Saturday, August 27, 2016

As I Want You to Be

Last Saturday we went to see a Nirvana cover band at Bogart's in Cincinnati, a sort of rundown, grungy, funky venue that houses a lot of memories for me (we saw Foo Fighters there right when their first album came out, Frank Black sans Pixies, Flaming Lips, etc.).  It was a beautiful thing to hear those early nineties songs again, in the land of the living, played the way they should be played, banged out and elemental, no talk.  The cover band's name is Orchid in the Ivy, and I know nothing about them except that they can play Nirvana songs, but that's okay.  They did it exactly the way they should have:  shut-mouthed and reverent in the church of skillful and demented punk-pop.

Kurt Cobain's main talent, above all else, was his obsessive welding together of vulnerable melodies with pure chainsaw fury.  His down and dirty hurt was always glazed with an outsider-art attention to detail, whimsy and torture welling up into a burst of guitar chords that sound kind of familiar at first but right when you get into it you also get assaulted.  The assault was Kurt's art escaping its prison, letting you have it.  He was pissed at you for enjoying his little fucking ditties, and yet those ditties, and your response, was all he cared about.

And so all week I've lived in the shadow of that cover-band cathedral, listening to all the songs again, mesmerized by all he was able to pack in his short time on earth.  One song kind of became my mantra as I drove around in my Kia Soul:  "Come as You Are."  The second single off Nevermind, that song has incredible chops, a powerful bass hook that grinds you into its atmosphere, and lyrics that don't give away anything but also tell you everything you need to know:

"No I don't have a gun.
No I don't have a gun.
No I don't have a gun."

What the hell is more vulnerable and succinct than that?

That surrender somehow confiscates an era's cynicism.  It lets us know what the world is about more than a whole slew of newspaper articles or tweets or speeches.  It's not poetry as much as secret code. Needless to say I got into that song in 1992, when I was 27 and in graduate school.  I was in a fiction-writing class, and I played the hell out of "Come as You Are" while drafting the short story I scanned in and uploaded below.  I wrote it in three weeks and decided not to submit it to workshop because I loved it so much and didn't want people to pick it apart.  It turns out to be the first piece I was able to get published in a national magazine.

Christopher Street was the bastion of gay lit back in the 70s and 80s, so I got in on the tail-end of its glory and tenure, but am still kind of proud that they chose to publish "Mars," which I just reread, all caught up in my Nirvana k-hole.  It's not a bad piece of work.  I recognize all kinds of tricks and tics that make what I write what I write forming within it:  simple declarative no-nonsense sentences and paragraphs, a cryptic poetry circulating inside scenes revealed with as little poetry as possible.  Not a lot of laughs in this one, but I learned as I went how to make things at least a little more comic.  "Mars" is about a foster-kid named Paul who eventually gets brutally killed, after a life spent trying not to be what everyone wants him to be.  It has a sort of shadow-narrative, as well (I was all into The Great Gatsby at the time and wanted to white-trash-gay that Fitzgerald shit up), about a gay not-foster-kid who sees in Paul a specter of meaning and transcendence nobody else can in his world.

But that song, right?  "Come as You Are," all momentous and full of doom and tenderness.  I wanted that to be in the story too.  I followed its rhythm and snark as I wrote, and when I saw the watery-rusty-chandelier music video, with Kurt with his dyed-amber hair and nasty green sweater and pale-angel countenance, singing into the camera like the camera was his parole officer, well then I understood where I stood in the world of literature and art and just the world:  I was trying to not so much elevate trash and tragedy as to grasp it through the glamorous haze of punk's magic mirror, a reflection giving off such a shitty glow you start to understand how sometimes you can't turn the lights on and you can't turn the lights off.  You can only wait for things to settle back down so you can go to work.

It's a sad story, "Mars."  I was afraid to go back and read it again because I thought I might be embarrassed by its sophomoric attempts at gay grunge, but nope:  it's pretty good.  It has all kinds of chasms and humorless hurts and yet there's also a strange, sweet, unspoken love that slithers through it, kind of the way Kurt's voice growls and whimpers through "Come as You Are."

No it doesn't have a gun.