Heavier Than Heaven
Blame Kurt Cobain for ‘N Sync and Britney Spears. When the Nirvana frontman committed suicide in 1994, he effectively sounded the death knell for Gen-X/slacker/grunge culture, which at the time seemed as monolithic as the hippie movement of the ’60s. It’s as if a legion of music fans and bizzers, stunned by the grim finality of Cobain’s act, collectively decided, If this is where authenticity and self-expression lead, give us artifice and showbiz.
While the ripple effects of Cobain’s death drove most of his musical peers back underground or to extinction, his shadow continues to loom accusingly over a pop landscape that would have been anathema to him had he lived. Among those who cherished Nirvana, the tendency is to romanticize his memory; ”Saint Kurt” is the part-snide/part-sincere appellation posthumously awarded him by more than one wag. Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross’ Cobain biography, belies its gimmicky title (a reference to the slogan used by promoters to advertise Nirvana’s 1989 British tour) by humanizing, not mythologizing, its subject. As the book makes amply clear, Cobain was quintessentially human, with all the good and bad that accompanies that condition.
Up until now, Michael Azerrad’s authorized Nirvana biography, ”Come As You Are,” has been seen as the ultimate behind-the-scenes look at Cobain. That’s likely to change. Cross, a former editor of the influential Seattle music magazine The Rocket, brings to the table his firsthand knowledge of the Northwest milieu from which Nirvana sprang. He conducted some 400 interviews with family members, friends, and business associates, and the results of his assiduous reporting show through in every chapter.
The text is liberally peppered with excerpts from Cobain’s unpublished diaries, which provide all-too-visceral insight into the man’s private pains and compunctions. If you hadn’t gathered as much by now, Cobain had a wealth of problems. A working-class child of divorce, he spent his teenage years in Aberdeen, Wash., living the sort of existence that leads to jails and institutions far more often than to rock stardom. A high school dropout with a fondness for beer, cheap drugs, and rock, he was homeless when most kids were still doing homework. His future fate hung about him like a shroud; as one friend remarked: ”He was the shape of suicide. He looked like suicide, he walked like suicide, and he talked about suicide.”
Cross methodically follows Cobain’s path literally from the cradle to the crematorium, breaking chapters down by years and months. It’s a remarkable portrait of, in Graham Greene’s phrase, ”a sort of life,” and it makes for harrowing reading. There is humor here — the account of Nirvana’s tour with fellow grungesters Tad almost makes life in a van with no money seem like laughs and fast times — but tragedy is never far away. By the time Nirvana get around to recording their 1991 breakthrough album ”Nevermind,” Cobain is already enmeshed in an on-again/off-again death dance with heroin, a drug that was certainly a contributing factor in his suicide (he shot up before putting that shotgun in his mouth). One of the more fascinating revelations here is that it was he who reintroduced a (then) clean Courtney Love to the drug, and not the other way around.
Indeed, the frequently vilified Love emerges from these pages as, if not exactly every man’s dream mate, certainly a loving wife. There’s nary a hint of the Courtney-killed-Kurt talk that swept through certain corners of the music industry a few years back. (Could it have anything to do with the exclusive access to Cobain’s unpublished diaries Cross was granted, presumably by Love? Just asking, mind you.)
Ultimately, ”Heavier Than Heaven” is as engrossing as a good novel, providing a glimpse into the rise and fall of this most unlikely generational spokesman. That he was able to take his pain and, with the aid of a guitar, shape it into songs that clearly and unequivocally struck a universal nerve was what catapulted him to stardom. That he was ultimately unable to conquer his demonsÃ* which, Cross implies, most likely included undiagnosed depression on top of heroin addiction — was what killed him. And with ‘N Sync topping the pop charts, this is as good a time as any to recollect Kurt Cobain in tranquility.