I was 14 when the 27 club welcomed one of its most famous members. The story of Kurt Cobain and his spiral into despair held my attention much more than any Shakespearean play I was being taught as school. Grunge rock might never have been my thing, but Nirvana’s posters adorned the walls of all the boys I fancied, so it felt only right that I should take an interest. I went from being interested to compelled when I heard his suicide note being read out on the radio. As a teenager who had literary aspirations, the words: “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” had me hook, line and sinker. The tragedy, the mystery, the angst, it all just seemed so glamorous.
Of course it wasn’t just me that it took an interest, the whole world and his dog suddenly knew Kurt Cobain’s life story. Because that is what death does, it propels you into stardom, recreates your story into some new romanticized version. With the taint of death, every minor, minute details suddenly becomes important. Suddenly a sad face means depression, a hollow laugh becomes manic. People begin to project their own fears and failings on to someone else, who is not there to argue. As an impressionable teenager, I did just this. I identified with that lost look in Kurt’s eyes. He was misunderstood, just like me.
Twenty one years on and the world is still just as captivated with Kurt Cobain and his fellow 27 club members. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jeff Buckley and Amy Winehouse, continue to hold the public’s interest years after their death, and their lives continue to be the subject of speculation fuelled by news articles, documentaries and social media. And as much as the stories of their lives still intrigue me, I just can’t help but wonder if our morbid curiosity is really healthy. Shouldn’t we be looking to the living for our answers, not the dead?
Of course it’s not just the music world that has a tendency to lose its members to tragedy. From writers like Sylvia Plath to artists like Vincent Van Gogh, the world of art seems to be full of heart breaking stories of untimely ends. Perhaps it’s because we feel things too deeply to create the things that we do. Whatever the reason, over the years I’ve begun to realise that as much as we’d like to really understand the plight of others, we can only ever really know our own.
As I approach my own 37th year, a whole ten years past the strict membership requirements of Kurt’s exclusive club, I can’t help but realise what a gift life is. The ordinariness of the day to day grind, might not be glamorous, but the hope that each day brings will always be worth more than never knowing how your life was supposed to turn out. So as much as I still identify with that lost look in Kurt’s eye or that husk of hurt in Amy’s throat, I’ll happily choose fading away.
Image: “27” by Shota Mitsuyasu