By Mark Guarino
Fame is many things (seductive, addictive, shameless), but at the end of the road, it’s sad and bizarre. Consider the recent publication of “Journals” (Riverhead Books), a 272-page hardcover coffeetable book of reproductive photographs taken from the spiral Mead notebooks Kurt Cobain wrote in from the time he was unknown to after he and his band Nirvana sold over 10 million albums.
The pages are as wayward as anyone’s private diaries. Cobain used the $1.99 notebooks to write letters he never sent, compile endless lists of his favorite bands, dream up scenarios for his videos, compose song lyrics, rant on and on about how he was being manipulated by rock journalists and record executives and, ultimately, to lament the danger of heroin. There’s also a recipe for his mom’s shrimp salad.
We are now a culture that has come to expect this kind of posthumous voyeurism. The estates of John Lennon, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix have been combed through and through for every recorded burp or pencil doodle that could be salvaged. The standard explanation is it appeases hungry fans, but the more realistic answer is that this kind of vault excavation helps the artist’s estate churn out new income by hardly lifting a finger. Things the dead leave behind like a grocery list, a phone message, or a smelly sock, suddenly has moneyed value. If you see it that way.
Cobain widow Courtney Love received $4 million to publish the notebook excerpts. Its arrival spells the beginning of what will be a Cobain windfall at retail outlets. Love and Cobain bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic recently settled two countersuits over the control of Nirvana’s music. The immediate result was a rushed-out Christmas release of a greatest hits package that features the previously unissued song, “You Know You’re Right.” And in 2004, a boxed set will arrive featuring outtakes, B-sides and more. From there, the sky’s the limit. Cobain was a prolific illustrator, collage artist and cartoonist — don’t be surprised if a pricey art book is the next product out of the box.
There is usefulness to some of the salvaging. Some of John Lennon’s best songs were rediscovered after his murder. And “You Know You’re Right” fits perfectly within Nirvana’s best work. Because it was the last song the band recorded, it also puts the listener into Cobain’s state of mind before he killed himself in 1994.
Bringing forth new music to the public makes sense: Cobain was first and foremost, a serious musician and a rabid music fan. His journals make the case music was not a hobby, it was an obsession. Even though most of the book reads like a sprawling, sloppy rant, when it comes to the music specifics, it’s sober and down to business. Just read the detailed notes Cobain makes to recording engineer Steve Albini about the recording gear to be used for the “In Utero” sessions. There are also countless lists of his all-time favorite bands ever, and considerable time spent writing and re-writing his band’s press bio. Lyrics are poured over. And also included are the meticulous guitar designs Cobain mapped out, right down to henpecking over the right color of the wood.
Cobain also articulately voices the essential fraud of the so-called alternative rock era and why bands like his naturally implode with success. “Punk rock doesn’t sell magazines, until now,” he writes. “Just like New Wave. Punk rock has been cristened (sic) a new name by commercial magazines ‘alternative music’ and just like New Wave only the most commercial bands are featured in these magazines … basically, what we felt was a danger. The threat of losing contact with the very people whom we felt shared the same commercial/corporate magazine conspiracy theory as we did. But as it turns out … those same people who we felt an honest love and mutual bond with bought the current affair hype hook line and sinker. Which has left us feeling betrayed. We simply wanted to give those dumb heavy metal kids … an introduction to a different way of thinking and some 15 years worth of emotionally and socially important music and all we got was flack, backstabbing and Pearl Jam.”
Should the diaries be read? Maybe not as mass product. Their best use was by rock journalist Charles R. Cross. Last year, he published the thoughtful and extensive Cobain biography “Heavier Than Heaven” (Hyperion) in which he was granted access to the diaries by the Cobain estate. By framing them within a wider context, Cross made them part of Cobain’s story, not the story itself.
The sad irony is, that by packaging Cobain’s private thoughts, paranoid rants and gallows humor in a tidy coffeetable book perfect for holiday consumption, his fear of being misrepresented becomes truer than ever. The majority of “Journals” are passages in which Cobain rails against being caught in the middle, having no control between the puritanical world of underground punk rock and the manipulative maneuverings of major media giants like his record company and the press. “I have been forced to become a reclusive rock star,” he writes. For people who haven’t even heard a Nirvana song, the image of Kurt Cobain that perseveres to this day is that he was a junkie genius. But he was really a genius who thought his only way out was to become a junkie. The genuine pain in his writing is a reaction against the commodifiction of the famous and the treadmill his band thrown on to get picked apart on all sides. In the scrawled handwriting of these passages, his words kick and scream. And this book is just another piece of the merchandise.