Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Review of Kurt Cobain by Christopher Sandford

In the early 1990s, there was no bigger rock band on the planet than Nirvana. This trio from Seattle consisted of lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, drummer Dave Grohl, and bassist Chris Novoselic. This group (along with a couple of others including Pearl Jam and Soundgarden)  was largely credited with bringing the "alternative" music or grunge scene to a level of mainstream popularity never known before.

In fact, in just a few short years, Nirvana went from being a garage band playing local club gigs in Seattle to an international phenomenon headlining sold out shows in huge stadiums and arenas all over the world. So when Cobain was discovered dead from an apparent suicide in 1994, at the height of the band's popularity, fans around the world were left shocked and filled with despair.  They naturally had lots of questions about why their hero would take his own life when he had achieved such fame, fortune, and success. The book Kurt Cobain by Christopher Sandford attempts to answer some of those questions.

When a celebrity dies due to mysterious or unusual circumstances, you can bet there will be a flurry of books published on the subject in just a matter of months. That's precisely what happened when Cobain died. Since I had been a fan of Nirvana, I inevitably started reading those biographies to see what kinds of theories the authors put forth as to why Cobain would want to kill himself. I also watched all the news coverage in the days immediately following Cobain's death. As a result, I felt that I became very familiar with the generally agreed upon facts of the case.

When Sandford's book came out in 1996, I eagerly snapped up a copy and spent the next couple of days reading it. I had very high expectations for the book for two reasons. First, it had been two years since Cobain's death, so presumably more facts had surfaced in that time. Second, early press releases for the book indicated that Sandford was able to talk to several sources (including a couple of family members) that supposedly knew Cobain very well. This was something that previous books lacked, so I couldn't wait to read what those close to Kurt had to say about his life and death.

Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed by what I found on the pages of Sandford's book. Instead of a thoughtful, insightful biography, I felt like I had picked up a supermarket tabloid by mistake. There were numerous episodes in Sandford's book that not only hadn't been reported before, but also were strikingly out of character for Cobain -- at least judging from all the other material I had read about him. At first, I kept reading with an open mind, thinking that perhaps these anecdotes came directly from the inside sources that Sandford had, but the information that I was reading just didn't sit right with me. Of course, I had no way of independently verifying whether or not the accounts were true, so I just went with my gut instincts on that.

Besides these little anecdotes, which really didn't comprise the bulk of the work, I found that Sandford didn't provide much new information. There weren't any groundbreaking revelations as to what Cobain's suicidal motivations may have been, nor were there any bombshell interviews presenting whole new perspectives on Cobain's life and death. Like most of the other Cobain biographies that were available at the time, the author told about the singer's inconsistent upbringing, troubled youth, and outcast status in high school. Sandford also told about Cobain's drug use and gave some details about his relationship with Courtney Love and a couple of previous girlfriends. And of course there were many chapters devoted to the band itself, before, during, and after they released their first best-selling album Nevermind. As I said,  none of this was really new to me, so the book might as well have been written a month after Cobain's death for all of the new information it contained.

Another thing that potential readers should be aware of before picking up a copy of Kurt Cobain is that the book contains very few new quotes from Nirvana band members Dave Grohl and Chris Novoselic. On the one hand this is not very surprising. Both of those men have been notoriously private and protective about Nirvana and their years with Cobain. This book was published in 1996, which means the author was probably working on it for a year or so before it hit the shelves. In that year immediately following Cobain's death, I don't think either Grohl or Novoselic gave any real interviews about the subject. On the other hand, though, I felt that the contents of the book really suffered by not having any true insight from the people closest to Cobain. Quotes from anonymous, unnamed sources obviously don't carry the same weight as quotes from people we would recognize, like Grohl, Novoselic, and Love herself.

I found the presentation of the book to be very uneven as well. Instead of giving details more or less chronologically, which is what readers pretty much expect in a biography, Sandford chooses to go back and forth between Cobain's childhood and adult years. This technique can work, of course, provided that the author gives sufficient transitional information before jumping around. But Sandford doesn't do that, so it sometimes takes the reader a minute or two to get an idea of the time period the author is currently dealing with.

One thing I did like about the book were the pictures in the middle of it. Although I had seen many of them before, there were quite a few that I hadn't come across in other publications. In addition, there was a photocopy of Cobain's death certificate and suicide note, both of which I personally had never seen before, but which may have been published elsewhere. It was a bit heart-wrenching to read those two things because they really give you a sense of the finality of Cobain's actions.  

At the time that Kurt Cobain by Christopher Sandford hit the shelves, the singer had long since stopped making headlines, so fans might have bought the book if for no other reason than to read about Kurt once more. Since then, however, there have been a couple of other Cobain biographies printed that have been well-received by both book critics and fans alike as being much better representations of what Cobain's life and death were like. As far as this particular book goes, I would stay away if I were you. Since there's not really any information in there that a Nirvana fan would find to be new, it really amounts to just a waste of the reader's time and money.

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