Let a low, long signal

Let a low, long signal
I stole this picture from an eBay listing

I’ve got a lot of memory loss, which is a funny thing for someone who writes a lot in memoir and self-centred stories to admit. I am my own little unreliable narrator, coaxed on by shards of memory and questions texted to old friends and an older sister. A life built out of do-you-remembers and telephone wires.

I just remember details, the superficial things that built a life. The carpet in our living room before it became faux-hardwood. The grey pull-out sofa that once haunted the basement, where my sister and I would stay in and watch movies we rented from the video store on weekends and eat air-pop popcorn.

But I don’t always remember the names of people who once felt important. Old lovers, former friends. Distant relatives. They are faces sometimes, or visions of places. Tactile memories still, but nothing vivid or real. This is the effect of a life of trauma, anxiety, lots of alcohol, enough drugs to get by. Washing everything away like pigeon shit on a car window. Smearing it around, never quite getting rid of it.

I remember 30 years ago when we found out that Kurt Cobain was dead.

I was almost 12 years old on April 5, 1994. Age is measured in funny ways over the span of a life, babies live in months until they’re old enough to claim their years, and precocious children like me in a hurry to be older start telling people what age we’re about to be instead of where we are. Always looking ahead. Reading the back of the book. I was always a future age, and it was until I hit 40 that I stopped.

The radio gave us the news. We didn’t have cable as my dad didn’t like paying for cable and instead we had the CBC on the television in the basement with its rabbit ears held to the duct work with unspooled coat hangers and tape. It mostly worked, well enough that I could sneak out at midnight and reliably watch the Kids In The Hall. I’m sure people caught the news on TV. Kurt Loder burdened with a herculean task; sit amongst the ephemera of youth that built the desk at MTV studios and deliver devestating news between commercials for Bubblicious and Soft and Dry antiperspirant.

We got our news from the radio, the CBC that shot news into the corners of the country hidden away from the attention of the city. Cobain was dead, apparent suicide. Shotgun blast. I heard words, just enough to know. I can remember learning this and then heading out onto the deck off our living room, the railing used to be painted a different shade of brown and the plywood sheeting was in desperate need of changing. My “portable”CD Player which still needed to be plugged into an outlet sitting alone out there connected to an orange extension chord playing Incesticide, which was kind of my favourite record of theirs, even though it’s easy to argue against it.

You can’t argue with the heart. The heart wants songs from a John Peel session.

My sister was inconsolable, and she was not alone. I can hear her still, crying in her bedroom with her own stereo on, the phone chord tucked under the door. Listening to Nevermind.

My sister was the first person to introduce music to me, and she never knew that she was introducing me to markers I could keep to remember the details that otherwise would have been smeared away.

Cobain’s death haunted me because it was the end of a sentence that haunted me. Death that comes self-directed, a shotgun blast in a garden, listening to Automatic For The People one last time.

I wasn’t so passively suicidal yet, that would come later, but I was morbidly curious about death and what comes after. It’s easy to say that death haunted Nirvana, and Cobain by extension, but this is an easy read because we’re filtering it all through that last sentence.

It was always there, he was so damaged, so troubled, so broken. It was always there and there was nothing to be done. This is all conjecture, just like my own feelings on it will be, but I have never seen the same darkness so many others whispered into his work.

I think we sometimes forget that Cobain was many things; curious, whimsical and playful. Sarcastic, withdrawn, wistful. Hurt. Angry. Complicated maybe. Imperfect. In my old column in Catapult I wrote about Kurt and my perception of his relationship to gender and I wrote about how his anger always felt directed at himself. Anger like a knife turned inward.

This is a shared trait amongst sad and dead songwriters. Elliott Smith is always this same vision of sadness, never granted the humanity of a man who could be so many things at any given time. Look at the photos of Autumn De Wilde for proof of that. But in death and in sadness we paint with broad strokes and leave them out as warnings for those who might walk a similar path in an effort to give structure to an irrational end.

I remember Cobain’s death like a warning too, because of my own lifelong relationship to ideation. A quiet voice in my head when I was young, the fearful way mothers and concerned citizens worried about a suicide epidemic that might pop up in the wake of Cobain’s death who had never seemed to be terribly concerned with the suicide epidemic when it didn’t have a singular villain to blame for it.

Deaths like this haunt me, as the ideation and the passive thoughts got louder and more vivid. It’s the same for Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain. Deaths heard like warning shots over the bow. I've been lucky to have avoided the final notes despite coming close to the rocks a few times, and now its become just a low hum in my head like a buzz in a speaker you can't find. Just part of the milieu I have learned to manage and control.

I remember how it felt to see Cobain in the world, in magazines or on the poster my cousin gave me that I had glued to the back of my bedroom door. Cobain had worn a blouse and had nail polish on. The little details that my eyes found like secrets just for me. The little pieces I pulled out that spoke to me in ways I would unpack and come to understand more clearly over years and decades.

The way “Lithium” always feels like the summertime in the Yukon because that’s when I would listen to it outside on the porch, and because it was a song that girls at school would sit on the lawn in their cliques and sing with each other in impromptu vocal choruses. How darkness others claim they can see just feels like the light touch of moisture on grass in the springtime, or the way the sun gets too hot if you sit directly in its path.

The songs are never quite sad because the context of them for me has never been. They are steeped in youth, in discovery. In hurt and anger of course but of growth, learning secrets and phrases and the first time I fell in love with one song and then another. The way that I learned to make claims on albums being my favourite. These are the songs I was lucky enough to find that have followed me my entire life, that have built me up in ways you can never see and I could never explain and how lucky we are to have learned so much from all the hard and beautiful days of our lives we don't always fully remember.

There’s going to be lots of the same kind of joke today about it being hard to read the words “30 years since we lost Cobain” —and next week it will be 30 years since Hole dropped Live Through This — because we continue to put our years ahead of where we are. People who are 31 saying they’re 32, as we flip to read the end of the book. Incapable of sitting with where we are at and feeling happy in that.

I don’t remember the days around Kurt’s death, and maybe those days just don’t matter and maybe the point is to live long enough to forget the days that must have felt so real and vivid in the short run that fade away without anything to anchor them here and this is the blessing of a life that never gives in to the passive thoughts that urge us to the end and this is where I’m going to sit today as the sun shines in and the dust comes off an old copy of Incesticide. Thankful to have a life of half-remember secrets discovered through this work to keep me here.