Kurt Cobain, the uncompromising leader of Nirvana and a pioneering figure of the grunge movement, was a deeply emotive songwriter hidden behind the crashing and relentless sound of the band’s music. Here, we’re taking a look back at Cobain’s favourite books and his most important literary inspirations in an attempt to appreciate his lasting influence on contemporary culture.
The mythology surrounding Kurt Cobain will seemingly never fade. Since the Nirvana singer first broke onto the scene with his growling vocals and social slicing songs, Cobain’s lyrics have been widely lauded as a genius. One reason for such aptitude with the pen may have come from his insatiable taste for literature.
Much of the collection won’t be news to some of Cobain’s most devoted fans; the mercurial singer was often very open about his literary influences throughout his life. That trend continued until shortly before his suicide in 1994, and, in one of his final interviews, the musician was asked about the books that had inspired his lyrics and life. Pausing for a moment, Cobain had one particular title he couldn’t avoid discussing: Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murder.
The novel, a historical horror that follows a perfumer’s apprentice whose super-sense of smell alienates him from those around him, had a lasting impact on Cobain. The book would accompany the Nirvana leader on many tours and directly inspired the song ‘Scentless Apprentice’ from 1993’s seminal album In Utero. “I’ve read Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, about ten times in my life and I can’t stop reading it. It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time, it just doesn’t leave me,” Cobain was quoted as saying.
However, his love of words wasn’t reserved purely for the genre of horror. No, in fact, Cobain was a proficient and comprehensive reader. He loved poetry, Bukowski, the works of the Beats, like many of his other rock icon comrades, and found a special place in his heart for William Burroughs. As well as using the same Burroughs cut-up technique as David Bowie to write lyrics, the singer would go on to collaborate with the poet on 1993’s ‘Priest’, a spoken-word piece with a host of distorted backing.
Cobain, in the midst of changing the face of alternative music, also found time for progressive essays and critical thinking, including the controversial works of Paglia. “I really like Camille Paglia a lot; it’s really entertaining, even though I don’t necessarily agree with what she says,” he commented. As well as a subversive rock star on stage, Cobain was also very progressive away from it. He offered an early and trend-bucking feminist viewpoint from the macho rock and roll set.
When speaking on Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, he said: “[Solanas] was a militant feminist who, in my opinion, had some incredible ideas. Everybody called her insane because the ideas are pretty violent. [The book] pretty much says women should rule the earth, and I agree with it.”
The eclectic list of Cobain’s favourite books, compiled from various interviews and journals, shows not only a fanatic reader, an unstoppable thirst for knowledge, and an understanding and an open mind. But it shows that above all else, Cobain was a lover of words.
It would be this lustful passion for lyrics that would set him apart from the otherwise standardised lyrics of rock and roll. No longer would all rock and roll songs be about sex, drugs, money, and girls.
Now, the heavy rock sound could be flecked with the emotional and subversive themes that only come from reading great books. It’s true Cobain believed that music should be about energy above all else, but the electricity he charged every word with mean his lyrics buzz for years and years more.
Kurt Cobain’s favourite books:
- The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
- Three Novels: Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett
- Junky by William S. Burroughs
- Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
- Queer by William S. Burroughs
- Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski
- Post Office by Charles Bukowski
- Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
- The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
- On The Road by Jack Kerouac
- Collected Essays by Camille Paglia
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
- Perfume by Patrick Süskind
- Selected Works by Elinor Wylie