Hard to believe but 20 years ago this month Nirvana’s front man, Kurt Cobain, died at 27-years-old from an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound. A few years ago, a publisher contacted me about reviewing one its books on Cobain. I decided to dust it off and publish it here.
It seems anything that can be written about the late Kurt Cobain has been written. But with Charles R. Cross’ new book Cobain Unseen, readers get fascinating glimpse of Cobain not only as a rock star, but also as a child, artist, husband and father.
Cobain Unseen is an illustrated book filled with new photographs of Cobain, his band mates, wife Courtney Love, and daughter Frances Bean. Also included are Cobain’s artwork, which often reveals his inner torment. Readers will also find reproductions of Nirvana stickers, early flyers of advertising Nirvana gigs, handwritten lyrics, a VIP backstage pass and a promotional postcard regarding Nirvana’s 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance.
More personally, there are reproductions of Cobain’s other effects, including a greeting card he made as a child, a school art award certificate, and a hand-written note to Michael Stipe. One of the most disturbing and heartbreaking aspects of Cobain Unseen is a “Dear Diary””excerpt written on loose-leaf paper. In a few paragraphs, Cobain expresses that he thinks he knows what’s wrong with him, his faults, his insecurities, his problems. He wonders if he continues to worry about his problems and his problems with others, they might get worse. This brief diary entry is a sad glimpse into Cobain’s inner torment.
Torment was a common theme in Cobain’s life. He was born months before the summer of love in 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington. His parents were very young, didn’t have much money and divorced when Cobain was a child. Throughout his life, Cobain was plagued by health problems, including stomach troubles and scoliosis. He was also put on Ritalin for his hyperactivity.
However, Cobain was a highly creative child. Art and music were forms of escape. As soon as he was able to hold a crayon or pencil, Cobain was drawing. He spent hours making his original works of art, and his parents thought he might study art in college. Cobain also experimented with putty and clay. His childhood room was covered with his art work, and his art work was also well-accepted by his peers.
Music was also important to Kurt, and his musical aspirations were supported by his aunt Mari, herself a singer. As a teen-ager, Cobain was given a guitar and discovered punk music. He started to write songs, and art continued to be positive force in his life. After high school, Cobain struggled, often living on food stamps and getting evicted from dumpy apartments. However, he also formed the band Nirvana and began to hone Nirvana’s distinctive grunge sound.
Despite the idea that Cobain was a slacker, not concerned with fame and fortune, he was hugely ambitious when it came to his music. He spent lots of time writing songs, sending demos to different record labels and playing endless gigs. “Overnight” success came in 1991, when the Gen X anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of Nirvana’s seminal release Nevermind became a huge hit. For far too long, music was total dreck, with the likes of Color Me Badd, MC Hammer and Paula Abdul topping the charts. Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became manna from Heaven for many rock fans (including yours truly).
Along the way, Cobain met and married Hole frontwoman, Courtney Love, and they had a daughter, Frances Bean. The marriage was at times loving, and at other times tumultuous, but Cobain aspired to be a devoted father to little Frances. He also continued to be plagued by health troubles and soon became addicted to heroin.
Professionally, Nirvana reached the heights of fame. They released three studio albums and toured throughout the world. Cobain was called the voice of a disaffected generation. However, stardom did not sit well with him. Today, where even the most untalented celebrities try to extend their fifteen minutes of fame by appearing in movies or putting out their own fashion lines, Cobain considered himself an artist, not a rock star. He bit the hand that fed him, had squabbles with his record label and didn’t always care about pleasing his fans.
Ultimately, Cobain could no longer handle the physical, mental and emotional misery that plagued him, and he committed suicide in April of 1994, leaving fans devastated and people wondering what could have been.
But Nirvana fans know all of this already, and Cross covered Cobain’s life in his notable biography, Heavier Than Heaven. However, that doesn’t mean Cobain Unseen isn’t a fascinating read. Cobain Unseen is more than a biography of Cobain’s life. It’s also a biography of his art. Childhood photos feature a tow-headed Cobain in front of an art easel or playing a tambourine. His art work conveys his stomach and back problems with the use of raw meat, bones, skeletons and doll parts. The reader will see heart-shaped boxed Cobain collected, and photos of Cobain with daughter Frances show a very tender and sweet side of Cobain. Also included in Cobain Unseen is a CD of Cobain’s spoken-word material, and an interview with Cross about his research for the book.
Cobain Unseen is vanguard of biography. Not satisfied with text and photos, I believe readers today want tactile and tangible personal items of the famous people they admire and want to learn more about. Cobain Unseen is an intriguing inside look at the creativity and the madness of one of rock’s biggest icons. Cobain Unseen is one of the most definitive rock biographies I have ever seen…and felt.