I used to visit a friend of mine in Chicago and we'd talk about who had failed, who had overdosed, who had died from the treatment program we were in during our shared tumultuous youth. We'd meet in some quiet spot, say, at an Italian Sausage stand, grab our food, and talk about the utter routine feel of watching our peers fail: the kids who were stellar musicians, who were academics, who'd played the program like it was meant to be conquered for the sheer chance of at least coming out of it at all, sometimes not knowing if they'd be placed in a step-down, or boarding school that only prolonged their treatment. You didn't go to a facility like that because you wanted to get better. And, as the old adage goes, you can't help those who don't want it. Though, sometimes, there is nothing you can do for those who care enough to cry out.
The just-released Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck straddles the very frayed lines of a man in deep physical and emotional pain while seeing incredible success, elements of which contributed to those depths of depression. Cobain's daughter, who never knew the man, acted as consultant on the film, and continues to find her absent father inescapable. He's considered the voice of a disenchanted generation to many, an earnest martyr who anchored the grunge movement and the changing record industry, conquering it with a grunge queen by his side and the type of playful "fuck you" attitude all who've related to Nirvana could only hope to incorporate in their day-to-day lives. Speaking in a joint interview with his beau, Courtney Love, for a Sassy Magazine cover story in 1992, Cobain predicted his relationship with Love would temper his anger. "I'm just so overwhelmed by the fact that I'm in love on this scale," he pines in one of the few longer answers he elicits during the interview. Sassy describes him as shy, Love as bombastic.
Our society is certainly not conditioned to handle a bombastic woman. For all her explicit flaws, which very well may be what drove Cobain to Love, very rarely in the popular commentary is she thought of as a victim of their drug use or his suicide. The constant narrative is steeped in conspiracy theories and damaging terms that occasionally veer into the overtly sexist. Love was incredibly successful alongside Cobain and without him. Hole's classic Live Through This came out mere days after Cobain's death, ascending to platinum status. Four years later, Celebrity Skin followed suit. We don't remember Love and Hole as the type of genre-defining band that Cobain's Nirvana continues to be. If anything, Celebrity Skin is something you'll see in the dollar section of a record store, all the while In Utero's twentieth anniversary is lauded, commemorated, and packaged in a multi-disc box. This is the rub of successful partners both involved in the same industry. Love has done much to alienate herself, yes, yet far more divisive musicians live another day in the spotlight despite their treatment of others or grotesque flaws.
Soon, another music documentary will come out about a troubled artist who saw death far too soon. Entitled Amy, fittingly about Amy Winehouse, the documentary has already drawn criticism from Winehouse's family, who've voluntarily chosen to distance themselves from what they say is an unfair representation of their treatment of her explicit pain and addiction. Cobain's parents contributed to his PTSD. Winehouse's appeared to sit on their hands for the sake of keeping equilibrium.
A 2007 interview with Rolling Stone magnifies the joint couple interview of Cobain and Love's Sassy spread, though Winehouse's (now) ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil rarely spoke and was only a secondary story due to sheer dramatic forces of wandering off, the duo quickly marrying, and perhaps, most alarming making a joint pact of deciding not to tell each other when the other had gone too far with their vices. So Cobain talked nonchalantly about a failed suicide attempt, Winehouse closed herself off from the slightest of questions about the scars on her arms, simply saying that they were old, her voice trembling when she called them desperate times and nothing more.
Contemporary headlines of the two paint an entirely different picture. They're both different people, felt different pain, and turned that into their own type of heartbreaking balladry. Troubadours in their own right, there is simply no way to honor either's memory through a look back at the casual normalization of Cobain's clearly pained behavior, nor the tabloid-esque photos of Winehouse at her lowest points, photographers adoring her as a caring force who they hoped would get better but who did nothing more to extend their support than long for the days they could shoot her living a healthy life, to say nothing of those closest to her. Winehouse famously, playfully, said her rehab stints were jokes and that she still did drugs in the facilities she was placed in. Reading those past interviews, I can't help but think of the lives lost around me from those who exhibited very similar behavior, whose parents didn't overlook their problems but certainly didn't know how to help them. Flaws and all, we will remember Cobain and Winehouse. Perhaps the artists they inspire will fare better.