Thirty years ago, various culture wars hadn’t been fought yet, so Bob Dylan could appear as a pop star and politico and cool weirdo, as a social flashpoint, but not really as a world-historical artist. Sure, he was prolific, mercurial, sui generis, immeasurably influential, irresolvable, astoundingly affecting. Sure, he was taken more seriously than Herman’s Hermits. Still, no one could just out and say Dylan was Picasso with sunglasses.
Kurt Cobain left a few more than 40 finished songs, and some unfinished sketches for others that got released anyway, and with that slim output managed to divert the course of the art. The majority are revered, irrevocably charged, fascinated with the interior and domestic but utterly undomesticatable. They make the world unstable; they’re coffins for previous ideas of intensity. He may be another rock ‘n’ roll suicide, but he’s also an artist of world-historical weight. Kurt Cobain is Jan Vermeer with a dope habit.
It’s hard to avoid thinking about Cobain’s place in the scheme of things, in trying to place this ballyhooed edition of his personal writings: a glossy black shelf of a book with nothing on the cover but JOURNALS in blood red and KURT COBAIN above it in May-queen pink. It holds something like a half-ream of what are basically color xeroxes of notebook pages, scrap paper, hotel stationery, etc. The contents, which no one has taken the trouble to date, though they’re seemingly ordered chronologically, include free-associative rambles, set lists, a few lyrics, letters, a couple comic panels, a couple ugly and disturbing rants, and some perfectly adorable plans for mix tapes. One highlight is an early Nirvana bio: Awkwardly searching for cooler-than-thou, it manages to crystallize rock-scene clichés while diffracting a recognizable particularity. Adopting a bogus impersonality, Kurt writes “their musical influences are: H.R. Puffnstuff, Marine Boy, Divorces, Drugs, Sound effects Records, the Beatles, Young Marble Giants, Slayer, leadbelly, Iggy.” He also manages to pour some acid on the very concept of ephemera collecting, in an aside casually smuggling ambition in a case of irony: “Selling their bottled sweat & locks of hair have proven to be the largest money maker so far, but in the future, dolls, peechees, lunchboxes & bedsheets are in the works.”
There are basically four types of collecting: erotic, identificatory, analytic, and curatorial. These overlap, but aren’t so hard to pick out. If one feels a great need to possess Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten waffle, that’s the first sort; maintaining the John Ruskin Library defines the last. In the middle ground, the second involves collecting stuff related to a person you suspect is somehow like you, who you might like to be; the third involves gathering materials that might help in engaging that person’s art. (For future reference: No matter what category collectors claim, they are probably cheating down one. Curators fancy themselves scholars; scholars would be artists; and everyone who says they’re really “interested” in an artist is repressing a sex-type thing. Only the first sorts are up-front about what’s at stake, and they’re boring after five minutes.)
Various ephemera buzz toward collector-types rather directly: A kiss from Elvis is pure erotics, and so on down through an envelope addressed by Emily Dickinson. But the selections in this book are all over the chart. None can fully qualify for the first category, lacking the signal quality of actually having been touched by the guy—the closest we get is the pointed reproduction of Kurt’s boy-with-a-problem scrawl. He identified himself as the second type of collector: “I like following the rise of entertainers careers while they struggle to make it. I like to know everything about them, and if enough information isn’t available, then tabloids will be sufficient.” And this volume offers up a fair portion of words for readers who might identify with him, particularly in his frequent list-driven attempts to articulate his self to himself: “I am threatened by ridicule . . . I like to have sex with people . . . punk rock means freedom . . . I use bits and pieces of others personalities to form my own.”
The few lyric drafts with marked-up revisions might be useful in thinking about artistic process. And though the other writing seems as far from the brilliance of Nirvana’s songs as one could imagine, there are occasional insights: “It seems like there are only two options for songwriters personalities either theyre sad, tragic visionaries . . . or theres the goofy, nutty white boy, Hey, lets party and forget everything people.” Within such straightforward, lumpy prose lies the formula for his great synthesis: the passionate, wracked interiority of singer-songwriterdom alloyed with the adolescent fury of punk. But each such moment is matched by pages of supreme irrelevance: here some quarter-assed notes for a résumé in search of a janitorial position, there a lame drawing of a hanged soldier wearing a football helmet. Such inclusions assume the completism of curatorial instincts. It’s at this point that the categories loop around, for the erotic obsessives are completists as well, so much so that sometimes one can’t distinguish the two types—and where exactly did you think the sexy librarian fantasy comes from?
All of which is to say that the pages selected for inclusion seem to have no particular aim, no editorial strategy at all. And they don’t need one. This is itself impressive. The four types of collecting progressively exchange intensity for duration; inevitably, your red-hot pop star is likely to draw collectors of the first two types, your canonical great artist the latter pair. Kurt Cobain, for the moment at least, has both intensity and duration. This goes a long way toward explaining Riverhead’s readiness to fork over nearly $4 million for the rights to his journals. Right now there are Nirvana collectors of every kind wandering the landscape.
It won’t be that way forever. The circumstances that make this book possible, when every kind of urge is at play, can only exist when an artist’s place is unstable: one foot in the fire of celebrity and the other in history’s eddying stream, the weight shifting moment by moment. And so inevitably that’s what Cobain’s Journals reveals: not a person but a moment. Not a new certainty about the true nature of its author, but an uncertainty about what he means to the world beyond him. It’s an uncertainty one imagines he would have liked, had he not been a mayfly (the Greek word for which, a scholar would be sure to mention, is ephemeron). Like the suicide note which is markedly absent from it, the book has only the most false air of finality or completeness, unable to answer what comes next for all of us.