It occurred to me while watching the new HBO documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck: I am old. Not only am I old, but I’m okay with it.
I have always been on the side of the young, angsty, tortured artist. In high school, I developed an unnatural obsession with James Dean. It began by collecting postcards with his picture on them. It escalated to reading every biography of him written to that point. (I still have my James Dean Fan Club membership card around here somewhere). There was something about that thousand mile stare that had seen things that spoke to me.
It didn’t stop at Dean. If a writer, actor or musician had been self-destructive and moody in some way, I was with him in solidarity. After all, I considered myself something of a tortured soul, just one a bit too chicken to do the hard stuff. I didn’t race cars or shoot heroin, but I knew pain, man. These were my brothers. (And it’s so often men, right? Something about a woman falling apart is less alluring than a man crushed under the weight of his sensitivity to the slights of this world). I read their gritty words and saw my life in them. I wandered around in their darkness.
Then I had babies and there’s only so much lamenting you can do when someone is screaming to get a diaper change. A little after that, I began to notice that the most tormented-sounding quotes, especially about writing, were no longer resonating but starting to get on my nerves. I didn’t pay much attention to my feelings about the “tortured artist,” but instead turned my attention to my lifelong dream of being a writer. I published some essays and then a novel. I became a “real writer.” I decided that in order to be happy, I should strive to write a little something every day. I didn’t achieve whatever literary success I have by succumbing to my darkness, but by working through it and finding my way to the other side, the side of good work habits and healthy decisions.
And, somewhere on the far side of all this, I watched the Kurt Cobain documentary. It’s meant to show his great genius, and how tortured he was. What I thought through way too much of it was, “Would it kill you to wash your hair, or, god forbid, get a haircut?” My reaction was not sympathetic but tough-love motherly. I didn’t want to join him. I wanted to shape him up.
Gone was my tingle of recognition while he descended into self-destruction. Gone was my secret admiration for the courage it must take to feel your pain so fully. He wasn’t feeling his pain at all, actually, I figured out, but numbing it, afraid to face it and overcome it. Where in the past I would have admired the purity of spirit that led him to revile the fame and success he chased, while watching the documentary it just irritated me. Yes, life is hard. But it’s not something to admire when someone gives up. At 27, Kurt Cobain died at his own hand.
Whereas 27-year-old me would have seen something noble in that, 44-year-old me was thoroughly unimpressed. I tried to figure out if it was the fact that I felt no connection to his music or his drawings – I was in my twenties when grunge took off, and way too busy trying to make a living to really ever get into it at all – or if I didn’t like the production values of the documentary. It was a little of both. But, more than that, I realized that as I stand right in the middle (one hopes) between the start of my life and the end of it, I see the escaping minutes as precious and rare, a thing to be cherished and savored, not squandered.
Yes, I know he was an addict. I have great sympathy for the struggle he faced. My quibble is with the film makers. What could have been treated as a cautionary tale about the ravages of drug abuse instead turned into what would have once fascinated me but now just disgusts me: a celebration of self destruction and a perpetuation of the myth that some people are just too filled with genius and angst for this world.
They aren’t. We shouldn’t tell kids that. Advice from a middle-aged mom and recovering angst junkie.