Kurt Cobain at age 14: ‘I’m going to be a superstar musician, kill myself and go out in a flame of glory.”
Cobain’s friend, John: ‘That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
If you want a biography of Kurt Cobain that will take you beyond the ‘Courtney killed Kurt” rumors, beyond the image of the pretty, grunge posterboy who was known more for not wanting to be a rock star than being one and beyond everything MTV ever taught you about him, ‘Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain” may just be that book. Published in 2001, it still has a permanent spot on my bookshelf.
Author Charles Cross takes a peek into Cobain’s life before he became the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for Nirvana, one of the biggest bands of the early ’90s.
Using over 400 interviews to create the book, as well as painstaking research, Cross pulls down fold after fold of Cobain’s life and packs it all into 365 pages of easy-to-read content.
No topic is off-limits Cobain’s suicidal family past (his great uncle shot himself in the head and stomach with a .38 pistol), his experimentation with marijuana and LSD by the eighth grade, his parents’ divorce, his first concert (Sammy Hagar and Quarterflash, though he would later claim that Black Flag held the first concert honor), whether he did or didn’t live under a bridge and anything about Nirvana one could ever want to know (including how they got kicked out of their own album release party) is on display.
Perhaps the most compelling part of the book is the authentic Cobain quotes Cross uses to help tell the story of Cobain’s life from being born in the middle-class logging town of Aberdeen, Wash to its tragic end in his Seattle mansion’s greenhouse.
In talking about the lyrics to his songs, Cobain says at one point in the book, ‘My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions. They’re split down the middle between very sincere opinions and feelings that I have, and sarcastic, hopeful, humorous rebuttals towards clich, bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years.” Another quote, gathered after one of his post-show meltdowns, shows a very different side of Cobain. ‘This f*cking sucks,” he said. ‘I’ve been doing this for so f*cking long. And the show f*cking sucked. I couldn’t hear myself at all.”
The book isn’t a tearjerker, and it’s certainly easy to find instances of humor if you look for them. When describing Nirvana’s ‘Saturday Night Live” appearance in early 1992, Cross says, ‘Kurt looked awful a bad dye job left his hair the color of raspberry jam and he appeared moments away from barfing, which he was.”
The performance culminated with each band member destroying his instruments in various creative ways. ‘Kurt began the assault by puncturing a speaker with his guitar,” Cross says, followed by a French kiss between Kurt and bassist Krist Novoselic.
For concert aficionados, the book re-creates many concerts in severe detail, from the antics and songs the band performed onstage to the craziness that went down backstage. One of the main reasons why I enjoy the book so much is that Cross covers the smaller shows in clubs around Seattle with the same level of attention he gives the mega concerts in Europe and the band’s stop at the 1992 Video Music Awards.
Bigger shows do not receive precedence over smaller ones, and Cobain’s later years do not take precedence over his earlier ones. In fact, some of the most interesting parts of the book take place before Cobain was 16 years old.
Though the end of the book is predictably depressing, Cross gives a fascinating account of a musician’s life that is full to the brim with odd concert factoids, weird twists and raw details.

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