Simic’s 1994 focused on the main themes that she discussed in her talk; memory, the personal as political and, indirectly (and I suppose directly), motherhood.
First of all, a keen ear, and an education in Nirvana, would have picked up on the music being played in the bar before the start of the performance. It contained songs by other grunge/punk/alternative bands, mostly Nirvanas peers and contemporaries, as well as songs by the band themselves. I remember hearing ‘Polly’, a song from the perspective of a man who kidnaps a woman (Polly), rapes and tortures her, only for her to escape. ‘Lithium’ was also played, a song written in the typical Pixies/Nirvana dynamic of quiet, loud, quiet, loud, quiet, loud. The chords throughout the song, however, never really change and, when they do, they switch to a very simple 2 chord loop.
I seem to remember speculation that ‘Lithium’ is about bi-polar disorder, a condition Kurt was rumoured to suffer from, lithium being a ingredient in some anti-depressants. The slower, more complex guitar, brooding parts of the song represent the depressive side of the condition and the louder parts, consisting of ‘yeahs’ and simple chords represent the mania side of the condition that used to be known as manic depression.
However, it is very hard to distinguish elements of Cobain’s life as he actively gave false and conflicting stories to the media due to his distrust and distaste for ‘the industry’. He was also probably aware of the irony and the contradictions inherent in his behaviour.
It is unlikely that these songs were randomly chosen, Simic probably handpicked them to complement her performance. In this way the performance started before she even set foot on the stage. Nirvana, now hers to command, opened for her as her support act.
As we entered the space, Simic was stood to the side, working through the substantial crowd (I have a feeling that we were not the only ****** she plugged her show to). Simic smiled at people she knew. The projector, used throughout the performance, showed the stages layout, from a planning perspective, with labelled props, entrances and exits. On the stage floor was a white outline of a body, a constant reminder of death (of suspicious circumstances), be it Kurt’s, the victims of the Balkans war or Simic’s ‘dead’ youth.
The performance began, after some trouble with the venue, with Simic giving a sombre monologue which was overcome by a British expeditionary force recording and a recording of some people looking for Kurt. During this, Simic slowly fell to her knees, her unborn child making it less than easy, and began to crawl on the floor. The recordings stopped and the she stood, the lights brightening, and said
“well, that’s the introduction done.”
This release of tension, an almost epic theatre juxtaposition, elicited a laugh from the audience. This dynamic continued throughout the piece with brutal tales of war, lost loves, changed futures and death being placed opposite stories of drugs, sex, travelling and kissing boys. Simic, here, may have been mimicking, paying homage to, or just ‘using’ Nirvana song structure (quiet, loud, quiet, loud, sad, happy, sad, happy). Lithium was also mentioned, being excited like lithium, as well as the controversial song ‘Rape Me’. This song, which she, apparently, was going to play was used as a reference for her adolescent lust for a man, who was gorgeous, but was shy and seemingly lacking in sexual desire.
Simic’s unborn child, unavoidably, coloured the piece. Simic even joked about the crawl, a reference to ‘last days’, a documentary on Cobain’s suicide, is as physical as she is going to get.
It struck me how I was effectively watching two performances, one of which was forced to perform from behind it’s mothers skin. This was especially prevalent when Simic donned some Cobain-like clothing (the clothes of her youth no longer fit). It seemed like the unborn child youth was ‘wearing’ the body of lost youth which was wearing the clothes of lost life.
“I used to fit into these”
Drawing attention to the unborn child and, by default, Simic’s lost youth and status as a mother.
Perhaps the child serves as a glimmer of hope. Though Cobain is dead, though Simic’s friend died in the war, though Simic hand an abortion, there is still new life. Though youth is lost, and life is lost, there is new youth and new life.
The morals of forcing a baby to perform raises questions of agency and whether any of us truly have it, or are we all slaves to our mothers and circumstances?
“Did I request thee maker, maker, from my clay
to mould me man, did I solicit thee
from darkness to promote me?”
John Milton, ‘Paradise Lost’
Did the baby-to-be give permission to be cast in this performance? Somehow I doubt it.
Simic’s work on memory throughout the piece also recalls Cobain’s manipulation of the media. We were left unsure of what bits of her narrative were true and which were false. She even admitted at the start that we shouldn’t believe all she says.
Simic reads from her journals as we as examples from Kurt’s journals, punctuated with recordings. Some of these were digressions, where Simic stood in a part of the stage and waited, recounting events that happened in 1994. This included meeting lovers who had turned out badly. (digression)
Each reading was accompanied by a date on the projector, drawing parallels between Simic’s life and Cobain’s, using Kurt as a point of reference.
Simic sometimes spoke with a microphone as if being interviewed, allowing her to speak quieter, creating a sense of intimacy. Like her Recreations some ‘acted’ memories were re-done and, eventually, we lost track of what she was reading from as her and Kurt bleed into one.
She mention, again, how Kurt, because he is dead, is hers. He is everyone’s.
“who will remember Kurt Cobain?”
who will remember the ‘real’ Kurt when he left no consistent narrative behind. He is truly no ones and relatively everyone’s.
Simic’s personal is political, perhaps more than most, if that’s possible. As before, she often distances, or alienates, herself from her past, true or not, by placing her narratives in third person She may as well have been talking about Kurt’s life.
“Her country was in ruins”
She was born in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. It is almost as if she is escaping via Cobain, using him as a vehicle to confront her recollected past. Her evacuee status, her friend dying in a shop, all become framed (for protection?) by Cobain and the boys become known by their numbers on her kiss list, as if soldiers. The boys are numbers to her, as they were to the war. Maybe this is what the promotion for the piece meant as ‘the problems of living retrospectively’. A single mind cannot imagine a world of other minds, of other lives, so they become numbers, items of clothing, objects, imitations. I imagine Simic wants nothing of the kind to happen to her unborn child.
At the end of Kurt’s suicide note was
“it is better to burn out than fade away”
He clearly valued youth. A youth Simic feels she has lost
“no more kissing boys”
perhaps she is scared of fading away.
The baby, of course, is just about to catch fire.