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The first words that most of us ever heard come out of Kurt Cobain's mouth were these: "Load up on guns and bring your friends." It was the opening line of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and if that come-on promised the soul-piercing excitement of unfaked danger and a new sense of belonging for all those alienated Gen-X kids who felt "stupid and contagious" who knew they were wasting their lives sitting "with the lights out," thinking, "here we are now; entertain us," Kurt did not disappoint. It couldn't have been easy to rouse a generation that seemed practically catatonic from a still-lingering Reagan hangover, AIDS, and a media that by 1991 had fine-tuned its ability to turn everything from family dysfunction to the Gulf War into TV-ratings bonanzas, but Cobain did. Not that that was his intention: he was so fatally absorbed in his own toxic mindscape that we can only chalk up to dumb luck the fact that he "spoke for" anybody but himself.
But it's undeniable that he connected, first by coming up (with great help from producer Butch Vig) with that signature soft-loud-soft-loud sound that allowed him to sing as subtly as a folk singer one moment and scream balls-out the next. He used his great rock voice to amazing effect: he could pull off self-bemusement ("Dumb"), sorrow ("Something in the Way," "All Apologies"), numbed spookiness ("Polly," "Rape Me"), demonic possession ("Scentless Apprentice," the "hellos" from "Teen Spirit"), as well as full-throated catharsis ("Pennyroyal Tea"). It didn't hurt that no punk rocker ever had a greater way with melody ("In Bloom," "Teen Spirit")—a talent that Cobain picked up listening to acknowledged mentors like John Lennon, sure, but also to people whose records punks kept way under their beds: right through his teens, he listened to Journey, the Knack and the Bay City Rollers. Finally, I think what drew people to him in fearful fascination and with a sense of protectiveness was how psychically disarmed his music was. The disconnected scraps that became his lyrics seemed to bubble straight up from the feral unconscious. He seemed chained to and horrified by his own internality, in thrall to an id where the faces of love, sex, disease and death kept turning into one another. How else to explain "Lithium's "I love you—I'm not gonna crack/I'll kill you—I'm not gonna crack" or his love note to Courtney Love: "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black"?
That latter lyric comes from "Heart-Shaped Box," which, improbable as it seems, became a big radio and MTV hit in 1993, and it's hard to think of a song since that burrowed farther into the space where our collective fears and desires meet. I was going to call the song "brave," but by the time Cobain wrote it, he'd been doing drugs so long (LSD since he was 14, heroin—heavily—since 1990) and blown so many psychic circuits that musings like "Heart-Shaped Box" may have seemed to him like no big deal. By then, he was on the last mile of the long, tortured road that led to the room above his Seattle garage where, in early April 1994, he wrote a heartbreaking suicide note, injected himself with a huge amount of smack, put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and blew himself up.
That long, sad road is recounted by Charles R. Cross in his new biography, Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. The way he tells it, it's a pretty flat, depressing, uninspiring tale, though in sentimental or mendacious hands, it would've been right up Behind the Music's alley, which is immeasurably worse. Cobain grew up working class in Aberdeen, Washington. His parents seemed to have married only because his mother got pregnant with Kurt, and though he remembers his early years as happy, his parents' divorce when he was nine was, according to Cross, "an emotional holocaust." Cross' phrase is unfortunately (and uncharacteristically) bloated, but it's clear the young Cobain was deeply and permanently unsettled by the divorce. He started shuffling between relatives and the homes of friends, wrote poems about hating his parents, and, as he entered adolescence, found himself mired in almost every trailer-trash cliché imaginable: he started drinking, smoking pot, sniffing glue; a smart, talented kid, he lost interest in school; there was gunplay and minor neighborhood mayhem; there was sex play, initially with a developmentally disabled girl whose father nearly had Kurt arrested for molestation and later with a girl who was caught in bed with Kurt by Kurt's mom, who promptly kicked him out of her house. (Cobain's mother had no room to talk, incidentally, having been caught by Kurt making out with one of his teenage friends at a party.) Then come the janitor jobs, the harder drugs, the idiotic friends, the relatives drowning in their stupidity and pain (two committed suicide), and then Kurt's sullenness, the burning stomach, the skin-deep nihilism, the blind acting out. And all through this, the final cliché that will lift the story clear of cliché, the angry hurt boy in his room obsessively banging away on his cheap guitar.
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.