Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain
Charles Cross Reading
Fri Aug 23, 7:30 pm
Powell's City of Books

Kurt Cobain has been dead for eight years. Yet, this week, his eyes peer again from the cover of Rolling Stone, thanks to modern developments in the story of his complicated, short life. It reads like a soap opera: after the troubled, sensitive musician/junkie kills himself, his bandmates and widow fight over his estate nearly a decade later. The quintessential rock tragedy that just keeps on giving. It's a sad thing that even in death, people still can't stop sweating Kurt Cobain.

Perhaps one of the most appalling developments in this drama has been Courtney Love's decision to publish Cobain's diaries (scheduled for release by Riverhead Books later this fall). It appears to be the ultimate invasion of privacy, and disrespecting to the memory of a man who publicly claimed it was the fame that was killing him. (Then again, after the Seattle Times published a front-page photo of Kurt's corpse in the greenhouse where he shot himself, anything goes.) Whether the diaries' sale would seem so repellant if Courtney Love wasn't such a pariah is debatable. Courtney, of course, is an easy target, with a character that's more complex than Kurt's, and selling off his diaries comes off as yet another of her ploys to hang on the coattails of Kurt's money and fame. The fault for that can be split 50-50, between herself and the media.

Heavier Than Heaven, the Cobain biography written by former Rocket editor Charles R. Cross, was published last August--the ten-year anniversary of the release of Nirvana's "breakthrough" record, Nevermind. It was recently released in paperback. Known for its thoroughness (Cross spent four years researching, and interviewed around 400 people), the book is fascinating, and definitely the most complete take on Cobain's life. It also appears to be the most objective; while people who knew Kurt personally have criticized it as being Courtney's version of the story, Cross says his goal was to write the book without villains; from an outsider's standpoint, he's done just that. He explains, "You can like Courtney or hate her--and certainly people in Portland, for the vast part, hate her. And there may be good reason to hate her. But what was clear was that whatever her faults, she loved him. I still have people debate that with me, but my job as a biographer was not to judge her, nor to judge Kurt; it was simply to tell the story of their relationship."

Thanks to Courtney Love, Cross was also the first person to have access to Kurt Cobain's journals. This is both a boon and a hindrance to the book; on one hand, it makes it seem as accurate as it could possibly be, with many intimate thoughts coming directly from the hand of Cobain. For the same reasons, it can feel unnecessarily voyeuristic, even exploitive. Again, it's that very invasion of privacy that Cobain invited and allowed, but at the same time, stated was the reason for his dissatisfaction.

"I encouraged Courtney to consider publishing them," says Cross, "but my original concept was that she donate the money to a drug charity, which I thought would have put a little different spin on how they were interpreted. The one thing I will say in defense of publishing them is that it was clear to me in reading the diaries that Kurt, I felt, wanted them read. There literally are times in his diaries where Kurt writes, 'When you tell my story, make sure you tell it right.' And these parts I'm reading, I'm going, 'Jesus Christ, who's he writing this to?' Me, I guess; a future biographer."

Cross continues, "The other thing I will say in defense of it, is that Kurt did not hide these diaries away. They were left open on his coffee table, and a number of his friends had read them. Kurt made no bones about that. It wasn't like it was locked away in a dresser drawer. He openly showed them to his friends. My sense is that, from what I know of him, he would have wanted to have his work read. He wrote these songs because he wanted people to hear them."

That Kurt let people read his journals fits into his dichotomy, perhaps--that he wanted so desperately to hold onto his indie cred, yet made such blatant artistic compromises with his label, such as changing the title of "Rape Me" so Wal-Mart would carry In Utero. Cross elaborates on this theory: "Kurt could have recorded for K Records; he didn't make that choice. He wanted a mass audience; in some ways, he wanted immortality. My sense is that if the diaries sell well, he'd be a lot happier than if they didn't sell well."

Since we can't ask Kurt what he thinks (and, judging from his public persona, it's debatable whether he would have told us the truth, anyway), it's up to ourselves whether we want to know that much about his thoughts. Until then, Heavier Than Heaven sheds a lot of light on the last decade's most complex icon.