Everyone draws their own personal line around such events and there is bound to be a point where even the most curious onlooker at a train wreck is going to be sickened. For me, and for many others, that apex was hit by "the picture" in the Seattle Times on the morning of Saturday, April 9. It ran on the front page, four columns of glorious full color. It was a picture of Cobain lying dead on the floor of his greenhouse. You can see Kurt's torso, his right leg, his black Converse tennis shoe, his clenched right fist. A door blocks the view of his head, his left arm, and, presumably, the shotgun he used to shoot himself. His Cons are tied just the way mine are usually tied, the way every left-handed kid in America ties them, with big balloon knots. He has white socks on.
The picture ran under the banner headline "Kurt Cobain's troubled last days," but the headline, or even the story, was hardly necessary after seeing the photograph. A Times reporter told me privately that he'd run into a staffer from the National Enquirer who had complimented him on the photo. "You beat us on that one," the Enquirer scribe told him with obvious envy.
Not everyone approached the picture with the same detachment the Enquirer writer brought. In my circle of friends and associates, people are still talking about "the picture" more than any other element of this gruesome tale. "Can you remember a time when either Seattle paper has run a picture of a corpse on the front page?" said one of my friends who works for the rival P-I.
The Times received hundreds of letters complaining about the picture and they ran some of those letters in their newspaper. But they also ran a column where Times executive editor Mike Fancher, usually a bastion of ethics, fell all over himself defending the use of the photo. Fancher wrote that the picture met the Times criteria of "whether an important journalistic purpose will be served....The overriding conclusion was that this picture met that test by establishing an essential reality about Cobain's death. Our concern was that Cobain's suicide would be romanticized by some--suicide, the ultimate high." What Fancher fails to note is that the Times stands to profit considerably from their syndication rights to this picture. They offered the shot to Time magazine for $10,000 and they've sold it so far to several tabloid newspapers in the East and to People magazine. My Times source told me the paper would probably make "a million dollars" off the rights to this particular photo. "This is not about morality," the Times reporter told me. "This is business." And business goes on, despite the death of Cobain, with little time to stop for grief or reflection.
Despite Fancher's excuse that the picture doesn't romanticize Cobain, the coverage that has continued in most newspapers, including the Times (and on TV and radio), has romanticized Cobain's troubled life at the expense of his work. "What makes these writers think they can turn a sad and lonely life into a piece of art?" commented one of my friends. In this gluttony of coverage almost nothing has been mentioned in the mainstream media about his music: the albums he and Nirvana made, and the concerts they performed, have been forgotten. Those recordings and performances are why Cobain mattered in the first place, but in his death they have become but a footnote to his sensationalistic obituary. Cobain can't be libeled now so he's become the public domain of blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Andy Rooney. Rooney, old fool that he is, used the forum of "60 Minutes" to tell us that because Kurt had a drug problem "his music may not have made much sense either." But this music did make sense to me: whether it was made by an artist with a drug problem, or whether it had been made by an old coot with his head up his ass, the work had a life apart from the man who made it. Nothing they could ever say about Kurt Cobain's personal turmoil--and there's no denying that turmoil was great--should change our view of the music he made.
At first, the media coverage concentrated on the tragedy itself, but now drugs seemed to have settled in as the easy culprit that many journalists have decided to pin this death on. And like most of the hysterical debate about drugs that goes on in this country, the drugs themselves have become personified as the true source of evil in this matter. The interview with one of Kurt's heroin dealers (a story the Times ran on April 20) seems to me to be at best misguided, and perhaps downright dangerous. By even asking questions like "Seattle scene and heroin use: How bad is it?" the Times demeans and diminishes the local music scene and glosses over a problem with addiction that encompasses all aspects of our society, with no regard for particular professions. Drug abuse is not a problem unique to musicians and studies have consistently shown that abuse is most common among doctors and nurses. But don't expect to see a headline soon that says "The AMA and methadone use: How bad is it?" because that scenario does not fit the way we want to view our medical professionals.
For too long in this culture we've attempted to blame all our social ills on our art forms, and Kurt Cobain's death gives us another easy target to talk about the evil of rock 'n' roll. It is true that Jimi and Janis and Jim and Kurt all died at the same age, but plenty of other 27-year-olds die untimely deaths and don't make it in the headlines. This argument continues to divert us from the underlying problems of society: whether it's violent cop shows on TV or "grunge rock," art itself does not create social angst or social problems, it only reflects them. Drugs did not kill Kurt Cobain. Sadly, he killed himself.