The 1960s have American Graffiti. The 1970s have Dazed and Confused. The 1990s, however, have never been given an honest treatment of what it was like to be a teenager. That’s what I set out to do when I wrote Crazy About Kurt, my first novel.
Crazy About Kurt is the story of four friends who over one night in the dirtbag suburbs of Long Island, struggle with sex, identity and the inevitability of adulthood, all against the backdrop of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. T.J., an angry young man walking the line between punk and Goth, who may have just met the volatile girl of his dreams. Jackie, a young woman trying to escape her high school reputation by racing into the arms of a “college man.” Matt, a film geek too neurotic to take part in the larger experiences life has to offer, be it school or sex. Jeff, a senior so determined to make a confession of love to his latest romantic obsession, he barely has time to absorb the death of his favorite musician.
Here are two excerpts from the book, a T.J. chapter and a Jackie chapter. The full novel is now available on Amazon, both in paperback and on Kindle.
All T.J. Weber cared about was if he had time for another cigarette. He didn’t even have his usual nicotine-obsessive urge for another one, but it would be something to do. Something better than walking up the hill, back towards the school to take yet another chemistry test he knew he’d fail. A month ago, when his guidance counselor informed him that he would be back next year for 13th grade, T.J. made the logical decision to totally check out. It seemed completely counterproductive for her to tell him this. What motivation did he have to even try anymore? Was his future written in stone? Was it all so hopeless?
And yet T.J. still thought he should go through the motions. He’d show up to receive his F. He flicked the butt into the street and headed back onto school property.
Smithtown High School used to have a smoking section called “The Pit,” where students during lunch hours or between classes could squeeze in a smoke. But along the way an administrator, or more likely a meddling parent, decided that having a smoking section encouraged addictive behavior. Now teenagers were forced to trek a quarter mile through the parking lot to stand just on the other side of school property. If you had even one foot on the property a security guard, who usually had a cigarette dangling from their lips as well, would force you to take a step back. What was the fucking point? The same students were still going off to smoke but now they were all just late for class. If anything, even more students were now smoking. The long walk was a great way to avoid responsibility. Sure, it sucked in the winter, trudging through snow and the cold air to get a few drags in, but it didn’t stop anyone. It was now April. There was still a chill, but on this early afternoon the sun was shining. It must have been the warmest day so far this year.
T.J. marched past the other so called “dirtbags.” He knew that’s what most of his classmates considered him as well. However, it was much more complicated than that. His persona contained unique traits from a variety of cliques. He had greasy long hair and liked to smoke weed but he wasn’t a “stoner kid.” He didn’t even own a skateboard, and every stoner kid owns a skateboard.
The stoners would be the first to agree that T.J. was too angry to be one of them. He had the anger of a “punk kid.” But his musical taste was not punk, as evidenced by the KMFDM Angst t-shirt he was wearing. After all, weren’t punk kids defined by their musical taste more than any other clique? Hell, their entire subculture was named after a style of music. Did his love of German industrial metal make him more Goth? But he wasn’t really Goth either, was he? Despite the black t-shirt, black jeans and black Doc Marten boots, he very rarely wore his spiked dog collar or lipstick. It was all very confusing and probably led to some sort of pathetic high school identity crisis. Being a teenager was hard.
Finally, T.J. reached the school’s front entrance. Even without having that second cigarette he was going to be late. What a fucking waste. If he was going to walk into a test late he should have at least rewarded himself with more smokes. Suddenly, a high-pitched shriek pierced the silence. Stopping dead in his tracks he turned towards the noise, just as the shriek became a full-on hysterical wail. It was coming from a girl in a nice, yellow spring dress. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, tears pouring down her cheeks, ruining her makeup. T.J. struggled to think of her name. Sandy? Betty? He knew it ended in a “y” and that she had been in a health class with him two years ago. She ran in different circles and until this embarrassing scene, he had never found her interesting enough to remember her name.
Betty/Sandy shook violently while being held by a girl wearing a flannel and jeans. This second girl looked like someone T.J. should know, but didn’t. She looked like a dirtbag. Shit, now he was the one boxing people into cliques unfairly. The girl in flannel tried to calm this hysterical student, but the tears kept coming, her face turning bright red. T.J. figured the right thing to do would be to make sure everyone was okay. Plus, at this point, he was just too curious not to know what happened.
“Is everything alright?”
“Kurt Cobain is dead,” the flannel-wearing girl blurted out, almost offended by the question.
“He killed himself.”
These words caused Betty/Sandy to scream in horror– her generation had just lost the closest thing they had to a voice.
T.J. took the news in. He knew what Kurt Cobain and Nirvana meant to everyone at the school. He knew the rest of the day, as this information spread, students would be in a state of depression worse than any song the pioneering grunge band could have ever produced. He knew no work would get done, that Betty/Sandy wasn’t the only one who would be overcome with emotion. He knew that the world would never be the same.
But most of all, he knew he had found a way out of his chemistry test!
This was the best excuse to get an early start on the weekend. Because T.J. couldn’t give two shits about Kurt Cobain. He found his music whiny. To him, bands like Nine Inch Nails made misanthropy angrier and sexier. Other than the time he masturbated to the anarchy cheerleaders from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video, Nirvana had offered him little release from his teenage angst. Until now.
“Fuck it,” T.J. declared.
He turned around and headed back towards the property line, popping a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it in front a security guard. Who was going to stop him? Kurt Cobain had just died.
Jackie’s little red Hyundai hatchback sped down Route 25A towards the Stony Brook campus. She wasn’t going to Sean’s dorm empty-handed. She came bearing a gift. All last night Jackie had been working on a mixtape. Sean was constantly sharing his favorite music with her and she hated all of it. It was repetitive, endless hippie nonsense. If Jackie had to listen to one more bootleg from a Phish show or some rare Grateful Dead recording, she’d kill herself. At first she gave these bands a fair chance, but no matter how stoned she got, the music only produced apathy. What Jackie hated the most was how Sean believed this music was made specifically for him. You can listen to every Grateful Dead song ever written and smoke all the pot in the world, but it won’t suddenly mean you’re from the 1970s. Sean acted like this music was from his era. As if he understood what it was like to be at Woodstock. He came of age in the ’80s. His favorite music should be The Smiths, The Cure, or Prince. It’s one thing to enjoy a song from, say, the 1950s, but it’s another thing to act like it’s your music. That you’re going out every night to drink milkshakes and attend a sock hop. You should lean into your generation. So Jackie had been up until 2AM making him a mixtape reflecting the music that inspired her. Music made for this generation by people who understood this generation. And in Jackie’s case that meant an all-female mix.
Tori Amos started it off. “Cornflake Girl.” Tori was Jackie’s newest inspiration, and her latest album Under the Pink played in her car constantly. Tori Amos had overcome personal tragedy through her art. Jackie believed she was a goddamn hero and aimed to be as strong as her. She followed that up with some Björk, The Cranberries and Ani DiFranco. Jackie briefly debated if she should include Mazzy Star. Would it slow down the mix too much? Fuck it, she had to. “Fade into You” always made her swoon. She hoped it would have at least a fraction of that effect on Sean. After that she ratcheted up the rock. L7, The Breeders and a Kim Deal-led track by The Pixies, “Gigantic,” a song about a black man with a big penis. Jackie wanted to include The Pixies because she’d heard Sean reference them but wasn’t convinced he actually knew who they were. Finally, in an attempt to hold on to nothing as fast as she could, Jackie ended the mix with more Tori, “A Pretty Good Year.”
But it was track three that for Jackie made the whole tape. Sean’s reaction to it would forever color her opinion of him. Jackie’s favorite song of all time. One that spoke to her in ways nothing else could. Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run.” The song is about a girl who wants a boyfriend but ends up in one-night stands with guys who are decidedly not interested in anything more than fucking and running. But the song is conflicted, and that’s what made it Jackie’s personal anthem. Does Liz really want a boyfriend? Or does she also enjoy the seeming immaturity of the fuck and run cycle? A big part of Jackie felt she deserved all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas. But a bigger part of her felt like a modern woman who does what she wants without caring about the old-fashioned crap society tells her she deserves. She’d felt this way forever, even when she was twelve, but it wasn’t until hearing Liz Phair put it into words that she understood. Jackie was allowed to be a hypocrite about love and sex. When she began dating she thought you needed to have a boyfriend who you can devote yourself to. And every relationship she began, no matter how small, started off with the hope they would be worthy of that devotion. Eventually the guy would either use her just for the sex or she’d spend too much time trying to make a round peg like Jeff stick in a square hole.
What Jackie liked about her relationship with Sean was that she knew where it stood. At most, this could never last beyond the summer. Rather than go into a relationship with hope for a future, Jackie went into this one assuming it would end with a fuck and run. If Jackie wanted to have adult relationships she’d have to learn to be a realist about these things. Sean was a training ground. A man outside her world whom she didn’t have to worry about hurting or being hurt by.
Then why was she making him a mixtape full of emotionally meaningful songs? Why was she so upset he didn’t want to meet her friends? Why was she bothered by the fact she was 99% sure he was cheating on her? He was probably escorting some slut out of his dorm room at this very moment. Jackie wanted to fuck. Jackie wanted to run. Jackie wanted to have a boyfriend. Jackie wanted to be won over because goddammit, she deserved it! And Jackie wanted to just be left alone. She felt this all simultaneously. It was beyond confusing, which is why she could never explain it to Jeff or any of her friends. The only person who understood was Liz Phair.
Will Link is a screenwriter, film critic, podcaster, essayist, host, raconteur, and Luddite forced to be online.