Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nirvana -- "Come As You Are" (1991)

And I swear that I don't have a gun
No, I don't have a gun
No, I don't have a gun

Everyone wants to be cool.  But most people are not cool.  (For example, you . . . and you . . . and especially you.)

In the last 2 or 3 lines, I told you that the co-curators of the "American Cool" exhibition -- which recently opened at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery -- had chosen William S. Burroughs as one of the 100 coolest Americans ever.  (Click here if you missed that 2 or 3 lines.)

The "American Cool" exhibition
Burroughs was a prolific author (his novels include Naked Lunch, Queer, Junky, and The Soft Machine) and a Beat Generation icon who hung out with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  (Burroughs makes an appearance in the most famous Beat novel, On the Road, in the guise of the fictional character Old Bull Lee.)

Norman Mailer said that Burroughs was "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius," and he was admired by many other famous writers -- including J. G. Ballard, Jean Genet, Lester Bangs, William Gibson, and Ken Kesey.

Some of the musicians who say they were influenced by him were Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and Kurt Cobain (all of whom are featured in "American Cool"), and a number of bands took their names from Burroughs's novels (including Steely Dan, the Soft Machine, Thin White Rope, the Mugwumps, and the Insect Trust).

That all sounds pretty cool.

William Burroughs practices his quick draw
But Burroughs also had a very uncool side.  He was addicted to morphine and heroin for much of his life.  (One of his biographers wrote, "Virtually all of Burroughs's writing was done when he was high on something.")  He cut off the end of his little finger in hopes of impressing a guy he had a crush on.  He shot and killed his wife during a drunken game of "William Tell."

And he wasn't exactly a candidate for the "Best Father of the Year" award -- he introduced his teenaged son to drugs when he came to live with him in Tangiers (where some of Burroughs's friends allegedly tried to rape him).  The son, who blamed Burroughs for most of his problems, died at age 33 from the effects of drug addiction and alcoholism.

When I balance the cool and the uncool aspects of Burroughs's life, I think the scale tips decidedly in the direction of uncool.  But what do I know?  I'm just a wildly successful blogger with absolutely no academic credentials qualifying me to make cool/uncool judgments.  So let's hear what the experts have to say.

Beat Generation icons
One of the co-curators of "American Cool" is a professor of American Civilization at a major Southern university, and the other is the co-director of the museum of art at a New England college.  They didn't make their picks based on their subjective opinion of who was cool and who wasn't.  Instead, each potentially cool figure was considered with a "historical rubric" in mind.

Of course, anyone who uses terms like "historical rubric" is definitely not cool, and almost surely has no effing idea who is cool.

Ceci n'est pas une rubric
Here are the four criteria the curators applied.  To be on the list, you had to meet at least three of the four listed criteria:

1.  An original artistic vision carried off with a signature style

2.  Cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation

3.  Iconic power, or instant visual recognition

4.  A recognized cultural legacy

That all sounds well and good.  But if you look at the list, you quickly see that each of the hundred picks were actually chosen on the basis of these criteria:

1.  He or she is famous

2.  His or her choice reflects well on the co-curators, and makes them look cool and politically correct

I wouldn't disagree that virtually all of the people on the list are talented and successful.  But being talented and successful doesn't make you cool.  

To the contrary, the primary talent that most cool people have is a talent for seeming to be cool, and the thing that cool people are more successful at is making others believe they are cool.

You know what I think about William Burroughs.  Let's look at one of the other people on the "American Cool" list -- the man behind today's featured song, Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain
Why was Cobain chosen for the exhibition?  Obviously he did well when it came to the "historical rubric" the co-curators applied.  

Looking at the first of their four factors, did Cobain have an "original artistic vision carried off with a signature style"?  I think he did.  Cobain wrote some remarkable songs, and Nirvana certainly had an original style -- although they only recorded three studio albums before Cobain's death.

Second, did Cobain represent "cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation"?  I think the answer to that question is certainly yes.

Third, does Cobain have "iconic power, or instant visual recognition"?  Probably -- or at least he did at one time.  He certainly doesn't have instant visual recognition among most people today but he probably still does among Generation X'ers.

Finally, does he have "a recognized cultural legacy"?  I'm not sure how this really differs from the first factor discussed above.  But I'll give Cobain this one -- he has a legacy, although its depth and breadth may not be that great.

A very young Kurt Cobain
So Cobain clearly seems to be eligible for the "American Cool" list because he meets the criteria set out by the co-curators.  But does that make him cool?

Not in my book.  I think an essential quality of coolness is -- to use a clich√© that I really don't like -- being comfortable in one's own skin.  Someone who is cool is also relaxed and confident and generally satisfied with themselves.  He or she doesn't worry about failure because he or she never contemplates that failure is a possibility.  

Cool people don't sweat the small stuff.  In fact, they don't sweat at all.  (I suspect that many cool people aren't very smart, and that the secret to their gift for staying cool under pressure is that they don't really understand how bad things are.)

Cool people usually are good-looking -- that's just the way it is, boys and girls -- and dress with a certain je ne sais quoi

They usually have some kind of talent -- many authors and musicians and star athletes are cool -- but that talent must appear to be mostly natural because it's not cool to struggle and work too hard.  

Many cool people have a lot of money, of course -- it's a lot easier to act cool when you're not worried about paying the rent.  But it's very uncool to talk about your money, or to spend it in a showoffy way.  (Cool guys don't go to strip joints and throw handfuls of cash at the dancers.)

Cool people are not necessarily good people, of course.  They can be vain, and selfish, and not very bright.  (If a cool person is very bright, he or she needs to keep that from showing too much.)

In fact, it's very possible to be cool and an assh*le at the same time as long as you don't act too much like an assh*le in public.  A lot of cool people are at least semi-assh*les, but manage to conceal that fact.

So was Kurt Cobain cool?  I don't think so.  

Kurt Cobain seems to have been a train wreck waiting to happen.  He struggled much of his life with various physical and mental illnesses.  He first used marijuana when he was 13, consumed a considerable amount of LSD, abused alcohol and sniffed solvents, and eventually became a heroin addict.  He had a lot of problems, many of which may not have been his fault -- but people who are screwed up as Cobain are the opposite of cool.

To compound his problems, Cobain married Courtney Love.

Kurt and Courtney
Love's mother was a psychotherapist and her father was the ex-manager of the Grateful Dead.  He allegedly gave her LSD when she was a toddler, which could explain a lot.  When she was 12, Love auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club TV show, reading a Sylvia Plath poem.  (You can imagine how well that went over.)

A couple of years later, she was arrested for shoplifting and sent to a correctional facility.  After a few years in foster care, she became legally emancipated at age sixteen and immediately went to work as a stripper.  

To make matters worse, she developed a substance abuse problem that was as bad as Cobain's, which didn't help things when they got married.  (Cobain wore green pajamas to the ceremony.)

I don't mean to belittle Courtney Love.  She was a talented musician and a talented actress -- she was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her role in The People v. Larry Flynt.  (Coincidentally, Love portrayed William Burroughs's wife -- the one he shot in the head while playing "Drunk William Tell" -- in the 2000 movie, Beat.)  But she was a hot mess.  

At age 27, Cobain killed himself with a shotgun.  That is not at all cool.

Cobain with his daughter,
Frances Bean Cobain
He left behind Love and their 20-month-old daughter.  That is about an uncool as it gets.  (By the way, Love tried to commit suicide on her 40th birthday, and eventually was sentenced to six months of locked-down rehab.)

Courtney Love with Frances Bean
Kurt Cobain suffered from torments the likes of which probably far exceeded anything that you and I will have to battle.  He was a very talented musician, but he was not cool -- it's just not cool in the slightest to become an heroin addict and decide to put the barrel of a Remington model 11 autoloading shotgun under your chin and pull the trigger.

By the way, I just learned that Kurt Cobain and William Burroughs were friends and admirers of one another.  The two collaborated on a 1992 EP titled The "Priest" They Called Him, which consisted of a reading Burroughs did at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, combined with a guitar accompaniment recorded in Seattle by Cobain.  Cobain then asked Burroughs to appear in the video for Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" single, but Burroughs declined.

Cobain drove to Kansas to meet Burroughs in October 1993.  The two exchanged presents — Burroughs gave him a painting, while Cobain gave him a Leadbelly biography that he had signed.

Burroughs and Cobain in 1993
After Cobain committed suicide, Burroughs wrote this: “The thing I remember about him is the deathly grey complexion of his cheeks. It wasn’t an act of will for Kurt to kill himself. As far as I was concerned, he was dead already.”  Burroughs is one of those who feel Cobain “let down his family” and “demoralized the fans” by committing suicide.

There a number of other musicians who made the "American Cool" list who aren't cool either -- for example, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits, and Bonnie Raitt.

It's not that Springsteen and Waits and Raitt are drug addicts or suicidal.  It's simply that their music sucks.  And if your music sucks, you're not cool -- at least not as far as 2 or 3 lines is concerned.

Here's "Come As You Are," from Nirvana's 1991 album, Nevermind:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to challenge your placing of Bonnie Raitt in the "music that sucks" category. I heard "Let's Give Them Something to Talk About" while riding a rental-car shuttle to Boston Logan Airport, and shortly after arriving home bought the CD that includes it. Ms. Raitt can sing and plays a wicked guitar; I'd like to see her and Evie Sands team up on some old Blues songs (and getting back to "coolth") the more recent "Cool Blues Story".