Never mind the words
Price: 15 pounds
It was with good reason that Frank Zappa had once advised rock stars ‘to shut and play yer guitar’. Musicians, after all, are in the business of making music. Be that as it may, rock’n’roll hagiography has always fed off the ‘writings’ of pop stars (read: rants etc. from bloated egos), if for nothing else but to get a peek inside their noisy heads.
This book, too, takes the reader into the greenroom, but thankfully, there is no kitsch tour. From the moment we read the scrawl ‘If you read this you’ll judge’ on the cover of one of the dozen college notebooks that make up this book, we know that this is not any pretentious ‘Jim Morrison diaries’. It simply supports the notion that Kurt Cobain, musician and frontman of Nineties uberband Nirvana, was a very very different kettle of fish in the world of rock music.
The journals chart Cobain’s passage in time — from the early days when he worries constantly about ‘never making it’ (“We’re tired of the total uncertainty. Everytime we play a show, we think... ‘Are we going to suck?’) to the (clichéd) times when, as America’s resident rock icon, he wrestles with the downsides of fame (“Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townsend”). But page after page, one gets to read the thoughts of a man who is in love with music, is steeped in its history and has a clear notion that what he is doing is Art and nothing less.
“I consider music art...I feel this society somewhere has lost its sense of what art is. Art is expression, in expression you need 100 per cent freedom and our freedom to express our art is seriously being f***ed with.... I guess what I’m saying is that art is sacred. Punk rock is freedom. Expression and right to express is vital.”
At the same time, Cobain comes across as a musician totally in control of his art — whether it be recording albums, staging live acts or deciding on the exact nature of Nirvana’s music videos. (There are frame-by-frame drawings for the future videos of numbers like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Heart-Shaped Box that seem straight out of an Eisenstein notebook.)
For admirers of Nirvana’s music, this is a treasure chest. “My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions, they’re split down the middle between very sincere opinions and feelings that I have and sarcastic and hopefully humorous rebuttles (sic) towards cliché-bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years... I mean I like to be passionate and sincere, but I also like to have fun and act like a dork.”
The ‘Rock Star’ bits, one supposes, are mandatory to keep up the archetypal image of a heroin habit-frazzled, media-hassled rock icon. But it’s when he’s writing/doodling his lyrics, making impassioned observations on music (“Eric Clapton plays second-rate blues”), his favourite musicians (Beatles, Iggy Pop, Black Flag, Sex Pistols, Leadbelly), politics, body parts, addiction and fatherhood that he grabs our attention.
“I purposely keep myself naive and away from earthly information because it’s the only way to avoid a jaded attitide...I can’t speak, I can only feel. Maybe someday I’ll turn myself into Hellen Keller by puncturing my ears with a knife, then cutting my voicebox out.” He didn’t need to do that. There was the music. Here in these battered notebooks (wonderfully reproduced in this book), he was just venting the same feelings in a roundabout way.