A Review By Matt Seward
For many years the "bible" of NIRVANA fans 'Come As You Are' or 'CAYA' as it was affectionately known as was unsurpassed by many NIRVANA fans as the definitive written document of NIRVANA's musical career. While Charles Cross's 'Heavier Than Heaven' may have benefited from access to Kurt's Journals and about 7 years of hindsight, 'Come As Your Are' has one defining asset that Cross's book could never have, Kurt Cobain is able to tell his own side of the story.
Largely written and published in 1993 the book details the band members own childhood's, their musical progression, their sudden rise to fame and cultural prominence and most of the details of the Cobain's courtship and subsequent notoriety from the scandals that dogged their turbulent time together. This book is an unofficial official biography of the band that sees Azerrad getting unprecedented access to the band at the height of their fame and at times when they had virtually shut out the rest of the world's media. Azerrad's biography has been heavily criticised by subsequent biographers for being too lenient on the band, for not exposing enough of the dark underbelly that lay beneath the surface and for perpetuating many of the myths that surrounded Kurt's childhood. Perhaps more pertinently the story stops with the band's Cow Palace Show on April 9th 1993 and contains none of the drama that would enfold subsequently. Although later editions have an extra chapter, it doesn't offer many hints on Kurt's subsequent suicide and is in essence nothing more than a brief eulogy by Azerrad to his departed friend. What 'Come As You Are' is in essence is perhaps the only biography of the band that actually focuses on the music that the band made, the music that makes the band memorable even today some 9 years after it has ceased to exist.
The book begins not at chapter one but at Chapter Zero, which may in fact be a rather clever piece of satire by Azerrad on the King's of Grunge. Nevertheless it is a useful preamble, which Azerrad uses to introduce both himself and the band. Beginning with a short review of the band's Cow Palace show in April of 1993 it goes on to describe the main protagonists in a rather unsettling celebrity magazine sort of way. He describes the band in turn each with a number of superlatives. Dave is a "extremely well possessed individual," while Krist is "a genius of horse sense" and Kurt is said to possess amongst other qualities a "supremely dry and sarcastic wit." Despite this though the few brief passages are peppered with intriguing insights into the band the most revealing of which is Kurt discussing the body's organs. "It's hard to believe that a person can put something as poisonous as alcohol and drugs in their system and their mechanics can take it - for a while. It's amazing they take them at all." Also featured is Kurt's explanation for choosing to do the book at all. "I'm caught… so I may as well fess up to it and try to put it in a bit more perspective."
Chapter One begins with the oft stated, simple beginnings that Kurt Cobain would emerge from. The description of Aberdeen and the surrounding area was later to be criticised by many residents as deeply patronising and overtly simplistic. Still none the less it is the version many would tell as the beginnings of the Cobain myth. Although the music press is for the most part middle class and university educated it prefers it's musicians to come from simpler backgrounds and Aberdeen with its simple rustic setting fitted this almost perfectly. Kurt Cobain, the artist was forced to endure the redneck, cultural backwater that he would rail against the rest of his life. The chapter is perhaps the broadest in scope, it goes from Kurt's birth, through the unearthing of his artistic talent through divorce and a childhood reliance on drugs to cure all his ills, to the beginning of his life long love of the Melvins and punk rock. Interestingly enough the chapter which, focuses entirely on Kurt sets the tone for the book that although ostensibly a band biography it focuses almost exclusively on the band's troubled songwriter.
Chapter Two follows on in the same vein and gives a whistle stop tour of Kurt's adolescence: his first meetings with Krist, his homelessness and his first injections of heroin. Similarly Azerrad uses the few pages of Chapter Three to dedicate to Krist, giving an extremely brief view of his childhood and musical beginnings, for the most part staying mostly with the simple facts and eschewing any of the symbolic analysis he used to describe Kurt's childhood.
From Chapter Four onwards the book begins to focus on the band from its early beginnings with moustachioed drummer Aaron Burkhard. It is here where the book really begins to come into its own. Azerrad's research is clearly thorough, if not definitive with accounts of early gigs, the recording of the band's first demo, the hiring of Chad Channing and their tentative emergence into the Seattle scene. This is backed up with some rather wonderful illustrations, such as photos of the band at early gigs, setlists, early concert posters, letters home from tour, Kurt's drawings and cartoons and even copies of original hand-written lyrics.
Chapter Five sees the banding recording their debut album 'Bleach' and the fledgling band begin to move out and tour nationally. A narrative that is completed by Chapter Six which neatly takes the band from the recording of the 'Blew EP' in the summer of 1989 to the Motor Sports Show in September 1990. When the band grew from a small outfit barely even registering locally to where the band had won of the adoration of the British press and are beginning to create waves and attract the attention of the major record labels. By this point, Azerrad has clearly set out his style of approach. He avoids long descriptions or using his own analysis and instead uses illustrative quotes from band members and other relevant parties to tell you the story.
Chapter Seven sees the introduction of Dave Grohl. Like Krist, Dave is given little space to tell his story. Nonetheless it does appear from the outset that Dave is a precocious talent and at 21 was already arguably more experienced musician than his 2 colleagues were. Chapter Seven is however a rather uncomfortable affair on the whole, as the details the bands transition from alternative superstars to the international superstars they would become. In particular the band's jettisoning of Peters' still seems very uncomfortable despite the generous quotes from all of the parties involved. This uneasy feeling is increased by the introduction of John Silva, who one feels hardly merits the eulogistic introduction allotted to him, given the sour relationship that marked latter years.
Chapter Eight sees the introduction of Courtney Love who rather unsurprisingly is given a rather celebratory introduction with the only criticism she garnered being some gentle ribbing roughly along the lines of "well she does talk a lot." That aside Chapter Eight sees a detailed analysis of the recording of the 'Nevermind' album, like Chapter Seven this is also slightly uncomfortable, with the band seeming embarrassed at the relatively opulent and indulgent recording sessions.
Chapter Eight and a Half is a surprisingly short account of the band's Summer tours with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr and Nevermind tours in the US and Europe and the initial breaking of 'Nevermind'. This is combined with details of Kurt and Courtney's continued courtship.
Chapter Nine is for the most part a retrospective analysis of the band's rise to fame. It features a detailed song by song analysis of the 'Nevermind' album, with interesting anecdotes about the songs initial origins and concludes with Kurt's views on the album, which for the most part sees Kurt citing his parent's inadequacies as a theme of the record. Likewise Chapter Ten also takes a retrospective look at the band's success citing other alternative band's such as Husker Du and the Replacements and the lacklustre music scene at the time as the main influences.
Chapter Eleven or the "drug chapter" as it was subsequently dubbed was at the time the most controversial chapter as it details Kurt and Courtney's introduction to heroin addiction. The reasons given are, in hindsight rather simplistic "a lot of money and lots of time with little to do" being the main reasons with Azerrad even suggesting that heroin was a bizarre mating ritual between the couple. Interestingly the drug revelations contained within 'CAYA' are, despite years of research and hindsight, still a definitive account of the Cobain's drug use during the period with Kurt and Courtney giving a detailed account of their drug use throughout the period. The Chapter also marks the beginning of the decline of the band's relationships highlighted by the sidelining of the Novoselics during the Cobain's wedding in Hawaii.
By Chapter Twelve, the tone of the book has changed completely as Azerrad details the notorious Vanity Fair article that was perhaps the nadir of the band's and Kurt's in particular life span. The blame is focused almost entirely on the media savvy Love's horrendous error of judgement, which showed perhaps for the first time the extent of Love's ambition and it's unfortunate fallout. Despite this ominous set of set of circumstances the band still survived to play a brilliant set at the Reading Festival which for many fans in the press and the media was the pinnacle of the band's career.
Chapter Thirteen continues the fallout from the Vanity Fair story with the band being under siege from an increasingly hostile media. The effect seems to cause a change in the band's personalities. With Kurt in particular appearing to change drastically, his docile personality appears to change to a fevered aggressive stance with the Cobain's would be biographers Clarke and Collins being the main source of his hatred. The disturbing rant Kurt goes on ranks as mark hypocrisy from him. Azerrad who had for the most part been decidedly pro Cobain even feels moved to say "the hypocrisy of the phone calls- the sexism, even misogyny- is profoundly disillusioning."
Chapter X (another sly Azerrad joke) sees Kurt discussing his disillusion with playing music and in particular playing live and also details his stomach complaint that Kurt would blame so much of his behaviour on.
Chapter Fourteen is a long account of the recording of 'In Utero', which following recent revelations increasingly had the feel of a comeback record, even despite the fact that it came out almost exactly 2 years after 'Nevermind'. It details the band uncomfortable relationship with Steve Albini.
The subsequent and perhaps rather predictable fallout from the record is documented in Chapter 15 which sees Kurt's punk rock ideals put under great strain by a record company anxious for another 'Nevermind'. A battle in which arguably Cobain lost with 'In Utero' for many years dubbed that awkward album that followed Nevermind. This Chapter, originally the final chapter of the book sees Kurt looking to the future with typical sarcasm as he seeks to set up Exploitation Records to record "street bums and retarded people."
On later editions is tagged a Chapter dubbed 'The Final Chapter' in which Azerrad makes a brief attempt at hindsight and an attempt to describe subsequent events. As well as Courtney's eulogy, Azerrad makes a memorial of his own with some small quirky anecdotes. It is an awkward edition to the book and seems to be added to make the book seem relevant to future events and to future readers and one might argue that it adds little to the book.
While Cross's book has the authority and implicit understanding of a Seattle native, Azerrad was a music writer already of national prominence and his journalistic talent and experience adds extra weight and illustrative ability to the story. Azerrad's prose is relatively simple, it eschews wordy verbiage and in many ways echo's the band's own speech to the effect that Azerrad appears to be in essence the fourth member of the band.
The books strengths is that for the first and perhaps only time it gives ample room for the band to tell their own story and while naturally many important sections are missing it still is a definitive account of the band's rise to fame. The story is amply illustrated by revealing photographs, lyric sheets and other paraphernalia that give the book a homely feel that sees Azerrad gaining genuine insights into the band. For the most part these insights come from direct quotes from the protagonists involved, but there are also many smart embellishments that Azerrad uses to highlight the band's and Kurt's inconsistencies. A good example of this is Kurt's phone call to Tracy requesting that they cease living together. While giving the simple facts Azerrad mentions matter-of-factly that the conversation takes place on April 27th which was Tracy's birthday, amply showing that Kurt was capable of thoughtlessness and callousness.
The weaknesses though are apparent in early chapters as Azerrad, who comes across quite clearly as a fan appears to gloss over many of the band's inconsistencies particular in handling people, with their treatment of Chad Channing and Danny Peters being particularly poor. Also as Cross amply pointed out in 'Heavier Than Heaven', it does indeed perpetuate many of the Cobain myths and certainly gives a largely one-sided account of its childhood.
Overall though despite missing out much of the NIRVANA story this book, while arguably no longer definitive does tell many aspects of the band's life that subsequent biographies do not. While other's have seen it as there raison d'ętre to uncover the Cobain myth, Azerrad merely attempts to portray the band as it is and it is this that makes this book stand the test of time. It is to put it simply the story of NIRVANA's rise to fame and follows them as they try to follow up their massively successful second album. While it cannot claim to tell the whole story or even the entire truth, it does some 10 years after it was written stand the test of time. Although 'Heavier Than Heaven' may now be considered the definitive biography of Kurt Cobain, 'Come As Your Are' is still 10 years on, the definitive biography of NIRVANA.