A Way With Words

Opening Kurt Cobain's heart-shaped Pandora's box.

"WORDS SUCK," says a relatively unjaded Kurt Cobain in the first line of a typed missive extolling the virtues of his favorite band, the Melvins. He meant it as a disclaimer with regard to the rest of that particular composition, and he also meant it plainly, as the truth. In the essay, which predates Nevermind, Cobain says that what one gets from the Melvins is an energy, a feeling. Their music is less about the decipherable word and more about the sludgy metal behind it and the sum that results from those parts. He throws in an oft-repeated adage about how everything has already been said and then claims he can't remember the last good conversation he had. Words suck, he wrote. Later on, he would mean it as a quiet shuffle; Kurt Cobain sometimes lied, and he often rearranged history. He made a myth out of himself because the truth seemed too pale to perpetuate. He lied about his family, his first guitar, and his first concert—and eventually, he got caught. Silly things to lie about, really, but regardless, he found it necessary to bury the truth. Words suck. Still later he would mean it as a defense. His words—spoken, sung, and written—were misinterpreted, misread, and misprinted. They failed him; he felt betrayed by them. Words suck, he wrote, over and over in a hundred different ways. He meant it as a scream.

The concept comes up quite often in Cobain's Journals; it may be said that the failure of language is the book's central, if accidental, theme. Along with some reinvented guitar chords, words are what made Kurt Cobain, and words are what destroyed him as well. He wrote often of how success was, metaphorically and literally, raping him, and one needs only to have been a casual observer of 1990s pop culture in order to recall the strong correlation between Nirvana's mainstream success and Cobain's less-than-private demise. The sudden, engulfing acceptance of his words and music proved to be too much for him; in the end, it ended him. Makes you wonder, then: If the idolatry of his own words, in addition to the brutalizing, slaphappy words of others, is what killed him in this life, what will the publication of these words—his journal writings, his letters, his drawings, and his ideas—do to him in his current life, however transient or incomprehensible that "life" may be? Words suck, and they killed him once. Is it possible they're killing him twice?

Or, is it perhaps possible that somewhere Kurt Cobain is feeling vindicated, finally understood? Words suck, but sometimes they can save you.

As Cobain's biographer, Charles Cross, once pointed out to me over the phone, through homelessness, the absence of love, the dark alleys of addiction, and other personal ills, Cobain kept his papers close to his person as if they were the clothes on his back. They went where he went, even when he was completely strung out. Words suck, but they're also sacred, especially when you're a walking contradiction.

SINCE ITS RELEASE, Journals has carved out a comfortable place on The New York Times' hardcover nonfiction best-seller list. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I spoke to the book's editor, Julie Grau, from her New York City home about her handling of Cobain's work. It's important to note that Riverhead, Grau's company, treated Cobain's texts with respect and artistic regard. The oversized volume reproduces Kurt's handwritten and typed pages via superb digital photography on thick, quality paper stock. This method of reproduction allows the reader to see the bent spiral binding of the notebook pages, the wrinkles on the abused loose-leaf papers, the blood dripped over faint blue lines, the smear of a hand across drying ink. It's a beautifully rendered book, but it's a difficult book just the same. Although the glossy black dust jacket strikes me as uncharacteristically, well, shiny, it can be seen as a fairly adroit, if accidental, metaphor. Underneath the glossy jacket, the hardcover front is imprinted with the image of one of Cobain's red Mead notebooks on which he scribbled, "If you read you'll judge." Covering up that sentiment with a sleek, eye-catching, consumer-friendly blanket of gloss is a near-perfect analogy for what happened to Cobain once he got the fame he so naively sought. It almost seems like a stroke of ironic and conceptual genius, only I'm fairly certain that it's not.

Although Cross, Grau, and others who will, no doubt, profit from the publication of Cobain's words maintain that the musician always made his journals available to his friends for perusal, I'm not entirely convinced that Cobain would have liked to make them available to the entire world. Cobain's writing is anguished, angular, tangential, simple, and unclean. Sometimes he wrote with the enthusiastic, erring hand of a child, and sometimes he wrote with the elliptical beauty of a poet. While some devour the pages of Journals with zeal and an appreciation that befits their complexity, others avoid them with a staunch abstinence; they do not care to invade his pain, his happiness, nor his ineptitudes.

Yes, words suck. I rely on them to pay my rent and keep me warm, I know them well, and I love them and their never-ending arrangements more than I love most humans, but I also know how fickle they can be. Words will trick you, tease you, taunt you, redeem you, and defend you, and sometimes—especially if you do something monumental like add an entire chapter to the book of rock and roll—even in death, they will continue to speak for you. And if you read them, you will most likely judge.


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