When Kurt Cobain's mother, Wendy O'Connor, cried to the Associated Press, "I told him not to join that stupid club," she wasn't talking about Columbia House. She was referring to the exclusive rock-stars-dead-at-27 fraternity. But membership has its privileges. If you're one of those die-young elite who lament over a lack of privacy and leisure time, you don't have to be around when the exhausting daily itinerary that helped put you in the ground gets immortalized, too.
Where were you on the night of December 21, 1988? That was when Nirvana played the Hoquaim, Washington, Eagle's Lodge to 50 people. According to the text, "Chris plays in his underwear; Kurt painted his neck red." And they covered "The Immigrant Song." October 12, 1991? That was the night that Nevermind debuted on the Billboard 200 at number 144. The band played at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago, and Courtney Love, "fresh from a break-up with Billy Corgan, came back to the hotel room Kurt shared with Dave and made love for the first time. Dave quickly left the room." Yeah, probably to write "Stacked Actors."
It's clear that Nirvana's legacy needs the minutiae to counteract the myth-making, something that was already in bloom as far back as the Bleach days, when kids were coming up to Cobain with Christlike drawings of him. Like the zealots who see Jesus' face in a taco shell because they want to, fans somehow equated Cobain's tortured stage presence with the Stations of the Cross. Cobain was the only '90s rock star fans could mythologize in '60s rock-star proportions; death only helped make his canonization swifter. Once the candlelight vigils began assembling outside Cobain's Lake Washington home after his death, it was a given the media would dub him the John Lennon of the Generation X set, oblivious to the fact that Cobain was their Lennon and Mark David Chapman all rolled into one neurotic package.
Cobain was a manic-depressive since his earliest, Ritalin-prescribed days, and severe melancholia ran in the family tree. His grandfather and a pair of uncles died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds -- one even opted for the same shotgun-to-the-head method Cobain used to end his own life. Extreme highs and lows left Cobain a walking contradiction, and it's to author Carrie Borzillo's credit that she manages a careful balance between the heartbreaking and the humorous.
When the Los Angeles Times printed an article alleging that Courtney Love was receiving methadone treatment two weeks before daughter Frances Bean was born, Cobain responded by being pushed out onstage in a wheelchair during the U.K.'s Reading Festival, wearing a white hospital gown and a Courtney wig. After struggling up from the chair, he collapsed on the floor and then jumped to his feet to sing Bette Midler's celluloid junkie anthem "The Rose." Not exactly the picture of "the whiny, complaining, neurotic bitchy guy" who hates rock stardom. The group then went on to play one of the most blistering live sets of its career.
As a band, Nirvana was governed by the same contradictions as its leader. The group members wanted to retain their indie ethos, but still got off on the major-label bidding war to sign them. Nirvana feared losing its college audience but wrote a signature anthem that sounded suspiciously like "More Than a Feeling" (something the band fessed up to by frequently featuring the Boston hit in concert), and Cobain signed off on altered In Utero artwork and retitled the controversial song "Rape Me" (to "Waif Me") because he wanted kids in small towns to be able to buy the album at K mart and Wal-Mart stores.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
And though it makes one sound like a fan outside the gates of Graceland, Cobain appeared to really appreciate his admirers. Faced with their own death, how many other rock stars would even worry about disappointing their fans, something Cobain lamented in his suicide note?
Unlike the more obsessive diary books about Elvis and the Beatles, there are plenty of days unaccounted for and some unnecessary padding -- do we really need to know it's Chris Novoselic's birthday every May 16? But mostly, The Day By Day Eyewitness Chronicle manages to capture the intense tumult of the band's brief career and convey just how phenomenal an outfit Nirvana was, especially live -- even as the Cobains' drugging drove a divisive John-and-Yoko wedge into the group.
It's also a pretenseless diary of the Seattle music scene from which Nirvana emerged, passed its contemporaries and did the unthinkable -- brought the harsh tones of punk into an arena where Mariah and Whitney ruled supreme. If anyone needs a reason for bestowing messianic devotion to Cobain and his cohorts, it's for giving us that oh-so-happy day when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" effectively ended the reign of every useless hair farmer and shut Axl Rose up for good.