Teenage Angst Has Paid Off Well…Now I am Bored And OldServe the Servants, Nirvana (In Utereo)
Generation X have always been more than a little disaffected. Our dreams were not the dreams of our parents. This disconnect was amplified by the side effects of much needed women’s liberation, lethally rampant consumerism, and the degeneration of the music and art scene throughout the terminally uncool ’80s. Growing up in the late 70s and 1980s surrounded by unironically poodle haired soft rockers us gen x’ers were mostly left to our own devices.
We were an entire generation of latchkey kids, left by our uncool boomer parents to let ourselves in after school while our mothers got ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ that looked like just exhaustion to us kids. Women were free to work, free to also look after the kids, and clean the house and cook the meals: some fucking freedom that turned out to be. Nirvana grew up to be the most feminist all-male band of all time, with Kurt’s wife, the glorious Courtney Love keeping the Nirvana boys honest. Kurt’s peers grew up mostly unobserved to the point of subject of benign neglect at best, downright parental hostility at worst. In turn my g-g-g-g-generation fall into two distinct groups – a bunch of slackers, misfits, creative types on one hand, and a gaggle of highly responsible, successful grown ups on the other. I never quite recovered from Nirvana or the 90s. Teenage angst went on a while for me, and did not pay well, but I am as bored and old as any disaffected 27 year old rockstar.
I bought Bleach when Nirvana were not well known or popular. I hadn’t heard it, just read something in a long defunct and forgotten print music paper about a Seattle grunge band that had a debut album called Bleach and proceeded to hunt it down. It took some doing, the shelves of various record shops in my part of the world were full of indie bands and my mother’s pop faves, Queen and Def Leppard. This was not my mother’s music. This felt like REM with balls. Indie with fury and fuzz. This sounded like I felt.
I had already heard Mudhoney and the Melvins and was obsessed with them both so thought I would give this new band a try. Bleach blew my mind. I shared the album with my peers, and the bunch of heathens and Meatloaf/Brian Adams listening rock-pop-addicts hated it. They just didn’t get where it was or where it was going. They carried on with their soft middle-of-the-road rock and indie kid melodic easy listening, and I got lost in grunge and drugs.
I felt alone. I didn’t like being told unanimously to turn that noise off, while they went back to waving lighters. The school was too nice, the people too clean cut, and like a lot of young people this group of non-loser girls were subject to marketing. I never did fit into that nice private school crowd. When Nevermind hit months after I had heard Bleach, and Nirvana and their Smells Like Teen Spirit ruled the radiowaves, still no one liked Bleach. At least my peers at least pretended they did, and I didn’t have to listen to so much cock-rock on the radio on the way to school. I was in my late teens, had swagger and an attitude problem, short hair and heavy Dr Martens boots. Some asshole stole my copy of Bleach out my bag, never to be seen again. I hope they listened to it instead of just placing it artfully on a shelf to show how hip they were. I never did manage to get another copy.
“All that teenage angst has paid well…now I am bored and old”, sang Kurt in Serve the Servants, but lets face it at the time In Utero was released in 1993, Kurt had no idea what ‘old’ was. He was less than a year away from his death, so I guess age is a relative thing, and he was almost as old as he was going to allow himself to get. Twenty seven is hardly more than a baby. No one has their shit sorted out at twenty seven years old. Teenage angst might fuel some interesting excursions into noise, fear, uncertainty and fury, but that transition into adulthood has plenty of material to plunder.
Kurt thought it was the loss of youth that had him feeling bored, but as someone from the same generation, and who has managed more than a few years on top of what Kurt survived, I think I can pinpoint the generation X feeling of being let down and disappointed. We had to accept not being the kids any longer and also not turning into our parents. Having to deal with shit in an adult way, with the glow of puberty far away in the rear view mirror is no fun for any generation, but for Gen X, with our rebellion and disaffection amped up to the max, it proved to be a tough time for us children of the baby boomers and younger silent generationers. It was a loss of the American dream. We realized we had been sold a crock of shit by our boomer parents. Those servants that we served were no longer our masters and had never been our blueprint for adulthood. By the age of 27 my generation had realized that we had always been on our own, and no longer had to serve their interests at all. All the billboards of our forefathers selling us Fords, selling us legal advice, selling us this dream we could not afford to dream were a reminder of what we could not have. We never had any hope or dreams worth dreaming in the first place. It was all meaningless, lost and undesirable.
We were not living in Kurt’s sad and spiritual “Leonard Cohen afterworld” that he sang about in Pennyroyal Tea, but instead a degraded red, white and blue Bruce Springsteen one, where the cars were no longer rolling off the manufacturing lines in Detroit and the future did not look so bright we needed to wear shades, like the Timbuk 3 sing. We were taught that dreams could be purchased, which even our infant minds knew was a crock of shit. Dreams were not another plastic useless sold-only-on-tv kitchen utensil, they were not time share dreams in some Floridian scam resort. Dreams were precious. We saw our mother’s dreams wear her out, having to do it all with no support. All those Brucie-boardwalks did not hold the promise of summertime fun, but instead were rotting and falling into the sea. Born in the USA, but not the USA of promise, but one which had kept all the flag waving, patriotic self congratulation that it no longer deserved. The birthright of Generation X, both in the USA and internationally, was a dream where America was still shining coast to coast, not one where to buy a house or pay the rent or buy healthy food was aspirational instead of achievable. No one likes promises being broken. The American dream was not ours to hold on to. Kurt was promised that the result of his dreams – the rewards and peace of success. Instead all he got was a stomach ache and a heroin addiction that was eating him alive, alongside the sum of our shared hopes and dreams being held up before him in the shattered mirror of the 1990s. No wonder he felt disaffected to the point of suicide. Kurt had lost his dreams.
The loss of a dream is tough medicine, a bitter draught to take. Perhaps it is even harder to achieve that dream and then be unsatisfied with it, to have fought for it, won it, and tried the dream on for size and find it does not give you the satisfaction you thought it would. The loss of the dream can come about by failure, it can be lost by winning it and then having nothing more to fight for too. The dream is something continually in the future, unrealized by its very nature. When dreams become reality, then what is there left to live for?
Jim Carroll, New Yorker, poet and musician, as well as being the “Jim” that Lou Reed sometimes addresses in his songs, wrote a series of poetic fragments for Kurt Cobain. Jim is the King of Junkies; even though he has passed on now, he still holds that accolade. Jim paid the price, went on the methadone and wrote sparkling poetry and prose about junk and junkie life. His Basketball Diaries, despite the horrible movie that was made of it with the grotesque Leonardo DiCaprio playing Carroll, remains one of the most essential junk-writings of all time, Burroughs et al be damned. He wrote:
"And from the stage All the faces out front seemed so hungry With an unbearably wholesome misunderstanding From where they sat, you seemed so far up there High and live and diving And instead you were swamp crawling Down, deeper Until you tasted the Earth's own blood And chatted with the buzzing-eyed insects that heroin breeds
I put myself back in front of that stage, front row, center, staring at Kurt, hungry for affirmation that I was not the only one out there to be unpopular at school, lost, unloved at home, with no future streaming out before me, and a present that was only slightly alleviated by typical teenage dirtbag dreams of little folded paper envelopes of speed, moshing wildly getting crushed to the sound of the best radio band out there as they ground their fuzzbox sound into the ground, Kurt tearing up his throat, sacrificing himself on stage to speak for me, speak for all of us when we sing along with ‘all (their) pretty songs’ and the anthem of a generation: “Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.” Kurt exorcized our lack of hope, our anger, our sense of caring being meaningless because it was all screwed and hopeless anyway. We were a generation without a dream.
Kurt’s dream of being our voice, our soundtrack to our youths came true for him. Our dreams were tied up with his, with the band’s dreams. He sold sanctuary. We bought it by the millions. He did seem so far up there. So high. So bright. So impossibly aspirational. Who didn’t want to be Kurt’s friend? We all believed we were his friends, instead we were killing him with success. We didn’t see Kurt’s descent into the world of ‘buzzing eyed insects that heroin breeds’. Some of us followed – through no fault of Kurt, it was merely the place and time – into that same world, that Plateau he sang about in his cover of The Meat Puppet’s song, where Kurt agrees, ‘they wouldn’t help you if they could.’ He was right. Not caring leads to no helping: “Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.”
We were not singing ‘nevermind’ when Kurt died after committing suicide in 1993. I remember sitting in a bar, drinking cider and blackcurrant when I was told Kurt was dead. I felt as if my youth was on a blanket under my feet that had just been pulled out from under me. Innocence was gone. The dream was gone. Kurt was gone. Some of us got to follow him, some of us survived to actually get ‘old and bored’.
Kurt dreamed for all of us. He was our pied piper, carrying us through our anger, our lack of possibilities, our inability to dream the dream of our parents. Kurt gave it all on that stage: his voice, his health, his solidarity. In the end he was empty. Heroin will do that to a soul – create a black hole where there should be a light. Kurt flamed out. His dream was not at a dead end, but it is hard to see that in the midst of an impossible bind. The monkey needs paying. Some of us have a morphine marmoset. Some a full blown giant of a monkey on our backs. Jim Carroll wrote in his Fragments for Kurt Cobain
You should have talked more with the monkey He's always willing to negotiate I'm still paying him off... The greater the money and fame The slower the pendulum of fortune swings You will could have sped it up... But you left that on an airplane Because it wouldn't pass customs and immigration.
The dream killed Kurt. Morpheus with his poppy-dreams was far more seductive than any off-the-shelf American dream. The American Dream was made as a ‘one size fits all’ product, only coming in Red White and Blue and the McMansion aspirations of our parents. It was a gas-fueled environment killing monster of a dream that kept women under the thumb and that macho bullshit that Kurt so hated as the prevailing ethos. Kurt chose a softer dream with shaky eyes and a soft buzzing of insect legs being rubbed together in the Kingdom of Morpheus. He won his dream of making Nirvana a success, and the dream that ran as an undercurrent to his ambition was a dangerous one. No one can live in dreamtime all the time. People have to wake up and occasionally ‘talk more with the monkey’ that get allocated to them whenever they chose that dream. Heroin is slow. It slows everything down, whilst still keeping everything in perfect perpetual motion. It cannot just stop without punishment and a strict talking to from the money. Eventually that pendulum gets so slow everything stops entirely… and then comes Death. It is possible to speed up enough to breathe, to live, but like Jim wrote, “it wouldn’t pass customs and immigration’.
America has partly chosen Kurt’s dream, that is why we have the opiate crisis. It is not just a crisis of opiates, it is a crisis of national identity. The American dream is too gung ho, too harsh, too capitalistic for the poor, the sensitive and the artistic. We need a different dream, something softer, something more gentle than Bruce Springsteen and his ‘born in the USA’ jingoistic fist pumping nightmare. Instead ranks of Americans are falling into the dream, not talking to their monkeys and dying in the thousands, and it breaks my heart. Art is the key. Not some government sponsored art project with cheesy themes and goals and steering committees, but instead making America the kind of place that art is not ruled by money, but where creativity in all its glorious forms can find outlet and release. We need a cultural shift towards being able to dream gentler dreams, then the saddened masses would not retreat to the Kingdom of Morpheus whose doors are always open, but then close behind the traveler to the coast of perfection, to Nirvana, once that monkey has been installed on their backs.
The American dream is no longer enough. Dreaming of a mansion, a diet of hamburgers and soda pops until we all pop at the seams, of vacations and plastic fantastic disposability is unsatisfying. Eat that dream and you are hungry again right away. America needs to learn how to dream again, but dream in a way that makes life bearable without opiates. My generation, the uncaring X’s care more they we let on, we just don’t dream, and there is the rub, there is the problem.
Somewhere I have heard this beforeOn A Plain, Nirvana. Nevermind
In a dream my memory has stored
As a defense I’m neutered and spayed
What the hell am I trying to say?
Dreaming is dangerous and needs a defense, Kurt’s defense being that he was not able to realize his dreams anyway, that he was impotent, ‘neutered and spayed’. All I can hope for is that we do not just learn to dream before it is too late, but learn to dream healthy dreams that other people want to buy into, otherwise there is nothing else but Nirvana, nihilism and death to look forward to. At least nirvana sounds good, I suppose. Who cares? Not me. . . nevermind.