The last week of Kurt Cobain's life, a rehab counselor asked him to illustrate a series of words on paper.
Asked to draw "determined," he sketched a foot crushing a syringe. For "surrender" he showed a man with a light beaming out of him.
As telling as the exercise was, it's but a tiny part of the portrait that emerges in "Heavier Than Heaven," a new biography that details for the first time just how harrowing Cobain's drug addictions became, and, perhaps even more disturbing, how fascinated he had been with suicide throughout his short, tragic life.
With unprecedented access to the Nirvana frontman's unpublished journals, letters, drawings and home videos, author Charles R. Cross set out to construct the definitive biography of Cobain, and according to the singer's widow, Cross has come closer than anyone else.
"It's heavy," Courtney Love said. "I read it in one weekend, and I couldn't leave my house. Biographies always are someone else's projection, but it's the first one that's not nonsense. The facts are in there names, numbers, dates. ... It sets the standard."
But the story Cross tells is one that may clash with the perceptions held by many fans. "Heavier Than Heaven," released just weeks before the 10th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind, shows that while Cobain could be brutally honest in his songs, he was often dishonest in his public dealings and at odds with the image he projected. He preached punk-rock ethics, yet he very much wanted to be a star and made all the strategic moves to get there, Cross claims.
"To me, the most interesting part of Kurt's personality is the difference between the inner and the outer man," Cross said. "This stuff about Kurt Cobain being an anti-corporate artist is complete and utter pooey. If you look at the choices in his life, at every single turn of events he went the route to more popularity. He signed a major label. He kept saying he wouldn't, but he did. He complained about making a video, complained about how much they played it, yet privately complained to his managers when they didn't play it enough."
Cobain, Cross claims, was obsessed with his own mythology and fabricated stories about his past, such as living under a bridge.
"Heaven" shows that Cobain's fixation with suicide dated to his teenage years. When he was 14, he made a film called "Kurt Commits Bloody Suicide." He often told friends he had "suicide genes," referring to his two uncles and a great-grandfather who had taken their lives, and he allegedly predicted to one friend, "I'm going to be a superstar musician, kill myself and go out in a flame of glory."
"This was a guy hell-bent on killing himself," Cross said. "In some ways it's actually a surprise that he lived to 27, when you consider how many overdoses he had and how much he talked about suicide when he was younger. He literally wrote in his journal that he thought about killing himself at 14."
Cross said he gained access to Cobain's intimate material by winning the trust of the singer's family and friends. "[Love] felt that to understand him, I needed to read his inner thoughts," he said. "The diaries ... really changed this book dramatically because they gave me a place to have Kurt's voice."
Cross, the former editor of Seattle magazine The Rocket, also conducted some 400 interviews with Cobain's family members, friends and associates during four years of research. Although Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, Cobain's friend since adolescence, is a frequent source in the book, drummer Dave Grohl did not participate. Cross said Grohl agreed to an interview but could never find time for it. Cobain's mother did not speak up because she is writing her own book, Cross said.
"Heavier Than Heaven," whose title refers to the slogan promoters used for Nirvana's 1989 U.K. tour with fellow grunge band Tad, follows Cobain's life from his tumultuous, divorce-torn childhood in a double-wide trailer in Aberdeen, Washington, to his rise to rock stardom and, ultimately, his suicide on April 5, 1994.
In one excerpted journal entry, Cobain recalls discovering punk rock during the summer of 1983 at an early Melvins gig. "They played faster than I ever imagine music could be played and with more energy than my Iron Maiden records could provide. This is what I was looking for. Ah, punk rock. ... I came to the promised land of a grocery store parking lot and I found my special purpose."
According to the book, Cobain's plunge into heroin use predated his fame and was a daily ritual by the fall of 1991, when Nevermind hit shelves. Though Cobain often claimed he used it to self-medicate chronic, unbearable stomach pain, Cross suggests it's unlikely Cobain was ever clean long enough to know if the drug was the cause or the cure. But Cross documents plenty of reasons among them his painful childhood and undiagnosed depression why Cobain craved escape.
"I don't care if it's out-of-the-in-crowd, I just need a crowd, a gang, a reason to smile," Cobain wrote in 1993. "I want to be accepted. I have to be accepted. I'll wear any kind of clothes you want! I'm so tired of crying and dreaming. I'm soo soo alone. Isn't there anyone out there? Please help me. HELP ME!"
Cross claims in the book that Love saved Cobain's life on numerous occasions by reviving him after he overdosed. The author's portrait of Courtney shows her as Cobain's loving wife and, at times, his savior, while bluntly alleging she had multiple relapses while pregnant with their child, Frances Bean. He says it was Cobain who led Love into heroin use, and he suggests that she had more of a hand in Cobain's music than he did in hers.
When writing of the suicide, Cross takes the liberty to reenact Cobain's every move before he stuck a shotgun in his mouth and fired. He "follows" him waking up in his clothes and writing his suicide note while R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon" plays on the stereo and MTV illuminates his bedroom. Cobain's steps are traced as he grabs a root beer from the fridge on the way to the greenhouse and as he smokes his last cigarette.
Cross said he felt he could take such narrative leaps because he had demonstrated his extensive research throughout the book and was able to piece together the scene based on police reports, forensic evidence, and interviews with the medical examiner and other experts.
"It's clear to anyone who's read the book to that point that I've done an incredible amount of research and that I'm not making things up out of thin air," he said. "I'm not creating evidence; I'm just taking evidence that I have discovered ... and piecing it together to try to tell the story of those last few minutes."
Cross also surmises Cobain's final thoughts: "It had always been the thing he kept in the back of his mind, like a precious salve, as the only cure for a pain that wouldn't go away."