Cobain, Kurt (Donald) 1967-1994
COBAIN, Kurt (Donald) 1967-1994
Born February 20, 1967, in Hoquiam, WA; died, April 8, 1994, in Seattle, WA; son of Donald (a car mechanic) and Wendy Cobain; married Courtney Love, February 24, 1992; children: Frances Bean.
Lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist for rock band Nirvana. Recorded albums Bleach, Sub Pop, 1989; Nevermind, Geffen/DGC, 1991; and In Utero, Geffen/DGC, 1993.
Journals, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Grunge rocker Kurt Cobain courted fame but was not prepared for the effects of stardom. As the lead singer of the band Nirvana, his albums went multi-platinum but he worried that his listeners were no different from the people who had sneered at him in high school. Depression and an undiagnosed stomach ailment led Cobain to "self-medicate" using heroin and to make several attempts at suicide. In 1994, after escaping a drug treatment center, he killed himself with a shotgun. He has since been heralded by some critics as a music icon. When a selection of entries from Cobain's diaries were published as Journals, the book thrilled some and troubled others, who found the public airing of private thoughts shameful. The writings reveal the musician's loves and hates, fears and pains, and ultimate inability to cope with his life.
Growing up in the small logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain was a happy child until his parents divorced when he was seven. The ensuing years were full of uncertainty and anger, as he was shifted from one home to another. Music became an outlet for his emotions, and in 1985 Cobain decided to drop out of school and form a band with his friend Krist Novoselic, who played bass. In 1987 they began playing as Nirvana and moved to Seattle. Their first album, a low-budget recording titled Bleach, was filled with harsh, punk-influenced cuts as well as Cobain's more melodic "About a Girl." Word-of-mouth popularized the album and attracted the attention of major record companies. With a new drummer, Dave Grohl, the band signed with DGC Records and released Nevermind in 1991. The album features Nirvana's best-known song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Nevermind was considered the first "alternative" rock album to reach number one on the pop music charts. It made the band members millionaires and catapulted Cobain into the public eye. This new role conflicted with his self-image as an outsider whose songs included criticism of the exploitation of women and gay-bashing. During this tumultuous period, Cobain married punk-rocker Courtney Love, who was pregnant with his child; the birth of his daughter Frances Bean would be one of the brightest points in his life. But Cobain's dependence on heroin, painful medical condition, and growing fears that he was artistically bankrupt fed his despair. Following the release of In Utero, he nearly died in Rome from an overdose of tranquilizers in early March of 1994. The band's tour was cancelled and Cobain returned to the United States. After escaping from a drug treatment center, he killed himself on April 8, 1994, leaving a loving but tortured note to his wife and child.
The sale of Cobain's journals, which he began in the late 1980s and included some twenty spiral notebooks, was controversial. It earned Love some $4 million and was viewed by some as supporting her own drug habit. The resulting book was a full-color, facsimile of a portion of his writings. The cover includes a note that Cobain made warning someone, most likely a girlfriend, not to read what was inside; another encourages the reader to go ahead, so that they might figure him out. The contents include his often bitter commentary on the music industry, fame, musical influences, politics, his health, drug use, and family life.
The act of reading such private thoughts without permission troubled a number of reviewers. Writing for Powell's Books, Adrienne Miller said, "eighty percent of this book made me feel as if I were examining someone's dirty underwear." What she did gain from the book was the perception that "one thing is clear … nobody achieves Cobain-level fame unless he wants it." Jeremy Fenton wrote for the Northern Rivers Echo that "interpreting a person's life from journals left behind is a dangerously misguided exercise." He warned that "Kurt Cobain was as contradictory as they come" and judged that "as a stand-alone document it is for fans alone." Library Journal's Rachel Collins suggested that the book needs to be read in conjunction with a biography, noting "no one involved with the project provides any context, and this absence is keenly felt."
In a review for Nation, Alex Abramovich considered at length the impressions made by Journals. He explained, "what Cobain tries hardest to communicate in his journals is his own inability to communicate, and he seems to recognize, in his own spiritual exhaustion, an exhaustion of the language itself." Abramovich found the writing far grimmer than any of Cobain's songs, of which he said, "Even at their darkest, Nirvana's songs were filled with light. But Cobain's Journals, which consist essentially of the same rhetoric we find in his songs, pull off the difficult trick of making his words sound mundane again—they never break through the darkness." The distaste he felt for the invasion of Cobain's privacy was, however, mitigated by this thought: "But Cobain is dead, and a better question may be not what he would have thought of the Journals' publication but whether a book like the Journals could have saved the life of someone like Cobain, had he read it in time."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Newsmakers, Issue 4, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Library Journal, December 2002, Rachel Collins, review of Journals, p. 129.
Nation, December 9, 2002, Alex Abramovich, review of Journals, p. 28.
Northern Rivers Echo,http://echonews.com/ (April 29, 2003), Jeremy Fenton, review of Journals.
Observer Online,http://www.observer.co.uk/ (October 20, 2002), Barney Hoskyns, "Rock's Last Great Star."
Powell's Books,http://www.powells.com/review/ (November 13, 2002), Adrienne Miller, review of Journals.*