Thursday, May 17, 2007

Heavier Than Heaven

I wrote about Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles R. Cross, for my friend Jep’s website. This was back in early 2002, I think. In retrospect I’ll have to concede that my “nobody cares about or listens to Nirvana any more” lede was probably a case of wishful thinking on my part, though I do still think they were wildly overrated.

Nirvana’s Nevermind album, which propelled Kurt Cobain and his bandmates to multinational superstardom, was released 10 years ago last fall. The rock press duly tried to make an event out of the anniversary – there were retrospective features in Rolling Stone and Spin – but without much success. Over the past few months, we’ve heard more about Courtney Love’s business dealings than Kurt Cobain’s importance in rock history.

Which may be fitting, since the critical adoration of Nirvana probably has more to do with lucky timing than with the music’s quality or lasting relevance.

After all, Nevermind was released in a climate of “death of rock” hand-wringing, in the year of Vanilla Ice and “Rico Suave.” So rock writers who feared that the electric guitar would soon become a historical relic wept with relief at Nirvana’s popularity: here was a chart-topping hard-rock band free of embarrassing heavy-metal associations. Never mind that Nirvana were only one pop-punk act among many, hardly the most innovative or even the most tuneful. Never mind that much of the “grunge” that followed the band to the charts was no more creative or ambitious than a typical New Kids on the Block single. Nevermind saved rock and roll!

But for rock and roll saviours, Nirvana made some pretty unremarkable records. Most of their celebrated songs seem half-written, with modest riffs mercilessly overworked and all surprises gone by the third listen. Even “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the band’s signature song, now sounds like a mediocre tune greatly flattered by its arrangement. (Who could dispute that the most thrilling moment is that little drum flourish that heralds the roaring guitars?)

Still, Kurt Cobain’s story is a poignant one: a lonely, alienated youth achieves his lifelong dream of rock stardom, only to succumb to heroin addiction and kill himself at the age of 27. In a recent biography, Heavier Than Heaven, Seattle journalist Charles R. Cross methodically documents Cobain’s short and unhappy life. Cross’s extensive research – well integrated into the narrative – is augmented by a close look at Cobain’s private journals, courtesy of widow Courtney Love. With affection and respect, the biographer captures the human tragedy at the core of the story.

But Cross also remains admirably clear-eyed about his subject’s foibles, and the resulting portrait should debunk any illusion that this was a rock and roll visionary. Throughout Heavier Than Heaven, Cobain comes off as a grasping poseur obsessed with pleasing the cool kids. And in his later days, he was little more than a stupefied junkie.

At least Cobain’s early childhood was relatively idyllic, marked by artistic leanings and a love of music. But his parents divorced when he was nine, and his adolescence was troubled: he tested boundaries and wound up shuttling between parents, relatives, and friends. But he did not, Cross points out, live under a bridge in his hometown of Aberdeen – both Cobain’s sister and his Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic discredit that enduring legend.

In fact, Cobain’s talent for mythmaking becomes one of the book’s major themes. The phrase “despite what Kurt would later tell reporters” recurs often, and “Cobain, Kurt Donald, exaggerations by” is one of the heftier index entries. Some of these revisions are minor and even charming: Cobain claimed that the first band he saw in concert had been West Coast punk godfathers Black Flag, while Cross shows that in fact Cobain’s first live rock experience involved the somewhat less cool Sammy Hagar.

More troubling is the larger hypocrisy on which Nirvana’s career was built. After Nevermind broke, Cobain dutifully played the rock-star game –­ the press, the MTV appearances, the arena tours – while complaining at every juncture that the rock-star game was beneath him. Appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, Cobain wore a homemade T-shirt reading “Corporate magazines still suck.” But as Cross shows, Cobain was only too willing to let the corporate rock establishment manage his career. After recording In Utero, a harsher followup to Nevermind, Cobain bowed to label pressure and allowed producer Scott Litt to create more radio-friendly remixes of a couple tracks. As Cross writes, “Once again, when challenged by a problem that might affect the success of his record, Kurt acquiesced to the path of least resistance and greatest sales.”

Ironically, one such acquiescence proved to be a seminal moment in the band’s artistic development – though it came too late to be built upon. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance in November 1993, only five months before Cobain’s suicide, is discussed at length in Heavier Than Heaven, and rightly so: the show served as the basis for the band’s most affecting record. Cobain’s misery found expression in the sombre stage design and downbeat song selection, and the acoustic format forced the band to open up its sound – drummer Dave Grohl played with brushes instead of sticks. Nirvana’s quieter songs (“Polly,” “All Apologies”) were always among their strongest anyway, and here they were spliced with well-chosen covers, including Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and the Vaselines’ “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam.” In a nicely weird move, the band also did three Meats Puppets songs in a row (all from Meat Puppets II) – for which the Puppets joined them onstage.

Cross himself doesn’t look too closely at Nirvana’s music in Heavier Than Heaven. Most rock bios feature long and windy exegeses of each record, but Cross mostly restricts himself to trolling Cobain’s morbid lyrics for clues to his state of mind. (He points out that five of the six MTV Unplugged cover selections mention death, for instance.) But he is capable of striking insight. In relating a funny story about Cobain’s late discovery of the Knack’s wretched Get the Knack, Cross notes that Krist Novoselic “had a better grasp of the larger rock oeuvre…. Krist knew what was kitsch, while Kurt sometimes erred in this category.” Occasionally one wishes Cross would offer more such musical perspective.

The book’s only major failing, though, is its kid-glove treatment of the monstrous Courtney Love. No one who has followed Cobain’s career (or Love’s) could fail to see her as manipulative and opportunistic, but Heavier Than Heaven is heavy on oh-please lines like “He was a mystery to her, and Courtney was attracted by the unexplained.” There’s some evidence here of Love’s materialism – she pushed Cobain to buy a Lexus, and to headline Lollapalooza “to shore up their financial future” – but Cross consistently downplays such episodes, and readers have to pay close attention to catch them. It’s hard not to assume that Love’s co-operation with the biography – and her forking over of Cobain’s journals – explain the author’s uncharacteristically soft touch on this subject. (Speaking of those journals, in February 2002 Love negotiated a multimillion-dollar deal to publish them separately – despite the fact that, as Cross’s book shows, they’re often mortifying to Cobain’s memory. Reportedly she has never read them in entirety herself.)

Still, Cross charts Cobain’s life with a strong instinct for narrative and detail, and crafts a perceptive portrait of a conflicted and often fascinating man. (Though Cobain craved stardom and excess, he remained shy and awkward throughout his life – he’s doubtless the only rock giant whose sexual conquests failed to number in double digits.) And the closing chapters, detailing Cobain’s spiral toward suicide, effectively combine suspense, dread, and sadness. Cobain’s importance to rock and roll may be overstated, but his story of suffering is still powerful.

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