5 years ago, Charles Cross, the excellent rock writer who wrote an underappreciated Jimi Hendrix biography last year, tackled the Nirvana frontman’s life and times in one of the best books about music I’ve ever read. It’s called Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography Of Kurt Cobain and if you haven’t read it, now is as good a time as any to do so. Your local library should have it in either paperback or hardcover. I read a library copy the year the book came out and had to write about it once I finished it. This book is so good you don’t even have to be a fan of Nirvana to appreciate it. It’s a great biography.
This is a very thorough review of the book and I hope you enjoy it.
A Review by Dennis Earl
Biographer Charles R. Cross opens with a 1992 Cobain overdose, a metaphor for many of the events that happened in his life. We learn later on that he had over a dozen such overdoses, all from reckless heroin use and as we reach the end of the story, we begin to suspect that he was reckless for a very clear reason.
Cross does something remarkable here. He convinces Cobain’s long suffering family, who have up to now always maintained a policy of silence with regards to dark, family secrets, to open up to him, something no writer has been able to do before, and reveal plenty of memories of Kurt as a young child. As a result, some 100 pages are devoted to Kurt’s childhood, which painfully reveal a happy child quickly turning depressed and withdrawn, and finding interests in the most bizarre subject matter.
The real blow to Kurt’s psyche was his parents divorce when he was 9, although he memorably downplayed the event in one line of Serve The Servants. (“That legendary divorce is such a bore.”) Being the oldest of his parents’ 2 children (he has a younger sister, Kim) upon his birth he was the centre of his family’s universe. When the family split apart, he ached for that feeling of family unity again and desperately wanted to be the central focus. One of his happiest memories before the divorce, recounted twice in the book, were all the winter trips the family took to Fuzzy Top Mountain outside their native Aberdeen, Washington, which never had snow, hence the drive out of town. They went sledding down the mountain all day. Kurt was never happier than when he flew down in his Flexible Flyer over and over again. Unintentionally, it is an ironic metaphor. Kurt’s later drug use which contributed heavily to his declining health, temporarily gave him happiness, just like those family trips. He seemed happiest during temporary moments of euphoria while going down in a flash.
We learn that Kurt as a child was mesmerized by rock and rollers like Sammy Hagar, REO Speedwagon, Quarterflash and Van Halen, bands he would later grow out of and never admit to liking when he was famous. But he would always acknowledge Buzz Osborne and The Melvins who Kurt saw live in a parking lot and was forever changed as a result. Later on, he would privately discard them as heroes, although the Melvins did open many Nirvana shows when the latter band became famous.
The book reveals a constant need on the part of Cobain to mythologize himself. We learn that the “guns for a guitar” story really involved selling guns for an amp. (Kurt had plenty of guitars at the time.) And he never did live under a bridge. All those stories served a deeper purpose. They underscored the emotional truth of Kurt’s depth of pain and isolation and his constant need to build a new identity for himself.
He dropped out of high school and eventually returned there to become a janitor for a brief period, one of many odd jobs he would have before totally devoting himself to music. Before dropping out of school, he was an accomplished artist, often earning the respect of his teacher, who encouraged his talent. (Lots of artwork appeared in the liner notes of Nirvana albums.) Throughout his life, although mostly before the band took off, Kurt loved to experiment with art. He had fascinations with babies, the birthing process, dolls, death, especially suicide, bodily fluids, especially semen and excrement, Evel Knievel, and even pornography, although he would keep that last love to himself and his buddies. When he went to Olympia and fell in with the riot grrrl crowd, despite enjoying the strangest porno one could ever see (think fun with poop and pee), he kept it quiet and started believing in the movement’s feminist, non-populist ideals, which he would later discard for his own pursuit of fame. He would have an ultimately failed relationship with Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill.
Cross paints a portrait of a very confused, very intelligent, very sad, very angry, very strange, sometimes quite generous and yet very hypocritical man. As the latter chapters focus on Kurt’s gradual assembling of what would eventually become Nirvana, it is clear that Kurt would say one thing and do another. He was obsessed with Saturday Night Live as a child and dreamed of one day appearing on the show, which Nirvana did. Twice. And yet, despite the fact he openly courted fame and was driven to get closer to it, he would often appear oblivious to it, or more accurately, want to distance himself from it, as if it was the one thing about being a professional musician he couldn’t stand. It earned him legions of fans who never knew that for all his complaints about his videos being played on MTV too much, he often complained privately they weren’t played enough. Although he was gracious in signing autographs, there’s an account of him spitting on a fan while dangling out the window of a van.
There’s a story involving Kurt and bassist Krist Novoselic visiting “the bird lady”, a local woman with a good reputation for restoring the health of injured animals, to help repair a bird with a damaged wing. There’s another story of how Kurt loved watching his beloved aquarium turtles devouring some tadpoles he gave them for food.
His love affairs are also revealing. We already know Tracy Marander from Broomfield’s documentary, but here she reveals more, mainly because there’s more room for her recollections which involve a close but frustrating relationship with Kurt. She loved him and wanted to get closer, but because Kurt had abandonment issues directly resulting from his parents’ divorce and his constant moving from one relative’s house to another, plus the fact that he viewed sex as relationship intimacy, he purposely kept his distance, despite loving Tracy. They had sex but not enough to Marander’s liking. Kurt often complained she wanted more sex. Strangely enough, the roles were reversed when Kurt dated Tobi. Because of her riot grrl beliefs, she felt their relationship was casual, should be kept secret (serious romances were a no-no in Olympia’s indie circles) and preferred it that way. Kurt, like Marander, wanted something more. Much of the Nevermind album is devoted to Kurt’s feelings of rejection after being dumped by Tobi.
He was also a notorious slob, often living in the filthiest of apartments and rarely maintaining good physical hygiene. And he dreaded confrontation. The book reveals ample evidence of how not to break up with someone and how not to fire someone from your own band.
But the best parts of the book are the latter chapters involving Kurt, Nirvana and especially his often turbulent relationship with Courtney Love and his sweet relationship with their adorable child, Frances Bean. I rarely smile when I read, but you can’t help it when you read about how Kurt treated Frances. No moment made me smile more than reading about Kurt bathing his daughter and lifting her up in the air and pretending she was an airplane. You can imagine the loud giggles coming from Frances. He loved her so much and the feeling was mutual. That moment, actually captured on a family video, quickly turns dark though when Cross reports that the camera briefly picks up a disturbing image, a syringe in a spot where a toothbrush should be. That part of the book reveals volumes about Kurt and what he cared about most. Although he deeply loved his family, and they clearly loved him back, (even though he never truly felt they did) a fact that up until now has never fully been revealed, in a way, he also loved heroin which he often referred to, on purpose, as “heroine”.
Cross’s book is the result of over 400 interviews with many of the key players here (Dave Grohl and Wendy O’Connor, however, are strangely not mentioned in the acknowledgments), some 4 years of research which also involved the usual collecting of materials. It would’ve been nice to have seen among the photos in the book, some of Kurt’s artwork. Even Broomfield’s movie showed at least 1 painting.
Cross is the former editor of The Rocket, the now-defunct Seattle rock publication that early on put Nirvana on one of their covers. He has written about Nirvana in the magazine and even collaborated on a first-rate book about the making of Nevermind. Here he triumphs in a way you really didn’t expect him to. Because of the great resistance previous writers faced when wanting to do Nirvana books, some of which is documented here as it was in the movie, Kurt & Courtney, it seemed impossible for any writer to get to the real heart of Kurt Cobain. Thanks to Courtney Love’s uncharacteristic generosity, which involved unrestricted access to photos, family videos, faxes (many of which contained future famous lyrics to Hole and Nirvana songs) and, most astonishing of all, Kurt’s journals and paintings, we have a clearer picture of Kurt’s state of mind during most of his life.
This book for the first time creates as complete a portrait of Cobain as we’re ever going to read. We empathize greatly with his insecurities, his health problems, but we are angered, too, by his lack of discipline, his increasing meanness and ultimately, his family’s unwillingness to get him help early. (The family’s ongoing economic problems when he was younger and the priorities of the band later on clearly prevented that from ever happening.)
Could Kurt Cobain have been saved? The book doesn’t seem to think so, and personally, I don’t think so either. But it wasn’t as if no one tried to help him. For the first time in quite a while, I was not angry at his widow, who often comes across as hypocritical, as she did in Broomfield’s film. But here, we get a clearer perspective. I still have problems with her, her unreasonableness at times and her lack of politeness, her violence, but you can’t fault her at all for doing everything humanly possible to help her husband. She tried enabling his habit, sometimes getting high with him. That didn’t work. She tried throwing out his stash. He always bought more, usually making arrangements with dealers to drop off the drugs in the bushes in front of their Lake Washington home. When he was in rehab, she often called hoping he was okay. And on and on and on. This book, I think, finally destroys the idea that Courtney Love had a hand in her husband’s death. Although the book doesn’t attempt to answer the lingering mysteries of Broomfield’s film (the late El Duce’s claim Courtney offered him money to off Kurt, a supposed will change a week before his death, etc.), in a way, it doesn’t need to, because judging from Courtney’s actions, there doesn’t seem to be anything suspicious here. For once, her trust of a writer pays off. She is not betrayed. And I think we get a better view of what really happened. That being said, some mysteries of the documentary, for instance, Dylan Carlson helping Kurt buy the gun that ultimately killed him, could’ve been explored more.
Kurt Cobain died at age 27 for a lot of reasons. He was increasingly unhappy, he was in pain and he never could get over feeling bad about himself, no matter how much love he had from his family, his friends and of course, the respect and admiration from his many fans. From his family problems to his love affairs to his music to his art, none of them could save him. Perhaps the thing that killed him the most was the fact that his dreams of escaping his problems by becoming the biggest rock star in the world, something he predicted to his friends when he was a teenager, failed him because after he made it, he never could stop feeling empty. He also predicted he wouldn’t live to see his 30th birthday.
Heavier Than Heaven is now available in paperback.