The warning is written by hand, inscribed on a lonely-looking sheet of spiral-bound stationery: ”Don’t read my diary when I’m gone.” And for a moment, anyone with qualms about invading a dead man’s privacy will wonder whether to press onward through Kurt Cobain’s posthumously published Journals. After all, this is a man who spent the last few years of his life recoiling from onlookers, and here we are now, ready to scrutinize even his most casually tossed-off thoughts.
But true to his famously contradictory nature, Cobain’s admonition turns into an invitation just a few lines later. ”Please read my diary,” he says. ”Look through my things, and figure me out.”
Such an impulsive change of heart makes for a fitting introduction to ”Journals,” an assortment of loose-leaf musings from the late Nirvana frontman that range from charming to heartbreaking. A natural writer, Cobain seems to have kept everything he ever jotted down — unsent correspondence, half-realized lyrics, comic strips, even guitar designs. They are all fragments of a man who teasingly revealed much of himself, yet, despite his plea, never allowed his followers to ”figure him out” after all.
”Journals” does offer as engrossing a collection of clues as we’ve seen for some time. Much of it is undated, the contents following a rough chronological arc that begins in Cobain’s drizzly Washington youth. Even then, he was a punk-rock workhorse, clearly enamored with the ethics and integrity of DIY bands like the Melvins and the Vaselines (to whom he sent enthusiastic fan letters, included here) and plotting and predicting his own band’s success.
The assertion that Cobain never wanted the fame that would eventually overwhelm him has always been too easy to swallow, and one corrective of ”Journals” is its demonstration of the startling degree of his ambition. In one note, Cobain fires early Nirvana drummer Dave Foster, chiding him for failing to show up for practice; in another, he drafts a list of ”things the band needs to do” that includes sending ”some f—ing demo tapes” and getting ”a list of prominent magazines & record stores that we could make contacts with.” The punk from the Northwest turned out to have remarkable business sense, not to mention foresight.
Still, for all his youthful determination, Cobain was also a bored, oft-zonked-out kid, and his raw teenage emotions yield some unnervingly personal moments. One such passage, which describes an awkward fumbling gone awry, is written with the sort of gender awareness that would show up in much of Cobain’s songwriting. ”Journals” may not make for an easy read, but it displays the formative stages of a man whose deeply felt empathy became something close to a curse.
It doesn’t take long for that heightened sensitivity to sour. By the time Nirvana found fame with 1991’s ”Nevermind,” Cobain was writing in his diary more than ever, and his moodiness began to devastate him. The drug references become more frequent (including several defenses of his use of ”heroine”), and his list of adversaries grows, with the media becoming a favorite target. ”I have been forced to become a reclusive rock star,” Cobain writes, ”due to the legions of self appointed authorities on music who are not musicians.”
The transformation is literally on the page: When Cobain’s thoughts swell with anguish, his handwritten scrawl — which used to spill over into the margin — often maintains a flatlining stream of calm, as if he were trying to reclaim the focus of his pre-fame days just as his life was being wrested from his control.
”Journals” doesn’t include Cobain’s most famous note, the one left for the world on April 5, 1994, when the 27-year-old took his own life. And surely, if it were not for that sad goodbye, we wouldn’t be reading this memento in the first place — at least not so soon. Some fans will curse Courtney Love and her hefty publishing-rights fee, but it’s hard to believe Cobain didn’t intend to share these writings at some point (why else would he carefully edit and reedit his thoughts, blackening the page with corrective scribble?). This remarkable document finally stands as one last message from the saddest teenager in the world, hiding his diary in a drawer near an easy-to-find key.