8, or 5 or what have you, but he'd still be dead by now. I mention this not because I have anything against poor, dead, suicidal Kurt. I mention it rather because ClearChannel, which owns six local radio stations, is running all kinds of nostalgic programming revolving 'round his death. As such, I've heard endless sound bytes of mid-list celebrities talking about how Nirvana affected them personally, and lamenting how he was cut off in his prime, and deprived the world of all the great songs he had yet to write.
This annoys me, because he cut himself off in his prime. It's always fun to wonder about days of future past and what might have been if, say, the Beatles hadn't broken up, or if Elvis didn't die on the crapper. What bothers me about this is mostly that these kinds of alternate world speculations aren't based on any real knowledge of the person they're speculating about, but instead are just a kind of woolgathering. Everyone who fantasizes about the Beatles continuing on into the 70s ruminates about how they would have continued to be Fab and relevant and musically brilliant and incredibly successful. One guy I know even went so far as to compile their early 70s solo stuff into ersatz 'Beatles' albums, you know, two tracks by George, four by John, three by Paul McCartney and Wings, and Ringo singing "Back off Boogaloo." As colossally useless as that is, no one ever seems to address the facts that (A) the Beatles were done, completely burned out; (B) they couldn't stand each other, and George Martin was kinda' sick of 'em too; and (C) music was changing around them in ways they probably couldn't accommodate. Does anyone want to contemplate the horror of a Beatles Glam Rock Album? How 'bout a Beatles disco album? I don't. I've read a number of essentially fanfic stories about the Beatles in the 70s, and all of them are about John, Paul, George and Ringo, not John, Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko, even though John repeatedly said he wanted to open up the band to new members, and he wanted her to be a part of it. Nor has anyone evidently speculated about the Beatles continuing sans Paul, who clearly wanted to be a solo star, or sans George, who once said "Getting out of the Beatles was the second best thing that ever happened to me in my life." There are no stories about John, George, Ringo, and David Bowie, for instance, or, just for the frack of it, none about Elvis, John, George and Ringo either, even though, obviously that would be the best of all possible worlds.
And what about Elvis? If he hadn't passed on while passing a particularly difficult bowel movement in 1977, what would he have gone on to do? Well, more than likely, nothing of any note. He would have died in another bathroom on a tour bus in '78, or maybe in a bathroom on his plane in '79, assuming they hadn't repossessed it by then, or he would have died in a bathroom in 'Vegas doing an election year fundraiser for Ronald Reagan. Elvis spent a lot of time in the bathroom. He had…uhm…problems. But, you know, if he had the lipo and managed to kick the drugs, there's no reason to assume he would have done anything substantial afterwards. His next five albums would have been every forgettable as the ones he'd recorded between 1973 and his death: useless, vapid, cheesy. If you're really bleeding from the testicles to know how Elvis would have sounded covering, say, songs by Queen, track down an album by the even more tragically dead Elvis impersonator, "Orion." The 80s would have been no more kind to the King than the 70s had been, trust me in this. Anyone want to contemplate New Wave Elvis? I don't. He might have managed to land Bruce Springstein's part in "We Are The World," but that would have been his last gasp.
You can spin all the masturbatory fantasies you want about how, say, he got the Kris Kristoferson part in the remake of "A Star Is Born" and won the Oscar, or that his brush with death reminded him how important life was, and so he ditched the drugs, took up aerobics, hired The Cramps as a backup band, and became part of the cutting edge of the Punk movement, but, you know what kids, it just wasn't gonna happen. Elvis was done. He was completely out of touch with popular culture. Look at the man! Look at how he dressed! Did anyone else wear humpty dumpty rhinestone jumpsuits with a cape? No, nobody did, not even Earth, Wind and Fire for gosh sake! Even if Elvis had lived, he didn't have a clue what was and wasn't popular. He wasn't even all that interested in music anymore. Played out. Done. Over. Finito.
And he unquestionably knew it! Talk to anyone who saw his last concert, anyone who saw his last song: a unplanned encore, just him and a piano on stage, uncontrollably weeping and playing a horribly off-key version of 'Unchained Melody.' I was ten years old when I saw that on TV, and I said to my mom, "He's gonna die." My mom just nodded glumly in agreement. Elvis wanted to die. Maybe he didn't specifically commit suicide, but he certainly didn't attempt to dodge the bullet either. He wanted out. If it didn't happen in '77, it would have happened eventually, more likely sooner than later. I tell you three times, I tell you three times, I tell you three times, Elvis wanted to die, Elvis wanted to die, Elvis wanted to die!
My point being that people want to woolgather about nonexistent albums from a world where the Beatles didn't break up, and where Elvis didn't kack, but no one wants to accept the possibility that those albums would likely suck.
I'm as guilty of this as anyone, I suppose. I've wondered what would have happened if Roy Orbison hadn't died in 1988, thus recording more solo albums as well as at least one more Traveling Willburys CD. (Two lame and pointless fantasies for the price of one!) I grudgingly admit that John Lennon probably still had some good stuff left in him.
But there's a slight difference. John Lennon didn't quit. He was murdered. Roy didn't quit either, but even if he hadn't had a heart attack while flying remote control planes, it was apparent to everyone that his best days were 20 years or more behind him. I recognize his future releases would have been pretty insubstantial. They can't all be Johnny Cash. If he hadn't died, he'd still be crankin' out the albums. Heck, he *IS* dead, and he's still crankin' out the albums (Granted, they've declined in quality a little...) But for every person like Johnny who ran out of life before he ran out of music, you've got a dozen people like George Harrison, who ran out of music long before he ran out of life.
So let's get back to Mr. Cobain, shall we? This past week many have speculated on what he would have done, had he not died. Well, he would have tried to kill himself again, obviously.
"Right, right, right, but that's not what I mean."
No, it's not what you want.
"Whatever…what would Kurt have done musically had he not died?"
I've heard a lot of talk about how he would have continued to be popular, write great tunes, have hit albums, and so forth. No one has remarked upon Pat Smear in any of this. I don't think anyone remembers that Pat joined Nirvana full time after their last album, giving them two guitars for a fuller more complex sound. Changing your sound is always a dicey thing, people may not like it, yet Kurt was doing exactly that. No one has addressed the fact that, had there been another album, it would have sounded considerably different from the previous ones. No one addresses the fact that Dave Grohl has since turned out to be a musician and bandleader of no small talent himself. He and Smear went on to form the Foo Fighters. In fact, I really like Dave better than I ever liked Kurt. So if Nirvana continued on, would emerging wunderkind Grohl have been content to remain merely the drummer, or would he have wanted to contribute more material, and maybe share the spotlight? And how would Kurt have responded to such internal competition? So if Kurt hadn't died, and hadn't retired—both big 'ifs'—it seems to me very likely that the band would have simply broken up in another year or two. None of the kneebiters on the radio have addressed this in their endless refrains of 'what if?'
So why do we do this? My suspicion is that this particular macabre anniversary is motivated more by a desire of record companies to profit off of their back catalog, than any real regard for artistic integrity. Well, duh! I mean, I must've heard 150 Nirvana songs on the radio this weekend, on all the Clearchannel stations. More to the point, I heard fifteen Nirvana songs, ten times each. Just the hits, and various live versions of the hits played endlessly. Probably they threw in some deep cuts, but if so, I didn't hear 'em. I heard nothing off of Bleach, their first album in 1989, I didn't hear the song that starts with an "R" and ends with "Me," which was a single in 1994, but is strangely more controversial now than it was then. (and brother let me tell you it was plenty controversial then.), and I certainly haven't heard anything obscure, like, say, "Territorial Pissings,"* In short, I haven't heard anything this week that I wasn't already sick to death of.
It's also curious to note that most of the people talking about Kurt's death are people who were kids when he died—teenagers and such, or even younger —no one really his age or older. (I'm the same age as Kurt, give or take a few months. We were both born in '67.) That's fine. Teenage friends of mine had posters of Sid Vicious up in their rooms when we were kids. But I have to think that what's going on here is that kids who were mopey, dispossessed adolescents in 1994 are now pushing forty in a big, bad, scary world full of terrorists, income taxes, declining standards of living, eroding social functions, a dead economy, and two land wars in Asia. Everything old is new again. I think, and I suspect, and I'm pretty sure that the obsessing I've heard of late has more to do with 40 year olds wishing they could be semi-irresponsible 17 year olds again, and living vicariously through something that affected them emotionally at that time.
Really, sadly, it's not all that different than when 'Old Wave Nights' started happening in clubs in the early '90s. Remember those? Go out and drink and dance to songs you danced to when you were 15, but now you dance ironically, whatever the hell that means. Everyone remembers where they were when they got the news 'bout Kurt, but who really gives a damn where they were when they heard Baltimora** died?—but this is a difference in degree and not in kind.
When Elvis died, he was broke. His ex-wife inherited Graceland, and turned it into a tourist trap. She registered Elvis' image as a copyright, and licensed it to untold numbers of companies. This is why The King's image was more commonplace in 2005 than it was in 1975, and 'Cilla made a bundle off of it. Hundreds of thousands of people a year make pilgrimages to Elvis' home, buy tacky merchandise, and go home again acting like they've circumambulated the Ka'bah or something.
The Stray Cats, of all people, put it best in their last-ever single, "Elvis on Velvet" in 1992:
Well Graceland wasteland
right this way ma'am
one low price to pay
His life, his love,
his home, his stuff,
his final resting place
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
thy records re-released
All kneel to second guess and bless him,
let him rest in peace
This kind of economic necrophilia bothers me, and it's exactly what I don't want to happen to Kurt's memory. I'm not his biggest fan by a longshot, but I can recognize that the pain in some people's lives is too much for them to live with. To take that pain, and trivialize it through merchandising seems obscene to me. Buy the albums, and if you have memories of the guy that mean something to you, keep them and share them, but ten years from now, when they have a vote as to which version of Kurt you want on a postage stamp—Kurt Unplugged or Pink Hair Kurt—vote 'none of the above.' Likewise, don't dress your 2-year-old daughter up in a cute little t-shirt that's just her size and has Kurt's picture on it, and don't buy the commemorative postcard set, nor the capodimonte soup tureen in the shape of his head, nor the Nirvana Croquette Set, because I'm here to tell you that sooner or later someone will market those things.
The man is dead. If it's to have any meaning for you, keep it close, keep it personal, and don't let them make an industry out of it.
* available on "Out of the Womb: The In Utero Demos"—1993, Alley Kat Records
** He was the guy who sang "Tarzan Boy." He was also the first American Musical Celebrity (Albeit a verrrrrrrrry minor one) to die of AIDS. I believe that was 1986 or '87.