I am writing a book. Don’t get too excited – it’s a glorified picture book. And it’s the umpteenth book about Kurt Cobain.
Well, it’s official – I went on Friday to sign a contract with Barnes & Noble Publishers, making me the writer of a book with the working title A Pictorial History of Kurt Cobain.
Yes, I am going to be the author of a book. It will be sold nationwide, and it will be “By Chris Molanphy.” That’s the exciting part.
What tempers my enthusiasm is that I’m a gun for hire. Less than three weeks ago, an all-points bulletin went out to a few Internet forums, including one music-related e-mail list to which I belong. In sum, the message was that a boutique publisher needed someone, with decent rock-crit or music-industry credentials, willing to write a few thousand words about Kurt Cobain on a tight deadline. “Hey, I can do that,” I thought. In fact, I thanks to LiveJournal, I already sort of had.
Rather idly, I sent an e-mail back, describing myself and linking to my Cobain-related LJ post. To my great shock, the editor at B&N got back to me within the day. I guess my willingness to do the job for the rather meager sum they were offering (and, no surprise, no royalties) made me the immediate front-runner.
There are other catches to my agreeing to this arrangement. As its name suggests, Barnes & Noble Publishing is a unit of the nationwide book-retail chain, and as such, I can forget about this book ever being carried by any competing book outlet. That includes, sadly, Amazon. (No obsessively tracking minute-by-minute Amazon sales rankings for me.) Thank goodness B&N has their own well-appointed web retail operation.
And then, of course, there’s the subject matter, and its utter lack of freshness. A quick search on Amazon under “Books” and “Kurt Cobain” turns up about 10 books actively in print and another 10 or so on record but out of printor out of stock. Like books about the Beatles, Nirvana books are a cottage industry. My editor readily admits that the publisher has jumped on this bandwagon following the resurgence in interest in Nirvana, as both their greatest hits album and Kurt Cobain: Journals sold well through the holidays. The book will be part of their ongoing series of coffee-table books (insert Kramer/Seinfeld joke here) about pop-culture icons. They did a rather nice, and thorough, book about the Who a couple of years ago, as well as one that more closely approximates the size and length of my project on (gulp) Princess Diana. There’s plenty of text in these books, but they are each dominated by more than 100 pictures about their respective subjects.
That’s what I hope will distinguish this book from the myriad others about Cobain – the pictures angle. My main text will take up only one-third of the book; the other two-thirds of what I write will be in the form of photo captions. And the pictures will drive the “story,” such as it is. I have seen a couple of the photos they’ve acquired, and some are really cool. It means my narrative text will be brief, and this is a relief – not to have to retell the story of Kurt and Aberdeen and Olympia and the rotating drummers and the drugs and the breakthrough and the sad end. I don’t have a research budget, and anyway, it’s already been better chronicled than I ever could (most impressively by Charles Cross, in the definitive biography Heavier Than Heaven; I’m in the middle of reading it now).
My thesis for the book – motivated by convenience, I admit – is that images of Kurt Cobain may be the purest representation we have of him, besides his songs. Millions of fans’ abiding love of Kurt resides primarily in his knotted, perverse, strangely beautiful lyrics, because they explain him in a way his interviews – and the absurd legends that have grown up around the band – cannot. To me, images of Cobain are similarly fascinating, and if, rather than just presenting them in an isn’t-this-rock-star-cool kind of way, I can navigate a story through them, I will have made a teeny-tiny contribution to the vast body of work about him. Still, it’s going to be tough coming up with new angles on the most praised, examined musician of the past decade.
Anyway, between this project and a major piece of consulting business that kicked off a month ago, I am fairly choking with work right now. The good news is the financial remuneration. (Even the Cobain project comes with a nice hunk of change.) The bad news is I have less time for other writing I love, including this blog. So if I have seemed distant for the past couple of weeks, I offer apologies and ask for your patience – this condition will persist for a few weeks longer.
I’m just happy that in the end, I’ll have a very tangible thing to show for all this labor. And it’ll be on-sale at a superstore near you for $9.98.