I SWEAR TO KURT
Last week, Shumon Basar asked me to write an open letter to Kurt Cobain and to my younger self in the 2nd person for an edition of his ongoing Live Magazine, FORMAT at the AA this week.
It is exciting to be asked to write something about America instead of Qatar for a change!
SEE THE LARGER FORMAT WITHIN WHICH THIS TEXT FIT HERE. Tamara Barnett-Herrin sang “Been a Son” and that was very good.
There’s a picture of you in the window of a shop next to Liverpool Street.
They’re selling it for 500 Quid.
You’re sleeping on a tiny bench at a show somewhere. You’re passed out in the fetal position, grasping the slab of wood like it’s a piece of floatsam from a shipwreck.
There’s beer swill all around you. Who the hell took this picture? Leering over your passed-out body. Tryna steal your soul while you’re sleeping.
I realise, I don’t actually remember when you died.
But it was like you were always there, like you’d always been dead.
You’re tired in this picture. Maybe you are feeling sick in this picture.
You’re younger in this picture than I am now.
You were too young to have known the hype but old enough to know the legend.
And that was really important.
You went straight into mourning in the summer of ’94 and joined the cult of Kurt as a novice supplicant. You turn up to Junior High fronting as if you’d been ‘into’ Nirvana since before they were popular (which would make you about six years old).
Huddled in the rain under the monkey tail tree, raggedy sop-bottom jeans soaked up to the knees in puddlewater, permanently runny nose, constantly growling stomach, beauty bark splinters everywhere, you write 1967-1994 in white-out all over your backpack and pepper your conversation with, “I swear to Kurt.”
You start a riot grrl band called Blue Cancer with your best friends B and P so you can be like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile but never do anything other than collage scraps from the phone book and Xerox them in the library. No one has a garage. You all live in apartments. There’s no where to practice. Every day you save lunch money by sharing a tray of ‘food’ in the cafeteria. You’re lucky enough to be growing up in a Kathleen Hanna part of the world and yet here you are starving yourselves like teen witch tools, tattooing each other with ball point pens and burnt safety pins. They’re blonde so Manic Panic works on their hair but not yours. Together you’re saving up for Tag Sales at Value Village where you can buy a bag of dismembered doll parts or a polyester pantsuit for 50 cents. Value Village is probably the same place Kurt shopped. There’s one in Aberdeen and there’s one in Olympia and lots in Seattle. All pit stains and cracked leather, mom jeans and math teacher sweaters and yes, lots of flannel.
B hears 1/3 of Kurt’s ashes are going to be thrown into the Wishka river in Aberdeen. You hatch a plan to get a bus to the coast. But somebody’s ratted you out because mother turns up in the El Camino and drags you by the nape of your neck into the car.
Your ‘phone priveledges’ are revoked, you’re on house arrest, B and P grow up faster than you they get illegal over-aged boyfriends.
You stay at home learning about music by taping Bauhaus and Cibo Matto and Fugazi and whatever else off KAOS 89.3, Evergreen State’s College radio station.
You experiment alone, pouring your personal pussy riot into a mosh pit of one, pogo sticking your headphones off in the closet where no one could see or hear you. And when you finally tried your repertoire in public in a crowd of boys (at a straight edge all ages show of some Christian band at the Elks club)
That’s so cool of you.
You end up getting the wind knocked out of you by a Samoan kid called K who body slams you so hard when he jumps off a chair that you puke into your own mouth.
And so that was the end of that.
Anyway, whatever, nevermind. You were always more academically punk than for really.
Now, the Junior High version of you may not believe it, but one day you are finally going to make it to Aberdeen. You’ll be twenty seven. And you’ll have lived all over the world. The place will seem strange and hollow, like the world seemed without Kurt. You’ll find an ultimate fighting ring in an old carpet warehouse and the largest star wars horde in the world but you won’t find any temple to Kurt, this place just keeps shriveling up on itself as if You never happened. Aberdeen, cut off at the end of an esturary of its own making, all silt streams and muddy water to the Pacific. Both Highway 101 and the Wishkaw River bottom out here. So clogged up from logger runoff that something is seriously in the way. And this river is where you came from, a troll, a prophet, huddled slouching – underneath the bridge.
You were doomed the moment you arrived, too true to lie like they wanted you to.
You taught me about David Bowie and Leadbelly and The Vaselines and what they did to Francis Farmer and the dangers of born-again Christians.
Jesus definitely doesn’t want me for a sunbeam.
You taught me lots of new vocabulary that required learning to use the dictionary.
And underneath the bridge where there is something in the way you taught me the word “semen”.
But you also, and maybe most important of all, you taught me the comfort in being sad.
Way later you are in Tokyo and you find Rape Me in the karaoke catalogue of a random Tokyo spot.
The barmen are wearing bow ties and waistcoats.
“Fuck it.” You decide and cue up “Rape Me”. The employees get into it and sing with you in a call and response. “Rape me!” “Layp me!” “Rape me!” Layp me!” That’s funny for a second. Language is funny. You think to yourself, no one understands the lyrics, so this is ok. But then you think, nobody understands the lyrics, including you. You never really thought about them before. You haven’t listened to this song since you were about 14. What did you mean? In all those songs? Polly and all the girls who disappeared and died. All the teen and preteen girls disappeared, being forever leered over, in the dark, alone, being photographed. For the first time I listen to what you were saying.
What you were warning us about. We can’t help it. We’ve all sold out. Given up. Grown to love our captors.
They’re selling your picture for 500 quids in a shop next to Liverpool Street.