Kurt Cobain: Journals (Riverhead Books)

"Don't read my diary when I'm gone," Kurt Cobain requests in ballpoint scrawl on the first page of Journals. In the next paragraph, however: "Please read my diary. Look through my things and figure me out."

So which one is it? What's a Nirvana fan to do? Thankfully, those who would love to look through Kurt's things now have this collection of pages from his spiral notebooks, now exhumed, digitally photographed, and bound into a coffee table book for the painfully hip. Aside from a few notes at the back deciphering the most illegible entries, the editors Nick and Claire Vaccarro present this material with a vaguely implicit chronology (the first document is a letter in which Cobain writes to a friend, "Oh, our last and final name is NIRVANA") but with no supporting context other than the reader's own knowledge of the author.

In fact, were it not Kurt Cobain who put down these stream-of-consciousness journal entries, heavy metal-style monster drawings, mix-tape tracklists, recipes, and even NordicTrack 1-800 numbers, there seems no reason any of it would be printed, bound, and given to Pete Townshend to review. The spelling and mechanics are often shoddy. Indeed, at first, Journals is not unlike finding the notebook of the kid who sat in the back of your algebra class (that is, if he bothered to show up at all).

However, that kid in your algebra class didn't wind up being the frontman for a band accused of starting a new movement in music and fashion, one quickly exploited by the corporate entities Cobain reviled and hoped to attack "from the inside." And this is why Journals is truly interesting-as the primary source of the internal workings of the first anti-rockstar. When more and more newcomers to the music scene are A&R constructions, from the band bio to the wardrobe, it's amazing to remember that we once worshipped musicians without committee-manufactured images.

Even as his fame escalates, as Nevermind goes platinum, and the media further attempts to dissect him, Cobain comes across the same in his writing: embarrassingly candid but tempered with sardonic and often self-deprecating humor. He writes, "My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions…split down the middle between very sincere opinions and …humorous rebuttals towards cliché-bohemian ideals that have been recycled for years." Not surprisingly, his journal entries generally read the same way. His loathing for hypermasculine, violent white males is explored not only in sloppily penned rants but in bizarre, darkly humorous comics. And as for his hardening feelings on the state of the music industry, well, if Pete Townsend didn't like what Cobain wrote about him, then Phil Collins and Jackson Browne probably won't, either.

Although there's plenty to look through and much of it is fascinating (I personally wish I could see alternate ideas for song lyrics, album covers, and video treatments for more artists I like), this is by no means a perfect or even a complete collection. The morbidly curious might be disappointed to discover that Cobain's final piece of writing, his 1994 suicide note, didn't make the cut. Only one letter to wife Courtney Love appears, perhaps one of the few references to Courtney anywhere in the entire collection. One can't help but wonder what the criteria were for the selection, why some pages were included and others were not. Obviously, lyrics and personal stories are of interest, but a self-made study aid for a driving test?

Journals is likely to polarize opinions-if you liked Cobain before, you may like him more now; if you hated him before, you may hate him more now. On the other hand, devoted fans may be troubled by some of what they read, while eye-rolling detractors may find themselves more sensitive to the compassionate and admittedly flawed nature revealed.

Look under the dust jacket of the hardcover version and you'll see this caveat: "If you read, you will judge." And judge you probably will. Unfortunately, I can't predict your reaction, but as the closest thing we'll ever have to a Kurt Cobain autobiography, Journals is worth reading to satisfy your curiosity or expand your understanding about one of the '90s most controversial musicians.

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