Author: Charles R. Cross
What’s the Story, Morning Glory: The very sad story of a brilliant, troubled, fragile soul
Who Are You: The reluctant voice of a generation
Do Ya Think I’m Sexy: Surprisingly…no
Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About: Two words — Courtney & heroin
Paperback Writer: The big leagues
Add It Up: Put it on your reading list
What’s the Story, Morning Glory?
Kurt Cobain was born on February 20th, 1967 and died on April 8th, 1994. Cause of death: a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. In the short span of twenty-seven years Cobain managed, among other things, to write a song that turned the music industry on its head, help launch a new genre of music, and inspire a generation of disaffected youth to embrace their inner angst.
Cobain attained such levels of fame and notoriety during his lifetime that it’s easy to feel like you know his whole deal, and for reasons that I don’t think anyone can fully explain (though many have tried), in the years since his death there has been a vast amount of mythologizing of his story. Heavier Than Heaven, by Charles R. Cross, does an incredible job of deconstructing both the man and the myths surrounding him — no easy feat — and provides us with a nuanced, honest portrait of someone who achieved so much but ultimately could not conquer his inner demons.
Who Are You?
In the years since his death, Kurt Cobain has taken on iconic status; a poster boy for the entire grunge movement. I was sixteen years old when he killed himself, and I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, much in the same way that my parents remember where they were when Elvis died. For my generation, Cobain was our Elvis, our John Lennon, and our Buddy Holly rolled into one: a sex symbol, an outspoken anti-hero, and an improbable star. In a world ruled by the beautiful, popular, “normal” kids, he made it cool to be an outcast. In today’s day & age of irony and indie cred I think we take it for granted that being different is a desirable distinction, but people forget that before Kurt Cobain this wasn’t really the case. For the first time, kids who were “different” could wear their outsider status as a badge of honor, and kids who were “normal” were scrambling to jump on the bandwagon. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the effect this had. For people of a certain age, the early nineties saw the entire social hierarchy of teenagedom turned on its head.
Obviously, any one person credited with kickstarting such a profound shift is bound to become a larger-than-life figure, a caricature of sorts. Reading this book made me realize how little I actually knew about Kurt Cobain, the person. The “real” Kurt was so complex, so contradictory, and often so jarringly different from his public persona that I found it almost impossible to get my head around.
I think the thing that surprised me the most was how exceedingly violent his moods could be. I know, I know, duh — the man shot himself in the head, after all. Not exactly a passive statement. It’s just that he was portrayed in the media as a soulful, sensitive, peaceful type. But guys, the dude was dark. His writing routinely contained themes of despair, hatred, mutilation, and death. To wit, the following passage taken from one of his journals:
kill yourself kill yourself kill kill kill kill kill kill rape rape rape rape rape rape is good, rape is good, rape kill rape greed greed good greed good rape yes kill.
I mean, f&ck. Dude. That is some disturbing shit. But I think Cross does a really good job of showing that Cobain’s violent streak was a way of expressing the inner doubt and self-loathing that tormented him.
I was also pretty surprised by the depth of his insecurity. Again, in retrospect kind of a no-brainer given the fact that he killed himself, but this was a guy who at the time seemed self-assured enough to tell the music industry to go f&ck itself. As Cross shows, though, although his public persona was one of affected indifference and slacker-cool bravado, in reality he cared desperately what others thought about him and was stubborn in his conviction that he was “bad,” “faulty,” and ultimately unloveable. Cross posits that much of this can be traced back to his rocky childhood — his parents divorced when he was quite young and he was extremely sensitive to the breakup of his family unit. I dunno people, frankly I’m kind of shocked that it wasn’t patently freaking obvious to everyone who met him that the guy was severely clinically depressed, but then again this was fifteen years ago, and depression wasn’t quite as openly discussed then as it is now. Add that to the fact that he was a secretive and emotionally manipulative heroin-addict, and you begin to see how it was almost impossible for those around him to get the guy the help that he needed.
All of this is not to say that Cross portrays Cobain as a monster. In fact, by the end of the book I felt like I liked him more. In deconstructing and humanizing Cobain, Cross has succeeded in making him infinitely more relatable.
Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?
Huh, guys, this is a tough one. On the one hand, I am now and have always been slightly obsessed with Kurt Cobain’s style. For many years I wore almost these exact sunglasses (my husband called them my “Kurts”):
I think Kurt was beautiful, and because of him I am a total sucker for guys who wear Chuck Taylors:
And, looking back through archive photos for this post, I realized how insanely photogenic he was. He had a really wonderful, kind smile:
Aw, look at that little face!
(p.s. wearing pyjamas to your wedding is awesome)
But…I dunno. After reading the book, I feel like instead of making out with him I’d like to scoop him up and put him in my pocket and keep him safe. Y’know? *Sigh* Oh, Kurt. You break my heart.
Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About
I think it would be fair to say that the controversial and scandalous aspects of Kurt’s life can be divided into two main categories: 1. heroin, and 2. Courtney Love.
According to the book, however, it was a fallacy that Courtney was the one who got Kurt into heroin. In fact it was he who introduced her to the drug. The two descended rapidly into a junkie haze, becoming a modern-day Sid & Nancy, for which they received much negative press. A fascinating read is the 1992 Vanity Fair article by Lynn Hirschberg in which it is intimated that Courtney was using heroin during her pregnancy. After the piece was published, Hirschberg was apparently the recipient of numerous death threats from Love. Good times.
Courtney was obviously an extremely volatile individual, but Heavier Than Heaven is actually pretty kind to her. It can’t have been easy being married to someone so beloved by the world, and she was really vilified by Kurt’s fans, especially after his death (for which she was blamed). The truth of the matter was that Courtney didn’t kill Kurt — it was mental illness and drug abuse that did that. Nonetheless the circumstances of his death are still clouded by conspiracy theories and there will likely always be people who believe Courtney is at fault.
Cross is a masterful writer, and the amount of time he put into researching Kurt’s life is apparent on every page. He handles with aplomb the incredibly difficult task of deconstructing an extremely complex individual, someone for whom deception and subterfuge were second nature. Kurt’s public persona was in many ways completely at odds with his private self, and Cross skillfully depicts this dichotomy:
Kurt was a complicated, contradictory misanthrope, and what at times appeared to be an accidental revolution showed hints of careful orchestration. He professed in many interviews to detest the exposure he’d gotten on MTV, yet he repeatedly called his managers to complain that the network didn’t play his videos nearly enough. He obsessively — and compulsively — planned every musical and career direction, writing ideas out in his journals years before he executed them, yet when he was bestowed the honors he had sought, he acted as if it were an inconvenience to get out of bed. He was a man of imposing will, yet equally driven by a powerful self-hatred. Even those who knew him best felt they knew him hardly at all…
Add It Up
I honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’m not gonna lie to you, it is at times a sad read. Kurt was a seriously troubled guy, and obviously (no spoilers here) the ending is pretty tragic. But it’s well worth it, whether you’re a fan of Nirvana, biographies, music, or just good writing in general!
Now, please enjoy the awesome ‘You Know You’re Right’: