Twenty years after Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide, he’s still, it seems, as popular as ever.
Sure, Cobain and company have sold some 25 million records in the U.S. since 1991 alone, if Bloomberg Businessweek is to be believed. But, since Cobain’s death, Nirvana has released two LPs that rocketed right to the top of the charts: 1994’s MTV Unplugged In New York and 1996’s From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, two #1s. The odds-and-ends collection With The Lights Out, a worthwhile endeavor if anyone’s taking notes, went platinum, setting a record for single week sales of any box set. The “best of” black album, Nirvana, was a smash. And Cobain still regularly shows up in those Forbes lists of top-earning dead celebrities. In 2011, his daughter, Frances Bean, had an estimated worth of near $200 million.
Enter Kurt Cobain: The Last Session. The first thing wrong with the tome, out via Thames & Hudson this month, is the title. Photographer Jesse Frohman provides about 100 shots of Cobain and, I suppose, incidentally, his band, but the sessions hail from July 1993, nearly a year before the suicide. Christ, that’s even before In Utero was released, Nirvana went unplugged and covered Leadbelly, and Cobain, et al, filmed a New Year’s Eve special for MTV. Calling this “the last session” is much like calling Nevermind Nirvana’s debut: it’s a marketing ploy and a marketing ploy alone. It’s suspect. This is hardly Cobain bellowing the word “pain” over and over again on a demo cassette recording of “You Know You’re Right” while holed up in his Washington home in the early spring of ’94.
You’ve gotta give Frohman credit, though. He does bring out something in his subject. Lighting and framing are careful and conscious without losing or forcing closed the spontaneity of Cobain’s anti-rock posturing and sulking. And Frohman avoids the dreaded trope of disguising Cobain in anything other than what he chose to wear. (Insert commentary about a man protecting his fragile self with layers of mismatched thrift-store finds.) There’s attention to the little details (fingernails painted red, chipped) and, yeah, sometimes a little too much attention (how many cigarettes did he smoke?). Nirvana devotees will be familiar with some of what Frohman offers up, including the shot of a faux-orgasmic Cobain plugging the top of his phallic Evian bottle with his fingers. Personally, I like the inclusion of photos of Cobain interacting with fans, swallowed up by the crowds in more ways than one.
Onto the written contributions.
Now, I have no problem with Jon Savage, who’s done great work chronicling the underbelly of the punk world over the years. He’s as legit a source as you could score to give this some credibility. (Was Michael Azerrad charging too much?) But his “Interview With Kurt Cobain” – snappy title! – has been spread and spread thin elsewhere, including in The London Observer, Guitar World and, more recently, Mojo. (It gets the full treatment, we’re led to believe, until an anniversary rolls around and Savage finds “new unearthed recordings!”) Savage does get Cobain talking, sometimes eloquently, about celebrity and family and sexual identity, yeah. But so did The Advocate in, what, 1992? There are no revelations, just retread. Though it’s thorough, it feels more like gawking at the deceased’s minutia than anything else. Meh.
Glenn O’Brien’s “Kurt Cobain: Here’s Looking At You, Kid,” also included, is hit and miss, too. The language he uses is engaging – high art mettle, even. And an anecdote about Lounge Lizard John Lurie, he of Jim Jarmusch films, trying to meet Cobain around the time of Cobain’s attempted suicide-overdose in Italy – “nobody in rock wrote such long and complex melodies or employed such nuanced tonalities,” Lurie said – is pretty goddamned riveting. Elsewhere, though, over-inflated lines like “Music is like religion without rules,” which opens the piece, sound, well, over-inflated.
All in all, the sorts of people who are Nirvana fanatics who have coffee tables in need of books will pick this up and that’s all well and good. It’s no Journals; the glimpses we get here are more shallow. Yes, yes, yes, the pictures are pretty and maybe that’s all that really matters. But I, like many, loved Cobain for his content, not his clothing. And this “last session” does nothing to further his legend.