KURT COBAIN: Brahmin monk in disguise

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Kurt Cobain

by Colin Keane

Kurt Donald Cobain, one of the greatest rock stars America has ever produced, ended up tragically committing suicide while on top of his talent.  Cobain was born in 1967 in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington.  In 1987, he formed the grunge rock band Nirvana with Krist Novoselic and within a few years took it to the top.  Nirvana released its debut album, Bleach, in 1989 to underground acclaim.  The band’s second album, Nevermind, attracted mainstream radio, which—along with the influence of MTV—made Nirvana popular worldwide.

Nirvana’s music has remained influential to music lovers from all walks of life.  Like a Picasso or Kahlo, Cobain is  an artist whose work is timeless, and whose persona thus attracts curiosity from a modern audience.  Since Cobain’s death, there have been an overwhelming amount of cultural portrayals of him; it’s difficult to peer through the mythology to understand the artist.  The Sankofa Review asked Colin Keane to present Cobain as he is: painter, writer, musician, and Brahmin monk.

“He who in his vision is free from doubts and, having all, longs for nothing, for he has reached the immortal nirvana—him I call a Brahmin.” –The Dhammapada*

Nirvana co-founder Krist Novoselic says Kurt Cobain “would’ve been a great monk.With pop cultural lore depicting Cobain as something else entirely—a poster boy for rock ‘n roll vice and excess—Sankofa decided to investigate Novoselic’s claim:

Could Kurt Cobain have been a monk?

A reading of The Dhammapada—the “how-to” for aspiring Brahmin monks—reveals that several of the virtues required for monkhood, Cobain himself possessed.  Coincidentally, we find these same virtues contributing to Cobain’s brilliance as an artist.  Here are a few:

1. Strength of mind over body

“Considering that this body is frail like a jar, make your mind strong like a fortress…” (Mascaró 41)

It’s easy to imagine Cobain renouncing the body completely and championing the mind, in the manner of a Brahmin monk.  Cobain suffered from intense stomach pain throughout life and often expressed disdain for his thin frame.  It was strength of mind that allowed Cobain to conquer his physical pain.  Despite his stomach condition, Cobain created timeless music and traveled the world.  Cobain even transformed his bodily pain into a vehicle for his art.  In Kurt’s burning stomach we discover the source of his voice.

2. Determination to swim upstream

“And the man whose mind, filled with determination… ‘he who goes upstream’… he is bound for the joy of the Infinite.” (67)

The cultural myth of Cobain portrays a lazy truant, but in fact Kurt was quite determined and active, at least in the name of his art.  Beneath the disguise of a “slacker” we find a musician rehearsing incessantly and touring the world.  Nirvana’s music and artistic vision drove fiercely against the mainstream, and at its origin was a writer, Cobain, who launched this vision from a logging city, of all places (Aberdeen, Washington).

Cobain’s ability to manifest his artistic dream in the face of familial and social alienation is proof of the artist’s determination.  Just as the Brahmin forges ahead in the face of peers tempting him from his path, Cobain chased a vision that few others believed in or supported where he grew up.  To pursue music, Cobain had to emerge from an environment stacked against him.

3. Ever striving

“Those who have high thoughts are ever striving: they are not happy to remain in the same place.” (48)

Cobain was very ambitious, and for this reason found difficulty enjoying his success.  Just as a Brahmin ever strives to attain enlightenment, Cobain lived a restless life, often chasing an ideal or some higher sense of personal freedom.  Punk rock was the ideal Cobain sought to embody as a young man, but at some point in his maturity Kurt became disenchanted with this ideal.

The artist is just like the Brahmin with his instinct to evolve, to avoid stagnation.  Having achieved global success in the music industry, Cobain may have abandoned music completely and pursued his talents in visual art or writing had he lived.

4. Perspective on wealth

“…one is the path of earthly wealth, and another is the path of nirvana.  Let the follower of Buddha think of this and… let him ever strive after freedom.” (45)

Listening to Cobain’s candid thoughts on wealth, it’s clear that money did not bring Cobain fulfillment or inspiration.

Kurt Cobain copy

Cobain photographed by Jesse Frohman in New York City, 1993

There is also proof of this in his work.  Consider In Utero, Nirvana’s follow-up to the commercially explosive Nevermind.  Had Cobain been influenced by the attainment of wealth, he would have crafted In Utero essentially as a Nevermind: Part II.

Yet the album is a radical departure, and far less commercial than its predecessor.  With tracks like “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Scentless Apprentice”, Cobain is blatantly eschewing commerciality for artistry.  Novoselic has said of the album, “In Utero is a testament to the artistic vision of Kurt Cobain.”

In the style of a true Brahmin, Cobain sought personal freedom over wealth; he merely strove for this freedom through his art, rather than through religious observance.  Cobain remains relevant because his music still entertains and inspires, but also because his persona is endlessly interpretable.  Why add to the heaps of regurgitated caricatures of Cobain the “doomed artist”?  Viewing Cobain as a Brahmin monk gives us a fresh perspective of his noble cause, and it consequently uncovers certain origins of his greatness.

*The Dhammapada is a collection of aphorisms that epitomize the Buddhist moral system.  The selections included in this article come from Juan Mascaró’s 1973 translation.

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Colin Keane’s thoughts on Reclining Nude (Thin Adeline)

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The Sankofa Review asked its newest editor, Colin Keane, to give his immediate thoughts on Reclining Nude (Thin Adeline), a 1906 work by English painter Walter Richard Sickert.

Pure nonchalance.  As an onlooker, I’m standing in a forbidden room, invisible.  Four color schemes converge from every corner of the painting; at its center, a woman is imbued with gravitational force.  If I could meet the artist, I would ask him, “Is she based on someone real or imaginary?”

There’s an antithesis to the gravity.  The white bedspread stands out in a room flooded with color and exposes the figure of the woman, giving her an ethereal quality—her energy is careless and light; she might be draped upon a cloud.

I would call this painting, “Busy Afternoon”.  As a writer, I look at this painting and immediately begin to imagine the woman’s story.  Narratives form.  Who is this woman?  What time of day is it?  I get lost in thinking about the world implied by the painting rather than the colors on the canvas.

A nude

A nude by Walter Sickert

For instance, what if the woman is in a locked room within a house bustling with activity, a party, or afternoon tea?  I’ve imagined that she is indeed, and that everyone in the house is wondering where she could possibly be!  The woman’s solitude is slightly nuanced: multitudes of people are nearby, making her nonchalance all the more dramatic.

For me, great art inspires and unleashes the imagination.  As I wonder what led to this woman’s afternoon, I admire her casual defiance, but also Sickert’s ability to capture it.  Ironically, the world beyond the woman’s room—and thus the woman’s world beyond Sickert’s frame—is what I’m imagining, and it’s also the last thing on the woman’s mind.

Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) lived and worked primarily in London, with recurring stints in France and Italy.  Born in Munich, Sickert moved with his family to England in 1868 and obtained British nationality.  After working briefly as an actor, he enrolled in London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 1881 but abandoned The Slade within a year to study under American artist James Abbot McNeill Whistler.  Whistler, along with Edgar Degas, became Sickert’s greatest influences.

Stay tuned for Colin Keane’s upcoming piece for TSR, “Brahmin Rock Star: Kurt Cobain, monk in disguise”


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Peter Tosh: A Musician or a Prophet?

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Peter Tosh1

My Dear Friends,
Let’s Introduce You to the Mystic Man

By Nicholas Ellis

In a modern world lacking a credible moral compass, I advise an education of reggae’s, Jamaica’s, mine and Rastafarian hero, Peter Tosh. Tosh walked a path only he could define;  paved through his beliefs, which were never compromised throughout his life.

”I know who I came to be,

I have to be me,

I don’t care what people want to say,

Because peoples will always say”

He was a revolutionary of Justice notably on the song, ‘equal rights’  featuring the words ‘Everyone is crying out for peace, yes, No one is crying out for justice’. Unfortunately this was  in a decade where peace preceded his vision. It is now that we see the visionary seeds he planted through his life and classic albums, such ‘No Nuclear War, ‘Legalize it’, and ‘Bush Doctor’. As discomforting as fate will have it, history teaches in retrospect.

Tosh was born into humble beginnings on the 19 October 1944 in a tin room shanty in the impoverished yet serine seaside town of Westmoreland, Jamaica the nation’s westernmost parish. His family made their living through the local farms and would fish in the nearby sea like most families in Westmoreland.

Peter was always unique, he displayed talent as a musical prodigy from a young age beginning with the guitar at five years old then evolving onto piano music at thirteen. He would proclaim, ‘I would play the songs of the angels.’

The locals of Westmoreland would pay Peter to play them songs having a great fondness and admiration for Peter’s unique voice. In the years that passed, his fan base would move onwards from Westmoreland to Kingston and around the globe.

From a young age Peter would visit the local Baptist church with family yet it was here that Peter began to have doubts upon not only religion beliefs, but society, history, and the bias politics Jamaica had all but seen since the colonial era within the world around him.

Upon arriving in Kingston, Jamaica after his father died, Peter lived in trench town. Trench town was a slum, known as the Calcutta of the western hemisphere where you lived in fear of attack, robbery and disease. Death seemed like the only possibility of escape. Many in trench town were black and witnessing such slums forced him to act and question how he could make a difference? ‘Cold ground was my bed at night and rock was my pillow too, ‘ it was not simply poetic license.

As fate would have it another Jamaican prodigy, Bob Marley resided in the infamous Trench town and alongside Tosh, and Bunny Wailer formed The Wailers. The name was birthed out of there being plenty of wailing to do in the circumstances surrounding Trench town.

Inspiration often hijacks us in the most unlikely locations and in Trench town I would argue both Bob and Peter found many aspects in their lives here to draw upon, which would become part of the DNA of the Wailers work. The acclaimed album, ‘Catch a Fire’ deals with social injustice towards black people, and ‘the current state of urban poverty’.

At 22, Peter after denouncing his families Christian beliefs, ‘If he was created in the image of God then why isn’t God Black?’ defied the establishment and became a Rastafarian which he felt empowered him.

Peter Identified with the teachings of the Rasta that God or Jah is black; Africans are the ‘true’ chosen people and that the Ethiopian Haille Selassie was the holy messiah prophesised by the Holy Bible in Issiah about a black king being crowned in Africa. ‘It is a fact and can be proven historically, biblically Haille Selassie is the returned messiah.’

Tosh’s epic first album was titled, ‘Legalize It’, with the lead single about legalizing Marijuanna, which he saw as a fundamental statement, in part by his own Rasta beliefs, ‘This was created by the creator, it is spiritual, Jah created it for the motivation of the mind of man.’

The striking cover art for Legalize it, featured Peter smoking his chalice pipe in a marijuana plantation in the Jamaican countryside. The song and cover seemingly representing Peter Tosh the artist and the man. The great Jamaican music producer Bunny Lee who knew Tosh well during his career states, ‘Young people should think of Peter Tosh as a great revolutionary in music- and as a person.


Bob Marley_Mick Jaggar and Peter Tosh

The talent displayed in the album, ‘Legalize It’ is astonishing with music encompassing a vast array of genres including, rock, soul, and reggae teamed with a distinct voice, combined with an ethos of political songs virtuous of Tosh yet there are exquisite outpourings within ballads of a philosophical nature. Such ballads are never simple, or filled with generic phrases, such as ‘I will love you, forever’ it is more an education of emotions.

Occasionally I fail to acknowledge Peter Tosh the human, as he seems so gigantic and mythical to a simple mortal as I. Yet on the track ‘Why must I cry’ his ever endearing honesty sums up the harsh realization of love at times,

‘I will never fall in love again,

Cause only my heart feels the pain, Feels the pain’

You can hear almost imagine with suprise how lonely Peter must have been whilst you sing along to the repeated phrase, ‘Why must I trod this lonely, lonely, road, Why must I carry this heavy, heavy, load?’

Equal Rights brought together Peter Tosh s dedications to the revolutionary movements growing in Africa, and the mysticism and wonders of his personal growth as a prophet, poet, preacher and world-class musical trailblazer. The album included a number of songs that became human rights anthems over the next two decades: Get Up, Stand Up, Downpressor Man, African, Apartheid, and the title tune. There were also intensely personal songs of his revelations as a Rasta: I Am That I Am and Jah Guide ; and the ultimate rude boy, proto-punk declaration of Stepping Razor

Peter Tosh (maxresdefault)Tosh’s enigmatic Talent attracted The Rolling Stones . The band made him the only signing to their record label and hoped to gain credibility from association with an uncompromising iconoclast. They released the album Wanted Dread & Alive. They took him on their stadium tour, introducing him to new audiences. Mick Jagger sung with him on a duet and gave him a hit (“Don’t Look Back. This wasn’t enough for Tosh. He accuses them of not promoting him properly.

He was so principled and their hedonistic rock’n’roll lifestyle didn’t interest him – he was genuinely revolutionary in his thoughts and ambitions for his music and he really did want to change the world with his songs even if it alienated him. As Tosh sang: “I’m like a steppin’ razor, don’t you watch my size, I’m dangerous!

Tosh’s third album, ‘Bush Doctor’ was a leap forward, in both production terms and showmanship as Tosh attempts to break through into the international market upon release on Rolling Stones record. Stand out tracks include, ‘Pick myself up’, ‘Soon come’ and ‘Stand firm’, as well as the mighty title track. It also featured Tosh’s duet with Mick Jagger, ‘Don’t look back’ and the biblical epic, ‘Creation’. Never on ‘Bush Doctor’ do you feel you are being ‘ranted at’ or emotions of complaint, such was the man’s talent but Tosh pulls no punches either

In 1987, months before his murder, Tosh created the album, ‘No Nuclear War. Posthumously, it won him a Grammy. The sounds were fresh and the lyrics as potent and poetic, as ever even after months in seclusion living the quiet life in rural Jamaica. ‘No Nuclear War is perhaps my favourite album from Tosh, as with retrospect, represents poetic irony in the never say die attitude, I am what I am attitude of the songs, and after all these years Peter continues combining his principles within his art.

The one love, One peace concert went down in history because Bob Marley called Manley and Seaga on stage and made them shake hands, in front of the television cameras. Tosh’s earlier, braver action was not televised because he ordered the ‘lickle pirates from America… wid dem camera and dem TV business’ to stop filming.

Today, Tosh’s legacy is gaining justice and its own equal rights around the world, amongst rock and rolls hall of fame and that of his former band mate, Bob Marley. Notably, Jamaica after long time distancing itself from Tosh seems cosy to the idea of laying claim to one of its most disobedient sons, as with a biography, a film, an annual symposium, and a birthday concert, the man born Winston, Hubert Mcintosh is finally receiving recognition. Last year, the governing People’s National Party, which Tosh supported awarded him Jamaica’s great honour, the Order of Merit, which was bestowed on Marley in the weeks before Bob’s death from cancer in 1981.

With the world still threatened by the outpourings of violent rhetoric, regarding Nuclear War and with equal rights being intensely questioned around the globe, most notably in Europe with the recent influx of immigrants from the middle east (amongst continents and countries), I feel that with what Peter Tosh championed through his Art and actions all them years ago we could create evermore harmony for everyone, standing by his pure and simple messages of justice, and equal rights.


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