Whether it’s H&M encouraging tearaway fans of Disney’s Frozen to flick the V at their parents, Sports Direct selling T-shirts fronted by a Black Metal Murderer, or the entire back-catalogue of The Misfits merchandise—which ranges from incense to baby-grows—music-branded fashion items can often find themselves under fire.
Last week I noticed a new online shop called Pleasures which had released a bunch of clothing: one featured Kurt Cobain’s suicide note printed on a T-shirt. The other was a printed hat which read “RIP Morrissey.” The photoshoot for the collection took place in a graveyard. So that’s the printed words of a dead man’s suicide note on a cheap T-shirt, and a cap that suggests Morrissey—who revealed the numerous hospital treatments he’s had for cancer in an interview last October—was nearing his death bed and would die this year.
Merch like this is nothing new. Earlier this year eBay banned the sale of tank tops featuring the note because their service prohibits “items that promote or glorify human tragedy, hatred, violence, racial, sexual, or religious intolerance.” Time and time again we see this tasteless shit, and time and time again we write stories of disgust. But are we missing something? Is it art? Is it shock factor? Do the creators actually have some deep and complex meaning at play that we are just missing every single time? Or are they just wastrel shitbags trying to make a quick buck from online attention?
I decided to get in touch with the creator of these latest Kurt Cobain suicide note T-shirts to give him a chance to justify his latest collection, and I was pretty damn excited to hear exactly what he had to say about it all.
Noisey: Hey Alex. There’s a nice mix of clothing here. What inspired you to create the collection?
Alex: I grew up with older friends and older brothers who were into amazing music. It started with The Cure and Morrissey. At a very young age I was listening to all this amazing stuff and it moulded me into what I’m into today. Along with them, obviously Joy Division. There were all these iconic figures who I thought were cool, and I had all these ideas of doing something with it. I had an opportunity to do a pop-up shop in Los Angeles and it pushed me to put these ideas into a project.
So—whether it’s Morrissey, Ian Curtis, or whatever—you’re into the artists on the T-shirts?
Yeah. I gravitated toward them from a young age. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on these iconic musical figures.
I’m into them too. Joy Division and The Smiths are two of the greatest British bands. So I guess I wanted to speak to you about how the artists have been presented on the shirts. Kurt Cobain’s suicide note features on the back of a T-shirt and a hoodie. What was the feeling behind doing that?
It’s getting a lot of negative heat, because people are saying it’s fucked up. But I thought it was more a notice of leaving. Like an exit, or a formal ode. That was his exit notice. I was just paying homage to somebody I thought changed music and the landscape; the way people dress and think forever. It’s not anything negative. It’s positive. Even though it’s morbid, it’s real. It’s a documented piece of art, I think.
I can see how it would be artistic if it was in a gallery, but not so much for someone to have a suicide note on their back as a fashion statement.
I guess some people are frowning upon it because it’s a little tongue in cheek.
What’s tongue in cheek about it?
It’s a little morbid. People can be borderline offended by it but it is making a statement.
What statement is it making?
That Kurt was a living legend and he wrote all his own music, all his own ideas, all his own artwork, and this is his last piece of literature or writing for people to see. I’m just saying hey, y’know what: This is his life’s work. I love him. He changed a lot of people's life forever—including mine. It’s not really about fashion, it’s more about the document itself.
Also, I think his handwriting is interesting. Everything about the letters is fascinating to me.
Although I don’t agree with the Kurt Cobain shirt, I can understand why you’ve created it. The one I’m confused about is the Morrissey hat which says…
Yeah. Basically that’s me saying I think that 2015 may be his last year touring. It’s his last year. He’s not dying but his last performance will be this year.
Were you aware that Morrissey was diagnosed with cancer?
[pauses for four seconds]
Yes! I knew that.
Right. Because anyone looking at that hat would think you're talking about the year of his death rather than his final year of touring.
Yeah. It’s just a reference to touring. He’s been doing it for a long time, and I think this last tour. He has a huge fanbase where I live. Most of the people buying this are in Los Angeles. There’s a reverse message to say I love you. We’re remembering you. This clearly might be your last tour. You think it’s offensive right?
He was diagnosed with cancer and it seems quite insensitive to put a birth-and-death date on a hat. If it’s not related to death but related to him finishing touring, what was the reason for doing the shoot for the collection in a graveyard?
Because, obviously, there are some morbid undertones to the collection. There’s a beautiful graveyard in East Los Angeles and I thought it would be an interesting place to shoot. I’d never shot in a graveyard before. I thought it was great and came out really great.
Do you not feel like turning Kurt Cobain’s suicide note into an item of wearable clothing is glamorising suicide? Look at how many people suffer with mental health, in the US and worldwide.
No, no, no. Nothing like that came into play when I was making this.
So it was something you didn’t think about?
Not even once, honestly. There’s a lot of people out there who think it wasn’t suicide, you know. So there’s that argument too. That’s a real case and that case has now been reopened, so maybe it wasn’t even suicide. You don’t really know. I’m sure Courtney Love gets called a murderer everyday of her life. It’s either or. It could really go either way. What do you think?
What do I think about the Cobain thing?
Yeah. What do you think? That he actually did or that it’s a conspiracy and somebody else did?
I believe there’s a conspiracy that exists against Courtney Love for various reasons, but it’s not something I believe in.
Yeah. Well the case has now been reopened. So we’ll see what evidence turns up. Who knows?
What are you hoping to prove, or show, with the collection?
It’s the first time in a long time that I had put some ideas into print. I wanted to make a statement and get people’s attention at first. There’s always that shock value. We live in a society of the fastest news being right in front of you, in your face on your phone. I wanted to make a statement at first.
What statement were you trying to make beside shock value?
I was paying homage to people I grew up to. Some people think it’s morbid, some people think it’s a memorial. There’s been a lot of hate; a lot of positivity. And I’m like hey, this is part of my life. This is what I grew up on. It’s just presented in a different way. There are artists all over the world, I forget the guys name, but he writes obituaries for people that are alive, and his work is in almost every major, respected museum in the world. Y’know? RIP Jeff Coons. RIP Kate Moss. What’s his message? It’s shock value but it’s also paying homage to the people.
I’m not a deeply dark, dark person. But I wanted to make some noise. And also adversely, give some respect to the people that moulded me into the man I am today.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil