Rockin’ in the free world: Gorbachev, poppies and the death of Kurt Cobain

If you really want to know about Nirvana – from who killed Kurt Cobain to the rise of grunge and the Generation X tag – don’t listen to the conspiracy theories; ask a historian.

 

Soviet anti-drugs poster

 

The news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide broke 20 years ago today. The anniversary of his death – which probably took place sometime on the 5th April 1994 – from a self-inflicted gunshot at his home in Seattle, has already picked up its fair share of coverage.

 

There are also plenty of silly conspiracy theories. In the parlour game of ‘Who killed Kurt Cobain?’, anyone but Kurt Cobain will do.

 

Yet in historical terms, the story of what happened to Kurt Cobain is much bigger, darker and more mysterious – and ultimately, more important to us all here in 2014 – than the shopworn horror show of celebrity, depression, public addiction and suicide suggests. Like all the great detective stories, it deals in the kinds of details outside the jurisdiction of coroners and local cops. In this telling, the soap opera of a pop star’s life and the frenzied search for clues in the music is a distraction from another, more compelling trail of evidence, leading towards a far larger crime.

 

When American political economist Francis Fukuyama called the Cold War’s close ‘the end of history’ in 1989 – a phrase that gained global currency when he published The End of History & The Last Man in 1992, victorious, insulated America applauded. The rest of us weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Far from signalling the final, settled dominance of Western liberal democracy as Fukuyama predicted, the collapse of the Soviet Union had already led to the re-emergence of ethnic and political loyalties long suppressed – and nursed – by the comfortable stasis of the bipolar world. Because the same Cold War that had kept African puppet states, the Iron Curtain and European ethnic divisions in a kind of stasis for the past 40 years had also kept a little piece of death – the seed of his success and his suicide – away from Kurt Cobain. But it too was free now. And it was looking for him.

 

There’s an uncanny symmetry in Nirvana’s rise and the fall of the established order. The band’s breakthrough sophomore album (and the singer’s eventual albatross) Nevermind went nuclear over Christmas 1991 – the very week Mikhail Gorbachev signed the decree ending the USSR. Just a week later, on New Year’s Day 1992, Nevermind hit Number One, pushing Michael Jackson’s Pepsi-sponsored Bad off the top of the Billboard chart. We woke on that first morning since 1922 without a Soviet Union in the world (it ceased to exist as an entity at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1991) to find that Nevermind had conquered the globe instead.

 

It would be the first Nirvana record for which the band’s traditional way of sharing royalties out by even thirds would end up recarved by Cobain’s lawyers in the principal songwriter’s favour. No more comrades-in-arms indeed.

 

In fact, success had made lots of once-simple things dreadfully complicated for Kurt. Good, straightforward relationships – with his band, his record company, his wife, his fans – had become complex, shifting. They couldn’t be trusted. Everyone wanted something. All relationships and values were now calibrated in terms of money. It was a very post-Cold War feeling indeed.

 

No wonder the monstrous, freakish success of Nevermind led to the re-emergence of all sorts of long-dormant insecurities in Cobain. That happens when you’ve won, chart battle or political standoff. He’d become popular, but was it for the right reasons, in the right way? He worried away at his own worthiness, his authenticity. It didn’t help that he was convinced ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was little more than a cop of another band’s tune. He and bassist Krist Novoselic were consumed with fear that people would see the song for the Pixies rip-off they confessed it had started life as. He didn’t like the fact that he wanted money enough to get heavy on Krist and Dave Grohl about it. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ was a disguised dig at his own watching of every penny royalty. At the moment of his greatest triumph, Cobain was panicked. He felt like an impostor in his own life. And the more he felt like that, the further he retreated into the drug that made it matter less. Heroin. It have him the power to shrug it off. To say: Never mind. (By 1992, with the heroin-chic circus around him starting to reach the fashion glossies, he wrote a letter to fans explaining his struggle with rehab, in luring the phrase, “Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend.” )

 

Would he have been better off without Nevermind’s success? He often seemed to think so. What is beyond doubt is that while a global tsunami of fantastically good, cheap heroin from the former Central Asian borderlands of the USSR might have been the catalyst for grunge’s super-slow, warm’n’fuzzy sound and (to quote Billy Corgan) “I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up” mantra, it was the very worst thing for anyone experiencing exactly those feelings Cobain now harboured, exactly that need for refuge, at exactly that point.

 

Yet the wave of heroin kept building. And its appearance at grunge’s cradle was part of a Faustian pact much, much bigger than any that Kurt could make – or for that matter, Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, or Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, or Hole’s Kristen Pfaff, or Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, or anyone dealing in low-tuned, warm, slack, sludgy sleepwalking music in those melancholic, oceanic, autumnal-looking picture sleeves.

 

The invasion of Afghanistan just over a decade earlier had been the Soviet Union’s most public, costly and longest-drawn-out mistake. Before 1979, Afghanistan’s opium fields exported very little along westward routes. But the CIA’s (and Pakistan’s) assistance for mujahideen fighters resisting the Soviet occupation extended to getting the occupiers hooked on heroin. Production rose, and transportation was provided – Pakistan army trucks coming and going with bales of the stuff every day.

 

At the same time, there is evidence to suggest official (and increasingly desperate) Soviet plans to cultivate Afghanistan as a heroin patch, and to destabilize the West by facilitating supply lines to Europe and the US. (As early as 1971, a KGB directive designated M·120/00-050 outlined Soviet plans to use heroin to destabilize the West. And by 1986, Soviet state-operated freighters were sailing from Soviet Baltic ports, and arriving in Rotterdam, London, Denmark and elsewhere laden with hundreds of kilos of high-grade heroin.)

 

Encouraging it was one thing. Controlling it was another. Like a nuclear arms race that would leave unattended warheads lying around who-knew-how-many unstable, newly independent republics the day Nevermind hit the top, this was the sort of tactic that works during occupation and stasis, but backfires after.

 

The Soviets withdrew in 1989 – crippled by addiction, demotivated, bust. (How very early grunge.) The withdrawing soldiers, quartermasters, pilots, diplomats, drivers, construction workers, kids, all took their Jones with them. Their contacts and supply routes – often officially protected – stayed open for business. And sure enough, a huge problem that had been underground in the ’80s became a huge problem that had gone mainstream. And a system that put its faith in young pioneers, in ideology and the commitment and belief of workers, found itself ill-equipped to survive the point where those young pioneers shrugged, stayed home and jacked up.

 

And all the time, there came more heroin. And with the domestic market more or less saturated, it had to go somewhere. The product was there; the infrastructure was there; the corruption was still there. And now, as the ruble collapsed, came the sudden, pressing need to make hard, convertible currency. Down on the Afghan-Pakistan side, too many people had been making too many US dollars for too long to stop now. And on the now-ex-Soviet side, plenty of people – demobbed people, people whose future inside the system suddenly looked a lot less secure – suddenly found they had an opportunity. A simple trade.

 

South-East Asia’s heroin – difficult to transport to Europe or the US, and therefore invariably expensive and degraded by middle-men – suddenly had a far more attractive rival product to contend with.

 

These were wild times on a new Silk Route. Western Autobahns thronged with Trabis; Highway E55 on the Czech-German border became the world’s longest brothel, cars fitted with blackout screens and grubby curtains rocking and jerking through the bitter winter night. Adventurous tourists and robber capitalists alike swarmed East, overwhelming Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, Almaty and Tashkent with dollars and promises and legally enforceable contracts. And the heroin and the money flowed, aided by police corruption, desperation and the irresistible gradient of supply and demand.

 

Britain, Scandinavia and Western Europe were easy staging points for the now-free-to-travel vessels, trucks and containers of the former USSR. And once you were in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Liverpool or London, the world – namely, the USA – was your oyster. The cheap heroin that had brought Russia to its knees was too good an opportunity for gangs on both sides to miss.

 

Slacker and grunge in the West, refuseniks in the East, were all borne along on the wave of unassailable apathy by history’s largest release of Afghan opium from a failed war. As a retort to the propaganda of struggle for a brighter utopian future (whether chasing a communist ideal or a floating hard-currency dollar), “Never mind” is pretty final.

 

It’s an intriguing thought. Had it not been for the disaster of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the ensuing collapse of the USSR, would Kurt Cobain have died as he did? Perhaps the bigger question is whether grunge itself could have become so big. Did that specific, one-time-only combination of the Afghan mujahideen, Gorbachev and Reagan, and a newly entrepreneurial network of heroin gangs save us all from LA hair metal?

 

Or perhaps the question is more important still. Maybe all those people in the East who shrugged and turned away from their manifest destiny were part of a more global idea of Generation X than we’d imagined. Maybe their piece of the Berlin Wall was our Adbusters. We’d all been peachy keen recruits to the system, before the shrug. This was history made not by people saluting or rallying, but by people retreating, copping out, shrugging it all off, saying ‘No’.

 

Which brings us back to that silent house in Seattle 20 years ago. Kurt Cobain didn’t die of a heroin overdose, of course. He died because he shot himself. The autopsy revealed large quantities of heroin in his system, alongside plenty of other stuff, mostly prescription Rohypnol and other garbage. Autopsies don’t say where the heroin came from. They don’t talk about why it’s suddenly flooding streets, gigs, friends’ bedrooms, hotels. They don’t address the economics. It takes history to do that.

 

Seattle, the E55, Berlin, Russia, Armenia, Kabul, Rwanda, Estonia, Rotterdam. 20 years later, you can trace more and more lines. Now it’s the West’s turn to retreat from Afghanistan. Opium production has soared during our occupation. It’s going to go somewhere. Maybe we should listen out for it. It’s there, in the music, and the celebrity news too.

 

To steal a 1989 line from Kurt’s hero Neil Young – whose “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” Cobain quoted in his suicide letter – we’re all rockin’ in the free world now.

 

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