Book Review: The Nirvana FAQ: All That's Left To Know About the Most Important Band of the 1990s by John D. Luerssen

Nirvana FAQ offers few revelations but chronicles well the influential Hall of Fame trio...
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With the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, and Nirvana's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month, it seems like a good time for a new book about the band. The Nirvana FAQ: All That's Left To Know About the Most Important Band of the 1990s by John D. Luerssen is that book, and is another entry in Backbeat Book's FAQ series. I have read a number of these rock biographies now, and have always been impressed by them. The Nirvana FAQ is a good one-stop for a history of the band.

One thing that surprised me a bit was that there were not more obscure factoids dug up, as they are one of my favorite things about the FAQ books. In retrospect though, that criticism is probably unfair. Nirvana were a flash of lightning, only together for about five years, and the biggest band in the world for three of those years. There is just nothing really left to dig up about them.

So the author does the next best thing, and tells the Nirvana story from beginning to end. We read about Cobain's early artistic promise, his devastation at his parent's divorce, and his teen years as a high-school outcast. He meets Christ Novaselic, and the two bond over music. In the late '80s, Nirvana are one of dozens on Northwest bands gigging to 10 people at venues like The Vogue in Seattle, and eventually sign with Sub Pop.

The first Nirvana album is Bleach, released by Sub Pop in 1989, and the band are unhappy with the way it is distributed. One thing that Luerssen brings out is how badly Cobain wanted to be heard. It reminds me of Tune In by Mark Lewishohn, in which the four Beatles want nothing more to get to the "toppermost of the poppermost." Nobody really expects it to come true, and when it actually happens, the guys are flabbergasted at how to deal with it all.

Sonic Youth take on a bigger role in leading Nirvana to sign with DGC and Gold Mountain Management in the Nirvana FAQ than one may have previously been aware of. Luersson  almost solely credits them with helping make it all happen. When Cobain and Novaselic see a band called Scream play, they are blown away by the drummer, Dave Grohl. The story of Cobain and Grohl trying to drive to Los Angeles to begin recording what would become Nevermind in Kurt's beater car is hilarious.

If you were into music in 1991, you cannot help but remember the impact Nirvana had. As a lifelong Seattle-area resident, I am probably the only one who will admit to not anticipating it. The local bet was on Soundgarden, and Nirvana were thought of as pretty much just another Sub Pop band. Nobody saw it coming, no matter what they say today.

Luerssen's treatment of Courtney Love is interesting. He never comes right out and calls her a villainess, probably out of fear of a lawsuit, but he does drop hints about his feelings towards her. Actually his description of her and Cobain hiding their drug use from each other after the cataclysmic Vanity Fair article rings very true. It is typical druggie behavior, and sad.

The author details the events leading up to the fateful day of April 5, 1994, when Cobain's body was discovered. For anyone who has read Michael Azzerad's Come As You Are or Heavier Than Heaven by Charles Cross, the details are familiar. And again, very sad. We are left with what might have been, and what the survivors have done in the 20 years since.

Grohl has clearly been "the winner" in terms of music, as the leader of Foo Fighters. It is hard to believe that he was once "just" the drummer of Nirvana. Novaselic has led a rewarding life of political activism and music since, while Love's post-Cobain life has been the expected train wreck.

I happened to read an online Rolling Stone article about the Nirvana induction, and after-party in Brooklyn just after finishing the Nirvana FAQ. What shocked me were the comments some jerks had about Francis Bean Cobain not being at the ceremony. Can these idiots even imagine how difficult all of this must be for her? It pissed me off, and made me think of the suicide note that Luerssen reprints where Kurt says that his daughter was better off without him.

As a father myself, the only thing I can say is that it is too bad he could not have hung on just a little longer. Francis could have saved his life if he had allowed himself to enjoy fatherhood. That is the biggest tragedy of the whole thing for me, not that we were deprived of more music.

I guess maybe that is one reason we go back to this story so many times. The music was fantastic, and he seemed to have it all, yet he could not find happiness. While there are few new revelations in John D. Luerssen's Nirvana FAQ, it vividly brings back a period in which music was genuinely exciting again. I doubt if we will see anything like it again, which makes the death of Kurt Cobain all the more poignant.