Live Nirvana Review
Kurt Cobain was lead singer and songwriter of the grunge band NIRVANA, and committed suicide in April 1994. His notebooks of lyrics and other writings were collected together after his death, and a selection from these has just been published under the title 'Journals'. This has been one of the most controversial books of the year, with many fans and critics debating the legitimacy and morality of publishing Cobain's most intimate papers. His widow, Courtney Love was paid a reported $4 million advance, which has attracted criticism in some quarters for her mercenary attitude towards her dead husband.
Before the book was even released, those who expressed an opinion on it could be divided into two groups. Some thought nothing wrong with releasing Cobain's correspondence into the public domain, since he has been dead a while, and examining such letters and ephemera is considered scholarly and is often insightful in relation to famous authors and politicians. Other critics who maligned the Journals argued that reading such papers is an unprecedented and unwarranted invasion of Cobain's privacy. The common factor to both camps was neither had read it.
The title of the book, 'Journals' may be the best possible one-word summary of the contents, but is highly misleading. The material presented is not a diary - we do not get to read Cobain's innermost thoughts or desires on a day-by-day basis. Instead, we see a selection of lyric sheets and other NIRVANA-related paraphernalia, from album designs and draft biographies to concepts for promotional videos. We also find many drafts of letters, some sent and some not, and drawings, scribblings and more, surprisingly little of which is personal in nature.
There is no introduction, orientation or commentary on the selection at all: Cobain is left to speak (or write, rather) for himself. Reproducing Cobain's scrawl graphically, rather than having the text typed, adds intimacy, and enables the reader to see Cobain's drafting and re-drafting in action.
The various pages in 'Journals' are presented approximately chronologically, but some items, such as lyric sheets for songs included on certain albums, are grouped together when they were clearly written at different times. (1) A few, however, are bizarrely out of place. (2)
On leafing through the pages, it becomes clear that far from being unprecedented, on the contrary, a fair proportion of these writings have already been published. Michael Azerrad's definitive and officially sanctioned biography of the band, "Come As You Are" (3) clearly had access to Cobain's writings, and the five or six pages he included are among the most interesting in his work. (4) Eight years later, Charles R Cross made much more extensive use of and reference to these same writings while concocting his cumbersome Cobain biography, "Heavier Than Heaven". (5) Cross described the most intimate passages from the Journals, such as Cobain's admission of molesting a retarded girl in his youth, and the notebook entry containing this is reproduced in the 'Journals'. We learn no new substantial details of Cobain's life from the 'Journals', aside from a few obscurities than can be deduced from the ephemeral remarks.
For those interested in the development of the band, 'Journals' offers unparalleled insights for those well-versed in NIRVANA's history. Historians can trace the conceptualization, embellishment and refinement of the band's major output, and the many different drafts of tracklists and artwork for the band's best-selling album 'Nevermind' are particularly fascinating. However, the significance of many pages may be lost on those readers without expert knowledge of NIRVANA's recorded output and history. Indeed, this is possibly the 'Journals's greatest flaw: since the pages are undated but edited, many items lose their context, and for those unable to deduce it from various details, this may render the reader somewhat confused and unsatisfied.
Indeed, even for those who are well-versed in the subject, some passages are bewildering and impenetrable. Cobain seems to have had a penchant for imaginative writing, and it is often hard to tell what is factual description and what is fantasy. Cross berated Azerrad for taking Cobain's word too literally and reporting Cobain's 'fairy tales' in 'Come As You Are'; in turn now there is a suspicion that Cross may have misinterpreted some of Cobain's writings, attaching too much credence to passages which were figments of his imagination.
A literary analysis of the text would be particularly negative. Cobain's somewhat tenuous grasp of spelling and grammar combined with his rambling and desultory style produces prose which is notable only for its banality, in stark contrast to his succinct, evocative and acclaimed lyrics. Indeed, the lyric sheets are among the most interesting sections, revealing how Cobain cleverly created songs from phrases culled from his meandering writings, thereby formulating words of beauty and merit from the most unpromising of foundations. (6)
Cobain's writing progresses through various stages, beginning with a naive teenager fantasising about his band becoming famous. As soon as precisely this occurs, Cobain changes focus and starts to lash out at every possible target, especially journalists and other musicians. Only towards the very end of the book is Cobain able to deliver measured analysis of his situation, for example is frank description of his drug problems in the penultimate piece. It is a great shame that more of these later writings were not included, because Cobain's own reflections on his life at such a late stage in his life are more illuminating than any biographer's guesses at what Cobain thought about such matters. Some of his final pieces are tantamount to admitting he had lied to himself about some of his troubles, and the contradictions therein are very revealing.
At all stages, however, it is clear how much effort and mental energy Cobain lavished on NIRVANA: his desire for his band to become famous was clear as early as May 1988, and this desire was what caused the continual substitution of drummers. Every facet of the band from promotional videos to T shirts is documented in detail; this meticulous approach undoubtedly was one of the reasons behind the band's success.
The balance of pieces chosen for 'Journals' is clearly a compromise between documenting NIRVANA's creative endeavors and trying to place this in the context of Cobain's life. Whilst the reader cannot gain any insight into the selective process of pages reproduced (7), it is interesting but unsurprising to note that the pages themselves have been airbrushed, which arguably diminishes the academic value of these documents. (8)
A perfunctory 'Notes' section is appended to the end of the book which transcribes the most illegible pages, and states the intended recipients of some of the letters. The lack of an index is a mild irritant; one will be presented on this website in future.
What made 'Come As You Are' so successful was the juxtaposition of photographs, lyric sheets, drawings and posters, all woven together with Azerrad's compelling narrative and incisive analysis. 'Heavier Than Heaven' was stymied by the fact that Azerrad had already told most of the story (except the very end), and Cross's prose failed to make as much of an impression on readers as Azerrad's had. This author suggested that 'Heavier Than Heaven' was more akin to a 'readers' notes and corrections' to 'Come As You Are' than a truly independent biography.
In turn, 'Journals' can only be considered as a compilation of documents and sources used for 'Heavier Than Heaven', for without any sort of description of how all the pages presented relate to each other, the story of Cobain's life and music fails to emerge with any coherence.
For those who are interested in how Cross arrived at some of his analysis, the 'Journals' offer a means to assess some of his conclusions. For those fascinated by Cobain's music, the 'Journals' provide a unique documentation of his influences and on his creative process, which could not have been ascertained any other way. For those merely with a passing interest in the band, the texts must speak for themselves, and since the writing is so devoid of literary merit, such readers may be profoundly disappointed: 'Come As You Are' is a far more accessible, readable and comprehensible introduction to and description of much of the same material.
In conclusion, it is clear that those who argue that the 'Journals' constitute a contemptible invasion of Cobain's privacy might be surprised to find the pages which constitute the book are more focussed on NIRVANA and Cobain's creative processes than they would ever have predicted. Those who hoped for insights into such matters will be thrilled at the depth of detail presented, for the 'Journals' will serve as an invaluable reference for NIRVANA historians for years to come.