For a writer of your generation, you’re kind of incongruously overflowing with optimistim about the future of literature, aren’t you?
Dennis Cooper: There’s this weird thing among writers of my generation: they just stop paying attention to young writers. And I don’t, obviously. To me, something like alt lit is just the most exciting thing ever, because there’s so much work out there now. I just don’t see any argument against it. In your own career or whatever, you end up being pigeonholed - and I certainly have been - and you end up being left in this corner. That’s never really bothered me, but I think it bothers other people; that younger writers get a lot of attention, and the older generation of writers, who are already known, don’t get that kind of flashy attention. But I don’t care about that at all.
But it’s not unusual for a writer getting into his sixties to bemoan the effect that the internet has had on literary culture. Your view seems the opposite of that…
Dennis Cooper: Oh completely the opposite, yeah, absolutely. The internet created this whole new space for writers to connect and create these communities, with new presses and online presses and stuff. All these new writers that I really like; a lot of them are using the internet the way we used paper, you know? So the internet itself is a form for literature now. I mean, it’s against the whole idea of the book, in a way. But that’s really exciting. It makes it more accessible, and it’s affordable. I think the internet’s been a huge, huge, huge help. Plus it gives you all these new forms to co-opt and manipulate into your writing. Language is being reinvented really fast now, because of the way people write on the internet. I see it all as an extremely positive thing.
So it’s an enrichment, rather than an impoverishment of language that’s going on?
Dennis Cooper: Yeah! When I was a kid and there was psychedelic literature and all that stuff, people said that about that stuff too. It’s just nonsense. It’s conservatism. I have no patience for that. It’s ridiculous. I mean, music keeps changing, and reinventing itself all the time. Why shouldn’t language? Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram and all these things: they’re giving you all these new spaces to work in, and ways to think about structure, and the way things are placed on the page and all that stuff. It’s a totally rich vein to be mined. People get stuck in this thing of wanting to write conventional literary novels – and that’s fine – but I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to keep getting better, and to try and do more with writing. But people don’t. They just get stuck in their ways, and that’s the way it is.
The sun’s creepy, a hard piece of scalding red shit that has no consciousness of its own, so Nate can’t tell it anything real like, Go away.
Being young is kind of a dangerous time. People take a lot of chances. I did all kinds of stuff that I can’t believe I did. Or just that feeling where if you have a crush on someone it’s like the most intense thing ever. The longing and feeling—the connection you make with people—is so incredibly intense, and I like thinking about it.
# 7 was meat, a veritable cow cursed to live complexly like a boy, as in the children’s stories, his clothes as tacked on as a circus dog’s tuxedo, and, whether you can see him through my specializing eyes or not, they’re the only contact lens that can get you safely through the rest of this.
In John Lydon’s autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, he compares Nirvana to Eddie and the Hot Rods, a late-’70s R&B bar band who’d lucked into a little popularity and acclaim during the dawn of British punk, when any group with short hair and short songs were temporarily mistaken for revolutionaries. “It really annoys me,” Lydon writes, “…when [Nirvana] say they were influenced by the Sex Pistols. They clearly can’t be. They missed the point somewhere.” My first thought on reading this was, Jesus, what a clueless fool. But thinking more about it, I realized he had a point, however reductive and however inadvertently self-indicting.
Lydon, who likes to characterize himself as a talented troublemaker, can’t see Nirvana for the darkness and length of his own shadow. To him, the members of Nirvana can only be protégés, and so their very admiration of his work becomes an embarassment, an admission of weakness. A classic pre-feminist bully, Lydon all but calls them fags and wussies. But of course, the very qualities that made him and other punk hardliners suspicious of Nirvana — sincerity, overemotionalism, formal conservatism, intellectual spazziness — are at the center of why they’re a great band.
The Sex Pistols predated AIDS, homelessness, MTV. Not to say life was easy in the mid-’70s, but Nirvana didn’t have the luxury, nor the megalomaniacal naïveté, to attempt a coup of popular culture. In this world, it’s hard enough just to get an absolutely honest song on the airwaves. Nirvana, like most interesting current bands, just wanted to represent their exact feelings appropriately. Luckily, in their case, they were guided by Kurt Cobain, a gifted if obviously tormented man with high ideals, original ideas, and a beautifully erratic way of expressing himself.
Kurt Cobain may have loved John Lydon, but I suspect that it was in the way a kid loves his or her abusive father. Unlike that cynical old fuck, Cobain wasn’t a monster, ever. At his worst, he was a mess, but so are most of us, only we get to act out our shit among friends, and not in front of people who think our every woe is a generational signifier. I mean, Cobain’s idea of media manipulation was to wear a Daniel Johnston T-shirt during photo sessions. He may have been rich, but he thought like an anarchist. He wanted to share. He wrote consistently great lyrics about not being able to express himself adequately, he sang like God with a dog’s mouth, and he believed in the communicative powers of popular music. And precisely because he believed, Nirvana wound up doing what the Pistols could only masturbate thinking about.
Cobain’s work nailed how a ton of people feel. There are few moments in rock as bewilderingly moving as when he mumbled, “I found it hard / It’s hard to find / Oh well, whatever / Nevermind.” There’s that bizarre, agonized, and devastating promise he keeps making throughout “Heart-Shaped Box”: “Wish that I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” Take a look in his eyes the next time MTV runs the “Heart-Shaped Box” video, and see if you can sort out the pain from the ironic detachment from the horror from the defensiveness.
American culture has reached a strange impasse, which is largely the fault of our pathetic educational system. It’s left us intellectually undernourished, emotionally confused, and way, way too vulnerable. That imbalance may have produced artists like Cobain, but it has also softened our brains to the point where we just let political and corporate higher-ups of various sorts manipulate our very ways of receiving information. Instead of being encouraged to expand imaginatively on the music we listen to, we’re told to reduce everything in our world into simple rights and wrongs, effectives and ineffectives, yesses and nos. We comply because the world is scary and because we understandably want to be coddled by the things that interest us. Kurt Cobain, so conflicted in his attitude toward success, and so complex in his ideas abut love and politics, was a classic beneficiary and victim of this dilemma.
What’s amazing is that after all that interference, he won. Well, he didn’t, but Nirvana did. Nirvana, a band that embodied every important quality that punk had ever championed managed for a brief period to flip off powermongers and signal believers with the very same gesture. And, in succeeding so spectacularly, and so cleanly, Cobain and crew showed what was possible, even in this ugly and demoralized culture. Unfortunately, with his stupid, infuriating death, he also showed us what our belief costs.