Along the Tracks

Monday, October 28, 2002

Smells like superficiality

The Weekly Standard’s David Skinner offers a review of Kurt Cobain’s recently-published diaries which, though in places insightful, is rather demeaning of the dead rocker. I write this with some trepidation; lest we forget, Cobain committed suicide, unable to find peace for his soul despite his musical gifts, adoring fans, a wife and children, and loads of money. This topic strikes close to the heart, as I continue to struggle with the loss, through suicide, of a relative and friend who, like Cobain, was trapped in the maze of depression.

Skinner is quite accurate in noting the generalized anguish which tormented Cobain and gave his music its power. He acknowledges the simplicity in Cobain’s writing, something which could touch millions of hearts yet illuminate none of them. Still, Skinner misses the deeper message upon which Cobain’s simple prose and gripping lyrics float: Depression is an emotional response to which reason and logic provide no solution or solice.

The criticism fielded by Skinner - that such writing, and the emotion which underlies it, is nothing but self-indulgence - is a truism, a superficial observation which offers no deeper understanding of the crucial issue: depression and its potential lethality. It is obvious that those who suffer depression are focused almost exclusively on their own emotions and the emptiness they feel. What needs to be understood is why such feelings exist, and how to offer an escape route to those who feel them.

Boiled down, Skinner’s piece rather snidely dismisses Cobain as another angst-ridden young man who demanded the spotlight. The real question: Why was the spotlight not enough?

All analogies

Some other thoughts on Cobain, Skinner’s criticism, depression and suicide:

  • Cobain’s diary contained a list of “likes,” wide-ranging yet often telling. Similarly, my friend wrote pages of “thank yous” which ranged from the simple to the wishful. It was almost as if by interspersing fact with fantasy all would become true. These lists seem to be a mechanism of assurance: One “likes” things about oneself which others may not appreciate; if one is “thankful” for a situation which does not exist, it must be just around the corner.

  • Idle time is an opiate for the depressed, highly addictive and ultimately lethal. After Nirvana broke through and became a money-making success, Cobain withdrew further from family and friends, spending hours alone with his tormented thoughts. My friend had little in material possessions, yet he to sought to withdraw from the outside world, including those who loved him most. A major part of the struggle for all of us who cared for him was simply to draw him out of his internal world and get him involved in daily human interaction - involved, not just present. When an activity or obligation ended, though, he would invariably return to his isolated torture chamber to fight the demons awaiting him. Cobain and my friend both decided they had lost that battle, and fell on their swords rather than be captured.

  • The “self-indulgence” noted by Skinner is almost certainly the source of creative genius often found among the deeply depressed - but it comes at a high price. The crucible of emotional struggle yields a pureness which is released by the most emotional form of expression: art. Hours of solitude allow repetition and practice and reworking which builds a virtuosity, and that virtuosity couples with singular emotional sincerity to produce masterpieces. Cobain and my friend were both guitar players; Cobain’s focus was on songwriting, while my friend concentrated on technique, not just through his hands (though that skill was built higher than any other I have ever seen or heard) but through his heart, breathing life into the sounds his instrument created. His closest friend offered this tribute: “He’ll always be my rock star.”

  • While levels of self-indulgence among the depressed may be sky-high, self-esteem is ephemoral. Like smoke rings, its form is dissipated by the slightest oppositional breeze. Cobain and my friend both saw themselves as misunderstood freaks. Yet they both feared greater person-to-person understanding. The deeply depressed consider themselves to be of so little value, they cannot trust statements of appreciation, acceptance or even forgiveness. They believe they are set apart from humanity, a separation which no shared interests, experiences or love can cross. Joy is of the moment; memories of joy only offer measure of the pain experienced now. And the value added to others through their relationships never seem to balance the evil the depressed believe lurks inside themselves. The demons my friend fought were evil; what he could never see or accept was that though he fought demons, the demons were not him, were not his destiny.

    I’ll have more to say on all this, soon. Thanks for indulging me.

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