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Reading the Jukebox

A new biography examines the short, troubled life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain


On New Year's Eve in San Francisco, to end 1991, Pearl Jam opened their show with a bit from "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Sharing the bill with Nirvana that night, Eddie Vedder joked, "Remember, we played it first." Later, toward dawn, Nirvana played the full version; they were the biggest band in the world at that point.

Despite a shortage of pressings throughout the country as Geffen Records continued to underestimate demand, Nirvana's breakthrough album, Nevermind, displaced Michael Jackson that same week to top the Billboard charts. Clerks at mega-chains like Tower Records reported that waves of kids were bringing in CDs they'd received for Christmas to trade for the Nirvana disc.

Released Sept. 24, 1991, Nevermind turned rock 'n' roll, Seattle, youth culture, MTV and Kurdt Kobain (his rock-star alter-ego name for himself) upside down and inside out. Charles Cross' biography of Kurt Cobain, besides being well-researched and documented (400-plus interviews), is a sympathetic look at its now-legendary subject, especially Cobain's youth and those months right before he was on the cover of every magazine on the planet.

Cross was editor of The Rocket, an entertainment magazine described as "the first publication ever to do a cover story on Nirvana." He details dozens of early gigs, as the band was just starting to gain local recognition. But, unlike Michael Azerrad's Nirvana bio, Come As You Are, which put Azerrad in many scenes, Cross takes a more detached, journalistic role. Azerrad's book, when it came out in 1994, was put together with a zine look--lots of chopped text and photos, with the author writing from the viewpoint of an insider= a friend of the band and Cobain's. (Come as You Are is now out with an added chapter.) With the benefit of time and perspective, Cross' work is, well, more bookish, with an invaluable index and pages of footnoted source notes.

Nevermind isn't even released until nearly 200 pages into Heavier Than Heaven. Cross details Kurt Cobain's early childhood with touching affection. Cobain was an amazing, prolific, creative artist, always drawing or composing. He loved pop culture. Later in life, surrounded by "cool" people, he would still talk about how he loved The Knack.

Cobain was a student of American culture who filled 24 spiral journals with notes, drawings, and lyrics, and he was an avid consumer of everything about music. He hero-worshipped The Melvins, The Pixies, and The Vaselines, and told an interviewer in August 1991: "The most exciting time for a band is right before they become really popular."

Cross details the background and evolution of Cobain's songwriting extensively.

As a 2-year-old, Kurt would sing "Hey Jude" and The Monkees' theme song into his aunt's tape recorder. He wrote his first song, about a trip to the park, when he was 4. He drew pictures of Disney characters all the time; his favorites were Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. He played Little League baseball and was on the school wrestling team in seventh grade. (His wrestling skills paid off the first time he met his future wife. Though three inches shorter than Courtney Love, Cobain pinned her during a playful encounter in a Portland nightclub.)

He loved small animals, had a pet rat and an aquarium full of turtles. He loved the television show Taxi, often mimicking Andy Kaufman. Although he loved playing with children, he had great fears that his child would be born with "flipper fingers," an obsession of his. When he became a rock star, he often stood backstage or in the wings with children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He had an imaginary friend, Boddah, to whom he wrote his suicide note.

While he doesn't pop-psychoanalyze his subject or invent dialogue, Cross does give the reader background into Cobain's family and girlfriends. An early line in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" contains a classic Cobain line: "Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?" (The song's final version didn't include the excised line, but it did include "She's over-bored and self-assured.") The song, supposedly, was about his breakup with Tobi Vail, known for coining the phrase "riot grrrl" in a fanzine she published, as well as starting the band Bikini Kill. Vail's friend Kathleen Hanna had spray painted the line, "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit" above Cobain's bed. Cross contends that Vail's punk feminism helped shape Cobain's life and lyrics, inspiring a handful of Nirvana's most memorable songs, among them "Aneurysm" and "Drain You." Cross also addresses and disarms many of the simplistic assumptions that blame Courtney Love for Cobain's demise.

One of the book's highlights is Cross' account of Nirvana's MTV and SNL appearances. His nearly minute-by-minute rendering of the MTV Unplugged session reads like a thriller. He asserts that there was a question as to whether Cobain would even show up.

Instead, Nirvana delivered an intense performance, with Cobain closing the set with Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" as he stood with his eyes shut, his voice cracking. Audience members openly wept. MTV producers wanted an encore. But Cobain left the sound studio and skipped the after-show party, telling a friend, "No one liked it. They just sat there silently." To which his friend replied, "Kurt, they think you're Jesus Christ."


n a house with many, many rooms but no food in the refrigerator, no oil in the heating tank, Kurt wrote his final words by the light of a television screen, tuned to MTV, with R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, in the background.

After Cobain's suicide, the mass media jumped all over him, calling him a derelict, bad-parent example of his generation. Cross' portrait is much different, more real, more coherent, more understandable. Cobain, through his music and lyrics, left quite a legacy. In the 10 short years since Nevermind was released, dozens of famous Nirvana gigs are talked about, downloaded and shared.

One song in particular, performed live only once (Chicago, Oct. 23, 1993), "You Know You're Right," has a mythology of its own. With a true Cobain couplet, "I am walking in the piss, always knew it would come to this," and a stark wail of "Pain!" at the end, this is the song that has blocked the release of the eagerly anticipated 45-track box set. According to Rolling Stone, Courtney Love wants the cut for a greatest hits package, while Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic want it with the box. Let's just hope it's the question of artistic merit, not the money, that'll keep us waiting another year. EndBlock

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