November 20, 2002

In Defense of Negative Cree...

In Defense of Negative Creeps: The Wall Street Journal ran a particularly useless column today about the disturbing content of Kurt Cobain's diaries (to be more precise, it was about the devious media cover-up of the disturbing content of Kurt Cobain's diaries). Tony Pierce's rebuttal is not for the weak of heart ... or maybe it's precisely for the weak of heart, or at least for people who find the personal journals of great dead artists reasons to slander them anew.

Here's a tangentially related item, sure to drive away my conservative friends: In December-January of 1994-95, I took a break from Central Europe to saw wood in my mom & stepdad's backyard for a month, and figure things out. It was cold going, and I was out of touch with the country, so I listened to a lot of talk radio while cutting logs. As you might recall, the Republicans had just won a stirring victory in the House of Representatives, and the Gingrich Revolution was in full bloom. There were no left-wing radio commentators in that patch of Oregon, so I heard a lot of Limbaugh, Liddy (I think it was him), and others whose names thankfully escape me. Day after day, I listened to the sound of grown men (including their callers) celebrating their newfound power, their vindication, their freedom from being restrained. I quickly got the distinct impression that these people did not understand how frightening their voices might sound to outsiders, or that their wildnerness-years-inspired M.O. of anger and attack now required new targets (I mean, besides the Clintons, the Kennedys, and San Francisco). So the Culture War was on!

Gag. With rare exceptions, listening or watching a right-winger rail on about the depravities of pop-culture has a similar effect, on many of the rest of us, as, oh, Ted Kennedy doing a drunken naked-dance in front of the John Birch Society. It is a mobilizing experience. Here's a memo to the Wall Street Journal, or any other enemy of art, right or left -- many great artists are creeps, some of them even negative. Hemingway was an exploitative caricature. John Lennon was mean, and full of shit. Francis Ford Coppolla -- a favorite whipping-boy of the Culture-War Right -- is sloppy, nepotistic and occasionally insane. Snoop Doggy Dogg is from Long Beach; the sins are endless. BIG FUCKING DEAL. I'm sure your diaries aren't very pretty, either, and more to the point, you didn't write the best rock album of the 1990s.

Posted by at November 20, 2002 10:49 PM

Sounds like a call to compartmentalize -- to separate the artist from the art.

It seems natural to me. The line between art and mental illness is so thin, historically, I can't imagine reasonable people conflating the two.

The same applies to politics, I think. Can a great politician be an awful human being?

What about a great General who beats his kids?

Is it possible to love one aspect of greatness without getting bogged down in the whole package?

Posted by: Michael Duff at November 21, 2002 02:29 AM


Good questions! Some thoughts;

Art is about expression. Politics is about oppression.

Regarding the kid beating general and "getting bogged down in the whole package";

It is not compartmentalizing, it is situational ethics - a question of pitting one's morality against the situation.

Like having to hold your nose and go to the Wall Street Urinal for *dis*information, or similarly, listening to the endless stream of right wing pap churned out now by talk radio, which is firmly in the hands of self serving business interests.
The problem arises when too many poorly made situational ethics decisions become incrementally compounded and suddenly one has NO choice. Its called taking the easy way out. There are no longer any decisions to be made. Artists are the 'canary in the mine' in this process. Kurt Cobain was 'out of breath'.

Put the child beating General's ass in jail - immediately - and you will win the war!

Ignore talk radio and the Wall Street Urinal and you will win another war.

Matt, isn't conservative friend an oxymoron?

Posted by: Warren Celli at November 21, 2002 05:36 AM

At least Allan Bloom had the decency to dress up his attack on contemporary culture in philosophical niceties and blame it all on Nietzsche. :) Never mind, of course, Bloom's own lifestyle choices that other conservative critics never seemed to point out as they were waving around copies of his great unread bestseller....

Posted by: Kevin Whited at November 21, 2002 06:34 AM

Matt, when you have kids, you will have to grow up and out of your cultural anarchism. Kurt Cobain et al don't seem nearly as amusing and provocative once you have to take on adult responsibilities.

Cultural pollution is a far greater threat to our society than air pollution, from the perspective of us conservatives.

Posted by: Luke Ford at November 21, 2002 08:43 AM

Luke -- You crazy! "Amusing" is not the word I'd use to describe Cobain, of course....

That reminds me I need to make a permalink here to

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 21, 2002 09:28 AM

Luke -
I have a kid. Cultural pollution doesn't scare me. I can innoculate my little boy by teaching him critical thinking. And it's not going to kill him.

Poison in the air? Not sure how I can protect him from THAT. Seems pretty scary to me...

Posted by: Timothy Roscoe Carter at November 21, 2002 09:36 AM

Matt, you're right, conservatives got a little giddy post 1994 and paid the price. But let's not delude ourselves, the right dominates talk radio for two reasons 1) The major networks and newspapers, as well as NPR, have given liberals all the outlets they could possibly want and more than they could reasonably support in terms of listeners, and 2) rightwingers like Rush are not afraid to have a little fun and tend not to make a religion out of their political affiliation, unlike the Mario Cuomos of the world. Throwing a liberal talkmeister on commercial radio in light of the above would be like taking a fish out of water. Let, say ABC and CBS news fold up shop, publicly defund NPR, see papers like the LAT continue to lose readership, and wait for lib commentators to lose a few more elections and you may, just may, get some liberal talkradio outside of SF and LA. My guess tho is that you and our friend Tom Daschle may have a little wait ahead of you.

Posted by: Lloyd at November 21, 2002 10:39 AM

Please, from now on, I would prefer to be addressed as "My Moral Leader."

Some drugged-out psychopathic grunge rocker is "not a great artist." Proof - almost nobody will be listening to Cobain in a hundred years. Great art must meet these tests (please call me Your Artistic Leader):

* Universal. Is appreciated by different cultures.

* Lasts over time.

* Gets better with repetition.

Timothy, you can't teach "critical thinking" and you can't innoculate kids from death-loving psychopathological crap.

Kurt Cobain wrote: "I like to make incisions into the belly of infants then fuck the incisions until the child dies."

That's the crap you guys defend as the product of a great artist.

Posted by: Luke Ford at November 21, 2002 11:08 AM

Arrgh… I think you miss the point of culture criticism. Artist should not given a free pass for making the best rock album. Culture does influence people. Artists DO influence people. France not only hates us because we had to save their ass, they hate us because our culture has a tremendous influence over theirs – to a point where they legislate against its adaptation. And artists do not just stick to art - they want to use their position within the culture to influence the culture. And they don’t just stop at recommending what music we should listen to. Sharandon wants me to be a lefty socialist. Lennon would want me to just hug saddam and say “give peace a chance”. Madonna wants women to sleep around. These are VALUE statements matt – not artistic statements. Artists want acclaim, and then they get their acclaim, they want to TRANSFER it so they can influence me. Hey…it is a free country. I just don’t think the artist is free from condemnation.

As an example, I like your writing. But, if I find out that you beat your wife, you have lost all influence over me…

Posted by: david at November 21, 2002 11:28 AM

You seem mighty confident that no one will be listening to Nirvana in 100 years. While you've got the crystal ball out, can you tell me what stocks to buy?

It's mighty hard to predict what art will last. I just finished a review of the new Mencken biography in this month's Atlantic, and it points out that Mencken's biggest failing was not recognizing that jazz was the great art form of his day. So if the greatest critic America has produced can't tell what art will endure, how the hell can we?

Cobain's art has endured better than most anything else that was on the radio and the MTV 10 years ago. It's has been appreciated by people of many different cultures -- Matt would know better than I would, but I'd always heard that Eastern European kids couldn't get enough of that crazy American rock & roll.

Will we still be listening to Nirvana in 2092? Who knows, but a lot of people in 1956 didn't think we'd be listening to Elvis today. Louis Armstrong and the jazz gatekeepers of the 1940s thought Charlie Parker's music was a fad.

And finally, Curt Kobain's *songs* are the product of a great artist. His diary entries about killing babies and stuff are just an insight into the brilliant and twisted mind that produced those songs. Great art usually doesn't come from a pretty place.

Posted by: Tony Biasotti at November 21, 2002 11:32 AM

Kurt wrote "The Colour and the Shape"? *ducking*

Seriously, I agree to some extent with almost everyone who's commented here. Most (all?) great artists are fucked in the head. The Beatles were mostly an above-average boy band before they got into drugs. I listen to all manner of great music by peeps with lifestyles I'd never want to emulate, including both Cobain and Snoop. I know the difference, and I think Luke is overreacting when he thinks his kids won't be able to. There's a powerful antidote to wanting to live like rock stars nowadays anyway, it's called "Behind the Music". Show your kids a few well-chosen episodes and they'll never want to drink (ok, maybe that's a bad thing ;-)

Posted by: Ian S. at November 21, 2002 12:00 PM

It's not good for anyone's soul, adult or child, to listen to such music or other death-loving entertainment. Look at how Matt Welch and Tony Pierce turned out, for example.

Posted by: Luke Ford at November 21, 2002 01:14 PM

I am uncomfortable with the notion that Cobain gets a pass on pedo-sadism because he wrote the best rock album of the decade. The logical conclusion of that mindset is Michael Jackson.

Better to say that what someone writes in his private diaries should be judged differently than what he says in public. People can write diary entries for cathartic or therapeutic reasons. In Cobain's case I would imagine that the entry in question is another manifestation of his self-loathing, a la "Pennyroyal Tea".

I don't see why the WSJ should be criticized for ragging other news organization's failure to report the most offensive bits of Cobain's diary. This is stuff in the public domain, and I don't see any value in pretending that the passages that reflect badly on Cobain don't exist.

Let me make the point another way. Almost 20 years ago on Monday Night Football, Joe Thiesmann broke his leg -- so badly that you could see the limb bend. I don't think sports news should continually run highlight films of his leg, or celebrate the injury as some great moment in sports. But would you feel comfortable with a sports organization that summarized the game the next day by giving the box score and a few highlights, without mentioning the injury?

I haven't seen anyone criticize the real villain -- not the WSJ, or Matt, or Luke, or Tony. There would not have been anything to talk about if Courtney Love were not a grave robber.

Posted by: Floyd McWilliams at November 21, 2002 01:40 PM

Kurt Cobain wrote Odelay?

Posted by: Jesse Walker at November 21, 2002 03:00 PM

I will defend Cobain the same way I defend Martin Luther King. Read the great bio of King, Bearing the Cross. King was a womanizer and a communist sympathizer. He was a marginal father. In other words, he was a flawed man. But do those flaws mean that his vision, his ideals, his accomplishments were flawed? Of course not. King is deservedly a hero, not because he was perfect, but because he overcame his own personal failings to do perfect things.

Luke, I was a father when Nevermind came out. I bought the album. I loved the album. I now own every Nirvana studio release and believe Nirvana was the greatest band of the '90s. The music only gets better with time. Really, I think Nirvana was the only decent band that came out of the grunge thing, Pearl Jam included.

Whatever failings Cobain had does not mean the music isn't good. I judge a song by its own merit, not the personal life or politics of the writer or performer. I mean, I thoroughly disagree with the utopian, anti-God message of "Imagine," but believe it is one of the greatest songs ever written.

Eminem is far worse in his message than Cobain. And I believe he is a terribly corrupting influence, far more than Nirvana or the Sex Pistols (I'm was an SP generation punk), because what Eminem teaches isn't really violence against women or homophobia. His corrupting influence is far more subtle -- he teaches narssissm. But having recognized that, does that mean I can't recognize him as a musical artist of the first order? I think he is, even if I can't stand what he personally represents. So, personally, I boycott his music, which is my loss more than his. Others are free to do the same to Cobain or Lennon or Willie Nelson.

Posted by: Howard Owens at November 21, 2002 03:25 PM

"It's not good for anyone's soul, adult or child, to listen to such music or other death-loving entertainment."

Or, as my priest once said, there is no such thing as child morality and adult morality. I definitely agree that is true, but I think adults are able to process concepts and images that children cannot. So, I don't think it follows that everything which a child should not see, adults should not see either.

When I saw Pulp Fiction, someone brought a kid with them who could not have been more than 5 years old. I couldn't quit thinking about that poor kid throughout the movie. For that child, there was no moral framework, no gallows humor, . . . just lots of swearing, gore and homosexual rape.

You're also right that parents cannot shield their children from popular culture entirely, but they can set and enforce rules in their homes. Kids don't have to have internet access in their bedrooms, for example. And I do support labeling of music; I was a teenager when that was the big controversy, and I thought it was appropriate then too.

Of course, they will get access to objectionable material outside the home, but even then, I think there is value in their knowledge that their parents don't approve.

Posted by: denise at November 21, 2002 04:18 PM

This sort of thing happens at both ends. I once had a friend who decided to get rid of all of her Jack Kerouac books once she found out that he was politically conservative. This was, of course, stupid, but much less tragically so since I was the beneficiary of her disposals. The Dharma Bums changed by life, and that wouldn't be any less true if Kerouac were a granola-crunching, squirrel-watching peacenik. As a matter of fact, I'd just assumed he was for *years*.

Be careful about lumping all conservatives together on this one. I'm a conservative, for the most part, but I've always found this line of thinking idiotic, if not downright annoying. I've always suspected the crusties raised a stink in this fashion because they were too chicken to examine the artist's work critically and in the proper context of era and audience. Bing Crosby beat his kids; don't hold your breath waiting for the boycott of "White Christmas" this year.

And Warren...regarding your question about "conservative friend" being an oxymoron -- too bad Allen Ginsburg and Neal Cassady are dead. Otherwise, you might ask them...

Posted by: Emily at November 21, 2002 04:35 PM

Just to clarify -- some of my friends (like Howard Owens!) are conservative, I got no problem with the talk radio (though I don't listen to it, beyond Phil Hendrie), and I would vote Luke Ford for mayor of L.A. any day.

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 21, 2002 04:44 PM

Matt, I don't think the WSJ column was useless (to use your adjective). I had heard that Cobain's journals were out, but hadn't heard much detail. What I had heard was mostly the "too beautiful for this world" whitewash that has accompanied Cobain discussion since his suicide. These journals contain shocking stuff. It merits discussion.

I don't Smith was out of line at all (sensationalizing: yes, but not out of line). The way I read the review, she's not judging Cobain at all. She's just stating that there's a lot of graphic, disturbing stuff in the journals that is being glossed over in the media.

Posted by: Jeff Wimble at November 22, 2002 10:02 AM

You can admire the art while condemning the artist. If you are going to excuse Cobain for such disgusting garbage as wanting to fuck a baby to death just because you like his music, you are pathetic.

Posted by: Steve at November 22, 2002 10:06 AM

Steve -- I may indeed be pathetic, but I'm not "excusing" Cobain for anything, nor would I bet that he, for a second, truly wanted to "fuck a baby to death." Poets and fiction-writers are known to occasionally indulge in, well, poetry and fictions (regardless of quality). I frankly don't give a shit about what he wrote, not for publication, in his personal journals, though one day in the distant future I might take a peek to see if there's any funny dirt about Courtney. What I am against is the rear-guard action, taken all too frequently after a great artist's death, to condemn him or her for whatever beastly thoughts or diary fantasia he/she might have had. It's a boring genre & ultimately irrelevant, when stacked next to the actual art.

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 22, 2002 11:51 AM

Wow. Very well thought out commentary and impressive courtesy to those who don't share your views. Quite a contrast to the Tony Pierce approach.

Posted by: Ian Sutherland at November 22, 2002 12:54 PM

I too believe Nirvana was a great band, probably the best band to emerge for three decades, the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. I am glad that in general Cobain kept his screwed-up worldview out of his music. That's what I call an artist, someone who respects the creative process and doesn't just use it as a vehicle for his personal hates and fears. Another new band I really like is System of a Down. But I bet the private lives and non-musical thoughts of the guys in that band are frighteningly unattractive. There's such a thing as letting your true self show through too much. That's how you get Michael Jackson and Barry Manilow and Pete Seeger in the musical world. Authors are likely to succumb to the temptation to think that whatever they think about other people are going to want to read about. That's why so little - is there any? - modern literature is worth reading. Reading Salman Rushdie or Gore Vidal is like listening to Yoko Ono sing, but I contradict myself.

Posted by: Robert Speirs at November 22, 2002 01:20 PM

Yeah, that wsj rubbed me the wrong way too. Didn't rub me quite as raw as it rubbed tony though. I wrote about it here:

Posted by: tom brennan at November 22, 2002 03:46 PM

Frankly I never understood what Cobain was saying so his lyrics had no effect on me.

Anyway their music was great change from the tired hair-metal of yester-year and their Unplugged album is one I never tire listening to.

As for his diary, well who doesn't think of crazy, fucked-up shit in the darkest corners of their mind?

I am sure Cobain would have been horrified to have his private thoughts flogged to the great unwashed.

BTW I'd say Soundgarden was the best of the Seattle bands.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at November 22, 2002 03:53 PM

Cobain's music is adequate in my book, though not great. But I LOVE his diary entries. They show a truly twisted imagination, clearly influenced by the great William S Burroughs. I myself often fantasise about raping an incision in the belly of a wild-eyed, God-crazed, whining, child-obsessed, baby-photo-wielding middle-aged censor who wants to reduce all art to inoffensive tedious soul-destroying pap. But since the Taliban are dead, my fantasies will have to remain fantasies. Perhaps if bin Laden had heard Throbbing Gristle, the Sex Pistols, Whitehouse and seen a little hard core anal porn instead, he might have behaved a little more like a Westerner and less like a muslime?

Posted by: Clem Snide at November 23, 2002 01:45 AM

In every era, once you pass a certain age, something terrible happens to music. To me, rock in the Nineties was just one long expectoration.
Take the best and/or most successful cuts of the decade and compile them into a sampler, and they juuuust might bear comparison to one of those old _Nuggets_ albums. It all depends on when you came up, I guess.

James Lileks had a great quote sometime back about how the adolescent insight that "Lifes Sux" is no insight at all. The real insight is that it doesn't have to. Joy exists; it can be found; and the sooner one loses the hipster obstacles to pursuing it, the better.

As for Cobain personally, it doesn't matter to me. Raymond Chandler is supposed to have once said that, if you liked a book, don't meet the writer. If I were Cobain and I had the prospect of spending the rest of my life playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and bumpin' uglies with Courtney Love, then maybe I too...well, that's an ungenerous thought, so Nevermind.

Posted by: The Sanity Inspector at November 23, 2002 11:46 AM

First, I should say that Nirvana doesn't get my vote for "best rock album of the 1990s," for whichever album you were referring to, Matt. Though it pains me to agree with Europeans, "What's the story (Morning Glory?)" was by far the best rock album of the 1990s, followed by (what else?) Definitely Maybe and Radiohead's OK Computer.

That said, I couldn't agree more with the WSJ and less with you -- there's nothing to be gained culturally or intellectually by sugar-coating the rants of a man who wrote that he wanted to puncture little babies and fuck them till they die.

I'm still blaming Nirvana for the glut we're seeing now in modern rock -- the Korns and Limp Bizkits who had the path first cleared for them by Nirvana and have now given way to "nu-metal" acts that are xeroxed a thousand times over from each other (have you listened to New York City's KROCK in the last year or two?). That's not music. Music is an art form, not an outlet for suburban teenage "my dad didn't buy me a pimped out Honda Civic so I'm gonna rebel" angst.

And the issue is not about conservatives (or even right wing talk show hosts). It's about not elevating to further icon status a man who should have been institutionalized.

Posted by: Nik Bonopartis at November 23, 2002 12:28 PM

"Music is an art form, not an outlet for suburban teenage "my dad didn't buy me a pimped out Honda Civic so I'm gonna rebel" angst. "

Isn't that a description of punk music?

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at November 23, 2002 02:07 PM

Huh? Wall Street Journal an enemy of art? Matt, stick to politics and current events. Where have you been? They have some of the finest writing on the arts--wish they devoted more space to it. You are confusing "art' with po-mo bullshit promoted by the NYTimes, artforum, et al. That's the real culture war, pissing in a jar and dropping a statue of Christ in it is only a provocative political statement--not 'art.' BTW, the 'artist' admitted the same.
Denying 'right-wingers' their right to critique art is hypocritical...what disqualifies them from the free expression of their point-of-view? Can only 'left-wingers' criticize art? This was a juvenile rant.

Posted by: John at November 23, 2002 04:53 PM

I can't see where Matt said right-wingers can't express their views.

He just thinks the views expressed by cultural conservatives when they critique an artist's character are pointless, annoying and hypocritical.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at November 23, 2002 05:20 PM

Well, I only read about 20 of the 30 comments, but to address parental concerns: I am one of those kids who grew up in the 90s (gasp!), and I remember hearing Nirvana for the first time -- in fifth grade. I was 9 or 10 years old. And you know what? I didn't understand a damn thing that Cobain was saying. It was just cool music.

To the writer who said that parents can't teach their kids critical reasoning skills, thus warranting "cultural innoculation" -- I pity your children. Do you think that the ability to think logically, to evaluate facts and situations within context, are inherent abilities? Do you think that the continual challenge of children with intellectual exercises and new experiences has no effect on their capacity as an adult? Nonsense. My parents would certainly disagree with you.

Getting back to the main theme, I still like Nirvana, and I like Eminem, too, and have since his first album. They write great music. I get tired of hearing people knock Eminem -- it's okay for Cobain to internalize his pedosadism (and have people forgotten that he stuck a shotgun in his mouth?) but not okay for Eminem to showcase both his love for his daughter and his ugly bigotry? I grant that there's a distinction, but I don't think it's as clear-cut as you might have it.

Besides, you say that Eminem is teaching cultural narcissism? What about the whole scale of writings on cultural relativism and I-first thinking? Narcissism, self-asborption, and ae="bakecookie" />

t's why I liked him: no filler. Just the world as he saw it. Am I somehow misunderstanding what you meant?

Next, to answer the question of the Greatest Grunge band: I'll still say Nirvana, but to say that they were the _only_ good band to come out of the genre is a little foolish. Screaming Trees was a great band--and check out what lead singer Mark Lanegan has done post-Trees in an incredible (if overlooked) solo career and with Queens of the Stone Age. Soundgarden played brilliant music. Tad, Green River, Mudhoney--hell, there was a load of talent in that whole explosion that played out too quickly for my taste.

Finally, I'm stuck in the middle of this debate. See, I'm going to buy the book, I love Nirvana, but the never ending love fest that surrounds anything Kurt/Curt/Kurdt oriented kind of bothers me. Why didn't Rolling Stone talk about the most disturbing passages in the book? Would it really diminish his artistic achievements by discussing the things about him which make him a poor role model? Frankly, the disturbing parts are what made him the most interesting. The disturbing parts are what made the music so compelling.

In an unfortunate way, watching his career was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Everyone knew what was going to happen at the end. Everyone knew that the final page would be a suicide or overdose or something suitably tragic because our hero just couldn't quite get it right. He just couldn't find that place inside where he was happy with himself or the world. The music that came out of that place displaced, for a time, all the emptiness of pop music and metal. Thank God for that.

But in looking at the artist, in that portrait of the artist, I don't think it damages his legacy to critically discuss his shortcomings.

As Dennis Miller says, it's just one man's opinion. I could be wrong...

Posted by: zombyDave at November 25, 2002 10:15 AM

Everyone has their own opinions. Some may think kurt is an insane bastard, and others might be CORRECT in thinking that he is the greatest mind of our generation. either way, believe what you want. oh, and the comment about fucking infant incisions? if you took that seriously then you are a fucking retard.

Posted by: Braden at April 24, 2004 01:21 PM
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