A couple of names that keep coming up again and again in my interactions here in Yangon are Kurt Cobain and Samuel Beckett. Of course I am familiar with Kurt Cobain. A haircut I got in the 5th grade caused people to start calling me Kurt. He committed suicide short thereafter. And ever since 1994, I turn on Nirvana and jam out from time to time.
Samuel Beckett I have less experience with, only hearing of Waiting for Godot at some point, not to mention frequenting a café in Beijing named after the writer’s most famous work. I want to investigate more and see where the affection and affinity lie for these 2 rogue lyricists of language.
Kurt Cobain was a sickly kid from Seattle, Washington with music in his genes. Samuel Beckett was a playwright/novelist/poet from Ireland, but spent most of his life in Paris. He even wrote in French, despite English being his native tongue. Why? Because he felt it allowed him to write “without style” (should I ever attempt the same with Burmese, I will surely give fair warning and a few more years.)
In 1989, the year Beckett died, Cobain recorded his first album with Nirvana. Over the next 5 years, Cobain would be hated by the conservative media for being openly against racism, sexism and homophobia but loved by young Generation X – a group of young people disenchanted by Vietnam, Reagan, AIDS, the War on Drugs and Roe Vs. Wade. Here’s a line from one of Nirvana’s album covers:
“If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
In the year Cobain was born (1967), Beckett was already in his late, minimalist period of writing, one with simple characters and complex meanings. His tendency toward cynical, black (we call it Irish) humor gives the impression that he also wants to comment on the human condition, without being unnecessarily positive or fictional. Here’s a classic:
“You are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it’s over you are there no more alive no more than again you are there again alive again it wasn’t over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark.”
Why are these two imposing, often overlooked, figures so admired amongst friends, artists and people I meet in Myanmar? The answer lies in their work of course, but also their influences. They both talk about dealing with despair. Even the name “Nirvana” implies a desire for that which is not of this earth. Beckett seeks the negative space and the lack thereof – what do we feel when we feel nothing at all?
I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little tribe has always been
And always will until the end
-Smells Like Teen Spirit
Will you die or survive? In spite of everything – the disenchantment, the utter sadness and the prejudice – do you speak out? Or do you say nothing, do nothing, and die? Need I explain the references to Buddhist thought, political protest, despotic tendencies and ethnic unrest? I shouldn’t think so.
The heroes, in any context, are those who speak out. Cobain seems to be idolized the way Htoo Eain Thin – a brilliant Myanmar rock star who died tragically at a young age – is admired. They had weaknesses, suffered from depression, and wrote of the times and trials around them, affecting an entire generation of young people.
Beckett suffered in a different way and used language to relay his message. The world misunderstands and one is misunderstood, therefore one must survive. From The Unnamable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Poets, writers and artists here in Myanmar all appreciate the simplicity in message in Beckett’s voice. Theatre of the Disturbed – Nyan Lin Thet’s brainchild – is an ode to Beckett in more ways than one. Cobain’s message is further reaching. It’s about acceptance of all and saying the wrong thing – those words which people don’t want to hear or read or know about themselves – to make the world right.
As much as I would like to go further, I realize that I do not need to provide a mapping from one artist to another, or one self-respecting mind to the mind of a well-known writer or musician. It is all about who can identify with our suffering. Reenacting Waiting for Godot in Yangon (as NLT did a few years ago) or being out with friends while someone at the next table starts singing “Rape Me” over a few beers – these are not isolated events, nor are they coincidental. We reward meaning with meaning. Whether Samuel Beckett or Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, the creativity, reference and word remain to interpret and empathize.