From the first page in, the writers of this collection are unapologetic about their intense scrutiny of Cobain’s life. However, this in-depth exploration does not derive from bad intention; the death of Kurt Cobain shocked the world and thousands of fans, writers, and musicians grieved for the grunge idol, including the journalists who crafted this tribute to him. The purpose of this book comes straight from the foreword: “As fans – Nirvana had revived our faith in rock and roll – we each just wanted to mourn his death in our own private way.”
Cobain is a book meant to commemorate the life of Kurt Cobain, and includes various features from Rolling Stone along his ride to superstardom following a brief two-page biography (continued on the last pages). This book is not about fact – where he was born and whom he met – but about feeling, about the impact Cobain made on the world and who he really was. From the first to the last Rolling Stone feature covering Nirvana and Cobain, the editors provide a real-time recap of Nirvana’s progression, beginning with Chris Mundy’s review of Bleach (1989). Even from the first review, Rolling Stone praises the band’s power and potential.
Stitching together the reviews from each milestone in Cobain’s career creates a sort of pure, dramatic irony: fans of Nirvana reading this book today will take the praise with a pang of grief. “Such a shame he died so young.” Yet to the writers of these early reviews, he’s just a grouchy, greasy man with a guitar and an attitude. The reviews center on, more than anything, Cobain’s talent. Sure, not all of his lyrics are the most profound – the writers aren’t kissing his ass, they’re offering up their humble opinions here – but Cobain DID help develop a culture and a movement, and thousands did follow him (though after a while, the comparisons to John Lennon do grow a tad repetitive). He had a real impact on the music world, and Rolling Stone covered it as it developed. Today, when just anyone can buy a t-shirt with Cobain’s face on it at Forever 21, the objective honesty in these reviews is refreshing. He isn’t an idol in 1989, and so we get to find out what’s really so special about him.
One of the best parts of this book is the exploration of the Seattle music scene, the context for the success of Cobain and his friends. Michael Azerrad does a fantastic job with his articles “Grunge City” and “New Noise for ‘93” in characterizing Seattle, including bits of interviews with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, Supersuckers’ Dan Siegel and Eddie Spagetti, as well as Sub Pop producers Jon Poneman and Bruce Pavitt. Community was essential to Nirvana’s success; die-hard fans and supportive friends built the foundation of their popularity. The time dedicated to Cobain’s roots allows for greater understanding of Cobain as a person, how he was actually able to develop into a rock star, why the time was right for him to rise. Rome was not built in a day, and you certainly can’t build it by yourself.
The book also includes some great photography: candids from gigs and every day life, official prints from photo shoots, concert bills and album art, even a few pictures of Cobain’s daughter, Frances, with her mother and father. The inclusion of all this artwork (seriously, there’s something on every other page) helps convey the depth and vibrancy of Cobain’s personality. He may have been a great musician, but he was also a father, a friend, a real person. Pictures say a thousand words, and sometimes there aren’t enough to say what you really need to about a person, especially in the aftermath of a tragic suicide. Even the way the book is physically constructed, from the loud, dramatic scarlet backgrounds and muted camo-green accents in the lettering to the faded eclectic typewriter print, echoes the raw power and energy of Nirvana’s presence.
The book doesn’t simply end with Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Articles like “The Downward Spiral” by Neil Strauss chronicle the days leading up to and immediately following Cobain’s suicide, saturated with quotes from friends about how shocked they were and how abrupt and surreal it all seemed, capturing the grief and pain during this time in immortal print. The transcript of Courtney Love’s taped message, which includes her reading parts of Cobain’s suicide note and played to a memorial crowd on April 10th, 1994, immediately follows. Her speech opens, “I don’t really know what to say,” and that sentence captures the common sentiment from all the interviews from this point on.
Quotes about Cobain from his friends and admirers, people like Michael Stipe, Mark Lanegan, Eddie Vedder, and Butch Vig among others, decorate the page before every major article in the book. Though these reviews are frozen in the time from which they were written, these words from people who knew Cobain humble the scope of the book, reminding readers that Cobain’s death was more than just the loss of a great musician, but the end of an era and the loss of a friend. Though many people in these interviews express shock and disbelief, and like Love may not be able to find the words, the journalists for Rolling Stone have created an artful, tasteful, powerful tribute to Kurt Cobain.
The writers of Rolling Stone set out to commemorate the life of one of the greatest influences in modern music history, to show how he operated without assuming his reasons. With interviews from dozens of people who knew Cobain personally, who worked with him, experienced his brilliance first-hand, who loved him, and photos from nearly every stage of the singer’s career, fans and readers get a really intimate look at the life of Kurt Cobain. Of course, journalists very familiar with the music scene wrote the book, and it’s easy to get swept up by the familiarity with which they treat some of their interviewees. Keeping names straight in your head as you read can be somewhat of an issue. Stringing together isolated events and reviews can sometimes make the book seem a bit disjointed, but, all in all, Cobain does a marvelous job honoring the front man’s legacy.