'Kurt' at the SAM? Nevermind


About 10 years ago, I was sitting in church on Easter Sunday when the priest brought up Kurt Cobain in his homily, no doubt to try to connect to the younger members of his University District parish. If you don't remember, Kurt Cobain was the iconic founder of the rock group Nirvana who transformed popular music 20 years ago before killing himself at his Seattle mansion at the apex of his popularity in 1994.
The priest took exception to the lyrics of Nirvana's hit song "All Apologies," in which he claimed Cobain sings "All we know is all we are" over and over at the end of the song. The priest maintained that humans were more than what they knew because they have immortal souls, connecting them to God.
At the end of the Mass I shook the priest's hand on my way out, but I didn't have the heart to tell him he had misheard the lyrics. According to the liner notes, what Cobain is singing is "All in all is all we are," something quite different and probably more theologically suitable.
I remembered this story recently while walking around the current "Kurt" exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Apparently, artists of all kinds have spent the last two decades also trying to figure out what Cobain was saying and what people heard.

Something in the way
On SAM's website, curator Michael Darling states, "The exhibition asks viewers to question why and how Kurt Cobain came to mean so much to a generation." As a member of that generation, I find it difficult to view Kurt and Nirvana past my own nostalgia.
The first time I heard Nirvana was in November 1991. I was a 20-year-old student eating and drinking in the restaurant of Balmer's Youth Hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. I was studying abroad in Europe my junior year of college, living in Belgium, and my buddy Rob and I decide to spend the weekend in the Swiss Alps.
"Nevermind," Nirvana's breakthrough album, was playing on stereo speakers above dozens of other guests speaking languages from around the world. Something in that music caught my ear, and I became a fan.
It was a time in pop music dominated by acts like Michael and Janet Jackson, boy bands like New Kids on the Block and big-hair bands like Poison. Nirvana and Cobain's raw voice immediately stood out as sounding original and authentic in a world of musical mediocrity.
Soon after, I got my first look at Cobain and Nirvana when their videos started popping up on MTV Europe. Not only did they sound different, they looked different. They didn't wear tight leather pants, sequins or eyeliner. They wore T-shirts, ripped jeans and dirty sneakers. In fact, they looked just like us college students.
Cobain and Nirvana spearheaded a new "alternative" movement in music and pop culture, and it didn't take long for record companies to cash in by signing similar-sounding bands, several from Seattle. I'll never forget walking through a mall back in America a year later and seeing a large sign in the window of a clothing store that screamed, "We've got the GRUNGE look here!" and showed a photo of a thin, sullen, female fashion model wearing a designer flannel shirt.

Come as you are
"Kurt" the art exhibit seems very amateurish to me; most of the art doesn't seem very artistic. Maybe that's the point, since Cobain seemed like the antidote to the slick, pre-fabricated music of his time. In one of the first pieces viewers see, "Kurt Cobain" is spelled out in letters from old signs.
A nearby video shows a woman dancing in a public space, but the viewer hears no song. A sign says she is alternately dancing between a disco song and "Spells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana's first and biggest hit.
Another artist took a picture of himself wearing a blond wig, apparently one in a series of photographs of himself dressed up as dead celebrities.
For another video, an artist hired an actor to pretend to be Cobain lip-synching to a Nirvana song.
The coolest item was a pair of earplugs created by melting down a Nirvana LP record and an LP record by Hole, the band fronted by Cobain's widow, Courtney Love.
The most memorable piece for me was the decapitated head of Cobain lying on the floor, with his eyes open and lifelike. It reminded me of the giant disembodied heads of Roman emperors found in museums, the only remaining pieces from once-mighty statues. Kurt is dead; long live Kurt.
So what does the artwork in the "Kurt" exhibit mean, individually and collectively? I don't really know - like I said my nostalgia gets in the way. Nirvana's songs remind me of a time when I had a longer future.
Nostalgia sells, and the cynic in me can't help wondering if SAM is trying to tap into the same revenue stream that record and clothing companies found all those years ago. But I suppose there are worse endeavors than trying to get more people to come inside an art museum.[[In-content Ad]]