Friday, April 8, 2011

On Kurt Cobain, Punk Rock, and Baseball

Yes, looking at the title of this blog, you are probably thinking, "One of these things is not like the others." It's true, but baseball was actually the topic that I was going to write a blog about today. Then I thought I would be remiss not to mention Kurt Cobain today. Then I thought my brain works in such a tangential fashion, I bet I can connect the two somehow, so let's see...

If you are music nerd or Nirvana is your all-time favorite band like me, then you probably know that this week is not a happy week in music/Nirvana history. April 5 (a Tuesday this year, just like it was in 1994) is the day that Kurt Cobain actually died according to medical examiners, though his body was not found until Friday, April 8 of 1994 when an electrician went by his house to install a security system, looked into the window of the greenhouse over the garage and saw Kurt's body. (In a rather eerie coincidence it is also the day that they think Layne Staley of Alice in Chains died of heroin overdose, eight years after Kurt, though his body wasn't discovered until April 20th.) April 8 of 1994 was the day that the world found out that Kurt Cobain was dead and as a result April 8th is always the day that affects me most.

This year on April 5, I lit a candle and listened to the cover of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" that Nirvana did on MTV Unplugged. Though it was recorded months before Kurt died, there is something about the way he takes a deep breath and opens his eyes before singing the very last line of the song, that feels like goodbye. After Kurt died, I watched the videotape that I'd recorded MTV Unplugged on so many times that I memorized this moment and I can still see it vividly whenever I listen to the song.

Today, I woke up feeling blue and realized, Oh, it's April 8, no wonder... Today, I will listen to nothing but Nirvana. And that's why today I have to write about Kurt Cobain even though I feel like I've said all I could and at the same time still can't find the right words after seventeen years (seventeen years! Fuck, I feel old!) to express why Kurt and Nirvana make me feel this way.

I kind of feel like a dork because this still gets to me-- and not a dork in the dorks/nerds are cool way. When I feel like a dork/nerd, it's still a bad feeling. Those are not words that I can completely reclaim. Dork/nerd still means socially inept and laughed at by my peers. It still means the shame of being hopelessly uncool that I lived with daily in grade school and in high school too, but in a different way and we'll get to that later.

But anyway, part of me feels like I should be ashamed for some reason that Nirvana matters so much to me and that April 8 bums me out. Still. I was talking to a friend the other night who pointed out that now Kurt Cobain has been dead for longer than he was alive during our lifetimes. Seventeen years. I was fourteen when he died. And I guess part of the reason it still affects me so much is because that was such a pivotal point in my life. When I mentioned feeling blue over Kurt today on twitter, Jon Skovron, a YA writer I admire immensely (read Struts and Frets if you haven't, he brings music alive on the page like few can do) said simply that Kurt "made the music we needed" and that pretty much sums it up. I wrote this essay about it ten years after Kurt died when I went to Seattle for the first time to pay tribute to him. It tells about the first time I heard Nirvana at the age of 12 in the bedroom of my one friend who seemed fearless and didn't care what anyone else thought of her eclectic tastes. It tells about the day, seventeen years ago, when my best friend who was very messed up for her own reasons, broke the news of Kurt's death to me in a rather cruel fashion. It tells about my journey to Seattle at the age of twenty-four to finally pay tribute to the man and the band that influenced me so greatly, a journey that was probably as much a pivotal moment in my life as Kurt's death. But that essay still doesn't explain everything and I don't know if I can.

It really does come down to Kurt Cobain made the music that I needed at the time I needed it the most. "Smells like Teen Spirit" became a hit the fall that I entered junior high. The preceding summer I'd decided to stop trying to be cool and just be myself. This meant taking honors classes and not being ashamed of it or letting the cool kids copy my homework just to try to win their favor. This meant dressing how I wanted to dress because I thought the preppy plain Gap t-shirt and little white Keds sneakers style was fucking boring and also I couldn't afford The Gap. I liked the clothes I found at the Salvation Army and the vintage boutique two blocks from my house. I liked my little white boots that looked like ice skates and my Converse sneakers. I liked loud striped tights on some days and all black on others. So this is how I dressed when I started seventh grade and I endured the taunts in the hallways every day because I was going to be me. A large part of the reason I wanted to be me was Kurt Cobain. When I discovered Nirvana, I found something that expressed what I felt inside, both the anger and the desire for freedom of expression. Seeing Nirvana out there doing what they did and succeeding at it made me believe that I could do the same thing. Nirvana also introduced me to punk rock and a bunch of other bands that would give me that same outlet. In the early 90s, I didn't have access to the internet and millions of bands at my fingertips. I had MTV's 120 minutes and I had Rolling Stone, Spin, and Sassy magazines. I read interviews with Kurt Cobain over and over. He was always mentioning other bands like The Sex Pistols and the Screaming Trees and Mudhoney and L7 and Bikini Kill and The Vaselines and PJ Harvey and on and on and on. So I went to the store and bought albums by these bands on his recommendation. That's how I found the music I loved.

By the beginning of freshman year of high school, my thrift store look with Converse sneakers and/or Doc Marten boots was suddenly hip. The popular girls that had mocked me were ripping off my style. It was kind of obnoxious. But at the same time, it didn't matter because I was still in my own world with my music and my poetry, trying to find my own way. My best friend had moved away to live with an aunt because her grandmother was dying of cancer. She was in a lot of pain but didn't know how to express it. She started smoking pot. I disapproved even though I myself was in a lot of pain over losing her and not feeling like I fit in anywhere for so many years and I didn't know how to express it so I was cutting myself. My life had probably been fucked-up for about a year before Kurt Cobain killed himself, but I think that the reason that his death still affects me so much is because when I examine that time period, I see childhood before Kurt died and a very difficult adolescence afterward.

In an early version of BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, Kara starts going to Scoville Park just days before Kurt Cobain dies and she witnesses the affect his death has on the kids there. My editor told me I should cut this because Kurt Cobain's death also happens and affects the characters in I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and my readers might think I was repeating myself. This was one of those dork moments where I felt my own personal obsession shining through. But I cut the scene and changed it so that Kara goes to Scoville after Kurt dies. That's how it was in my own life anyway. My description of Scoville Park on the day that Kurt died actually came from memories that my current/high school best friend (different from the aforementioned best friend, who was my childhood best friend) shared with me because she went to the park that day. I didn't. I wouldn't start hanging out there until fall of my sophomore year, but part of the reason I started going was because I felt so alone on the day Kurt died and I wanted friends that understood my musical obsessions and to put it bluntly, were freaks like me.

So before Kurt Cobain died, I was mostly a loner, who definitely was struggling with depression, mainly via bad poetry and self injury. After he died, I found my people.... but I also started doing drugs and was in some very unhealthy and destructive relationships with boys. I thought ages eight through foureen were bad, but it was nothing compared to fifteen through twenty-one. When I mourn Kurt Cobain, I am also mourning the time period in my life that followed it. This is what makes his music and his death so personal to me. Nothing spoke to me like his songs, but man, that girl that those songs spoke to was fucked up. And all of this is wrapped up in April 8th, which is why the beginning of April has historically been a bad time for me.

Part of that changed the first time I visited Seattle in 2004. That visit is best explained in my Fresh Yarn essay. I went there in full-on music nerd mode. I wanted to pay tribute to Kurt in the way I'd been too young to do when he died. Yes, I visited the more morbid sites like the house where he shot himself, but I also went to the places that Nirvana played and that had mattered to Kurt when he was living. And I fell in love with Seattle. That was completely unintentional. I had friends who were obsessed with Seattle because we grew up in the grunge era, but I'd always been more fascinated by other places like Minneapolis (which ultimately let me down) and New Orleans (which I still love). And I'd only just accepted Chicago as home. But on the bus ride from the airport to downtown, just looking at all the green and the water and smelling the air, I realized this is the place where my heart wants me to be. I still haven't been able to get it together financially to move there, but dammit, I will. Seattle and my visit to the park next to Kurt's house where Nirvana fans go to pay tribute to him finally started to heal ten-plus years of old wounds. And it seemed poetic, it happening in a park when a park played such a significant role in my post-Kurt Cobain's death teenage years.

Much like it is for Kara in BALLADS, Scoville Park was a place of both great joy and great despair for me. I finally found my people, the friends who understood what made me tick, friends that I've loved since the day I met them and will love ever since despite occasional times of trouble. I also lost a lot. Much of it centers around the boy who I fell in love with because he kinda looked like Kurt Cobain and I thought he had the same ethics as Kurt Cobain, but it turned out that he was abusive and a compulsive liar. However, I also felt like I had just as hard of a time fitting in at Scoville Park as I did with the popular crowd at my grade school sometimes. I was not as hip as the other punk and indie rocker kids. I don't know how to explain it, but I'm just not. I tried. I went through a stage when I was 16 when I wouldn't listen to anyone (besides Nirvana of course) who was on a major label and I tried to be up on all the latest bands and like who I was supposed to like even if I didn't because punk rock was my safe haven. But after the fallout of my abusive relationship with a guy who was also a punk and still for some reason allowed in the safe haven, I became jaded about the whole thing. Some punks I realized were just as big of snobs as those Gap-wearing preppy kids. It took a long time for me to find balance. I barely listened to punk for years because I was so disgusted.

I can't really explain it, but there was something about sitting in Kurt's park in 2004 and remembering the reason I loved his music in the first place that made me take stock of who I really am.

I love punk rock, but if a band I love gets popular, as long as they are still making music I can relate to,I am happy for them, I don't think they are sell-outs. I still love the bands that shaped me like Nirvana and Alice in Chains even though they are not considered punk by most people. Hell, I even love Pink because she speaks to me, I think she is punk at heart because I still love Kurt Cobain's definition of punk rock best: "Punk rock is freedom." To me, that's what it was always about. The freedom to be exactly what I wanted to be, to write words even if they were darker than I should be writing about, to wear whatever I wanted to wear, to listen to the music that moved me, to be politically active and fight for change. It's not about Mohawks and some strict code of ethics.

I'm not vegan because it's punk rock. I'm vegan because it's what I believe in.

I count Nirvana, Hole, Social Distortion, Rancid and Civet among my favorite bands because they write songs that touch me. I don't care what record label they are on or how cool it is to like them.

I still love to wear flannel and ripped jeans and band t-shirts because they are comfortable. I also like to dress up and wear funky tights and sometimes appear to be very stylish and sometimes appear to be very weird.

And to bring me to my last point, I like baseball. I pretended not to like any sports from roughly seventh grade until I was about twenty-three because the kids who liked sports were the kids that mocked and beat up on kids like me. It was not punk rock to like sports because of this. (At least that is my rationale, no rationale ever seemed to be given.) This seems to have changed some and I'm glad of it, but that's not why I let myself love certain sports again. Baseball was a huge part of my childhood. My father and I did not always have the best relationship growing up, but my fondest memories of him are at baseball games, carefully keeping his scorecard. Born in St Louis, I was a raised a Cardinals fan. This is why I became a White Sox fan when I moved to Chicago in 1988. Being a Cubs fan is unacceptable in my family, but I wanted to cheer for a team that I could actually watch on TV semi regularly (the Cubs still dominated the airwaves back then) and go to see, so I chose the White Sox. It wasn't until I started bartending at the Beacon when I was twenty-three that I rediscovered my love for baseball. I bartend at a predominantly White Sox bar and I worked afternoon shifts, meaning that it was just me and the ballgame on a lot of days. My second year of this, in 2005, things got exciting because the White Sox were really, really good! I remember the day they clinched their division. I was alone in the bar, but moments later, a friend/regular who lives across the street and works from home, came running in for a celebratory drink.

"Did you high-five the tappers?" he asked me. If he wasn't an even bigger fan than me, I might have blushed when I admitted, "Yeah, I sure did."

Unfortunately when they went on to the World Series, I went to LA for a semester. I was living with a Cubs fan in a city filled with Angels fans, who the White Sox had conquered to get to the World Series. The day they won, I had no one to celebrate with, so I called the bar and asked my fellow bartender to let me talk to a few people and just put the phone on the bar so I could hear all the screaming and shouting.

Usually I miss the White Sox home opener because I often go to Seattle in April with the friends that I went with in 2004 and had that paradigm-shifting experience because being there reminds me of the good that ultimately came from the first week of April in 2004 instead of the ugliness that seemed to resonate around that time of year for the first ten years after Kurt died. This year we aren't going until August, so I jumped at the opportunity to go to the game with my friends from the Beacon.

It was a cold and foggy day, but we won 5 to 1 and I jumped around and high-fived my friends, excited as I am when I go to a concert. I will never get into football, I'm not much of a basketball fan, but I really love hockey and especially baseball. This is part of me and I embrace it.

I'm sure it didn't happen all at once during those days in Kurt's park on April 5 and 8 of 2004. It happened gradually. Part of it was going back to school for writing at twenty-one instead of continuing down the destructive, drunk and drugged path I was on. Part of it was working at the Beacon at twenty-three, which is why I had to write a book about bartending because it has opened my eyes in a similar way that music and reading has. I met people who seemed very different from me on the surface, but at the core we related, we bonded over things from gardening to reading to baseball. But it definitely really came together for me at twenty-four/almost twenty-five when I finally made that trek to Seattle. That's when I decided to set aside as much of the grief and anger from my past as I could and embrace all of the parts that made up the person I am--the writer, the grunge kid, the teenage punk rocker and riot grrrl, the twenty year-old goth, all the way back to the shy, nerdy little girl who loved books and baseball.

It's strange thinking that I was finally beginning to put these things together at twenty-four, the age Kurt Cobain was when he was thrust into the limelight by the success of his band, something he both dreamed of, but hated himself for dreaming about because of those stupid faux punk rock ethos that are not freeing at all. He was depressed and as someone who has struggled with that, I get it. Also, though my addictions were never as gripping as his, I get that aspect of it too. I can see now, how it all fell apart for him, though I wish, especially for the sake of his daughter, that it hadn't. Maybe In Utero still would have been the best thing that Nirvana ever created. Maybe he would have faded away. Or maybe he would have found himself and did something even more brilliant. It still makes me sad to wonder. And I don't care if it makes me a dork or uncool to admit that.

I want to say thank you, Kurt Cobain, for the music that has inspired me now for almost twenty years, for the strength you gave me while you were around to try to be myself and then finally, ten years after your death, to *actually* be myself and embrace all sides of me because that's when things started happening. A year after that I found an agent and got out of my last destructive relationship with a guy. I went on to sell books and learn to love myself and finally find someone who loved me the right way. There are still moments of darkness because that--the depression, the pessimism, the girl who still wants to wear all black on some days--is still a part of me, but I've learned to embrace that too, use it for what it's good for, which is creating art, but not let it stop me from being (mostly) optimistic. As you sung, Kurt, "The sun is gone, but I have a light." You helped me find that light. I'm sorry you couldn't find it yourself, but thank you for sharing it with so many others.


Katherine said...

My favorite Nirvana MTV Unplugged song was always the cover of "Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam." The day I heard Kurt was dead, I stepped out into my backyard and it was one of the few times in my life I've seen actual sunbeams shining through the trees. I knew it had something to do with Kurt somehow.

Punk rock and baseball, along with books, dogs, history, and roller derby, make my life go round!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Yep, that is one of my favorites too. It was raining here when Kurt died. Glad you saw sunbeams though. And those are excellent things to make your life go round!