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Review of "Heavier than Heaven"

By Charles R. Cross
Hyperion Books, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 30th 2002
Heavier than Heaven

Inevitably, in writing a biography, there are many possible ways of framing the subject’s life. Charles R. Cross narrates the story of Kurt Cobain’s amazing rise to fame from small-town life in a troubled family from Aberdeen, Washington as a stroke of luck, or possibly bad luck. Cobain was a high school dropout whose main interest was music, and who struck gold with his winning mix of heavy rock and pop. His band Nirvana recorded one album, Bleach, on a local independent record label, Sub Pop, before signing a contract with a major label, DGC. The band subsequently recorded Nevermind with its very catch hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and started selling millions more albums than either they or their record label expected.

Cobain had been using drugs of one kind or another since he was a child. He had been given Ritalin for his ADHD, and he had smoked marijuana regularly as a teen. Once he was in his twenties he started on heavier drugs, and soon became addicted to heroin. Heroin kept its grip on him for the rest of his life, and was clearly a major factor in his ultimate suicide. Even if he had not taken drugs, it was clear that Cobain was at risk given the history of suicide in his family and his often unhappy childhood. Cross makes it clear that Cobain often lied in interviews about his past, painting a darker picture than fit the facts. For example, he claimed that he had been homeless during his teenage years, living under a bridge. Nevertheless, Cross takes a psychological stance towards such lies, suggesting that they expressed underlying emotional truths about how Cobain experienced his family. It’s very tempting to speculate what it would have taken to prevent Cobain from killing himself, and Heavier Than Heaven gives the impression that his early death was all but inevitable given his family background.

The book paints Courtney Love’s role in Cobain’s life sympathetically. The Cobain and Love were immediately attracted to each other, and their relationship was always passionate. While some people have held her responsible for Cobain’s drug addiction and his estrangement from his bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, Cross argues that that she tried to help Cobain. Furthermore, Cross takes pains to show that Love was not a drain on Cobain’s artistic resources, but rather worked with him in his own songwriting and the two influenced each other. Thus his account does not support the widespread rumor that the songs on Live Through This, by Love’s band Hole, were in fact written by Cobain.

Heavier Than Heaven is a thorough and competent biography. Cross has extensively researched his subject, and has interviewed most family members, friends, Courtney Love and Krist Novoselic. Notably missing from the list of interviewees is Dave Grohl. The story moves quickly, and yet is full of details that will interest both Nirvana fans and those simply interested in the popularity of the band as a cultural phenomenon. Cross makes Cobain’s psychological vulnerability very clear, and exposes the contradictions in his character. It’s surprising, for instance, that even as a young adult, Cobain retained some religious faith and occasionally prayed. Cobain’s personal journals, an edited version of which has recently been published, are liberally cited, and are often revealing.

Maybe the weakest aspect of this book is that it does not explain Cobain’s artistic strengths and what set aside his musical ability from those of his peers. It would be tempting to conclude from the book that Cobain simply hit on a formula of combining soft and loud, and slow and fast, into one song, and this had widespread appeal. Cross lists many of the bands Cobain himself idolized, including the Melvins, the Vaselines, the Pixies, and the Knack, but he says very little about what Cobain admired in their music. Cross writes of Cobain’s fondness for smashing not only his guitar but also the drum kit that started very early in Nirvana’s career, but he never explains Cobain’s motivation. Cross does explain relate many of Cobain’s lyrics to his life and is especially illuminating in showing how some of the band’s best known songs refer to Cobain’s childhood, but he refrains from any discussion of why such self-revelation might have contributed to Nirvana’s commercial success.

One is left with the impression that Cobain was utterly unable to cope with the pressures of success, and that he might have been better off if he had not been able to afford drugs. Cobain’s self-hate became extremely powerful and he was entertaining suicidal thoughts for much of his adult life. When he eventually killed himself, he not only took a massive overdose of heroin, but also stabbed himself in the abdomen, ripped open the wound, and shot himself in both the abdomen and the head. Although Cross gives a very detailed and somewhat ghoulish recreation of Cobain’s last hours, he makes no attempt to explain how Cobain succeeded in doing such physical damage to himself. It’s not surprising that with such injuries there was speculation that he had been murdered, but Cross makes clear that the authorities insisted that there was no reason to think his death was caused by anyone else than Cobain himself. But even if Cobain had not achieved success, it’s likely that he would still have been troubled and self-destructive.

Rock music has expressed frustration, pain, isolation, anger, and alienation from its early days, and one only has to turn on a music-video TV channel to see these emotions made utterly banal by band after band express them in with a minimum of creativity or even a saving grace of humor. It’s hard to believe that most fans or even the makers of this music really feel the anguish that it expresses. It’s hard to know if Nirvana’s millions of fans really empathized with the suffering and anger that fueled Cobain’s music, but it’s likely that most didn’t. Nevertheless, Cobain himself does seem to exemplify the model of a tortured artist whose conflicted emotions lay behind his artistic creativity. At the heart of the punk ideology that inspired Cobain lies a harsh condemnation of modern society, a pessimism about the possibility of a meaningful or happy existence, and a self-conscious sense of irony about the commercial cooptation of the message of this supposedly antisocial music. Heavier Than Heaven shows how difficult Cobain made it for people to help him and how his ambitions contributed to his own death, making it clear how frustrating it could be to deal with him. When news of Cobain’s suicide was released, many people reacted with cynicism and a complete lack of sympathy, and there’s material in this biography to justify such reactions. Yet he was a gifted creative force, and his allegiance to the ideals of punk had a straightforward honesty that gave him a disarming appeal. Cross’s narrative makes it clear that Cobain’s death was a great loss, not just for his personal circle of family and friends, but also to rock music. Recommended.

© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.