This year, Converse will mark its 100th anniversary by producing several series of limited-edition athletic shoes, including one series -- sneaker freaks giddily reported earlier this week -- inspired by Kurt Cobain. Most of the models, which will be available in May and priced at $50 - $65, will feature the Nirvana frontman's signature on the heel; a pair of white Chuck Taylor hightops, however, will be covered with scribblings and song lyrics copied (with the permission of Courtney Love, Cobain's widow) from his journals.
I don't approve of this ghoulish marketing tribute. But Cobain certainly did plenty to popularize Chucks in the 1990s: He sported his when Nirvana appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, and on "Saturday Night Live." Besides, this apotheosis of Cobain's footwear gives me the opportunity to clear up a 17-year-old literary mystery. Namely, the secret meaning of a particular verse from "Come As You Are," the second-most popular song (after "Smells Like Teen Spirit") from Nirvana's 1991 album, "Nevermind."
"Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach/As I want you to be/As a trend, as a friend, as an old memoria" -- that's the verse that no one can explain. One biographer* writes of "Come As You Are" that the song "exemplified Cobain's skill at instilling meaning into dense, noisy rock," yet he neglects to explicate that meaning for us. Another biographer** notes that, as a singer and songwriter, Cobain excelled at "defying explanation though communicating in an emotional tone." This admixture of meaningfulness and ambiguity has spurred Nirvana fans and rock critics to theorize that "Come As You Are" is about this, that, and the other thing.*** For his part, Cobain, who wrote the song's lyrics in a hurry while tripping on Quaaludes and cough syrup, claimed in a 1992 interview that "I really don't know what the song is about. I guess it's about expectations of people."
* Christopher Sandford
** Charles Cross
*** In "Nevermind: Nirvana," Cross and Jim Berkenstadt claim, of "Come As You Are," that "Cobain seemed to imply that he was no longer going to be judgmental." They suggest that the song's narrator is "resigned to accepting people as they are -- whether or not they meet his expectations." Meanwhile, Chuck Crisafulli, author of "Nirvana: The Story Behind Every Song," reads "Come As You Are" as an Argonaut Folly (my term) -- that is to say, as an open invitation to misfits everywhere to form an intentional community. Michael Azerrad seems particularly enamored of the theory that Cobain was inviting his fellow high-school freaks and geeks to take a stand against the jocks; Azerrad went so far as to title his 1993 Nirvana bio "Come As You Are."
True, most of the song does seem to be about people -- all of whom, friends and enemies alike, the misanthropic and shy Cobain had a tough time dealing with. But the verse in question can't be about people... because people can't be doused in mud, soaked in bleach, or "a trend."
Sneakers, though -- particularly Chuck Taylors, whose durable canvas-and-rubber construction is what makes them so cool -- can be all three.
PS: If you're going to buy a pair, make sure you buy the Chucks, not the One Stars. Because Cobain was wearing One Stars when he shot himself, that's why!
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