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The Man Who Sold the World

Although peppered with coy phrases such as "if you read you'll judge," I doubt if the man you get to know throughout the pages of "Journals" by Kurt Cobain would, when the end came, have wanted this book published. It's fascinating like a car wreck, and I, for one, wish that only the music survived his death.

Journals -- Kurt Cobain

As leader and songwriter of the band Nirvana, Cobain proved himself to be one of the most innovative musicians in the history of rock 'n' roll. He certainly re-energized it at a time when it was foundering in the hairsprayed heavy-metal period of the late '80s. More than anything else -- his rage, his musicianship -- he was genuine. These journals bear out that fact. They are angry, they are sad, they are whiny, they are naive and heart-wrenching, but they are always genuine.

But genuineness isn't enough. In these undated letters, poems, lyrics in various drafts, imprecations against the media, scenarios for videos, caviling political and social furor, cartoons, schematic drawings for guitars and various lists (he repeats his favorite album list over and over, ad nauseam), he doesn't reveal himself in any coherent narrative, only through bits and pieces that only the most ardent rock fan would want to wade through. His writings contain the same passion and rage his lyrics do, but without the music, there is no heart quality (or "inner register," as Henry Miller would call it) to give the pieces their flow and their edge.

When he writes letters to friends, usually fellow musicians, he is sweet, enthusiastic and generous in his praise of their work. In a letter firing early Nirvana drummer Dave Foster, he is businesslike and almost apologetic. When he writes about himself, he is usually either defensive, captious or utterly self-deprecating:

"I need to re-learn the English language. I seem insincere because I can't choose or decide fast enough. My penmanship seems scatological because of my lack of personality .... I am obsessed with the fact that I am skinny and stupid."

The last line is a constant theme whenever he writes about himself. From the time he was a young child, he writes, he was so skinny that his entire body could fit in the leg of his pants. One page is practically blank but for the words "Nordic trac," along with the 800 number to order one.

As to his numerous references throughout the diaries of himself as stupid, while you can't be a rock star without a sense of cockiness, he understood the limitations of his genius and knew he could write with authority only coming from the place of a musician.

It is a gorgeous book, containing selections from 20 notebooks locked in a vault since his suicide in 1994. They are reproduced elegantly by digital photography, right down to the spirals from the Mead notebooks Cobain favored. Cobain's handwriting comes in various stages of legibility (he printed almost exclusively) and at times paid little attention to punctuation and spelling. When using a felt tip, his hand is more easily read than in ballpoint. Some of the more illegible pieces toward the end of the book are set in type in the notes section in the back. The drawing in his cartoons is fairly good, but what is more interesting are his illustrations of his fantasy guitars. Guitar players and gear heads will love this stuff. Most are variations on an amalgamation between a Fender Jaguar and Mustang, with notes beside them describing types of pickups, humbuckers, headstocks, etc. He also doodled designs for Nirvana T-shirts and album covers.

But what Cobain does not do in these pages is elucidate his creative process. We just see the lyrics on the page; there is no explanation for them. While it is rock 'n' roll tradition from Bob Dylan on down that to explain a lyric is to crush its diamond-hard center, we don't get a good look into Cobain's mind as to how he arrived at those lyrics -- an anecdote describing under what condition they were written or what might have prompted their writing:

"[M]y lyrics are a big pile of contradictions. They're split down the middle between very sincere opinions and feelings that I have and sarcastic and hopefully -- humorous rebuttles towards cliche -- bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years.... I mean I like to be passionate and sincere, but I also like to have fun and act like a dork.

"Geeks unite."

That's about as much as you get when it comes to self-insight into the lyrics. Then again, it is nice to see them printed out in their various drafts -- sloppy, and with surprisingly few changes. It's likely these were rewritten from earlier lines on napkins and envelopes. They don't have the feel of first drafts. Late in the book, Nirvana fans will cringe when they read:

"Within the months between October 1991 thru december 92 I have had 4 four Notebooks filled with two years worth of poetry and personal writings and lyrics stolen from me at separate times. two 90 minute cassettes filled with new guitar and singing parts for new songs damaged from a plumbing accident, as well as two of my most expensive, favorite guitars. I've never been a very prolific person so when creativity flows, it flows. I find myself scribbling on little note pads and pieces of loose paper which results in a very small portion of my writing to ever show up in true form. It's my fault but the most violating thing I've felt this year is not the media exaggerations or the catty gossip, but the rape of my personal thoughts ripped out of pages from my stay in hospitals and aeroplane rides hotel stays etc. .... You have raped me harder than you'll ever know."

This is a typical Cobain invective. It is easy at first to see this passage as simple moaning or to wince that someone of such talent would not take the time to make copies of his work. However, by the end of the excerpt you realize that his attitude is befitting, especially in the ethic of punk rock. Friends who would make an artist stand guard over his notes, lest they rip them off, deserve Cobain's execration. As for his indolent work habits, this was simply the only way he knew how to get it done.

When he speaks about his decline into a daily use of heroin after returning from his second tour of Europe with Sonic Youth, he justifies his habit:

"I decided to use heroine [he always uses this misspelling when referring to the drug] on a daily basis because of an ongoing stomach ailment that I have been suffering from for the last five years had literally taken me to the point of wanting to kill myself .... Every time I swallowed a piece of food I would experience an excruciating burning nauseous pain in the upper part of my stomach lining."

He goes on to describe the 10 gastrointestinal procedures that he had since the start of this disorder, the 15 doctors he consulted and the 50 types of ulcer medication he has taken. "The only thing I found that works was heavy opiates," he writes.

This stomach illness, which he describes in another diary with less dramatic symptoms, remained uncured and a problem until his suicide. From this period of daily use, he goes on to say, touring in any country where he could not score seemed impossible, so he would detox and deal with the stomach ailment. At one point, down to 110 pounds and unable to eat, he found an experimental drug that alleviated the pain for nine months with no opiate side effects. Soon afterward, however, he slipped back into a desire to curtail the burning in his mind as well as his stomach and returned to heroin.

I doubt if he read many books. He was sadly unworldly, painfully shy and filled with self-loathing. Cobain despised the hippies for not succeeding in their original revolutionary mission, as if his generation was entitled to be born into an idyllic world. This, of course, has been the complaint of many generations before, but it's a bit shocking when you realize that a man capable of such musical genius could be so naive and, at times, sniveling. Even here, however, his authenticity comes through. No matter how juvenile, querulous or brilliant, it's impossible to find any lacuna between the writings and their writer.

One of the most telling pages comes toward the end of the book, although it seems like something written much earlier:

"Hi, I played the snare drum in school band from grades five to nine. during this time I didn't bother learning how to read sheet music, I just waited for the geek in first chair to learn each song, then I simply copied him. I managed to do well without ever having to read music. It took me 5 years to realize how rhythmically retarded I was as a drummer, so I sold some of my father's guns then used the money to purchase my first six string electric guitar. I learned everything I needed to know from one week of lessons which resulted in the famous musical knowledge of the louie, louie chords E A B."

The irony of young Kurt selling his father's guns to get the money for his first guitar is obvious and unsettling. In fact, the reader will find a number of passages in this book that are either ironic or prescient of his death. That's strange because Cobain himself, at least judging from these writings, had a damaging paucity of irony and, more so, humor. The book's nearly complete lack of the latter may be the saddest thing about it, and about him, for that matter. If Cobain could have filtered his many grievances, justified or imagined, through some notion of humor, maybe he could have avoided trading in his guitars for a shotgun.

Jim Carroll is the author of "The Basketball Diaries." His album "Catholic Boy" was released in 1980.

©2002 Jim Carroll / Los Angeles Times

The original review was found at,0,3483915.story?coll=cl%2Dbookreview


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