BEFORE THE MP3, BEFORE the iPod, there was Personics. The jukebox-sized device landed one summer in the mid-90s at my local Wherehouse, a once-robust chain of music stores now reduced to a vaguely sleazy online hustler of games and DVDs. But back then all was shiny and new, and I was fascinated by the machine, which heralded a new frontier in digital music personalization. Via a scientific process that still seems somewhat marvelous to me, you could select any songs you wanted from thousands, and have them delivered to you — while you waited — on a cassette tape. Your own made-to-order compilation tape in minutes.
I still have my Personics tapes somewhere down in the garage — I only made two, the cost per song being more than Steve Jobs’s shrewd 99 cent price point — but even without them in front of me, I can visualize them clearly. The sky blue label with my song selections printed on them. The personalized case (yes, they came in a personalized case). In retrospect, though, what’s most interesting about these tapes is the music they contained — or rather, the music they didn’t contain. This was the mid 90s, after all — the high point of the grunge era — and yet my mixes displayed a marked preference from one-hit wonders of the 70s and 80s (I remember Dexy’s Midnight Runners “Come on Eileen” and Sanford Townsend Band’s “Smoke from a Distant Fire”). There was also some Fleetwood Mac on there. And I think I might have included The Isley Brothers’s “This Old Heart of Mine” on both tapes.
I include this anecdote not to parade my musical taste (or lack of it) before you, but to illustrate how possible it was, in that pre-Internet era, to willfully opt out of the zeitgeist. (It’s still possible, but the shame is harder to escape, and generally requires secluded cabins in remote woods.) As grunge was roaring out of Seattle to hypnotize and unsettle a nation, my 30-year-old self was including Blue Swede on mixtapes. The only meaningful impact the movement had on my life was the sudden robust availability of high quality messenger bags. I missed all of it. Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Kurt and Courtney.
Of course, the era didn’t pass me by entirely: the headlines were inescapable, especially Cobain’s Hemingwayesque coda, and Love’s ongoing, embarrassing theatrics. But I must admit that, prior to picking up Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson’s Letters to Kurt, I had never listened to a Hole, or even a Nirvana, album all the way through. Yet I was intrigued by the book’s format: a sincere preface followed by 52 almost impressionistic sketches that displayed, at first glance, a certain lightness of touch, a (perhaps unsurprising) musicality in the prose. Erlandson, present at the creation as co-founder of Hole, seemed a promising guide to all I’d missed, even if he was guilty of occasionally overstating his place in the grand scheme. (He can sometimes read a bit like the actor in Shakespeare in Love who summarizes Romeo & Juliet as being “about a nurse.”) Something about Erlandson’s disarmingly earnest tone initially engaged me more than I expected: “All those fallen female archetypes. Little girls wearing mother’s heels and apron.” I began to consider the possibility that this book might have value as something other than a post-grunge artifact, yet another piece of the true cross for Cobain obsessives to fetishize. Perhaps, coming to the work unburdened by the albatross of Cobain’s martyrdom, I was uniquely well placed to consider its purely literary value. A small reward for missing a cultural moment, it turns out, and harder to accomplish than I imagined.
Since John Lennon first committed his juvenile musings, puns, and poems to print in 1964 and called it In His Own Write, rock stars have been encouraged to try their hand at scribbling. Lennon’s incoherent muddle of a book is mildly amusing in places, if shamelessly derivative of Lewis Carroll, and was successful enough that Lennon followed it two years later with the even less inspired A Spaniard in the Works. Bob Dylan’s experimental potpourri Tarantula came out in their wake, and all three books stand as interesting cultural snapshots of mid-60s rocker pretensions, capturing that moment when an artist, at the height of his fame, is encouraged to believe everything he has to say creatively in any medium is gold.
The gold soars in value, of course, when the artist kicks the bucket. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, River Phoenix, David Foster Wallace, Lennon, Cobain: nothing ends reasoned critical discernment faster than an untimely violent death. Especially for the “suicide idols,” as Erlandson calls them, “a too-long list of friends who had taken that route, following in the footsteps of a growing list of self-destructed heroes.” We’re spared seeing what they would have become. “No reunions for you,” Erlandson points out. “No celebrity rehab for you.”
Perhaps inevitably, Erlandson’s book occupies the uneasy intersection of both of these questionable impulses — the unedited rock star riffing on the young and the fallen. On the one hand, it conforms to many of the worst, indulgent excesses of the Rock Star Book. In a recent interview with Dave Itzkoff for the New York Times‘s ArtsBeat blog, Erlandson explained that he’d settled on a grab-bag of “prose, poetry and free association” after giving up trying to write a more straightforward account of his years at grunge’s epicenter:
It just wasn’t feeling right to write a memoir-style book and this one just came out of me a couple years ago … It felt like the right way to go, but at the same time, I had a lot of hesitation. At some point it just started to click and I started to honor it.
The resulting 52 short pieces that make up Letters to Kurt confront the reader with a dilemma. One finds oneself rooting for Erlandson to succeed, and in small doses, the individual letters display flashes of wit, some memorable turns of phrase, and an appealing vulnerability (thanks, no doubt, more to his Buddhist beliefs than his rocker roots). The problem sets in with the accumulation: taken together, they increasingly read like unmediated brain dumps. One doesn’t expect — or need — direction from a single entry, but over the life of 52 letters, one does expect to begin to head somewhere, and to eventually arrive. At its worst, the volume’s slender pleasures are offset by banal tedium riddled with the sort of mock profundities that might set heads nodding in respectful agreement at a stoned midnight recording session but feel just a little embarrassing in the sober light of day.
Perhaps it’s best to let Erlandson speak for himself, to illustrate with a lengthy excerpt, taken more or less at random but representative of the whole. This comes from the twelfth letter:
We all need to trigger our inner kook to keep pace. Try a clogged artery on triple-bypass pizza. A barometric trampoline for superior bowel movement. Or when you’re feeling despondent after the funeral of a dear dear friend: cold call your callous BFFF from the pay phone at CBGB’s and watch all tunnels close — Battery, Lincoln, Holland, Midtown, the one up your ass on the curb, feet in the gutter, Bowery sidewalk in your nose, throbbing guilt between your legs, Pussy Galore and a pocketful of Posies swingin’ round the lamp post, no wave drunks and wallflower flakes, while your girlfriend’s butterfly tramp-stamp flutters about in bubbles over your heliotropic skull. Ashes and asses all falling down. When a plate still wet with tomato sauce and cheese is trampled a thousand times right before your eyes: by cabs, by bike, by cops, by limos, by Mexican waiters who work in Italian restaurants, who look Italian, talk Italian, act Italian but when they’re off, walk Hispanic out the door.
To quote a beloved expression of a zeitgeist slightly later than the one Erlandson is channeling here: WTF? There is probably a first-rate song lyric somewhere in this passage. Possibly even an interesting poem. There’s an undeniable Ginsbergian howl to the passage, redolent as it is with death and sex and the forbidden night. But there’s a sloppiness, too, and you can feel the steam run out, the coherence slipping away around the time the pizza metaphor is reintroduced. From there on it seems as though Erlandson more or less forgot, or lost interest in, what it was he meant to be talking about. And I, at least, am left wondering about the superior passage that could have emerged if it had only gotten the attention it seems to be crying for.
But Erlandson is always willing to opt for opacity, or to switch gears when the going gets tough. This delight in inscrutability is of a piece with Lennon’s apocrypha, though even less charming (and Eric Erlandson, one feels a little silly having to point out, is no John Lennon). This problem afflicts nearly all the letters and, by the end, the whole book feels like an unedited free writing exercise.
Yet despite the extravagant claims Erlandson makes for his fallen friend’s importance (more on this in a moment), Letters to Kurt is most effective and most movingly human when it’s simply about one man trying to understand the suicide of a close friend. Erlandson addresses the question of suicide and strips it of its post-punk glamour. “I disagree with your dishonor,” he writes to the departed Cobain (who is nowhere near as central to this effort, incidentally, as the book’s title suggests). “It is better to fade away, and even rust,” he concludes, contra Neil Young, having wrestled with the question along the way. There is something deeply affecting as he remembers Cobain wrestling with his celebrity status: “You slouched in your seat and mumbled something about never bargaining to be the poster child for poignant demise.” And Erlandson — who is clearly smart, thoughtful, and well read: references in Letters to Kurt range from Dylan Thomas to Baudelaire to, more predictably, Bukowski — can catch the telling detail as well as many novelists: “your, ahem … uniform: faded jeans torn at the knees; stained pajama shirt under a thrift-shop cardigan, holes in the wrists for thumbs; ratty Converse sneakers marked up with a Sharpie.” And so we’re left to mourn the loss of the “memoir-style book” that this obviously talented and stylish writer couldn’t bring himself to hunker down and write.
As I was preparing to write this review, I watched the “official” video of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. I was struck by all the things I imagine one is supposed to be struck by: the lack of glitzy production values, the humble setting (a high school gymnasium), the rawness of the sound. But more than anything I was briefly transfixed by the anxiety of the song, the hypnotic monotony of the performance. Watching it felt uncomfortably like watching someone’s therapy session. I didn’t feel moved to listen to more.
And yet I struggle with the sense, as I do with my similar inability to come to terms with the work of David Foster Wallace (whose almost intolerable brilliance and verbal legerdemain — “I’m writing as fast as I can” — always seemed to me to be hiding a strangely arid core), that I am missing something important, something vital, and it feels like my failure. Years ago I was having lunch with the critic Terry Teachout, who professed his dislike for Richard Wagner, but hastened to add with good humor, “though I guess that says more about me than it does about Wagner.” No doubt my lack of connection to Kurt Cobain says more about me than it does about him.
That doesn’t mean I don’t lament both its lack and the feeling of inclusion it inevitably confers. The association is a badge of some kind of honor, and even Erlandson grasps for it. Given the fitful connection Letters to Kurt has to its titular addressee, he has perhaps laid himself open to the charge of hopping the Cobain bandwagon himself, exploiting a tenuous link as the jumping-off point for an extended navel gaze. There’s the grandiosity, for sure, the tone-deaf indulgence of a man who has been often “yessed” to. And Erlandson commits the unforgiveable cliché of anointing Cobain as “truly the voice of his generation.” In considering the era of Rodney King and the O.J. verdicts, it’s intellectually lazy, not to mention narcissistic, to claim that Cobain was anything more than the voice of disaffected white suburban youth.
And yet it’s hard to remain unmoved by the loss, the dread, and the intensity that Erlandson records, and that I know many others of his — of our — generation feel about Cobain’s suicide. I am left in my garage with my Personics tapes and my lack of common memories, wondering what it means when the essence of a cultural moment so completely passes you by. Maybe, ironically, Kurt said it best: “Old age, old age, old age, old age.”