Written by Joel Wosk
It has been twenty years since the untimely passing of alt-rock legend, Kurt Cobain, and his status as such has hardly waned. I consider myself fortunate to have been alive during the active years of the band, and remember the insane heights of popularity the group reached, especially Cobain. Covered almost constantly on MTV and adorning the front pages of rock magazines all over the world, Nirvana were easily the most recognizable and popular group of that period in music history. This is not to say that they were “the best” or “the greatest” band of that era, that can be left as a subjective decision. However, Charles R. Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven tells an amazing, albeit tragic story of an enigmatic and contradictory personality. Kurt Cobain both courted and shunned fame and rock star status during his short time in this world, and Cross’ biography does an incredible job of revealing the complex nature of Cobain’s personality through countless interviews conducted with those who knew Cobain personally: family, friends, and fans.
Heavier Than Heaven was originally published in September of 2001, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the release of the group’s seminal and groundbreaking album Nevermind. The initial dramatic effect of this association was undoubtedly eclipsed by the World Trade Center attacks, as illustrated in the new forward by Cross that is included in the 2014 edition. Releasing this new edition on the twentieth anniversary of Cobain’s suicide is no less harrowing, if not somewhat calculated. This book takes the reader on a long and intimate journey through the life of Kurt Cobain, beginning with his humble beginnings in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, and ultimately ending in Cobain’s home in Seattle when he was only 27.
The early portions of the book are essential in providing an accurate depiction of the emotional factors that ultimately influenced and formed the man that Kurt Cobain would someday become. Charles R. Cross describes Cobain as an imaginative and happy child whose life was irrevocably damaged by the divorce of his parents when he was still just a boy. Cobain’s teenage years were mired in depression and angst. He found an outlet to express these feelings in underground punk and hardcore groups, as well as groups from the burgeoning alternative rock scene that was growing in the Pacific Northwest. The narrative goes on to explain the formation of Nirvana and their trying early years on the road. Whereas, the beginning of the book gives proper exposition as to what motivated Cobain to become what he became, the latter portion, the portion that deals with Nirvana’s meteoric rise to fame, is supremely fascinating to those who remember Nirvana at their zenith.
I consider myself to be a mid-level Nirvana fan, so I felt somewhat unbiased in my opinion as to the kind of person that Cross depicted Cobain to be. He was a sensitive and creative individual who ultimately wanted two things that rarely go together in the realm of popular culture: integrity and fame. Cobain wanted his music to reach all the “right” people and be successful, while at the same time, being able to maintain the respect of his peers in the musical community. Sadly, the incredible heights of Nirvana’s fame in their heyday, with their popularity basically eclipsing every other grunge band of the time, made attaining those two goals impossible. Cobain’s self perceived inability to achieve this goal, coupled with a crippling addiction to heroin, laid the groundwork for his downfall.
Heavier Than Heaven is a fantastic rock biography in its meticulous research and presentation of the events that amounted to the short life of Kurt Cobain. In spite of the short lifespan of it’s subject, the story is dense and filled with personal anecdotes from those who knew Kurt Cobain best. It does not try to deify Cobain in light of his untimely passing, but instead remains true its depiction of Cobain with all of his flaws and sadness. In the end, you certainly feel sorry for Cobain because he was simply unable to find happiness in any of his perceived success. However, by that point in the story, the book has already explained why that was ultimately a tragic impossibility. It is almost as if Kurt Cobain ultimately achieved his goals in death, but at the heavy price of leaving his millions of devoted fans with the unanswerable question, “What could have been?”