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A Revisionist Look at St. Slacker : KURT COBAIN. By Christopher Sandford (Carroll & Graf: $13.95, paperback, 416 pp.)

November 10, 1996|Steve Hochman | Steve Hochman writes about pop music for The Times

The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it. . . . I don't have the passion anymore.

The words of Kurt Cobain's suicide note--penned on April 5, 1994, in his Seattle-area home just before he injected himself with heroin, put a shotgun barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger--still haunt today, perhaps even more than the suicide itself.

Faking it? To millions of young people, who still erect bedroom shrines in his honor, Cobain remains the epitome of naked honesty, the embodiment and conduit of their own yearnings and frustrations, the ultimate Lost Boy, the Generation X-Man.

To some, even his final act was nothing less than a validation of the reality of his songs, born of the psychic pain of broken homes and aimless lives. It was the very stuff that he shared with so many others of his age and that he channeled into the era's quintessential rock 'n' roll. Cobain wasn't just a suicide: He was a martyr--St. Slacker.

But Christopher Sandford, an English journalist who divides his time between London and Seattle, maintains that this was an image Cobain literally could not live with. It's a point Sandford hammers home on page after page in "Kurt Cobain," with accounts of the troubling episodes in what was so clearly a troubled life.

Sandford's is an obsessive pursuit, one that bypasses such popular Cobainalia pastimes as bashing his widow, the brash punk singer and actress Courtney Love; exploring conspiracy theories about his death (the Seattle coroner is satisfied it was a suicide); or speculating about the ultimate mystery: How could Cobain have been lying dead at his residence for three days before being discovered--especially since Love had hired a private detective to find him after he fled a Marina del Rey drug rehab clinic and his mother filed a missing person report with the police?

In his single-mindedness, Sandford has pieced together the most comprehensive retelling of Cobain's history yet. Familiar psychodramas abound in the book, including Cobain's childhood horrors, his taking a gun into pregnant Love's Cedars-Sinai hospital room and threatening to kill both her and himself and the March 1994 Rome overdose of barbiturates and champagne that left him in a coma and was revealed as a suicide attempt only after he actually succeeded a month later.

In between, the author provides details of virtually every pertinent day in Cobain's life, pieced together from the accounts of former friends, relatives, associates, enemies and his own observations. Most impressive is the detail given to events in the hazy last days of Cobain's life. The unexpected twist is that although there are countless episodes of Cobain as victim--of his parents, teachers, peers, his record company, managers, his constantly rebelling stomach and his wife--there are just as many painting him as an aggressive manipulator.

As presented here, the real Cobain was hardly the genius who exploded on the music scene with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the 1991 song that defined Generation X gestalt. Rather, Cobain is seen as a calculating, conniving figure finding comfort in drugs and guns, spouting feminism while leaving a trail of sick pornography and abandoned girlfriends, talking openly about bisexual inclinations but exhibiting a nasty homophobic streak, driven to create and succeed not from artistic ideals but as an escape from his rootless, painful past. He wasn't raised on the shoulders of his fans; he climbed there ruthlessly, a willing partner in show-biz manipulations, not an innocent or a rebel.

"Anyone in the performing arts is prone to the accusation of egotism and vanity," Sandford writes. "But when it comes to Cobain the stench overpowers anything that has gone before. . . . Cobain was accountable to the press, his audience and to a large body of loyal, impressionable fans for whom his songs represented an act of faith. . . [but] as [the 1991 album] 'Nevermind' sat at No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, Cobain worried constantly about being exposed as a fake."

How accurate is this portrait? It's hard to say, given that Cobain's life was shrouded in mystery. Sandford's narrative carries a ring of accuracy, though much of it is neither attributed nor verifiable.

The author stumbles, however, in his stabs at pop sociology and musicology. Too often he treats his own interpretations of songs as established fact; he frequently dismisses Cobain's artistic value and rejects much of his writing as contrived or inconsequential--a view counter to prevailing critical opinion. Although Sandford's portrait of Cobain is complex, his characterizations of the performer's fans and their generation are often facile and limited in scope.

Still, Sandford can make sharp observations; his comments at the end of the introductory chapter sum up the point of the book:

"There is a Kurt Cobain today on every street corner in Seattle: a morose pale-skinned man dressed in a winter coat whatever the weather, hunched, mumbling and raging against something. Cobain succeeded because, unlike theirs, his voice tapped the eternal themes of frustration, bewilderment and anger. Suddenly a sizable part of the world's youth had a hero figure they could relate to. The adulation had just the opposite of the desired effect on Cobain. When he realized that, for the first time in his life, perfect strangers not only admired but worshiped him, he was confronted with all his old feelings of inadequacy and doubt, and it was this weakness that killed him."

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