Commentary: On a Personal Note

cobain-kurtI was a college freshman when a guy who lived down the hall in our dorm walked into our room, plopped a CD into my roommate’s disc player and blasted a track from a new and unknown band called Nirvana.  I was blown away by it.  I had never heard anything like that before.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” exploded a few weeks later, fueled by MTV and capturing the spirit of the times and, some might say, the spirit of a generation.  The lyrics are almost intelligible and once you translate them, they turn out to be unintelligible with hooks like “I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us.”

Then again, that seems to capture the modern mindset.  And that was the problem – Nirvana and its enigmatic and ultimately unstable leader Kurt Cobain were able to capture the mindset of a generation of people, caught up in their early adulthood, in uncertain times.

I was one of them.  I like to joke that there was a brief time in my life when I was in style, and it was there for a brief moment of time when Nirvana and the Grunge Music they innovated and inspired became the fad.

Cobain’s moment in history ironically was inscribed a few years later.  Another moment in time I will never forget, listening to a somber Kurt Loder, MTV’s version of a TV news anchor, reading the release that Kurt Cobain had shot and killed himself on April 5, 1994 at the age of 27.  He would be found three days later

Fueled by a drug habit which clearly was an effort at self-medication, the combustible Kurt Cobain finally burned himself out leaving us with the line from Neil Young’s 1970s ode to Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

He struggled mightily dealing with his fame and public image.  I recall at the time reading an account where he was a small, frail boy in school and was often tormented by bullies.  He struggled with the irony that those who once bullied him were the same ones enjoying his music.

The LA Times writes this weekend, “Nineteen years ago Friday, the singer for the most important American rock band of the ’90s died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Seattle home. Kurt Cobain was only 27, leaving behind his wife Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain.”

“His legacy includes recording one of the most influential catalogs in rock music, upending the music business by proving an indie-inspired act could become a blockbuster, defining a generation’s style and proving that the loudest, heaviest band in rock could also be one of its most feminist and introspective. His death prompted an outpouring of grief and tributes from fans that continues today.”

It was a moment etched in history, but looking back on it nearly twenty years later, it seems there was no way for a Kurt Cobain to go out than to die at an early age.

At the time, Cobain’s death hit me strikingly hard.  I remember watching MTV all night long, trying to learn more information as they went to round-the-clock coverage of the suicide.

The generation, it was said, was sandwiched between the larger Baby Boomers and the next generation, sometimes called Generation Y, which is actually even larger than the Baby Boomers.  We were said to be the first generation that would not outperform that of our parents.

Working class America was hit pretty hard at the end of the Cold War, with the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas and the closure of military bases.  The clothing of the grunge movement with flannel shirts, jeans and boots often embodied that working class spirit.

Given the bleak current economy and political gridlock, the picture painted two decades ago may not be as outdated as some might believe.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 Comments

  1. Growth Izzue

    [quote]Given the bleak current economy and political gridlock, the picture painted two decades ago may not be as outdated as some might believe.[/quote]

    So true. Even though the unemployment rate dropped to 7.6% and some pundits are trying to claim the economy is recoveriong a startling fact came out of last Friday’s employment report that shows just how bad things really are:

    “The percentage of Americans working or looking for jobs fell to 63.3 percent in March, the lowest in nearly 34 years.”

  2. David M. Greenwald

    It’s certainly not recovering quickly, but this wasn’t meant to be a political statement but rather generational one. I know quite a few people in my generation who are struggling without assistance from their family.

  3. dlemongello

    I am no expert at economics but I do not believe it can recover to resemble what it was because what it was was a lot of hot polluted air that burst into flames and dissipated. Overconsumption is what caused it and yet it seems consumption is what is aspired to to save it. I just don’t see it. Innovation and sustainable financial and environmental practices are needed, but the hole is super deep. Generation X was the beginning of the storm and gen Y is in the eye of it.

  4. Matt Williams

    Growth Izzue and David Greenwald said . . .

    [i]”Given the bleak current economy and political gridlock, the picture painted two decades ago may not be as outdated as some might believe.

    So true. Even though the unemployment rate dropped to 7.6% and some pundits are trying to claim the economy is recoveriong a startling fact came out of last Friday’s employment report that shows just how bad things really are.”[/i]

    Bad is a relative term. If we look at the current situation from the perspective we had when we were in college (most of us in the 20th Century) deciding what our educational focus should be . . . then things are indeed bad. However, as was very clearly shown in a recent 60 Minutes segment in January [url]http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50138922n[/url], it is easy (and wise) to step away from that 20th Century perspective and look at jobs from the rapid change realities of the 21st Century.

  5. dlemongello

    A certain kind of creativity and expression does seem to go hand in hand with instability unfortunately.

    As for robots and stepping away from 20th century perspectives, a global solution is needed. If we were to manage to rebalance our national economy putting massive numbers of foreign people out of work by using robots and bringing manufacturing “home”, we’d just create a different crisis. Just like if we stopped using oil somehow the people in the countries that provide that would need to eat.

    As simplistic as this is, I believe we need to figure out how to feed, clothe, house, educate and care for everyone before we go about having our extravagances. Those are by far the most important industries. But I have no illusions that anybody cares about what I believe. And I do not think rampant use of GMOs is the way to feed us either.

  6. Avatar

    1. ” I know quite a few people in my generation who are struggling without assistance from their family.”

    2. “We were said to be the first generation that would not outperform that of our parents.”

    3. SLACKERS , that would be a great describing word .

  7. Matt Williams

    David M. Greenwald said . . .

    [i]”I believe Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix, and Jim Morrison were all about the same age when they died.”[/i]

    I considered Joplin. Morrison never crossed my mind. Hendrix was the one of those three who had the same kind of transcendent quality that you attribute to Cobain.

    I think of Morrison and Jagger in much the same light. The key difference being that Jagger lived to a ripe old age and Morrison didn’t.

  8. SouthofDavis

    David wrote:
    > We were said to be the first generation that would not
    > outperform that of our parents.
    > I know quite a few people in my generation who
    > are struggling without assistance from their family.
    Then Avatar wrote:
    > SLACKERS , that would be a great describing word .
    It is not just “slackers” that are finding it harder to outperform their parents, even the super over achievers are having a tough time doing even half as well as their parents.
    My parents don’t have college degrees and bought their first home on the Peninsula when they were just in their 20’s with only one salary and without any help from their parents (who were poor immigrants who all had less than a 6th grade education and could not have helped them in they wanted).
    At the Stanford OSU game a last year we ran in to some friends of my wife who are both working full time and are graduates of Stanford Law School (the husband) and Stanford Business School (the wife). They mentioned that they recently bought a home on the same Peninsula street I lived on and they told us “they got help from their parents”. That night I looked on Zillow and was blown away that in 40 years the price of homes on that street have gone up close to 100x (while that salaries of even most of the top 1% have not gone up nearly as much).
    It is not just slackers that having a hard time without family help almost everyone (way over 75%) of the people younger than me I know well who own homes did it with help from family. There are other workaholic savers like myself, and two of the people I know that did it without help were both Kauffman Fellows (some of the smartest people in the world, basically the top 1% of the top 1%)

  9. dlemongello

    Matt: Jagger certainly could express himself, but Morrison was often on another planet and though he was a poet, I’d say drugs played their part in that and his death. Of course that is the case with Joplin and Hendrix as well. I do not think Jagger had any major out of control substance abuse problems (I am not saying he did not use, but…).

    Housing is by far the most out of reach expense when it comes to competing from one generation to the next. It is one of the major I reasons I left UCLA and came to Davis in 1980. I have since found out that in 1978 my home would have sold for half of what I paid in 1980. We know the rest of the story.

  10. medwoman

    I cannot help but feel that much of our generational angst and alienation is artificial and self imposed. It is we who have created an “American Dream” that says that each generation should do better materially than their parents. This dream has a lot of validity when people are living in a subsistence situation. Once there is enough wealth that everyone could have enough to care for their basic needs, why do we cling to this concept ?
    Would it not be equally worthy to aspire to our children exceeding us in their humanitarian efforts, in their artistic efforts, in being better environmental stewards or better and more peaceful world citizens than we have been ? Are these goals not as worthy as owning a larger home, a fancier car, or a larger TV ?

    And why would we judge our children as failures is they accept help from us, just as many of us will accept help from them when we are in need of assistance in our old age. We have created the idea of a nuclear family and then proceeded to idealize that model when much of the world accepts the more humanizing concept of a nuclear family in which each member of the family has the dignity of a unique contribution to the whole.

    Much of what we have lost ( or abandoned) is our perspective. Last years trip to Haiti brought this vividly to my attention. We talk about our “bleak” situation and yet the majority of us have enough to eat, a roof over our heads and clothing. And those of us who do not, could, if the rest of us were not so very worried about more and more acquisitions.

  11. Rich Rifkin

    Re: Nirvana. They were a great rock band. They (and other “grunge” bands) made it big a few years after it felt like authentic rock music had completely died. Somewhere around 1985, maybe a year or two after that, most “rock” which got air play was from the hair bands. And their music almost completely sucked. It was about looking like rockers, not actually having anything to say or being inventive with the music.

    That’s not to say that there were not a few exceptional rock bands in that period. There were also a few non-rock acts which were making some good non-rock music in the late 1980s, but (perhaps because I was getting older) almost all popular rock really had declined. Most of the blame, I think, goes to the big record companies and MTV. But some of it was due to the rising popularity of rap music, which crowded out rock. Talented kids were less likely to form a rock band, if they wanted to be heard. They became rockers or they got no audience.

    As such, the rise of grunge in the early-1990s was refreshing. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and others were authentic and talented, and importantly, recorded by indie record labels who were not pushing “hair” bands.

    Sadly, that movement did not last very long. By the late 1990s, pop music was even worse than it had been a decade before. Rap, which was mostly terrible but at least authentic, was even more terrible and much less authentic. On the other hand, Nirvana transformed into the Foo Fighters (by way of Dave Grohl) and so there is still a bit of good grunge music out there today. And a few other bands, like Berkley’s own Green Day have continued to make good rock. The real problem is not that there are no more good rock music acts. It’s that they don’t sell many records, so it’s hard to know what’s out there.

  12. dlemongello

    David, at first I thought by outperformed you meant were more productive. Some folks seem to think you meant accumulating more wealth (and material goods that go with that). What did you mean?

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