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[whitespace] Kurt Cobain But I Loved Him

Mending the besmirched legacy of Kurt Cobain, rock god

By Gina Arnold

IN ADDITION TO being a month of treachery and angst, September marks the 10th anniversary of the release of a record called Nevermind by a rock band called Nirvana. The anniversary doesn't seem to have been especially marked by very many people--unlike all the anniversaries to do with Woodstock and the Beatles--but it meant a lot to me.

Unfortunately, what it reminded me of most is the line I consider the most profound in all rock & roll. It comes from the song "Hank Karen and Elvis," by the Young Fresh Fellows, and it goes "I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

That phrase applies to all kinds of people, from JFK to Gary Glitter, and judging by Heavier Than Heaven (Hyperion, 2001), the amazingly detailed new biography about rock & roll's premiere suicide of the '90s, it applies to no one more than Kurt Cobain.

To read this book is to become disenchanted not only with Kurt--who is portrayed as petulant and calculating, crazy and cruel--but with Nirvana, grunge and rock itself. That being the case, it's hard to imagine who would want to open it.

This is not to say, however, that Heavier Than Heaven is a bad biography. If anything, it suffers from being too good; a phenomenally well-researched and detailed account of Cobain's 27 years. Author Charles Cross has done an almost mind-boggling amount of digging: His access is nothing short of all-encompassing, and includes excerpts from Kurt's own journals, as well as interviews with his elementary school teachers and other minor characters in his life.

In that sense, this book is a far better and more complete tale than Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (Main Street Books, 1993), which was essentially commissioned and shaped by Kurt and Courtney, as well as marred by Azerrad's dry style.

Cross, who made his reputation as a writer by starting a fanzine devoted to Bruce Springsteen, is not a dry stylist in the least, although he sometimes errs on the side of exaggeration: it takes him exactly two paragraphs to use the term "rock & roll salvation," and the book is--like his works on Springsteen--riddled with similar quasi-religious hyperbole: He writes things like "in the course of a single day, Kurt had been born in the public eye, died in the privacy of his own darkness, and was resurrected by an act of love."

As that sentence conveys, Cross is convinced that Nirvana was one of the most important bands--and Cobain the most important songwriter--of his era. And yet, his argument (which he makes rather convincingly) is that Cobain, far from being the saintly outsider that he made himself out to be, was deeply into being a rock star, determined from the start to "make it big."

Throughout the book, Cross punches holes in the idea that Kurt was a selfless devotee to punk ideals who died because he couldn't stand being famous. Instead, he paints a picture of a kid who was determined to become famous from the minute he picked up a guitar.

This doesn't change the fact that Nevermind and Live Unplugged in New York are two of the best records of the decade, but it does ruin some of the mythic aspects of the Nirvana legend--and not to any good end. Part of what made them special to so many of us was their place in the culture; the way their music reacted to a decade of Reaganomics.

Another funny thing about this book is that either the timing is off, or Nirvana's import was exaggerated in our minds by their relationship to the times (and their sad demise). It's been 10 years since the release of Nevermind, and although that record's impact on the music industry is undisputed, the songs themselves are at a low ebb in our consciousness. I hear Jane's Addiction more often on the radio; and the Pixies seem to have grabbed the "most influential" slot in the zeitgeist. A decade from now, Nirvana may sound fresh again--and Kurt's story may seem more poignant.

Heavier Than Heaven also suffers the same fate as many biographies. In spite of the incredible detail, there is no real explanation either for Kurt Cobain's genius or for his deep unhappiness at the end of his life (although his miserable marriage, which may have accounted for a lot of it, is sugarcoated by Cross's unabashed kindness to his main source, the Mrs.). Sure, Kurt had a wretched childhood, but no more wretched than many other people.

IN THE BOOK, Cobain goes from your classic dumb redneck, drawing pictures of big-breasted women and flying-V guitars in his high school notebook, to an extremely arty and damaged punk rock philosopher--in about one second flat. This is partly because Cross omits a detailed description of the small Washington town of Olympia, where Kurt moved after high school, and its peculiar hippie-punk-indie-rock ethos.

The hole is also there because that leap is unknowable, both in Cobain and in every other genius of his order: Dylan, Lennon, Gandhi, whoever. What made them what they are?

We'll never know, and that being the case I find the exploration of their origins highly distasteful. I didn't want to know that Kurt killed a cat when he was a teenager. I didn't want to hear how he molested a retarded girl, or the mean things he did to other people he knew. It doesn't improve my understanding of Nirvana's music, and in fact, given how vested I was in them at the time, it besmirches my own past as well.

Of course the truth is that anyone whose life is scrutinized in such detail would come off this poorly, but it's only the superstars who are made to suffer such indignity. No doubt everyone who ever met Kurt has been hoarding--and embroidering--their stories, waiting to tell them to Cross. But does that make them true?

Not only are some of the narrators here as unreliable as Tristram Shandy, but there are some things about these times and this person that I remember differently--nights I spent in Nirvana's company that shine out of the years like pure goddamn gold. Maybe I'm just in denial, denial, denial.

But not only do I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then, but I wish I'd never read this book.

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From the September 27-October 3, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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