Reaching Nirvana 

A new book and greatest-hits album offer little we don't already know.

On April 8, 1994, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, violently ending his life and his tumultuous music career. What started five years before as an outsider's itinerant dreams of artistic legitimacy had mushroomed into a brand of grossly iconic celebrity that threatened to overwhelm the music itself. The story of Cobain's tragic life includes a childhood marked by poverty and divorce, a brash wife, an infant daughter, an intense and undiagnosable recurring stomach pain, and some of the best music of the 1990s. With bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, Cobain wrote songs that were darkly ferocious, desperately funny, achingly honest, and phenomenally influential.

In the eight years since he took his own life, popular music, once ruled by Nirvana knockoffs, has been overrun with rap-rock and teen-pop product, recycling the sexism and misogyny Cobain despised in '80s heavy metal. But the turmoil on the charts and airwaves cannot match the recent controversy surrounding Cobain's estate. Professional widow Courtney Love, formerly a musician, sued Novoselic and Grohl for control of her late husband's songs, alleging he was the group's major artistic contributor, a claim the bandmates heatedly deny. If any of this sounds even vaguely ambiguous, consider this: COURTNEY LOVE WAS NEVER IN NIRVANA.

Earlier this fall, Love apparently realized what had theretofore been obvious to everyone else and suddenly and surprisingly relented. Just a few months later, we have Nirvana, a de facto greatest-hits set that includes one previously unreleased song, "You Know You're Right."

If Love lost that battle, she did score one victory: In a heated bidding war involving almost every domestic publisher, she sold the rights to Cobain's personal diaries to Riverhead, a division of Penguin Putnam, for $4 million. A few months later, we have Journals, an admittedly well-designed and even physically beautiful book that includes high-resolution scans of the actual notebook entries written in Cobain's own hand.

It's difficult to view these releases and the headline-making brouhaha that preceded them without a dose of skepticism. By all appearances, the rights auctions, legal in-fighting, and marketing blitzes seem greedily, cynically opportunistic. Buy a piece of a dead rock star! Purchase a genuine relic from a rock-and-roll saint! Just in time for Christmas!

The compilation, after all, only has one unreleased track; the rest is just a repackaging of 13 tracks that have long been available on the band's proper albums. Oh, but what a track it is. We couldn't have hoped for something so raw, so brutal, and so intense. Recorded during Nirvana's final session, just three months before Cobain committed suicide, "You Know You're Right" begins with an odd chiming sound that gives way to a slow, rumbling guitar riff, the likes of which haven't been heard on corporate radio in ages; then Cobain's low, wounded vocals take over before the song erupts in a violent chorus of hey hey heys. It's worth the steep price of the disc (unless you can download it), and it proves Cobain was still writing fierce songs so late in his career, which makes his death all the more tragic.

After that three-minute maelstrom, Nirvana offers a chronology of the band's short run. There are three tracks from their brief stay at SubPop (including the brilliant kid-trauma of "Sliver"), four from Nevermind, another four from the hastily recorded In Utero, and two from the band's swan song, MTV Unplugged in New York. Conspicuously missing from the tracklist are the songs that proved as popular with fans as the radio hits: "Territorial Pissings," "Polly," "Something in the Way," "Serve the Servants," "Oh Me," and the Leadbelly cover "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?," which reveals the band's blues influence. The unintended result is that Nirvana reduces the band to nothing more than the sum of its singles.

The most fascinating thing about Journals is that it is not at all fascinating. There are no real surprises here, only the modest revelation that Cobain was a normal guy with normal worries and fears. He wrote grocery lists, took notes for his driver's exam, worked a brief stint as a janitor. His sense of humor was sharp and self-effacing, as in this mock-biography: "It's the classic case of two bored art students dropping out and forming a band. Kobain [sic], a saw blade painter specializing in wildlife and seascapes, met Novoselic whose passion was gluing seashells and driftwood on burlap potatoe [sic] sacks."

He frequently indulged in grotesque imagery and lengthy rants against the government and mainstream American pop culture. He believed women were superior to men and African Americans were better musicians than whites. He developed a superiority complex to separate himself from "a redneck loser town called Aberdeen."

More than anything, Cobain was obsessed with his own band -- and rightly so -- especially with how Nirvana would be perceived. He wrote several drafts of press releases and tracklists and drew numerous sketches of album covers and T-shirt designs. And, like all but the most talented or self-deluded musicians, he wrote endless variations on his lyrics. In particular, he seems to have fretted over "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the months leading up to the Nevermind sessions; Journals contains the scribbled-out lyrics from that and other songs.

As Nirvana became increasingly popular, Cobain found he had less control over how the band was seen and how his songs were heard and interpreted. While his humor took on a more sarcastic edge, he wrote defensive explanations for his own widely reported heroin use. But he saved his severest scorn for rock critics and music journalists. "Why in the hell do journalists insist on coming up with a second rate freudian evaluation on my lyrics when 90% of the time they've transcribed them incorrectly?" he asked, concluding, "there are more bad rock journalists than there are bad rock bands."

Anyone looking for insight into Cobain's "genius" or answers to hard questions will be sorely disappointed with Journals. Despite its attempts to mythologize him, this book can only present him as merely human. On the other hand, perhaps it was this everyguy quality, this ability to speak simultaneously for himself and for so many others, that attracted so many people to Nirvana in the first place and inspired such fervor in fans that they would look to his journals for insight into his life.

Ultimately, Nirvana and Journals are two versions of the same story, both recounting identical dreams and the same unsustainable life. In Journals, Cobain writes the same four words over and over, like a mantra: "Punk rock is freedom." In the early stages of his career, when he was sleeping on couches and pushing brooms for money, the music Cobain loved fed his dreams of escaping his roots and becoming a true artist; as his career progressed, the music he made was enough to keep him going. Almost.

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