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The 'painful' tale of Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video. The song catapulted Nirvana -- and its brand of post-punk "alternative" music -- into the mainstream.  

By Jamie Allen

(CNN) -- Charles R. Cross' hard work paid off.

Not only did the author of "Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain" (Hyperion) win access to the former Nirvana lead singer's journals from Cobain's widow, rock star/actress Courtney Love, but during his extensive research, Cross uncovered another precious item in the scattered remnants of Cobain's volcanic life.

By talking to people who were touched by Cobain before he committed suicide in 1994 at the age of 27, Cross came across a tape of Cobain's first public performance. The event, if it can be called that, happened in 1987 at a party attended by about 15 people in a house located on the outskirts of Aberdeen, Washington, a poor logging town where Cobain grew up.

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    Krist Novoselic, the future Nirvana bassist, and a drummer named Aaron Burckhard played with Cobain. The band was so green, it didn't even have a name. But it had several Cobain- penned songs that would later be featured on Nirvana albums, including "Downer," "Mexican Seafood," and "Hairspray Queen."

    "I couldn't believe it was taped," says Cross, talking on the phone recently from his home in Seattle, Washington. "If you think about that, the historical significance of having a tape of the first concert by any band -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Nirvana -- it's amazing. It sounds fantastic."

    Similar words have been employed to describe the author's nonfiction depiction of Cobain's life. His hardcover book is hitting bookshelves to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the release "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the groundbreaking 1991 Nirvana hit.

    The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for one, recently gushed, "The short unhappy life of Kurt Donald Cobain now has its worthy biographer."

    Though many treatments have surfaced purporting to know the inside story of Cobain's troubled existence and brilliant musical career, none has dug as deep or as close to home as Cross' work.

    The former editor for Seattle's entertainment magazine The Rocket, Cross has also written books on Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen. For his latest book, he conducted more than 400 interviews over four years.

    Most notably, he won the trust of Love and Novoselic. (Dave Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer, declined Cross' request to speak with him on the record.) Cobain's parents also spoke to Cross about painful details of their divorce, which tore apart Cobain's life when he was 9, and a deteriorated relationship with their son.

    Kurt's diaries

    Nirvana in 1994: Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain, holding daughter Frances.  

    And then there are the Cobain journals, 28 spiral-bound notebooks filled with Cobain's left-handed scrawl, documenting events in his life from the time when he was a homeless teen, through the madness of fame and MTV overexposure to the sad end when he was (in Cross' words) "the most famous drug addict of his generation."

    The diaries surfaced unexpectedly. Cross says he was talking to Love when she casually mentioned that he should read "Kurt's diaries," which up until that point Cross didn't even know existed. The offer came without Cross offering anything more than his own objective interpretation of the writings.

    "It was without any strings attached," says Cross.

    Mouth agape, Cross poured over the entries for four days. They're threaded throughout "Heavier Than Heaven."

    "The journals changed the book dramatically because it gave Kurt a voice," Cross says.

    The result of his research is not a fun read, Cross admits. Writing it was no different; the book brought him to tears on several occasions, he says.

    'Like the Titanic'

    "Heavier Than Heaven" documents in unblinking detail Cobain's descent from an innocent, tow-headed boy living in an Aberdeen trailer park with Mom, Dad and Sister to a pot-smoking, acid- taking teenage product of a messy divorce who lived on the streets.

    Charles R. Cross
    Author Charles R. Cross  

    And then there is the contradictory turn in Cobain's life: Once he achieved the highest success his art form could offer, and once he married Love and became a father, he fell into depression and heroin addiction, finally ending his life with a shotgun blast. At the time of the suicide, Cobain had enough heroin in his bloodstream to kill him, Cross reports.

    "It's like the Titanic," Cross says of his book. "You know the ship is going to go down."

    But he felt it necessary to objectively document the life of Cobain, sadness and all.

    "I felt my commitment was to Kurt, to tell the story, even when it was very painful and even when it made him look bad," Cross says. "I really wanted to treat him as a historical figure not unlike you would treat a political figure and to write about the circumstances of his life."

    There's more to it than that for Cross. Now 44, Cross says he knew Cobain and he admits he was a huge fan of Nirvana.

    "He was able to emotionally sell a song," says Cross. "You listen to the first 10 seconds of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and you may never understand what the lyrics are about. But you know immediately what the emotional tone of that song is. You don't know why he's angry, but you know he is."

    It's that kind of maddening contradiction that made Cobain so hard to grasp, and made Cross' extensive research so necessary.

    book cover

    At one point, Cross says, he attended a conference on heroin overdose to better understand his subject. He recalls how the conference started out with a slide show featuring "all these pictures of young kids in Cub Scout uniforms and baby pictures and kids on ponies."

    At the end of the slide show, Cross learned a tragic truth: Each one of those beaming youngsters had died of a heroin overdose in the past year.

    Cobain, says Cross, could just as easily have been featured in the photo show. He, too, was once a picture of innocence.

    But there are no easy answers to his puzzle; all Cobain left were the facts of his life.

    "I was, very intentionally, trying not to do armchair psychoanalysis," Cross says. "There really aren't any statements that I'm attempting to make in this book.

    "I think there's a lot of judgment that goes into how we look at addicts in this society," he says. "I guess my goal with this book was to tell the story without those judgments."

    • 'When Nothing Matters Anymore'
    August 31, 1998
    • Bev Cobain chat transcript
    November 5, 1998

    • Charles R. Cross
    • Hyperion Books

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