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The inside story of how Cobain's journals went public

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Kurt Cobain, Journals
Kurt Cobain: Blecken/Retna

Here they are now, entertain the idea of a book: On Nov. 4, Riverhead issued 360,500 copies of Kurt Cobain’s ”Journals,” a collection of lists, lyrics, rants, stories, and letters penned by the leader of the band Nirvana, a revered songwriter who was born in coastal Washington in 1967 and who died by his own hand 27 years later. The publication of this unintentional autobiography of the famously talented and infamously troubled artist is a vast leap in the mythologizing and marketing of Kurt Cobain. And the journey from Cobain’s hands to a store near you involves healthy measures of the serendipitous and the surreal.

After Cobain’s 1994 suicide, Eric Erlandson — a friend of Cobain’s and an ex-boyfriend and then-bandmate of his widow, Courtney Love — salvaged his notebooks. ”Stuff was getting ripped off from the Cobain house left and right,” says Charles R. Cross, author of 2001’s well-regarded Cobain bio, ”Heavier Than Heaven.” ”There were a lot of people hanging around there whose drug problems were significant, and Erlandson had the foresight to gather up Kurt’s belongings and put them away.” The Cobain estate then stowed them in high-security storage.

Cross learned about the trove of writings two years into research for his book: ”Courtney said, ‘You really have to read his journals if you want to understand Kurt.”’ He was soon poring over 20-odd notebooks.

Cobain had kept the diaries out in the open, sometimes literally on his coffee table. ”It wasn’t like these things were squirreled away or hidden under a desk or something,” Cross says. ”He encouraged people to read them.” Much of the material in ”Journals” was written before Nirvana became famous: ”Stuff that he wrote sitting around his apartment in Olympia watching TV. Then there are a number of times when he’s sort of trying to quote-unquote work on himself in some way or another and turns to writing again. It’s as if writing in his notebooks was a crude form of therapy for him.”

For Jim Barber, the writings constitute ”a manual about how to be a rock star.” Barber, 38, is a former music exec who is Courtney Love’s music manager — and, for about three years now, her boyfriend. ”That’s almost how we conceived the book,” he continues. Who is we? ”You can say the estate, but, actually, I was sort of turned over the notebooks and told to sort out what was there.” Barber began cataloging Cobain’s papers — that is, those not lost or stolen or left with friends and exes — and separating the material suitable for public consumption from ”the private stuff”: ”That winnowing process…took about a year.”

David Vigliano runs an eponymous literary agency specializing in celebrity books. In January, he got a tip from his accountant that Love was looking to sell a book. He met Barber at a hotel bar in L.A. ”I told him what my game plan would be,” Vigliano says. ”To cull a really good selection of what he had and invite a limited number of publishers to a hotel suite.”

A month later, in Manhattan, Vigliano and Barber showed photocopies of about 70 journal entries to editors and executives from a dozen houses, ending each half-hour appointment by spinning Nirvana’s final studio track, ”You Know You’re Right.” ”Just to let them know,” Barber says, ”that if everything worked out, there would be a new Nirvana song coming out around the same time we hoped the book would be released.” (What needed to be worked out was a long-running legal dispute between Love and Cobain’s Nirvana bandmates. The parties settled on Sept. 30, allowing Universal Music Group to present, on Oct. 29, ”Nirvana,” a greatest-hits collection featuring that newly issued song.)

Riverhead, a division of Penguin Putnam, preempted a planned auction. No one will confirm the reported figure of the offer, $4 million.

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