Fading Away: Looking for the real Kurt Cobain at his NY retrospective

photo by Jesse Frohman

Last night, on the 18 year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, the Morrison Hotel Gallery hosted a selection of photographs of the late singer taken by photographer Jesse Frohman. Entitled “I Shot Kurt Cobain,” the event showcased high definition photographs taken during a near disastrous shoot Frohman had with Nirvana in the fall of 1993, six months before Cobain’s suicide. The band was three hours late and the photographer only had about 20 minutes to capture the band. Cobain was withdrawing from heroin addiction at the time and was in pretty bad shape, warning the photographer that he may start throwing up at any minute. The shoot came out surprisingly well considering Cobain’s state, with numerous photos of the singer sporting bug-eyed shades and a leopard robe, all the while puffing from a cigarette.

Kurt Cobain’s duality regarding the spotlight has always been a big factor of his appeal both at the time and posthumously. The man scoffed at fame but at the same time clearly didn’t have the desire, or perhaps the will power, to disconnect himself from it. Pearl Jam for instance, were just as big as Nirvana at the time and were just as averse to the corruption of fame. They dealt with it by shying away from the press and not releasing any videos. It’s not to say that Cobain wasn’t as smart as Eddie Vedder, but his drug-addled life was too much of a mess to make a definitive move against his fame. The results of this found Cobain meeting it half way — a fuck-all attitude that ended up appearing like a guy wanting to have a fuck-all attitude, as can be seen in his apathetic appearance in just about every photo shoot he had been a party to.

His dislike of attention is what made going to the Morrison Hotel to see these photos very strange. Dozens of people poured into the building onto Prince Street, all trying desperately to come get a glimpse of the alt rock hero. But were they fans of the man, or the legend? Cobain has become  more mythical with every year that passes, increasingly getting to a level that only John Lennon could rival. Both have a romantic quality to their deaths — the misunderstood soul taken at a creative crossroads.  The circumstances surrounding their deaths naturally lend the lives behind them a certain level of grandeur. But it’s that mythological embellishing that is most troublesome when real fans of the music actually exist out there.

I’m really not trying to have a holier-than-thou attitude with this, because I’d like more people to really know the music of Nirvana, but seriously, how many of these people own a copy of “Incesticide”? Did anyone think it was strange that the after party at Tribecca Grand had DJs (one of which was Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker) who played hardly any of the numerous artists Cobain had name-checked in his lifetime, save for The Beatles and David Bowie? Did it occur to The Virgins to cover at least one Nirvana song when they played a set in front of  Kurt Cobain’s likeness? The increasing feeling of Cobain’s death being used as just another excuse to have a party grew to an extent where I needed to get out of there.

It’s presumptuous to say that no one cared. I’m sure there were plenty of legit Nirvana enthusiasts there, but the party honestly felt like it could have been for anything. A showing of Andy Warhol prints could have substituted Cobain’s face and would have been just as appropriate. The thing is, I don’t know what Kurt Cobain would be more sickened by — an overly sincere, sappy tribute to the him, or a roomful of people who were into his image more so than his music.

The shortsightedness of Cobain’s suicide is a startling thing to consider. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” he famously signed off with in his suicide note. It’s incredibly vexing to know now how the horrible occurrence that took place in that Lake Washington house was only the beginning of the rock god status that Cobain hated so much. Thinking of the ramshackle singer in early 1991, playing with his band in small rock clubs, and comparing it to the stoic figure gracing the walls at Morrison Hotel and Tribecca Grand today is mind boggling. They’re very much two different people, and it’s my constant worry when considering Nirvana, the cornerstone for my interest in music since I first taped “Smells Like Teen Spirit” off Z100 twenty years ago, that the real Kurt Cobain is what is really fading away.