Don't Blame the Music

May 9, 2002


Frequently misunderstood during his lifetime, Kurt Cobain continues to be misinterpreted in death--and to draw troubled souls to his music.

Accused pipe bomber Luke Helder was arrested Tuesday while wearing a Cobain T-shirt. Helder's friends said the 21-year-old amateur musician from Pine Island, Minn. loved the Seattle band Nirvana and was preoccupied with its leader, Cobain.

As often happens when a breaking news story touches upon elements of youth
culture that are not fully comprehended by mainstream journalists--witness the Columbine shootings--the revelation that Helder admired Cobain and that he sang and played guitar in a band of his own called Apathy prompted speculation that there must be a connection between the music and his violent actions.

In fact, Cobain abhorred violence of any kind, even in the name of righteous causes.

"My generation's apathy--I'm disgusted with it," he famously said. "I'm disgusted with my own apathy, too, for being spineless and not always standing up against racism, sexism and all those other -isms the counterculture has been whining about for years."

"Kurt Cobain was apathetic--I'm sure he may have inspired the name of Helder's band--but there aren't any Nirvana songs that say, 'Blow up mailboxes,' or that urge action of any kind," said Charles R. Cross, author of the recent bestselling Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven. The FBI reported finding the book among Helder's possessions.

"Lots of people are found with the Bible," Cross said. "It's just that in this case, rather than the Bible, they found my book. The only connection I see is that Kurt Cobain had serious mental problems, and his story attracts people who share those problems."

The connection recalls the odd fixation that John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, had with The Catcher in the Rye, or the obsession that David Hinckley, who shot President Reagan, had for the actress Jodie Foster.
None of the language or ideas of Cobain's lyrics are reflected in the lengthy, wildly rambling letter that Helder sent to the Badger Herald newspaper at the University of Wisconsin in an effort to "explain" his actions. Nor did his band seem to have any overtly political lyrics or themes, judging by the information available on its web site (which authorities quickly pulled off line), or a site for unsigned bands that featured streaming audio of one of its tunes, a song called "Conformity."

The music vaguely resembles the familiar Nirvana song structure of quiet verses and loud choruses, though Helder's voice is much closer to Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam than Cobain, and the lyrics seem to be a personal statement that has little to do with either of those artists.

"It's a story how I'm supposed to feel because you tell me so," Helder sings. "It's a rare wind when the time comes, a never ending train. Run away, run away."

This is the sort of unremarkable, angst-filled sentiment expressed by hundreds of young bands in hundreds of garages across America every day, with nothing at all to suggest that the author may be motivated to violence. It is actually the very ordinariness of Helder's music and his devotion to Cobain that is the most frightening aspect of the story.

"We are a trio of people who love to play, and put on a show," he wrote on the Web in his band's mission statement. Somewhere, his priorities just went horribly astray.