A Portrait of the Revolutionary as a Young Punk
Last year, when Charles Cross published his Kurt Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven, some reviewers—myself among them—marveled at a few of Cobain's diary entries that Cross had quoted and wondered aloud whether the journals themselves might be worth publishing. In the quoted material, Cobain came across as a kind of untutored genius, his mind as scarily penetrating as those blue eyes of his, and he came up with exciting ideas about pop, politics and the possibilities of punk that Nirvana's music might have embodied but never articulated with, say, the clarity of the Clash. Granted, the poor guy was flailing through a blizzard of rage born of an intense vulnerability married to a pathetic and miserable upbringing—he's one of William Carlos Williams' "pure products of America" if there ever was one (they "go crazy," remember?)—and flailing as well through the downward spiral of his heroin habit, but that made what he wrote all the more remarkable.
Now, Cobain's journals are here, carefully reproduced in facsimile so we can peruse them in his original (surprisingly readable) handwriting, as if we found them on a bench in a deserted bus terminal. The book jacket is a glossy imperturbable black, but the actual front cover more closely captures the contents within: it reproduces the red cover of one of the Mead spiral notebooks Cobain wrote in, with the quickly scrawled warning, "If you read, you'll judge" across the middle. And, of course, we judge in all sorts of ways.
Some of the early entries are funny/touching in a way that reminds us why his fans felt so protective of him. We get two earnest pages of Kurdt (as he spelled his name early on) quizzing himself for his driver's test. There's a page of stern directions for keeping up the van on tour ("Every 400 miles, there will be an inspection of van cleanliness and equipment count"). There is a hilarious mock-up of a brochure he put together for "Pine Tree Janitorial Service," a business he and bassist Kris Noveselic tried to start to support themselves while making music. ("We purposely limit our number of commercial offices in order to personally clean while taking our time.") Throughout the collection, there are worked-over drafts of lyrics; cartoons (a couple of them damn good); some decent attempts at punk 'zine writing (including his interview with his heroes the Melvins); warm letters to friends; song-by-song liner notes to In Utero that have the free-associative frisson of Dylan's notes to Planet Waves; scrawled shop talk about guitars and amps; and probably a dozen lists of songs and bands that sometimes read like lists for tapes he's making, sometimes like self-conscious attempts to understand and connect with his influences: the '80s hard indie bands and punk he grew up with (Black Flag, Mudhoney) but other bands, too—obvious (the Beatles, the Stooges) or not (the Knack, the Bay City Rollers, Shonen Knife).
All this stuff is fine and informative, though there's little of the dark, pained gorgeousness you hear in "All Apologies" or "Something in the Way," none of the stuff we really come to his Journals for.
Okay, I don't know about you, but I came to see if there was a genuinely tragic element to Cobain's life, or if he was just that fucked-up, bleached, punk god flipping the bird at us from Nevermind who rode '90s slacker disillusion as far as it could take him. I read, and I judged, and to me, Kurt Cobain is tragic all over. You have to wade through a fair amount of crap—diary doodling that veers into stupid adolescent rages or oh-please drug-haze delirium—but there's also much evidence of the genius Cross gave us a taste of in the biography—more, in fact, than one had the right to expect from Cobain's lyrics or the way he came off in interviews. As far as I can tell, that genius—expressed in rage, tender entreaty, and in a growing and (eventually) thoughtful aesthetic/political outlook—grows largely out of a single obsession, and it has to do with the violent defilement of his own innocence—and more broadly, America's. It's not just Nevermind's cover, with its submerged naked baby floating toward a fishhooked dollar bill, or the back cover of In Utero, looking like the contents of the trash bin behind a corrupt abortionist's office. And it's not just the startling four-panel cartoon, in R. Crumb mode, on Journal's page 24, that depicts a hate-filled man listening tenderly but obtusely to the kick of the child in his woman's pregnant tummy ("Listen to those strong little legs kick. . . . This kid better not be a lousy little girl. I want my very own honest, hard-workin', Jew-, Spic-, Nigger- and Faggot-hatin', 100% pure beef American male!") who, in the final panel, gets kicked all right: the child, in seeming premonition of the future he hopes to avoid, kicks right through his mother's stomach wall and through his father's head, splattering blood, brains, body matter everywhere. It's also this, from Kurt's list of "likes": "I like punk rock. I like girls with weird eyes. I like drugs. I like passion. I like things that are built well. I like innocence. I like and am grateful for the blue-collar worker whos [sic] existence allows artists to not have to work at menial jobs. I like killing gluttony. I like playing the cards wrong. . . . I like to make people feel happy and superior in their reaction towards my appearance. I like to feel predjudice [sic] towards people who are predjudice [sic]. I like to make incisions into the belly of infants then fuck the incisions until the child dies. I like to dream that someday we will have a sense of generational solidarity amongst the youth of the world." You can choose to feel sick at what erupts here, or you can look at the book's totality and realize that Cobain saw himself both as child and violator, as innocent and defiler, as horrible corrupter of his own potential, and see why someone with so much self-hate ("this is just a big pile of shit like me") and so much pain (psychic and abdominal) might lunge headlong into Courtney Love, heroin and eventually a bullet to the temple. His only release from contradiction, his only answer, for himself, and for his country, with which he had a surprising affinity, was punk itself. Punk was his protection for innocence. Here was the innocent credo: "Art is sacred. Punk rock is freedom. Expression and the right to express is vital. Anyone can be artistic."
He was a ravenous punk fan to the end and began to construct an interesting transgressive aesthetics and politics that mingled Joe Strummer's politics (RIP: the man, not the politics) with William Burroughs' language derangements. Filled with contempt at the manifest horrors of capitalism, consumerism and middle-class complacency, he figured his job—and punk's—was to "get employed by the target so it's easier to infiltrate the system . . . slowly rot the mechanics of the empire." "Suck 'em in with quality/entertainment, and hit 'em with reality/The revolution will be televised."
That was the intent of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, in fact, whose subversion "is an inside job—it starts with the custodians and the cheerleaders," Cobain theorized, the "insiders" who keep high school going—then proceeds to dismantle the whole establishment apparatus with the mad eloquence of Cobain's screaming and violent guitar. Of course, Kurt's televised revolution, while it did make rock necessary again, didn't change the world the way he hoped, and so explains In Utero's plaintive opening lines: "Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old."
He should have added: now I'm very rich and pressured to be a generational spokesman and a failed revolutionary who people think has sold out and increasingly on junk, and I can't handle this. He retreated into an irony he knew was impotent. (Here's some perfect '90s postmodern attitudinizing for you: "If you think everything's been said and done, then how come nothing has been solved and resolved? I ask you [. . .] sarcastically, with a sneer, in a '90s way, kinda, uh, defensively to say the least and to do the worst"). He retreated into the final bliss of heroin, where all his contradictions melted into the vision of a gun barrel that would make it all go away.
Kurt Cobain was tragic because he was bottom-feeder trailer trash who trusted the thin sliver of self his talent rode on till he wrote half a dozen of the best songs of the closing decade of the 20th century, then crashed when that self couldn't hold. He was a hopeless mess, and he was beautiful. And it's all there in the Journal.
Journals by Kurt Cobain; Riverhead Books. Hardcover, 280 pages, $30.
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