Earlier this week, I wrote this on my Facebook:
It was so long ago, the exact time is fuzzy. Maybe it was Fall of 1992, or early Spring of 1993. My friends and I were *deep* into Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden, Hole, and Nirvana.
My best friend, Dave, and I fancied our 20 year-old selves to be quite sophisticated, musically speaking, and we professed a specialized understanding and appreciation for Kurt Cobain’s lyrics that the people we disdained as “mortals” couldn’t even begin to fathom.
Sidenote: I’ve been listening to massive amounts of grunge and riot grrl for about a month, and I can honestly and embarrassingly admit that 20 year-old me wasn’t *nearly* as insightful, wise, and sophisticated as he thought he was. He really needed to shut up, and he did *not* have the understanding and appreciation of this music that he thought he did. I know this because 46 year-old me is finding things in these lyrics and albums that younger versions of me weren’t nearly mature enough to see.
So it’s late afternoon, and Dave and I are walking up Veteran in Westwood, to the loft that I share with Hardwick. On our walk, we pass a frat house. On this particular day, this frat house is blasting Nirvana’s “In Bloom” out of its open windows. Kurt Cobain screams, “he’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/ and he likes to sing along/ and he likes to shoot his gun/ but he don’t know what it means / knows not what it means / when I sing it.”
Dave and I look at each other, and the pure, unfiltered, raw and unadulterated CONTEMPT we have for the people in this frat (which I deliberately call a frat because it annoys the douchebags who join fraternities to meet other douchebags) can move mountains.
“These fucking guys,” I say, gesturing dismissively at the house.
“They don’t even know he is singing about THEM, man!” Dave finishes my thought.
It is only now, two and a half decades later, that I realize Kurt Cobain was singing about ALL OF US.
Oh, twentysomething Wil, you are such a privileged little white boy, and you have so much maturing to do. You’re doing the best you can, but … just slow your roll, kid.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on my twenties this week, as I have immersed myself in the music I loved then. I’ve been unpacking a lot of what and who I was then, and how he relates to who I am, now. One of those reflections inspired me to write this, today:
All this grunge and riot grrl I’ve been listening to has knocked loose a memory that’s kind of shameful and regrettable, and even though this probably doesn’t matter to anyone (least of all the potentially-offended parties), it bothers me, so if you’ll indulge me for a moment…
When I was a teenager, I loved punk and rap, because both forms of music were rebellious, and they talked about tearing down the power structure that oppressed people who didn’t look like me. My parents *hated* the music I liked, which helped me to come to love it. Funny how music does that.
Anyway, I think my introduction to grunge was Nirvana, which lead to Soundgarden, then Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins, and eventually to Mother Love Bone and the Melvins. These people spoke my truth, and they spoke what I wanted to *be* my truth, if that makes sense.
At some point in my late twenties, I kind of turned away from most 90s music, and went back to the Black Flag, Sex Pistols, X, Dead Milkmen, Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, and similar punk rock that shaped much of my identity and influenced me so profoundly when I was a kid. I felt like grunge was something that an immature version of myself listened to, while early punk was something a version of myself listened to while he was growing into his own identity. Does that make sense? I felt like young me got a pass on being an idiot, because he was young, while twenties me was judged more harshly because he was old enough to know better. At 46, I can look back on both versions of me with tremendous empathy, and know that each version of me was doing the best he could at the time. Someone once said if you don’t look back on your early twenties with mortification, you’ve fucked up somewhere along the way, and I tend to agree with that.
But this thing that I want to take responsibility for happened when I was in my thirties, *definitely* old enough to know better, and is an embarrassing and shameful example of Shitty White Boy Privilege.
Real quick, before I get into that: I watched Iggy Pop’s Epix docuseries, PUNK, and loved every second of it. I loved all the interviews and reflections on the early years of punk rock, going all the way to the MC5 and the Stooges in the late 60s, and I was grateful to realize that, while I was >just< too young for the 80s punk I loved, and >just< too old for the Warped Tour stuff that I still think is for children, I was *exactly* the right age for grunge. Nevermind hit when I was 19, and I was READY for it.
While 21 and 22 year-old me was running around acting like he understood Nirvana at a deeper level than most people (he didn’t), he discovered this album called LIVE THROUGH THIS. for the 5 of you don’t know because you just came out of a 30 year coma, that’s Hole’s big break through album. It is flawless, and I listened to it on cassette so much when I lived in France, I broke the tape. It was as important to me as anything else I’d ever listened to, even though I only understood a tiny percentage of the lyrics and images, because Courtney Love didn’t write it for shitty little privileged white boys like me.
In the PUNK documentary, they talk to Kathleen Hannah, who formed Bikini Kill (a group I am only a little ashamed to admit I just learned about this year). She talked about recording Rebel Girl and other songs on their debut album, and performing for audiences that were filled with privileged white boys like me, who didn’t have any idea how privileged we were, and feeling irritated because she didn’t make her music for me and idiots like early-twenties me. I’m glad I didn’t discover her and her band until this year, because I was WAY too immature to appreciate what she sang about, and what it meant to women. In fact, I’m confident that 20s me would have been shitty and dismissive and arrogant about the whole thing, because he was REALLY not aware of the bubble he lived in. I mean, he had his own issues and his own traumas and pain to live with (which is a big reason why he loved punk and grunge so much), but he was still a white boy in a white world, you know?
Okay, back to now.
When I was in my thirties, I thought it would be funny to declare on Twitter, “Live Through This is the best album Kurt Cobain ever wrote.”
I know. What an asshole thing to say, for so many reasons, which I’ll get to in a second. I’m willing to give that version of me a tiny bit of slack (I mean, like, a TINY bit), because he thought that EVERYONE knew Courtney Love had written that album, he was just doing some trolling to work up people who should know better, and … ugh, I hate that I have to admit this … “it’s just a joke, why are you taking everything so seriously.”
He knew better. I knew better. He thought he was being clever, but as Scalzi observes, the default fail mode of clever is asshole, and I was, in that moment, an asshole.
I reduced Courtney Love to Kurt Cobain’s girlfriend, and in so doing, I diminished EVERY woman who has ever worked hard to make something in any field. I diminished and insulted and demeaned every woman who has worked twice as hard as her male colleagues, for 80 cents on the dollar. And then, when I was called out for being shitty, I dismissed the fair criticisms and minimized my behaviour as “just jokes”.
For the last month or so, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to grunge and riot grrl from the 90s, and every day I think about this shitty thing I did, that I’m sure nearly everyone has forgotten. I’m sure Courtney Love doesn’t know I exist, and I’m sure she could not care less about what I think.
But I put something shitty into the world, at her expense and at the expense of more women than I can count, and I regret that. I’m embarrassed and ashamed, and I just want to publicly say that I’m sorry to Courtney Love and to every woman who was insulted, demeaned, and hurt by me being a shitty privileged white boy.
LIVE THROUGH THIS is an incredible album. It is one of the best albums of the 90s. It holds up today in ways that lots of music I was crazy about then does not. It’s a deeply affecting and powerful record that deals with painful subjects in ways that reclaim power from abusers and an abusive system. It’s the album I needed but didn’t deserve, and Courtney Love did an incredible job writing, performing, and recording it.
We all do the best we can, I think, and it is with that knowledge that we can be gentle and forgiving to younger versions of ourselves. However, the younger version of me that demeaned and diminished a woman for a cheap and lazy joke absolutely knew better, and he did it anyway. I did it anyway. I regret it, I’m am ashamed of it, and in order for 46 year-old me to forgive thirtysomething me, I have to take responsibility for what I did.
Is it the biggest thing in the world? Probably not, but it’s been bothering me, and owning my failure is the only way I’ll be able to let it go.
I’m so sorry, not just for this, but for all the shitty things I did to people who didn’t deserve it when I was young and foolish. I’m doing my best to be a better person now, and I hope that by sharing my personal failures, maybe it’ll help someone else who is now where I was then open up his eyes and make some changes in his life.