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Kurt Cobain
London: Viking/Penguin, 2002.
£20.00, 280 pages, ISBN 0-670-91370-7.

Claude Chastagner
Université de Montpellier III

Many trees have been wasted on account of bored and boring people who still like to waste space with Nirvana dreck. (246)

I wonder if it was not unreasonable to entrust me with the review of late Kurt Cobain's private notebooks. Almost three hundred pages worth of doodles, amateurish comic strips, drafts of letters, personal thoughts, lists of favorites songs or bands, lyrics, and video concepts taken from the twenty or so remaining notebooks out of the dozens Kurt Cobain wrote in his lifetime. Unreasonable because I never was a fan of Cobain's band, Nirvana. I want to be clear on this: that I never was a fan does not mean I do not like Nirvana's music or cannot assess the scope of the band. I am not convinced personal tastes should play any role in reviewing artworks or books, but if they do, I can certify that the unstable, limping energy of Nirvana, America's most celebrated rock band of the 1990s, and the rawness they displayed even in their most intimate and subtle songs (the live acoustic album Unplugged is an excellent testimony to this) has had a profound effect on me, as well as on millions of other listeners. Rarely had a fusion of "punk energy with hard-rock riffs, all within a pop sensibility," (156) a mixture soon to be dubbed "grunge", found such a powerful, uncompromising expression.

But who but a fan could find any interest in what we are given to read? The publisher has opted for a facsimile edition, the most interesting pages of the remaining notebooks having been digitally photographed, metal spirals included, and given to us in the hand of Cobain himself. Only three pages of notes have been added at the end to give a few explanations, as well as the transcriptions of some passages whose writing might have been difficult to decipher. Although almost no dates are given, we can guess that the excerpts are in chronological order, covering the period from the years prior to the first recordings (the late 1980s) till the days just before Cobain's suicide (1994). I shall not dwell on the polemics that has already surrounded this publication, regarding the moral right actress/band leader Courtney Love, his widow, had to exhume these notebooks from the safe they were locked in, nor on the financial deals behind their release. However, I would like to concentrate on a few issues specific to the book itself. In the first place, the publisher has decided on a luxury hardback edition, in a large, almost A4 format, on thick, creamy paper, sold for a hefty £20,00. Is this really the best way to make Cobain's private world accessible to the largest number of followers? Is this really in keeping with the anti-materialistic, anti-capitalistic stance adopted by Cobain and his fellow band members? Is this really appropriate to the purposely sloppy manner Cobain wrote in his notebooks?

Admittedly, we do learn a few things about Kurt Cobain, we are allowed some interesting insights on his personality, his commitment to music, his poetical leanings, his political radicalism. Cobain has a touching, somewhat naïve schoolboy dedication to drawing lists of his favorite British or American punk bands (Sonic Youth, the Stooges, the Pixies, the Sex Pistols, the Melvins, the Vaselines, etc.) which does not exclude a taste for early Beatles tracks or blues music. One is struck by the consistency of his preferences throughout the years. It may not be that influences are the best way to understand an artist's creation but they help make out Cobain's background. One can also catch a glimpse of early drafts of famous songs' lyrics ("Floyd the Barber", "Hairspray Queen", "Mexican Seafood", "Lithium", "In Bloom", "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "On a Plain"...) and observe their subsequent evolution, though these versions differ marginally from the ones we know. More interesting, though rather predictable, is Cobain's unabated rage at the music business and specifically at the rock press. One is also given numerous frank accounts of the unknown and extremely painful stomach illness that affected Cobain and according to him, partly justified his drug consumption and his anorexic looks, and might even be a possible cause for his suicide. Interestingly, one of the most frequent derogatory terms used by Cobain to describe either capitalist entrepreneurs or music business executives is "gluttony," a biblical sin that acquires a new significance if linked to Cobain's impossibility to ingest any food for days on.

A rather unexpected turn of Cobain's character is revealed by the numerous drafts of letters he wrote to friends. One would have expected a more lackadaisical approach to letter writing from a punk musician, and these drafts are a sobering reminder of how easily appearances can alter our judgment. It is with a similar care and dedication that Cobain would redraw on his notebook the various road signs he had to learn to pass his driving license, or would sketch out marketing strategies, video scripts, promotional T-shirts' designs or the plans of a new guitar bearing his name. If a graphologist might be delighted at the prospect of being given three hundred pages of Cobain's unedited handwriting, we can merely notice how often Cobain crosses out words, alters sentences, often awkwardly, or adds adjectives until he has reached a successful turn of phrase. Not quite the nihilistic, careless personality the media had portrayed. Similarly surprising is the kindness and consideration he displays when breaking Nirvana's first drummer the news that the band has decided to fire him (15-17).

But the crudity of the notebook format does not allow for subtlety and much of what Cobain has written betrays the limitations he was himself very much aware of and does nothing but strengthen the popular clichés about rock 'n' roll life. This is at least what can be surmised from the publisher's choices. Take for instance the page reproduced opposite the title page, a significant one if any. On it, one can find a list of figures (presumably weekly or monthly expenses) matching various items: booze 30, records 50, food 20, ticket 100. Even if the veracity of such a list cannot be questioned, it only serves to foster the cliché of the rock musician's life revolving around music, drugs, and alcohol. Similarly, none of Cobain's ideas, as he himself admits, strike for their potency or originality, little if any of his poetry displays any vivid imagery, real emotion or interesting language, even by Jim Morrison or Lou Reed standards. His humor (yes) seldom raises above schoolboy level: "Nirvana, 3 time granny award winners, n° 1 on billbored top 100 for 36 consecutive weaks in a row. 2 times on the cover of Bowling Stoned, Thyme & Newsweak."(52) Even his prose verges on the painfully conventional, such as in the never released biography he wrote for his record company: "...exclaims guitarist Kurt Cobain,...adds bass guitarist Chris Novoselic,...rebuffs drummer Dave Grohl..."(156) No wonder Cobain wrote on the cover of one of his notebooks, presumably as a warning to a girlfriend, "don't read my diary when I'm gone." (iv)

"Don't read my diary," wrote Cobain, before adding "OK, Im going to work now, when you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out." This may be the only significant passage of the whole book, "Im going to work;" the only justification for sneaking through Cobain's private life might be the intensity and scope of the work accomplished by himself and his band. One would indeed love to try and figure out how such levels of creativity were reached, and where they stem from. Unfortunately, the journals are not going to help us. They reveal, says the book's flap, "an artist who loved music, who knew the history of rock": what an astounding discovery! But I am afraid the rest of the blurb is even less convincing: "Here is a mesmerizing, incomparable portrait." They should try harder. I said earlier that none but fans could find reasons to read such lame, predictable, and emotionless private-turned-public excerpts. But even this restriction is inappropriate. Fans are to be respected, honored, and protected. This book despises them. "I hope it does not sell," says my girlfriend, a big Nirvana fan. I believe the message is clear: maximum rip-off.


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