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Why we need more Kurt Cobains Music should give a voice to broken souls

'There are no more Cobains at the top.' (Photo by Frank Micelotta(

'There are no more Cobains at the top.' (Photo by Frank Micelotta(


April 8, 2024   6 mins

It’s been 30 years since Kurt Cobain blew his own head off with a shotgun. It’s impossible to imagine mainstream rock success in bed with that kind of despondency in this day and age. Rap might harbour that kind of extreme contradiction. That’s because it hasn’t lost all vitality within the culture. It remains to some extent a safe space for transgression. I can see Ye losing his shit Cobain style someday, for instance. But nobody in rock and roll. There are no more Cobains at the top. The ecosystem which provided for their ascent in the first place has been totally destroyed. Back then, during the early Nineties — the dying embers of the heroic phase in the counterculture — Cobain’s angst and ultimately his self-slaughter only compounded his artistic credentials.

Of course, we used to say: “It’s the ones who’ve cracked that the light shines through.” Needs re-working this adage, bequeathed to us by Leonard Cohen, via Jeffrey Lewis. Needs stripping of its misleading naiveté. I always picture a roof, a roof with a great big crack in it. It’s only under a broken roof you can absorb what’s actually going on outside the safety of your hermetically sealed sanctum. The ones who are cracked let the light in, sure, from time to time, when it’s light out, when the weather’s decent. But for the most part, as in Cobain’s case, the ones who are cracked also let in the damp, the rain, the drawn-out black chill of winter. I’m guessing Cohen was at least vaguely aware of this dilemma. That with truth, comes discomfort. All the same, I didn’t hear it like that at age 18. Crack = integrity. That’s all I heard. It would have been nice if there’d been a disclaimer.

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews recently, on the promo trail for a new album, and people frequently ask me if starting a band is a good idea, as if I’m an authority on the subject. The situation was bad enough decades ago, I tell them. Damaging enough. Unhealthy enough. Back then — pre-web, pre-Spotify deciding you deserve nothing — people were still crushing their minds chasing the dream, but they at least had the homes they’d bought through record sales to overdose in when the time came. They had space for failure both professional and personal. The more an artist is given the room to fail, the greater the capacity for success. But artists are no longer worth anything in society. The licence we formally granted them is gone. We’ve given up on Cohen’s maxim entirely. If you’re cracked, you probably need to be therapised out of existence.

I don’t want to come off negative. There is a good side to playing in a group, even in this dark, offensively inoffensive period of paint-by-numbers indie vapidity. It’s just I despise the good side even worse than the bad. It’s like with drugs, the high should bear the weight of your resentment, not the come down. The come down is your friend. The come down might stop you from mugging yourself forever. The high is what deforms you. The first 117 gigs I performed were dogshit bar one. All I was doing was rolling around town humiliating myself in pubs. Then some night you chance upon a small crowd that will go batshit for pretty much anything. And then your life as you knew it is over. You will never make it to adulthood. You will crave that fix until you’re dead. You will hanker for it whether you have anything to say or not. The art will frequently come second. The love, the delicious adulation, will come first.

These articles, the book I co-wrote, my journals, they are the beginnings of an exit strategy, a literary life raft with which I hope to salvage something bearable from the coming storm of middle age. Something that doesn’t demand my having to Frankenstein myself, to enmesh myself with the hopes, dreams and dreary shortcomings of others to make my living. That’s actually the worst of it. Especially if the people you’ve got on the squad are arguably even more cracked than you are. How your identities get all molten and confused. This character splicing is of course also what makes a great band. Once you merge, stylistically, spiritually, philosophically, you can act and think as one. This is of great use to you, what with your trying to keep time, and cultivate a strong group aesthetic. Nirvana for instance, they don’t sound like a few guys, they sound like one guy. The problems truly begin when this bizarre soul congealment bears real-world fruit, and a murderous over-excitement begins to brew. Long-forgotten personal boundaries have no hope of re-emerging in the sudden climate of smash-and-grab opportunism.

Becoming an artist is all about access to irresponsibility. With irresponsibility often comes marginality sure, but at least you get out in the open. Those who compute the world aesthetically — the overly sensitive — clock very early on in life that the price of civilisation is this incredibly dull thing called repression, and they start trying to hustle their way out of that agreement accordingly. I will live by my imagination. My contribution will be the uniqueness of my very persona. This might demand your sinking into squalid self-absorption and penury, but at least the future will bear your signature. That is unless you drift into the notion that maybe you should start a band. In which case, the future will bear several signatures. Whose signature has more prominence will almost certainly become an issue. Because being in a band means that you have to share everything.

I don’t consider myself a musician. Not really. I can play, a bit. I’m more of a performance artist. A performance artist and a lyric whore. Music is just the medium with which I happen to earn rent money. More than any other type of artist, musicians are eternal children. It’s why so many of them — like Cobain — don’t make it past 27. And the bigger the star, the more freakish the Peter Pan syndrome should things drag on too long, Michael Jackson being the prime example, who went as far as actually building his own personal Neverland. There’s nothing comparable in any other medium.

But consider the talent these people are lumbered with. If you can coast through life by simply making sounds, why develop the rest of your brain? Music, to paraphrase Schopenhauer, is not like the other arts, it isn’t an intermediary between idea and will, but will itself. Everything else is just tracing shadows on sheafs of paper and rolls of film. Music transcends all that pedantry, any causal notion of law and logic. It is primeval. Pre-verbal. A realm of pure intuition.

“If you can coast through life by simply making sounds, why develop the rest of your brain?”

What happens when these beings of pure will club together in groups will always be of some fascination to the general public. The paradox is too severe, bears too much sweet schadenfreude. Failure is the key component in comedy, and few things are so rich in failure. The widescreen interpersonal schisms — they quench an egotistical demand for high drama within the group, and a perverse love of watching other people fail outside of it. But: to live outside the law, you must be honest, as Bobby D sang. Your freakishness, of which you made a song and dance, of which you demanded the world celebrate, is now inescapable, calcified, permanent. You will be known henceforth by the crudely rendered cartoons you elaborated to replace yourselves. Your alter ego, initially your deliverance from unadulterated boredom, you soon find to be nothing less than the guarantee of your permanent exile. It’s important to remember that this is what you wanted. I have a feeling that it’s something the Nirvana frontman tried very hard to forget.

Luckily, we’re reaching the end of the band era. The further we roll from its heyday, the more I reckon my incredibly meagre stock is likely to rise. Once all of the old guard finally croak, people will turn to the only dregs they have left. The last turds on the block. Against my better judgement, I hope to be among those turds. There will only be a handful of us left, the real deal who went out and properly fucked up our lives on account of a few hooks and the odd Nazi-themed video.

For the most part, “rock and roll” today feels like a silly turn of phrase. A euphemism out of time, it means “hard on then move on”. Not exactly the vibe anymore. The medium has been reduced to a middle-class pageant for people who fancy a little more colour in their lives. I can’t remember the last person to really let the light in, the light and the drizzle and the dark. That’s because folks aren’t steeped in enough dysfunction. It sickens me, the politesse and consideration with which some of these new-fangled groups conduct themselves. The endless groaning about mental health. You’re supposed to break your soul. Any band worth its salt is a machine for cultivating and harbouring cracked souls.

To refute the systemisation of utterly everything at the price of full social ostracisation, there is no stronger aesthetic. To tell yourself the world is flat and live accordingly, because you feel ontologically more at home in a world with a beginning and an end, a world that looks and feels like a story… few things take more guts in an age as brutally formulaic as this one. Idiocy, drug abuse, infantilism, depression, schizophrenia, these are not ailments, these are the price of resistance. These are the bravest symptoms of a worldwide disease one might call metaphysical nihilism. A disease that insists on the supplanting of reality with a quantification of reality. A band is a machine for arrested development, and what could be more crucial than an arrestation of development in a world that can’t switch itself off, even as — to lift from Cobain’s final words — it chooses to burn out, rather than fade away?


Lias Saoudi is the frontman of Fat White Family and the Moonlandingz, and the co-author of Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure

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Ian_S
Ian_S
1 month ago

Well, certainly a lot of potential lyrics in that piece. I’ll look at it that way, because I lost track of what the actual argument was.

David B
David B
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian_S

The map is not the territory. And today we live in a map, the same map and a low-resolution, inaccurate map at best.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian_S

It’s tough being a pretentious person in a rock band

Glynis Roache
Glynis Roache
1 month ago

Mamas Don’t Let Your Children Grow up to Be Cowboys! Equally with rock bands. American Country is not the only music of pain. I recognised almost every sentiment in this article – except the conclusion about needing more Kurt Cobains. Like every mother, I prefer that sons survive. Unfortunately, the gift that grants the talent and the inspiration can be accompanied by a very turbulent wake. Our twin sons formed a band in the late nineties, early 2000s. Even I remember it all with pain. The early gigs in pubs and village halls playing through useless sound systems … Then the progress – radio appearances on Janis Long etc, Rough Trade CD of the week, BBC T in the Park, Hultsfred Sweden, the ups and downs of negotiating with big record companies who had one eye on the new bogeyman that was file sharing and Napster, the decision to be an ‘Indie’ band, the long hours in recording studios, the build up to glory – and then the pain when it all fell apart. It wasn’t even obvious to me how it fell apart, but it did. Conclusively and agonisingly. It wasn’t drugs, it wasn’t drink. I think it was just that neither they nor, to some extent, their physical bodies could take the constant pain of what looked to me like an endless round of creation and destruction. 
    Our sons are nearly 50 now and I still feel it in them. One is a successful life coach for companies and individuals but if anybody asks him for help with songwriting or even playing the guitar he won’t go there. The other teaches the grades for Rock School drums and the grades for classical piano – in schools and from home. He does help budding creatives but it seems to take a hefty side dish of tai chi and dedicated Buddhism to let him keep this toehold in the world of music.
    Yes, they put their lives back together but it would be foolishness to say that rock music hasn’t dictated the entire way those lives went and are still going. Professional creativity in any form is a life choice that is seeded with difficulty, but Schopenhauer was right. Music is the most metaphysical of the art forms and, as such, it has a direct effect on our consciousness. For better or worse.

Nanda Kishor das
Nanda Kishor das
1 month ago

No, we don’t need more dope fiends turned to cultural heroes. What’s so admirable about blowing your head off?

B Emery
B Emery
1 month ago

But did he blow his own head off? There was speculation that he actually had way too much smack in his system to even pick up the shot gun.

He was more than a ‘dope fiend’. He was only the leader of one of the most successful punk bands on the planet, capable of drawing a crowd of thousands of people. Can you do that?
Have you actually listened to any nirvana?
Have you read his journals?
He constantly criticised the media and American corporate culture describing America as a country that had ‘sucked and f*cked itself into rehashing the value of greed’, he also advised throwing your television out of the window, good advice I reckon.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  B Emery

Why would anyone look to take “advice” from someone who can’t hack life for longer than 27 years?

B Emery
B Emery
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Why wouldn’t they. Do you not think throwing your TV out is good advice then? Don’t you know too much telly will give you square eyes? Don’t you know the amount of television Americans consume is now obscene? Don’t you know Americans are getting stupider by the year? Do you not think too much telly might have something to do with that?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago
Reply to  B Emery

A lot of Americans don’t even bother with TV. And if we’re “stupider”, it’s because education started going down the toilet in the 50s and now “math is racist”.

B Emery
B Emery
1 month ago

The young ones have swapped TV for Internet I think but:

According to the most recent data, U.S. viewers aged 15 years and older spent on average almost three hours watching TV per day in 2022. Adults aged 65 and above spent the most time watching television at over four hours, whilst 15 to 19-year-olds watched TV for less than two hours each day.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/411775/average-daily-time-watching-tv-us-by-age/

It says the young ones do Internet and video streaming services like Netflix instead now.

Education going down the toilet probably doesn’t help, have seen other Americans elsewhere, mostly on zerohedge, complaining that ‘maff is racist’ 🙂 it is here too, our government doesn’t really do maths either it seems.

In the interest of not bashing Americans too hard, British TV consumption is actually very similar, our average IQ, at around 98, is also the same as America, we are getting stupider too.
In conclusion I still feel throwing your TV out the window is good advice for both British and American citizens.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  B Emery

Don’t know about throwing your TV out, unless if it’s out of a tenth floor hotel window. Now THAT’S Rock’n’Roll!

B Emery
B Emery
1 month ago

Absolutely. Make sure you book the top floor every time.
Tell the hotel manager you are spear heading a cultural revolution and you are an activist fighting media oppression. Jso, blm etc. seem to get away with those kind of excuses for smashing sh*t.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
1 month ago

As regards his tragic end, I could never picture him doing that. He was a gentle soul probably destined to overdose. But the scene around him was very sinister and his wife was very Nancy Spungen.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

He was also in nearly continual physical pain from irritable bowel syndrome, which made heroin use appealing, and went from being a poorer kid in a low paying profession to being a wealthy celebrity.
He certainly could’ve been a bit more mature – even at 27, one shouldn’t become despondent at life’s realities. Of course MTV was mindless consumerism on display, in an often mindlessly consumerist era – what would one expect to find?
But he still composed clever and appealing lyrics, and constructed exciting, innovative compositions.
His band mate Dave Grohl went on to found the Foo Fighters, a far more commercially successful but also far more upbeat band. Grohl in general strikes one as a far more well adjusted individual, a happy go lucky McCartney to Cobain’s dour and self destructive Lennon.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

Trying to be a ‘star’ in any field has always been arduous (unless you have wealthy parents with connections) – music, sport, art. Only a few will make enough to survive more than a couple of years and fewer than that will make it really big, and luck will play a large part of that in addition to the hard work and talent. Most will fail and if they have no back up plan the failure could be absolute.

Abhi Garg
Abhi Garg
1 month ago

“I don’t want to come off as negative”. Really? Then don’t write. Statements like that drag otherwise good journalism into sheer mediocrity.

George Locke
George Locke
1 month ago

What a load of pretentious hogwash.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
1 month ago

A scattershot load of generalizations This one seems to me among the most accurate:

More than any other type of artist, musicians are eternal children. It’s why so many of them — like Cobain — don’t make it past 27. And the bigger the star, the more freakish the Peter Pan syndrome should things drag on too long, Michael Jackson being the prime example, who went as far as actually building his own personal Neverland. There’s nothing comparable in any other medium

Even so, quite a few make it past that oddly-common death age of 27 and become some version of real adults, if not Regular Joes. I’ll mention Paul McCartney (despite his boyishness), Bruce Springsteen (despite his adolescent-angst lyrics), Joni Mitchell (despite her struggles), and Dolly Parton (despite her “backwoods Barbie” persona).

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

It’s also entirely possible to live a middle class, respectable life as a musician, or as any other kind of artist.
Matisse said it best – be steady and traditional in your private life, so that you can be violent and original in your work.
No one denies how gruelling travelling entertainment can be. There’s also no requirement for drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, profligate spending, or taking poor care of one’s health.
Lots of musicians teach, record, play live locally, or give private lessons. They can earn money that way, and if they’re good enough at learning, practicing, and teaching, they can earn enough to more than survive.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 month ago

He still doesn’t understand the cracks and light metaphor, which is a shame, given that he constructed a whole article out of it.

Robert Paul
Robert Paul
1 month ago

This a free associative piece that perhaps needed a second draft and a good editor to bring some clarity, discard some clutter, add some vigor. It’s telling that my kids, and their pals and gals, are more enthralled and thrilled by the old stuff, Led Zepplin and Marvin Gaye, and universally, if it’s boiled down, it’s because they artists and their music is ‘soulful.’ The dreck that’s issued today is boilerplate, whatever the genre, whoever the artist, vapid and predictable and overproduced, drained of vitality and mostly little more than the solipsistic scribblings of a not so very bright high school sophomore. Does the fact the only three of Billboard’s top 100 were songs made and sung by a real group — the rest are solo ‘artists.’

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
1 month ago
Reply to  Robert Paul

The old stuff? Is the arch from Chant to Rap cause for hope? Did Kurt see that, after his Grunge, there would be Rap? Did he look at the “evolution” of music and say to himself: Surely now we needn’t worry about sitting on the edge of abysses?

hassan anderson
hassan anderson
1 month ago

Agree that there is a systemic stranglehold on artists today that negates extravagance, and stamps out the broken.

But disagree with the idea that excess = artistry. The book ‘Bodies’ by Ian Winwood makes a strong argument against this.

The rock n roll cliche of the self-destructive artist is manufactured by the same machine of banality that you rail against.

The world needs more Mackayes not Cobains.

Scott McGhee
Scott McGhee
27 days ago

Maybe music just isn’t the exit from the machine that it once was. I always sort of thought of counterculture as the place beyond the blob of business, of decorum, of the world the fogeys had built. But that territory kept getting razed, graded and developed by capitalism. The same year Cobain died, William Burroughs appeared in a commercial for Nike. It’s hard for me to think of any transgressive element in our culture that didn’t eventually get gobbled up and stuck on a beer can or something. What’s left of the counterculture then? What turf will not get gobbled up by the blob? ISIS? Mall shooters?