Whatever second thoughts he might currently be entertaining about his suicide in 1994 at age 27, Kurt Cobain would no doubt be pleased to have at least spared himself the rest of the waltz with the proverbial bitch goddess Fame, the spectacle of fall and redemption that’s become the obligatory anticlimax – don’t call it a second act – of American life. Try to imagine Kurt Cobain undergoing the ritual self-abasement of Behind the Music, then drifting off into the purgatory of the formerly famous. First, Kurt and Courtney as the Osbournes – think of the F-words. And then, if there were still bills to pay … Celebrity Boxing! Courtney would be a lock.
Possibly, along with freedom from his stomach pain, this is what he wanted to escape. Suicide may be deeply stupid, cowardly, misguided, all those things – a note to the children: Just say no to suicide – but it is hard to argue that it is not sincere. Beneath all the layers of irony and sarcasm and humor and stoner surrealism, Cobain had a gift for sincerity, which is everywhere evident in his journals. He wanted to make himself understood. (Courtney – bad, bad Courtney – gave permission for the journals to be published and participated in the editing.)
The Journals arrive in glitzy, glossy, funereal black. The tome is a tomb, a sepulcher for a holy relic. The Chip Kidd design is typically witty, but in a slightly effete, New York–ified way; its ostentatious minimalism might have made Cobain, who was pretty constantly swallowing bile anyway, want to puke. Black was definitely not his color, even in death.
But what’s under the sleeve is far from a reliquary. The book is swarming with life, and it’s irresistible to anyone who cares about the music. In photographed pages from standard-issue supermarket notebooks are diary entries, lyrics, cartoons (Kurt was a gifted cartoonist), video treatments, lists of favorite bands, and even what scholars may one day discover to be a recipe (“sprinkle garlic salt; rub flour on ‘em; brown ‘em”) for fried chicken. (Late in the book, in a cry for help, is an 800 number for NordicTrack.)
A crucial theme here is getting his shit together. One of the lessons of this book is that to start a band is to be an entrepreneur, and in order to do so, you have to establish a hardy little colony of virtue in the midst of the teenage wasteland. Kurt learns to be a hard-ass, albeit always an amusing one. “We feel really shitty that we don’t have the guts to tell you in person,” he writes in a letter to one of the band’s early drummers, “but we don’t know how mad you would get.”
There’s also the crucial matter of establishing coolness. To this end, he explicates the style violations of seventies rock stars. And one night, he roots through bass player Chris Novoselic’s record collection and finds “Eagles, Carpenters, yes, Joni Mitchell, and said with frustration, ‘what in the fuck do you own these for?’ ” They broke 250 records. Kurt reports that Chris felt “cleansed.”
But there was much, much more to rebel against. Aberdeen, Washington, where he grew up, is almost an American Afghanistan, “a town of loggers and their subservient wives.” “I’m not gay,” he liked to say, “but I wish I were, if only to piss off the rednecks.” Then he imagines a fitting solution: “The hairy, sweaty, macho, sexist dickheads will soon drown in a pool of razorblades and semen stemmed from the uprising of their children.”
Ouch. He meant it to hurt.
Cobain can sound like one of those political artists who made New York’s culture so dreary in the late eighties. But luckily, his sense of victimization and its accompanying preachiness and whininess don’t overwhelm his art. “I like to have strong opinions,” he writes, “with nothing to back them up but my primal sincerity.” And later: “I like to complain and do nothing to make things better.” These are thoughts that undercut his moral self-importance and allowed him to be an artist. He’s passionately ambivalent.
One giant hole in this book, inevitably, is the music itself – the passion of playing rock and roll in front of people. Another hole, of course, is Courtney (What did you say the name of that bitch goddess was?). Was she Nurse Ratched to his Billy Bibbit? His drug buddy and muse? Probably all of those things, but in a somewhat predictable scandal (I mean, what did anyone think Courtney would do?), we get none of that here.
Actually, though, it may be feminist progress that Courtney has become the Ted Hughes of this generation, accused of having driven a sensitive poet to an early death with overbearing coarseness, then peddling bowdlerized journals. The truth is that both Kurt and Courtney were compulsive, virtuosic reinventors of sex roles – this was something they shared. Kurt, in this book, is not criticized or taken advantage of – rather, he’s “raped.” He describes his stomach condition at one point, “as if God had fucked me and planted these precious little eggs.”
In Courtney’s case, the plasticity of gender has reached the level of actual plastic surgery. Cobain’s estate received some $4 million from Riverhead Books for the journals, and it’s kind of a horror to think that the proceeds may help defray the costs of Courtney’s bionic-woman explorations – though maybe Kurt would have supported them.
In the final years, there’s the sense that Cobain had conquered a kingdom he didn’t want and couldn’t rule. In that sense, he’s an American Hamlet – sweet prince on dope. He couldn’t escape the questions that tormented him. “Anyone given the surprise of becoming instant rock stars against their will,” he wrote, “have the same thoughts.” To free himself, he turned to heroin, which Kurt liked to spell “heroine” – bitch goddess No. 3. Prozac might have helped that bash.
Somehow, Cobain forgot that he had power – to think his own thoughts, to retreat. There’s a misplaced sense of responsibility here. He could have stopped the whole thing, moved to the South Seas like an emaciated Marlon Brando, puttering around his compound in a housedress. Instead, he felt the need to stay and explain himself. He wanted to do the right thing, and it pushed him – this is what he says he felt – into doing (at least as regards his daughter, Frances Bean) absolutely the wrong thing.
Adulthood was a rather late addition to the Cobain repertoire. He was trying it on, but he never really got it to fit. And he talked about suicide his whole life – he never really planned on being an adult. Rock – punk, especially – is often about the boredom of being an adult, and the terror of that boredom, and the search for transcendence, and, of course, the failure to locate it. This is a problem that many young people have – grow up and be that? Kurt didn’t grow up.
Is a rock musician’s life part of the performance? Cobain apparently believed something like this, and we – we journalists, we avid consumers of Us Weekly – have certainly helped make it so. We wallow in the spectacle, even as some profess to revile it. What music fan isn’t a little thrilled every time he or she walks by the Chelsea Hotel?
It’s easy to imagine Kurt playing back all the moralizing about his suicide in his playful, sarcastic voice. He loved a morbid joke, to laugh at his own freakishness and misfortune. In death, he’s part misguided, pathetically drug-addicted, callow youth, part rock deity. This fact may have amused him – if that counts for anything.
By Kurt Cobain.
Riverhead; 280 pages; $29.95.