Book Review: Phases and Stages

Sheet Music

Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain

by Charles R. Cross

Hyperion, 381pp. $24.95

While tearfully reading Kurt Cobain's suicide note on a tape played to mourning fans gathered at Seattle Center on April 10, 1994, Courtney Love exhorted the crowd to curse him as an "asshole" before saying they love him. These contradictory sentiments, expressed in the context of loss, are the essence of Heavier Than Heaven. Though Cobain's work will endure on its own merits, the passage of time has made Nirvana's pop ascendancy seem more and more like just another sad page in rock mythology where earnest, change-the-world expectations end in tragedy (e.g., Elvis, Altamont). Therefore, it's wise that author Charles R. Cross eschews Cobain's place in history in favor of a sympathetic yet cutting study of his life and character. Cross, former editor of Seattle-based music rag The Rocket, painstakingly details the fragile family and uncertain economics Cobain was born into in the depressed logging town of Aberdeen, Wash. Recognizing Cobain's tendency to exaggerate if not lie outright about his life in interviews, Cross attempts to set the record straight through interviews with friends and family members from Cobain's pre-fame days. We also learn of a long family history of abuse and suicide. Although becoming a rock star gets Cobain out of a dead-end town, the adulation fails to bring back the security and self-confidence he had as a young child before his parents' bitter divorce. As Nirvana becomes the biggest band in the world, Cross depicts Cobain as an increasingly out-of-control, self-absorbed junkie who literally spits on his fans. Multiple attempts by his wife (whose own very public addiction gives Cobain's a constant trump card), bandmates, managers, and friends to intervene in this downward spiral prove useless. As bad as Cobain makes those around him feel, it's no match for the intense self-loathing depicted in the journal writings reproduced here. Having access to Cobain's private thoughts is Heavier Than Heaven's biggest coup, but Cross' biggest accomplishment is negotiating the he-said/she-said minefield surrounding Cobain's relationship with Courtney Love. Though Love certainly takes her lumps for bad behavior, Cross' even, factual tone avoids the taint of bitchy scene gossip. As he moves from Cobain's birth to suicide, Cross gives us a talented, loving, humorous, yet fatally flawed character whose sad destiny seems preordained from adolescence. Like spectators to a runaway train crash, all we can do is turn the page and watch it happen.

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