NIRVANA: The Chosen Rejects
By Kurt St. Thomas with Troy Smith
St. Martin's Griffin. 310 pp. Paperback, $14.95
Wendy O'Connor, mother of the late rock icon Kurt Cobain, told the Associated Press at the time of her son's 1994 suicide, "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club" -- of drug-related rock casualties such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison. O'Connor's grievous comment is one of the few sharp ones to be gleaned from the myriad quotes shakily strung together in Kurt St. Thomas and Troy Smith's new remembrance of Nirvana, Cobain's band that briefly dominated rock during the early '90s.
After underground success with its "Bleach" album, Nirvana leapt from SubPop, a respected Seattle indie, to major label superstardom on Geffen Records, releasing the epochal "Nevermind" album in the process. After gaining the stardom that was anathema to the post-punk bohemia to which Cobain chose to align himself, Nirvana encountered landmarks that are relatively commonplace along the path of musical celebrity: money, groupies, accusations of selling out, drugs, divisive spouses, aesthetic confusion, decline, corporate greed, media fascination and premature death. The myth of the heroic rock star has been retold so often in the last 30 years that nothing makes this book compelling enough to place on a shelf already sagging under the weight of books devoted to Beatlemania and Dylan obsessions, along with numerous hack screeds about the significance of doomed rockers from Elvis to the cult daimon Syd Barrett. At this late stage, the Nirvana-related bibliography is overlong, and much op-ed ink has been spilled in the quest to "understand" why Cobain committed suicide and why his American generation also nurtured such bleak worldviews. What's more, the fans' notes of St. Thomas and Smith do little to support their premise that Nirvana was the most important rock band of a generation and a revolutionary force in the youth subculture.
The authors' sole valuable contribution is a more balanced and sympathetic -- albeit limited -- view of Nirvana's bassist Krist Novoselic and final drummer Dave Grohl. They demonstrate the relative importance of the pair's contributions to the band's sound, vision and legacy. As St. Thomas and Smith describe them, they no longer look like flunky handmaidens to Cobain's Muse but rather flesh-and-blood men with viable aesthetics and humanitarian concerns in their own right. Novoselic particularly emerges from the turgid recitals of quotidian data as a fascinating person who deserves more attention here, not least for his ability to empathize beyond his local scene and the rock life at large (something increasingly rare among his generation of rockers). His extramusical efforts have included mobilizing philanthropic campaigns on behalf of his Bosnian homeland and other nations, as well as a prominent role as a Democratic party activist in Washington state. A pity, then, that the authors' preoccupation with the group's iconic frontman leaves room for only a teasingly brief examination.
As for Cobain, St. Thomas and Smith offer no real personal sense of his thoughts and feelings. He remains a cipher, a tortured, self-loathing young artist scarcely different from those of earlier generations, such as the syphilitic hunchback photographer Bellocq or the perverse poet and surrealist Max Jacob, who, prior to his extermination in a Drancy concentration camp, spun verse Cobain would likely have wanted to appropriate for a Nirvana composition: "I choke, I weep, I strike my face, my breast, my arms and legs, my hands. I bleed, I make the Sign of the Cross with my tears. At the end, God is taken in."
Kurt St. Thomas, the primary author, is an avowed fan of the band who -- while exploiting his rare moments of significant interaction with its members (two interviews) -- seems genuinely to care how its legacy is maintained. Yet neither the writing itself nor the tedious, repetitive "reconstruction," overburdened with minutiae about studio sessions and live dates, gives any real sense of why, a decade on, Nirvana was important to him or why the trio should continue to matter to both veteran fans and future generations. Readers who want to know more about Kurt Cobain's anointing as rock savior and subsequent fall would be better off with Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are (1994) or Max Wallace and Ian Halperin's Love & Death (2004). *
Kandia Crazy Horse is the editor of "Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock 'n Roll." She is a rock critic for the Village Voice, HARP and other publications.