When Kurt Cobain died, on April 8, 1994, so did the band who had come to define so much about American popular music in the ’90s. About this there was never any question. There may have been any number of sordid issues surrounding Cobain’s tragic end, but the death of Nirvana was as clear-cut as the band’s deep connection with an entire generation of disaffected youth had been when "Smells like Teen Spirit" first hit the airwaves, in 1991. It doesn’t matter how much credit Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl deserved for crafting the explosive sound of this remarkable trio, or how much the two of them contributed to the indelible recordings and unforgettable performances that embodied the force of nature that was Nirvana (a retroactive 75/25 percent split in royalties is what Kurt more or less imposed on Krist and Dave in the wake of Nevermind’s breakaway success). There was and is no denying that Kurt Cobain was the voice of Nirvana — both literally, in that his boyish yet world-weary, tender yet angst-ridden rasp was the one irreplaceable piece of the trio’s sonic puzzle, and figuratively to the extent that everything from the shards of fractured poetry with which he adorned Nirvana’s key songs to the second-hand cardigans and frayed jeans he wore on stage spoke volumes about who Nirvana were and what Nirvana stood for. Without Novoselic and Grohl, Nirvana might have lacked a certain structure. But in the absence of Cobain, Nirvana were a body with no soul.
The arrival of the new retrospective Nirvana (Universal) is really nothing more than a sad reminder of that. There are all kinds of subtexts that can be read into the song selections, the sequencing, the artwork, the liner notes. There may even be arguments among fans over whose Nirvana is represented on the CD, because this was a band with three full-length studio albums — Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero — that sound vastly different from one another. Indeed, Grohl had yet to join up when Bleach was recorded. So boiling even a career as short as Nirvana’s down to a single CD is near-impossible. And though the goal here seems to have been to put together a "best of" or "greatest hits" collection, the band had a limited number of singles. What you consider Nirvana’s best material depends upon whether you prefer a shrapnel-laced noise assault like "Territorial Pissings" (which is not on Nirvana) or a hauntingly melodic confessional like "About a Girl" (which is); whether you think it was Butch Vig or Steve Albini who captured the "real" Nirvana; whether you saw Nirvana as a punk band who unwittingly landed at the top of the pops or an ambitious pop group who craftily made punk palatable for a mass audience. In the end, Nirvana is simply a vehicle for a nice new Nirvana single ("You Know You’re Right") and a poor substitute for the kind of in-depth boxed set full of outtakes, live cuts, and other rarities that both Nirvana and their fans deserve and with luck will get before too long.
In the meantime, some of the journals and diary entries that Cobain scribbled his thoughts in during his time in Nirvana have just been published by Riverhead Books. The simply titled, 280-page hardcover book Journals features a selection of the private Cobain writings that Charles R. Cross drew on as a primary source material for his 2001 Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain (Hyperion). Although these writings gave Cross a valuable window into Cobain’s thoughts as he embarked on his troubled and ultimately fatal journey from small-town high-school dropout to drug-addicted rock star, on their own they’re not as revealing as one might hope. Cross used some of the journal entries to help him piece together how Cobain felt about himself, his band, and the people he was close to, but this writer also drew on other first- and second-hand accounts of the daily dramas that became the frayed fabric of a complex life.
On their own, the journals offer only fragmentary glimpses of what was going on in Cobain’s mind. Indeed, the material in Journals is likely to raise more questions than it answers because there’s so little context. None of the entries is dated, and it’s largely up to the reader to piece together the who, what, when, and why of each photographed page of Cobain’s writings (the care taken in reproducing those pages in a large format, with all their doodles and marginal cartoon scribblings, makes Journals as much an art book as a text). Those cases where there is some clarifying documentation are limited to drafts of letters that Cobain may or may not have written and sent to various people in his life, including Melvins drummer Dale Crover, second Nirvana drummer Dave Foster, Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, and Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail.
But it requires extensive knowledge of Cobain’s life even to begin to make sense of this material. That’s not to suggest that Journals is without value. The very human imperfections here — from misspellings to messy handwriting to confused syntax — humanize Saint Cobain, the rock-and-roll savior who died for the sins of the alternative nation. And though that may be overstating the degree to which Cobain has been mythologized in the eight years since his passing, there’s no question that the many mysteries surrounding his life and death combined with the uncanny power of Nirvana’s music have helped to place him in the rarefied company of 20th-century cultural icons like JFK, Elvis, Jim Morrison, and John Lennon. No amount of documentary evidence is likely to answer the open questions or quiet the controversies that have made him one of rock’s most compelling and fascinating figures.
Toiling in the long shadow cast by their former bandmate, both Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have managed to piece together identities of their own: Grohl as the guitar-playing frontman of his own band, Foo Fighters, and Novoselic as an adept grassroots political leader of sorts. Yet it’s still hard not to read their accomplishments as a postscript to the Nirvana story, especially since the publication of Journals and the release of Nirvana coincide with the release of a new Foo Fighters disc and Novoselic’s return to music as the bassist in Eyes Adrift, a new trio line-up that finds him supporting former Meat Puppets frontman Curt Kirkwood along with drummer Bud Gaugh.
On Eyes Adrift’s spinART debut, Novoselic does what he did best back in Nirvana: he provides a solid backbone as a bassist for a singer-songwriter with a very distinct style and voice. Eyes Adrift sounds more like a classic Meat Puppets album than any of the major-label discs that band released in the ’90s, when Kirkwood did his best to cash in on the grunge craze by turning his amp up to 11 and summoning as much angst as he was capable of. It worked for one album: 1994’s Too High To Die (London), which came packaged with a sticker featuring an endorsement by no less an authority on grunge than Kurt Cobain himself and yielded the left-field alternative-rock-radio hit "Backwater." But mostly it was disappointing to hear the Meat Puppets iron out the country, bluegrass, and folksy quirks that had made their five years on SST (1985-1990) so appealing — these were the guys who challenged the notion of what "punk" could mean. Their brightest musical moment in the ’90s came when Curt and his brother Cris guested at Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance and got a chance to sound like the Meat Puppets of old as they joined Grohl, Novoselic, and guitarist Pat Smear in backing Kurt Cobain on a rendition of their ominous "Lake of Fire."
Unfortunately, success brought with it some nasty habits. With Cris said to be feeding a growing heroin habit and drummer Derek Bostrum taking some time off, Curt Kirkwood drafted a new backing line-up and struggled forward for a year or so with a new incarnation of the Meat Puppets. But the transition from an alternative-rock mainstream to a business dominated by the modern or active rock of more metallic and more macho outfits like Korn and Limp Bizkit meant that the Puppets’ time had come and gone. The two shows with the revamped line-up that I saw — one in Austin at South by Southwest two years ago, the other at the now defunct Somerville club Lilli’s — were merely passable reminders of what an exceptional band they had been in the ’80s.
And if what we now seem to know about Kurt Cobain’s final days is true, Eyes Adrift may be closer to the direction that the Nirvana frontman was headed at the time of his suicide than any of the explosive, introspective, and angst-driven Nirvana-style rock that remains the bread and butter of Foo Fighters on their new One by One (RCA). This album, Grohl’s fourth with the Foos, isn’t a step forward so much as a consolidation of a sound or style rooted in the emergence of Nirvana and the punk-derived alternative rock of the early ’90s. In a recent Spin interview, Grohl jokes that Foo Fighters are to Nirvana what Paul McCartney’s Wings were to the Beatles. It’s a comparison that holds more water than he may have intended: with its preponderance of polished pop hooks, One by One offers a cleaner, more mature, more listener-friendly take on "Teen Spirit" than a typical Nirvana song like "You Know You’re Right" or even the first Foo Fighters disc. And unless Grohl decides to take Foo Fighters in a radical new direction, consolidation is really all the band have left.
That, it seems, is one of the concerns that plagued Kurt Cobain in his final days — the fear that Nirvana had backed themselves into a commercial corner, one that he could get out of only by moving beyond the band. In Heavier Than Heaven, Charles Cross points out that by the time of Cobain’s suicide both Grohl and Novoselic were doubtful about the future of Nirvana and were working together on what would become material for the first Foo Fighters disc. For his part, Cobain was dropping hints that he was interested in collaborating both with Michael Stipe and with Mark Lanegan. What Cobain had in mind may have sounded even less like Nirvana than Eyes Adrift does. And it probably wouldn’t have been called Nirvana. But like One by One and Eyes Adrift, it would have been a continuation of the Nirvana story.