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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 the lyrics incorrectly?" rails Kurt Cobain in Kurt Cobain's Journals. The answer is obvious: Because even an FBI audio sleuth would have trouble figuring out what the hell he's bellowing on those songs, and because his lyrics absolutely demand psychological interpretation. He wrote cunningly encoded autobiographical statements in intentionally ambiguous and fragmentary lyrics, mumbled them, buried them in artful noise, then complained when critics got it wrong. Only now, with the publication of the journals (and the help of Charles Cross's biography, Heavier Than Heaven, which won the Timothy White Book Award last week), can we fathom his mind and tease out the multiple meanings of some of those shadowy, ever-shifting, multivalent lyrics.
The journals are like an exploded diagram of a tormented soul, a maelstrom of self-pity, intolerant pride, morbid introspection, ingenious self-delusion, merciless self-knowledge, showbiz revulsion, starstruck effusion, Faustian ambition, otherworldly detachment, and an iron will helpless to help itself. Packed into 280 pages are shocking confessions, sweetly eloquent letters to brilliant friends, hard-nosed band plans, fulminating political screeds, obscene cartoons, haunting video treatments, and lyrical poetry of tremulous Romantic sensitivity, Bukowskian crudity, dadaist flippancy, and modernist opacity.
You have to read it the way you play Myst: patiently attentive to clues and willing to wander. Let's follow one thread, the meaning of smell in Cobain's associative process. He was obsessed with smells, according to Cross. The journal clarifies that in "Lounge Act"—one of a half-dozen songs on the epochal Nevermind album that he wrote to express his raging grief at getting dumped by Olympia's haughty Riot Grrrl Tobi Vail, the first girl he loved so much he threw up (and probably played Twister with: hence the lyrics of "Aneurysm," "Come on over and do the twist . . . love you so much it makes me sick")—the original lyric went, "I can still smell him on you."
In the studio, this became "smell her on you." This relates to the origin of his most popular hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," revealed by Cross. The "over-bored and self-assured" Vail, who viewed guys as "fashion accessories" (according to friend Alice Wheeler), wore perfumed Teen Spirit deodorant—no doubt ironically, to mock the product's crass attempt to manipulate the youth market.
Vail's friend Kathleen Hanna spray-painted "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit" in his room to taunt Cobain for bearing Vail's scent after sex—that is, for being clingy and needy and owned. Having no personal use for deodorant, he'd never heard of the product, and thought it was just a nifty phrase celebrating his alternative society. A dropout from a hick high school, he missed the dis when the hipper-than-thou college girl mocked him in this remarkably encoded manner.
In the weirdly utopian "indie fascist" Olympia music scene run by "that elitist little fuck Calvin Johnson" (as Cobain calls him in the journals), kids were forbidden to form traditional romantic unions. They were on strict instructions to found a new society of childlike creatures who renounced all bourgeois norms, like the Transcendentalist music freaks and free-love communards at Brook Farm. "We've made a pact to learn from whoever we want without new rules," Cobain sings in "Lounge Act." The journals' several drafts of "Teen Spirit" show that it's a utopian vision of a cultural revolution led by the "King & Queen [Kurt and Tobi] of the outcasted teens [Olympia's music scenesters]." The tune effected such a revolution.
The sex-scent theme connects with the tormented journal entry (p. 125) evidently addressed to a lover whose Obsession perfume lingers in Cobain's home. Stranded, abandoned, he obsessively identifies with beached whales, disemboweled to make perfume from their blubber. (Perfume isn't actually made that way, but he thought it was; on p. 224, he writes that whales beach themselves to convey a message of suicidal despair to humanity.) His favorite book, Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (which inspired his song "Scentless Apprentice"), concerns an olfactory prodigy, cast off by his mother and shuttled among relatives (as Cobain was), who kills women to collect their scent for perfume—reminiscent of Cobain's habit of picking the brains of various aesthetic mentors. "I use bits and pieces of others personalities to form my own," he writes.
Suskind's killer flees unbearably stinky and insensitive humanity (c.f. Cobain's original title for the first Nirvana album, "Too Many Humans," and his journal sketch for an album, "All Humans Are Stupid") to hide in a cave under a mountain. In the journals, Cobain wails, "You've left your . . . scent here, in my place of recovery. The place where I've crawled off to die like a cat under a house after he's been hit."
It's not easy to make sense of Cobain's journals, because they're published with practically no explanatory material, and the free association of his imagination is always as complex and murky as the scent themes traced above. The journals take you to a strange place. But if you read them carefully, you get fascinating glimpses into his many-chambered mind. Several of the entries show how deeply he thought in visual terms. He wasn't a well-trained draftsman, but his visual imagination enormously exceeded his technical grasp. People who think he was a mere rural rube, a lamebrain like Elvis, should glance at his witty drawing "Elvis Cooper" (blending the King and Alice Cooper), the sketches for the "Come as You Are" video, the "Heart Shaped Box" video, and the funny album cover he drew: "Nirvana Sings . . . Songs of Devo Wipers Vaselines and Nirvana," with the band depicted as choirboys.
The biggest mistake in reading Cobain is to miss his essence: a paradox/collage aesthetic, a perverse blend of beauty and ugliness, horror and humor. "Mistrust all systemizers," he writes. The whole idea of Nirvana was a collision of opposites you can hear in his posthumously released hit tune, "You Know You're Right": soft alternating with loud, cries of pain that double as snarls of sarcasm ("Things have never been so swell/I have never felt this well/Pain/Pain/Pain/Pain"), words that cut two ways (is it, "you know, you're right" or "you know you're right," with the pointed implication that you just think you know, and he's forever in debt for your priceless, i.e., worthless, advice?). Cobain's ideas in the journals, seen in light of his music and art, fulfill Wallace Stevens' ideal for poetry: They resist understanding, but not completely.
The journals are the observant notes he took on his bifurcated nature, and a first-draft attempt to capture and make a drifty art of contradictions from the images, puns, and fugitive thoughts that drift through his mind like the floating specks in his eyeballs—which he describes in minute detail. "It's all quicksand, a hall of mirrors," explains Cross.
Marander, his first girlfriend, was terrified to see the secrets this journal reveals. Who wants to find that a loved one's "rock opera" involves the Virgin Mary on a meat hook ("How painfully beautiful she was, how pure and white, how peaceful wrapped in chicken and barbed wire with a not yet finished anarchy sign spray painted on her robe")? She was right to be worried; and yet such morbid imaginings were the source and forge of his art. How could he think that way, with all he had going for him? Could it be because the work he lived for was rooted in black thoughts? In him, inspiration and creation were inextricably fused with desperation and destruction.
When a colleague asked John Nash, the hero of A Beautiful Mind, why he heeded his delusions, he replied, "The ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously." Kurt Cobain took the bizarre ideas in his journals seriously. If his art is an eternally dancing flame, his journal is like the shadow of flame, which elucidates the darkness it contains.
Do You Have the Right to Read Cobain's Diary?
When people speak of the publication of Cobain's journals, the most common reaction I've heard is, "I would never read them—it would be an invasion of privacy." But Kurt Cobain is not lobbing spitballs at you from heaven for reading his journals. If biography adds to death a new horror, as Oscar Wilde said, Cobain endured it all before death. He has no privacy left to lose. He had three objections to publicity in life: it hurt his wife and child, it distorted his true story, and it interfered with his right to soothe his physical and emotional pain with heroin, cocaine, and what have you. His wife and child benefit from the sale of the journals. His agony is over. And his last chance to have his say, his way, is to have you read them.
Some have quoted as justification for not reading him this journal entry: "The most violating thing I've felt this year [1991- 1992] is not the media exaggerations or the catty gossip, but the rape of my personal thoughts . . . I feel compelled to say fuck you fuck you to those of you who have absolutely no regard for me as a person. You have raped me harder than you'll ever know." But what he is protesting here is the theft of four notebooks, not that people read them. He left them out for people to read, even encouraged them to do so. "Look at this story I wrote," he'd say.
The key is to read them with regard for him as a person. Too often, he is reduced to a symbol in the culture wars: the worthless junkie berated by Andy Rooney, the noble bohemian crushed by the jackboot of journalists in unholy alliance with Child Protective Services. ("It was this insane American puritanical 'war-on-drugs' mentality," says his lawyer Rosemary Carroll in Heavier Than Heaven. "The assumption is that you can't be an addict and be a good parent.") The journals show him to be a soul, not a symbol. Oliver Sacks says that instead of asking what disease a person has, we ought to ask what sort of person the disease has got hold of. Few people have more stubbornly expressed their idiosyncratic individuality in spite of disease than Kurt Cobain. We should read what he wrote to get a sense of how things looked to him, and how this informed his work. To read his journals is to honor him.
Top 10 Myths About Kurt Cobain
1. He was murdered. If you believe this, watch Nick Broomfield's film Kurt & Courtney; the interviews with conspiracy theorists will make you lose your belief (and maybe your lunch). But Cobain's actual lifestyle was so bizarre that preposterous fables spring from his legend like toadstools from a cowpie. Heavier Than Heaven reveals the weird scene of his real demise. Near the end, when Courtney frantically asked the family's coke-addicted nanny whether he'd seen Kurt, he denied it. Why? Because he was a conspirator? No. He was so high on cocaine, he thought his last conversation with Kurt was a dream. Reality was not welcome at the Cobain house. If you can read the suicidal portions of the journals and still succumb to the myth that he was murdered, reality is not welcome in yours.
2. He slept under the Young Street Bridge in Aberdeen, inspiring the melancholy song "Something in the Way." No: He would've floated away on the tides if he'd tried. Cross reports that he did sleep in cardboard refrigerator boxes, old apartment building hallways after he'd unscrewed the light bulb, and the hospital waiting room, impersonating a patient's relative and signing fake room numbers to score free meals. The bridge story is false, but it rings true emotionally: he was so impossible in late adolescence that his mom kicked him out of the house, leaving him homeless for more than a year.
3. He never wanted to be famous. The journals prove that he had a game plan as canny as Colonel Parker's: "No. 1 on billbored top 100 for 36 consecutive weaks . . . hailed as the most original, thought provoking and important band of our decade by Thyme & Newsweak." Cross reports that privately, he demanded more exposure on MTV, and willingly caved in to censorship and commercial demands on his last album. Famous people made him giddy as an autograph hound: "I've collaborated with one of my only Idols William Burroughs and I couldn't feel cooler," he writes in the journals. Eddie Vedder's alleged ideological impurity was bad—but when he started to overtake reclusive Kurt in sales and fame, that was intolerable. The unsettling truth is that Cobain sketched out his entire ascent to fame and its aftermath in early childhood. At least half a dozen childhood friends told Cross that Cobain always said what his plan was: "I'm going to be a superstar musician, kill myself, and go out in a flame of glory."
4. He was too gentle and passive for this world. This charge enraged him. Hot as a human fumarole, he denies in the journals that he's a "sensitive, frail, fragile, soft spoken, narcoleptic, neurotic, little pissant." In fact, he threatened his first biographer, Victoria Clarke, with murder (and implicitly threatened me when I forced him to admit that he had threatened her). He told biographer Michael Azerrad he wasn't a bit sorry to have made the threat. He imposed his will whenever he felt like it, such as when he screwed his best friends out of millions in royalties by rewriting their contract. His quietness while Courtney motormouthed on was not passivity but self-possession.
5. He was a glowering, one-man no-fun zone. He could be that way, but the journals are also enlivened with peculiar humor: "American high school history teachers are bread in pens in Montana." A ghastly moment in the journals will be followed by anarchic, satirical humor. One story about stoners breaking into a church begins in a nightmare—the sight of the Virgin Mary on a meat hook—and yields to farce. The vision of moral horror is interrupted by a Courtney Love- like character who announces that she's bored with the vision that's making the other stoners weep in sorrow, and the stoners switch from tears to more standard stoner pursuits: "[The stoners] immediately ran around screaming, Wooo Hooo (in that tone of voice that says 'I'm very drunk, excited and a total idiot.')" Gus Van Sant compared Kurt and Courtney to a comedy duo, with Kurt flinging the occasional devastating zinger. New York Times reporter Neal Karlen compared them to Fred and Ethel Mertz.
6. He was stupid. Most reviewers of his journals have more or less said so, but this is itself stupid. All his reviewers are better educated than he was, because he spent five hours a night practicing guitar and studying music history, not doing homework. In the journals, he bemoans his 10th-grade-level education. But the casual eloquence of his wonderful letters, the ambition of the ideas he grappled with, and his sophistication as an artist indicate that education would not likely have been lost on him. "I'm not well read," he admitted, "but when I read, I read well."
7. His fateful first concert was a punk show. Cross reports that the first concert he attended was a Sammy Hagar show. He had to suppress this shameful fact to shore up his punk credibility. Throughout his early career, he struggled to overcome his rural rube's cultural cluelessness and adapt to the dominant paradigms of the urban culture he aspired to rule. The punk scene was brutal to those who wore the wrong styles, like mustaches. "There was a dress code," says Cross. To overcome his past, Cobain had to bury it in myth. The journals are the workshop of that myth.
8. He bought his first guitar by fishing his dad's guns out of the river and pawning them. Cross notes that his Uncle Chuck gave him his first guitar at 14, along with guitar lessons. He did fish guns out of the river after his mother had dumped them there—muttering that if she didn't, she would shoot her faithless lover dead—but he used the money to buy an amp. The guns-in-the-river story was more resonant, showing his grasp of the power of symbolism.
9. He was the reincarnation of John Lennon. Lennon said he was always talking up peace and love to overcome his own tendency toward violence and destruction. Cobain had his peaceable side, but he did not renounce violence. "John Lennon has been my ideal all my life," he writes in the journals, "but he's DEAD wrong about revolution . . . find a representative of gluttony or oppression and blow the motherfuckers head off." Both were irascible Northwestern port-town rascals from broken families, shuttled between relatives, who studied art and found salvation in the hardest-edged music they could find, approached with a melodic sweet tooth. Craving a comforting, maternal sort of love after a wounding childhood compounded by his own paradoxically empathic and violent personality, each guy paired off early with a kindly sort of gal, then ditched her for a tempestuous artist type—a hard chick he could play out his games on and not get away with it.
A Lennon melody, according to George Martin, tended to be based on a single note, from which it would ascend and descend and to which it would return; Cobain's melodic lines are vaguely similar. And yet, despite his urgent protests ("I was inspired by . . . the Beatles but oh lord never paul, pleeease!"), Cobain's melodic imagination was also akin to McCartney's sweet strains. Lennon, according to the nasty but deeply researched Albert Goldman bio, approached music as a trove to be plundered for songs: Two early Beatles tunes filch the same bass line from an obscure B-side, says Goldman. In the journals, Cobain writes, "If you copy too much" in the margin next to this: "P.S.: the guitar part of Come As You Are is the same as a song called the eighties by Killing Joke and Teen Spirit has an uncanny resemblance to Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult and the cult are AC/DC." Neither Lennon nor Cobain was a plagiarist: their kinship was in their musical scholarship, their ability to find beauty and make it their own. And Lennon's influence was only one of the musical influences that Cobain wrought into his utterly original art.
10. He was a solo act. Sorry, Courtney, but if you take away Novoselic's bass lines, as gracefully bouncy as a rubber kangaroo, even as great a song as "Heart Shaped Box" just isn't the same song anymore. Grohl's drumming is crucial, and isn't the harmony on "Polly" as sweetly necessary as Garfunkel was to Simon? Think of it: a Garfunkel with balls! And their relatively sunny personalities and infinitely greater ability to cope with everyday life kept Cobain going long before you did. Only Novoselic and Grohl know exactly who contributed what to Nirvana's music. They were there.
The Hidden Meaning of the Forbidden Page
Reviewers are forbidden to reproduce page 204 of Journals: It cuts too deep. On it, Cobain took the comic-book version of his life story, tore out the cartoon portrait of his head heroically shrieking, "With the lights out, it's less dangerous/ Here we are now, entertain us," and drew onto it a sketch of his emaciated body (of which he was ashamed). It's the finest drawing in the book, vaguely George Grosz-like, and a far better evocation of his self-image than the many verbal bewailments of his skinny physique. The self-portrait is very like the painting (glimpsed in Kurt & Courtney) that he gave first-love Tracy Marander, depicting a skeleton resembling an alien. He felt like an alien as a kid (the meaning of his song lyric "When I was an alien"), and the cartoon expresses his deeper alienation in adulthood. The drawing is meant to contrast the muscular comic-book hero head—the public myth—with the shabby private reality of the "Auschwitz" body.
Above the drawing, he clipped six lines from Alicia Ostriker's brilliant poem, "A Young Woman, a Tree." Ostriker is a William Carlos Williams Award- winning poet, but she's not famous. Cobain loved to seek inspiration in out-of-the-way places, like finding the Swans record "Raping a Slave" in a secondhand store. (That tune appears on his list of inspirational music, "Top 50 by NIRVANA," in the journals).
You would think that the only poem Cobain chose to include in the journals would be some confessional suicidal verse by John Berryman, say, or T.S. Eliot. He had plenty in common with fellow depressive, druggie, and popular-music fanatic Eliot, who, like Cobain, scavenged fragments of his world's culture to hold back the tide of his madness; obsessed over Hamlet and Dante; favored flowers (especially lilies) as symbols of female sexuality, death, and decay; and crafted a masterpiece out of his volcanic marriage to a druggie wife—a work of purely private imagery that inadvertently became the voice of his disillusioned generation. "My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions . . . I write songs from pieces of poetry thrown together," Cobain writes, echoing Eliot's "heap of broken images." The Sanskrit epigraph of The Waste Land is "I wish to die," which echoes the album cover Cobain sketches: "I Hate Myself and Want to Die." The Waste Land's penultimate line is "sympathize" in Sanskrit; Cobain's suicide note repeats the word "empathy" five times. Eliot might've been describing Cobain's work when he called his own work "rhythmical grumbling."
Because he includes only six lines, Cobain appears to read Ostriker's poem in the despairing mindset of the young Eliot—to misunderstand it in ways that shed light on his mind. The girl in the poem envies a tree, whose explosion of fall color makes her own life feel pallid:
Passing that fiery tree—if only she could
Be making love,
Be making poetry,
Be exploding, be speeding through the universe
Like a photon, like a shower
Of yellow blazes—
Cobain places these lines above his self-portrait, which is about a painful absence of creative energy. By e-mail, Ostriker confirmed to me that this is her subject, too. "The poem is from the point of view of a girl who wants to live more intensely than she is doing," Ostriker explains. But Cobain stops there, missing the ultimate point of the poem, which is one of endurance. The poem continues:
She believes if she could only overtake
The riding rhythm of things,
Of her own electrons,
Then she would be at rest
If she could forget school,
Climb the tree,
Be the tree,
Burn like that.
So far, Ostriker sounds the same yearning note Cobain does elsewhere in the journals: "I used to have so much energy and the need to search for miles and weeks for anything new and different. Excitement. I was once a magnet for attracting new offbeat personalities who would introduce me to music and books of the obscure and I would soak it into my system like a rabid sex crazed junkie hyperactive mentally retarded toddler who's just had her first taste of sugar." If he didn't get his idea fix, he got suicidal. When he sought refuge from despair in the creative process, it was a process very like suicidal sehnsucht.
But if only he could have responded to the rest of Ostriker's poem, in which the girl lives to learn the true lesson of creativity:
She doesn't know yet, how could she
That this same need
Is going to erupt every September
And that in 40 years the idea will strike her
From no apparent source,
In a Laundromat
Between a washer and a dryer,
Like one of those electric light bulbs
Lighting up near a character's head in a comic strip—
There in that naked and soiled place
With its detergent machines,
Its speckled fluorescent lights,
Its lint piles broomed into corners as she fumbles for quarters
And dimes, she will start to chuckle and double over
Into the plastic baskets'
Mountain of wet
Bedsheets and bulky overalls—
Old lady! She'll grin,
beguiled at herself,
Old lady! The desire to burn is already a burning! How about that!
But Kurt Cobain's imagination was all about the moment of explosiveness, not the wisdom of reflection. He felt he had exhausted all creative possibilities: If you think "You Know You're Right" sounds like old news, the same old formula, he felt the same way. In the journals, he envisions Nirvana as a washed-up oldies act. But his biochemistry made him believe from the start that all hope was exhausted before he was born—he writes in the early journals that it's all been done, there's no point in music, and yet "it's still fun to pretend" that his generation could find a living music of its own. As the Forbidden Page shows, he no longer had the spirit to keep up the pretense. He could not see that his restless questing, his gnawing hunger to create, and his ability to pour that frustration into art, was in itself potentially his deepest gift.
The Meaning of "Heart Shaped Box"
The "Heart Shaped Box" video is Cobain's most ambitious artistic statement, and the journals yield insights into its elusive significance. The box in question is one Courtney sent him, a symbol of their love he believed to be suffused with her sexual scent. Originally, the song title was "Heart Shaped Coffin," suggesting existential concerns even beyond their love. The journal lyrics suggest their romance's love/hate thrill: "She fries me like cold ice cream—headaches and chills." Instead of the recorded version's more upbeat lyric, "I've been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks," the journal reads "buried in your heart-shaped box." The song describes Cobain's place in the whole universe.
The journals sketch the evolution of the video's symbol-laden, elliptically autobiographical narrative. At first, it was to star William Burroughs, whom Cobain evidently revered as a long-lived defier of convention (overlooking the fact that Burroughs survived only because he switched from heroin to marijuana early on) and for his aleatoric compositional technique, morbid mythology, and sardonic W.C. Fieldsian cynicism. Here was the first scene, expressing Cobain's sense of himself as repository of Burroughs' artistic spirit: "William and I sitting across from one another at a table (black and white) lots of Blinding Sun from the windows behind us holding hands staring into each others eyes. He gropes me from behind and falls dead on top of me. Medical footage of sperm flowing through penis. A ghost vapor comes out of his chest and groin area and enters me Body."
Burroughs wouldn't do the video, so Cobain used a generic old man on a cross and pecked at by crows. To him, birds also symbolized old men advocating death: "Me—old man," he writes. "Have made my conclusion. But nobody will listen anymore. Birds [are] reincarnated old men with tourrets syndrome . . . their true mission. To scream at the top of their lungs in horrified hellish rage every morning at daybreak to warn us all of the truth . . . screaming bloody murder all over the world in our ears but sadly we don't speak bird." Clearly, Cobain spoke bird.
The journal has a great sketch of a skinny guy with a pumpkin head on a cross, beset by crows. In the final video, the old man winds up with a pope's mitre. He represents a martyred rock star; this time, the crows seem to represent Cobain's press tormentors. One shakes his beak disapprovingly at the old man.
Next, Cobain wanted the video to depict "bodies entwined in old oak trees . . . Ask about Dante's Inferno movie from the 30s to use instead of making our own props. We will use the scenes of people intwined old withering oak trees." He refers to the 1935 Spencer Tracy movie Dante's Inferno, about a man who stages a Coney Island carnival attraction based on Dante. He bribes the inspector, the building collapses, and people die. The theme of corrupt showbiz and mass death appealed to Cobain.
So did the Inferno. The bodies entwined in trees, briefly seen in the finished video, are from Canto XIII of Dante, the suicide canto. God turns people into trees to punish them for stealing their own souls: when Dante snaps a twig, it bleeds, and he hears a cry. God also sends winged harpies to torment them, like Cobain's crows.
The journals contain sever