April 5 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, frontman of the legendary rock band Nirvana. He died in his Seattle home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1994. Toxicology reports from the subsequent autopsy showed there to be a massive dose of heroin in his body. It was a terribly sad ending to the life of a brilliant musician who changed music forever.
I was born in the same year as Cobain and therefore lived through many of the same life-defining moments as him. I came of age in the 1980s—a decade which saw the rise of MTV, the personal computer, Reaganomics, AIDS, and the end of the Cold War. The 80s was a decade of excess. It was loud. It was brash. And it was fun.
Bands like Van Halen, Guns and Roses, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and Twisted Sister ruled the airwaves. Known as “hair bands” (check out any rock video from 1987 and you’ll see why), they didn’t just sing about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, they lived it! Motley Crue perhaps epitomized the music of the 80s better than anyone. I can’t think of another band who partied as hard while somehow managing to stay alive!
But then the 90s came along. On August 27, 1991, Nirvana released the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and everything changed overnight. That song exploded onto the airwaves like no other song I have ever heard in my life. It was so raw. So real. So angry. You simply could not ignore it. The album Nevermind smashed records and propelled Nirvana to absolute superstardom. The same date “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released, another previously unknown Seattle band, Pearl Jam, released their seminal album Ten. Other Seattle bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains were also hitting the charts.
A musical revolution hit the world in the fall of 1991. Grunge was born. It was time for Generation X to take over the music scene. As I look back at that time, it seems to me the world was split into two categories: before Nirvana, and after Nirvana. The hair bands of the 1980s died within weeks. You simply couldn’t listen to that music anymore. What happened in Seattle in 1991 was one of the greatest defining moments in the history of rock and roll. I have not seen another like it since.
At the head of this great musical upheaval was Kurt Cobain. The songs he wrote spoke to the despair and angst felt by a generation of kids who were left in the shadow of the Baby Boom generation. Cobain was our spokesperson. The raw passion and enormous power that emanated from his guitar and from his lyrics lashed out at the world around us, demanding that we be paid attention to. Nirvana was the coming of age for an entire generation. A planting of a flag that said, “Here we are now. Entertain us!”
Cobain was an artist in the truest sense of the word and his creativity was extraordinary. Super fans elevated him to a godlike status. In a way, the process of creating something brand new—something out of nothing—is perhaps the closest we as humans come to being like God. In the creative process, we wrestle with forces that are unseen and unknown. Like Jacob wrestling the angel of God at the ford of the Jabbok who left with a wrenched hip, we cannot approach God in this way without being somewhat consumed.
The greater the act of creating, the greater the consummation. It seems we must give something in order to create. Beethoven went deaf. Michelangelo went blind. Van Gogh suffered psychotic episodes. Mozart died young. James Dean drove over a cliff. All through history, it seems the greatest of artists—whether musicians, painters, sculptors, or actors—lived with a wound.
Whether or not Cobain will ever be listed as one of the greats, it is clear he lived a wounded life. His struggle with addiction is legendary. He followed the path of musical greats before him like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix and died at the age of 27. They all changed music as we knew it. Cobain rose to the heights of the musical world and was proclaimed a prophet of a generation. His flame was snuffed out only 30 months after Nirvana took the world by storm.
His story—and the stories of so many talented people before and after him—ended in tragedy. Sometimes I wonder: if Kurt Cobain had gotten the help he so desperately needed, how might his story have ended otherwise? What other musical masterpieces could he have been capable of? What art, music, poetry, literature, would we have in the world if those who left us too soon had gotten help and healing and walked the hard but rewarding road of recovery?
The thing with addictions and mental health struggles is that they often go hand in hand. The other thing is that they don’t discriminate: anyone, regardless of occupation, financial means, or life situation can struggle at any point in their lives. It’s not just the artists who deal with these issues but the teacher, the parent, the politician, the auto mechanic, the construction worker, the nurse, the student. It could be a loved one. It could be you.
If you’re struggling through heavy stuff today, we encourage you to get help. Don’t let anything stand in your way. Don’t let your story be snuffed out and the world deprived of the greatness you contribute. Just come as you are. The choice is yours.
How to Get Help
If you are experiencing a mental health challenge that’s affecting your ability to work, you can get the support you need.
• For emergencies, always call 911 and then contact your family doctor.
• Contact your CLAC representative, who is a labour relations professional trained in mental health first aid.
• Get immediate, free, and confidential help through your workplace employee and family assistance program.
• Get connected with a Canadian Mental Health Association facility by visiting cmha.ca.
• Find resources, crisis hotlines, support groups, and mental health facilities in your area at ementalhealth.ca.
If you’re struggling with substance use, CLAC has resources available to help you on your road to recovery.
- Contact a CLAC substance abuse case manager at 877-863-5154 or SACM@clac.ca
- If you are covered under a CLAC Health & Welfare Trust Fund benefits plan, you can get immediate, free, and confidential help through the Morneau Shepell Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP). Access is available 24/7 by phone, web, or mobile app.