words /Leslie Ann & David Leigh Abts
editor / Ashley K. Goodwin
iIllustrations / Bob Howl
Whose journal humanizes the best minds of a generation
Interview with Montage of Heck contributor Eric Erlandson (Hole)
The Golden Generation made up of our grandparents and great-grandparents can recall exactly where they were when the media announced Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death from an apparent overdose back in 1962. Baby Boomers can reminiscence regarding who exactly it was who told them how Elvis Presley met his bowel-shaking demise at Graceland in 1977; a death unfit for the King. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Millennial Generation Y can recall Miley Cyrus bouncing her rear-end up against Robin Thicke at the VMAs in 2013; A different, but perhaps more emotionally unpleasant kind of recollection, depending on how you look at it.
Members of Generation X sullenly recall their whereabouts when they heard the news of Kurt Cobain’s death. For many of them who spent their formative years in the mid 90s, this was the first time they experienced the loss of someone they felt “close” to, someone who really understood them. I remember being one of those kids myself, and when he died, I was staggered. I found myself searching for the answers to the question everyone was asking- “Why?” Why did our “hero”- the “spokesman of our generation”- that inspired us to burn our Body Glove and Jimmy-Z neon outfits in exchange for some Paul Bunyan flannels that smelled like Babe blew her nose in it, why this anti-pop idol who made us want to microwave our Jesus Jones CDs just to see some lighting bolts; why did he chose to take his own life?
For Hole’s co-founder and guitarist Eric Erlandson, he lost more than a fellow musician; he lost a close friend and someone who was comparable to a brother. In 1989, Eric and then-girlfriend/band mate Courtney Love both met Cobain for the first time in an L.A. bar. It wasn’t long before Kurt and Courtney were playing footsies on tour together, and one can imagine how that might have been a little awkward for Erlandson. But don’t feel too bad for the odd man out. Shortly after he and Courtney split, he started a fiery relationship with Drew Barrymore.
Montage of Heck, a documentary directed by Brett Morgan and produced by none other than Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean, has recently been released and it is a treasure trove of first-hand sources that includes personal 16mm footage provided by Eric. Among his accomplishments since playing with Hole, Eric has also published a book, Letters to Kurt, as reaction to experiencing multiple suicides of those close to him, Cobain’s in particular. Not unlike Kris Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Michael Stipe, Eric Erlandson was one of the public’s few honest connections to Cobain’s small inner circle. In his book, Eric recalls his time with Kurt and their indelible and strong connection, but the collection of poetry and essays is less about the people and more about the problem.
When we spoke, Erlandson was packing for Japan, his travel destination of choice for the past 15 years. He opened up about his second home:
“A few years ago I had a musical breakthrough. I somehow came up with some lyrics in Japanese and I sent them to a Japanese band called Afrirampo. They were these two incredible young women from Osaka who had gone to Africa to record with pygmies. They had crazy, raw live shows,” he said.
“They made a song with my lyrics and played it in L.A. I went back to Japan and I sent them lyrics again, and they did it again. I was there in the audience. They told everyone I had written it and pointed me out and everyone looked at me because they were feminist lyrics; not like the usual Japanese pop lyrics.”
But Eric is clear that he goes to Japan mainly to study Buddhism, a theme that pops up in Letters to Kurt. The letters (which he alternately refers to as poems) are stream-of-consciousness musings. In the final pages, Eric calls himself a “lotus in the mud” that Cobain left behind.
Eric told us, “In the Buddhism I practice, we’re living in the mud of right now; the mud of daily existence here on Earth. As a lotus flower in the mud you contain your Buddhist nature or your highest true self. To get out of the mud, you just accept that it’s here and transform it into a beautiful place.”
As best as he could, Eric explained how he came to write the letters. “Writing is a daily ritual to process what’s going on in my life. I needed to figure out what my voice was; what I was doing with my life. The book just came out of the blue. It became a concept and I just went with it. That’s why I honored the process. I didn’t use an editor. I wrote all of the letters by hand in my journal. It seemed like different writing than I’d ever done and a different voice came through; things I wouldn’t normally say.” The editing, which he is the first to admit may be one of the weakest aspects of this book, at times can be distracting and you feel like you are just reading the ramblings of a talented but fumbling artist that comes up just short of crafting this work into a fluid piece. This something that adds a certain charm as you read it. As each chapter passes, one embraces the writing style and it grows on you.
I was concerned that this book would be superficial, played-out, attention-grabbing rubbish about a fellow musician that has since been long gone, born solely out of the author’s need for a paycheck to buy a new telescope to see Hailey’s Comet. In reality, I believe Letters to Kurt’s relevancy will outlast its current timeliness in contrast to other books of this nature. As you read it you discover that Erlandson had a lot to get off his chest as the years since Cobain’s passing went on. Letters is a testament to the gravity of any situation where a friend or loved one commits suicide. The reader can feel the effects the destructive act leaves on those who are left behind. The result is human psychology at its most raw, and lands somewhere between a writers’ workshop and Howl and proves that artists of every generation live on in each other’s art and memories.
At the time of our interview, Eric had not yet seen Montage of Heck, though he has since. Having also been a contributor to the film’s robust archival driven narrative, this was his impression before seeing it: “It’s sad when people create a martyr out of a normal human being, so I’m excited to see how that comes across. I understand people like to create stories, and this documentary is another version.”
Arguably, the personal footage Erlandson provided for Montage of Heck could be some of the strongest pieces in the film. It was packed away in a box until he came upon it last year. “It was unlabeled,” he said. “I sat and watched it and it’s footage that nobody else had, at a time period that it was pretty important that someone document what was going on.”
I have always had difficulties with the fact that Cobain very openly did not desire the fame and recognition that came along with the massive influence that Nirvana had. Normally no one practices, tours, networks, and gives interviews if he does not want to be in the spotlight in a big way. Once Kurt Cobain accomplished his goal of sharing his art and music to the ones who related to it most, it appears he could not handle what came along with the extraordinary amount of acceptance and love; ironically, both things that he desired most in his short life.
Letters to Kurt, more then Montage of Heck, helps explain the complex, loving and sometimes lost soul Kurt was. Essentially, Erlandson emphasizes that idolizing people for destroying themselves is not honorable and the self-sacrifice his close friend made was not heroic in his eyes. I have trouble recommending this book to a person that is not a fan of Nirvana or Hole. However, if you have a love for friendship and a willingness to go into the dark place that Erik Erlandson has created for the reader, I believe there is real potential to sincerely understand the pain one experiences in response to suicide, and the joy that comes from catharsis and deep spirituality. Eric’s passion for humanity, art, and culture was a pleasure to grasp.
Image captions: “Kurt and Eric © Bob Howl. Embedded quotes from Letters to Kurt by Eric Erlandson.”
To Purchase: “Letters to Kurt”
Story © M.D.O. Productions, www.mothersdaystories.com.