"Nirvana means freedom from pain and suffering in the external world and that's close to my definition of punk rock." Thus speaks the late Nirvana frontman Kurt (or, as he seems to have preferred, Kurdt) Cobain in the faithfully reproduced pages of Journals (Riverhead, $29.95). Certainly the genius of Nirvana (the band) was that Cobain hammered that definition into a sound -- the now-trademark grunge alternation of pained vulnerability with raw, half-bewildered rage. But in these journal entries and letters cobbled together over the course of Nirvana's improbable rise to global stardom, the undertow of the "external world" -- record company grievances, petty authenticity-vendettas from fans and rival musicians, rather adolescent political musings and fantasies, and of course a depressing abundance of drugs -- wins out decisively. On the usually handwritten pages assembled here, you see the younger Cobain, who penned reverent fan mail to his favorite bands and drew up obsessive lists of favorite songs, become the bitter, put-upon rock star, pilloried by both his own self-loathing and fan expectations, raging at the media and wrestling with the typical rock-star demon of drug dependence.
What made Cobain different, as occasional entries show, was his acute awareness of the cul de sac that not only his career but his sense of self had become: "I wish someone could explain to me why exactly I have no desire to learn anymore, why I used to have so much energy and the need to search for miles and weeks for anything new and different." Much has been made of the failure of this collection to include the suicide note that Cobain left behind when he killed himself in 1994. But for all intents and purposes, there it is.
A very different '90s epitaph comes courtesy of James Ledbetter, a former editor with the Industry Standard, the flashy San Francisco-based tech industry magazine that flamed out in 2001. The Standard printed more than 7,000 pages of ads in its short life, and at the height of its opulence in the late '90s, the average weeky edition had a page count to rival the average Balzac novel. However, as Ledbetter recounts in Starving to Death on $200 Million a Year (PublicAffairs, $26, forthcoming in January), his insider account of life in the great dot-com barbecue, the way the Standard got put together came to bear a much closer resemblance to, say, the more gruesome work of Clive Barker.
As the bubble that encased the companies on the Standard's beat continued to swell, the Standard itself got sucked right in. The magazine hosted Friday evening parties on its rooftop for dot-com machers -- many of whom doubled as sources, and some of whom sought to commandeer the social gatherings into investment pitches. Faced with mounting financial woes, the magazine unwisely elected to softpedal a story in which a venture capital group with close ties to the magazine was reported to have become grievously overexposed to risky Internet startups. Right up to the end, as Ledbetter makes clear, the magazine also continued to publish sharp and independent reporting on the vortex of paper, rumor and hype behind the New Economy's heyday. But as his candid look back at the Standard's run also reminds us, it's much easier to do that sort of quality journalism from outside the bubble.
-- Chris Lehmann