Prophecy in Hell
Kurt Cobain’s Letter to the Editor
Advertisements for oblivion are glued to poles and walls in Berlin. The image is of Jimi Hendrix in his prime, chest bared, hair everywhere. The text, in mile-high letters, says ‘The 27 Club’. It’s a poster promoting a musical revue at the Admiralspalast - with a twist. Similar spectacles of the past year have promised a night of tunes from Bollywood musicals, or 60s soul classics, or Disco anthems, or songs from 100 years of nightclubbing in Berlin. The artists whose hits are featured in ‘The 27 Club’, on the other hand, can’t really be grouped together in any particular period or style. There’s Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison and Brian Jones, which might lead you to think that it’s a 60s nostalgia revue. But then there’s Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, incongruously repping the 90s. It could be a rock show, if it wasn’t for the presence of Amy Winehouse, who doesn’t really fit the style. Nevertheless, this is a genre show; at least, it is if you accept the idea that death is a musical genre, which the show’s producers clearly do. “they all had one thing in common”, says the press release. “A life lived at the limit, which tragically ended much too early, at the age of 27, but true to the philosophy, ‘live fast, love hard, die young’, to which these artists devoted themselves, body and soul.”
This is a pretty fancy - not to mention fanciful - way to sum up the act of accidentally choking on your own vomit in your sleep, or falling into a swimming pool and drowning after taking a lot of LSD. But there is something to it. In the 1960s, many people saw rock and roll as an aspect of something called ‘Bomb Culture’, a certain way of making art and music in the wake of two world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. It was observed that Bomb Culture derived certain principles from these experiences; that Western Civilisation was doomed, that so-called High Culture was morally bankrupt, society not worth the trouble it took to hold it together, and that Old People were not to be trusted. Accordingly, Bomb Culture laughed in the face of posterity, cut its ties with tradition, encouraged every kind of antisocial behaviour and elevated youth to the level of a moral principle. By destroying their guitars and drums on stage, playing American R&B music at ear-splitting volume, and singing “I hope I die before I get old”, the British rock band The Who might have been the perfect embodiment of Bomb Culture, had they not been upstaged in every respect by Hendrix, an African-American guitarist who set fire to his instrument in the middle of a song, shortly after miming the act of having sex with it, and not long before dying at the age of 27. It was an accident, but a perfect one, as were the deaths of Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. If rock and roll celebrated destruction, disdained tradition, denied society and commanded us to never grow old, might dying young be the only way to live according to its principles?
The poster for the 27 Club celebrates this contradiction; its parade of dead rock stars is promoted with the phrase ‘Legends Never Die’. This formulation, that the way to cheat death in rock and roll is to die, was worked out over the two difficult decades that followed the demise of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison. Artists who’d hung around to see through the 70s and 80s, like Pete Townshend of the Who, or the surviving members of The Rolling Stones began, paradoxically, to reek of death, to suffer a slow loss of vitality and energy. Hendrix and Jones, by contrast, seemed fresher every day. In 1979, Neil Young’s now-famous line from Hey Hey My My, “It’s better to burn out / than it is to fade”, seemed about the truest thing you could say about rock and roll. By the time the Who squeezed themselves back into their rock and roll pants and embarked on their first reunion tour in 1990, it was gospel. Young people, especially, took the message to heart. After all, the rock performers of the 60s could be forgiven a certain naiveté. Nobody could quite have anticipated, in 1969, the parade of flabby torsos, greying pony tails and power suits that would pass through the rock and roll hall of fame in 1989. But Kurt Cobain, having been born the year Hendrix burned his guitar at Monterey, had seen the whole deal go down, and had resolved not to repeat the mistake. “I hope I die” he wrote in his journal, “before I turn into Pete Townshend.” The singer found, just four years later, that something very much like this was in fact happening to him, that his own band’s passionate and spontaneous outbursts of youthful revolt were becoming part of a showbiz routine. “Teenage angst has paid off well” he sang, “now I’m bored and old.” Moments before he took his own life in April 1994, Cobain took the time to write a suicide note, which concluded by invoking Young’s first law of thermodynamics. “Remember”, he admonished, “it’s better to burn out than to fade.”
Reading her husband’s last message to the world, Courtney Love allowed herself a grim joke at Cobain’s expense. “He left a note”, she said. “More like a letter to the fuckin’ editor”. Love’s appraisal was witheringly accurate; possibly the smartest thing ever said about her husband’s last goodbye. There was something about the way in which Cobain quoted Young’s line, and the arguments leading up to it, that suggested he was lobbying the compilers of some future history of rock to look kindly on his career, to observe that he’d done the right thing; the better thing, if not the best. Her quip effectively draws our attention to something that the producers of ‘The 27 Club’ would rather we didn’t notice, which is that Cobain doesn’t really belong in the club in the first place. His death was not a spontaneous act of self-destruction, but a self-conscious one, informed by a knowledge of rock history. It was carried out with one eye on the past, and another on the future, but a certain kind of future, imagined mostly as a place to think about the past. When he thought of 2014, if he ever did, Cobain probably imagined it as a place full of people reflecting on the events of 1994. Nothing about the nostalgia-fests of the 80s or 90s would have led him to believe that it could be otherwise. “Now a culture comes again”, he wrote in 1990. “It was all here yesterday. An idea is what we lack, nothing new is everyday.”
In his 1972 book, ‘In Bluebeard’s Castle’, the philosopher and literary critic George Steiner observed that this static or circular view of history had slowly but surely replaced the linear one that had ruled the western imagination for the past three centuries, if not more. This, Steiner argued, spelled bad news for art, music and literature. “It is not certain”, he wrote, “that one can devise a model for culture, a heuristic programme for further advance, without a utopian core.” Culture in the past, Steiner argued, had been underwritten by what he called ‘the gamble on transcendence’, the idea that the artist’s work would be transmitted to the future, and that the artist herself might risk obscurity or even death in the present to ensure its transmission. Why, he wondered, would anyone bother to do this in a world where nobody believes in, let alone looks forward to the future any more?
Steiner wasn’t much read by rock and roll singers. But the middle-aged philosopher and literary critic was listening to rock and roll. He couldn’t help it. “This is being written in the library of one of the great American Universities”, he wrote, “the walls are throbbing gently to the beat of music coming from one near and several more distant amplifiers... the beat is literally unending.” Steiner saw rock music, along with contemporary developments in art such as ‘happenings’ and aleatory music, as symptomatic of the new post-culture, attempts to break once and for all with the whole dying mess of Western Civilisation. Bomb Culture’s preference for afro-American musical forms over European ones, the preoccupation with nonsense and noise, the spectacles of destruction and anarchy; these, according to Steiner, were unmistakable votes of no-confidence in the future. Where culture had gambled on transcendence, counter-culture, it seemed, saw oblivion as a much safer bet.
Unfortunately, the bet never paid off - civilisation did not destroy itself. But while history failed to come to an end, the idea of the future was still hard to stomach, let alone get excited about. Under these conditions, culture and counter-culture arrived at a messy and mostly unsatisfactory compromise, which demanded of artists and audiences that they learn to accept an ongoing history of destruction, a tradition of oblivion, which proved awkward, to say the least. Each new incarnation of Bomb Culture demanded that the world be destroyed, reality overturned. Each time this failed to happen, the gestures grew less convincing and more ironic. By the nineties, this weary romantic irony had become the counter-culture’s dominant mode. “It’s fun to lose”, sang Cobain, apropos of teen revolt, “and to pretend.” In the nineties, Steiner’s gamble on transcendence lived on, not so much as an attempt to invent tomorrow (which nobody looked forward to), but as an appeal to this new tradition of oblivion, a letter to the editor, asking to be included in the next edition. One smashed things up, not because one wished for the end of the world, but in the hope that the gesture would look good to the rock historians of the future, when they came, as they inevitably must. ‘My my, hey hey’, sang Neil Young in 1979. ‘Rock and roll is here to stay’. The way he sang it made it sound like a bad thing, which in a sense, it was.
In this light, the Admiralspalast’s claim that ‘Legends Never Die’ should reach our ears as more bad news. The tradition of oblivion, it seems, lives on, and The 27 Club does its bit to ensure its morbid continuation. The poster’s visual key is that of atomic apocalypse, hell, fiery reds and oranges. But it might also be hell: specifically the self-conscious, postmodern one described by George Steiner in ‘In Bluebeard’s Castle’. According to Steiner, those wondering what culture might look or sound like in a sate of zero possibility would be best advised to spend a season in Hell, as imagined by Dante Alligheri. “You may understand therefore”, wrote Dante, “That all our knowledge shall be a dead thing from that moment on, when the door of the future is shut.”