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Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain Hardcover – August 15, 2001
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The art of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was all about his private life, but written in a code as obscure as T.S. Eliot's. Now Charles Cross has cracked the code in the definitive biography Heavier Than Heaven, an all-access pass to Cobain's heart and mind. It reveals many secrets, thanks to 400-plus interviews, and even quotes Cobain's diaries and suicide notes and reveals an unreleased Nirvana masterpiece. At last we know how he created, how lies helped him die, how his family and love life entwined his art--plus, what the heck "Smells Like Teen Spirit" really means. (It was graffiti by Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna after a double date with Dave Grohl, Cobain, and the "over-bored and self-assured" Tobi Vail, who wore Teen Spirit perfume; Hanna wrote it to taunt the emotionally clingy Cobain for wearing Vail's scent after sex--a violation of the no-strings-attached dating ethos of the Olympia, Washington, "outcast teen" underground. Cobain's stomach-churning passion for Vail erupted in six or so hit tunes like "Aneurysm" and "Drain You.")
Cross uncovers plenty of news, mostly grim and gripping. As a teen, Cobain said he had "suicide genes," and his clan was peculiarly defiant: one of his suicidal relatives stabbed his own belly in front of his family, then ripped apart the wound in the hospital. Cobain was contradictory: a sweet, popular teen athlete and sinister berserker, a kid who rescued injured pigeons and laughingly killed a cat, a talented yet astoundingly morbid visual artist. He grew up to be a millionaire who slept in cars (and stole one), a fiercely loyal man who ruthlessly screwed his oldest, best friends. In fact, his essence was contradictions barely contained. Cross, the coauthor of Nevermind: Nirvana, the definitive book about the making of the classic album, puts numerous Cobain-generated myths to rest. (Cobain never lived under a bridge--that Aberdeen bridge immortalized in the 12th song on Nevermind was a tidal slough, so nobody could sleep under it.) He gives the fullest account yet of what it was like to be, or love, Kurt Cobain. Heavier Than Heaven outshines the also indispensable Come As You Are. It's the deepest book about pop's darkest falling star. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
"And there had never quite been a rock star like Kurt Cobain," Cross eulogizes in this celebrity biography. Unfortunately, Cross, former editor of the Rocket, a Northwestern music and entertainment weekly, never proves his claim. Instead, Cobain's story, culled from more than 400 interviews with friends, family and colleagues and exclusive access to Cobain's unpublished diaries, sounds wholly ordinary, from boilerplate adolescent bitterness about his parents' divorce ("I hate Mom, I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom, Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you want to be so sad") and malt liquor, punk rock-adorned angst to the tawdry details of his drug addiction. "Even in this early stage of his career, Kurt had already begun the process of retelling his own story in a manner that formed a separate self," writes Cross as he carefully dispels some of Cobain's self-made myths, including claims of living under a bridge, "tales... about his constant abuse at the hands of Aberdeen's rednecks" and harboring an aversion to fame. The many unenlightening observations are often painted thick with sensationalism; other times, Cross trawls the bottom for sources whose credibility and relevance are dubious at best. (For instance, he interviews Cobain's drug-addicted ex-babysitter, Cali, and some of her girlfriends, yielding a depressing she-said-he-said of Kurt's final days.) Conspiracy theorists will speculate about the conditions under which Cross gained access to Cobain's private journals. Complete with gossip and meticulous references, the biography will catch the devotees, though, like junk food, it may leave them feeling unnourished. 16 pages b&w photos. (Aug. 15) Forecast: Released on the 10th anniversary of Come As You Are and with radio giveaways, this book will sell well.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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The most egregious lies come from Courtney Love. Her account of Kurt's lost days after his final "escape" is contradicted, on tape, by recordings Tom Grant keeps posted on his site. Courtney knew Kurt's whereabouts when he was in Los Angeles, even though she claims in the book that she did not. She also admitted to Tom Grant that she staged a fake overdose during her "hotel detox" on the day before Kurt's body was found. Her account of how and when she met Kurt has been debunked on the record by friends and journalists who were there at their first meeting. (It would belabor the point to provide more examples.). Regardless of why you think she might have done it, it's clear that Courtney has deliberately misled journalists, the public, and law enforcement on the subject of her late husband. If Charles Cross had any integrity, he would question her reliability as a source now--if he didn't when he wrote this.
Moreover, this entire book reads like a loaded thesis on the subject of why Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Cross loads the deck almost from the first sentence, framing the entire narrative with a sense of the inevitable that would have made a diehard fatalist like Thomas Hardy feel the need for a little levity. No doubt Kurt was a sensitive boy whose broken home left terrible scars that he explored in his music. But Kurt was more than the sum of his miseries: his sense of humor--juvenile and sarcastic but also surreal and uplifting--was part of what made Nirvana unique. You can hear the goofball humor that comes from small-town boredom in Kurt's interviews if you listen to him talk or watch him and Krist misbehave on camera. Charles Cross never once asks what may be the most important question a rock biographer should ask: what was it about this person that all these people loved so much? One answer I can give, from experience, was that we felt like he was one of us. I can't speak for everyone, but my friends and I loved him for the weird little in-jokes built into Nirvana's gnomic public appearances. Kurt was winking at us--sometimes very, VERY broadly. Cross ignores this aspect of Kurt's personality entirely, and the result is a sadly one-dimensional portrait of a person who was much more complex than this book indicates. (This narrative also absolutely serves the theory that Kurt could not have died any other was besides suicide, but I leave it up to the reader to decide whether she or he wants to explore other theories on that subject.)
Finally, there's the writing itself. So much of what is in this book is blatantly unsupported. It's terrible, lazy writing. There's the infamous last chapter, but there are plenty of other examples. Who says Buzz Osbourne was a tyrant? Who outlined the "rules" or "laws" of punk rock that Cross refers to several times in the book? (I'm a cranky old punk, and I don't buy all of them). Where did stuff like this come from? All this subjective stuff is so weird. But the worst, really, is the way that Cross jumps into Kurt's head at the beginning of the book, and doesn't get out. It's presumptious at the least, and dishonest at the worst.
If you read this book, please read some other books about Kurt and Seattle in the 90s, too. Please read Tom Grant's most recent book. Please read a good oral history of Sub Pop records. Please spend some time learning about more than just Kurt, because there's more to this story than this.