Several of my dearest friends have lost loved ones recently; other friends have faced difficult anniversaries of loss. This has been an especially challenging time for many of my favorite people. I want to send special love and thoughts of support and hope to all of you who have suffered great losses recently, or who lost loved ones or relationships some time ago but still feel the sting of those losses every day.
Even after estrangements or difficulties, or when death is expected, such losses can be extremely difficult and sometimes surprisingly destabilizing to our mental and physical health. Even if a friend or family member was challenging, or if we were no longer close, facing their deaths usually makes our own lives feel more fragile. We can also feel as if we’ve lost a part of our own histories when they leave this world. When we lose another person (or an animal friend) who has witnessed important times in our lives, we may feel as if we’ve lost those times forever, and given up a part of ourselves, too.
But we still carry those people, companions and experiences in our hearts, and our relationships with them don’t die when their bodies stop breathing. Our relationships can even grow over time as we gain new insights into their behaviors or their pains or fears. We may grow to forgive, or even to get angrier for them for the way they behaved—and that’s okay. It takes time to process and understand relationships and feelings. We may even think we’ve finished grieving for them and find that a wave of great sadness and loss overcomes us at strange times, scaring us with the strength of our emotions. That is normal, too.
If you have suffered a great loss and the weight of it is still heavy or the pain feels very fresh, I am so sorry. Though time does ease it, getting to a point at which memories feel more pleasurable than painful can take much longer than we expect, and working through grief is exhausting. For now, I hope you will ask less of yourself for the time being, while your suffering is fresh. The stress of grief is one of the greatest stresses a body can bear, so allow yourself time to rest and recover from the shock of loss. Treat yourself as you would treat any dear friend who was in pain—with extra sleep, nurturing food, enough quiet time, and, when necessary, comforting distractions. Emotional breaks are important, and finding moments of lightness or laughter during times of grief does not make you disloyal to those whom you have lost. There is no timetable that you must follow in order to be “normal” or “right”—take your time, get your rest, and don’t feel guilty if you need extra time away from others, or if you can’t respond to others’ kindnesses as quickly as you’d like.
Remember that you are loved, and that those whom you love don’t disappear from your life as long as you carry them with you in your heart. Sharing what you love most about them with others can be healing, and it can pass their goodness along to others; I still speak of my grandmother’s love and grace frequently, and it comforts me and makes my daughter feel close to Grandma Emma, even though they never met.
You are not any less valuable or lovable just because those who have loved you deeply are no longer near you. You will always matter, and so will they.
Photo by Mike Labrum, Unsplash
One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.
In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.
In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.
“Willem van Heythuysen” by Kehinde Wiley. The pose and the title are based on a 17th century portrait by Dutch painter Frans Hals. Photo from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
[Originally published on February 24, 2016]
As you enter “A New Republic,” the exhibition of paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures and triptychs by Kehinde Wiley currently at the Seattle Art Museum, you are met by the direct and confident gaze of an African American man astride a rearing horse. The man wears a camouflage jacket and trousers, Timberland boots and a bandanna tied around his head; a heavy gold velvet cloak encircles his shoulders and billows dramatically in the air. Though he and his horse stand on a rocky crag, their backdrop is not of nature but of a red and gold wallpaper design such as one might find in a Victorian drawing room. Draw closer to the monumental portrait and you’ll see hundreds of seemingly randomly placed undulating sperm cells delicately filling the interstices between the golden arabesques of the backdrop. More swirling sperm fill the egg-shaped corner medallions on the huge and ornate gold frame in which the painting hangs, obviously and humorously reminding us that this painting is all about manliness and the power of the male gaze.
Here is a celebration of the masculine life force. Those who know something of the history of Western art will smile, since the pose, the horse, even the words engraved on the rock upon which the rearing horse stands all come directly from one of the most famous equestrian portraits ever painted: this is a direct homage to Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 equestrian portrait of Napoleon at the height of his power.
Continue through the exhibition and you’re met by other grand equestrian portraits. One painted shortly after the death of Michael Jackson features the late King of Pop wearing armor and portrayed as if he were King Philip II of Spain in a nod to a 17th century Baroque painting by Peter Paul Rubens. However, most of the portraits here depict not recognizable faces but everyday people found by the painter during one of his “street-casting” sessions. Wiley approaches strangers in public and asks them whether they’re willing to be photographed, usually in their own clothing, so that they might later be painted in the pose of an old master portrait of their choosing. While their likenesses may hang in major museums around the world and garner huge prices from avid collectors of Wiley’s work, the models usually remain anonymous, since Wiley prefers to title his portraits not after the sitters but after the people depicted in the portraits to which he pays homage.
Evoking well-known Western masterworks of the past with modern-day young men who display all the signifiers of 21st century African American masculine style is fresh and arresting, as is this fact: although they borrow the poses of major dead white European males, Wiley’s versions of the portraits usually depict black men between the ages of 18 and 35.
Wiley, himself a black, gay, American man, says that he chooses men in part for their sexual attractiveness to him, though he does not ask their sexual orientations. But in gazing upon them, he is knowingly sexually objectifying them, which has traditionally been seen as a way to take power away from the person who is being objectified. However, Wiley does this with the sitters’ assent and participation, so his sitters have the ultimate power over whether they are depicted in new works of art by a prominent internationally known artist, and in what pose they will be remembered. Wiley’s subjects exude power and self-awareness, but are left unnamed and undescribed. He chooses them not for their personalities, influence or station in life. It is enough that they are black, beautiful and capable of presenting themselves in a composed, dignified and quietly confident manner.
Kehinde Wiley at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his painting “Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz and Luis Nunez” (2013). Photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times
Wiley’s creations in all their varied media serve to focus his gaze on attractive, confident young men who wield evident power with total comfort. Their poses are usually not so much arrogant as entitled: they address viewers directly without fear or anger. They often display the sartorial signs of success, including name-brand shoes and clothes. Even when they find themselves in dandified poses, Wiley catches them looking unsurprised to be presenting themselves as worthy of their evident power.
Over time Wiley has added more women to his work, and some of his most recent portraits feature elegant women in formal designer gowns instead of in their street clothes. Their hair is elaborately coiffed and they look like fashion models, but again, there is a sense of self-awareness and power in their expressions. These proud black men and women command attention without effort; they are vivid and dynamic symbols of black strength and power who assert the importance of their place in history and in the modern world.
In an interview with National Public Radio’s Audie Cornish, Wiley said of his decision to incorporate obvious product placement in his works, “Branding says a lot about luxury, and about exclusion, and about the choices that manufacturers make, but I think that what society does with it after it’s produced is something else. And the African-American community has always been expert at taking things and repurposing them toward their own ends. This code-switching that exists between luxury and urban is something that was invented in the streets of America, not Sixth Avenue.”
Most of Wiley’s portraits on canvas are based on photographs that he takes and then adjusts with computer applications to heighten their contrast and make their colors more vivid. But though he takes great care with the paintings of his subjects, he assembles groups of assistants in his studios around in the U.S., China and elsewhere to undertake the background painting in his portraits, much as the great 15th to 17th century painters of the Renaissance and Baroque period had their assistants fill in the areas behind the human subjects.
The backgrounds in his large portraits on canvas are not usually naturalistic landscape or elegant rooms—they are flat, decorative, repeating floral motifs such as one might find on wallpaper by Victorian designer William Morris or by 18th century designer William Kilburn. These floral backdrops hang behind the subjects of Wiley’s paintings, but sometimes elements of them—tendrils or branches or floral sprays—curve around in front of the subjects, surrounding the carefully rendered, three-dimensional human beings with flat fantasy gardens come to life. These delicate, elegant backgrounds contrast with the often dramatically manly subjects of the paintings, heightening the objectification of the body and pointing out the physical beauty in African Americans who have often been made to feel “other,” less than, ugly and unwanted by white Western arbiters of taste, style or value.
In 2006, Wiley found a crumpled police mug shot on the ground near his studio in Harlem. He used this symbol of a young man’s having been stripped of his freedom and power to inspire a beautiful portrait. The anonymous young man is portrayed with great dignity and honesty. Of the painting, NPR’s Audie Cornish said “It’s also the antithesis of the work people may recognize. … If anything, your work, for a lot of people, has been a rebuke of the mug shot when it comes to black men.” Wiley replied that his usual choice to portray black men in positions of power is indeed “a rebuke of the mug shot, it’s an ability to say ‘I will be seen the way I choose to be seen.’ All of the models are going through our history books and deciding, out of all the great portraits of the past, which ones do they feel most comfortable, which ones resonate with them. And so I go through the studios with individuals who go through art history books and choose how they want to perform themselves.”
The mug shot portrait is unusual for Wiley in that, while it shows an evidently self-possessed man displaying dignity and internal strength, it was created without the subject’s knowledge or consent. This back-story makes the viewer consider the question of the subject’s power or powerlessness, and whether Wiley has bestowed an aura of power on the man in the mug shot portrait while denying him the power to determine how and whether to present his face to the world in general. The questions of who has power, where it comes from and whether it is deserved hang over every piece in this exhibition, just as these questions unfortunately hang over the heads of all African Americans who feel that their presence and worth are constantly scrutinized and challenged as they go about their daily lives.
While many of Wiley’s works celebrate temporal authority, this new exhibition also places young black men in the context of spiritual and religious iconography, often posing as if they were martys and saints. One room is filled with elegant gilded triptychs, portraits painted on upright wooden panels with hinged closable doors on either side of the portrait, similar to the way that saints were depicted in shrines in Catholic chapels during the Middle Ages. These paintings don’t have vibrant stylized floral backdrops like the huge portraits on canvas do, but are intimate works of art with either Renaissance-style landscapes or Medieval-style gilding shimmering behind the beautifully, naturalistically painted portraits of black men in modern-day dress and hair styles. The T-shirts and tattoos and dreadlocks make it clear that the men featured in the triptychs are very much modern-day men in timeless settings.
In the stained glass room, tall and vibrant windows as boldly colored and intricately decorated as original 19th century Gothic Revival windows feature men in Converse shoes or Timberland boots, quilted vests and hoodies, African cloth shorts or cuffed jeans standing on plinths like statues, their halos shining above their heads. In these religiously inspired pieces, the subjects still exude great power, but their symbolic association with those who were too good for this world, who were martyred for their purity and courage, shows another aspect of greatness; the power that these men display takes a different, quieter form than his other work.
After the dramatic room-filling portraits on canvas, the intimate triptychs and the solemn, saintly stained glass windows, his oversize bronze busts of black men and women are impressive in that they show further diversity and skill, but they don’t mesmerize the way his other more colorful two-dimensional works do. However, the sculptures do show a charmingly cheeky side to his wit. In one exhibit, three nearly identical black female heads are arranged in a setting reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman artworks depicting the mythological Three Graces. The three are joined together by enormously long and undulating locks of braided hair. In another, a solemn, dignified man wearing a dashiki, his chin up and head back, looks for all the world like a noble statesman posing for an official portrait from the front, but a bronze hairpick sticks surprisingly out of his natural afro in the back. The importance of black hair as a cultural signifier and symbol of connectedness and continuity within the black experience is underscored by the use of hair as an important decorative and unifying element in a number of Wiley’s paintings and sculptures.
“Shantavia Beale II,” a painting by Kehinde Wiley, 2012. Photo from the Brooklyn Museum
Art critics are divided on whether to celebrate or deride Wiley for his techniques, his subject matter and his style. Some find the quality of the background painting that he hands off to assistants to be subpar; my experience of his paintings is that they appear to be composed and finished with care, and that they give an impression of greater precision than most large artworks do upon close examination. Other critics deride his reuse of tried-and-true, immediately recognizable poses from masterworks, finding it derivative.
I see Wiley’s reworking of clichéd art-historical tropes into fresh new hip-hop-infused celebrations of modern style as a bracing twist on tired themes. While some writers praise his prolific, vivid output across different media, others complain that he outsources the painting of the backgrounds to other artists (just as was the custom of the great European artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras) and doesn’t give enough credit to the artists who inspired him. Some detractors find his choice to reuse classical poses unoriginal; they neglect to mention that the history of art has always involved the borrowing, reworking and downright copying of old masters by the new, and that it is this very obvious borrowing from the white Western artworks of the past that helps us to set these works in context and face the racially charged questions they evoke.
In the 16th century Michelangelo copied the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome; in the 19th century Manet copied the pose of 16th century painter Titian; in the 1960s, Warhol made slavish copies of Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes and ushered in a whole new art movement. Pop art is today among the most valued and collected genres of art despite being derived from the most banal, repetitive and disposable elements in modern culture. If Warhol is a genius for having his (often unpaid) underlings endlessly reprint silkscreened images of popular entertainment icons based on photos that he didn’t take, color them unevenly in unnatural colors and then turn them over to him to sign, how can Wiley, whose works have layers of meaning and historical signifiers that Warhol’s works often lacked, be dismissed for following in the footsteps of earlier masters?
It is certainly possible for someone to find Wiley’s work lacking for purely aesthetic and technical reasons. However, it does seem that critics are often in a hurry to try to take him down a peg and to speak ill of him more directly and dismissively than they do other less-talented artists who also take inspiration from historical sources, like John Currin, or from artists who elevate pop culture (and even kitsch) to new heights (like Jeff Koons), but who happen to be white. It seems to me that Wiley’s composure and the confident ease with which he expresses himself in interviews might strike some as signs of unearned or unwelcome entitlement. The sense of pride and power with which he imbues his portraits can be found in his demeanor, but I see it not as arrogance or as a threat but as a strong sense of self. I wonder how much the discomfort some feel about his works stems from an unease over the idea of an African American having the power to make artistic choices and elevate those who look like him.
Criticism of Wiley, his work style and his aesthetic reminds me of white criticism of Beyoncé’s latest songs and videos; they’re unapologetically created from a black perspective with a black audience in mind. If we white folk appreciate it and want to buy it too, great, but it’s not specifically for us, and it isn’t the job of black artists to comfort or pander to whites.
Critics seem often to be looking for reasons to denigrate Wiley—his backgrounds are too thinly drawn, they say, or his use of decorative motifs undercuts the seriousness of his work. He cares too much about making things pretty and not enough about making them real, some cry. These complaints feel manufactured to me, and they deny the visceral power, the thrill, the vibrant, vibrating beauty that leaps off his canvases and suffuses the galleries in which his works hang or stand with a glowing, thrumming life force. Trying to reduce works of such emotion and energy to dry theoretical constructs strikes me as ridiculous, like trying to freeze-dry sunshine or to express color using only grey-scale photographs.
Like Warhol and Koons and Rubens before him, Kehinde Wiley is a successful businessman with many people working under him in order to allow him to manufacture expensive luxury goods at a fast clip. But Wiley’s works have a unique power to them, and they are fresh and unusual individual creative works; they are African American cultural signifiers like no others in the art world today. Wiley is clearly obsessed with creation and beauty, and regardless of whether he has assistants to help him, he is personally constantly visualizing and manifesting new visual magic all the time. While the subjects of his portraits look at ease with themselves, Wiley himself is happy to go to uncomfortable places with his art, and to challenge himself by traveling the world, learning about and painting brown-skinned people in Africa, Asia and Europe as well as here in the U.S.
In his NPR interview, Wiley told Audie Cornish, “My love affair with painting is bittersweet. I love the history of art — you asked me about that moment that I first looked at the stuff and when I first fell in love with it. It was only later that I understood that a lot of destruction and domination had to occur in order for all of this grand reality to exist. So what happens next? What happens is the artist grows up and tries to fashion a world that’s imperfect. Tries to say yes to the parts that he loves, and to say yes to the parts that he wants to see in the world, such as black and brown bodies — like my own — in the same vocabulary as that tradition that I had learned so many years before. It’s an uncomfortable fit, but I don’t think that it’s something that I’m shying away from at all. In fact, I think what we’re arriving at is the meat of my project, which is that discomfort is where the work shines best. These inconvenient bedfellows that you’re seeing all over this museum are my life’s work.”
Kehinde Wiley says yes to history, yes to his desires and yes to his vision of the world. His affirmative energy and his willingness to sit with and address uncomfortable questions of gender, orientation and power makes for an electrifying exhibition that invites us to enter into Wiley’s vision and live in A New Republic of his creation.
The Killers have been around for 17 years in multiple forms, always headed by singer Brandon Flowers, but their sound has morphed many times along the way from the bouncy, 1980’s New Wave-revival sound of “Mr. Brightside” to their latest driving hit, “The Man.”
“Mr. Brightside” was all about the angst and agony of a jealous guy imagining his ex with her new lover, lightly papered over with assurances that he’s doing “just fine” followed by admissions that “it’s killing me.” It’s all set to a poppy beat overlaid with shimmering guitar. The song’s video featured the then-young, fresh, innocent-looking Flowers contrasted with a louche, dissipated character played by sleazily handsome actor Eric Roberts (Julia’s elder brother). As the Boston Globe’s Franklin Soults puts it, “Mr. Brightside” is “a song about destructive jealousy so uplifting it [makes] the pursuit of contradiction feel like a life calling.”
All these years later, “The Man” features a taut, lean-faced Flowers playing a strutting, macho Las Vegas performer in Rhinestone Cowboy garb assuring us lyrically that he’s “first in command.” He tells us, “I got skin in the game / I got a household name / I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man.” With a dark bass line and insistent drum driving his message forward, and supported by disco-era synth and backup singers, the sound of “The Man” is pure cockiness. When set to the brilliant video, however, the story of The Man in question follows another path altogether. It’s a very satisfying display of hubris with all the trappings of success on view, then falling away in under five minutes, a miniature movie that even ends with a film credit screen.
Flowers says “The Man” was inspired by an honest look back at The Killers’ arrogance during their “Mr. Brightside” years. Last summer he said that he regrets the negativity and arrogance he displayed to the public when the band first started out. “Around about the time that The Killers started I guess—that’s where ‘The Man’ harkens back to, and years after as well,” Flowers told NME. “I can live with it, you know. It was nice to sort of go in and inhabit that character, and that figure, and that version of myself for much longer. … I don’t think that was really a great representation, an honest representation of who I am. It came from a place of insecurity and I would just puff my chest out and say things and put a lot of negativity out there. I basically came to regret that and I’m sure a lot of people can identify with that.” The mild, articulate affability of the man in this CBC interview is a pleasant contrast to the entitled, arrogant picture of a youthful Flowers that he paints of himself.
The version of Flowers on offer at The Killers’ concert at Boston’s TD Garden this week was that of a consummate showman, joyfully, confidently swaggering at the helm of a tight band moving smoothly through a perfectly timed set. The arena rock show had the busy laser displays, giant video screens, smoke and bright visual extravagance one expects. But Flowers, slight, a little stiff but poised and dramatic in his spangly western-cut suits, exuded command, control and pleasure. His talent is such that he could have held the crowd comfortably in his hand with much less visual drama, but who am I to turn down an over-the-top feast for the eyes? And though early Killers hits like “Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me” and “When You Were Young” have a Brit-pop feel far from Flowers’ Vegas roots, somehow seeing Flowers perform those songs in his crystal-covered, western-cut suits bopping purposefully around the stage still feels right.
Flowers was born in Las Vegas and has spent most of his life there, and the influence is evident in his Vegas showmanship, his dress and the tour’s set design. Interestingly, the other band members didn’t share in his aesthetic but wore the usual indie-band attire and haircuts, setting Flowers into more dramatic relief. While Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. are touring the world in support of their latest album, two of the band’s longtime members, guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer, are sitting out this tour. The recent addition of Ted Sablay on guitar and Jake Blanton for this road show made for a strong, cohesive sound, but the band’s emotional dynamics didn’t feel integrated. While the band played well and sounded tight, the event felt very much like The Brandon Flowers Show with little attention shown to other members of the band, as so often happens in bands with especially charismatic singers. The resulting event was highly entertaining but not very emotionally accessible, even though Flowers clearly reveled in the attention and gave his utmost. The Vegas-bright shine made for a fun spectacle appropriate for the giant venue, but a touch of intimacy wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Today is Boxing Day, a day traditionally set aside to remind those who have been blessed with comfort to share their bounty with those to whom life has been less generous. The tradition seems to have begun in the 1600s in England when the more well-to-do put together boxes of money, gifts, hand-me-downs and leftover food for their servants who had worked on Christmas Day. These servants were given the day after Christmas off to spend with their families and enjoy the contents of the box.
One of the central tenets of the religion which takes Jesus as its lord is expressed in the following passage from the New Testament’s Book of Matthew: “‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’’
The true character of a human being is shown in the way that she or he treats those who are in need, those who are suffering, those who have no power. People of character don’t spend time determining that some people are unworthy of human decency. The Jesus lauded as the redeemer of Christians did not trample on the weak or crush those who had erred. He saw no poor as “undeserving,” nor did he believe that some prisoners deserved kindness while others deserved a boot in the face. Jesus said that the way to show reverence for that which was pure and good was to show reverence for and generosity to “the least of these”—those most degraded, despised, troubled and troubling people among us. He said we should focus more of our love, mercy and understanding on these people than on the fortunate few. His concern was not with the inhabitants of any shining city on a hill; he saved his blessings (and, Christians say, his miracles) for those who had the least and needed love most.
We can celebrate the spirit of Boxing Day without using boxes; just choose a favorite charity or two and help them to help others, or do a good deed for someone in need. In the spirit of Boxing Day, I’m giving to my local food bank today. If you’re looking for an especially effective nonprofit to support with your Christmas cash, Hanukkah gelt or secular humanistic savings, CharityNavigator.com is a great place to start.
Blessed are the merciful. Peace be with you today and throughout the new year.
Originally published in April 2015.
Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.
The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.
All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck currently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.
His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.
Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.
Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.
It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.
The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.
Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later see him barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.
I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.
While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.
The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.
This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.
David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”
I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.
But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.
I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.
I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.
Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.
It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.
In December 2005 researchers at England’s University of Bath released the results of a study that found that children, especially girls, see torturing and mutilating their Barbies as a common and enjoyable form of play. An article in the London Times stated that “mutilation ranged from cutting off hair to decapitating and putting the dolls in microwaves.” Children ages seven to eleven were said to “see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a ‘cool’ activity,” according to the article. The children were aware that they were being exploited by “over-marketing and over-charging” and that rejecting the doll was a “rite of passage” engaged in by children who felt they’d outgrown their Barbies. “Barbies are not special,” said the researchers. “They are disposable, and are thrown away and rejected.”
I’ve thought about my history with Barbies, and my daughter’s, too, and I take issue with some of the article’s findings. Cutting Barbie’s hair isn’t really an act of mutilation in the way that putting her in the microwave is. Children know that cutting their own hair gets them in trouble, and cutting Barbie’s hair gives them the satisfaction of distorting her appearance and messing with the standard and approved way of viewing her, it’s true—it also lets them know what it feels like to cut hair without getting in trouble. The Barbies I grew up around often had missing toes; this is not because we wanted to bind their feet golden-lotus–style and further fetishize their sexual-fantasy-based bodies, but rather because chewing the rubbery plastic felt good. Gnawing away at them resulted in their coming off completely in the mouth in a pleasant if slightly disturbing fashion. Pulling Barbie heads off was common when I was a child, not because we were acting out scenes from Robespierre’s Reign of Terror but because we wanted to trade them around among dolls with different features and outfits. We also pierced our dolls’ ears (leaving them looking grey and infected) and bent their knees back and forth so much for the sheer pleasure of hearing the click click click of their joints that their skin tore.
But do people take pleasure in creating their own torture tableaux featuring Barbie, Ken and all their plastic molded-bodied friends? Of course. Their constantly perky expressions and injection-molded perfection do invite children to challenge their prefab poise. They look so inviting in the box, but take them out of the vivid fuchsia packaging and their clothes are hard to put on, and their hair gets bunched up and never lies flat again and gets permanently dull and stringy when Barbie is invited to play in the bathtub. Ken’s spray-painted hair wears off and he ends up with flesh coloring showing through in patches that have nothing to do with standard male-pattern baldness. Barbie is not only free of genitalia, but sometimes has molded skin-colored patterns simulating underwear built right into what would be her buttocks if she had any gluteal musculature.
Barbie’s original design was based on that of the Bild Lilli, a sexually suggestive German doll from the 1950s. A German brochure from the 1950s states that Lilli was “always discreet,” and that her wardrobe made her “the star of every bar.” When Barbie debuted in 1959, many parents found her obviously sexual nature disturbing. Of course, this aspect of her is partly what has always made her so alluring to children. She’s the premiere socially sanctioned sexualized plaything, and she allows young children to engage in pre-sexual roleplay and pretend to embody the roles they think are expected of them as they mature. Children live out stereotypes with Barbies, but they also challenge and laugh at them.
The widespread delight that children take in trashing their Barbies when they feel they’ve outgrown them might be a reaction to the stereotypes, the expectations and the mass-merchandizing overconsumption extravaganza that Barbie represents, at least in part. But often Barbie’s mutilation is an unintentional byproduct of trying to personalize her and make her more interesting and individual. When such an attempt results in a Barbie who is less appealing, her loss of allure and inability to be made into something uniquely appealing make Barbie a sorry remnant of a time of earlier naivete, as well as a reminder of failed attempts at creating more individualized beauty. Rather than feel bad every time we see what our attempts at beautification have done, it’s easier to dissociate her from her former status as beauty icon if we take her destruction even further. If she’s ugly and all the gloss and perfection that we once admired in her is gone, why not turn her into a doggy chew toy, or see what happens if we take nail polish remover to the paint on her face? If we turn her into a science experiment, we feel less disappointed in her lost glory.
Barbie’s reputation for mindlessness was bolstered by the 1992 release of Teen Talk Barbie. This talking Barbie spewed forth phrases like “Math is hard!” and “Will we ever have enough clothes?” A group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization soon became famous for engaging in acts of Barbie sabotage, exchanging Barbie’s talking guts for the voice hardware found in Mattel’s Talking G.I. Joe dolls. The BLO repackaged three hundred dolls and slid them back onto store shelves. When unsuspecting little girls tried their new Barbies at home, the fashion dolls grunted out “Vengeance is mine!” and “Dead men tell no tales,” while little boys’ new G.I. Joes cooed “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”
Of course, some toys are less than glorious to begin with, and only become more disturbing or ridiculous with time. Others begin attractively and grow frightening with disuse or misuse. Such are the toys found at DisturbingAuctions.com. The site’s home page states that Disturbing Auctions “is dedicated to the research and study of the most bizarre items found for sale on Internet auction sites. Not the obviously fake auctions, like the infamous human kidney, but truly tacky stuff that people really, honestly, believed that someone would (and in some cases did) buy.”
DisturbingAuctions.com features home furnishings including the velvet painting of Jesus blessing an 18-wheeler; accessories like the purse made of a bull’s scrotum; clothing like used gym shorts and a matching used jock strap; and haute cuisine, including 200 freeze-dried pork chops. But nothing can compare to discovering the hideous figurines, including the “Check Out My Ass Clown” (make sure to look at the optional magnified view for ultimate flamboyant clown perusing pleasure), the items classified as Terrifying Dolls, or, my favorites, the Emotionally Scarring Toys.
The Terrifying Dolls category features the pained, shriveled and body-part-challenged Puppet Assortment, the pinheaded Li’l Head Doll, and Baby Tears-Your-Flesh, a.k.a. Little Dolly No-Head. Big Hands Baby and the Saddam Hussein puppet also get honorable mention.
Clowns have a special place on Disturbing Auctions; here you’ll find a clown brooch, a clown ashtray and a vicious Cranky Clown Lava Lamp, among other items. Dead stuffed frogs also have their places, as does the stuffed and mounted genuine Deer Butt. The Clark Gable candle puts one in mind of a wax-covered severed head, and why the seller of the Inflatable Ladies’ Legs had to mention that they fit in the mouth when not inflated is anyone’s guess.
Still, the Emotionally Scarring Toys is the biggest, juiciest treasure trove of outrageous kitsch. From the Dean Martin Hand Puppet to our beloved Big-Ass Donkey, from Darth Small to the marvelously named Pooduck, it’s hard to find an entry that isn’t deeply, horribly, hideously wrong down to its very core.
While most of the site has stayed static for years, there is a related site, DisturbingAuctions.com/daily, where visitors can post their own horrific online auction discoveries and attach their own witty (or, more frequently, just vulgar) commentaries. There are occasional gems to be found here, but the older, original DisturbingAuctions.com site has the most consistently hideous and perfectly captioned offerings. All hail the Pooduck!
[Revised from an article which originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]
Here’s some exquisite angst for you—a gorgeous cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” by Icelandic folksinger Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson. Ásgeir has toured the U.S. singing in English and Icelandic, and he now uses Ásgeir as a mononym. He also plays guitar in the Icelandic band The Lovely Lion.
Ásgeir’s spare piano arrangement, his high and softly plaintive voice, the careful but effective use of echo and percussion and the mounting layers of synthesized sound create something unique and lovely. This introverted, ethereal version has a very different energy than Nirvana’s original, but I find it every bit as captivating. In fact, it’s even more enthralling than the original for me; instead of pressing itself into my space insistently, it wraps its tendrils around me and pulls me slowly but inexorably into its dark heart.[Originally published in December 2014]