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.
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 Heckcurrently 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 ofRolling 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.
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.
One of the most sophisticated and exquisite of all jazz standards was written by a black, gay, teenage boy over the course of five years in the 1930s. Billy Strayhorn, who later became famously close to his mentor and writing partner Duke Ellington, wrote the majority of the elegantly jaded lyrics, surprising internal rhyming schemes and beautiful, unusual melody that became “Lush Life” when he was just sixteen years old. The song begins:
“I used to visit all the very gay places / Those come-what-may places / Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life / To get the feel of life / From jazz and cocktails. / The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces / With distingué traces / That used to be there, you could see where / They’d been washed away / By too many through the day / Twelve o’clocktails.”
American painter Edward Hopper was born on this day in 1882. The spare, cool, detached way he depicts his subjects contrasts powerfully with his use of dramatic darkness, intense light and shadow and vivid colors. Hopper’s works are carefully composed to create interest and visual movement even though the subjects themselves are usually completely still.
Hopper painted many architecturally interesting exteriors, landscapes and interior scenes, and even his compositions involving human figures emphasize an architectural sense of balance, order and solidity. The compositions and settings are as much the subject of his paintings as the people portrayed in them are.
Most of Hopper’s masterwork, “Nighthawks,” was painted just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was plunged into fear that there would be air attacks on the U.S. mainland. Americans began sewing blackout curtains for their windows as the people of Britain had been doing for years in efforts to make it harder for potential attackers to target their homes from the air. But while the country prepared for enemy attacks, Hopper continued to work into the evenings with his studio curtains wide open. Appropriately, “Nighthawks” featured four people awake late at night in an empty landscape, together yet somehow separated from each other in a bright but foreboding cafe.
In nature, nighthawks are nocturnal predators of the nightjar family. They, like the nighthawks of the painting, spend the night awake—restless, watching, waiting.
The contrast between still, calm, composed subjects and vibrant color surrounded by intense darkness makes his works visually exciting, but also inspires feelings of melancholy and alienation. Hopper has inspired many other visual artists, including filmmakers like Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott and the Coen Brothers. Mendes’s bleak and brilliant film “The Road to Perdition” in particular reads as a perfect visual homage to the painter, with each scene composed, colored and lit like a Hopper painting.
A model member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community, a hardworking go-getter who regularly works 16-hour days to support his family (which includes two daughters—both U.S. citizens—and a wife who is eight months into a high-risk pregnancy), is likely to be deported this summer. Does he have a criminal record? No. Is he a leech on the public welfare system? No. Francisco Rodriguez not only works full time as a custodian at MIT but also runs a carpet-cleaning company, and he pays income taxes on both jobs.
Did he lie to the government and try to sneak in? No; he applied for asylum when he moved here from El Salvador just over a decade ago. A mechanical engineer in his native country, his success made him a target of gangsters who shook him down and threatened him with murder if he didn’t pay them even more. He has been up-front with the Department of Homeland Security all along the way. The U.S. would not give him asylum, but until recently they would not begin deportation proceedings, either, since it was clear that Francisco was not a risk to our nation—indeed, he was a taxpayer and a job-creator, he supported his family and was active in his children’s school, his church and his union. But on July 13, he will meet with representatives of ICE, possibly for the last time before he is forced to leave his family, his job, his business—everything—behind in the U.S., the country he has served so well for over a decade.
So what changed? Our nation is now led by a man who sees all born outside of our borders as lesser beings, and he sees those who were born in countries below our southern border as especially dangerous and worthless, with inherent violent and immoral tendencies, no matter how clearly the facts prove otherwise.
Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t targeted for deportation because he’s a danger to society; he was chosen because his honesty made him easy to find, and his lack of criminality made him highly unlikely to cause a fuss when he was singled out for removal from his home, his family, his job and his community. If Francisco is deported, he and his wife will not be allowed to travel between the U.S. and El Salvador to visit each other for at least ten years.
The true cost of Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policy is this: families are torn apart; honest and hardworking people are forced to give up everything to go to countries where their safety is at risk; taxpayers are taken off the rolls, so the IRS loses out on revenue; and formerly independent families are forced to ask for assistance during and after family crises (in this case a high-risk birth with no father present—a crisis completely manufactured by the U.S. government).
The knock-on effect of sweeping deportations to families, businesses, tax rolls and our culture in general is enormous and devastating. It will soon be felt strongly in the business world and will result in lower income tax revenues as well. The service and construction sectors rely heavily on undocumented labor and are fearful of the increasing costs of hiring citizens who want greater income and shorter hours. The agriculture sector is already feeling the pinch and is worried about how they’ll manage to find enough farm workers to bring in their crops. They can’t find enough citizens willing to work long hours in seasonal agricultural jobs in the blistering harvest-season heat, even as wages rise. Produce will rot before it can be picked and distributed when there are not enough workers to go around. Will our supposedly business-savvy president recognize the folly of his fear and hate then? It is doubtful.
These misguided policies fuel our growing xenophobia and will take a huge economic and emotional toll on our nation. It is never in our country’s interests to treat good, honest, hardworking people like criminals because of an accident of birth. Our moralistic pronouncements about the greatness of our country are hollow when we use our might to destroy lives, to vilify honorable people and to dismantle our social compact out of unearned self-regard based on birth and not innate worth. We harm ourselves as well as others when we let our fears and prejudices overcome reason, mercy and human decency.
Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.
Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,” “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.
As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.
Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.
As the holidays approach, I’m reminded of multiple painful Thanksgiving dinners years ago during which I felt forced to spend time with a relative who repeatedly bullied me. She insulted me in my own house, picked fights with me in front of others and blamed me for actions I hadn’t taken and words I never said. Ultimately, I refused to be treated that way anymore, and stopped spending holidays with someone who insisted upon picking fights, telling lies and attacking me for things I did not do. Having to set boundaries with her and refuse to see her at holidays was very painful, but spending time with someone who claimed to love me yet also berated, insulted and lied to and about me was worse.
If you find yourself in a situation in which you are dreading holidays because you fear that you will be insulted or attacked, or worry that you will feel trapped and helpless, remember: there is no rule that says you must be with other people at holiday time. We have all been told that spending a holiday alone is terrifying and awful, and that holiday solitude means we are bad or worthless, unloved or unloving. None of that is true.
If you dread the holidays because you fear you have no alternative but to walk into the lion’s den and be eaten, know that it is perfectly okay to stay home (or go away someplace) and celebrate the day in your own way. You can be thankful and be a good person even if you eat a bowl of soup by yourself or with only your partner or immediate family, then take yourself out to a movie. You can sleep in and catch up on your novel, or binge watch your favorite TV show, or listen to podcasts while you do puzzles, or take a long walk with your favorite dog. You can eat spaghetti instead of turkey. You always have options.
The biggest concern about opting out of powerfully painful social interactions is often about how others will view you afterwards: will they shun you, punish you, talk about you behind your back if you don’t attend? They might. Your refusing to attend an event could cause a family rift. Not attending Thanksgiving with your in-laws or sister or dad might mean getting angry phone calls about it later, so there is a trade-off and a risk of future pain. But if you are miserable being with other people because they treat you with contempt or disregard, is that a healthy dynamic to perpetuate? If they (or you) become abusive when provoked, especially in the current political climate when so many of us are fragile, thin-skinned and worried about the future, engaging with others in anger after one too many glasses of holiday wine could be not only emotionally but physically unsafe.
If being with a person, even one whom you love, makes you feel sick, sad, worthless, angry or frustrated and efforts to interact in a healthier way haven’t worked, clinging to that relationship even though it brings out the worst in you and others can be very damaging. Being unwilling to accept another’s bad behavior just because it comes from a family member does not make you monstrous. Avoiding abusive situations is just good self care.
Depression is often exacerbated over the holidays when we compare what we think we need to feel fulfilled with what seems to be available to us. We may be reminded of past hurts, losses, shame and regrets, and they may overwhelm our feelings of love, happiness or safety. If you fear that being with certain people is not safe for you and will bring on destructive feelings toward yourself (or them), remember: you don’t have to engage. You don’t have to attend events. You can have a quiet holiday on your own without falling apart. Others may respond with hurt feelings, and you may have to deal with your own feelings of guilt (often not deserved) if you prioritize your own mental health above placating those who cause you distress. But if you’re an adult, you do have a choice about where you spend your time and with whom. Please don’t put yourself or others in harm’s way.
One of history’s most influential songwriters and lyricists, Bob Dylan has meandered through the musical disciplines of folk and protest songs, blues, pop and rock and come out the other end with his own amalgam of raw, bleating authenticity, intimacy, cynicism and wordplay. It’s hard to think of a voice that has threaded its way into the world’s consciousness more powerfully over the past half century.
The Nobel Committee has long sought out fresh voices that speak to the human condition in original and insightful ways. In past years the committee has honored writers who have explored enduring topics including folk tales, race and feminism, violence, poverty, segregation and myth through prose, poetry, reportage and social criticism. This year marks the first time a Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to a musician for his lyrical output. Since the prize was established in 1901, the Nobel Committee has sought to celebrate voices that express eternal conflicts, awaken minds and deepen compassion, and the work of Bob Dylan encompasses all of these themes.
Dylan’s voice was the urgent social conscience of the 1960s. The stripped-down simplicity of his musical messages was disarming, yet he convinced the world to recognize folk as a sophisticated medium and a driving social force. With his storytelling, Dylan altered the way we think and hear, and in so doing he changed the world.