Kurt Cobain’s Lighter: An interview with Scott King by Professor Matthew Worley.
This is a remarkable find … how did you come across the lighter?
It wasn’t a ‘find’ so much as ‘fate’. My girlfriend (at the time) started at the University of Birmingham in late 1989. I got the train down there to see her – and we went into a pub near New Street Station; just any old pub to us, we didn’t realise that it was also a rock venue – it was just a tiny stinking kind of place. While we were in there we got talking to a group of students who described themselves as ‘grungers’ – and they invited us to stay with them to see a few bands. Being the ‘townie’ types that we were, we’d never heard of any of the bands that were playing – but that night – completely by chance, we ended up seeing Filler, Tad and Nirvana. Anyway – halfway through one song – Kurt Cobain’s guitar amp blew up – it just went dead. While he waited for a roadie to fix his amp, he lit a cigarette – then he threw his lighter high out in to the audience. It was almost as if in slow motion – the plastic lighter tumbling through the air – and because of the stage lighting shining through it – it looked like a little rainbow coloured meteor – arcing high above everyone’s heads and straight towards me – I just put my hand up, I didn’t move my body at all – I just stuck my left arm up above my head and the lighter landed straight into my open palm. It was a strange moment – truly magical.
The ephemera of rock seems to lend a tangible authenticity to the characters that inform the wider (pop) culture. Have you collected other objects; do you collect things belonging to other rock musicians?
Unlike many male fans of rock and pop – I am not a hoarder. I don’t have that librarian instinct at all. But because word spread amongst my friends (and further) that I owned Kurt Cobain’s lighter, people started to presume that I collected rare rock memorabilia. People started offering to sell or give me things. So, by accident rather than design, I am now the owner of all sorts of interesting rock artefacts. I won’t list them all – but my second most treasured possession – after Kurt’s lighter – is a US to UK plug adaptor that once belonged to Marty Rev from Suicide.
Kurt Cobain’s place in late 20th century history has always reminded me of Kurt Weill place in the earlier period. The fact they have the same forename I think both amazing and significant. Did you get a sense of this connection when using the lighter?
There are clear parallels between Cobain and Weill, yes. Their forenames obviously; but also their very Germanic sounding surnames. On top of this there are the less obvious things: they were both composers – amongst the finest of their respective generations – and of course they both died cruelly young; Cobain aged only 27, Weill aged only 50. I never smoked when I was very young – I only started when I was 23 – and the first cigarette I ever smoked, I lit with the Cobain lighter. This may sound idiotic, but something changed for me then – up until then I’d been rather mild-mannered and humble. But once I started smoking, and using the Cobain lighter, I became something of a rebel. I became very angry – I’m not sure that the two are connected – but for the last 6 months I have been trying to give up smoking – so it will be interesting to see if I revert back to my old self when I finally manage to kick the habit.
Although the Nazi’s wanted to purge society of decadence and Bill Clinton seemed to demonstrate that decadence had reached the highest levels of US society, do you think we can compare Weill’s fleeing of Nazi Germany in 1933 with Cobain’s fleeing both Clinton’s America AND life in general in 1994?
Again – another obvious parallel between the two Kurt’s – I think that they were both effectively fleeing from the same thing: what the hippie generation called ‘The Man’. Weill was forced to leave Germany for America because the Nazis denounced him; they disrupted his performances and generally made his life hell. But Weill was lucky, had he not left Germany when he did – the chances are he would have been interned and perhaps even murdered. With Cobain it was more subtle – but no less effective. Bill Clinton did not openly condemn Cobain – but Clinton’s hypocritical stance on drug use clearly threw Cobain’s life into turmoil. I think that the fact Clinton admitted to smoking marijuana (but not to inhaling it) had a profound effect on Kurt Cobain – it messed up his self image as an ‘outsider’. How could he continue to define himself as a ‘slacker’ and ‘doper’ if the President of the USA also admitted to having a similar (if less committed) attitude toward soft drug use? One could argue that Clinton’s 1992 marijuana admission directly influenced Cobain’s decision to move into hard drugs in order to confirm, if only to himself, his own outsider status.
I guess a used syringe would have been a more ‘rock’ artefact to have represented Cobain – but does the ban on smoking in public places mean that the lighter takes on a more potent symbolism in our current age? And I mean that both for Kurt and rock ‘n’ roll in general.
Absolutely – heroin addiction has become kind of passé hasn’t it? You see junkies on every high street now, and everyone just ignores them. But you try lighting up a cigarette in a restaurant, or on public transport, or in a hospital – and before know it you’ll be under arrest.
I’m drawn to the fact that lighters and rock are now synonymous with stadium gigs and ballads; does your displaying the lighter feed a tension between Cobain’s desire to remain ‘authentic’ and the pomp-rock aristocracy into which his band were ascending?
That’s a very good question. I haven’t been to a stadium gig for some time, so I’m not sure if the waving of lighters is still allowed. But – I must remind you that this particular lighter is from (at least) 1989 and it was gifted to me in a tiny, beer soaked, rock venue – as far away from a stadium gig as you can imagine. So, I think, if forced to argue that there are mega-selling bands that still retain their ‘authenticity’ – it is probably the same for cigarette lighters – some are ‘authentic’ and some aren’t. I think it is all a matter of context. If – for example – a disposable lighter had been tossed to me at Wembley Stadium by Chris Martin, Bono or Enya – even if it looked exactly the same as this one – it would in fact be very different, because of its history – this one is important because it belonged to Kurt Cobain – not the banjo player from Mumford & Sons.
Can pop music still exist inside a museum/gallery?
Definitely – only recently Kraftwerk played a series of sell-out shows at Tate Modern in London. By all accounts they were fantastic. I mean – most stuff you see in art galleries is really very boring isn’t it? I have a complex relationship with what I think should and should not be seen in art galleries. For example, films definitely should not be allowed in art galleries – there is nothing more boring than watching a film or a video in a gallery is there? Films should be seen in cinemas or on television. Similarly, sculpture should only ever be seen in a gallery – because there is nothing worse than been forced to visit a ‘sculpture park’. However, live pop music in an art gallery is almost always great. What would you rather see at Tate Modern: Kraftwerk or a 3 hour documentary by some artist?
Will the lighter tour?
We sincerely hope so. We’ve put an awful lot of work into getting the lighter shown here in Paris. There were problems with customs, insurance and loan forms – but we’ve learnt a lot – and I hope that these lessons will stand us in good stead for the lighter to make a full European tour. My dream is that the lighter will – one day – follow the final leg of Nirvana’s last ever European tour and be shown at the Palau dels Sports in Barcelona, the Palagacchio di Marino in Rome and – finally – Terminal Einz in Munich.
‘Kurt Cobain’s Lighter’ was presented by Ligia Dias at Hotel Salomon de Rothschild, Paris, March 2013.