Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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book cover

What Kurt Cobain did for rock and roll.

The recorded legacy of Nirvana is ungodly small--three studio albums, the first of which cost six hundred and six dollars and seventeen cents to make, plus one miscellany and two posthumously released live CDs. Given the exploitations that might well have ensued after Kurt Cobain killed himself in April of 1994, we should be grateful that the band's catalogue hasn't been stuffed with one of those four-CD boxes of redundant concert tapes that now diminish Jimi Hendrix, the Monkees, and the Doors. This exercise of discretion has been good for the band's image, and for our fond memories. There the six titles are on the shelf. Each sounds different from the others, and each sounds at least as vital today as it did when Nirvana was a historical force rather than a historical anomaly. Taken as a unit, Nirvana's albums are living proof of the subtlety and variety of what conventional musicology still regards as a crude, undeveloped genre.

Although the three members of Nirvana--Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl--looked like hippie-manque undesirables, their cultural identification was punk, and in 1991, fifteen years after the Sex Pistols turned the British music business upside down, they stormed American pop with it. But they worked hard and long before that. In a compelling new biography of Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven (Hyperion, $24.95), Charles R. Cross dates the band's first gig to a March, 1987 house party in Raymond, Washington, a nowhere logging town thirty minutes south of Aberdeen, the nowhere logging home town of the then twenty-year-old Cobain. That's four and a half years before Nirvana broke through with their second album, the cunningly produced major-label debut Nevermind. It's also eighty-seven pages into the three-hundred-and-fifty-two-page text, which reaches its midpoint before Nevermind is released. While this structure inevitably shortchanges the achievement of Nirvana itself, it's a crucial source of the book's considerable power. Cross asserts his compulsion to ask "questions concerning spirituality, the role of madness in artistic genius, the ravages of drug abuse on a soul"; the drug details are especially wrenching. But what emerges far more emphatically is the life story of someone who never grew up, someone whose maturation was half done before he was twenty-one, somone who extracted art from a perpetual adolescence that was over much too soon.

Many American kids have it worse than Kurt Cobain, and quite a few survive just fine. His family was never fully middle-class, never deep poor. He was well-loved until his parents divorced when he was nine, and he wasn't so badly treated after that; his mother was self-involved, his father uncommunicative and somewhat authoritarian, but neither was anything like abusive. When Cobain was seven, he was briefly diagnosed as hyperactive, and underwent a three-month course of Ritalin which he claimed set up his later drug use. He was gifted in the visual arts, where he was encouraged by a paternal grandmother whose hobby was carving Norman Rockwell images on the caps of mushrooms with toothpicks, and in music, where his model was his mother's guitar-strumming kid sister.

Unfortunately, he had other familial models as well--two paternal great-uncles and a maternal great-grandfather killed themselves. Cobain boasted to classmates that he had "suicide genes"; at the very least, something in his constitution predisposed him to take his misfortunes hard. Once a popular boy, he was a full-fledged stoner by his freshman year in high school, and he never graduated. Lazy, petulant, and depressed, he fought with both parents, living away from home intermittently. When he was seventeen, his mother kicked him out of the house after she interrupted him in the process of losing his virginity.

Cross underpins his story with assiduous interviewing--the partygoers at that first Raymond gig, for instance, are good for a riotous short chapter. He also gained access to Cobain's drawings, journals, and numerous unsent letters. One conclusion of his research is that Cobain didn't just dream of becoming a rock star--a hypothesis that the schismatics who squabble over Nirvana's heritage still argue about--but that he worked at it, too. A guitar teacher recalls that Cobain studied longer and more seriously than he wanted to admit to an audience he'd introduced to punk's just-do-it ethos, and among Cobain's writings are the texts of imaginary interviews, which include lines that showed up in real ones.

The work Cross put into augmenting the already plentiful evidence of Cobain's attraction to stardom almost certainly served his own prejudices; in addition to editing the Seattle music paper The Rocket from 1986--well before the local independent-label culture from which Nirvana was to emerge gained notable profile or clout--until it folded, in 2000, Cross worked with the widely circulated Bruce Springsteen fanzine Backstreets. Unlike the indie-rock ideologues Cobain so admired, Cross doesn't believe 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.

Jump-started by the contagious alienation anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the 1991 Nevermind went on to sell more than ten million copies, and transformed him into the first class-crossing rock idol of substance since Springsteen discovered barbells. Sloppy, malnourished, lank-haired, a self-proclaimed "negative creep" with beautiful eyes and a vocal attack that stylized adolescent angst as cannily as Billie Holiday's stylized the sophisticated kind, Cobain stands apart from the long line of rock's outsider heroes. He had little of the self-regard of Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper, Johnny Rotten, Michael Stipe, and none of the vanity or clothes sense or theatrical savoir-faire. Yet he wasn't a symbolic Everyman in the manner of Springsteen, John Fogerty, or Garth Brooks, either. He seemed like every born loser who ever failed gym--a geek you could get wasted with, a shy guy whose cuteness cried out for mothering, an arty weirdo with a common touch. So for two or three years, until his suicide registered as an act of abandonment, he gave a generation of losers a hero who felt like a loser himself, even in success--as opposed to a hero whose triumph they could only admire, emulate, envy. And thus he turned the barely self-sustaining concatenation of tendencies called "indie" into a hot genre called "alternative." Finally, some dreamed, ordinary fans would outgrow their craving for star power. And, if not that, maybe idiosyncratic cottage industrialists like Sonic Youth (who helped hook up Nirvana's major label deal) and the Meat Puppets (belatedly introduced to the outside world on Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged) would get the hearing, and the audience base, they deserved.

Cobain's ability to galvanize the young was the economic motor of the alt-rock bubble. The teen appeal of Sonic Youth (arty New Yorkers who imbued bizarre tunings and deadpan singing with pop pleasure) and the Meat Puppets (spaced-out Arizonans whose uncanny tunecraft won them a major-label deal well before Nirvana broke) was considerably narrower. But by the same token both bands were capable of reaching old punks, even old hippies who didn't get all gooey over Crosby, Stills & Nash. And here's the best part--Nirvana reached them too. Ten years after Nevermind was released, to merely acknowledge its power as a generational artifact is to stick it on a shelf and forget about it. It wasn't just teen-agers who loved Nirvana--it was everyone who cared about rock and roll. The band's moment is long gone. Its music isn't.

Of course the mystique remains, and of course new teen-agers discern something ineffably simpatico in Cobain's voice. But music is what has moved millions of copies of Nevermind since Cobain died, and what Cross inadvertently shortchanges. Familiar now with Cobain's extraordinary gift, we can hear it loud and clear on the 1989 debut album, Bleach. Cobain's gigantic, goofy, bass-playing buddy Krist Novoselic added drollery to the band's chaotic irreverence. But only with the entrance in 1990, of the robust, songful, head-bustingly hyperactive drummer Dave Grohl did Nirvana turn into a great band.

The conscious nakedness of Cobain's singing was key; in the studio, he pushed and shaped his white-boy burr to extremes rarely sustainable for more than a few vocals per day. Yet he's never sung more movingly than on the mellow, one-take MTV Unplugged, and the sharp cracks and forlorn howls on the carefully constructed live recording From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996) broaden our access to a sufferer who regularly veered beyond the outer reaches of self-control. Moreover, everything else on the records mitigates the pain of the voice--not just the melodies, which stick in the ears with a consistency few bands have equalled, but Cobain's guitar, riff-based no matter how furiously it tests the riffs' limits, and the lyrics he pulled together from years of notebook poetry, which even when morbid or opaque almost always break into tenderness, wit, illumination. Novoselic provides a solidity, certainty, and comfort, while Grohl revs and flails with an irrepressibility that repolarizes any negative charge Cobain has left pending. Throughout, punk minimalism redeems arena excess in a delicately shaded show of sonic force. Cobain was set on suicide, especially toward the end; as Cross points out, five of the six cover songs he chose for MTV Unplugged intimate death. But his music conquered such impulses as surely as sonata-allegro procedure leads the hero home--conquered them courageously, explicitly, and with the unmistakable message that existential struggle was at least as real for hippies-manques from nowhere as for Woody Allen or Jean-Paul Sartre.

Cobain's music conquered, and he didn't. The last half of Heavier Than Heaven is the agonizing story of how he got the fulfillment he wanted and hated it more than the frustration he'd known. Cross dates Cobain's acute heroin addiction (as well as many of the best songs on Nevermind) to his breakup with Tobi Vail in late 1990, when a character named "heroine" began appearing in his journal. In the next year and a half he achieved fame and fortune and married the love of his life--Courtney Love, of the quasi-riot-grrrl Los Angeles-based band Hole, a dream mate for one of the rare rock stars whose predilections were monogamous. Yet neither consummation would curb his need for chemical escape.

Some blame his abrasive, attention-grabbing wife for his drug abuse; she was so despised by some of his fans that early on there were rumors that she'd killed him. Although Love clearly co÷perated with Cross, he doesn't seem to be her stooge. His accounts of the child-rearing arrangements for Frances Bean, the daughter she had with Cobain, are highly uncomplimentary, and he notes that she "indiscriminately ingested" every drug her friends brought round after Cobain's death. And because Cross is straightforward about Love's many faults, he's convincing when he argues that Cobain dragged Love, whom no one would call abstemious, into using more dope than she would have on her own, and that, by the way, she contributed more to his music than he did to hers. The official version of Cobain's heroin addiction described it as off-and-on, spurred by chronic stomach pain. 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, including almost all his time with the daughter he loved. He was a frequent near-OD before he died; if the rifle that killed him had misfired, the hit of heroin he'd just injected might well have done the job instead. By shooting himself, however, he clarified his intentions. Kurt Cobain was bound for oblivion. How lucky we are that he made six records before he got there.

New Yorker, Aug. 20, 2001