Kurt Cobain's diary reveals the rocker to be guilt-addled, angst-ridden, and wholly unexceptional.
12:00 AM, Oct 24, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
POIGNANTLY, the red cover of Kurt Cobain's Mead spiral notebook says, "If you read, you'll judge." The statement contains at least one worthy, though perhaps unintended, truth. To wit, reading is not the path to nonjudgementalism. It places one on the road of evidence, which goes straight to the land of informed opinion.
The late Nirvana singer's scrawled message also contains a prediction: After reading this soon-to-be-published journal (excerpted in the latest Newsweek), you "will" (note the future tense) sit in judgement over Kurt Cobain. As predictions go, this one's self-pitying and defensive but pretty much on target. The late singer may also have been issuing an invitation. Why else, on the cover of his diary, go out of his way to suggest "you" read and sit in judgement?
As a reader and a judger, I accept the late singer's posthumous invitation.
Newsweek's selection of Cobain's writings contains mostly rot, but it opens with an interesting personal statement of sensibility. "I like punk rock," the passage begins, before going on to deliver a whole list of "likes," including "girls with weird eyes" and drugs and much else. The statement does not employ the oppositional term "dislikes," as in the traditional grade-school rhetoric of "likes and dislikes." It does, however, capture Cobain's angsty blend of politically correct thinking and self-dramatizing rebelliousness: "I like to feel guilty for being a white, American male. I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity."
Cobain rails against "Yuppie hypocrites" and, in a photographed text advertising the band's services, his hometown's "highly bigoted Redneck-snoose chewing-deer shooting, faggot-killing logger types." The special irony of Cobain's enemies list is that soon enough these unenlightened souls were probably singing along to his moodswinging lyrics.
But the journal's literary achievement--if we can call it that--is to be found among those precious few words freed from any obligation to like or hate the right things or people. It is when the singer allows his lines to proudly droop in grunge's most disaffected pose that he is at his best. In particular, I like (if I may borrow the phrase) the following: "I like to complain and do nothing to make things better."
But let's get back to sincerity. By itself, it means conviction, but not beliefs. Cobain describes his personal brand as primal. Perhaps he meant "original" or "primitive," but it seems just as likely that he had the phrase "primal scream" in mind. This psychological term refers to primal scream therapy, in which the patient is induced to regress to a primal or infantile state. Which is telling. Clearly Cobain meant that his sincerity arises unburdened by reason or information, that is, anything "adult."
Alas, rock-n-roll greatness does not belong to the wise. Usually it goes to some lucky nobody who happens to perfectly represent the unconscious stupidity of the adolescent, CD-buying masses. Which isn't to say Nirvana didn't make excellent, roaring music; only that the ferment from which that music drew its potent magic was self-condemning juvenile sentiment of the cheapest kind. Kurt Cobain wasn't a deep soul; he was a likeably shallow musician whose deeply felt torment was completely generic.
Judging from the greatness of his music and the juvenilia of his diaries, the late singer understood a great deal about rock, but almost nothing about the world into which his music flowed. Musically, he and Nirvana surpassed every punk band since The Clash. Personally, he was about as developed as the typical fifteen-year-old Hermann Hesse reader.
After the "I like" list, there isn't much worth reading in the Newsweek excerpt, though one tantalizing passage has Cobain toying with the idea of writing an advice column for boys. The shocking part isn't the brief text advising boys to "remember that your older brothers, cousins, uncles, and your fathers are not your role models," but just the idea of Kurt Cobain turning his aimless anti-social broodings into self-help writing. Can you imagine the books he might have produced? "Seven Habits of a Highly Suicidal Drug Addict," "Men Are From Mars, That's Why They Suck," and "Grunging Toward Gomorrah: In 30 Days or Less!"
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.