When I first met Kurt Cobain at a gala fundraiser for The Nation magazine in 2012, he was chatting with esteemed journalist Max Blumenthal, son of former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, at the buffet in the ballroom’s west end.
I initially discovered that Cobain was back in action via an Alternet.org article that detailed the rocker’s re-entry into the pop culture spotlight:
Fully recovered from his 1994 suicide, Cobain told Charlie Rose that he has been working as a diversity and inclusion consultant in Portland, Oregon the last few years. He mentioned that suicide was a bit “off-brand” for him.
My eyes lit up when I saw that Cobain truly was back. I caught the In Utero composer on an episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher.” An excited Henry Rollins picked up the grunge hero and cradled him in his oaken arms. Smiles rippled through my unmentionables.
These days, Cobain seems imbued with a keen sense of purpose. Gone is the wild-eyed youngster with a penchant for sarcastic, drug-fueled condescension. In his place is a relatively sober, mostly clear-thinking man of action who seems hell bent on reinventing himself as a progressive scholar. A man of letters.
So…what gives? What happened to the unkempt, uncompromising punk legend whose dark missives once set pop music ablaze?
“Look,” Cobain says matter-of-factly, “punk rock isn’t about soiling yourself onstage.
“Punk rock is about effectuating abrupt, jarring change. Punk rock is speaking inconvenient truths to power. That is punk rock.”
Fair enough, but why no music since 1993? Surely the Voice of a Generation has a song or two to share. Even simple 4-track recordings will do for us Cobain completists.
“The music industry is a tragedy,” says Cobain. “What you have now are silos of corporate thought. There is no music any longer, no art. There is merely product. I refuse to play music because I refuse to be commodified. Let Katy Gaga sing songs about shopping. I’m done shopping. Commerce doesn’t work.”
“I don’t need major labels — over-produced shlock.”
The Bleach composer grows animated when discussing his new social justice endeavors.
“I don’t abide the profanity of our disposable culture,” he says. “I hate malls, alternative rock, structural racism.”
Listening to Cobain speak in these troubled times is like listening to “Territorial Pissings” at the height of the 1990s alt-rock explosion. But now Cobain riffs as though he were a great jazz improv artist and not a surly punk rocker. He emphasizes that women’s reproductive rights are “the defining issue of our time.” He compares activist/law student Sandra Fluke to Rosa Parks.
He poses for a photograph with a nearby fan, the esteemed comedienne and Jezebel columnist Lindy West.
Life is good for Kurt Cobain.
But an undercurrent of distress remains palpable.
We reconvene later that night at a cafe called Wistful Scones with Cobain’s entourage, which includes such noted journos as David Sirota, Oliver Willis and Eric Boehlert — sage truth-tellers, noble knights of the printed word. The topic of the moment is speech codes. Cobain and pals embrace the idea.
“What could be more liberating than silencing words that hurt?” says Cobain. “I’m passionately for speech codes or a regulatory environment that stifles inarticulate and thuggish discourse. ”
“I’m a beneficiary of white privilege,” says Cobain. “I’ve got to remain cognizant of that. I’m part of the majority culture/white male corporate American Shit Machine. I’m just another honky motherfucker who’s a barrier to women, the LGBT community and people of color. It’s terrible.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel glides by on roller blades and exchanges polite smiles with Cobain et al. We catch a glimpse of esteemed racialist Morris Dees as well.
Cobain takes a bite out of his sandwich. He informs me that Ayn Rand frequently dined at Arby’s.
So far my exchanges with Cobain have been friendly, polite. But since I know he’s a punk who never shies from confrontation, I embolden myself and endeavor to challenge him. Since Cobain mentioned a fondness for President Barack Obama, I opt to “go there.”
I ask about Obama’s controversial and enthusiastic embrace of drone warfare. I query Cobain about the War on Drugs, which the Obama administration has amplified in demonstrable ways. I ask about Obama’s horrific record on clemency and transparency issues, and I discuss how the Affordable Care Act is viewed in some quarters not as legislation driven by good intentions, but as a cynical mechanism to help get Barack Obama re-elected. I bring up Guantánamo Bay, and the fact that — not only has the president refused to close the prison, as promised, his administration is overseeing an expensive upgrade to the Gitmo facilities. I note how the Obama administration has attempted to diminish journalists’ ability to report on certain issues and has threatened and bullied certain reporters. I bring up secret FISA courts, the treatment of Edward Snowden, the president’s apparent use of the gay community as political pawns and a host of other troubling issues.
But you know what?
Cobain isn’t fazed.
“If you’re going to make an omelet,” he says, “you’re gonna break a few eggs. And ultimately, a lot of what you’re saying is very Republican. You sound like a Republican. These are astroturf issues. These aren’t real issues, these are red herrings, contrived by Koch Puppets and the Tea Party’s War on Women. I gently suggest you wake up.
“Progressive politics are the prized Rothschild Egg, the egg that can’t be broken. That’s where we want to be as a a society. I’m here to fight, to take on the Pepsi Colas and Pringles Potato Chips and the dull, grey misery of the American middle class. To do away with Tea Bagger, Breitbart trash.”
So…you’ve come back as fire to burn all the liars?
“Well, in so many words, yes,” Cobain says.
And finally I’ve wrested a smile from the esteemed rocker-turned-public intellectual.