Book Review: Cobain - The Last Rock Legend

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Oct. 16, 2001 at 2:01 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

UPI NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, Calif., Oct. 16 (UPI) -- With comic results, fans routinely misunderstand the lyrics of hit songs. A recent compendium was entitled "'Scuse Me While I Kiss this Guy and Other Misheard Lyrics" in tribute to a common mangling of Jimi Hendrix's line "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" from "Purple Haze."

The book includes such delightful absurdities as Bob Dylan's "The ants are my friends / They're blowin' in the wind."

Yet, one of its fouled-up lyrics was an improvement over the original. Kurt Cobain's actual chorus for Nirvana's landmark 1991 hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" reads "A mulatto, an albino/A mosquito, my libido." One insightful listener, however, thought he heard something that sums up Cobain far better:

"I'm blotto and bravado / I'm a scarecrow and a Beatle."

Cobain, who blew his brains out in 1994, was indeed a blotto scarecrow. A junkie who suffered chronic stomach pain, the always scrawny rocker would waste away to as little as 105 pounds during his many futile attempts to kick heroin. He was literally dyspeptic: his stomach problems twisted his view of the world.

Yet, just as the six-shooter was the "equalizer" of the Wild West, allowing small men to defeat big men, Cobain, in the grand tradition of petite electric guitar bravos like Pete Townshend of The Who, wielded his six-string as a sonic equalizer in his fight against his family and class insecurities.

Finally, Cobain bears comparison to the Beatles. He was almost as charismatic as John Lennon, and even more self-destructive. More importantly, despite his constant assertion of his punk rocker purity, nobody since Paul McCartney has had a more fertile or original brain for composing catchy pop hooks.

Yet, Seattle rock journalist Charles R. Cross seldom mentions Cobain's melodic gifts in his otherwise excellent new biography "Heavier than Heaven" (Hyperion, 381 pages, $24.95).

The crucial reason Kurt continues to fascinate is the melodiousness of his music. Cross does, however, make clear that Cobain was influenced not just by the Sex Pistols, but also by the less hip mainstream styles he heard growing up in a Washington lumber town, notably the Beatles' pop and Led Zeppelin's slower, heavier arena rock.

Cobain's brief life was not without incident. A delightful little boy much doted upon by his family, 9-year-old Kurt was permanently wounded by his parents' virulent divorce. Unable to accept his parents' remarriages, which showed he was no longer their highest priority, he tormented ten foster families and spoke frequently of suicide.

From age 17 onward, he was often homeless. Two weeks before the release of Nirvana's second album, "Nevermind," which sold ten million units, the 24-year-old was sleeping in the backseat of his Plymouth Valiant.

Having conducted 400 interviews and persuaded Cobain's widow, singer/actress Courtney Love, to let him see Kurt's voluminous private journals and art works, Cross is quite helpful at explaining Nirvana's lyrics.

For example, the baffling phrase "Smell Like Teen Spirit" actually referred to the Teen Spirit brand deodorant worn by his girlfriend Tobi Vail. She dumped him, and that inspired some of the rage that resounded through "Nevermind," which topped most white male rock critics' lists of the best albums of the last decade.

Although Cobain was largely a Northwest version of the classic bohemian artist starving in a Parisian garret, he was quite monogamous for an artist, much less a rock star. By Cross' count, he slept with about six women in his 27 years. He seemed to feel that the sexual revolution had destroyed his childhood and didn't want to perpetuate it.

Cross doesn't theorize much about why Cobain was both so talented and so doomed. Still, he provides plenty of raw materials for speculating about what it was like inside Cobain's head.

Evolutionary psychologists such as Geoffrey Miller of the U. of New Mexico often argue that geniuses don't generally have better thoughts than you or me; they just have far more thoughts, and then choose the best of them. Cobain's career gives credence to that. During the three years he was financially supported by his first girlfriend, Boeing cafeteria worker Tracy Marander, he devoted his days to expressing himself in music, art, and words.

Just as so many British rock stars like Townshend and David Bowie were art school refugees, Cobain had an impressive knack for drawing and making morbid collages. He also wrote countless lyrics and letters in the powerful but disturbing stream-of-consciousness style made famous in "Teen Spirit."

Yet, being blessed with highly inventive musical, visual, and verbal imaginations may ultimately have been a curse to him. With little logical ability - he was awful at math, for example - to ride herd on his imagination, he artistically obsessed on the emotional and physical pain he felt.

In his search for a nirvana where his teeming mind never again would perturb him, he turned to drugs and ultimately a shotgun.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories