The central image of Everett True's exhaustive new biography, Nirvana, doesn't actually involve Nirvana. It occurs about a third of the way into the 584-page book. It's late 1989, two weeks before Nirvana play London for the first time. Soundgarden and Mudhoney are debuting "grunge" for a salivating British press. Then: "The stage collapsed and a handful of UK music journalists had to physically hold up the trestle tables it was resting on while the mess was sorted out."
It's meant as an aside, as background information, but the scene perfectly illustrates the nature of True's Nirvana. This is as much the story of Nirvana as it is the story of the unmartyred, less famous hands that held up the stages and the stage divers so that Nirvana could get around to the more important business of smashing their gear. Nirvana has less to do with the lives of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, or Dave Grohl—though the relevant biographical details are all here—and more to do with the making of Nirvana the phenomenon. True lovingly unearths the groundwork laid by the Melvins, the influence of K Records and the riot grrrl movement, the entrepreneurial zeal of Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, the studio work behind their albums, the photography that defined their aesthetic, and especially the rock journalism that fed their early hype.
One of the people responsible for that hype was True himself. (His career as a music journalist led to a staff job at The Stranger in the late '90s.) He was the band's scribe and confidant. He is involved and conflicted, an inseparable part of Nirvana's history. And this is what gives the book its real weight.
Nobody really needs another Nirvana biography. There are already multiple biographies of Nirvana and Cobain; even Cobain's old journals have been publicly exhumed. And everyone knows what happened. It's history. (Or in some cases it's mythology: True derides Charles Cross's Heavier Than Heaven as the "Courtney-sanctioned version of history.") Nirvana's high-amplitude parabola—the book is divided into three sections: "Up," "There," and "Down"—is already familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the band and its star. And True himself begins with the caveat, "I'm not good on history or bullshit." And he acknowledges that "memory plays tricks on the clearest of minds" and that he "certainly made up [his] share of lies."
But he was there. This is frequently the story of him writing the story of Nirvana as it happened, and sometimes it's the story of making the story himself. Here's True wheeling Cobain onstage at the Reading Festival. Here's True trashed and thrashing at the foot of the stage. Here's True lending Cobain his Daniel Johnston T-shirt. Here's True performing at shows as the Legend! Here's True inspiring Hole songs. Here's True making Nirvana's "Love Buzz" the "UK Single of the Week" in Melody Maker.
But for all his self-aggrandizing, True never quite pretends to be this story's hero. In fact, what's refreshing about True's book is that there is no hero at all. At one point Tobi Vail observes that people try to make Cobain a "Greek myth when it was a lot more random," and True seems to agree, writing that the "problem in writing a Nirvana biography [is that] Kurt liked to construct myths around himself." But True's wealth of complex anecdotes prevents mythologizing—the sainted version of Cobain never really makes an appearance. True gives as much attention to the peripheral players (himself especially) as he does to the band.
The memoir material is confessional and intimate, a far cry from the bleary-eyed sensationalism evident in his old work for Melody Maker and, to a lesser extent, this publication. There's real fondness in his voice when he recalls old times with the band in England, L.A., Seattle, and on the road; there's also a fair amount of wistful regret and nostalgia. (Here's True on his relationship to Courtney Love, for instance: "Friends and peers tell me how Courtney took advantage of me.... She made me feel special, like I was the most special person in the world when I was with her.")
And so the sadness that must exist in any Nirvana biography is, in this telling, True's personal sadness. He's remembering what may have been the most meaningful time in his life, now 10 years past. The loss has less to do with the burning out of True's old friend than with the inevitable fading away of the possibilities of life itself.