How To Read Kurt Cobain's Journals
A guide for the perplexed.
In high school, Kurt Cobain wanted to start a band called Organized Confusion. Cobain's recently published journals are disorganized confusion: They are presented raw, with ridiculously skimpy explanatory material. Here's some advice to help you make sense of Cobain's scribbles, based on Charles Cross' definitive bio Heavier Than Heaven (which presents some of the same excerpts, but more intelligibly than the new book does) and my own conversations with Cobain and his family as Entertainment Weekly's grunge reporter:
1) Don't picture the author as a rock star. His peak journal-writing period was 1989-90, when he was unemployed, living off his maternal girlfriend Tracy Marander (who inspired "About a Girl"), and jotting lyrics and delusional plans that came true: "Nirvana No. 1 on billbored top 100 .. 2 times on the cover of Bowling Stoned." Picture him as only a few years removed from an 8 Mile-like upbringing: He was an ambitious outsider musician with a blond kid sis and a gorgeous divorced mom who drank, dated a guy barely older than her son, and refused to press charges against a lover with money coming in who sent her to the hospital. (But unlike Eminem, Kurt only lived in a trailer when he stayed with his dad.)
2) Don't feel guilty—it's not like reading a normal diary. He often invited people to read his journals ("Hey, read this story I wrote about me lactating!"), and I'll bet he wouldn't mind your doing so—if you're sympathetic and smart.
3) Don't read simplistically. Pete Townshend was not smart to describe the journal entry, "Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend" as the "infantile … stinking thinking" of a suicidal addict. It is that, but also a bit of sly boomer-bashing agitprop. As Cobain writes, "Elitism = punk rock." Also, it's not a simple cri de coeur; he used the journals to rehearse snappy lines for interviews and got the Townshend dis into BAM magazine in 1991. He was wary of being pinned down to single, simple meanings, in lyrics or in his journals. "My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions," he writes. '90s punk irony was a style of discourse permitting the speaker to suggest two meanings, earnest and "sarcastic," while taking full responsibility for neither. (Cobain's suicide note was addressed to Boddah, the imaginary childhood friend to whom toddler Kurt attributed his naughty deeds.) "This is not to be taken seriously," one journal entry warns. "This is to be read as poetry."
4) Get used to it: Death was his default tactic. The journals are rife with it. Nirvana means "snuffed" in Sanskrit, and he threatened to have two authors "snuffed" if they didn't stop writing his unauthorized biography. When I exposed this plot (and got threatened), he phoned a mogul pal and got the innocuous book killed by threatening suicide. He threatened suicide in a Rome concert when his PA system malfunctioned, and when he got stressed over a list of favorite albums the highly sympathetic Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad requested. The day after his daughter was born, he eluded his doctors, presented a .38 to Courtney Love, and demanded double suicide; she thwarted at least a dozen of his suicide attempts. His was the fifth suicide in his family; his great-grandpa hara-kiri'd his own belly, then ripped the wound open when doctors weren't looking. (Cf. the journals' account [written for some reason in the third person, like a news report, though most of the book is first-person] of Kurt in concert accidentally getting a cut eye: "It wasn't too deep at first until Kurt rammed his head into the wall next to him in protest. It opened more.") In junior high, he told at least seven friends variations of the vow, "I want to be rich and famous and kill myself like Jimi Hendrix." At 15, he made a movie, Kurt Commits Bloody Suicide. One of his first recorded songs was "Samurai Suicide" (shades of great-grandpa). Parts of Journals seem scary after 9/11: He sketches a lynched GI in a football helmet, and the most-repeated phrase in the book, linked to the "Teen Spirit" video, is "Revolutionary debris litters the floor of Wall Street."
5) He was the sensitive type. At 6, he was traumatized by the sight of the Beatles' album cover with bloody meat and decapitated baby dolls; his own collages on In Utero and elsewhere are similar (though far superior). A TV ad about starving African kids could drive him from the room. He passionately identified with rape victims and helpless animals, despite the fact that he also killed a cat and fed tadpoles to turtles. His last suicide note reiterates the word "empathy" five times. The journals pullulate with instances of morbid empathy, and murderous rage.
6) He was funny. Gus Van Sant likened Cobain to a perverse, laconic "standup comedian," and the journals bear him out. The plan for a Nirvana T-shirt reading "Fudge-packin', Crack-smokin', Satan-worshipin' [sic] motherf--kers" is admirably droll, as is the story of the narrator's rape and murder by the cast of Andy Griffith in Cobain's song "Floyd the Barber." It's hard to pull other examples free of their context in the journals, but be alert for horror twinned with humor.
7) He wanted to tell it his way. Besides being a chronicle of addiction and an inexplicable pain condition, the journals, like the late Nirvana tunes, record Cobain's volcanic anger at other people's counter-narratives about him. He clipped out his head from the comic book dramatization of his life story and sarcastically drew an emaciated body onto it. He read his press obsessively and wrote meticulously wrongheaded rebuttals. Many entries begin as pop-encyclopedically learned essays and degenerate into foam-flecked rage, like John Belushi's editorials on "Weekend Update": "When I say I in a song, that doesn't necessarily mean that person is me. … I wont calmly and literally complain to you! I'm going to f--king destroy your macho, sadistic, sick right wing, religiously abusive opinions. … Before I die many will die with me and they will deserve it. See you in hell Love Kurdt Kobain Thanks for the tragedy I need it for my art." The tragedy was self-consciousness: He could not ignore what people said about him. He needed to correct their lies—most urgently when what they said was true. Sarcasm failed him. In the end, all he had was a denial, repeated ad infinitum, like the finale of "Teen Spirit."
Tim Appelo writes about the arts for Seattle Weekly, the New York Times, and People.