‘Oral History of Nirvana’ leaves an unfinished portrait

December 7, 2018

"I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana" compiles interviews throughout Nirvana's career.

“I’m not like them, but I can pretend,” Kurt Cobain sang on the last Nirvana album before his 1994 death. Fitting in and becoming part of a group seemed to be one of Cobain’s most difficult tasks — much harder than changing the music world, which he did in the early 1990s.

Nick Soulsby’s “I Found My Friends: The Oral History Of Nirvana” interviews more than 200 people who were there for the rise and fall of the grunge icon.

Numerous people interviewed by Soulsby reiterated similar thoughts about band members: drummer Dave Grohl was gregarious and always fun to be around, while bassist Krist Novoselic was occasionally obnoxious after a few too many drinks but otherwise a good time. Cobain received mixed reviews. Some got to know the happy and silly side, but many only saw the distant, awkward, depressed recluse.

“I Found My Friends” tries to figure out which Cobain was real, and the story starts from an appropriate spot, at the beginning. The popular cliche is it takes years to become an overnight sensation; this adage holds true for Nirvana. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song that catapulted them to the top of the charts and turned them into worldwide icons, was released in late 1991. The band formed in 1987, and had already released one album which gained underground buzz before breaking into the pop culture mainstream.

The main flaw with Soulsby’s book isn’t really a fault narrated in the author’s writing. Interviewing people from the late ’80s Seattle music scene, many of whom played with and interacted with Cobain, Soulsby was destined to stumble across a few sour grapes, along with a few lighthearted anecdotes. One being the man whose band played third at a show after Nirvana played second; the man later joked how Nirvana opened for him. But, there are far too many people who seem bitter, saying Cobain wasn’t that good along with the underlying reservations: Nirvana shouldn’t have gotten as big as they did, and all these other Seattle bands were better.

Cobain’s drug use is hinted at, but never given thorough attention. The underlying reason could be due to the the people who were interviewed in the book didn’t see it or weren’t around it. Cobain had discussed some of his heroin use before his death, owing it to crippling stomach pains. In the decades since his death, everything from misdiagnosed ulcers to Crohn’s disease to diverticulitis has been given as a theory for the pain that apparently only a needle in his veins could quell. Most interviewed by Soulsby didn’t see Cobain while he was impaired, or when looking back didn’t notice it at the time.

The audience and readers know how the story ends leaving the book to end on an anticlimactic note. Soulsby doesn’t leave much room for reflection. He paints a portrait of a rock icon through the eyes of those who were around him from the beginning until the sad ending.

Is it the definitive portrait? No.

There are many other books and documentaries showing Cobain’s personalities and delving further into what Nirvana did. Truly, the only definitive way to get into the mind and psyche of Cobain is to listen to the music.

Chris Slater is a copy editor with the Charleston Gazette-Mail. You can find him @chris_slater on Twitter.

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