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His Biography Is All in His Songs

'Heavier Than Heaven,' an exhaustive new book on Kurt Cobain, is moving and revealing, but ultimately unnecessary to appreciate his music.

October 07, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at

I spent only a little time with Kurt Cobain, the painfully sensitive young musician and songwriter who helped rock 'n' roll recapture its heartfelt teen spirit in the early '90s. But I liked him immensely as a person, and felt bad when so many adults, before and after he ended his life with a shotgun blast to the head in 1994, dismissed him as a spoiled, whining poseur.

Nevermind that fame killed Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and so many other rock icons. Cobain was a symbol to many adults of everything that was wrong with a slacker generation they saw as ungrateful and unmotivated. They couldn't understand why anyone so successful would complain about stardom.

I'll always be haunted by the mood in Seattle on the April night of Cobain's funeral.

From a downtown street corner, you could literally see the opposing sides in possibly the most chilling generation gap ever in rock. In one direction, some 5,000 young people were leaving a park where they had stood for two hours in the evening chill to pay respects to the man whose melancholy melodies and anguished vocals mirrored their deepest emotions.

The other way, however, the rest of the city seemed as cold as the night itself--not just indifferent, but actually hostile in some cases. "They ought to pass out shotguns to all the rest of [the bands]," said one man in his 40s.

One of the valuable things about Charles R. Cross' "Heavier Than Heaven," a Cobain biography from Hyperion that is one of the most moving and revealing books ever written about a rock star, is that it helps us understand the insecurities and demons that both infused Cobain's art and tormented his mind.

But the book also helps us examine what it is we really need to know about artists and how much that knowledge should affect our appreciation of their art.

As editor of a respected Seattle music weekly called the Rocket, Cross was in an ideal position to watch the rise and fall of Cobain, whose band, Nirvana, was both the artistic heart and commercial catalyst for the Seattle grunge movement that also gave us Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

What fascinated Cross as much as what happened to Cobain after Nirvana was what happened before. The author spent four years interviewing more than 400 people and eventually persuaded Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, to give him access to some of her husband's diaries.

Cross is so faithful in his search for the person rather than the star that we're almost halfway into the 352-page book before Nirvana signs with Geffen Records. The label would soon release "Nevermind," which would sell 7.6 million copies in the U.S.

The author clearly respects Cobain's work, but he explores his life with a valuable detachment, and he points out the singer's dark side, including his extensive drug use.

For those who felt that Cobain's anguish and fatalism were an act, the most chilling passage in "Heavier Than Heaven" comes early when Cobain, whose family had a history of suicides, tells a friend, "I'm going to be a superstar musician, kill myself and go out in a flame of glory."

He was 14.

Cross' book reminds us how little we learn about artists from magazine profiles or even most biographical books. Access to the artist is usually limited, and the focus of the examination is on stardom, the reaction to it or the reasons for it.

Journalists see only what the artist or celebrity wants to share, and base their conclusions on visits that can be as short as a couple of hours.

I loved Cobain's music and sensed a genuineness about him, but I also heard a lot of conflicting things about him, including that his much-stated aversion to stardom was just an act to build credibility in the rock underground.

So I was wary the first time I met the thin, soft-spoken musician. It was in fall 1992, a year after the release of "Nevermind" and a time when Cobain felt so fragile that he had pretty much isolated himself from the media. He and Love were living with their 4-week-old baby, Frances, in an apartment in the hills near the Hollywood Bowl.

Cobain had requested the interview. He had no album or tour to promote, but something had been troubling him. He had heard the rumors about his heroin addiction, and although he admitted that he had used it, he saw nothing glamorous about drugs and dreaded the idea that his fans might be tempted to try them because they had heard the rumors.

"I don't want my daughter to grow up and someday be hassled by kids at school," he said. "I don't want people telling her that her parents were junkies.... We have a lot of young fans and I don't want to have anything to do with inciting drug use. They are a total waste of time."

He was, he swore, a changed man, and that drugs were no longer part of his lifestyle. "Holding my baby is the best drug in the world," he said.

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