WHOEVER decided at Da Capo Press to call “Nirvana: The Biography” the “final” word on the legendary alternative-rock band should know that even using the term sounds defensive: Either it’s an apology for girth (It’s the final word. It had to be 600-plus pages) or an insulation from criticism. (It’s the final word. Which means there’s nothing else to say, especially from you.) But like the book’s author, they plowed on, blind to the wipeout of publishing a tome more thorough than insightful and letting force-fed opinions stand between readers and the subject.
If you’re in a different demographic queue or think Nirvana is foremost a state of Buddhist enlightenment, here’s what you need to know: Nirvana was a three-piece band that came out of the underground music scene in Aberdeen and Olympia, Wash., in the late 1980s. Influenced by punk and alt-rock pioneers such as the Melvins and Sonic Youth, Nirvana blended distorted guitars, arching vocals and elliptical, gothic lyrics with a sneaky pop sensibility.
Their fearsome live shows attracted first the interest of up-and-coming Seattle label Sub Pop and then Geffen Records, which released the band’s major-label debut, “Nevermind,” in 1991. The single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” propelled the album to the top of the charts, and began the era of alt-rock reaching a mass audience. Now called “the anthem of a generation,” “Spirit” brought Nirvana popularity it had never anticipated and fame that made the group’s three members uncomfortable. Lead singer Kurt Cobain began abusing heroin. Two more albums, several tours and attempts at rehab followed. On April 5, 1994, Cobain shot himself at his home. He left behind a wife -- musician and actress Courtney Love -- a baby daughter and a world of fans. Grunge’s moment in the pop spotlight faded soon after.
British journalist Everett True conducted scores of interviews in researching this volume and had covered Nirvana long before the band became famous. If nothing else, I applaud his thoroughness. But not content to merely feather the archival nest (and with several other biographies plus a memoir from bassist Krist Novoselic already out, that’s really all that’s left to do for a while), True has something bigger in mind: It’s for the kids, he writes. “They understand how it feels to be unloved, confused, misunderstood, betrayed by those in positions of authority who only ever claim to be helping you. The kids understand.” Cobain and his band (which also included drummer Dave Grohl, now the Foo Fighters’ front man) have stood in as marketable metaphors long enough. It’s time to reclaim for the next generation what it felt like to be there.
It’s a timeless sentiment, as old as rock music itself. You weren’t there before it all went to hell so let me remember it both with and for you. In doing so, True wants us to taste that purity that was Nirvana’s short life before “the self-righteous prigs,” the “bullies and braggarts” and “the mainstream media” corrupted it. Which would be fine if True had a historical perspective longer than the lifespan of milk. Instead, he is so ignorant of Nirvana’s place in musical history and yet so convinced of how right he is about it that we get arrogance passing as conviction.
Nirvana may have both paved the way for mainstream acceptance of alternative rock and, as journalist Michael Azerrad submitted in his book “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” ended the genre’s golden age. But Nirvana was also the last giant band of the pre-Internet era, a simpler, bifurcated time in music.
Back then, if MTV or commercial radio didn’t speak to you, you had a single alternative: an underground society of fanzines, tape trading, self-promoted concerts and college radio. This alienation from a heartless mainstream gave birth to punk in the ‘70s, hip-hop in the early ‘80s and the rock scene that birthed Nirvana. It also played into the central myth of rock ‘n’ roll itself: Society wants to squash you and your friends, and music is your liberation.
But now, a music fan has infinite listening choices and can locate peers through a few mouse clicks. Commercial radio and major record labels are self-destructing. Musicians develop enormous following through a few songs on MySpace. While major record labels are in freefall, music has never been cheaper, more diverse or easier to find. The “kids” have won.
All of which seems lost on True. Does he really believe he’s delivering blows against the empire by calling MTV “the absolute enemy”? His final assessment of Cobain’s life (“The system kills you”) blows right by the point: The system killed Cobain, a conflicted artist both ambitious and afraid of success, in large part because he was born too early for more than one alternative to it. Well-deployed bluster, as rock critic Lester Bangs illustrated, is the spun gold of the medium. But bluster in service of an outdated mythology is noisy where it should be compelling, aimless where it should be incisive. And True’s lecture-gossip-anecdote-rant-repeat prose rhythms do him no favors.
“Nirvana: The Biography” is just what Everett True thought he was avoiding: a misguided reliquary on an altar of self-serving conclusions, the final word in all the wrong ways -- the last party guest still dancing while everyone else has moved on to the hangover breakfast, overstaying his welcome and clueless about the mood in the room.
Kevin Smokler is the editor of “Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times.”