Trigger Warning: Suicide
Did you ever have those nights where your parents would drag you to their friends’ house with them? It usually sucked. You’d just end up sitting in the basement, waiting to go home while half-watching TV. And when your friend came over, they got dragged along with you. It was so embarrassing!
April 5, 1994 was one of those nights. Me, my sister and one of my BFFs were flipping channels in a basement that wasn’t ours while my dad’s thundering giggle echoed downstairs from upstairs. Being the remote-hog I am, it mostly remained on the Nation’s Music Station, Much Music. I can’t remember what I wanted to watch… a Spotlight? Combat des Clips? It was too early for Electric Circus (plus I didn’t like that music, I told myself at the time).
The high-pitched guitars and drum machine of Fax came on. This was their news show, which had full half-hours and Rapid Fax segments played among and between shows. Host, Monika Deol, took her typically serious tone (she shed this tone during dance party show Electric Circus). She opened her bold-lipsticked mouth to tell Canada what happened that day.
“Shocking news from the alternative music world… Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, has taken his own life…”
I’m paraphrasing, but that’s all I remember. My friend was absolutely shocked and in tears. I observed her, wondering about her emotions from my adolescent perspective. Why was she so upset? She didn’t know him, and she liked Ace of Base better than Nirvana. I liked Nirvana, but their songs weren’t very meaningful to me. We knew he was depressed, we knew he did drugs. I recognized the sadness, but I didn’t exactly connect to it.
One of my childhood heroes had died almost exactly a month before Kurt. John Candy died of a heart attack on March 4, 1994 at the relatively young age of 42. Even though it’d been awhile since I’d thought of him, it was devastating. The affable, silly guy who flipped big-ass pancakes with a shovel in Uncle Buck wouldn’t be there to make people laugh anymore. I was sad, a few people at school mentioned it, then we moved on.
Kurt was different, though. We were all barely teenagers in Catholic school, trying to make sense of it all.
“All that money and fame. What a waste.”
”All that talent. What a waste.”
”Who cares? He was just a junkie.”
”I heard he was depressed.”
”Nirvana sucked anyway.”
”He was the voice of our generation.”
“Suicide’s a sin. He’s going to hell.”
”Suicide is selfish.”
”His poor wife and daughter.”
”That bitch of a wife killed him.”
The last one bothered me the most. It was the favorite theory of the immature boys at recess. It was my dad’s “joke.” That Kurt woke up from his “drug-induced stupor” and saw “[the woman] he was married to” and… you can fill in the rest. That being married to a woman who didn’t live up to my father’s particular beauty standards was worth killing oneself over. I rolled my eyes, but recognized and was hurt by the misogyny.
Hole’s Live Through This came out shortly after and I felt an immediate connection. The widow Cobain, Courtney Love, was loud and brash, but vulnerable at the same time. I loved her baby-doll dresses, messy bleached hair and the way she’d prop her foot on an amp not caring if anyone saw her undies. I read and watched interviews and learned about her tumultuous upbringing, her sex worker past and her frankness about her drug use. I was shocked to discover that she’d left Billy Corgan for Kurt and thought it was a boss move when she threw a compact at Madonna (I loved Madonna, too, but this is one of the most iconic CLove moments of all-time). I felt like Madonna walked so Courtney could run—unabashed, ballsy, smart, sexy, one-of-a-kind women who were seen as unruly.
If we had access to the public vigil for Kurt that aired on MTV, I didn’t catch it. But a few months later, a good chunk of it was included in a “Ten Years of Alternative Music” special Much aired.
The breaks and cracks in Courtney’s voice. Her ad-libbing, angrily calling him an asshole. Sniffles and audible tears. This woman whom I’d gotten to know as best as I could over the past few months had lost her husband, the love of her life. Kurt left his daughter fatherless. And I couldn’t believe the crowd of people in Seattle. I knew that Nirvana were popular, but the mass of crowds crying, mourning, lighting candles and leaning on one another opened my eyes to how much he meant to my generation.
Over the past 25 years, some of Kurt’s closest contemporaries have died by suicide or overdose—Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots) come to mind. Beyond grunge, some of my faves like Michael Hutchence, Prince and Amy Winehouse have gone in similar fashion. Nowadays, we’re less inclined to jump to conspiracy theories and snap judgments. We want to discuss addiction and mental health. We want to share about what they meant to us. Sure, a lot of the grieving on social media seems performative. But when it’s real, it’s real.
I’d like to go back to that girl on that couch who was wondering if she was a bad person for not crying when Kurt Cobain died and tell her that there are many ways to grieve. That she won’t cry at most of the funerals to come in her future. This girl was already wise to the fact that she knew what her depression was—but not why sometimes she felt so irate, so reactionary, so talkative and so not tired. I’d tell her she’d find out why, but it’d be a tough road and she’d be strong. She would think about suicide, too, and that’s okay. She’d even make a feeble attempt at it. She’d be brushed off by psychologists and be given short-term band-aid prescriptions. She’d make stupid decisions but she’d make lots of memories. She’d find a form of stability. She’d be able to share her writing. She would be loved.
It’s commonly accepted (though we don’t know if he ever had an official diagnosis) that Kurt Cobain lived with bipolar disorder. We lost Amy Winehouse to addiction while battling this mental illness. The other day, news broke that Britney had checked into a mental health facility to take extra care of her life with the same illness. When a bipolar person dies by suicide or dies by overdose, it’s easy to see ourselves reflected. Britney is surviving her battle. I have admiration and respect for all three of them. A bipolar life isn’t an easy one, but I’m trying. And to do a Kurt/Britney mash-up, it takes a little peace, love and empathy to make me stronger than yesterday.