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Finding Nirvana 

Heavier Than Heaven capably recounts the tortured life of Kurt Cobain.

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Heavier Than Heaven, Seattle-based journalist Charles R. Cross's riveting, in-depth look at Nirvana singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain, involved four years of research and 400 interviews. Cross had the full cooperation of Cobain's family, friends, bandmates, and widow Courtney Love. In addition, Cross drew from Cobain's private journals and unsent letters, giving this bio its intensely personal feel. Pledging to tell the story of Cobain's life "without judgment," Cross has done just that, while getting inside the head of a man he calls "a complicated, contradictory misanthrope." The result is a well-balanced, often searing portrait that traces Cobain's life from its beginning to its bitter end while plumbing the depths of the artist's deeply rooted emotional torment. Though Cobain's musical accomplishments are given all due respect, it's his turbulent psyche that looms largest in these pages.

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1967, Cobain enjoyed a happy early childhood within the traditional nuclear family (parents Don and Wendy, and younger sister Kim). He was so close to his family, he fought sleep in order to enjoy as many waking moments as possible by their side. Cobain was by all appearances a happy, well-adjusted child until his parents' 1976 divorce, when he was nine years old -- a milestone that turned him into an angry, conflicted kid enshrouded in a growing darkness. At 14 he told a schoolmate, "I'm going to be a superstar musician, kill myself, and go out in a flame of glory." His frequent talk of early death prompted another friend to describe him as the "shape of suicide" -- "He looked like suicide, he walked like suicide, and he talked about suicide."

Though he bonded for a time with his lonely dad, Cobain went from living within a united family to staying with a succession of relatives and friends. "His life," writes Cross, "had been reduced to an all-too-familiar pattern of intimacy, conflict and banishment followed by isolation." Though Cobain endured periods of homelessness, the author disputes the oft-told tale that he lived under a bridge.

Music was Cobain's refuge, and the enthusiasm he displayed in the earliest stages of Nirvana's career stands in marked contrast to the joyless spirit he conveyed as time wore on. (As the date for the band's first recording session approached, Cobain reacted, writes Cross, "like a new father overwhelmed with pride -- he'd tell the mailman or the grocery store clerk.") Doting girlfriend Tracy Marander remembers the day Cobain dropped off Nirvana's first single, "Love Buzz," to a college radio station in Seattle and waited in vain all day to hear the song, only to end up requesting it himself. He listened to it, she recalls, "with a big smile on his face."

Though Cobain often portrayed himself as an unwilling participant in his own success, Cross leaves no doubt he was determined to succeed from the very start -- he once offered to pay a label to put out his record. As a songwriter, Cobain brought an innate honesty to his songs, channeling private despair and rage into his music. It turns out he had plenty of stormy emotions from which to draw. Cobain's artwork and writings reveal violent imagery directed mostly against himself, while his journals expose the insecurity behind his public persona. ("Everything I do is an overly conscious and neurotic attempt at trying to prove to others that I am at least more intelligent and cool than they think.")

Cross's portrait of the much-maligned Courtney Love is a sympathetic one. (Cobain met her at a Portland, Oregon nightclub, felt an immediate attraction, and expressed it by wrestling her to the ground.) The author makes it abundantly clear that, contrary to popular belief, Love didn't get her future husband hooked on heroin. Rather, his journals reveal that Cobain made a conscious attempt to become a junkie several months before he met Love, as a means of coping with an excruciating stomach affliction that, in Cobain's words, left him "literally incapacitated in bed for weeks vomiting and starving. So I decided if I feel like a junkie as it is, I may as well be one."

His stomach condition, with its intense pain and nausea, was a lifelong torment that gave him little incentive to quit the drug habit that afforded him what little relief he could find. Stress only aggravated the problem, and fame for Cobain elicited a sense of panic. The success of 1991's Nevermind, which helped catapult alternative rock into the mainstream, only accelerated his downward spiral. His growing isolation (Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic remembers Cobain being "estranged from all his relationships" and "not connecting with anybody"), combined with a nightmarish succession of overdoses and harrowing domestic dramas involving the threat of suicide, make for riveting, if depressing, reading. Love's efforts to get her husband to clean up his act were unceasing, whether staging unsuccessful interventions or simply laying down the law as she saw fit. Yet Cobain defied her at every turn. (When she insisted no drugs be brought into the house, he checked into seedy motels.)

Cobain's anguished writings reveal a desperate desire to connect with "someone who wouldn't make me feel like a creep for spilling my guts and trying to explain all the insecurities that have plagued me for oh, about 25 years now." The musical career Cobain had once dreamed of became just another casualty of his withdrawal from life and the determinedly self-destructive course his life had taken. Cross puts it more succinctly: "The drugs, combined with what many around him described as a lifelong undiagnosed depression, shrouded him in madness."

Cross's reconstruction of Cobain's final moments, leading up to his '94 death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head (which took place in the greenhouse at his Lake Washington home), is chilling, including the note Cobain left behind, revealing all the curious contradictions of his character (e.g., stating that "I simply love people too much" and later pronouncing himself "hateful towards all humans in general"). In the end, one senses in the man who wrote that he needed "to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasm I once had as a child" a longing for the more idyllic days of his past. The dissolution of his original nuclear family -- what Cross terms "an emotional holocaust" -- left a deep and lasting wound that seemed the very root of Cobain's pain. Heavier Than Heaven is a wrenching trip inside the turbulent mind of its doomed subject, whose ultimate fate, given the stormy course of his life, seemed all but inevitable.

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