An Easy Friend
Nobody asked for your sacrifice.
Didn’t you know? We weren’t that kind of generation.
We were slackers. Born with a cynical cord
twined around our umbilicals.
Behind the boom in time, numbers, ambition.
Most of us couldn’t even achieve the effort of being born.
Warded off by The Pill, weeded out by Roe.
Divorce did a job averting a few of us too.
Among those of us who made it to living
how many did we lose to loving?
Thinned out by a virus
in body, blood, ranks, rainbows.
No wonder the rest of us turned timid in love
reluctant in the duties of regeneration.
We didn’t need a voice.
We needed every voice…
but probably we would’ve settled
for an easy friend.
With an ear to lend.
And all that.)
I could have said the same things you sang
about a girl about a boy. Bout lots of boys.
(Is this the moment you knew was coming?
When I tell you how much your songs
spoke to my soul, our souls, our cynical slacker
smelly lazy latchkey
Yes. This is that moment.
When I hang your words.
Out to dry.)
A guitar’s just as good as a gun’s just as good as a needle’s just as good as a pen’s just as good as a song’s just as good as a poem’s just as good as a woman’s just as good as a man’s just as good as a boy’s just as good as a girl. A girl’s just as a good on her own, without a voice to represent, without a boy to rock her into a hit, to record her into history, to whip her in to land.
(What does that even mean?)
When I was the last age you ever allowed yourself
easy friends were hard to come by. Since then
it hasn’t got much easier.
I eventually picked up a pen
the way some boys (some girls)
pick up a guitar, as if to say:
Screw this. Maybe you’ll understand, at least.
A pen, a page, a computer, a keyboard
are easier friends than some I could name.
Just as good as a boy, a girl, a guitar
a voice, a generation, a journal, a mic
a blog, a dog, a crew of cats you feed
out your back door every day
(your only friends these days
easy or otherwise)
a curtain of constellations around the park
you used to run to when your parents fought
through the night (my boy, my boy
tell me where did you sleep last night?)
a lineup of police cars you used to paint
the words God is a Gay watchamacallit
(what does that even mean?)
a wall of bricks where the words
You are alive appeared after the twin
towers fell (oh yeah, you missed that
…and we missed you…since we still
don’t know what to make of that.
I’d guess you wouldn’t as well.
The event just overwhelmed
our generationally predisposed
ineffectual reserves of effort
Nobody asked for your sacrifice. And since the morning
the twin towers fell, sacrifice gets tossed around
as much as dollar bills at a strip show.
They’re standing in a line for it.
Terrorists do it, soldiers do it.
It’s not just for troubled rockers anymore
not just for the voices coming over
for how many generations now?
All the same, we would have liked
to have you stick around longer.
We needed every voice.
In every voice there's a song worth hearing.
This poem was inspired by "About a Girl," a song by Nirvana that was recorded in December 1988 and released in 1989 on the band's first album, Bleach. The song was recorded only a few months after the release of the two previous songs I chose for this "Three for Generation X" theme--"Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses and "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock--which may come as a surprise to some. "About a Girl" was re-recorded and re-released as a single in 1993 and '94, as an acoustic (or "unplugged") version performed during a concert in New York for MTV. That latter version of the song is the one most people know. But the song's earlier origins are important, as this song was one of the first glimmers of the songwriting talent of Nirvana's lead singer, Kurt Cobain--even before the breakthrough hits "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Come As You Are." When the song was re-released, it served as Nirvana's last hit--the live version was released as a single in the fall of 1994, a few months after the death of Cobain, who died by suicide in April that year.
It is, of course, a cliche for me to choose a Nirvana song, any Nirvana song, as part of anything discussing or examining Generation X. Because Kurt Cobain, of course, is the voice of Generation X--or so Generation X has been told since Nirvana rose to rock stardom in the early 90s after the release of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and its host album, Nevermind. In truth, I for one never really considered Cobain my generation's voice. At least not its one and only or most important voice. I mainly just thought of them as a pretty decent band. I still do. But I also had conflicted feelings about Cobain and the whole grunge movement and the way Nirvana and grunge were being pushed upon people my age as the thing we'd been waiting for our whole lives. I'll go into that a bit more in a minute. But first I wanted to say part of the reason I chose this song was because Kurt Cobain has been in the news again lately in the U.S., with a new documentary about him just released, as well as an interview with his daughter in Rolling Stone. I read his daughter's interview and a couple of her statements kinda jumped out at me: "My dad was exceptionally ambitious. He wanted his band to be successful. But he didn't want to be the fucking voice of a generation." Elsewhere she says: "Kurt got to the point where he eventually had to sacrifice every bit of who he was to his art, because the world demanded it of him."
The words "ambitious" and "sacrifice" especially struck me, because those are two words no one has ever applied to Generation X--certainly not in Nirvana's heyday or in the wake of Generation X's invention by the media and so-called social generation experts. For those who aren't familiar with the term Generation X and the label it applied to Americans born between roughly 1961 and 1981, here's some background.
The term "Generation X" was actually nothing new by the time it was applied to people in my age group, starting about 1989, when Canadian author Douglas Coupland first used it to describe the post-Boomer generation and even made it the title of his first novel (which came out in 1991). But we were the generation the term stuck to. After the massive influence of the Baby Boom on American culture, the generation following could barely stand a chance to fill their shoes, culturally speaking--or so that was the idea at the time the term "Gen X" started to pick up steam. Generation X was seen to be the generation that grew up in a vacuum. Our numbers were said to be considerably fewer compared to preceding generations as well as to the generation to come (the Millennials)—a combined result of the invention and widespread availability of the Pill, the legalization of abortion in the U.S., the mass return of American women to the workforce, and the decrease in marriage and substantial increase in divorce in the U.S. in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s. Gen X was also typically characterized in the media as being less ambitious in their careers, more apathetic in their politics, more cynical and pessimistic in their outlook, with a perpetual underlying anxiety formed by having spent their childhoods under the threat of a Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and their teen and young adult years under the threat of contracting HIV and AIDS (which in the 1980s and 90s was still a virtual death sentence for HIV+ Americans). Words like "slackers" and "latchkey kids" were used to describe us. We were said to be capable of communicating only through irony. Boomers openly expressed their contempt for us and their fears for the future once all their own generation kick the bucket. Nevermind (see what I did there?) everything the Boomers themselves did to put the future in jeopardy.
And now 20-some years later an interview is released with the daughter of Generation X's supposed spokesman where she's calling him stuff like ambitious and talking about the sacrifices he made. So much for the selfish slacker identity. Go figure.
So I decided to write a poem keeping both the labels that were applied to my generation and the theme of sacrifice in mind. I chose "About a Girl" because I wanted a song that was more personal and emotionally direct than the other two songs I picked for this poem series. Despite its title, the song isn't about a girl. Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" is about a girl, about Axl Rose's wife. Nirvana's "About a Girl" is really to a girl, not about one. Cobain was inspired by his relationship with his first serious girlfriend for this song. The girl he wrote it for supposedly had no idea the song was about her until years after Cobain's death. As with the other poems in this series, I worked a few lyrics from the song here and there into the poem, as well as lyrics to an old American folk song ("In the Pines") that Nirvana covered during their MTV Unplugged concert. I also worked in bits of Cobain lore, such as claims by Kurt that he used to spray paint the words "God Is Gay" on cars in his hometown as a teen (though his arrest record says he was writing "Ain't got no how watchamacallit" on cars instead). The bit about the brick wall reading "You are alive" is from a photo that was printed in the days after September 11th, 2001. Someone had written those words on a wall in New York City in the aftermath of the attacks on the city that day. Every American has images stuck in their mind from that horrible day--among the foremost images in my memory of September 11th are the words on that brick wall.
And here I come back to the question of whether Kurt Cobain really was my generation's strongest voice or only voice or whatever. I think Nirvana was great and Kurt Cobain was very gifted, and I think it's a definite loss to music and our culture that he died so young. I'm sure he had many more good songs in him. I'm also sure the biggest loss is to his friends and family, especially his daughter. There was only one father for Frances Bean Cobain. There were actually many musical voices for Generation X. And many of those voices are still around, still performing and speaking, singing and writing. In fact one of our generation's voices just won the Grammy for album of the year.
Then there are all the Gen X voices to consider who didn't fit our culture's worship of straight white guys--of which Kurt Cobain was one. I guess one more reason I was never comfortable with the crowning of Cobain as my generation's pre-eminent voice was because I found it a little too convenient that our voice was yet another straight white male in a long line of important straight white males our country and culture have been told to revere and emulate. Too convenient and too ironic, considering Gen X kids were born into the benefits of the Civil Rights Movement, women's movement, and Gay Liberation movement. By the time we came of age, shouldn't our culture have moved beyond anointing white guys? Then again, Gen X kids were also born into the backlash against the great social justice movements of the 1950s-70s. In some regards, I think the media's rush to embrace Kurt Cobain was a way of putting all those uppity black, female, and gay singers and superstars and rappers and rockers of the 80s--from Madonna to Michael Jackson to Freddie Mercury to Prince to Public Enemy--back in their place. (Witness the way Cobain's own fellow musician wife, Courtney Love, was increasingly demonized and ridiculed even as Cobain was celebrated and sanctified.) Grunge itself may have been a reaction against 80s commercialism--its popularity (if not the music) was also a reaction against 80s multiculturalism. Cobain, meanwhile, outspokenly detested homophobia, sexism, and racism ("God Is Gay" he wrote). No wonder he resisted the voice-of-a-generation label. Too bad he had to do it at the expense of his own life.