Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain
by Charles R. Cross
Published by Hyperion
400 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Liv Fagerholm
Had I met musician Kurt Cobain in the mid-1980s, just before his meteoric rise to fame with the band Nirvana, I probably would have thought he was a shiftless, strung out loser with a disturbing sense of humor and a perverted lack of ambition. Reared in a depressed town on the Washington state coast, socially awkward, he wasn't obviously the sort to become a household name or a tragic hero to the many fans who discovered through his lyrics a like mind and spirit.
More than a decade later however, and after reading Heavier Than Heaven, I found myself foraging the Internet for his lyrics, ransacking my younger brother's room for copies of Nirvana CDs and imitating his writing style. Charles R. Cross' lovingly crafted and surprisingly affecting biography is as close to a full psychological analysis of Cobain as you're likely to get -- and it's a lot more interesting to read than that description suggests. Like the explanation of a piece of art, Heavier Than Heaven has finally taught me to understand the metaphorical brushstrokes behind Cobain's compositions.
The book chronicles the life of Cobain from his birth in 1967 to his self-inflicted gunshot death in Seattle 27 years later, and while one can hardly think of this singer/guitarist without reference to Nirvana, Cross clearly writes of a singular person and not a music group. Maneuvering easily among multiple sources -- more than 400 interviews and Cobain's personal diaries -- the biography avoids technical language and speaks to the layman who, in all likelihood, does not share Cobain's music background or heroin jones. Cross is particularly successful in illuminating the contradictions and dualities of Cobain's personality, the contrasts between what he said and appeared to be and what he really was in life. For example, he recalls Cobain and his friend Jesse Reed driving from a 1991 recording session in Portland, Oregon, to visit Reed's family in Aberdeen, Washington:
On the drive, Kurt found himself talking about his future with his old friend, and as the car entered Grays Harbor County, he admitted his love for this landscape and the people, contradicting all he said in interviews.
The result is a well-rounded account of Cobain's evolution. Heavier than Heaven doesn't waste the reader's time by glossing over harsh realities or softening the raw edges of a person deep in the throes of an addiction and celebrity status.
Unlike Come As You Are, a 1994 Cobain biography by Michael Azzerad, Heavier Than Heaven isn't influenced by Cobain's final approval. Commenting on Azzerad's work, Cross observes, "When Kurt read the final manuscript, he made only two factual changes, but let many of his own mythical stories, from guns in the river to living under a bridge, stand." Cross also benefited from the fact that he researched and wrote his book after Cobain's suicide, when the musician's wife, fellow rocker Courtney Love, and his fellow band members figured they had nothing to lose or gain by giving Cross their full cooperation and admitting the hard truths about Cobain's life. In his prologue, Cross notes that his goal with this book "was to honor Kurt Cobain by telling the story of his life ... without judgement." Cross has succeeded, and I must now cringe at my earlier snap judgments of his subject.
Although seemingly too little, too late, it is actually appropriate that Heavier Than Heaven should be published now. August 2001 marked the 10th anniversary of the release of Nirvana's best-known album, Nevermind, which sold almost 14 million copies worldwide at a time when the height of success for other Seattle-area bands was selling 100,000 copies. It's also fitting that Charles Cross should be the one to deliver this distinctive look at a modern recording icon. The former editor of The Rocket, a popular Seattle-area music magazine, Cross was perceptive enough to put Nirvana on his publication's cover way back in 1989 -- the first time the band had received such play in the media. The author and his subject also grew up in families touched by darkness in similarly poor, small towns, a background that drove both men on to big cities. But the greatest factor in the bond between Cross and Cobain is simply the former's appreciation of his subject's art. Cross displays here unconditional respect and admiration for the person behind the musician and the addict behind the addiction:
As a rock star, he always seemed a misfit, but I cherished the way he combined adolescent humor with old man crustiness. Seeing him around Seattle -- impossible to miss with his ridiculous cap with flaps over his ears -- he was a character in an industry with few true characters.
The author's humanitarian approach makes this biography unique, not just another tabloid fluffing or an exposé of an already over-inflated celebrity. It's the reading equivalent of an addiction -- every page is chock-full of information, yet you crave more and more, turning the pages with a hungry intensity. Cross explains Cobain's sometimes nonsensical-seeming lyrics and gives voice to the violence that the musician inflicted on himself. He strives to decode Cobain's unique expressive style, contending that songs such as Rape Me represented the singer's feelings toward society and his treatment by the media, while the phrase "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black," from Heart Shaped Box, exemplified his intense sense of love.
It's unfortunate that the majority of artists are underappreciated while they live, and only rediscovered in death. Yet, that's still better than nothing. Had Kurt Cobain not killed himself, and had Charles Cross not decided that the man's life was worth re-examining, I would probably never have discovered Cobain at all. Only seven years after the star's death have I come to understand his icon status, to comprehend the tortured soul that resided within his breast and become another of his unabashedly obsessed fans. | September 2001
Liv Fagerholm is a former editorial assistant at Seattle Magazine.