Today is the birthday of Kurt Cobain, a man--a musician and celebrity--who I never really knew; and there lies the tale.
So he died. So he killed himself, in fact, the man known, in some ways, as the original grunge band musician, a kind of ordinary guy who did extraordinary things, a man who bucked the system in very unconventional ways, as well as, tragically, very conventional ways. His role in my life is far less mysterious than it is important.
Cobain took his own life in his Seattle home on April 8, 1994. He'd been despondent and desperate, drug-addled, for most of his adult life. Just exactly why he was a hero back then remains something of a mystery to me, but an entire generation of listeners found his stubborn refusal to sell out to the music industry somehow heroic. He wasn't going to be hogtied by the almighty dollar; he wasn't going to genuflect to commercial success. He was an indie musician, and committed to it almost heroically. But, it seems, he couldn't live with himself. Wish I knew more.
On April 9, 1994, I got a call from a woman whose son was a friend of my son. I picked up the phone, and she said, "How's your son?"
I think we'd just finished supper and I had, I thought, no reason to worry. "Fine," I said, having absolutely no idea why she would ask.
"I just wondered how he was doing because the kids are really upset about the death of Kurt Cobain," she told me.
My parents and I used to fight about the music I played up in my bedroom, but then I didn't grow up with ear buds. I had very little notion of who Kurt Cobain was. I was a 45-year-old father of two kids, the boy an early high-schooler, and I had absolutely no reason to wonder why he'd be upset. I knew, vaguely, about Cobain's death, knew, vaguely, about Nirvana; but to me it was just another rock musician offing himself. I had no clue that my son even knew the man's name. Apparently, he did. Apparently, the man's death had hurt him badly enough for some other kid's mother to call. Apparently, there was an inescapable conclusion: miles and miles of rich and undiscovered territory existed in my 15-year-old son's psyche, territory I neither knew nor understood.
I guess I would have liked to think I was a good father up until that point. I would have liked to think that I was gracious and loving and kind.
But when I think of it now--on Kurt Cobain's birthday--when I remember the aching discovery that I knew absolutely nothing at all about a human being who was, for reasons I never have understood, very near and dear to the heart my own growing boy, I knew, for sure, that I was not as smart as I thought I was, and certainly not the blue-ribbon dad I'd thought myself to be.
That night I didn't push it. I didn't tiptoe up to his room and have a heart-to-heart with him about Kurt Cobain. I let him have his mystery.
What the death of Kurt Cobain meant to me, however, was that my kids were really not DNA-ed clones of their parents. Within my son's heart lay deep concerns his father knew absolutely nothing of. He had a life that I didn't know a thing about, and that conclusion was painful.
You might say that I was the one who grew up that day.