Listen to this track by Atlanta-born singer-songwriter Chan Marshall going under the name for which she is better known, Cat Power. It’s “I Don’t Blame You”, a single as taken from her 2003 album You Are Free. That record was a return to the stage after a three-year hiatus, resulting in her first record of original material since 1998, and her first charting album on the Billboard 100.
This song was the opening song on the album. But, it was the last one recorded on the sessions and was laid down almost as an afterthought. It remains to be Marshall’s personal favourite from the record; a spare and contemplative tale of fame, alienation, and ultimate loneliness. For many years, she was evasive about the central figure in the song, possibly because sometimes it’s often better for an artist not to spell things out for an audience. After all, explanations can change the perception of the work, which can risk undermining its power. In interviews, she said that the song could be about anyone. And really, she’s right. The story to be found here is a common one among those who take the elevator of fame upwards into the stratosphere, only to find that the air up there is often too thin to sustain them.
Eventually, though, the hero of the story was revealed to be he whom many had suspected all along; Kurt Cobain.
For members of Generation X, Cobain’s death was both shocking and not shocking. It was the former because with his death, so much was lost as far as artistic output. The zeitgeist of the time which in many ways he embodied also took a hit, forcing things to change again. But, it was the latter because we as an audience had somehow always known that his flame was too bright to burn for very long. In “I Don’t Blame You”, the central figure is characterized not by the power he wields but rather the opposite. Despite the hold he has over an audience through what he represents to them, he is trapped in a prison that he himself has devised in collusion with his fans. Because, like his audience, he has those same expectations of himself to which he cannot measure up.
Just because they knew your name
Doesn’t mean they know from where you came
What a sad trick you thought that you had to play
But I don’t blame you
Marshall uses a curious word in this song; blame. This probably refers to how Cobain died and the reasons for which he took that road to his own destruction. I think that this has other implications, too. As an audience, our generation had placed expectations on him to be more than he was. That’s the part that we often play in the lives of artists we admire, of course, often with tragic consequences on both sides of the fame equation. His death was not simply another inevitable 27 Club tale of excess and tragedy. We had to deal with his death, as an audience. Cobain and his work had meant something beyond songs on the radio, or albums in the charts to us. He had been an important voice, and his work marked the times out of which they had come. Ironically, this was the very thing that Cobain himself had struggled with; his own expectations on himself to tread that very narrow path, all the while being a sensitive man in a world that demanded he be indomitable, to be more than human. Perhaps in this song, if there is to be any blame placed for what happened, it should be placed on those unrealistic expectations held by us as an audience, and mirrored by the man himself.
For many years after it was recorded and performed, Marshall continued to think of “I Don’t Blame You” as a favourite song to sing in front of people. Perhaps as another sensitive person who happens to be in the spotlight herself, this tune represents a reminder to her audience and to herself that adulation and fame can allow for a greater sense of danger as well as for important communication between artist and audience. That very thing that can bring you the freedom to bring your art to the world can be the very thing that can undo you, too. Fame is revealed to be a delicate and volatile balance, sometimes with the cost of a human life to be paid out at the end.
Chan Marshall is still an active musician today, putting out records under the Cat Power moniker. You can keep up with recent news about tours and releases at catpowermusic.com.
And to continue the discussion on Kurt Cobain and his relationship with fame, here’s an article from Rolling Stone which lends perspective from the point of view of his daughter, now 22-year old visual artist Frances Bean Cobain who also served as Executive Producer on the recent HBO documentary Cobain: Montage Of Heck.
As it’s revealed, he really didn’t want to wear the mantle of a voice of his generation. He just wanted to be a musician.