Kurt Cobain inspired a generation, leaving emptiness when he died
Photo above: Kurt Cobain, October 3, 1992 at the Sam Carver Gymnasium,
Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA Photo by ManWithoutTies via Flickr
This week, at a generally raucous but occasionally solemn event in New York, the band Nirvana was among the acts that were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame is the ultimate honor for a rock musician. But as Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic said, for Nirvana, it was truly a bittersweet moment.
The induction ceremony came almost 20 years to the day that founding member and lead singer Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle area home.
“Our buddy should be here with us,” Novoselic said of Cobain.
In April 1994, I was a morning show host on an FM rock and roll radio station. The news of Cobain’s death shocked everyone.
No one tweeted it. No one posted it on Facebook. Most people heard about it on the radio. Twenty years ago, radio was not only the way most people still heard music, it’s where they heard music news, and sometimes where they commented about it. They called the DJ’s and talked about it.
There were a lot of calls about Kurt Cobain’s death. I’ll never forget the reaction of the local Nirvana fans we heard from.
One in particular.
Cobain was one of the big stars of the grunge movement, maybe the biggest. He had done more than put flannel shirts on the fashion charts. He was one of the voices of a generation, speaking to their overall dissatisfaction with establishment, with music, with their parents — even with their own lives. It was the traditional rock and roll formula and he had been good at it.
His death at age 27, reported as a suicide (though later investigated — and for some, forever suspected — as foul play) came as an enormous shock to his fans, leaving an emptiness in their appreciation for him, and unanswered questions of why someone so successful and so talented would take his own life.
The news broke on a Friday morning, a little before 11 am Eastern time. I was part of the morning team on WDIZ-FM in Orlando, the “Mike and Todd Show.” We were on the air from 6-10 am. We had closed the show an hour earlier with a Friday signature bit, a comedy essay I would write that always ended with the catch phrase: “Bite me.” It almost always lead to a few funny phone calls in response. It was comedy gold.
And that’s why they had hired us: we were comedians — who knew a little about music.
An hour later, we were still at the station when the Cobain news broke. We listened for a while as the next DJ quickly eulogized Cobain, playing a lot of Nirvana and taking a few phone calls on air in reaction to the news. That continued all day.
By Friday night the national news was covering the angst and heartbreak of the millions of Nirvana fans. Someone compared it to the loss of John Lennon roughly 13 years earlier — a significant, memorable moment for a different generation.
The comparison stuck, at least for the weekend. Radio stations everywhere played Nirvana music, often back to back with “Imagine” by Lennon. As the weekend wore on, the comparison elevated Cobain to the level of martyr. There seemed to be millions more upset teenagers now than had ever bought a Nirvana album. As often happens in our society, in death, Nirvana gained greater life.
Something about the Lennon comparison bothered me. Lennon’s murder on the streets of New York in front of his wife hurt — really hurt. Cobain’s apparent taking of his own life by shotgun, in the home he sometimes shared with his wife and child, struck me as surrender, even cowardice.
Admittedly, I knew very little about depression at that point. I had lived a rather idyllic life up until then — some would say charmed. I didn’t know anyone who had battled any form of mental illness – or at least, I didn’t know that I did. And, I was a big John Lennon fan and only a casual Cobain fan, so the comparison rankled me.
When Todd and I went back on the air Monday morning, the sensible thing would have been to put Cobain as a topic behind us and start a new week of wacky jokes, music parodies and fun guests, along with kick-ass rock and roll. But perhaps because we hadn’t had a chance to address it yet on the air, I decided to write another essay — but not a funny one.
This one consoled the Nirvana fans, but reminded them Cobain was not Lennon as an artist. I also reminded everyone we were talking about a tortured soul who took his own life because he was unable to deal with whatever demons he struggled with and that his legacy may not be his music, but may in fact be what we learn about depression as a result. But, I added as an ending, he is not John Lennon, so back off the sainthood.
Late in the 7 o’clock hour, I read it on the air. We knew we’d get calls — and we did, way more than usual. As I recall it, they were a 50-50 split — the younger Cobain fans were still sad, while the older Lennon fans who had never bought into grunge, didn’t seem to care that much.
At that point, Todd and I felt that we could put the topic to bed soon: get off a couple of one-liners, and get back to funny and rock and roll. We were comedians. Yes, we were talking about a celebrity death from three days before, but we were still an irreverent comedy show, so we took our shots where we could, trying to get some laughs.
And then, she called.
We had just finished a pretty funny call and the mood was lightening up. We rolled right into the next call. Greg (the producer) signaled me to take the call on line one. I punched the button.
The girl almost couldn’t be heard. Her voice was so soft that it practically got lost amidst the laughter still in the air.
She said, barely above a whisper, “You shouldn’t talk like that about Kurt. He did what he had to do.”
Instantly I got chills and felt my stomach drop.
Looked at Todd I could tell he hadn’t caught it. He was about to continue on a comedy roll and say something funny. I frantically waved my hands to stop him.
He might have actually got a couple of words out, but our producer Greg must have seen the waving and the look in my eyes — or maybe had heard the same thing I heard. He had cut Todd’s microphone.
For a moment, there was silence.
“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing that I was not going to be comfortable with her answer, no matter what it was.
“I know how he felt. Sometimes it all gets to be too much, and there’s nothing else you can do. So he did what he had to do. I know how that feels.
“I think I’m going to do that too.”
I had no idea who she was. She sounded young, and fragile, and hurt.
At that point, I had no children, but Todd had three girls, all younger than six, including a new-born. The way I remember it, Todd was suddenly speechless, a rarity.
So I continued the conversation. Stumbling ahead. He soon joined, but let me lead it.
We soon found out she was 15. And she was home, and sad, and listening to us on the radio.
And seriously thinking about never being 16.
She wouldn’t tell me her name. I asked for a name I could call her. She became Mary.
We kept talking to her. We asked her what was wrong — she had vague answers, but they were really more questions than answers.
I asked her where her parents were. I don’t remember the details, but her mother was out of the picture. Her dad, she just said, “He works.”
When I asked her about school, she avoided it. I asked what she wanted to do when she grows up, ignoring that she was implying that she didn’t want to grow up. She didn’t have an answer.
By this point, this call had been the only thing on the air for close to a half hour.
We had blown off some commercials. Greg the producer was fielding phone call after phone call off the air from people who were generally concerned for her. The station’s Program Director — our boss — came into the studio to give hand signals and tell us to keep going.
Finally I asked her if we played a song or a commercial, would she stay on the phone with me so I could talk to her off the air for a minute … and she said yes.
At some point, I know I wondered whether she was really feeling this way, or was just a kid looking to get attention.
In a previous job as a newspaper reporter, we were taught to never publicize suicides unless it’s someone famous or it causes a huge traffic delay or some other type of public incident, and you NEVER cover threats of suicide. Reporting on a suicide theoretically can encourage people to kill themselves. Reporting on the threat of one can encourage others to seek that attention.
But those lessons are learned in the abstract — “a guy” who kills himself, or “a woman who says she’s going to kill herself.”
This was Mary. I wasn’t going to take the chance.
Off the air, I asked her if she’d like to talk to someone a little more professionally prepared to help her than a couple of radio comedians. She said okay. I didn’t want to hang up. I asked her if I could connect her on the air with someone and she agreed.
So I “introduced” her to a suicide phone counselor on the air and thankfully, she was much better and more prepared for talking to her than I was. Soon, Mary agreed to give us her address off the air while we played another song, and then stay on the air with us until some help arrived.
In one ear, I was listening to someone from the police or fire department telling me they were almost there. In the other I was talking to Mary, telling her someone was coming to help her.
Soon, I heard Mary open the door and start talking to someone else, her voice catching a little. Then someone else took the phone and said,“We’re here, and she’s okay.”
And I started to cry on the air, saying we’d be right back. We played a commercial or a song, staring at each other for a minute. And I exhaled. And then screamed.
By the time we came back on the air, we had learned from one of the responders that Mary’s father worked the midnight shift and came home and went to bed around the time she went to school. That morning, apparently he went to bed a little early, so she never left and was alone with her thoughts. Until she called us.
He was apparently pretty shocked to wake up to the sound of several people in his house. That was nothing compared to finding out why.
It was now about 10:30 in the morning. Our show should have been over for a half hour. But the phones were lit up. We took calls for another half hour or so — people saying they were now more than an hour late for work, or class, or whatever, because they couldn’t get out of the car without knowing what was going to happen to Mary.
They had shared this with us. They were as drained, and concerned, and as unsure of their feelings as we were. They wanted to tell us thank you. They didn’t realize how lucky we felt. We had gotten out of this alive — with everyone alive. We just wanted to put it behind us — we were comedians.
After a while, the calls all started to be the same. so we wrapped up the show.
I remember saying something like, “Todd and I are a couple of comedians, that’s why the station hired us. This is NOT the gig we signed up for. Tomorrow, it’s nothing but dick jokes!”
When we signed off, there was the opposite of an adrenaline rush. It was an adrenaline void. We were all suddenly exhausted.
Tom, the Station Manager, the big boss, passed me in the hall and said, jokingly, “I guess you guys are going to want a raise now.”
He never was funny.
I went home an hour later, had a beer and went to sleep for a couple of hours. I didn’t dream at all. Then I woke up, had some food and couldn’t go back to sleep for a long time.
The next day, we did a regular show. We didn’t mention Mary on the air, or what happened the day before — at all.
There were a lot of calls that we took off the air from people still wanting to talk about it, or ask about her. We told them on the phone what we knew.
We never found out what was “wrong.” Or what method she might have been considering to kill herself.
Or if in fact she really was going to do it.
We did find out that she was getting some treatment.
That information came from her father, who called to thank us for keeping her on the phone and for getting help for his daughter.
We took that call off the air as well.
And we didn’t play any Nirvana songs on the morning show for a long time.
Mike Brennan has been a Pulitzer Prize-nominated newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, a nationally touring stand-up comedian, a morning radio host, a professional auctioneer for numerous charities and a film and TV script consultant. He is currently working on a romantic comedy screenplay, and a humorous book on being a father, called The Tooth Fairy Doesn’t Pay for Yellow Teeth. He has lived in the Valley for 17 years, and has two teenage sons.