April 5, 1994 was not the first time he had seen heaven, but on this date, Kurt Cobain would not be saved. On that gloomy Tuesday, Cobain, the man who had captivated millions, took his own life. The troubled singer and his short career with pioneering act Nirvana came to a crashing halt when the he spun out of control as a result of heroin addiction. Cobain’s final days were a tragic finale in a life that was both blessed and cursed. With the assistance of Cobain’s family, friends, Courtney Love and Krist Novoselic, author Charles Cross was able to get closer than anyone has ever been to the life of one of rock’s most enduring legends in his novel “Heavier Than Heaven.”
The book, given its title by Nirvana’s British concert promoters in 1989, was supposed to fuse the “heavy” sound of Nirvana with the actual body weight of tour mate Tad Doyle (of the band Tad), who weighed in excess of 300 pounds. The book traverses a grim landscape that is much more touching and sad than many have thought up until this point.
Cross begins the novel with a story that would be told over and over again throughout the book. Hours after headlining Saturday Night Live in 1992, Kurt Cobain saw heaven for the first time, overdosing on New York’s finest China White heroin. His short life would have been even shorter if it were not for Courtney Love, who resuscitated the lead singer, as Cross says, “six hours and fifty-seven minutes after the very moment an entire generation fell in love with him.” Hours earlier, while struggling after days of heroin use, Cobain had delivered two stirring performances that Cross describes as a “watershed moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll” with his band Nirvana on the late-night show.
On the very same day, he had accepted an offer from “Weird Al” Yankovic to do a parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” refused to give an autograph to the daughter of the NBC president and saw his album go to No. 1, bringing Michael Jackson to his knees. On that day a musical revolution took place, the likes of which will probably not be seen for a very long time.
From that point forward, the book is put in chronological order. Important distinctions are made by Cross between what Kurt Cobain wanted the media to believe and what was actually true. From all indications, Kurt Cobain was a cheerful, happy, and perfectly normal child who began his life in the small logging town of Aberdeen, Wa., in February 1967. His life soon unraveled with his parents divorce when he was nine. From that point forward, Cobain felt like he had no real home. He lived anywhere and everywhere, from the backseats of cars to the hallways of rundown apartment buildings.
Although Cobain would later tell the media his first concert was a Black Flag show, this was nothing more than a tall tale. In fact, his first show was a Sammy Hagar gig in Seattle — hardly punk rock. Cobain also told the tale several times of sleeping under the bridge on the Wishkah River, which by all accounts would have been impossible. A fictitious event such as this fueled the lyrics of the haunting track “Under the Bridge.”
What is not fictitious is the effect that Kurt Cobain had on the world of music. With the exception of a few talented musicians, no band or musician has had such an incredible impact on music since John Lennon. Throughout “Heavier Than Heaven,” Cross explores the moments that shaped Nirvana and the life of Cobain. The infamous “Rape Me” snippet Cobain played at the MTV Video Music Awards after being warned by channel executives to not play the song is explained in detail; a funny argument/interchange Cobain had with Axl Rose at the same show is also a book highlight. Little did Rose know, his career would never recover.
Despite the light-hearted moments, the latter half of the book is a tragic tale. Some of the most touching moments in the book involve the smallest victim of Cobain’s suicide, his daughter Frances Bean. She was simply too young to understand what had happened to her father, and it will probably be many years before she fully understands who her father was. Another sad tale involves the developing reconciliation between Cobain and his father Don. Estranged for many years, they were just beginning to mend their tattered relationship when Kurt ended his life.
Cross also uses evidence and police reports to re-enact the final hours and final moment of Cobain’s life. The details are graphic and disturbing, but perhaps one of the saddest moments of the book is one of the shortest. Following Cobain’s death, his old friend and bassist Krist Novoselic was allowed to spend a few minutes with Cobain before he was cremated. This was the last moment two old friends who had conquered the musical world would spend together, and Novoselic broke down in tears. Ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl didn’t contribute to the novel, still too traumatized by the events that occurred years ago.
There are too many stories and too many events in this book to list, but everything is covered in detail. One line that is left in the memory of the reader is a line from Cobain’s suicide attempt in Rome that was thwarted again by his wife Love. He said, “Like Hamlet, I have to choose between life and death.” Obviously he didn’t choose life, and his ultimate decision of death ruined what could have been an incredibly bright career.