Come As You Are
Even with a perplexing soon-to-be war brewing, Newsweek has chosen to give its cover to a man who's been dead for eight and a half years. While the stench of international conflict taints the air we breathe and the pages we read, the notoriously boring newsmagazine has sprayed Teen Spirit air freshener upon the world. The result will have half of the nation waiting with bated breath for a man's diary to hit the shelves. They have also amplified a point that, apparently, was only hinted at before.
Simple and plain, Kurt Cobain was a fuckin' genius.
In its Oct. 28 issue, now on newsstands, Newsweek has published excerpts from "Journals," an upcoming collection of diaries by Cobain, who was simultaneously the messiah, martyr and Pontius Pilate of '90s pop. To say that Cobain expanded the definition of a rock star goes without saying. As Axl Rose was in the process of transforming himself from a menacing thug -- a racist, homophobic one, at that -- into a misunderstood, tender, yet bombastic man whose muse was Elton John, so Cobain made depression and introspection vogue in a way that no singer-songwriter had previously done. A crushing sound with an interesting pop sensibility created the perfect backdrop for Cobain's lyrics, the portrait of a thoughtful, confused and compelling young man with acute difficulty dealing with the pain -- physical, emotional and mental -- in his life.
Nearly 10 years after his death, Cobain is not viewed quite like the other members of the 27 club -- artists who departed at that age or earlier (Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and others). Where so many died from their excesses, excess drove Cobain to take his own life. He hated being famous, was cursed by his fascination with the Beatles and their obvious influence on his music. The adoration of fans -- a love it always seemed he didn't get enough of in his personal life -- drove him to put a shotgun to his head. Apparently, there is such a thing as too much love.
But now that he's only a part of most memories -- though many would contend he holds a place in their souls -- "Journals" may become his most enduring body of work. If Cobain's life was a movie, "Journals" is the director's cut, the musings and contemplations of a mad genius. More than that, these passages are some of the most interesting reading I've come across in years, and I boldly predict they will stand the immeasurable test of time. At root, they are the musings of a confused, picked-on kid with a whole lot to say, even if it didn't make any sense. Consider this passage (quoted directly from Newsweek's excerpts, which chose not to correct Cobain's erratic grammar and idiosyncratic spelling):
"I like punk rock. I like girls with weird eyes. I like drugs. (But my body and mind won't allow me to take them.) I like passion. I like playing my cards wrong. I like vinyl. I like to feel guilty for being a white, American male. I love to sleep. I like to taunt small, barking dogs in parked cars. I like to make people feel happy and superior in their reaction towards my appearance. I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity. I like sincerity. I lack sincerity ... I like to complain and do nothing to make things better."
Scatterbrained yet concise. Impassioned yet ambivalent. Intelligent yet incoherent. (And incredibly similar to the song "Lithium," off "Nevermind.") Such confusion was part of what made Nirvana's music so interesting, almost the way the lack of clarity in Monet's work allowed the connoisseur to decide what he was really trying to paint. "A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido." Yeah? Made absolutely no sense, and that was cool. In a similar way, so is the above passage.
Though it has yet to be seen what the complete version of "Journals" will look like, Newsweek's excerpts focus on two major points -- fame and drug addiction. Considering that fame was the focus of the suicide note that Courtney Love read at a public memorial service after this death, it was a predictable topic, as was heroin addiction. What could not have been predicted was the detail in which Cobain's addiction -- or lack thereof, as he maintained -- was described and the insights into mega-stardom he had to contribute.
After Vanity Fair's allegations in 1992 that Love used smack while she was pregnant with her and Cobain's daughter, it was hard to have a discussion about Cobain without talking about the white lady. As was common knowledge to many, Cobain took heroin to deal with incapacitating and undiagnosed stomach pain. While he would go so far as to write that he was "not a junkie," later passages describe the pain and travails of drug withdrawal, his way of telling whoever he thought might read his words not to shoot up.
While in rehab, Cobain meticulously detailed his history of heroin use, a sad memoir that foreshadowed his demise. After a prescription mix-up, Cobain writes, "I instantly decided to kill myself or stop the pain. I bought a gun but chose drugs instead." Though the proximate cause of his heroin use was physical pain, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there was more emotional pain at the root of his malaise than is made clear in "Journals."
Most entertaining are his travails with fame and superstardom, something with which Cobain never felt comfortable. His favorite bands were fairly broke and pretty obscure, and he felt as though he had betrayed them, as though his music was intended to be niche-oriented and was tainted by his alliance with David Geffen and their mutual goal of mass distribution.
"If we were going to be ghettoised, I'd rather be in the same slum as bands that are good like Mudhoney, Jesus Lizard, the Melvins and Beat Happening rather than being a tennant of the corporate landlords regime ... I would love to be erased from our association with Pearl Jam or the Nymphs and other first time offenders."
But that was a deal that Cobain had made with the Man. Though he and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl (who seems to be quite comfortable with fame) initially disliked the polishing that the record company gave to "Nevermind," they went along with it. It was a deal Cobain couldn't back out of, and as a result, he was unable to find the balance between being a great rock musician and being a rock star.
"Oh Pleez GAWD I can't handle the success! The success! And I feel so incredibly guilty! For abandoning my true commrades who were the ones who are devoted who were into us a few years ago. And in 10 years when NIRVANA becomes as memorable as Kajagoogoo that same very small percent will come to see us at reunion gigs sponsored by Depends diapers, bald fat still trying to RAWK at amusement parks. Saturdays: puppet show, rollercoaster & Nirvana ..."
It never got to that point, and a gander at these diaries makes it clear that it never could have. Cobain writes that he hopes he'll have died before he becomes Pete Townshend (the most morbid yet fall-down funny line in the available excerpts). But the comparison is instructive: Cobain started out with Townshend's more mature, softer side, but never abandoned the hard-rocking angst with which Townshend began. Where the Who's critics have accused the band of smoothing out their music as time went on, there was always a tender accessibility to Cobain's dismay. But Nirvana's members never quarreled among themselves about it. Novoselic and Grohl did not violently oppose Cobain's softer side the way John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Roger Daltrey often did with Townshend.
This was just who Kurt Cobain was, a tortured soul whose pain was more identifiable than he wished it was. The insecurities he wrestled with turned out to be less bizarre than he thought -- check the record sales! -- a fact that would be cathartic to most. It created a fame that was more than his "enemeic [sic], rodent-like body" could handle. David Geffen didn't create Cobain's persona; it was what circumstance, nurture and his body predetermined for him.
Cobain didn't have to create a character like Townshend's Tommy. He was his own walking opera. If Newsweek's snippets are a true indication, the sheet music to that opera will be made available to the public, open for our discussion, contemplation and explication. Debate will erupt over the public's right to pore over a dead man's soul as though it were a fossil or an archaeological treasure. (Cobain even mentions in the journals that the kind of thing I'm doing now amounts to "rape.")
But that discussion is moot now. "Journals," better than any biography could hope to be, will make essential reading for anyone looking to understand the 1990s' most important pop star. It's more compelling than "The Rose That Grew From Concrete," the posthumous book of poetry by Cobain's hip-hop counterpart, Tupac Shakur, since it provides a much more intricate look at a figure so complex he couldn't even figure himself out.
One thing is easy to see while reading "Journals" -- great pain can make for great art, and it has a strange way of shedding light on brilliance. It also makes for short lives.
Bomani Jones is a writer in Southern California.