Kurt Cobain: A Modern Tragedy From a Mental Health Perspective

June 9, 2014

Clinicians will be drawn in by author Charles R. Cross's personal experience documenting, Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain. Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, committed suicide 20 years ago this month.

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BOOK REVIEW
Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain
by Charles R. Cross; New York: Harper Collins, 2014
192 pages • $22.99 (hardcover)

Twenty years ago, Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, committed suicide. I was only 12 years old when he died. I had just come home from school and was watching MTV when white printed words crawled along the bottom of my screen announcing that “Kurt Cobain was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head.” Over the next few hours, MTV News anchor Kurt Loder introduced me to words such as “heroin,” “addiction,” and “depression” many years before I would explore them in psychiatry residency.

Since his passing in 1994, countless pseudo-intellectual “think pieces” have been published on his short life and abrupt death. Having read many of these speculative and frequently unsubstantiated write-ups, it was with a skeptical eye that I reviewed Charles R. Cross’s Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain. He earned my trust after his thoroughly researched Cobain biography.1 While the biography is an excellent read, it is by no means a necessary primer for Here We Are Now.

At fewer than 200 pages, Here We Are Now is a quick read divided into 6 chapters describing the late musician’s lasting influence on popular music; impact on fashion; a discussion of the meaning of Grunge; his effect on Seattle and his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington; his addiction and eventual suicide; and a commentary on his legacy.

Cross triumphs by revealing Cobain’s struggle in a way that will be compelling to both clinicians and non-clinicians alike. However, Here We Are Now is worth the read for clinicians, particularly the sections chronicling Cobain’s heroin addiction, his foray into substance abuse treatment, and the public health impact of his death. He deftly pulls in statistics and expert interviews that suggest Cobain’s end fit neatly into the suicidal paradigm we see in the clinic every day. Cross delves deeply into his subject’s family history, previous suicide attempts, and substance abuse history. Although this is a book about an extraordinary artist, in these sections I felt like I was reading about any young adult on my patient roster at risk for substance dependence, suicide-or both.

Some of Cobain’s addiction and substance abuse history has been explored in other books. Still, I found the public health information particularly fascinating. I was surprised to learn that there was genuine concern that Cobain’s suicide might have a ripple effect among young adults worldwide. To discuss these concerns, Cross draws from interviews with a past president of the American Association of Suicidology as well as the Chief Medical Examiner at the scene. Through the eyes of a suicidologist, we see that the number of suicides actually fell in the wake of Cobain’s death as a function of a well-coordinated public health outreach effort.

In addition to being a well-researched piece on a modern tragedy from a mental health perspective, I think clinicians of every stripe will be drawn in by Cross’s personal experience documenting Cobain’s rise and fall. Cross was editor in chief at the influential Seattle music newspaper, The Rocket, before and after the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s. He describes the sad and strange experience of being the first person to feature Nirvana in print as well as being among the first to confirm Cobain’s death. Cross’s personal heartache and professional obligation become intertwined in a way that I think will be familiar to clinicians.

This article was originally posted online on 4/15/2014 and has since been updated.

Disclosures:

Dr Rama is a psychiatry resident at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter: @arjunerama.

References:

1. Cross CR. Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. New York: Hyperion; 2001.