23 February 2013

My essay on a Kurt Cobain biography. I arrived late to the Nirvana party.

I got to do some pretty cool assignments through my Masters of Communication. Gone were the days of economics supply and demand models of my undergraduate degree - I seriously thought we were going to make models out of playdough and farm animal toys, like little dioramas - and I was seriously disappointed when I soon found out supply and demand models were just lines on a page and took a lot of brain power for this literary minded student. The Masters of Communication was quite free range - my assignments were very varied and mostly focused on my personal interests. The presentation on Pacific Brands was the most homage I paid to my undergraduate degree. I wrote essays on my organisation's social media policy, I studied emerging media which included making a blog, I pitched a magazine concept, I presented on journalism and trauma examining the coverage Port Arthur Massacre, I analysed films at the Melbourne International Film Festival and I reviewed some food at a restaurant for a feature article on molecular gastronomy. 

The most obscure assignment I did was for Literary Journalism where I studied literary biography. And of course I centred this essay around Kurt Cobain's biography called 
Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R Cross. Until recently I had only ever read Kurt Cobain biographies. I have about seven of them - plus Kurt's journals and Cobain Unseen featuring his artwork. The other month, Dad posted me an old biography that a library was throwing out. 

I became a fan of Kurt and Nirvana through reading Heavier than Heaven in 2002. 10 years after Nevermind. Better late than never. When Nirvana were at their peak, I was a little bit scared of them. My babysitter, Nat, and her friends were all at highschool, kissing posters of Prince, Kurt Cobain and Simon Baker Denny. I was still a staunch Kylie Minogue fan, and a fan of whatever wasn't too loud or too rude. I wish I was a fan of Nirvana at their peak - it would have been great to be amid that fandom.

Heavier Than Heaven is one of the better biographies I have read. And interviewing Charles Cross by email made me feel really cool. Two degrees or separation, and all that.

I was drawn to Kurt's vulnerability - to the paradox between his fame and need for privacy. He had an illness, and he had talent. I guess I was drawn to the fact he was troubled, and like many of the men I've loved, saw potential that he could be fixed in some way, yet still maintain the elements that made him so beautiful. Even though he was long gone, taken by his own decision. 

It was Kurt's birthday on Wednesday - he would have been 46. I wonder what sort of person he would have been? I wonder if he'd continue to make music? I remembered the essay I wrote, and though it may be wanky to post it here, I am going to do so. A good friend and fellow Kurt Cobain fan encouraged me to do so. Thanks for reading.

The successful literary biographer is an investigator of the spirit’
(WH Auden)

Discuss the way in which Charles R Cross investigated Kurt Cobain’s spirit, in ‘Heavier than Heaven - the biography of Kurt Cobain’.

Heavier than Heaven’, the Kurt Cobain Biography written by Charles R Cross in 2001 could be described as a book length piece of journalism. However, the research that Cross has undertaken and the style he has written it in, demonstrates that it is more than just a hard news story, it is a literary biography. Cross has created scenes of Cobain’s life, drawn from facts and interviews, and a “human” representation of Cobain shines through Cross’s writing.

A biography is a record, in words, of something that is as mercurial and as flowing, as compact of temperament and emotion, as the human spirit itself’ (Edel 1973, p.1). The biographer must present the history of the subject in a logical and believable order, and include facts to represent the subject in an honest way. Edel (1973, p.1) says that the biographer’s craft allows for imaginative and captivating writing, however, the biographer ‘must not imagine the materials’ that he has sourced to write the biography. Careful selection of materials and fine crafting of words enables the ‘essence of [the subject’s] life’ (Edel in Pachter 1979, p.4) to appear. Pachter (1979 p.4) also states ‘through [the biographer] we encounter another human being, we feel the presence of a recognisable, approachable life’. One may believe that readers of a biography should be able to not only find out about facts of the subject’s life, but identify and understand the subject.

Kurt Cobain, singer in rock group Nirvana – arguably one of the world’s most influential bands, rising from Seattle – shot himself dead in his greenhouse on 5 April 1994, at the age of 27. The autopsy revealed that heroin was present in his blood and he had shot himself with a shotgun in the roof of his mouth. The premise of Cobain’s suicide is uncertain, but his life history reveals he was a troubled man with drug addictions and felt the need to retreat from fame and society. Because Cobain was notorious for his suicide and drug use, media reports focus on these aspects, portraying them as the most famous aspects of the musician.

Charles R Cross, an American music journalist, was the editor of a Seattle based music magazine, The Rocket from 1986 to 2000, and has written journalistic pieces for many magazines and newspapers worldwide, including Rolling Stone, Esquire, Spin Q, Mojo, Uncut, NME, The Los Angeles Times, The London Times and the Seattle Times. Cross was familiar with the Seattle music scene, and his writing was also well known its members. Cross was a fan of Nirvana. In an email from Cross (4 August 2005, Appendix 2A), Cross stated ‘Yeah I spoke to [Cobain] but I never considered him as a close friend. I knew the other guys in the band better’

Backscheider (1999 p.33) discusses the idea that ‘biographers have an “affinity” for their subjects, may have long “identified” to some extent with them, and “like” them’. With respect to Cross, he did have an affinity for Kurt Cobain. He did know a lot about the Seattle music scene prior to writing, and also had previously researched and interviewed Nirvana. Cross also stated that there was a sense of trust between him and sources (such as Cobain’s immediate family members) developed because of his familiarity with Nirvana and the Seattle music scene, and previous journalism pieces, and he believed this allowed greater access to information, representing Cobain more wholly.

However, Cross’s affinity for Cobain may also cause a problem of bias within the book. Indeed he portrays Cobain truthfully, and provides a better insight to his drug addiction and illnesses, however, his representation of Cobain could arguably gather much sympathy for him from readers. Cross told me in a personal email (28 July 2005, Appendix 1A) ‘There is always a personal bias but I strive to strip that from my work and bring the reader into the setting. It was both hard and easier because I was a fan; hard when I saw Kurt do something that was self destruction (sic) and easy because I know a lot about the band going in’. This knowledge of the band and Cobain may suggest Cross writes from a sympathetic viewpoint.

The purpose of Cross’s biography was to provide dimension to Kurt’s personality and to tell the story of the Seattle music scene. In an interview with Darren McPeake in 2002, Cross discusses the importance of Cobain, and the need to write such a detailed, multi sourced biography. Cross (2002) states ‘if [Cobain] got a serious biography…people may understand him better... I felt he deserves a serious biography and it was the things that were written about him after his death that really moved me to jump into the book’. Indeed this statement suggests that Cross intended to investigate Cobain’s spirit, and to provide more than what the media had done previously. He believed that Cobain was worthy of a biography.i
Heavier than Heaven’ (Cross 2001) detailed Kurt Cobain’s life in chronological order.ii Cross wrote this biography based on four years of research and 400 interviews. Although this is not an authorised biography, Cross had participation from Cobain’s family and many other sources, and access to a vast range of personal information, which suggests a sense of authorisation. Cross told me about his research process: ‘All 400 [interviews] were ones I did and obviously I also used other existing interviews. I approached people in a variety of ways, I wrote them, I e mailed them, I phoned, I used whatever method I had at my disposal…Some interviews were five hours, some were five minutes. Some I interviewed 12 times, some just once’. (Appendix 1A)

The level of intricate detail in the book is remarkable. Cross’s writing style makes the story of Cobain’s life authentic, and readers may get the impression that Cross was a fly on the wall actually observing Cobain’s actions. However, the span of research from interviews, and previous media, and the delving into Cobain’s mind via his journals and letters allow for this level of detail to be made possible, and for Cobain’s spirit to appear in the book. Interestingly, no one was present when Cobain committed suicide, yet Cross (2001, pp. 337- 342) recreates a meticulous picture of the scene. Cross writes of the CD that Cobain chose for the event, the beverages and cigarettes he consumed, the way he folded the case of the gun, the method by which he constructed the suicide note…even what he could have been thinking or wanting: ‘the last thing that he wanted was the kind of fuck-up that could leave him a vegetable’ (201, p 340). This level of description and exploration into the mind (of someone we can no longer seek information from) raises a question of the level of imagination that Cross used when recreating Cobain’s death scene. How could he possibly describe the scene so well when he wasn’t there, there were no witnesses, and Cobain’s body was not discovered for three days? Cross states in an interview with Maintain Magazine (2002) ‘some fans want to argue “how do you know what happened on that day?’. The way I know is by how you piece together any crime scene and that’s by evidence. Kurt drank a Barq’s root beer because there was one next to him…similarly there is evidence for every action that he took that day, including putting a shotgun in his mouth ad pulling the trigger’. This piecing together of the evidence is another tool which Cross has used to investigate Cobain’s spirit, albeit a spirit that was breaking before suicide.

Cross’s narrative of Cobain’s suicide, and detail of his drug use and sexual encounters and other personal events lends question to the need to publish certain events, and the consequences this may have on Cobain’s immediate family. In an interview with Nirvana Fanclub in 2001, Cross speaks of his role of a biographer is not to be concerned with Cobain’s painful past and the impact it has on those who knew him, and that he ‘couldn’t write a serious biography if [his] only goal was to protect those left living’. However, Matthew Ricketson (2000 p.43) discusses the problems of ethics that a biographer encounters while writing about a living person in his exegesis for his Paul Jennings biography. Ricketson (2000, p.43) writes ‘The closer the biographer is to current events the more they resemble a journalist for whom writs, secrecy and invasion of privacy are serious issues’. In the case of Cobain, Cross has written about a famous figure, seven years after his death, and the nature of his life and death is sensitive for the young daughter that Cobain left behind. The level of information within Cross’s book could be construed as an invasion of privacy, and certainly an insight into a mind and life that Cobain may not have wanted everyone to know about. However, as previously stated, Cross believed he had to do justice to Cobain’s image, to provide truths that were not known to the public. Writing about Cobain’s drug addiction and suicide in such detail certainly helps represent the type of man Cobain was, but it also leaves readers feeling like they have witnessed something that they were not meant to see, that Cobain did not want the world to see.

Cross has included excerpts of Cobain’s journals and letters in the biography. This is one element that differentiates Cross’s biography from previous biographies and media reports. Cross had unprecedented access to Cobain’s journals – he had no restrictions in accessing the journals, and what he included from the journals in the biography was his choice. Courtney Love, Cobain’s wife, told Cross about the journals and emphasised that they were essential to be able to understand Cobain (interview with Nirvana Fanclub 2001).

The journals not only support facts and claims made in the biography, they also provide a representation of Cobain’s personality, and show sides to him that previous media has not revealed. For example, Cross (2001 pp.111-12) has included a journal entry of Cobain’s – one of the many ‘band biographies’ that Cobain often wrote to send (but often didn’t send) to record companies with demo tapesiii.

Within the context of the biography, Cobain’s journal entries provides an insight into the workings of his mind – though perhaps not an accurate insight considering his tendencies to exaggerate, and the amount of drugs he used! – and support Cross’s view of Cobain. It almost presents ‘the whole man’, an idea discussed by Kearns in Edel (1973 p.91). Kearns (1973, p. 91) discusses that it is the ‘biographer’s dream’ to find the whole man, and on may believe that Cross’s access to Cobain’s journals was a crucial event in his search for ‘the whole man’. It presents angles that would not otherwise be examined, and personal view from the subject himself.

Readers feel like Cobain is a part of the book, almost as if he’s personally contributing to the book. In an interview with Nirvana Fanclub in 2002, Cross states ‘There are many things in Kurt’s journals that have also helped me piece together the time line of his life. And finding some of the letters he had mailed his friends were essential to letting his voice be heard in the book’.

However, the journals on their own, as culminated in ‘Kurt Cobain Journals’ in 2002 are out of context, and the publication does not give a sense of chronology ad entries are not dated. Another problem is that these are select journals therefore no background is offered to explain why something may have been written. As a part of the Journals collection, readers may get a warped idea of the man that was Cobain, as many were written under the influence of drugs, and as mentioned, he was a great exaggerator and contradictory. Journal entries ramble from one subject to another which makes it difficult to understand the purpose of Cobain’s writing. The collection features random lists of favourite songs and elements of Cobain’s personality, unsent letters, working drafts of songs and drawings (Appendices 3A – 3E). One may suggest that the inclusion of journals in Cross’s book is more beneficial than the journals as a collection as Cross provides background and reason for the writings.

This biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R Cross does not present an analysis or hypothesis about why Cobain committed suicide. However, the level of detail allows the reader to become more informed about Cobain’s life, and certainly provides depth into the type of character he was. The tools of research Cross has used enable a thorough investigation of Cobain’s spirit, particularly the level of unrestricted access he had to Cobain’s journals. Cross has discussed in an interview (2002) that the people he spoke to spoke ‘openly and freely’ about Cobain, and this indicates even the people closest to him saw the need to represent his spirit in the truest way possible.


ABC News online 2004, ‘Fans are paying tribute to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’, 5 April 2004, www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/s1080942.htm, accessed 8 August 2005.

ABC Radio 2005, ‘Literary Journalism’ program transcript, ABC online 23 June 2005, www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/mediarpt/stories/s1394635.htm, accessed 8 August 2005.

Auden, WH in Jeffrey Meyers ed. 1985, ‘The Craft of Literary Biography’, MacMillan, London, UK. (as quoted on p.2 of Ricketson, M 2000 ‘Reporting it all: The Nature and role of the reporting process in a piece of book-length journalism (Exegesis on writing a journalistic biography)’, RMIT University, Australia, 2000.)

Backscheider, PR 1999, ‘Reflections on Biography’ Oxford University Press, UK.
Batchelor, J (ed) 1995, ‘The Art of Literary Biography’ Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1995.

Carioli, C 2001, ‘Contradictory Cobain- Charles R Cross’s life of Kurt’, Boston Phoenix, 25 October – 1 November 2001, www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/mic/other_stories/documents/01975957.htm, accessed 8 August 2005.

Cobain, CD, (circa late 1980s – mid 1990s) 2002, ‘Kurt Cobain Journals’, The Estate of Kurt Cobain, Penguin Group, UK.

Cross CR 2005, ‘About the Author’, Charles R Cross website, www.charlesrcross.com, accessed 25 July 2005.

Cross, CR 2001, ‘Heavier than Heaven – The Biography of Kurt Cobain’, Hodder & Stoughton, UK.

Crotty 2002, ‘Nevermind the Myth, Here’s Kurt Cobain’, Exquisite Corpse, Cyber Issue 11, Spring/Summer 2002, www.corpse.org/issue_11/critiques/crotty.html, accessed 8 August 2005.

Edel, L 1973, ‘Literary Biography’, Indiana University Press, 2nd edn., USA.

Ling, J 2002, ‘The Cobain Journals Raise Controversy’, The Guardian Online, Wednesday 13 November 2002, www.theguardianonline.com/media/paper373/news/2002/11/13/Scene/TheCobain.Journals.Raise.Controversy-322330.shtml, accessed 8 August 2005.

Litchman, N 2002, ‘Eternal Darkness- A Voyage into the center of Kurt Cobain’s tragic life and battle for his legacy’, Maintain Magazine, September 2002, www.maintainmag.com/sept02/nirvana.html, accessed 27 July 2005.

McPeake, D 2001, ‘A Great American Story- Interview with Kurt Cobain biographer, Charles R Cross’, The Darren Show, www.thedarrenshow.com/articles_kurt.htm, accessed 27 July 2005.

Nirvana Fanclub 2001, Interview with Charles R Cross, Nirvana Fanclub website www.nirvanaclub.com/news/08_2001.htm, accessed 27 July 2005.
Osborne, BD 2004, ‘Writing Biography and Autobiography’, AC & Black Publishers LTD, London UK.

Pachter, M (ed.) 1979, ‘Telling Lives’ New Republic Books National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, USA.

Ricketson, M 2000 ‘Reporting it all: The Nature and role of the reporting process in a piece of book-length journalism (Exegesis on writing a journalistic biography)’, RMIT University, Australia, 2000.

Townshend, P 2002, ‘Why he died before he got old’, The Observer, Sunday 3 November 2002, www.observer.guardian.co.ukreview/story/0,6093,824698,00.html, accessed August 8 2005-08-12


i Backscheider (1999 p.37) discusses the need for a biographer to consider the significance and worthiness of the subject, their work and life, and whether the subject shaped the world in which we live (both at the time, and today). It can be concluded that Cross’s comments show that he believes Cobain was worthy of a biography and there was a need for his story to be told. On whether Cross believed there was an opportunity to write a biography on Cobain before he died and when Nirvana were in their prime, and if he could have written one if Cobain did not die, or did not die in the way that he did, Cross believes that he couldn’t have written a biography like this one. Cross told me ‘I was indeed offered jobs writing biographies of the band when Kurt was alive, and also immediately after his death – both of those seemed like bad timing. I certainly wouldn’t have of couldn’t have written the type of bio I did if he was alive’. This suggests that Cobain’s worthiness and impact on the world was at its peak post death, and Cross saw the significance of Cobain and appropriateness of writing a biography after he committed suicide.

ii It begins with Cobain’s first ‘death’ on 12 January 1992, where he’d injected a lethal amount of heroin into his arm, stopped breathing and his wife had to resuscitate him (Cross 2001 pp.1-4). This is perhaps to set the scene for Cobain’s troubled life and the extent of his drug use, and to show how he was feeling leading up to his suicide in 1994. It then outlines Cobain’s life from his birth, adolescence, the birth of Nirvana and making of their albums, relationships with women, the success of Nirvana, to his suicide.

iii Cobain (circa 1988) wrote

Nirvana is from Olympia, WA, 60 miles from Seattle. Nirvana’s guitar/vocalist Kurdt Cobain and bass Chris Novoselic lived in Aberdeen 150 miles from Seattle. Aberdeen’s population consists of highly redneck snooze-chewing deer-shooting faggot-killing logger types who “aint too proud of weirdo new wavers.” Chad Channing [drummer], is from an island of rich LSD abusers. Nirvana is a trio who play heavy rock with punk overtones. They usually don’t have jobs. So they can tour anytime. Nirvana has never jammed on “Gloria” or “Louie Louie”. Nor have they ever had to rewrite these songs and call them their own.’

1 comment:

  1. I genuinely believe that you and I (about 5 months apart in age) were too young for Nirvana when they were famous. I was about to turn 12 when he died. I went to the movies to watch The Lion King that year and we wasn't allowed to go without a chaperone. I was listening to Mariah Carey and Ace of Base and other teeny-bopper 6th grader music


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