Music Features

Kurt Cobain: The Journal Dilemma

"Don't read my diaries when I'm gone"

"OK I'm going to work now. When you wake up in the morning, please read my diaries. Look through my things and figure me out"

Kurt Cobain died on April 8th 1994, blowing his head off with a shotgun; the ultimate act of negation. Eight and a half years later and his spectral iconic image remains as prominent; he stares at us from t-shirts and from posters, preserved in limbo. Recently named the fifth most powerful man in music by Q magazine and still hot property, the battle rages for control of his legacy. Out just in time for Christmas is Kurt Cobain, The Journals - it seems that we just can't get enough.

The large book, bound in black, includes over twenty of Cobain's notebooks, beginning around 1988 with a letter of adulation to sludgecore proto-grungers The Melvins' Dale Crover; they are presented without annotation, in their original state. The content includes letters, cartoons, song lyrics, descriptions of daily mundanity and vicious anti redneck America / corporate rock polemic. Publication was authorised by Cobain's widow Courtney Love, who has been accused of exploiting her dead husband in doing so. The stakes are high with The Journals set to become second only to The Beatles Anthology as the highest selling music book of all time.

The ethical dilemma surrounding The Journals centres upon how Cobain would have felt about having his innermost thoughts made available for general consumption. This is not as cut and dry as it might appear. The man himself was furiously idealistic, obsessive about the punk rock ethos of truth in life and in music. The popular interpretation of the events which led to his death are that he was raped by the music industry and the gutter press (the suicide note album In Utero contains a song called Rape Me - the intro to which is a pastiche of the generation anthem, Smells Like Teen Spirit). This is true in part; the intense media and record company feeding frenzy around Seattle in the early 90's destroyed an insular music scene, which had been growing since the mid-80's. Cobain was appointed the figurehead of this "grunge" and was subject to intense media scrutiny and vilification from the moral majority. For a perennially sick and frail young man from the isolated logging town of Aberdeen, this was undoubtedly a terrible strain.

In this context the publication of The Journals seems vile and macabre, a view very strongly held by hardcore legend and hero of Cobain, Henry Rollins; "The way this guy's been treated posthumously - it's like you keep pulling the legs of this bug... I mean goddam, how many times do you have to pull this guy's skirt up?" Rollins also blames Love for authorising The Journals; "I think it's really disgusting that Courtney would do that", and refers to the fact that she chose which of Cobain's notebooks would be made available; "I'd really like to see the version of that journal that says, I'm really trying to get away from my psycho wife". There is some truth here, Love has sought publicity and fame since the early 80's when she caught a plane to Liverpool to hang out with The Teardrop Explodes, and it often seems as if she has no shame or propriety (these are the qualities which make her special in her own right of course).

However, the flip side of the argument is that Cobain was full of paradoxes; the hardcore punk / the worldwide star with a knack for melody; the intensely private man / someone who made detailed plans of his bands rise into the rock pantheon. There can be no doubt that he dreamt of fame and little doubt that he to some extent courted it. Indeed those who write diaries do so in part with the thought that someone will read them after their death. The Journals often read as if for a third party. If Cobain were here today, he would probably be both horrified and thrilled at his deification. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has some advice for those tortured by the ethical dilemmas raised by the publication; "Anyone who thinks they are invading his privacy, my solution is, don't read it".

Turning to the content itself, you feel sadness. There is no peace within the covers, only pain and torment. The grammar and use of language is almost childlike betraying the scandalous lack of opportunity he and so much of the disenfranchised US lower middle class (the millions whom he gave a voice) receives. Here there is loss. Much of it exudes bitterness and anger, all fakes and phonies, Catcher in the Rye philosophy. An extremely flawed, unhappy, good and sweet boy is revealed, but listen to the songs and they'll tell you all that. It is in them that his genius lay and for them that he lived his short life. They are his true testament, his lasting gift to us.