May 9, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
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
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
In fact, Cobain abhorred violence of any kind, even in the name of
"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.