In an article in the recent Music Issue of the New Yorker, Robert Christgau reviews Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R. Cross, a new biography of Kurt Cobain. It sounds like it’s a pretty well-researched book and apparently the author had access to Cobain’s “drawings, journals, and numerous unsent letters.”
Christgau mainly praises the book, but he voices two complaints. First, Cross “inadvertently shortchanges” the music of Nirvana by concentrating too much on the life and history parts of the story. And second, it sounds like Cross might have worked a little too hard “augmenting the already plentiful evidence of Cobain’s attraction to stardom,” and didn’t spend enough time trying to figure out the alienated punk philosophy that states that mainstream = shit:
Of course, everybody knows it’s not cool to want to be a rock star. You’ve got to create art because it’s just bursting out of you, and you can’t hold it inside anymore, right? Well, apparently that’s not how it was for Kurt Cobain. He actually practiced his guitar. A lot.
Unlike the indie-rock ideologues Cobain so admired, Cross doesn’t believe that rock’s aesthetic value stands in inverse proportion to its mass appeal. Neither do I, but his argument might have been sharpened if he’d spent more time with the opposition: people like Calvin Johnson, the doyen of indie rock in Olympia, Washington, where Cobain moved to live with his first serious girlfriend; Tobi Vail, the riot-grrrl theorist who became Cobain’s second girlfriend; Steve Albini, who produced “Nevermind” ‘s followup, the raw, cold, edgy “In Utero”; and Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, the owners of Nirvana’s first label, the Seattle-based Sub Pop.
So I’m not sure what that really means to anybody. But it’s fairly obvious that he ended up hating being famous. He blew his own head off. It’s better to burn out than to fade away, right? Well, maybe the heroin had something to do with it too. “The official version of Cobain’s heroin addiction described it as off and on, spurred by chronic stomach pain,” writes Christgau. “Cross establishes that this story was a coverup. Cobain was a big-time junkie for all but a few stray weeks of his season in the public eye…”
I remember when I found out that Kurt Cobain was dead that I knew that everybody was going to end up blaming it on the drugs. But I was convinced it was the pressures of fame that did him in. That seemed a lot cooler to me when I was 22. More punk rock for sure. Taking a stand against the Man right up to the end. But now I’m not so sure. Both explanations (fame and/or drugs) seem pretty lame to me now. As the character Nate said in the season finale of “Six Feet Under,” people have to die to make life seem more important. Well, so what do we do with that?