'Nevermind' the bollocks, here's the real story of Kurt Cobain


September 16, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic


The only thing I enjoy more than listening to rock 'n' roll is reading about it. Time once again for a roundup of recently published rock books.

In light of all of the sanctimonious drivel that's being written circa the 10th anniversary of "Nevermind" (c.f. Rolling Stone magazine), you're forgiven for thinking that the last thing the world needs is another book about Nirvana or its enigmatic leader, Kurt Cobain. But Heavier Than Heaven(Hyperion, $24.95) is the biography that the most important rocker of his generation has always deserved: exhaustively researched (former Seattle Rocket editor Charles R. Cross conducted some 400 interviews), full of insight into the "real" Cobain as opposed to the manipulated media image (Cross had access to all of Cobain's journals), and written in a clear and compelling if somewhat less than poetic voice.

Even better, the book is ever-mindful of the fact Cobain despised the Baby Boomers' romantic version of the "rock star myth," and nothing blows that to pieces more than a careful presentation of the facts.

This biography should forever silence the obsessive conspiracy theorists who delight in considering how "Courtney killed Kurt." Both Cobain and his famously controversial wife Courtney Love emerge as real and troubled Generation Xers whose deep and abiding passions could be both good and bad for one another. Cross effectively debunks the notion that Cobain ghost-wrote Love's best songs--she seems to have given him as much inspiration as he gave her--and the idea that Love got him hooked on heroin. Chronically depressed and unable or unwilling to erase the pain of a typically divorce-scarred childhood, he was courting death via overdose long before the couple even met, and he was the one who launched her habit.

Cobain's long, sad and excruciatingly detailed march toward oblivion in the last weeks of his life is presented in such a fashion that no one will ever be able to think of it romantically again. It was pathetic, pure and simple, and the star knew it, even if he couldn't escape it.

In contrast to New York journalist Michael Azerrad, whose Come As You Are previously stood as the best book about the band, Cross paints nuanced and non-romantic pictures of Aberdeen (where Cobain grew up), Olympia (where he started to make music), and Seattle (both pre- and post-alternative boom), and he doesn't seem to have been compromised by having won the cooperation of the Cobain estate. The frank revelations in Heavier Than Heaven have the effect of reducing Azerrad to a publicist-apologist, while Love is said to be none too happy with Cross, despite the access that she granted him.

Unwilling to let Cobain's hyperbole and myth-making lies stand unchallenged, the author portrays an artist who invented himself in the classic rock tradition, and who hungrily courted success at the same time that he was repelled by the nature of stardom. The book's only shortcoming is that it never quite conveys the catharsis of Nirvana's music. For all of his misery and the suicidal tendencies that he exhibited from his early teens on, Cobain evinced true joy in the defiant and life-affirming act of hammering away at his guitar and howling into a microphone. To get a sense of that, we must turn to his music, and that's probably as it should be. But for the real story about the boy, it is unlikely that any book will ever top Heavier Than Heaven.

Azerrad, meanwhile, has been working backwards, spending three years researching and writing Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 (Little, Brown, $25.95), a collection of 13 profiles of the post-punk bands that built the underground scene Nirvana brought into the limelight (and which was quickly commodified, marketed, and ravaged).

Arguably the most creative period in American rock after the psychedelic high point of 1966 and the punk heyday of 1976, this era and the music of bands such as Black Flag, the Minutemen, Husker Du, the Replacements, and Chicago's Big Black deserve a book that celebrates and puts it in perspective. But Azerrad falls short on several counts, starting with the way the tome is organized.

More significant and problematic than quibbles with his undue bias for noise-rock bands on SST Records (he ignores or disses the West Coast's "Paisley Underground" and the many jangly pop groups in the REM/Feelies/dB's/ Yo La Tengo mold) is a band-by-band structure that invites readers to simply skip over the artists they aren't interested in. It also ignores the fact that the story of the '80s underground was one of a vibrant and intertwined community, and the fanzine editors, college radio DJs, record store owners, and club bookers were just as important and as interesting as the musicians.

There was a great, novelesque epic to be written here, full of one-of-a-kind characters, but Azerrad captured only a narrow slice of it.

Rather than depicting a particular way of living and creating, Our Band Could Be Your Life is a hodgepodge of occasionally intriguing but more often overly familiar rise-and-fall career arcs in the accursed, simplistic style of VH1's "Behind the Music." The difference is that these are groups that too few people ever knew or cared about, and the author doesn't do much of a job of arguing why that should have been otherwise.

If we were right to be skeptical about the need for another Nirvana book, we should be mercilessly cynical about another tome devoted to the Rolling Stones. Amazon.com lists 133 titles already available, and with The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth standing as the best-written account of the group's most interesting years and Bill Wyman's Stone Alone holding a place of honor for the sheer level of fascinating inside detail, the only claim left for Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones (Broadway Books, $27.50) is that it brings us up to date on the artistically insignificant details of these greedy millionaires' recent stadium cash-ins and celebrity divorces.

The author of the classically tawdry but devilishly fun Led Zeppelin saga Hammer of the Gods as well as a long list of eminently skippable authorized bios of the likes of Aerosmith and Mick Fleetwood, Stephen Davis is one small step above hackdom. He's to be commended for a thorough, chronological charting of the facts (shedding welcome light on the recording of "Exile On Main Street," for example), but he evinces zero grace in his prose, very little critical insight in his song-by-song analyses, and a startling lack of perspective that, if not downright hateful, is nonetheless unforgivable as a recurring sin of journalistic omission.

To cite only two of the most egregious examples, Davis casually drops the horrifying facts that Wyman hid under a hotel bed while his wife Astrid Lundstrom was raped when the Stones were recording in Jamaica, and that Keith Richards was "mad as hell" when his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg was arrested on the island and repeatedly gang-raped in her prison cell. More time is spent noting the band's fondness for curried goat than examining either of these stories, much less getting the women's perspective, begging the question: Who is more self-centered and misogynistic, the Stones or their latest biographer?

There is a slew of other recent titles that are likely to get less hype, but some are ultimately more deserving of readers' attention.

Edited by Kim Cooper and David Smay, Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth: The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears (Feral House, $19.95) is a smart, fun, and insightful anthology of pieces that combine to form a history of a genre that is simultaneously insidious and delightful, calculated and naive, and disposable and enduring via lifetime memories of teenage crushes.

Newly available as a trade paperback, Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records (St. Martin's Griffin, $14.95) is Nadine Cohodas' account of the Chicago label and the men who ran it. Praised for its thorough examination of the company's marketing skills and its debunking of several Chess myths, it has also been rightly criticized for being biased in favor of the family, which cooperated with its writing.

A self-proclaimed "hip-hop intellectual," DePaul University professor Michael Eric Dyson has a distracting fondness for injecting the first person into his prose, and he can be guilty of obfuscatory rock-academic doublespeak. But overall, Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur(Basic Civitas Books, $24) is a thought-provoking examination of the man and his music, giving context to both, and illuminating the artistry, the politics, and the culture that produced both.

Rip It Up! Rock & Roll Rulebreakers by Denise Sullivan (Backbeat Books, $17.95) follows in the tradition of Richie Unterberger's Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll and Ronnie Sarig's The Secret History of Rock in rounding up the author's well-crafted profiles of some cult favorites who deserve a place of greater honor in the rock pantheon (Spiritualized, Julian Cope, Peter Case, Tom Verlaine). It's a scattershot collection, but unlike Our Band Could Be Your Life, it doesn't pretend to be anything but. In contrast, In Cold Sweat: Interviews with Really Scary Musicians by Thomas Wictor (Limelight Editions, $18.95) is a thoroughly useless collection of nothing-special Q&A's by an editor of Bass Player magazine. What factors unite Gene Simmons, Peter Hook, and Devo's Jerry Casale? Apparently, nothing more than the fact that the author had these interview transcripts sitting in a desk drawer.

Representing a new low in groupie solipsism is Rebel Heart: An American Rock 'n' Roll Journey (St. Martin's, $24.95), an autobiography of Bebe Buell co-written with the ubiquitous Victor Bockris and notable primarily for its cheesecake photos. (Here's Bebe in Playboy! Here's Bebe pregnant and naked! Etc.) Did trees really need to die just so this woman could detail her affairs with Todd Rundgren and Stiv Bators? And can it really be that someone warrants a biography just for being Liv Tyler's mom?

At turns invigorating and infuriating, John Strausbaugh'sRock 'Til You Drop: The Decline From Rebellion to Nostalgia (Verso, $25) is a bilious diatribe of a book that bashes millionaire geezer rock stars who've continued well beyond their prime. The fun part is that while you'll likely agree with its argument when it comes to groups you despise, you'll want to throw it out the window when it addresses one of your personal heroes. Even cynical punks have some sacred cows.

Finally, representing a burgeoning new literary subgenre, we have a bevy of books (some novels, some nonfiction, and some nonfiction posing as novels) attempting to portray "what it's really like" to live and work as part of a nothing band that's going nowhere fast. Why, you may reasonably ask, would I want to read about that? The answer is all in the writing; given enough wit, insight, and/or stylistic flair, we'll read 10,000 words about raising penguins in Antarctica, as the New Yorker proves. And even the dullest band's tour diary is sexier than that.

The pick of the litter here is Like Hell(Hope and Nonthings, $12), the Bukowski-esque debut novel by Ben Foster, a.k.a. punk-rock legend Ben Weasel, who recently disbanded his long-running group Screeching Weasel for what he swears is the third and final time. Foster's prose packs the same energy and snotty humor as his music, and it's just as compelling. Other entries in this crowded field, more or less in order of artistry and interest, include Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman (Scribner, $23); Off the Record by David Menconi (iUniverse.com, $19.95); Amped: Notes From a Go-Nowhere Punk Band by John Resh (Viper Press, $X), and You Think You Hearby Matt O'Keefe (Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95).