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Portraits of Cobain
on October 22, 2008
Personally I thought Charles R. Cross has wrung Kurt Cobain's musical and personal legacy dry.
But apparently he hasn't, as evidenced by the image-heavy brick that is "Cobain Unseen." It has some basic biographical information about Cobain and attempts to address his inner life, but doesn't really reveal much that we don't already know. The real draw is the seemingly endless slew of pictures, letters and scraps from his all-too-brief lifetime.
After briefly covering the major events of Kurt Cobain's childhood, Cross explores his ramshackle youth and growing musical abilities -- culminating in Nirvana (whose name he says stemmed from Cobain's love of Eastern beliefs), one of the most groundbreaking bands of the 1990s.
But Cobain's life remained pretty tumultuous, as Cross explores quite a few aspects of Cobain's life -- his dark outlook and weird fascinations, his rebellion against his own fame and the widespread adulation of him, his marriage to the crazy rocker Courtney Love, and the birth of their daughter. And, of course, the days leading up to his early death.
Cross's prose portions are serviceable, but it feels more like a longish magazine article instead of a biography. Some of the anecdotes are moderately interesting -- such as Kurt seeing a dying suicide as a schoolboy -- but most of this stuff is a glossy, rapid look over his life. Most of the time, Cross's written stuff simply form a framework for the rest of the book.
The really good stuff is the pictures. There's a brilliant array of personal photos -- a laughing Cobain posing with his baby daughter, in concert, standing beside Japanese Jizo statues, hanging out with Courtney Love or his bandmates, playing with a steering wheel as a baby. They show him from all emotional angles -- happy, miserable, rebellious, mournful, angry, sullen, quirky, and even with a faint, dark fire in his eyes.
Some are unstaged and mildly blurry, while others look like magazine photoshoots -- like a beautiful picture of a blank-faced Cobain posing amongst doll heads, with a blanket of roses over his head. And there are many fragments of Cobain's interests -- odd dolls, masks, heart-shaped boxes, monkeys with batteries, tiger suits, carved-up drawing figures and audio cassettes covered in fruit stickers.
But the most unusual stuff is the assorted fold-outs and removable items -- ads for Nirvana, a copy of Kurt's high school diploma, a CD of old songs, blurry letters, X-rays, handmade cards, and even an old handwritten draft of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It makes the book seem like less of a biography, and more like a collage of various fragments from Cobain's lifetime.
The prose content comes second in "Cobain Unseen," where beautiful pictures and rock'n'roll relics reveal a vibrant personality that still shines from the pages. Definitely worth checking out.