Portrait of the artist

Last year, when Charles Cross published his Kurt Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven, some reviewers—myself among them—marveled at a few of Cobain’s diary entries that Cross had quoted. We wondered aloud whether the journals themselves might be worth publishing. In the quoted material, Cobain came across as a kind of untutored genius, his mind as scarily penetrating as those blue eyes of his. Granted, the poor guy was flailing through a blizzard of rage born of an intense vulnerability married to a pathetic and miserable upbringing, and he was flailing as well through the downward spiral of his heroin habit, but that made what he wrote all the more remarkable.

Now, Cobain’s journals are here, carefully reproduced in facsimile so we can peruse them in his original (surprisingly readable) handwriting, as though we’ve found them on a bench in a deserted bus terminal. Throughout the collection, there are worked-over drafts of lyrics, cartoons (a couple of them damned good), some decent attempts at punk ’zine writing, warm letters to friends, and scrawled shoptalk about guitars and amps. All this stuff is fine and informative, though there’s little of the dark, pained gorgeousness you hear in “All Apologies” or “Something in the Way” and none of the stuff we really come to his Journals to find.

OK, I don’t know about you, but I came to see if there was a genuinely tragic element to Cobain’s life or if he was just that screwed-up, bleached, punk god flipping the bird at us from Nevermind who rode 1990s slacker disillusion as far as it could take him. In the end, Journals reveals Kurt Cobain as tragic all over. You have to wade through a fair amount of crap, but there’s also much evidence of the genius of which Cross gave us a taste in the biography—more, in fact, than one had the right to expect from Cobain’s lyrics or the way he came off in interviews. As far as I can tell, that genius grows largely out of a single obsession, and it has to do with the violent defilement of his own innocence—and more broadly, America’s.

It’s not just Nevermind’s cover, with its submerged naked baby floating toward a fishhooked dollar bill, or the back cover of In Utero, looking like the contents of a trash bin behind a corrupt abortionist’s office. You can choose to feel sick at what erupts here, or you can look at the book’s totality and realize that Cobain saw himself both as child and violator, as innocent and defiler. You can see why so much pain (psychic and abdominal) might lunge headlong into Courtney Love, heroin and eventually a bullet to the temple.

His only release from contradiction, the only answer, for himself and for his country, with which he had a surprising affinity was punk itself. Punk was his protection for innocence. Here was the innocent credo: “Art is sacred. Punk rock is freedom. Expression and the right to express is vital. Anyone can be artistic.” In the end, he retreated into an irony he knew was impotent. He retreated into the final bliss of heroin, where all his contradictions melted into the vision of a gun barrel that would make it all go away.

Kurt Cobain was tragic because he was bottom-feeder trailer trash who trusted the thin sliver of self on which his talent rode until he wrote half a dozen of the best songs of the closing decade of the 20th century, and then he crashed when that self couldn’t hold. He was a hopeless mess, and he was beautiful. And it’s all there in Journals.