The Man Who Sold the World
with coy phrases such as "if you read you'll judge," I doubt if the man you get
to know throughout the pages of "Journals" by Kurt Cobain would, when the end
came, have wanted this book published. It's fascinating like a car wreck, and
I, for one, wish that only the music survived his death.
As leader and songwriter
of the band Nirvana, Cobain proved himself to be one of the most innovative musicians
in the history of rock 'n' roll. He certainly re-energized it at a time when it
was foundering in the hairsprayed heavy-metal period of the late '80s. More than
anything else -- his rage, his musicianship -- he was genuine. These journals
bear out that fact. They are angry, they are sad, they are whiny, they are naive
and heart-wrenching, but they are always genuine.
isn't enough. In these undated letters, poems, lyrics in various drafts, imprecations
against the media, scenarios for videos, caviling political and social furor,
cartoons, schematic drawings for guitars and various lists (he repeats his favorite
album list over and over, ad nauseam), he doesn't reveal himself in any coherent
narrative, only through bits and pieces that only the most ardent rock fan would
want to wade through. His writings contain the same passion and rage his lyrics
do, but without the music, there is no heart quality (or "inner register," as
Henry Miller would call it) to give the pieces their flow and their edge.
When he writes letters to friends, usually fellow musicians, he is sweet, enthusiastic
and generous in his praise of their work. In a letter firing early Nirvana drummer
Dave Foster, he is businesslike and almost apologetic. When he writes about himself,
he is usually either defensive, captious or utterly self-deprecating:
"I need to re-learn the English language. I seem insincere because I can't choose
or decide fast enough. My penmanship seems scatological because of my lack of
personality .... I am obsessed with the fact that I am skinny and stupid."
The last line is a constant theme whenever he writes about himself. From the time
he was a young child, he writes, he was so skinny that his entire body could fit
in the leg of his pants. One page is practically blank but for the words "Nordic
trac," along with the 800 number to order one.
As to his numerous references throughout the diaries of himself as stupid, while
you can't be a rock star without a sense of cockiness, he understood the limitations
of his genius and knew he could write with authority only coming from the place
of a musician.
It is a gorgeous book, containing selections from 20 notebooks locked in a vault
since his suicide in 1994. They are reproduced elegantly by digital photography,
right down to the spirals from the Mead notebooks Cobain favored. Cobain's handwriting
comes in various stages of legibility (he printed almost exclusively) and at times
paid little attention to punctuation and spelling. When using a felt tip, his
hand is more easily read than in ballpoint. Some of the more illegible pieces
toward the end of the book are set in type in the notes section in the back. The
drawing in his cartoons is fairly good, but what is more interesting are his illustrations
of his fantasy guitars. Guitar players and gear heads will love this stuff. Most
are variations on an amalgamation between a Fender Jaguar and Mustang, with notes
beside them describing types of pickups, humbuckers, headstocks, etc. He also
doodled designs for Nirvana T-shirts and album covers.
But what Cobain does not do in these pages is elucidate his creative process.
We just see the lyrics on the page; there is no explanation for them. While it
is rock 'n' roll tradition from Bob Dylan on down that to explain a lyric is to
crush its diamond-hard center, we don't get a good look into Cobain's mind as
to how he arrived at those lyrics -- an anecdote describing under what condition
they were written or what might have prompted their writing:
"[M]y lyrics are a big pile of contradictions. They're split down the
middle between very sincere opinions and feelings that I have and sarcastic and
hopefully -- humorous rebuttles towards cliche -- bohemian ideals that have been
exhausted for years.... I mean I like to be passionate and sincere, but I also
like to have fun and act like a dork.
That's about as much as you get when it comes to self-insight into the lyrics.
Then again, it is nice to see them printed out in their various drafts -- sloppy,
and with surprisingly few changes. It's likely these were rewritten from earlier
lines on napkins and envelopes. They don't have the feel of first drafts. Late
in the book, Nirvana fans will cringe when they read:
"Within the months between October 1991 thru december 92 I have had 4 four Notebooks
filled with two years worth of poetry and personal writings and lyrics stolen
from me at separate times. two 90 minute cassettes filled with new guitar and
singing parts for new songs damaged from a plumbing accident, as well as two of
my most expensive, favorite guitars. I've never been a very prolific person so
when creativity flows, it flows. I find myself scribbling on little note pads
and pieces of loose paper which results in a very small portion of my writing
to ever show up in true form. It's my fault but the most violating thing I've
felt this year is not the media exaggerations or the catty gossip, but the rape
of my personal thoughts ripped out of pages from my stay in hospitals and aeroplane
rides hotel stays etc. .... You have raped me harder than you'll ever know."
This is a typical Cobain invective. It is easy at first to see this passage as
simple moaning or to wince that someone of such talent would not take the time
to make copies of his work. However, by the end of the excerpt you realize that
his attitude is befitting, especially in the ethic of punk rock. Friends who would
make an artist stand guard over his notes, lest they rip them off, deserve Cobain's
execration. As for his indolent work habits, this was simply the only way he knew
how to get it done.
When he speaks about his decline into a daily use of heroin after returning from
his second tour of Europe with Sonic Youth, he justifies his habit:
"I decided to use heroine [he always uses this misspelling when referring
to the drug] on a daily basis because of an ongoing stomach ailment that I
have been suffering from for the last five years had literally taken me to the
point of wanting to kill myself .... Every time I swallowed a piece of food I
would experience an excruciating burning nauseous pain in the upper part of my
He goes on to describe the 10 gastrointestinal procedures that he had since the
start of this disorder, the 15 doctors he consulted and the 50 types of ulcer
medication he has taken. "The only thing I found that works was heavy opiates,"
This stomach illness, which he describes in another diary with less dramatic symptoms,
remained uncured and a problem until his suicide. From this period of daily use,
he goes on to say, touring in any country where he could not score seemed impossible,
so he would detox and deal with the stomach ailment. At one point, down to 110
pounds and unable to eat, he found an experimental drug that alleviated the pain
for nine months with no opiate side effects. Soon afterward, however, he slipped
back into a desire to curtail the burning in his mind as well as his stomach and
returned to heroin.
I doubt if he read many books. He was sadly unworldly, painfully shy and filled
with self-loathing. Cobain despised the hippies for not succeeding in their original
revolutionary mission, as if his generation was entitled to be born into an idyllic
world. This, of course, has been the complaint of many generations before, but
it's a bit shocking when you realize that a man capable of such musical genius
could be so naive and, at times, sniveling. Even here, however, his authenticity
comes through. No matter how juvenile, querulous or brilliant, it's impossible
to find any lacuna between the writings and their writer.
One of the most telling pages comes toward the end of the book, although it seems
like something written much earlier:
"Hi, I played the snare drum in school band from grades five to nine. during this
time I didn't bother learning how to read sheet music, I just waited for the geek
in first chair to learn each song, then I simply copied him. I managed to do well
without ever having to read music. It took me 5 years to realize how rhythmically
retarded I was as a drummer, so I sold some of my father's guns then used the
money to purchase my first six string electric guitar. I learned everything I
needed to know from one week of lessons which resulted in the famous musical knowledge
of the louie, louie chords E A B."
The irony of young Kurt selling his father's guns to get the money for his first
guitar is obvious and unsettling. In fact, the reader will find a number of passages
in this book that are either ironic or prescient of his death. That's strange
because Cobain himself, at least judging from these writings, had a damaging paucity
of irony and, more so, humor. The book's nearly complete lack of the latter may
be the saddest thing about it, and about him, for that matter. If Cobain could
have filtered his many grievances, justified or imagined, through some notion
of humor, maybe he could have avoided trading in his guitars for a shotgun.
Jim Carroll is the author of "The Basketball Diaries." His album "Catholic Boy" was
released in 1980.
©2002 Jim Carroll / Los Angeles Times
The original review was found at http://www.calendarlive.com/books/bookreview/cl-bk-carroll1dec01,0,3483915.story?coll=cl%2Dbookreview