A Heart Shaped Box
by Charles R. Cross
From The Rocket Magazine, April 27, 1994
When Kurt Cobain committed suicide recently, I found myself, like everyone else remotely involved in the Seattle music scene, at ground zero for one of the most frenetic media feeding frenzies of this decade. The resulting TV coverage, the many newspaper stories and the hours of radio talk that followed this tragedy left me ashamed of my own profession, scared of my own absorption with it (reading every story for the first three days until I got disgusted), and finally sick to my stomach as much from the media coverage itself, as from the actual tragedy of Cobain's untimely death.
Everyone draws their own personal line around such events and there is bound to be a point where even the most curious onlooker at a train wreck is going to be sickened. For me, and for many others, that apex was hit by "the picture" in the Seattle Times on the morning of Saturday, April 9. It ran on the front page, four columns of glorious full color. It was a picture of Cobain lying dead on the floor of his greenhouse. You can see Kurt's torso, his right leg, his black Converse tennis shoe, his clenched right fist. A door blocks the view of his head, his left arm, and, presumably, the shotgun he used to shoot himself. His Cons are tied just the way mine are usually tied, the way every left-handed kid in America ties them, with big balloon knots. He has white socks on.
The picture ran under the banner headline "Kurt Cobain's troubled last days," but the headline, or even the story, was hardly necessary after seeing the photograph. A Times reporter told me privately that he'd run into a staffer from the National Enquirer who had complimented him on the photo. "You beat us on that one," the Enquirer scribe told him with obvious envy.
Not everyone approached the picture with the same detachment the Enquirer writer brought. In my circle of friends and associates, people are still talking about "the picture" more than any other element of this gruesome tale. "Can you remember a time when either Seattle paper has run a picture of a corpse on the front page?" said one of my friends who works for the rival P-I.
The Times received hundreds of letters complaining about the picture and they ran some of those letters in their newspaper. But they also ran a column where Times executive editor Mike Fancher, usually a bastion of ethics, fell all over himself defending the use of the photo. Fancher wrote that the picture met the Times criteria of "whether an important journalistic purpose will be served....The overriding conclusion was that this picture met that test by establishing an essential reality about Cobain's death. Our concern was that Cobain's suicide would be romanticized by some--suicide, the ultimate high." What Fancher fails to note is that the Times stands to profit considerably from their syndication rights to this picture. They offered the shot to Time magazine for $10,000 and they've sold it so far to several tabloid newspapers in the East and to People magazine. My Times source told me the paper would probably make "a million dollars" off the rights to this particular photo. "This is not about morality," the Times reporter told me. "This is business." And business goes on, despite the death of Cobain, with little time to stop for grief or reflection.
Despite Fancher's excuse that the picture doesn't romanticize Cobain, the coverage that has continued in most newspapers, including the Times (and on TV and radio), has romanticized Cobain's troubled life at the expense of his work. "What makes these writers think they can turn a sad and lonely life into a piece of art?" commented one of my friends. In this gluttony of coverage almost nothing has been mentioned in the mainstream media about his music: the albums he and Nirvana made, and the concerts they performed, have been forgotten. Those recordings and performances are why Cobain mattered in the first place, but in his death they have become but a footnote to his sensationalistic obituary. Cobain can't be libeled now so he's become the public domain of blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Andy Rooney. Rooney, old fool that he is, used the forum of "60 Minutes" to tell us that because Kurt had a drug problem "his music may not have made much sense either." But this music did make sense to me: whether it was made by an artist with a drug problem, or whether it had been made by an old coot with his head up his ass, the work had a life apart from the man who made it. Nothing they could ever say about Kurt Cobain's personal turmoil--and there's no denying that turmoil was great--should change our view of the music he made.
At first, the media coverage concentrated on the tragedy itself, but now drugs seemed to have settled in as the easy culprit that many journalists have decided to pin this death on. And like most of the hysterical debate about drugs that goes on in this country, the drugs themselves have become personified as the true source of evil in this matter. The interview with one of Kurt's heroin dealers (a story the Times ran on April 20) seems to me to be at best misguided, and perhaps downright dangerous. By even asking questions like "Seattle scene and heroin use: How bad is it?" the Times demeans and diminishes the local music scene and glosses over a problem with addiction that encompasses all aspects of our society, with no regard for particular professions. Drug abuse is not a problem unique to musicians and studies have consistently shown that abuse is most common among doctors and nurses. But don't expect to see a headline soon that says "The AMA and methadone use: How bad is it?" because that scenario does not fit the way we want to view our medical professionals.
For too long in this culture we've attempted to blame all our social ills on our art forms, and Kurt Cobain's death gives us another easy target to talk about the evil of rock 'n' roll. It is true that Jimi and Janis and Jim and Kurt all died at the same age, but plenty of other 27-year-olds die untimely deaths and don't make it in the headlines. This argument continues to divert us from the underlying problems of society: whether it's violent cop shows on TV or "grunge rock," art itself does not create social angst or social problems, it only reflects them. Drugs did not kill Kurt Cobain. Sadly, he killed himself.
A Heart Shaped Box, continued...
I myself don't have any clear answers as to how to accurately report on something so unexplainable as a suicide or how to react without overreacting. Curt is dead: What more is there to report? Do we have a right to know why Cobain killed himself and is it possible to ever know the answer to that question? "Any kind of death like this poses an elemental riddle," my friend Carl told me one evening recently, "because you can't help but put yourself in that position in that house, in that room, in that life. But it's a riddle that can never be answered because you can't ever walk in another man's shoes."
At The Rocket we rushed a story about Cobain's musical legacy into our last edition which went to press on the day the news of Kurt's death was announced. Our coverage was an attempt to put his work into perspective and to explain why he mattered to the Northwest music scene. "People don't really care about the details of his death," argued one of our editors as we discussed how to cover this tragedy. "They want to have some reassurance that he existed and that what he did mattered." The first chords of "Lithium" are testament to that, chords powerful enough that no media coverage--no matter how distorted--will ever be able to dilute the strength of the work for me.
Like many events of tragedy in our human lives, we end up looking for blame, for a place to direct our anger, even when there is no appropriate place to direct blame and there is no easy scapegoat. Even the media cannot be brought up on charges for Kurt's death: he chose to be a rock star, and while the stress of fame may have helped lead to his demise, it also probably gave him life. But then again, we'll never know. Even his wife, Courtney Love, the closest person to him, will never know: this was his life, and ultimately his death. As with every death, we are left on the outside, which is why death is so hard for us to understand, particularly an intentional, self-inflicted death. Joanne, who works at the drive-through window of my bank, summed up Cobain's death as well as any reporter when she said to me, "I told my 11-year-old son there is no explanation for this. That's hard for people to accept, but there are things in life like that."
I find myself still with more questions than answers, with more grief than anger, with more questions about myself than about Kurt. I still don't know the solution to the riddle that can't be answered, and even Kurt's suicide note (much of which was read by Love at the public memorial service) offered only more questions. "There's one thing in there the mainstream media missed," says my friend Carl. "It's almost built-in that they'll miss it. 'How could he do it?' they ask. 'He seemed to have everything.' But fame, fortune ,and success--those were really the very things he railed against. Those were not values to him at all. You can't possibly judge what went on in Kurt's mind. You would have had to have lived his life."
Whenever anyone kills themselves with a shotgun, it reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, another artist who choose to end his life and about whom writers have written volumes of books attempting to answer the unanswerable riddle. But of all those attempts, the work of William S. Burroughs rings most true to me, because even though Burroughs has never taken the poison apple, he's lived life close enough to the edge -- you can imagine at one point he may have tasted it and spit it out. Burroughs' willingness to live a life of extremes may be one reason he was a close friend of Kurt's. In a book of selected essays called The Adding Machine, Burroughs writes of Hemingway, "(He) could smell death.Hemingway wrote himself as a character, he wrote his life and death so closely that he had to be stopped before he found out what he was doing and wrote about that."
And for those who can't bare a world without answers, a world of riddles and contradictions, a world where 27-year-old kids tie their tennis shoes and then shoot themselves--which, like it or not, is the world we live in--for those who must find some resolution for Kurt Cobain's final act, I suggest what Burroughs has to say of Hemingway's last battle. He writes of Hemingway as a bull in his final bullfight, in a battle that is already lost before it has even begun. "There's the moment when the bull looks speculatively from the cape to the matador," Burroughs writes. "The bull is learning. The matador must kill him quick. Hemingway wasn't cheating by the act of suicide. He was dead already."
And whatever anyone writes or says about Cobain, there's one thing we do know: Kurt Cobain is now dead. I'll miss him. I'll miss the music he'll never make, the songs he'll never sing.