Arts & Entertainment: August 16, 2001
“Heavier Than Heaven” by Charles Cross
Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times
Rock biographies became a publishing phenomenon after “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” the Jim Morrison biography, became a New York Times best seller in 1980.
For those of us who read “No One Here Gets Out Alive” when we were young aspiring writers or musicians, the book served as a guidebook and a reading list — Yes, yes, this is how an artist takes on the world.
Morrison read Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Blake, Huxley, Coleridge, Keroauc, Ginsberg, the beats, the Greeks, and any other writer a young artist should read. Morrison believed as Nietzsche wrote, “Say yes to life,” though he said yes to death at 27 in an accidental drug overdose.
Morrison took drugs to broaden his mind, to expand on life’s possibilities. At least that was the plan.
Kurt Cobain, the frontman for Nirvana — the band that first put Seattle on the rock ‘n’ roll map — was not the book-lover Morrison was. Cobain took drugs to kill the pain, both psychic and physical. He killed himself with a shotgun at 27.
Charles R. Cross, from a technical perspective, is a better journalist than Danny Sugerman or Jerry Hopkins, the authors of Morrison’s biography. Cross is more thorough, more cogent, less blinded by the glare of fame. Cross’ book lacks the vitality of Sugerman and Hopkins’ effort, but this may be in large part due to their respective subjects and the respective audiences.
Cross was editor of The Rocket, a Northwest music magazine, for 14 years. In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were talented and literate people at The Rocket, and its readership extended well beyond the small incestuous Seattle music scene. But by the year 2000, when The Rocket folded, it had become a magazine for people who weren’t readers. “Heavier Than Heaven” has that same problem.
Nirvana fans are a diverse mix, but they overlap more with the fan base of Guns N’ Roses than, say, the lettered folks who love R.E.M. and read book reviews. Cobain was well aware of this. On “In Bloom,” Cobain sang about fans who like his songs and like to sing along but “don’t know what it means.” These fans still bought his records. But they are not going to buy this book, because they don’t buy books.
If, however, you fit into the sub-category of Nirvana fans who do buy books, you should buy this one.
Fifteen other Cobain books are listed on Amazon.com, and I skimmed several, but none matches “Heavier Than Heaven” for research, accuracy and insider scoops. Sections of Cobain’s journals are excerpted, along with unsent letters and descriptions of Cobain’s drawings and other artwork.
Also, it’s worth noting that Cross, with unusual integrity for the field, did not allow the favor of his access to censor his reporting. The Cobain of “Heavier Than Heaven” is more complicated and infuriating than other portrayals of the Nirvana star.
Even if you kept up with the onslaught of publicity surrounding Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, of the band Hole, Cross has new stories and details, especially about Cobain’s formative years and his conflicted approach to fame.
In classic Seattle fashion, Cobain thought it was uncool to admit he wanted to be successful. Cross also debunks some myths — Courtney Love did not turn Cobain into a junkie.
Cobain was a junkie before he was a rock star. He called heroin “heroine” and it was, to borrow Lou Reed’s phrase, his wife and his life. “Heavier Than Heaven” tells us the same thing writers from Jacqueline Susann to Norman Mailer have told us repeatedly: Fame and money and drugs don’t make the pain go away. Art, however, can grow out of the mess.
Cross’ prose style is workmanlike, apparently uninfluenced by the postmodern fiction and journalism so many contemporary nonfiction writers favor, but he gets the job done. Kurt Cobain, for better and worse, is the star of the show, along with his “heroine.” R.I.P.
Mark Lindquist’s third novel, “Never Mind Nirvana,” was released in paperback this summer by Villard Books.