Former Hole Guitarist, Eric Erlandson, On His New Book About Kurt Cobain, Tragedy Of Suicide And 90′s Legacy
[pullquote quote="Courtney turned me on to the Buddhism that I actually practice now." credit="Eric Erlandson "]“Like poetry shedding its prose, a carnation becoming a rose, this sequence of elegies now comes to a close. No more hole. I’m climbing out.” Former Hole guitarist and co-founder, Eric Erlandson, ends his new book, Letters to Kurt, with a blossoming, an evolution. Static prose turns into fluid poetry, a simple carnation turns into a velvet-petaled rose, and “holes” are excavated. Buried in the nourishing dirt of cathartic, meditative elegies.
Erlandson is no stranger to the art of extracting beauty from the mire. As a practitioner of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism for twenty years, or what he calls the Lotus Sutra, Erlandson has always been a “seeker” and has spent his days since Hole learning about his creative process, meditating morning and night, and “facing what needs to be faced.”
“I was always seeking,” the soft-spoken musician continued. “Courtney turned me on to the Buddhism that I actually practice now. You know, she was just like, ‘The lotus flower is beautiful and it was in the mud.’ The perfect metaphor for everything.”
Letters to Kurt, part memoir and part introspective illumination in a style similar to the Beats, is a series of fifty-two vignettes, or poetic glances, into the psyche of a man. A man who is always “seeking” an original message as well as to uncover the tragic loss of “suicide idols” like Kurt Cobain.
“I think that human life is too precious,” said Erlandson expressively. “We don’t realize how precious it is. And we have a choice always.”
[pullquote quote="I think that human life is too precious. We don't realize how precious it is. And we have a choice always. "]49-year-old Erlandson looks younger than his age and seems to be without the traces of dogma that plague people whom have “lived some crazy stuff.”
His voice is polite and unpretentious while he talks about some of his literary influences, his personal philosophies and internal reckonings, and the outdated “fashion of depression.”
Erlandson, who said that he’s spent the “last ten or twelve years reflecting a lot on finding your place and realizing what you’re adding,” has a theory that life is like a great book and “we’re a part of a book that’s being written.”
“With music, art, our writing, our thoughts, everything,” hypothesized Erlandson. “We’re adding to the big book that’s being created…That’s why it’s so important what you’re doing…what you’re contributing to, and where you’re coming from.”
“I’ve become more aware in the last twenty years,” said the guitarist. “I think I lived that way all through the Hole days…I was too busy just playing music and trying to stay afloat with all that chaos that was going on through all those twelve years or whatever it was.”
Prompted by an encouraging ex-girlfriend, Erlandson began the journey to discovering his literary side–a side that he said definitely took the oft-theorized 10-thousand-hours of practice to get to a level of comfortability.
He took creative writing workshops. He was attacked for trying to “cash in” on Cobain’s death. He got requests from big publishers to write a scandalous “tell-all,” but that didn’t happen because he struggled with the “standard memoir fashion” and wanted to do something more experiential.
[pullquote quote="It's just style for style's sake instead of style attached to substance and I think that's why everyone looks back to the '90s as like last great era of substance."]“I was really lucky to have that experience when I did and I was very fortunate to be able to have one foot in the door to that crazy world–drug abuse, destruction, incredible genius,” said Erlandson solemnly. “And then also have one foot anchoring me outside, which always goes back to Buddhism…I wanted people to be able to see what it was like because it’s not always pretty.”
One of the less-than-pretty aspects include the “high ’90s” tendency to fetishize suicide and depression.
“It gets glamorized in our city. Overly glamorized and worshiped to a disturbing degree. And fashionable to be checked out. And fashionable to be a tortured artist. And fashionable to be all those things that we associate with the high ’90s. Now, I find it confusing when I see people still try to live that when we’ve moved beyond that.”
“I have a friend who says ‘Style is substance.’ And I agree: style can be substance,” Erlandson continued. “But now I think we’ve gotten so fragmented that’s like the style is just completely empty.”
Erlandson continued on to say we live in a “culture of Youtube,” where “all the covers on Youtube are amazing” and the kids are playing “guitar parts” that he could “never learn,” but that “all the kids are just copying and Erlandson is “not really interested in copying.”
But the ideal of Kurt Cobain, the character of ’90s-angst that he’s come to represent, is still a legacy that has held true years later. Kids still quote Nirvana songs; the “glamor” of the grunge era still lives on in the guise of copy-cat indie rock and plaid-clad youngsters with dirty hair.
“I don’t want to analyze what he really was because it’s so big,” said Erlandson when I asked him to discuss the “caricature” the Cobain has become. “It’s beyond my comprehension of what that entity was in that world.”
[pullquote quote="He's almost like an archetype. The world has many disguises that we present ourselves under and I think that his was an important one that struck a nerve."]“But I think that anyone…that has something to say, that has emotion, that has great talent and genius; anyone who brings it all together and are able to reveal themselves in a fearless way–that’s going to touch a lot of people’s hearts,” speculated Erlandson. “And so whenever that happens there’s always copy-cats. Probably from the caveman days.”
“And that’s fine. Like you said, he [Cobain] was a caricature. He’s almost like an archetype,” said Erlandson quietly. “The world has many disguises that we present ourselves under and I think that his was an important one that struck a nerve. I’m really shocked, though, that more people don’t realize that it’s not about copying the cartoons that you see in front of you, but finding your own message, your own reality, your own reason for living and presenting that to the world.”
One of the ways that Erlandson has found his “own message,” his “own reality,” is through his writing. The writing has influenced his music experience and vice versa.
“I’d always been writing in my journal ever since high school or something. I started doing it more regularly after the band broke up,” Erlandson elucidated. “All the pieces in the book started in my journal.”
[pullquote quote="Even now with the writing, I trust myself a lot more which is a big part of playing music. Or writing. "]Comparing his writing process to writing a song, Erlandson said, “I was writing in the same way that you’re searching for a riff. You sit down and you start doing it and that’s what you do when pick up a guitar.”
“From that, all of a sudden, this new voice appeared in me,” continued the musician. “So when I would start writing, I was writing things that were so different than what I’d ever written before…It has a rhythm to it that’s musical and that’s jagged and it flows…It goes through different waves of emotions.”
“The writing now, it’s influenced me in the way I think about music and the way I play,” hinting a bit to the status of his musical journey. “I’m much more free in my playing…I trust myself a lot more which is a big part of playing music. Or writing. Is being able to trust yourself that you’ll go somewhere every time you sit down and do it.”
[pullquote quote="The message really is, 'What are we all doing?' What are we doing here? Why aren't we talking about death more? Why aren't we facing it? Why aren't we talking about people that are struggling with life and contemplating ending their lives?"]One area that Erlandson really had to trust himself with was the sensitive subject of suicide broached in Letters to Kurt. Erlandson did research on suicide while writing the book and realized that suicide is “a really common situation” that people need to become more aware of.
One way that Erlandson encouraged suicide education was adding condolences and suicide prevention and survivor resources in the back of the book.
“Obviously, that’s the underlying theme going on and it’s a heavy one,” continued Erlandson. “I want the message to be that the message is bigger than me.”
“The message is bigger than my relationship with people in my life,” concluded Erlandson philosophically. “The message really is, ‘What are we all doing?’ What are we doing here? Why aren’t we talking about death more? Why aren’t we facing it? Why aren’t we talking about people that are struggling with life and contemplating ending their lives? Which to me is the most tragic thing you can do. We have to find other solutions to help people.”