Eight years after Kurt Cobain became the most famous suicide in rock history by blowing his brains out at his lakeside mansion in Seattle, the fascination with his tormented, brief life remains as vivid as ever.
Last week Riverhead Books, a subsidiary of Penguin Putnam, won a bidding war for the rights to the Nirvana singer's notebooks, paying a reported $4m (£2.9m) for them. But the publication is likely to reverberate with as much controversy, bad blood, jealousy and legal contentiousness as every other piece of the Cobain legacy.
The promise of the notebooks – 800 pages of artwork, lyrics and philosophical musings, beginning in his teens and going all the way up to his death at the age of 27 – is that they will offer the best possible shot at understanding how Cobain grappled with his musical talent, his fame, his self-loathing, his drug addiction and his tempestuous relationship with his wife, Courtney Love. Some of the hype even intimates they will "explain" why he took his own life.
But so heated is the relationship between Love, the sole guardian of Cobain's estate, and just about every other interested party – the surviving members of Nirvana, the fans, the conspiracy theorists and assorted drug nuts, groupies and grunge followers – that there are already doubts about how complete the published version of the 23 volumes will be, and whose interests it will serve.
It is impossible to overstate the resentment many Nirvana fans feel at the control Love exerts over Cobain's memory – and his money. After all, they argue, she knew him for little over two years, and the couple may have been on the verge of splitting up when disaster struck. Anti-Love sentiment has fuelled many highly fanciful conspiracy theories about his death.
Love has gone out of her way to confront anyone who has dared to challenge the official version that she has created of herself and her late husband. She has sued everyone and anyone imaginable – even her own rehab doctor, whom she accused of leaking her medical records to the press. She and the surviving members of Nirvana are embroiled in legal action over the issue of a boxed CD set.
The former Vanity Fair columnist Lynn Hirschberg became a particular object of venom after she wrote a scathing portrait of Love in 1992, including descriptions of heroin use during her pregnancy that alerted the authorities and prevented her taking their daughter home after she was born. Love and Cobain did not recover full custody from the child protection services for several months. A subsequent Nirvana bootleg was entitled "Bring Me The Head of Lynn Hirschberg".
Another hate figure has been Nick Broomfield, the British documentary maker, whose film Kurt and Courtney was pulled from the 1997 Sundance Festival because of legal pressure from Love. The film contains extraordinary outpourings of bile against her from an ex-boyfriend, an ex-nanny and her father. It also shows one of the main backers pulling out once filming was well advanced – under pressure from Love, according to Broomfield.
Love gave her blessing to a biography of Cobain that appeared last year. Heavier than Heaven, by Charles R Cross, has the benefit of being immeasurably better written than any of its unauthorised predecessors. But it presents the Courtney point of view lock, stock and barrel. The book argues that Cobain had a propensity to suicide from adolescence (subtext: don't imagine his relationship with Love had anything to do with his despair). It talks about the Hirschberg piece, but says nothing about its contents.
Cross was given access to the notebooks, and quotes from them extensively. It's not clear, however, whether he got the whole picture, or just what Love was willing to show him. "I think that I saw them all," he said.
The publishers of the new book, due out in November, say it will include reproductions of Cobain's handwriting (some of it, according to Cross, executed in his own blood). It seems unlikely that they will reproduce all 800 pages, however, making some editing all but inevitable. And then the gossip and conspiracy-mongering is sure to start all over again.Reuse content