I truly believe that there is very little left to say about Kurt Cobain.
In the 20 years since his suicide, we’ve searched for meaning in his actions on April 5, 1994, and most certainly in his actions before that day. Two generations — Gen X and millennials — idolize this man, who, despite dying just as Web 1.0 was taking hold, has become one of the Internet’s most discussed musical figures ever. Every anniversary — be it Kurt’s birthday, his deathday, every Nirvana album, grunge as a genre — must be celebrated with a rumination on Kurt Cobain. To which I counter: does the world need so-called new thoughts on Kurt when so many great ones already exist?
You may think, “but those old thoughts are so vast and unmanageable, spread across print media that hasn’t been digitized and too many books (and I don’t know which one to read).” I hear you. So here’s a three-part guide to reading about Kurt Cobain. It encompasses old magazine interviews, zines, and new criticism; biographies and memoirs from those surrounding him; and photo books and collections.
INTERVIEWS, COVER STORIES, LINER NOTES, ETC.
In addition to these highlights, all of which are available online, NirvanaClub.com and LiveNirvana.com both have vast archives of every major Nirvana interview starting in 1988, as well as other press through the late ’90s. Enough to lose a Saturday afternoon to.
Seattle/PNW music bimonthly The Rocket (1979-2000) did some of the finest coverage of Nirvana under the direction of editor Charles R. Cross, who would go on to write three books about the band and Kurt (more on that in the books section of this guide). While Cross himself penned poignant post-suicide coverage on What It All Meant to Seattle and beyond, the best piece The Rocket ever ran on Nirvana was their one-year anniversary report examining the state of the band and its highly profitable legacy (foreshadowing the legal battles to come), Courtney Love in the new Web 1.0 world, and what really happened in Cobain’s final days.
Every music magazine ran a cover story following Kurt Cobain’s death, all of which grappled for meaning without having the inside sources to substantiate them. Arnold’s write-around, penned on the scene in Seattle with the Sub Pop family and at fan vigils, is the kind of boots-on-the-ground reporting that’s often under-appreciated when compared to the sexiness of celebrity profiles: pure observation of a cultural moment in action. Arnold writes:
Because in the thought-free frenzy for angles, scandals, scoops, the real story about Cobain has been criminally misplaced. The fact, for example, that Cobain was clinically depressed — a fact that is self-evident from his actions, and a condition that ran in his family (two of his uncles also committed suicide) — has been overlooked in favor of stories about his symbolic importance; his cultural placement alongside John Lennon; his life as a cliché. The questions of how long he had been depressed — it seems like every song he wrote on Nevermind and In Utero gave clues to his state of mind — and what steps had been taken to help him, are almost pointless now. His life is over, and we can’t have him back.
(The yin to Arnold’s yang — Jonathan Gold’s essay on Kurt’s early days, “Out of the Blue,” in this same issue of SPIN — is incredibly moving and also worth a read. Frankly, most of SPIN‘s old Nirvana features are worth a read, and they’ve put them all online with a handy guide.)
On the occasion of what would have been Kurt’s 46th birthday in February 2012, Pitchfork’s editor-in-chief dedicates one of his consistently excellent Resonant Frequency columns to Cobain. Considerations of Kurt in the social media age are made, mostly circling around the idea of personal identification when it comes to the last great rock star. Dozens of pieces like this have been attempted, but there’s something great about the way Richardson writes so unobtrusively about an icon, ultimately culling more meaning than the writer who aims big:
“Cobain said that he missed the comfort in being sad. And when his visage is presented as an emblem, someone else is, in a very small way, wallowing in that comfort. But he was a guy– a talented guy– but in the end just a guy. We think he was a good guy but we really have no idea; we know he was a drug addict and that he abandoned his family, but many of us overlook that because we think we understand his pain, and who are we to judge. But of course, we can’t do the same for people in our own lives. Forgiveness in real life is much harder and more complicated, which is another alluring thing about interfacing to an iconic image: We get to practice feelings when the stakes are low.”
Cobain and/or Nirvana have appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone five times. Fricke’s lengthy ’94 cover story is by the far the most illuminating read, both because of timing and Kurt’s candidness. He speaks openly about his enjoyment of guns, his concerns for Frances Bean, his wealth (or lack thereof), his addictions and demons — big personal topics that shed light on his mindset in the months preceding his suicide. In hindsight, there are a few cryptic parts about depression and suicide (noted below). Your heart will be in your throat:
Have you ever been that consumed with distress or pain or rage that you actually wanted to kill yourself? “For five years during the time I had my stomach problem, yeah. I wanted to kill myself every day. I came very close many times. I’m sorry to be so blunt about it. It was to the point where I was on tour, lying on the floor, vomiting air because I couldn’t hold down water. And then I had to play a show in 20 minutes. I would sing and cough up blood. This is no way to live a life. I love to play music, but something was not right. So I decided to medicate myself.”
“If it wasn’t for this band, those things never would have happened. I’m really thankful, and every month I come to more optimistic conclusions.” “I just hope,” Cobain adds, grinning, “I don’t become so blissful I become boring. I think I’ll always be neurotic enough to do something weird.”
(The June 6, 2002 Rolling Stone cover story, “Who Owns Kurt Cobain?,” is also a great read on the Courtney vs. Krist/Grohl battles and Kurt’s legacy, but unfortunately it’s only available to subscribers who login to the RS archives.)
In the famous liner notes to Nirvana’s 1992 compilation album, Kurt name-checks all his favorite bands and tells people with questionable identity politics to stop listening to Nirvana. It’s just one of the ways Cobain was a rarity among rock icons when it came to progressive politics:
At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us– leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records. Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly.’ I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.
One of Nirvana’s first interviews ran in Seattle rock zine Backlash in 1988, shortly before the release of their first Sub Pop single, a “Love Buzz” cover. The article… is not great. But Dawn Anderson was a historian of the grunge scene, publishing Backlash from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. It’s interesting to witness the public birth of one of the most chronicled bands in history. Love the last line, too: “And keep your ears tuned to Aberdeen, because idle towns are the Devil’s workshop.”
Another early interview, this one with future Nirvana biographer Everett True of UK music rag Melody Maker, shows how funny and goofy the guys were together. This one runs off the rails completely, back in the days when Kurt and Krist spelled their names differently. Early drummer Chad Channing makes an appearance. Again, the writing isn’t terribly illuminating, given all that we know about Nirvana now, but it’s the early band dynamic that’s engrossing.
Frankly, there are too many Kurt/Nirvana biographies — and there will only continue to be more as crumbs of new information about Cobain inevitably dribble out. If you’re going to read one, go with Cross’ Heavier than Heaven.
As I mentioned earlier, Cross was the editor of influential Seattle music mag The Rocket during grunge’s rise and fall. Now having written three books about Kurt, Cross has thought about him probably more than any single person outside of his family (and had access to his journals after he died). This shows in his latest book, Here We Are Now, which puts Cobain’s legacy in perspective and adds a personal touch from someone who was actually there. As in, he was among the first five people in the world to know that Cobain had killed himself. I’d suggest reading this relatively short book in lieu of all the think-pieces that have been and will be written about Kurt. Plus, Courtney Love sounds off. (Cross’ recent interview with Flavorwire also finds the author considering Cobain through the lens of the Internet and contemporary music.)
A number of books about Kurt claim to detail his inner thoughts and day-to-day existence. I suspect Kurt would want us to be skeptical about them. So if you’re going to read just one book about Cobain (rather than his legacy), I suggest his own. Culled from more than 20 personal notebooks Kurt left behind, 2002’s Journals is a collection of Kurt’s drawings, lists, notes on fame and rock ‘n’ roll’s past. Kurt was a rock obsessive, so Journals is as informative about his own taste as it is generally interesting on a musical front. A few years ago, a list of Kurt’s favorite albums (above) made the rounds online. This is the sort of thing to expect from Journals.
Letters to Kurt by Eric Erlandson
Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson starts his book by mentioning that he was secretly dating Courtney when they both met Kurt outside a Butthole Surfers show in L.A. This is not that kind of book, though. Erlandson spends the following pages penning 52 brief letters to Kurt. They’re abstract in purpose — prose poetry — and the themes get pretty dark. A letter about getting a perfect hug from Frances Bean devolves into a sexual rumination that may or may not be referring to his residual feelings for Courtney. It’s about Kurt but also not — more like a reaction to his entire essence, much like the lingering cultural conversation around his era. (Flavorwire interviewed Erlandson about the book after its publication in 2012.)
PHOTO BOOKS AND VISUAL COLLECTIONS
There are a number of fine essays in Nirvana: The Illustrated History, from the likes of Cross, Everybody Loves Our Town author Mark Yarm, and many more apt music writers/historians. With all due respect to them, that’s not why a fan should buy this book. What makes it invaluable is the scans upon scans of show posters, ticket stubs, and various other memorabilia, plus a wide variety of photos from the likes of Charles Peterson (more on him later) and Steve Double (him too).
Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 by Bruce Pavitt
Sub Pop co-founder Pavitt chronicles the initial rise of Nirvana in Europe, particularly in the UK thanks to the label’s LameFest UK showcase (listen to Nirvana’s set from it here). As Pavitt explains, their goal was to get the influential British music press on board with Nirvana; they hoped the rest of the world would follow — a naïve-sounding strategy had it not worked. That firsthand record-label account — complete with scans of Nirvana’s early press — is fascinating even for casual Kurt fans. But the photos are obviously the main appeal, and Pavitt’s candid pics — like Kurt at the Coliseum, as seen on the cover — are accompanied nicely by professional photographer Steve Double’s black-and-white shots of Nirvana in action on stage. After so much chronicling of Nirvana’s moment in the spotlight, it’s a nice change of pace to look at their early days.
Anything Charles Peterson
More than any other person, Peterson should have his own photo book on Kurt/Nirvana, or at least grunge. He’s lent Billboard a number of his wide-ranging Kurt photos, and he has a sizable gallery of his iconic grunge pictures on his website.
LiveNirvana.com also houses what is likely the most comprehensive collection of Nirvana photos, categorized by year, that the Internet could ever hope to have.