cobain: charismatic but troubled

[Riverhead Books, 2002]

Don’t read my diary when I’m gone.

OK, I’m going to work now, when you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.

Perhaps it is a bit unusual to be seeing a reactionary review of Kurt Cobain’s Journals these days, but the lingering pain and sadness of Nirvana’s front man resonates strongly yet. Written in the author’s childish, chicken-scratch hand, Cobain’s honesty shines through as he narrates the course of the band’s history, their rise to fame, discussions of love and sex, and other deeply personal avenues of introspection. Spiritual and sprawling, Journals is an intimate posthumous look into the complicated balance between rock and roll, the personal alienation of fame, and the dark world of drug addiction. 

The everlasting image of Cobain is that of a man tortured by the conflicted personalities he had to endure: the depressed, social outcast and the epitome of the new rock star, the dawning of the age of the grunge.

Aside from reading his first-hand accounts of living the life of a terminally-depressed heroin addict, Journals show Kurt’s struggle between the massive dichotomies he sets up in his own mind. Caught between right and wrong, fleeting happiness and self-induced torture, the rock star and the junkie, Cobain struggles to identify himself through these polar opposites. This theme is even prefaced on the first page of the diary as he writes:

“Don’t read my diary when I’m gone.

OK, I’m going to work now, when you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.”

Terrible, but poignant. It’s conceivable that most musicians become somewhat troubled by the cost of fame, but Kurt’s radical split makes the whole of Journals so incredibly fascinating as it samples from the multiply realizable extremes of his psychological states. Cobain’s need to be validated in some other way which seems unintelligible even to himself is something worthy of an Aronofsky film; beguilingly contradictory and amazing too.

Dancing between ideals of nihilism and an utopic Buddhist vision of the world, Kurt writes openly about other more personal matters in a way that simultaneously repulses and attracts. In one particularly gruesome entry he writes about a girl whom in junior high attempts to have intercourse with him. When he asks if she’s done it before she replies “many times, mainly with my cousin” which causes a frightened yet sexually curious adolescent boy to develop an unusual obsession with the female reproductive system and images of fetuses. Upon returning to school, he classmates call him the “retard f*cker,” and Cobain’s persona of the social reject is quickly adopted. It’s not hard to imagine how the lower-middle class Aberdeen youth who grew up in such a rural logging community could have become the beacon of tormented youth of America’s early 90’s era. This honesty pervades the entirety of Journals; Cobain’s poetic sensitivity is but a glimmer of optimism amongst a backdrop of the corporate American music industry, backed up with scribbles of recipes for fried chicken and french toast.

Cobain’s Journals, in view of his music creates the overall impression of a neglected, insecure musician becoming increasingly uneasy with his fame. The tattered journal entries parallel the conflict and confusion voiced in his music, a scrawny yet soulful individual who somehow represented the impotence of his own generation through the strained throaty textures of his punk-metal rock hybrid.