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Heavier Than Heaven
A Biography of Kurt Cobain
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It has been twenty-five years since Kurt Cobain died by his own hand in April 1994; it was an act of will that typified his short, angry, inspired life. Veteran music journalist Charles R. Cross fuses his intimate knowledge of the Seattle music scene with his deep compassion for his subject in this extraordinary story of artistic brilliance and the pain that extinguished it. Based on more than four hundred interviews; four years of research; exclusive access to Cobain’s unpublished diaries, lyrics, and family photos; and a wealth of documentation, Heavier Than Heaven traces Cobain’s life from his early days in a double-wide trailer outside of Aberdeen, Washington, to his rise to fame, success, and the adulation of a generation. Charles Cross has written a new preface for this edition, giving readers context for the time in which the book was written, six years after Kurt’s death, and reminding everyone how fresh that cultural experience was when the interviews for the book were done. The new final chapter will update the story since, regarding investigations into Cobain’s death, Nirvana’s induction into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, and how their place in rock history has only risen over the decades.
Praise for Heavier Than Heaven
"The narrative moves like the best Nirvana anthems. Smells like the real deal."
"Until someone writes a book that is more daring in its psychological and social analysis—and as thorough in its reporting—Heavier Than Heaven will be the place to start the dark journey into Cobain's claustrophobic inner world."
"What emerges… is the life story of someone who never grew up, someone whose maturation was half done before he was twenty-one, someone who extracted art from a perpetual adolescence that was over much too soon."
—The New Yorker
"The results of Cross' assiduous reporting show through in every chapter. A remarkable portrait."
"One of the most moving and revealing books ever written about a rock star. An invaluable look at the life of a troubled artist."
—Los Angeles Times
"In his early teens, Cobain told a friend, 'I'm going to be a superstar musician, kill myself and go out in a flame of glory.' This well-reported book… provides the most grounded account of how Cobain, not too many years later, did just that."
—The New York Times Book Review
"The biography that the most important rocker of his generation has always deserved: exhaustively researched, full of insight into the 'real' Cobain as opposed to the manipulated media image, and written in a clear and compelling… voice."
"A cautionary tale of a talented, lucky musician who became fatally confused about whether fame was a reward or a death sentence."
"No other book on Kurt Cobain matches Heavier Than Heaven for research, accuracy and insider scoops."
—The New York Post
"By keeping a steady eye on the facts, Cross mostly pierces the rumors, hype and conspiracy theories that have long confounded Nirvana's place in history… At last, perhaps, Cobain's ghost can find some peace."
—The Miami Herald
"Charles R. Cross takes readers deeper into the life of the brilliant, troubled Kurt Cobain than anyone thought possible. The result is more than just an excellent book… Cross helps reset the standards of what biographies —not just rock bios—should be."
—The Rocky Mountain News
"Shakes up the prevailing conceptions of Cobain… A compelling biography."
"A fascinating, if sometimes frightful, read, a full-scale work that manages to be respectful of Cobain's unlikely triumphs from poverty and also critical of his stunning excesses."
—The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"A standout among rock bios and deserves its place in pop-culture collections."
"Cross treats the strange, unhappy life of musician Kurt Cobain with intelligence and an insider's perceptiveness."
"A thorough, cogent look at Kurt Cobain… No other book matches Heavier Than Heaven for research, accuracy, and insider scoops."
—The Seattle Times
"Cross transcends the other Cobain biographies… A carefully crafted and compelling tragedy."
"Dozens of books have been written about Cobain and his band, most of them ridiculously lurid or worshipful or uninformed. Heavier Than Heaven is the best, by far… Excellent."
—The Portland Oregonian
"Insightful, painstakingly researched… A tremendous gift to those who love Kurt Cobain's artistry."
—The Seattle Weekly
"A closely researched, clear-eyed look at the complicated, even mystifying character that was Kurt Cobain."
—The Associated Press
"Heavier Than Heaven is a book that gives shape and depth to a story that has so often been related as a series of loaded anecdotes… Heavier Than Heaven is a trove of rigorous detail."
—The Boston Phoenix
"Charles R. Cross has cracked the code in the definitive biography, an all-access pass to Cobain's heart and mind.… The deepest book about pop's darkest falling star."
"Exhaustively researched… Unexpectedly vivid. More riveting and suspenseful than a biography has the right to be."
"Fascinating. The most vivid account yet. Will enthrall even the most casual reader."
"Superbly researched and harrowing. Cross has painstakingly accumulated a wealth of telling detail."
—The London Sunday Times
"Leaps to the front of the class.… If you can read only one Kurt Cobain book, Heavier Than Heaven is definitely it."
—The Montreal Gazette
"A sublime, uncanny portrait. The way Cross recreates Cobain's final hours is beautifully written and paced.… By the end of the chapter I had my face in my hands, helpless against the tears."
—The Globe and Mail
PREFACE TO THE 2014 EDITION
This book was first published in September 2001, with an "official" release date of the 24th of that month, coinciding with the ten-year-anniversary of Nevermind. That ten-year Nevermind mark was hardly noted in the mainstream press because the attacks on 9/11 overshadowed the world that month, including any Nirvana-related anniversary.
In the years since Heavier Than Heaven was first published I've received thousands of letters and e-mails from readers, but none was more memorable than one that came only a week after those 9/11 attacks. The man who wrote it had worked in one of the towers of the World Trade Center. He was, in fact, sitting at his desk reading Heavier Than Heaven when the first plane struck the tower next to him. He evacuated, and survived, but he wanted me to know that he'd left his copy of Heavier Than Heaven in the tower. I had my publisher immediately mail him another copy, as he said he hadn't finished the book. It was a bizarre, surreal twist that somehow connected this particular creative work to that tragedy, or at least made me feel a linkage, however tenuous.
That feeling of personal connection—even amid unimaginable tragedy, or from an incalculable distance—mirrors what many readers of this book have expressed over the years about the bond they feel with Kurt Cobain. Hardly any of them knew Kurt, but his death nonetheless felt like a personal loss. In a way, it was a personal loss, because Kurt's death was also the death of Nirvana, and anyone who loved that band lost something there. It has been a loss felt by a generation, or two, even those who never saw Nirvana in concert, never met Kurt, can't speak English, or weren't born before he left the earth twenty years ago.
I feel that loss even thirteen years after this book's publication, and two decades after his death. Rarely does a week go by that I don't have some of that sadness float through me about what could have been or how fate might have shifted.
Because Kurt was such a public figure, with a life lived in the headlines, it is easy to forget that his death was an even greater tragedy for those who knew him personally. And in the course of writing this book, many of those people came into my life, and many have stayed part of it. Every savvy biographer knows that a writer can show only a very small part of any life—a slice, if you will—no matter how long their book. Virginia Woolf once observed that a biography is "considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have as many as a thousand." I try to craft my biographies for a broad, general readership, and not for my subject's intimates, but nonetheless it feels vindicating when those who knew your subject say you caught a part of their essence, one of those thousand selves. You hope your book made someone feel, for even a moment, that they encountered their lost friend again. I've heard those very words, which made the effort here feel worthy.
If I were writing Heavier Than Heaven now, I might have spelled out more directly the process whereby I was given access to Kurt's journals, letters, and papers (this book was written without the "authorization" of anyone, though occasionally I have seen the opposite suggested on the Internet). I obtained these various materials though a number of sources, including Courtney Love, who controlled the bulk of his journals, but not all of them. Four other parties also had a stash of journals or letters. Love allowed me to study the diaries she had without any kind of access being granted back to her. She did not read this manuscript beforehand, and ultimately she was unhappy about certain things in it.
Love's then manager set up my examination of Kurt's diaries. I was left completely alone with several duffel bags full of Kurt and Courtney's diaries, papers, and art for three days in a house in a canyon near Los Angeles. I don't think anyone involved was aware of what was in those duffel bags because many items were of a highly personal nature—medical records and tax returns. Kurt and Courtney lived in chaos when they were together, and my guess is that their personal effects were thrown together in these bags, put in a closet after Kurt died, and left untouched until I examined them.
The journals were extraordinary. There were stains on many of the pages, which could variously have been coffee, pop, and maybe even the detritus of drug use. There were dried bloodstains as well.
Very late one night in that empty house, I stumbled on pages that included Kurt's pleas to God to help him kick his addiction. Holding those words in my hand was one of the eeriest, and saddest, moments of my life. I don't have an explanation for why Kurt was never able to get clean and sober, or why others do. Writing Heavier Than Heaven gave me many insights into the early-childhood history that shaped Kurt Cobain, but it also left me with larger spiritual questions, which are impossible to answer.
If I rewrote this book today, I might also reconsider the structure of the last chapter. As a reader, I don't like footnotes within text, as I feel they take me away from the trance I hope to enter, and from the pictures I paint in my mind as I read a biography. Still, I have had a few younger readers write over the years to ask how I knew, for example, what CD Kurt listened to at the end, or if I just "made that up."
I pieced this book together from over three hundred interviews, but also from extensive police reports. Since Kurt's suicide was thoroughly investigated—despite the gibberish on the Internet that suggests it was murder or conspiracy—there were a number of documents I was given access to that helped me put together Kurt's final days. R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People was in his CD player, which was turned on when police examined the room; the stereo had been turned off when search parties had gone through the house a few days before looking for Kurt. These details alone, about that one fact, would have made for a very long footnote to a single sentence.
I also tried to not insert myself as a first-person narrator into the text. I knew that he pressed hard on the pen when he wrote his suicide note, because when I held the actual note in my hand, I could see the deep impressions of the words on the paper. It has been almost a decade and a half since I held that note in my hand, but I can still feel its emotional heaviness. There were points where he pressed so hard his pen went through the paper. I researched suicide notes for this book, and observed that oftentimes their writers exhibit penmanship that is far better than normal, wanting so much, one last time, to communicate with the world. Again, I could have added these details as a very long footnote, but it would have been invasive to the story.
Since this book came out in 2001, parts of the story have continued on, as it is a saga that keeps unfolding. A number of my interview subjects have died, including Kurt's grandfather, whom I knew well over the years. Though this book paints a portrait of Leland Cobain that is partially damning, he still came to my debut reading for this book in Aberdeen in September 2001. Leland sat in the front row, and given his reputation for occasional violence, I wondered if he might take a swing at me. Instead, he proudly signed copies of the book at a table with me afterward. I am convinced he never read Heavier Than Heaven. He welcomed me many times into his trailer, and aging brought softness to his swagger. He looked remarkably like Kurt.
A few of those I quoted here who grew up with Kurt in Aberdeen, or ran with him in Seattle, have since died of issues related to drug and alcohol abuse. That's a horrible continuation of this story, but it's also evidence of a sad truth I've argued for a while: that Kurt's addictive struggles were as rooted in his early circumstance, and in his genetic make-up, as they were in fame.
I do understand that we all seek answers to death, particularly suicide, and that in Kurt's case it is easier to blame others than the choices he himself made. If you loved Kurt's music, you loved him too, and the anger and disappointment inherent in his suicide is hard to process. Even twenty years after his death it is hard to fathom where he was emotionally that day, the choices he made, the final moments.
Amid that pain, though, the art continues on with a life of its own. It remains vital, breathing, and, I'd argue, remains as important as it was more than two decades ago. Kurt's was a life that I still find compelling and at times inspiring, considering what he rose above. Kurt used his pain to create art, and that was surely admirable. There is much we can still learn from that.
—Charles R.. Cross
Less than a mile from my home sits a building that can send a graveyard chill up my spine as easily as an Alfred Hitchcock film. The gray one-story structure is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, unusual security in a middle-class neighborhood of sandwich shops and apartments. Three businesses are behind the fencing: a hair salon; a State Farm Insurance office; and "Stan Baker, Shooting Sports." It was in this third business where on March 30, 1994, Kurt Cobain and a friend purchased a Remington shotgun. The owner later told a newspaper he was unsure why anyone would be buying such a gun when it wasn't "hunting season."
Every time I drive by Stan Baker's I feel as if I've witnessed a particularly horrific roadside accident, and in a way I have. The events that followed Kurt's gun shop purchase leave me with both a deep unease and the desire to make inquiries that I know by their very nature are unknowable. They are questions concerning spirituality, the role of madness in artistic genius, the ravages of drug abuse on a soul, and the desire to understand the chasm between the inner and outer man. These questions are all too real to any family touched by addiction, depression, or suicide. For families en-shrouded by such darkness—which includes mine—this need to ask questions that can't be answered is its own kind of haunting.
Those mysteries fueled this book but in a way its genesis began years before during my youth in a small Washington town where monthly packages from the Columbia Record and Tape Club offered me rock 'n' roll salvation from circumstance. Inspired in part by those mail-order albums, I left that rural landscape to become a writer and magazine editor in Seattle. Across the state and a few years later, Kurt Cobain found a similar transcendence through the same record club and he turned that interest into a career as a musician. Our paths would intersect in 1989 when my magazine did the first cover story on Nirvana.
It was easy to love Nirvana because no matter how great their fame and glory they always seemed like underdogs, and the same could be said for Kurt. He began his artistic life in a double-wide trailer copying Norman Rockwell illustrations and went on to develop a story-telling gift that would infuse his music with a special beauty. As a rock star, he always seemed a misfit, but I cherished the way he combined adolescent humor with old man crustiness. Seeing him around Seattle—impossible to miss with his ridiculous cap with flaps over his ears—he was a character in an industry with few true characters.
There were many times writing this book when that humor seemed the only beacon of light in a Sisyphean task. Heavier Than Heaven encompassed four years of research, 400 interviews, numerous file cabinets of documents, hundreds of musical recordings, many sleepless nights, and miles and miles driving between Seattle and Aberdeen. The research took me places—both emotional and physical—that I thought I'd never go. There were moments of great elation, as when I first heard the unreleased "You Know You're Right," a song I'd argue ranks with Kurt's best. Yet for every joyful discovery, there were times of almost unbearable grief, as when I held Kurt's suicide note in my hand, observing it was stored in a heart-shaped box next to a keepsake lock of his blond hair.
My goal with Heavier Than Heaven was to honor Kurt Cobain by telling the story of his life—of that hair and that note—without judgment. That approach was only possible because of the generous assistance of Kurt's closest friends, his family, and his bandmates. Nearly everyone I desired to interview eventually shared their memories—the only exceptions were a few individuals with plans to write their own histories, and I wish them the best in those efforts. Kurt's life was a complicated puzzle, all the more complex because he kept so many parts hidden, and that compartmentalization was both an end result of addiction, and a breeding ground for it.
At times I imagined I was studying a spy, a skilled double agent, who had mastered the art of making sure that no one person knew all the details of his life.
A friend of mine, herself a recovering drug addict, once described what she called the "no talk" rule of families like hers. "We grew up in households," she said, "where we were told: 'don't ask, don't talk, and don't tell.' It was a code of secrecy, and out of those secrets and lies a powerful shame overtook me." This book is for all those with the courage to tell the truth, to ask painful questions, and to break free of the shadows of the past.
—Charles R. Cross
Prologue: HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
JANUARY 12, 1992
Heavier Than Heaven
—A slogan used by British concert promoters to describe Nirvana’s 1989 tour with the band Tad. It summed up both Nirvana’s “heavy” sound and the heft of 300-pound Tad Doyle.
The first time he saw heaven came exactly six hours and fifty-seven minutes after the very moment an entire generation fell in love with him. It was, remarkably, his first death, and only the earliest of many little deaths that would follow. For the generation smitten with him, it was an impassioned, powerful, and binding devotion—the kind of love that even as it begins you know is preordained to break your heart and to end like a Greek tragedy.
It was January 12, 1992, a clear but chilly Sunday morning. The temperature in New York City would eventually rise to 44 degrees, but at 7 a.m., in a small suite of the Omni Hotel, it was near freezing. A window had been left open to air out the stench of cigarettes, and the Manhattan morning had stolen all warmth. The room itself looked like a tempest had engulfed it: Scattered on the floor, with the randomness of a blind man’s rummage sale, were clumps of dresses, shirts, and shoes. Toward the suite’s double doors stood a half dozen serving trays covered with the remnants of several days of room service meals. Half-eaten rolls and rancid slices of cheese littered the tray tops, and a handful of fruit flies hovered over some wilted lettuce. This was not the typical condition of a four-star hotel room—it was the consequence of someone warning housekeeping to stay out of the room. They had altered a “Do Not Disturb” sign to read, “Do Not EVER Disturb! We’re Fucking!”
There was no intercourse this morning. Asleep in the king-size bed was 26-year-old Courtney Love. She was wearing an antique Victorian slip, and her long blond hair spread out over the sheet like the tresses of a character in a fairy tale. Next to her was a deep impression in the bedding, where a person had recently lain. Like the opening scene of a film noir, there was a dead body in the room.
“I woke up at 7 a.m. and he wasn’t in the bed,” remembered Love. “I’ve never been so scared.”
Missing from the bed was 24-year-old Kurt Cobain. Less than seven hours earlier, Kurt and his band Nirvana had been the musical act on “Saturday Night Live.” Their appearance on the program would prove to be a watershed moment in the history of rock ’n’ roll: the first time a grunge band had received live national television exposure. It was the same weekend that Nirvana’s major label debut, Nevermind, knocked Michael Jackson out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, becoming the best-selling album in the nation. While it wasn’t exactly overnight success—the band had been together four years—the manner in which Nirvana had taken the music industry by surprise was unparalleled. Virtually unknown a year before, Nirvana stormed the charts with their “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which became 1991’s most recognizable song, its opening guitar riff signifying the true beginning of nineties rock.
And there had never quite been a rock star like Kurt Cobain. He was more an anti-star than a celebrity, refusing to take a limo to NBC and bringing a thrift-store sensibility to everything he did. For “Saturday Night Live” he wore the same clothes from the previous two days: a pair of Converse tennis shoes, jeans with big holes in the knees, a T-shirt advertising an obscure band, and a Mister Rogers–style cardigan sweater. He hadn’t washed his hair for a week, but had dyed it with strawberry Kool-Aid, which made his blond locks look like they’d been matted with dried blood. Never before in the history of live television had a performer put so little care into his appearance or hygiene, or so it seemed.
Kurt was a complicated, contradictory misanthrope, and what at times appeared to be an accidental revolution showed hints of careful orchestration. He professed in many interviews to detest the exposure he’d gotten on MTV, yet he repeatedly called his managers to complain that the network didn’t play his videos nearly enough. He obsessively— and compulsively—planned every musical or career direction, writing ideas out in his journals years before he executed them, yet when he was bestowed the honors he had sought, he acted as if it were an inconvenience to get out of bed. He was a man of imposing will, yet equally driven by a powerful self-hatred. Even those who knew him best felt they knew him hardly at all—the happenings of that Sunday morning would attest to that.
After finishing “Saturday Night Live” and skipping the cast party, explaining it was “not his style,” Kurt had given a two-hour interview to a radio journalist, which finished at four in the morning. His working day was finally over, and by any standard it had been exceptionally successful: He’d headlined “Saturday Night Live,” had seen his album hit No. 1, and “Weird Al” Yankovic had asked permission to do a parody of “Teen Spirit.” These events, taken together, surely marked the apogee of his short career, the kind of recognition most performers only dream of, and that Kurt himself had fantasized about as a teenager.
Growing up in a small town in southwestern Washington state, Kurt had never missed an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” and had bragged to his friends in junior high school that one day he’d be a star. A decade later, he was the most celebrated figure in music. After just his second album he was being hailed as the greatest songwriter of his generation; only two years before, he had been turned down for a job cleaning dog kennels.
But in the predawn hours, Kurt felt neither vindication nor an urge to celebrate; if anything, the attention had increased his usual malaise. He felt physically ill, suffering from what he described as “recurrent burning nauseous pain” in his stomach, made worse by stress. Fame and success only seemed to make him feel worse. Kurt and his fiancée, Courtney Love, were the most talked-about couple in rock ’n’ roll, though some of that talk was about drug abuse. Kurt had always believed that recognition for his talent would cure the many emotional pains that marked his early life; becoming successful had proven the folly of this and increased the shame he felt that his booming popularity coincided with an escalating drug habit.
- "One of the most moving and revealing books ever written about a rock star."—Los Angeles Times
- "Thorough, definitive."—The New York Times
- "Heavier Than Heaven sets a high, new standard."—Rolling Stone
- "As engrossing as a good novel. A remarkable portrait."—Entertainment Weekly
- "Definitive...Cross untangles the soul of a man."—USA Today
- "Charles R. Cross' definitive biography of Cobain traces his life story via more than 400 interviews, and intimate access to the Nirvana frontman's private journals and lyrics."—Entertainment Weekly, Your Complete Kurt Cobain Reading Guide
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2019
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Hachette Books