I’d Rather be Dead than Cool by Ryan Sparks

by Ryan Sparks

It’s a crisp Seattle morning outside, but I am warm inside The Clover, a velvet-draped coffeehouse on Grand Street. John Mayer’s cumbersome voice trickles out of the ceiling speakers, battling with the milk steamer for auditory dominance of all the citizens around me. The place is littered with twenty-somethings writing in notebooks or reading slim Vonnegut paperbacks. While I wait for my special guest I flip through the paper. On page four of the Metro section someone had killed himself with barbed wire. Even though people are still drinking coffee and killing themselves, Seattle of 2004 is not the same place it used to be. No one knows this better than Kurt Cobain the Icon (or KC-Ike as he likes to be called), and as he shuffles through the double doors and scans the room for me, his whitewashed eyes reflect the changes of a decade. He ignores the long line at the counter and sits down across from me with his hands empty. Without saying hello, he withdraws three packets of raw sugar from the dispenser, tears the corners off diagonally, and then tips them so that the contents of all three pour into his mouth evenly. For him, this is breakfast, part of his daily routine. He gets up late and usually doesn’t get really started after lunch, which is all right by me. I’m tagging along with him today in order to get a glimpse of what being a Generational Icon is like.

KC-Ike smells just like you’d expect him to: flannel, canvas, Head & Shoulders. And he carries himself like Cobain did, with a disheveled air and unconscious movements. The hand slipping the long blonde hair behind his ear, the thrusting forward of his entire head when he nods in agreement with something you’ve said: these were mannerisms long before they became trademarks. And so the similarities end between KC-Ike and Cobain. What’s it like being the modern memory of a famous corpse?

“It’s weird, but cool, y’know?” he says, still chomping on sugar crystals. “I’ve come a long way since I was just a meaty mess found by an unsuspecting electrician. It’s like the final scene of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Everything looks bleak, y’know? Charlie’s not going to get his lifetime supply of chocolate. He’s been accused of stealing Fizzy Lifting Drink. He’s been told ‘Good day.’ But then, he makes that redeeming decision. He gives back the Everlasting Gobstopper. And that’s what it was like with me. I gave back what I’d stolen, this sentimental, tortured life experience, and for that I was rewarded. I got into the elevator and it blasted right through the glass ceiling of celebrity. The credits rolled, but I kept climbing in the sky. That’s where I am today.”

KC-Ike draws a lot of attention here once people notice him. People who were merely passing by the storefront window on their way to the Starbucks down the street have now stopped and are clawing at the glass. I expected that the patrons around us might point and whisper but still keep to themselves out of respect, but it’s not like that at all. The people start tripping over each other to approach KC-Ike; several are trampled. Many cry out: words of praise, words of encouragement, many thanks. KC-Ike takes it all in stride, and when I convey my apprehension, he looks at me like I’m crazy.

“I don’t really care.”

People are grabbing his shirt sleeves and trying to untie his shoes, but he sits still, almost unaware of them.

“I don’t really have to worry about keeping up with anyone’s expectations anymore. I don’t ever have to pick up a guitar again, I don’t ever have to do an interview again or a show or a meet and greet or yell my throat hoarse anymore. I just exist and people come to me. I don’t have the pressures I used to have anymore. I don’t have to come up with a ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit (Slight Return).'”

The reference to Hendrix is a sly one, and I push him on it. Long before there was KC-Ike or even just Cobain there was Hendrix the Icon, and KC-Ike seems very familiar with him.

“Oh, yeah. Having Hendrix the Icon over there, going before me…that made it a lot easier. I’m not saying I followed in his footsteps all the time, but the ground had been broken, y’know? In the first few years of my existence I didn’t flounder around as much as I might have. People–especially people my age–were so starved for someone like Hendrix, someone they could put on posters and mean it, really mean it, y’know, that I didn’t have much of a problem. I talk to him sometimes, and he does this grumpy old man voice, y’know? ‘Back in my day we didn’t have no VH-1 or MTV to help us Icons out! We didn’t have none of this here easy-going public!’ It’s really funny.”

This Hendrix hearsay may have been said in jest, but it rings with truth. Nirvana was the rebellion three times removed; anyone who knows history knows that a civilization living through constant usurpations of control destabilizes rapidly, and at the end of the eighties the grunge bands took over just as easily as the Taliban in Afghanistan. There simply was no resistance. Hendrix and his contemporaries, however, were fighting more than trends and demographics. They were rattling sabers with socio-political structures; they fought in the trenches for psychadelia.

KC-Ike seems oblivious to this, though. In fact, through our conversation it becomes more and more clear that he has a severe lack of historical and cultural awareness. We have time to kill before KC-Ike’s afternoon appointments start, so we leave the Starbucks and just go walking down the street. At a newsstand he picks up a copy of Rolling Stone. “Check it out,” he says, grinning like a five-year-old poking a frog with a stick. “They put me at #2! So did Spin, it looks like. Did you know that I’ve been #2 in more categories than anyone else? I take a certain satisfaction in that. I mean, being consistently #2 is a lot better than being #1 only once or twice, right?” He nods in agreement with himself then drops the magazine on the sidewalk with a careless gesture. Without much anger he says, “When are those bastards at Guitar Magazine going to come around?” I ask him what he thinks of the fact that his former drummer and friend Dave Grohl is now writing music reviews for the New York Times.

“Who?” he asks.

What about his former wife, Courtney Love, flashing her tits on the Letterman show?

“I don’t really like Letterman that much,” he replies. “That guy’s off the deep end, but not really in a good way.”

Are the Vines really the next Nirvana?

“I hope not.” He pauses. “Actually, no. I don’t think that’s possible.”

We are heading towards City Hall for KC-Ike’s first appearance of the day when a new parade forms behind us, Gen Xers in marching band formation, hoisting their instruments: PDAs, wireless phones, pagers, tie clips, Prada purse buckles, and iPods.

“Who are all these fucks?” he asks. He looks over at his shoulder at them with a queer kind of scorn. I mention that they look like his original fans.

“No way,” he says. “These people must be looking for a quick buck or something.”

I try to convince him that, yes, these are the same people who used to buy tickets to his shows, who wore Sub Pop t-shirts and had dub copies of Unplugged in their VCRs. But there’s no convincing him. It dawns on me that he identifies the kind of people we saw fawning over him in the coffeehouse with his typical fan: cords and dingy t-shirts, Chuck Taylors and dog-tags. For some reason, his mind cannot grasp the fact that people move on, that they must get jobs, move out of their parents’ homes and, often, undergo identity changes.

“Let’s get a cab,” he suggests.

We arrive at City Hall and I can’t open my door because of the throng of people on the sidewalk. KC-Ike’s cool air of separation has not prepared me for the maelstrom we actually enter. A man in a dark suit and sunglasses clears people away from the cab and opens the door for us. He has an earpiece and in his lapel is a pin, a small gold replica of the Visible Woman. He shoulders his way through the crowd trying to clear a path for KC-Ike; he fires a small pistol several times into the air. The people at the edges of the fleshy fray shudder for a second with each blast, but are almost immediately back to screaming like mad and clawing at KC-Ike. His flannel shirt is torn to shreds before he gets to the podium at the top of the steps. I barely manage to stay in the wake, and when I arrive at my assigned spot a few steps away from the podium I feel like I’ve just stepped back onto shore after a long trip on a sailboat.

KC-Ike stands behind the podium and looks down at his shoes, and it begins. There are about five hundred people sitting in padded oak chairs to his left, facing the crowd. Without any introduction, the person closest to the podium (rightmost seat, front row) stands up, walks with a brilliant smile to the podium, and leans into the bouquet of microphones. She is an older woman, about forty, with colorless hair; her dress looks like something Barbara Bush gave to Goodwill. The PA system carries her voice out over the writhing crowd.

“On behalf of the Seattle Bureau of Tourism, I thank you, Mr. Cobain!”

She quickly returns to her seat, and with a rehearsed motion, the person next to her rises and approaches with a stiff gait, this time, an older gentleman carrying seventy extra pounds.

“On behalf of Viacom and its subsidiaries, I thank you, Mr. Cobain!”

And it goes on and on.

“On behalf of the Class of 1991…”

“On behalf of Riverhead Trade…”

“On behalf of Clear Channel Media Group…”

“On behalf of Fender Guitars…”

“On behalf of…”

“On behalf…”

“On…”

They speak their piece, and they hand him certificates printed on high stock paper, affixed with gold seals and all manner of ribbons and signed with ballpoint pens in broad, politician-style strokes. KC-Ike takes each certificate with a small smile and places them carefully on the podium. By the end of the afternoon the stack almost comes up to the top of his head. When all the representatives are finished, the man in the suit comes back and pushes us through the crowd again, causing the mass of people to wail with even more frenzy. KC-Ike is showered with joints, folded notes, guitar picks, bras, even infants and little Ziploc baggies of china white. But KC-Ike has his hands in his pockets. He catches nothing; he accepts nothing, though this is no deterrent to the maniacs. The more debris that ricochets off of him, the more intense the crowd becomes in their efforts. The mob believes in odds, and the chances are if enough personal effects are thrown, something will have to catch his eye, something will at least catch an edge of his garments and stick. Something, anything…

Back in the cab, KC-Ike smiles. The man in the suit hands him the stack of certificates, slams the door, and pats the trunk of the cab twice. We take off.

From his back pocket, KC-Ike pulls out a small, black kit. He taps, he flicks, he melts. He pours, he cinches, he slaps. He pokes, he plunges. The syringe comes out clean, bloodless.

“It’s not like that every day,” he says. “It’s just because of the anniversary thing. Then you’ve got the decade thing on top of that. But I usually get something like this at least once a week. It’s nice and all, the crowd gets bigger each time, but I’m getting a little bored with it. Just a little. It’s not really boredom, though, it’s more like…I don’t see what the fuss is all about. I literally don’t.” I push him for an explanation, but he’s getting lost.

“It’s just…the songs, y’know? My songs. They’re…I’m not sure if…I’m not sure how they…er…how the strum of them used to go. They change ’em around. I sold them. Krist…the words…oh well…y’know, I’m not even sure…if grunge even existed.”

He pauses a long time, then begins to giggle, a dry, chopped laugh. “I think I would know if I could just remember how the songs went.”

He slides down in his seat, looking at nothing through hungover eyes. I tell the cabbie to pull over.

“You know where this guy is going?” I ask.

“Naw,” he says. He’s an old black man, looks like a refugee from the Chicago blues scene. “Where to?” He turns around and notices KC-Ike’s situation for the first time. “Shit, I don’t need this. This guy might rob me when he wakes up. You take him.”

“He won’t rob you,” I say. “Don’t you know who this is?”

“Don’t know and don’t care to, son.”

“Just drive around till this runs out.” I hold out some cash. “Someone will find him.”

He considers the money for a moment then puts the car back into gear and sighs.

“Oh well, whatever…”

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