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Reading the Jukebox 

Kurt Cobain's Journals is a fascinating look into a tragic genius's private world.

Here's a dangerous quote: "It is the paradox of such a life that it precludes the sort of experience on which art usually nurtures itself."

I get it. Geoffrey O'Brien, one of our great rock thinkers, is commenting on the non-stop swirl of being the Beatles in the early '60s, a constant production schedule of touring, writing, recording, getting interviewed. But O'Brien's quote, perfect for The New York Times Review of Books, where it was published, nails one of the difficulties with writing about music. And especially in this case, writing about rock 'n' roll. Too many words, too late.

Music is in the moment. That's where it wants you to be. Listening to it, even live, we're already one step removed from that moment. Reviewing it, we're like documentary photographers, a noble profession for sure, but still, several beats removed from the moment.

Trying to understand, explain, or intellectualize beyond that moment? Might as well be listening to a scratchy eight-track tape of the event.

The musician is right there, creating, performing, generating incredible energy (usually). It's their story I want to hear. That's the beauty of a song, words exquisitely chosen to fit into a form, even shorter than a short story. Having already shared the song, most musicians are reluctant to turn "critic" and explain the deal once more in paragraphs.

Diary of a Gen X Spokesman
The most eagerly awaited book about music this year, topping Amazon's pre-sell list for a month, is Kurt Cobain's Journals. Just released earlier this month, wrapped in glossy black cover over primary color notebook-looking boards, Cobain's diaries are riveting. Fans who read last year's paperback bio, Heavier Than Heaven by Charles Cross, will remember all the references to the bulging notebooks.

Cobain was always writing. He filled several dozen college ruled spiral notebooks with lyrics, unsent letters, editorials on pop culture, drawings, phone numbers, even a recipe for shrimp salad.

He never meant for these journals to be published. A friend retrieved them a week after Cobain shot himself and the diaries became the property of his widow and their daughter, Courtney Love and Frances Bean. The rumored book deal was close to $4 million.

There are two pages of road sign drawings, speed limits, and passing/turn signal distances as he must have been studying for a driver's test. There are very early press releases he wrote for Sub Pop ("NIRVANA is a heavy-pop/punk/dirge-combo spawned from the bowels of Seattle Washington. SOON we will need groupie repellant spray").

There are lists and lists: Things the band needs to do, At Every (Band van) Stop You Must Check (oil, water, lug nuts, radiator hose ... ,) favorite cover songs, designs for future Nirvana T-shirts and stickers. One notebook (still with the $1.99 c-store price sticker) is distinguished by the boldly scribbled VERSE CHORUS VERSE CHORUS SOLO CHORUS CHORUS. The next has a cover proclaiming NO GOOD DONE LOUNGE ACT. Inside is an initial list of who to thank on what would become their 9 million-plus-seller, Nevermind. Ten names are crossed out.

There are LOTS of drawings of swimming, floating babies and guitars. There are pages of comix, and a fan letter clipped from a magazine.

By far the best parts are the song lyrics-in-progress, all scribbles, cross-outs, and tentative metaphors. He was making art all the time.

It's all so honest, so raw, so bare, and so poignant. The final entries deal with his drug addiction, fears, and the pressure of being "Kurdt" Cobain. Journals is the best document ever of how one lonely boy became a rock star, the spokesman for a generation.

The Stones' Pack Rat
Bill Wyman became a Rolling Stone. He saved everything. All the posters, the newspaper clippings, the set lists, the maps, ticket stubs, and 45 jackets.

Rolling With The Stones is the a total scrapbook, a bit too slick, a bit too glossy. Filled with 3,000 photographs, the book is hard to put down. It's the safe version of a Stones' history.

And why not? Wyman has a great thing going, a new tour, another chart topping compilation album, a beautiful coffee table book for the gift season, and a mythology to maintain. I loved flipping the pages but I REALLY missed the music.

It helps to have a few Stones' CDs around. Put them on loud, and start turning the pages.

Rolling With The Stones charts every tour date, and every opening act is mentioned. The Nov. 12, 1965 Greensboro date gets a fan's eye view review.

DK, Wyman's publisher, is known for their great graphics (remember those "Eyewitness Books" from your youth?) and they don't disappoint. Brian Jones justly receives as many pages as Mick and Keith. But all the grit, raw energy of the early Stones seems missing.

Cobain's Journals, for all its desperation, ambition, yearning, and sadness is the much truer document. Less fun, more real.

Shady Scores Another Hit
"Lose yourself in the music, the moment. You own it." Heard that one? Eminem is the best rock poet out there. Two generations of kids have embraced him. Recently published in paperback, Angry Blonde: The Official Book looked, on the surface, to be just another book rushed out for a quick buck. Maybe it was. But it's great.

Dozens of songs and freestyle lyrics are posted, with one or two paragraph intros written by Eminem describing their settings.

Writers talk about writing. Eminem goes way beyond a linear pedagogical method. He loves words, and the beat that brings them alive. In Angry Blonde he opens up about being the illest emcee, rappin', ad-libbing, dropping bombs, coming in with the hook, filling in the blanks, putting in the skit, freestylin', murdering a rhyme, spitting some shit, blurring the words, writing the next cipher. Oops, there goes gravity.

He discusses the evolution of his hooks, his relationship with Dre (and Dre's DAT machine,) and, of course, his anger at so many people.

That's no fun--his "feud" with Moby, for example, is stupid. But, hey, Eminem's the guy right now.

Best of the Best
Maybe all good books about music don't have to be by musicians. Da Capo Press's annual Best Music Writing 2002 collection is engaging, engrossing, and addictive.

That's where the Geoffrey O'Brien quote at the top of this article was published. His piece on the Beatles is wonderful. Endearingly, he writes: "People who can make things like Rubber Soul should not really be required also to comment on what they have done."

Guest editor Jonathan Lethem also includes David Cantwell's "Help Me Make It Through The Night: The Anatomy of a Record" from The Country of Country Music, a pair of nutty pieces from The Onion, two sentimental articles about Joey Ramone, and a slew of winners from The New Yorker and Village Voice. Former Independent contributor Roni Sarig gets a notable mention for a piece he wrote for Creative Loafing.

No doubt the Da Capo anthology and the Cobain diaries will spend a few weeks at the top of my bedside table. Good stuff, even when there's a power outage. EndBlock

More by John Valentine


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