I have this problem. Every now then I become obsessed with something, and then I have to know everything about it. Sometimes this works out in my favor, like when I was younger and wanted to learn EVERYTHING about Helen Keller after watching a PBS show about her and then got to write a report on her life for school.
I also went through a really intense Harry Potter phase (and by “phase,” I mean 6th grade through the present time, when I still like to relate everything in real life to a fictional wizarding world) and another phase in elementary school where I checked out every book on different breeds of dogs and cats and how to care for them. I was convinced I would become a veterinarian because of this. (When it turned out I feel faint at the sight of my own blood, I decided to turn this obsession with facts and knowledge into a more-fitting journalism career.)
What’s my latest obsession? I guess I gave this one away in the post title, but it’s Kurt Cobain. Kurt Cobain, as in the junkie lead singer of Nirvana. I know, right? So random. I was a toddler at the height of Nirvana’s musical career.
But at the same time, it’s not so random. Sean had a poster of Kurt up in his dorm room for at least the first couple years we were dating, and included Nirvana’s cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from their MTV Unplugged special on his very first mix CD to me. Like everyone else on the planet, I had seen the iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, with its anarchist cheerleaders and plaid-wearing rebellious teens.
To clarify, by “obsession,” I don’t mean that I am in love with Kurt (weird posthumous crush) or idolize him as a person. I don’t even think he’s a good role model, overall. But there are things I admire about him and his legacy. Mainly, I am fascinated by him.
I think obsession really took hold on our honeymoon in Seattle. We spent a good part of a day at the Experience Music Project, a museum known for its extensive Nirvana exhibit. We both love music, Sean had that Kurt Cobain poster; it only seemed fitting.
I absolutely devoured that exhibit. I read every plaque, every caption, and gobbled up Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl’s commentary on the iPod mini commentary we shelled out extra money for. My eyes were totally opened to the profound impact Nirvana and the Northwest underground music scene’s impact on the music industry. Since I was old enough to care about what music I listened to, I’ve been a diehard supporter of indie bands on indie labels. I firmly believe that that is where real, raw, honest music is made by talented people who are not slaves to the Top 40 charts and the mass-marketing of corporate labels. Learning about the DIY fanzines of Seattle during the emergence of the grunge scene and about how Kurt made his own Sharpie-scrawled T-shirts in support of favorite bands like Mudhoney and The Melvins warmed my heart.
But as I’m sure you know, everyone has heard of Nirvana. Indie darlings they are not. Some may call them sell-outs. That’s what’s so incredible about them. They might not have been the most talented, best band ever, but for whatever reason, they blew up the music charts with music that was too messy, too obscure compared with the pop favorites of the time. They proved that people, especially young people, can recognize real passion and talent when they encounter it. I mean, “Nevermind” beat out Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” That is a HUGE deal. And you get to see things like that with bands like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons passing up autotuned Katy Perry and her merry clan of bubblegum pop clones.
I left the museum with a new and profound respect for Kurt Cobain and his fellow Nirvana bandmates. I realized I listen to several bands off the Sub Pop (short for “Subterranean Pop”) label — like Death Cab for Cutie and Iron & Wine — the very label Nirvana got started with, for years.
Shortly after we got home from our Pacific Northwest trip, I sped through the Nirvana biography The Chosen Rejects. It wasn’t great, but it was a great crash-course for a newbie like me.
And then last week, I buckled down and read the 400+ page definitive biography of Kurt Cobain, Charles R. Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven.
Oh my word. I am so haunted by this story.
I know that everything in that book had to be approved by Courtney Love, Kurt’s widow, who is kind of insane, but still. I couldn’t help but be sucked into the story of this sort of antihero, the loser who played his guitar endlessly, eventually destroyed his life and fame with drugs, and blamed everything on his parents’ divorce and criticism of him as a child.
There is a lot of darkness in this book, to be certain. It was emotionally difficult to get through at times. Like when Kurt learns Courtney is pregnant, and fears because they were both doing heroin at the time of the baby’s conception, she will be born a “flipper baby” — a birth defect in which an infant is born without arms, something Kurt was obsessed with sketching in his personal journals. Did you know Kurt spend several years living off and on out of his car because he couldn’t even get a job hosing down dog kennels? The first time a Nirvana song was every played on the radio — a college station — he personally dropped off the demo disc and called in a few hours later to anonymously request the single.
I seriously can’t get this book out of my head. It’s not that the writing is truly exceptional — personally, most rock ‘n roll journalism is on par with that of sports coverage — but there are so many details and quotes you get the idea that this was really someone’s life. And it’s hard to let that go.
So even though I was 5 years old when Kurt Cobain took his own life (although some conspiracy theorists will claim Courtney hired a hit-man to murder Kurt), I can’t help but wonder if something could have been done to save this troubled man. Also, how weird is it I read this book during the week of the 19th anniversary of Kurt’s death? Of all the other weeks…
At least we’ll always have the music. Nirvana’s — and all the underground classics in the making that came after. Here’s my current favorite Nirvana song.
Next I’ll have to tackle Bob Spitz’ massive biography of The Beatles, Sean’s current obsession. (:
P.S. We have the DVD of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance sitting on our bookshelf, and I can’t wait to watch it. I already watched a Netflix documentary about the making of “Nevermind.” Like I said: I am a girl obsessed.
P.P.S. A Nirvana interview at the MTV Music Awards. Love it. “I’ve already won two of these things so far, and I’ve got three toilets. And I’ve got two in each toilet. So now that I’ve won a third, they all match.”