THE LIVENIRVANA COMPANION TO OFFICIAL RELEASES: HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN - THE BIOGRAPHY OF KURT COBAIN (Charles R. Cross)

A Review

Numbers in brackets denote footnotes (see end of review).

"Heavier Than Heaven" [HTH] is a new Kurt Cobain / NIRVANA biography (published August 2001). Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of the grunge band NIRVANA, arguably the most important rock band of the 1990s, which became famous following the release of their breakthrough album "Nevermind", with its breathtaking opening anthem, "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Cobain committed suicide in 1994 following extensive heroin use.

Comparisons with Rolling Stone writer Michael Azerrad's 1993 biography, "Come As You Are" [CAYA] are inevitable. CAYA is considered to be the definitive NIRVANA book, and benefited from exclusive access to Cobain over several months. Although it contained frank descriptions of Cobain's heroin use, its joyous tone and upbeat conclusion imply that Azerrad was exercising considerable self-censorship on many issues, which is unsurprising bearing in mind that CAYA was the only officially sanctioned book.

Cross follows the same format as CAYA in his book HTH. Both commence with a snippet from an event in NIRVANA's career, then examine Cobain's childhood in detail, and introduce Krist Novoselic, NIRVANA's bassist, and the plethora of drummers as necessary. However, whereas CAYA rounds off the story with the release of NIRVANA's last studio album, "In Utero" in October 1993, HTH devotes many pages to reconstructing the events leading up to Cobain's suicide in April 1994.

Cross's book is a work of considerable scholarship, and his extensive research (over more than three years) uncovered many areas of obfuscation in the life of Cobain as set out in CAYA, and also several outright lies. HTH also re-examines the roles of many of the central characters in the NIRVANA story, and reaches some startling conclusions. Cross devoted time to interviewing many people more loosely connected to the band than Azerrad as well as the main characters to give a more complete description of the events both books describe. The one character Cross could not cross-examine was Cobain himself, a difficulty he circumvents by quoting Kurt from press interviews, and in particular, from CAYA itself. He also quotes frequently from Cobain's personal diaries and unsent correspondence (1), to which Courtney Love, Cobain's widow, gave him unprecedented access.

The problem with HTH is that Cobain's upbringing was dealt with in detail by CAYA, and so HTH seizes on every discrepancy, however trivial, to avoid mindless repetition of the same facts as those given in CAYA. Cross also has a tendency to rush through those periods in Cobain's life where he could not dispute CAYA, which makes HTH appear very stilted, in stark contrast to the smooth flow of the story in CAYA. Hence HTH comes across more as a guide to CAYA, a "Readers' Notes & Explanations", than a stand-alone biography. This sense is exacerbated by the extensive quotations from CAYA.

HTH highlights how Cobain had a flair for exaggeration and embellishment in his recanting of his history to Azerrad, but Cross seems to miss or ignore the point of this misrepresentations: Cobain thus livened up a rather dull story, and was able to put "spin" on his recollections to avoid seeming overly misanthropic. Reading CAYA is akin to listening in on an intimate conversation with Cobain; most people are sensible enough to realize that Cobain's anecdotes would, of course, have been blown up to be interesting, just as anyone who was recalling their life history would do.

Thus HTH delineates with glee how Cobain's tale of dredging up his father's guns from the river to buy his first guitar was untrue (although diligent readers of CAYA would have noticed that Azerrad also mentioned that Kurt's first guitar was a present from his father). HTH also describes how Cobain's first concert was not in fact a punk show, but a Sammy Hagar show in Seattle, a lie that arose, Cross plausibly claims, from Cobain's insecurity in his Olympia days when he began to hang out with the musicians clique.

CAYA recounts how Cobain almost lost his virginity one night while residing with his mother Wendy. HTH notes that this tale was rather misleading, that there were in fact two girls involved, and Cobain did, as it happened, sleep with the other one that night. More disturbing is the revelation that Cobain sexually molested a mentally impaired girl when aged sixteen, and only escaped incarceration on account of his age. It is left to the reader to consider how this event is in apposition to his public pro-women's rights stance of later years. Cobain also, Cross alleges, murdered a cat while a teenager.

Wendy O'Connor is the one character who undergoes the most startling "revision" in HTH. CAYA describes her as an ideal mother, and the reader infers that the combination of Kurt's deviance with his horror at watching his mother being abused by her partners caused him to leave home. HTH, however, describes how Wendy was prolifically promiscuous and had a taste for considerably younger men, and it Kurt's (understandable) irritation with this that drove him out of his house. Cross's portrait of Wendy verges on the vitriolic, and since Cross notes elsewhere that Wendy would not co-operate with HTH because she plans to write her own book on the subject, one might infer that reporting the truth was not the sole motive for Cross.

HTH re-tells all the "sensational" drugs stories from CAYA, which, as it turns out, were pretty accurate. Cross informs us that Cobain's first overdose was in fact the night of his Saturday Night Live performance in January 1992. HTH also describes how Cobain was desperately trying to score heroin just prior to NIRVANA's Unplugged performance in November 1993, and that MTV's executives were more than willing to help. That a multinational corporation is willing to resort to such activities to support bands may be unsurprising, but the revelation may be egregiously embarrassing for MTV if picked up by the puritan American media.

Cross does not dwell on the pre-1994 recording sessions of NIRVANA, assumedly because this is so well documented elsewhere, but of course a Cobain biography must mention these, so Cross again hurries through them. His attempt to be succinct backfires: he describes some songs in depth and others not at all. He makes extensive notes on those songs where he finds anomalies with Azerrad's descriptions, for example on the meanings behind a slew of the songs on Nevermind, the anger in which he claims actually resulted from his break up with Tobi Vail. This, Cross alleges, includes "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Lithium". It is well known, however, that "Lithium" was completed in time for the Evergreen Sessions in March 1990, before he broke up with Tracy Marander.

HTH treads on very thin ice when attempting to correct Azerrad on the "In Utero" songs. Cross alleges that Courtney Love, Cobain's spouse, had a very considerable impact on and input in Cobain's songwriting. This may or may not be true, but his evidence he employs to back up his claim varies from shaky to obviously fallacious. Cross devotes two paragraphs to extolling Love's contribution to "Pennyroyal Tea", claiming that she wrote many of the lyrics and helped with the music. The fact that NIRVANA played the song at the soundcheck of a concert in April 1991 (2), some seven months before Cobain began dating Love, reveals that Cross is certainly mistaken. The only lyrical change in the song from then to its recording in 1993 was the opening phrase - if this was indeed due to Love, replacing four words (3) cannot possibly be termed "considerable", and pales in comparison to Cobain's theft from others of other lines in the same song such as "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld". As for the music, not a single note changed from the early live versions (4).

Indeed, whenever Love is mentioned, she is always portrayed in the best possible light. Sections dealing with Love read like a hagiography, and perhaps this is unsurprising considering that Courtney is on excellent terms with Cross, as evidenced by Love's frequent familiarized citations of Cross: "charlie [sic] tells me" in her recent postings on hole.com's webboard. This personal friendship has seemingly prejudiced Cross's editorial ethics. The need to acknowledge Love's contribution to NIRVANA, not mentioned elsewhere, is real, but making false claims is clearly an idiotic way of attempting this: when Cross also claims Love aided with "Heart-Shaped Box", the knowledgeable reader must already be highly skeptical following Cross's earlier claims, so it is impossible to ascertain the veracity of this assertion.

Cross chooses his words meticulously throughout the book. He tries to guide the reader's sympathies towards Love, not only by his version of events, but also by referring to her mostly as "Courtney", the use of her Christian name conveying intimacy, whereas he tries to make the other band members seem more distant by referring to them as "Novoselic" (rather than Krist) and "Grohl". Cross describes Novoselic as tersely as possible, even bordering on hatred, and barely mentions Grohl at all, despite the fact that Cobain lived with him for several months and was, at times, very close to Cobain.

Cross does present the first account of NIRVANA's final studio session in January 1994 (5). Apparently, Cobain only bothered to attend on the final day of recording, so the first two days were devoted to Krist Novoselic and David Grohl compositions. HTH reveals that Cobain did in fact play drums on David Grohl's song "Marigold", contrary to the credits on the sleeve of the "Heart-Shaped Box" single. It is well known that "You Know You're Right" was recorded at this time. The lyrics have apparently been perennially misreported: the chorus refrain is actually "Pain", and one memorable couplet is actually, "And I am walking in the piss / Always knew it would come to this." Most interestingly of all, some work was done on other new Cobain compositions, including "Skid-marks" and "Butterfly".

HTH becomes grimly compelling reading as Cross unfolds the unfortunate events in the rest of 1994. Most of this information has never been published before, and there is too much to summarize here. As Cobain's depression mounted, he demanded a divorce and an end to NIRVANA, and began injecting more and more heroin. Cobain's friends, such as Dylan Carlson (6), who tolerated and even encouraged Cobain's drug use, seem to be the real villains, helping Cobain escape from a drug rehabilitation center.

In "Kurt and Courtney", Love's father claimed that on Kurt's birthday in February 20th 1994, Love was cheating on Cobain in London with Billy Corgan, lead singer of The Smashing Pumpkins (7). Cross, however, uses language to imply that Love was merely on promotional business in London, and avoids stating that Love did in fact meet Corgan at all. When he quotes Cobain as being suicidal a few days later (and Kurt did in fact make a very serious attempt not even two weeks later) because Love had cheated on him with Corgan, Cross follows this accusation with the word "allegedly", in a pathetic and transparent attempt to try to deflect criticism from Love.

By April 1st 1994, four days before his suicide, Cobain had returned to his home in Seattle. On this date, the nanny of the house, "Cali" spoke to Love by telephone, who was still in Los Angeles. The story that Cross recants (from Love) is that Cali failed to mention that Cobain was back at home, so she scoured heroin dealers in LA for Cobain, and in the event, injected some, and was therefore incapacitated and unable to co-ordinate the search properly.

Finally, HTH uncovers an enormous amount of previously undocumented information surrounding Cobain's suicide in 1994. A number of so-called "murder theories" have been proposed (8) following that tragic event to attempt to explain the various inconsistencies in the circumstances at that time, for example the absence of fingerprints on the gun Cobain (allegedly) used that day. Cross tells us that these were probably smudged when the Police dragged the gun from Cobain's grasp. If HTH had not been so heavily biased towards Love in earlier chapters, this finding would surely have been the final nail in the coffin of those (rather unconvincing (9)) theories, but again, since Cross's objectivity has already been questioned, an open-minded reader will consider his book inadmissible as evidence. Indeed, some internet wags have suggested that Love was a major motivation behind this book, using it to credit her with her influence on the band, and destroy the pernicious rumours that she had her husband killed.

Those critics who malign CAYA as an inaccurate "fairy tale" version of events miss the point: it is the story as Cobain told it. Azerrad even makes oblique references in CAYA to the fact the Cobain's version of events is not quite a verbatim transcript of the truth, by chiding Kurt about playing Iron Maiden songs when he was young, which Cobain vociferously denied. CAYA is a sympathetic, subtle, eloquent book, which has a resounding intimacy in its words.

HTH, on the other hand, often comes across as flat and pedantic, and vacillates from uncomfortable prurient examination of Cobain to distant analysis from paragraph to the next. Cross arguably is too scholarly: there are too many characters in HTH to make the book cogent to anyone but the most hardened NIRVANA fan. Cross also seems reluctant to tell the complete story: his sections on Cobain's early life are particularly lackluster, and one gets the feeling that he was reluctant to have to create a whole book, and would indeed have preferred to write corrections for CAYA, or at least start the story when NIRVANA was already formed. Cross has the habit of getting ahead of himself, and describing events in a non-chronological order, which makes the book rather difficult to follow and unclear at times. The book seems to have been finished in a desperate hurry.

If CAYA did not exist, HTH would probably be hailed as the best NIRVANA biography, but as it is, CAYA has had first-mover advantage, which leaves HTH's tales of Cobain's drug excess seeming like old news. HTH repeats many of the same anecdotes that are found in CAYA (and elsewhere), again, which is necessary if one attempts to write a comprehensive biography, but they seem old and tired, and Cross fails to tell them in a novel or exciting way. The impact of CAYA on HTH is even stronger than that: Cross makes several unconscious steals of vocabulary from Azerrad (10).

Once HTH reaches the point in time where CAYA leaves off, it is as if Cross breaks free of his shackles, and his writing becomes much more coherent and incisive. He writes the definitive account of the events of the last six months of Cobain's life, and this book is highly recommended for that alone.

Footnotes:

  1. In "How To Win Friends and Influence People", Carnegie mentions that George Washington was prone to writing insulting letters to others but never posting them. Cross reveals that Cobain did the same, with Tobi Vail, one of his ex-girlfriends, being a target.
  2. A five-second clip of the soundcheck of NIRVANA's 4/17/91 concert at the OK Hotel in Seattle is of Pennyroyal Tea. The song was also played several times before Cobain got together with Love, including on their 8/91 Festival tour, on 8/27/91 in Germany.
  3. The opening line of "Pennyroyal Tea" was originally, "I'm on Mercoptans and Demerol", and was changed to "I'm on my time with everyone" sometime in 1992/3, which is the version recorded for the "In Utero" album.
  4. "Pennyroyal Tea" was recorded in 1993 with the exactly the same structure and guitar solo as the early live versions (e.g. 9/20/91 Toronto), the only difference being the change of tempo from verse to chorus, which, it is possible, could have been Love's suggestion, but this is surely a very minor point.
  5. NIRVANA recorded in Bob Lang's studio in Seattle on 28-30 January 1994.
  6. Carlson is on camera in "Kurt and Courtney" as saying, "Kurt.. had no reason to give up" [heroin], a wife and family obviously not amounting to anything in his reckoning. The fact that Cobain supported his otherwise talentless band may shed light on Carlson's nave sycophantism which was clearly a factor in Cobain's downfall.
  7. The fact that this statement was not removed from the film by the libel lawyers (as much other material was expunged for this very reason) means that there was a completely sound factual basis for this: Love was in London with Corgan on this date.
  8. Tom Grant is a well known proponent of the "murder theories", see his website for further information.
  9. Nick Broomfield, the independent director of the film "Kurt And Courtney", who thoroughly investigated the media circus following Cobain's death, including the murder theories, was convinced that Cobain committed suicide. This, combined with all the other evidence, not least the contemporary Police report, leads one to infer that suicide was by far the most likely explanation.
  10. This is including describing "Nevermind" as being "Number" [whatever] "with a bullet". There are other instances.

References:

  1. Come As You Are, by Michael Azerrad
  2. Kurt and Courtney, a film by Nick Broomfield

In March 2002, LN asked Mr Cross whether there was any evidence of Love's involvement in 'Pennyroyal Tea'. He replied,

"It certainly does not say that [she co-wrote it] in my book. But I do think it's fair to say she helped shape it, but then that's probably true of a lot of his songs, and certainly true of his impact on her. If they publish that part of Kurt's diaries, you'll get a better sense but without having them in front of me it's hard to give specifics."

NOTE:

The views expressed in this review are those of the author and not of LiveNIRVANA.com. Neither the author nor LiveNIRVANA.com accepts any responsibility for any errors in this essay, and the author will be happy to remove any assertions which are proved to be incorrect.


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