Cross' discussion of Nirvana's rise on the Seattle scene—their smelly van tours, their break when they signed with Sub Pop records and later the mass success with DGC—is standard-issue and curiously narrow. Given that Cross was the editor of The Rocket, the Washington rock magazine that chronicled the grunge thing from the beginning, you'd expect him to fill out Cobain's story with some greater context, but aside from a little talk about Cobain's idols the Melvins, there's almost no analysis of what made this short, skinny kid stand out among the Soundgardens and Alice in Chains of the world. And the gossip here's pretty threadbare; we never find out what it really was about Eddie Vedder that so pissed off Cobain.
Even the stuff about Courtney Love is muffled and obscure. Cross treats her with kid gloves, as somebody who tried to help Cobain get off heroin even though she kept getting back on the stuff herself, pressured him to headline Lollapalooza when he was recovering from one of a dozen overdoses, and entrusted the care of their daughter to a cocaine addict. The final chapters, which contain the book's best writing, find Cobain, the rock god of the early '90s, kicked out of his house, sleeping in an old Ford Valiant, and shooting up in cheap hotels, whirling down a drain whose sucking sound screams, "Waste!" It's so pitiful the end comes as a relief. Certainly it did for Cobain.
What isn't wasted is the music—six albums' worth. About 20 of their songs are great and will last. Also, there are Cobain's journals and what appears to be a bushelful of unsent letters, both of which Cross quotes copiously; they seem, in their insight and vulnerability, worth publishing on their own. Cross' book thoroughly demystifies Kurt Cobain, but he doesn't really touch the mystery of his talent or his continuing hold on us.
Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross; Hyperion Books. Hardcover, 381 pages, $24.95.