As a general rule of thumb, I don’t really like knowing all that much about the personal lives of artists whose work I enjoy. Almost invariably, they turn out to be kind of sucky people, which in turn means I don’t actually enjoy their music/writing/artwork as much as I did back when I was ignorant about who they were as people. There are, of course, exceptions – Agatha Christie’s autobiography was a delight that made me cherish her writing even more, and reading the collection of Wodehouse’s letters/biography was completely fascinating.
But in this case, I felt comfortable picking up this biography of Kurt Cobain because I already knew that Cobain was kind of a dreadful person, plus I’m really not that huge of a fan of Nirvana. So why even bother, you may ask? First off, because I am still working on my quest to read all of my own books – this is one that Tom had from before we were married, but it’s on my bookshelves, so it is on the list! Secondly, even though I’m not a gigantic fan of Nirvana, I can still appreciate the fact that they are a band that changed the course of musical history. Most of the time, if a certain band never appeared on the scene, we would miss that band’s music – but the course of music itself would be virtually unchanged. But Nirvana created something that was different and set its own course, and I felt like that piece of history was worth exploring.
There is no doubt that Cobain was Nirvana. It’s always interesting to me to see how some bands revolve around an individual, while others are comprised of a group. For instance, Led Zeppelin was four guys – and once one of those guys was no longer in the band, Zeppelin ceased to exist. They could never be the same band, because each of them contributed his own completely unique piece to the whole. But other bands, like Nirvana, are really about the one guy. The others can come and go (and the drummers certainly did), but at the end of the day, as long as the one guy is there, you still have the band.
I really felt like Cross did a great job with this biography. It can be difficult to write about someone who is a cultural icon to many, especially what that person isn’t actually that awesome. But Cross manages to present Cobain’s life in a way that was sympathetic, that explained a lot of his actions and attitudes, but didn’t necessarily excuse them. He didn’t try to gloss over the way that Cobain was a liar, a drug abuser, and pretty arrogant. Yet he still managed to make me see how people could come under his spell and still love and indulge him despite his difficult personality.
It’s pretty obvious that Cobain had some serious mental health issues. Someone close to me is bipolar, and there was a dark time in our lives when this person was coming to grips with this and was unwilling to seek/accept treatment. It’s so hard to know how to handle someone in that situation, whether to give into their whims or to stand up to them, because they are such a loose cannon – they aren’t going to respond like a ‘normal’ person, and you have no idea if telling them ‘no’ is going to make them say, ‘oh, okay,’ or will make them go off and cut themselves or worse. It’s terrifying.
All that to say, I was in sympathy with a lot of the people in Cobain’s life, and I was also aware of how, someone like that, when the times are good – they’re really good. During those highs, that person is the funniest, friendliest, most affectionate person you could imagine. I could totally see how people in Cobain’s life would stay loyal to him even through the times that he treated them like trash.
Anyway, Cross takes Cobain’s life chronologically. He spent years doing interviews, reading journals, doing research, etc., and this really comes through. This isn’t a trashy piece of gossip, it’s a thoughtful and insightful piece of literature. Cross talks a lot about Cobain’s childhood, I think in part because Cobain, in later years, created a sort of mythological/alternative childhood that never actually happened. He tended to take something that really did happen, and then exaggerate it. (E.g., left home in late teens and lived out of a car – becomes – had to live under a bridge for months because his parents refused to take care of him.) Cross carefully presents the reality of these events based on numerous other eyewitnesses. It’s also another interesting perspective of Cobain’s mental state – because in many of these cases, he himself now believed the alternate reality. Cross points out multiple times where Cobain would tell a story so often, that it became truth in his mind. It’s genuinely fascinating to me that sometimes liars don’t even realize/they forget that they are lying.
Cobain was an avid writer who journaled throughout his life. These are a large part of what give a glimpse into what was a very disturbed mind, as Cobain was always rather obsessed with the crude and dark. Cross does, at times, quote directly from these sources, and other times paraphrases them. Among other things, Cobain frequently wrote letters that he never mailed, and liner notes that were never published. At one point he was writing multiple drafts of a bio for the band when they were sending around their first demo tape. My personal favorite included the explanation that, “Nirvana is a trio who play heavy rock with punk overtones. They usually don’t have jobs. So they can tour anytime.”
One of the great tragedies of Cobain’s life was that he was never really satisfied. Even when he would attain a dream – his happiness was such a brief blip. This was definitely due in part to his horrific drug addiction. One which, even more tragically, he entered purposefully, planning to become addicted. Addiction is a truly terrifying thing, and to read about how this became the single defining, controlling factor in his life was very sobering.
I was genuinely shocked, however, by reading about how dirty he was! This seems to be a consistent theme from everyone who knew him – that he would legit just live in filth unless someone else came by to clean it up: unwashed dishes and clothes, not even a basic cleaning, filthy bathroom, pets that were allowed to be loose and left their feces around the house, etc. ICK I’m not going to pretend that my house is always ready for a photo shoot for Cottage Living, but at least I don’t leave animal waste sitting on the living room rug for days on end.
Something that really struck me was how Cobain let difficult times in his life win. The biggest one is the divorce of his parents when he was young – an event that really traumatized Cobain and, in many ways, laid a foundation for all the mental illness to follow. Cobain never got over this. He never reached a point of peace with this event. Instead, he let it control and embitter him for his entire life. And this was a pattern he followed consistently. When something difficult would come into his life, he never overcame it – he internalized it and let it eat him from the inside out. I’m no expert, but I can see this leading to his eventual drug addiction as well – in his mind, the only way to escape the struggles of his life.
Cross follows Cobain slow descent into the darkness that would eventually cause him to take his own life. It was hard to read, honestly – just so completely, unnecessarily tragic. And, let’s be frank, incredibly selfish. Even this, his final act on earth, was all about himself. I will say that this was the only section of the book that didn’t really ring true for me, just because Cross describes in detail exactly the steps Cobain took to kill himself – when most of that time Cobain was completely alone and left no record, so really Cross is just making an educated guess as to what occurred. My understanding is that everything that went into this book had to be cleared by Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love (who is also kind of a jerk and definitely was not universally liked by everyone else in Cobain’s life), so I’m sure that she preferred to have a detailed, step-by-step explanation of Cobain’s suicide, considering that there are still a lot of conspiracy theories that he was murdered, and that Love was the one who arranged for the murder to occur. (Cross doesn’t mention this theory even in passing; suicide is presented as unquestionable fact. I have done virtually zero research into this conspiracy theory and have no idea if it holds even a drop of water or not. I will say that suicide definitely fits the overall mental attitude of Cobain’s life; I’ll also say that I can totally see Love having him knocked off because she really is a dreadful sort of woman.)
This book didn’t particularly make me want to listen to more Nirvana. I did listen through Nevermind and In Utero while I was reading it, and maintained my opinion that, overall, this music is just wayyyy to angsty for my tastes, but it was fun to hear the songs while I was learning about their contexts.
While Heavier Than Heaven was not an easy, or particularly fun, read, it was still worthwhile. This is a biography that is well-researched and thoughtfully written, leaving me with a picture of a man who was not a hero or a god, nor a villain or a devil – just simply a man, haunted by his own decisions and demons. Whether you think Nirvan’s music is inspired or trash (or, like me, hit and miss), there is no doubt that the man behind the band was complicated and layered. Setting aside his musical legacy, this biography was still a worthwhile read as an examination of what mental illness and drug addiction can do to a life. If you love Nirvana and their music really speaks to you and you prefer to think of Cobain as a sort of saint or inspiration, you may not want to read this biography, as it doesn’t hesitate to point out Cobain’s flaws as well as his good points.
The advent of Nirvana was genuinely a musical epoch, a band that set the tone for a generation. Reading the story behind their creator was quite fascinating and well worth the effort.