Serving the Servant by Danny Goldberg
This is a biography about Kurt Cobain written by his former manager Danny Goldberg. I decided I'd give it a shot because I really enjoyed Me Elton John which I'd read last year, and I'd recently seen clips of Nirvana's MTV unplugged in a music documentary and was intrigued. Like with Elton John, I knew the basic details about Kurt Cobain before I started the book, but, beyond that, I had no clue what to expect. I'm actually listening to Nevermind for the fist time as I write this (though the more I listen the more I feel like I've heard a lot of it before without realizing it).
Anyway, I was immediately sucked into the book. It captured my attention in a way that nothing had been able to for almost a solid month. I really like Danny Goldberg's writing style. It's extremely conversational and makes the reader feel like part of the story or the discussion. He's telling Kurt and Nirvana's story, but he's telling his own first and foremost which sets the book in an interesting position both in a point of view and an objectivity sense.
You can tell immediately that even though Kurt and Danny started as business partners, they became like family, and, of course, that's going to color your recollection of a subject. Especially when it's someone who is gone who meant to world to you. Yes, I'm sure that the book is biased to put Kurt in the best light even in his worst moments, and there are pieces where you can feel Goldberg getting defensive, but I don't think that makes for a less accurate or compelling portrait. I've never read anything else about Kurt book or article wise so I don't really know thee story from any other angle, but I'm almost glad that I heard it this way first. I'd never read a biography written by someone close to the person, and I actually think it's a really great prospective to write a biography from. It provides the aspects of humanization and gives personal anecdotes that you'd get from an autobiography, but it also has an extra layer of commentary that you couldn't give as the person living it. Goldberg does an incredible job of contextualizing the whirlwind situation he lived in and giving his take on events as an outsider. I also just really appreciated his general stance through the whole books that life unfolds the way it does for a reason, and you're not really going to stop and change that. Especially when telling the story later. He doesn't seem to be a what if kind of person. Goldberg carries a level of respect through the whole book that makes it feel right when discussing the life of someone so used and spun by the media.
The way that Goldberg tells the story, every chapter is sorta centered around a major subject or event in each time period or phase. It sometimes means that timelines jumped around in different chapters, but, mostly, it moved forward in an easily understandable way that did a good job of emphasizing major events or parts of Kurt that Goldberg wanted everyone to take notice of. Most of these traits were recurring themes through his life. Again, as someone who knew nothing going in and coming from someone who reads and writes fiction, Goldberg does an impeccable job of building his character to be as multifaceted and compelling as he was in real life, which is no easy feat. He painted the picture of a guy who walked a lot of fine lines. Who engaged with music in an open minded way and never got caught in the common stiff genre lines or in the indie vs mainstream label issue. He was just going to make the art that he wanted to make and everyone else could shut up. But he was also extremely politically progressive, loudly a feminist and LGBTQ rights advocate as well as someone comfortable playing with the line between masculine and feminine. Someone who pushed back against harmful stereotypes that permeated music as a whole. It went with the just doing me attitude that runs through the whole book and every decision made. There's also tons of instances of walking contradictions. Smoking but telling the kid who walked up to him in the street not to. Wanting to keep his heroin use out of the media less for his own image and more because he didn't want teens thinking it was cool because he did it. Changing the album art for In Utero and compromising his artistic vision so that Walmart would carry it and it would be accessible to more teens. The little anecdotes make the intentionality of every action extremely clear. While the book emphasizes the best parts of Kurt and sorta downplays the addiction and more negative clashes with the media and paranoia, I don't think that's a totally bad thing. It's easy to picture an addict in your head. Everyone knows the negative side of that and how much pain and damage it causes, and, so often, how someone's life ends or the worst of their struggles becomes their story more than who they were as a person. It's all in there and properly acknowledged cause it happened, but it doesn't shape the story, it doesn't change who he was as a person at his core, and that gets lost in a lot of portrayals.
The book brings to life the kind of reality that would make fame feel like a trap. It illustrates how profoundly the media can effect the lives of celebrities, who, at the end of the day, are just people too. I think that the fame and media coverage are such an important part of the story towards the end that you wouldn't be able to fully grasp the impact and repercussions if it wasn't being told by someone who was right in the middle of it when it happened. Words and judgments have power that people might not even realize at the time when they write them, and that's one of the biggest things that you walk away from the book with.
Another major part of the book is Courtney Love who was Kurt's wife and is still close with Danny Goldberg. She was the lead singer in a band called Hole, and I already liked her music going into this so I guess I was biased to like her, but Goldberg paints another well done picture of someone who had deep flaws but an amazing heart and was dripping in wit and talent. I like that there's a significant focus in the book on the sexism and misogyny Courtney faced in the media for being attached to Kurt and for being an outspoken, unapologetic woman. There's a lot of quotes from Kurt in the book calling it out and a lot of commentary from Goldberg on that front too. I'm glad to see that getting pointed out and called out because it happens so often, even now, in how the press talks about women who make art and especially women who are involved with high profile men.
As final comments on the book itself, I'd say that this is a great read for anyone looking for a story to get lost in. You don't feel like you're reading a biography of someone it's so animated. Goldberg includes tons of quotes from other people in the business close to Kurt, from Courtney, from Krist, and from articles at the time to create a more well rounded picture that also contextualizes what was going on at the time from every angle. If you're not super familiar with the music world or the music business, Goldberg makes it accessible from the start by taking a lot of time at the start to explain the scene dynamic at the beginning, the labels and their relationships, and how the music business works in general. It makes sure you won't get lost, and, if you're like me and are fascinated by how that business works, it's an interesting additional story. I finished the book with a real admiration for who Kurt was as a person, and, even though it all unfolded way before I was even born, I was able to identify with the story and find elements of what draws me to my favorite artists in Kurt. I couldn't put it down.
If you want to hear more about what I learned about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and Hole's music, I dedicated an episode of my podcast The Empathy Factor to further discussing the book. To listen that that one and our other episodes, check out the webpage here. For a direct link to just the episode, check it out here.
Links of Interest:
Every Other Weekend: Review Here
Into YA with Emma Lord: Here
New Blog Goals: Here
I Got Rid of (Almost) All my Books: Here
Music Musings and Me: Here