Kurt Cobain's legacy still inspires 20 years after his death
Tomorrow marks 20 years since Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain committed suicide. His death was met with grief and questions and — for many — it signified the end of an era.
Tomorrow marks 20 years since Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain committed suicide.
His death was met with grief and questions and — for many — it signified the end of an era. At the time, Charles R. Cross was editor-in-chief of The Rocket, a Seattle music magazine that was at ground zero for the grunge explosion.
The magazine was among the first to do stories on Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other Seattle bands. Cross has written a biography on Cobain, but his new book takes a different look at the singer.
Cross joins the show to talk about Cobain's impact on the world and his new book, "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain."
"Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain"
By: Charles R. Cross
Prologue: The Horrible Secret
On the morning of April 8, 1994, I was working in my office at the Seattle magazine The Rocket when I received a series of phone calls that would prove unforgettable. Two decades have passed since that day, but those moments still remain vivid and haunting. Sometimes they seem like part of a dream I can’t escape, or forget. History was happening around me, but I didn’t realize it in the moment. I can still remember my finger pressing the flashing Line One button on my office phone, but I had no clue, at the time, that this little red light would announce a sea change in both music and culture. Like all nightmares, I want it to end differently, but it doesn’t. It can’t; it’s not a dream.
The first call to my desk that day came from radio station KXRX-FM. I occasionally did segments for them promoting local bands on the rise as the editor in chief of The Rocket, a Seattle music and entertainment magazine with a circulation of one hundred thousand. We championed Northwest bands and were the first publication to do cover stories on Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and other Seattle groups. Even though I had a bird’s-eye view of the Grunge explosion, I was as surprised as everyone else in town when our locals—many of them old friends who’d been playing around for years—became international superstars.
I expected this phone call to be about my next radio segment, but the tone of the DJ’s voice wasn’t that typical fast-talking cadence I was used to. Instead it was somber, deliberate, slightly alarmed.
“Do you think,” the DJ asked, “there’s a chance Kurt Cobain is dead?”
At that point, early on April 8, 1994, no one else had uttered those words. The radio station had received a phone call just moments before from a dispatcher at an electrician’s office, tipping them off that one of their employees had found a body at Kurt’s house. The caller had told the station, “You guys are going to owe me some pretty good Pink Floyd tickets for this.” The police had just been summoned. The DJ thought that perhaps I might have more information on the identity of the body. “We haven’t gone on the air with it yet,” he said, “but do you think there’s any chance it’s Kurt?”
I said no. “It can’t be him,” I said. “It’s got to be one of his drug buddies, who probably overdosed. It can’t be Kurt. It just can’t.” My words were from a place of denial, of course, and felt false even as I said them. I was doing the kind of psychological bargaining that happens when you initially hear bad news. It was the same bargaining millions of Nirvana fans worldwide would be carrying out in a few hours. But at this moment in time, this news—this horrible secret—belonged only to the radio station, the electrical contractor, the police, and me.
It couldn’t be Kurt, I repeated in my head. While his struggles with drugs were well known within the tight circle of Seattle music, some of his friends were in far deeper. Kurt had been arrested a few times the previous year, and his ongoing battle with heroin was no secret. But that body . . . it couldn’t be his, because he couldn’t be gone.
But he was.
Not long after that phone call, KXRX went on the air with a report that a body had been found at the Cobain mansion. All at once, all six of our phone lines at The Rocket lit up. Members of the media were calling to ask for comment, friends of Kurt’s were calling to ask if we knew any details, and our own staff of freelancers was calling in to see if what they’d heard was true. The KXRX DJ later told me the horrible story of how Kurt’s sister had phoned the station to say the body couldn’t possibly be Kurt’s because this was the first she was hearing about it, and news like that couldn’t leak out before the family was notified. But that is exactly what happened. Kurt’s family found out he was dead from a report on a radio station.
I was busy making phone calls to Nirvana’s publicist, mutual friends, contacts at Geffen Records and Sub Pop, anyone I knew who might have more information. Frustratingly, nobody knew anything more than I did. I was doing what any magazine editor would have done, investigating leads. But this felt personal, too, because everyone in Seattle felt a connection to Kurt. It was even more personal at our magazine because not only had The Rocket given Nirvana their first press and covered everything they did from first single to stardom, but the band had advertised in our pages several times, looking for drummers. One of my regrets is that I cashed a check Kurt wrote The Rocket for twenty bucks to pay for a classified ad when it was already clear that he was destined for fame. At The Rocket, there was a principle that we couldn’t treat the bands we covered as stars and still retain the respect they had for us—journalists didn’t ask for autographs or keep signed checks. Another connection with the band our magazine had was that Nirvana’s logo—in the Century Condensed font—had been set on The Rocket’s typesetting machine. That original logo, which had already been slapped on millions of albums, first came out of a giant old type machine a few feet from my desk.
But back on that morning, April 8, 1994, there was no time for nostalgia. I needed immediate answers because I also had a job to do, and that job had become a lot more complicated in the last few hours. The Rocket was set to go to press that night, and we’d been waiting all week for an interview we’d been promised with a certain rock star, one Courtney Love. Hole was poised to release Live Through This the following week, and her publicist had set up numerous interviews for us, all of which had been postponed. And, as luck would have it, we had a phone interview with Courtney scheduled for the very day Kurt’s body was found. A paste-up of our next cover of The Rocket, complete with a photo of Courtney and Hole, was sitting on our art director’s desk. It was only later that I’d discover the reason Courtney kept missing our scheduled interviews; she was out searching for Kurt, who had escaped rehab. When the news came that the body at the Cobain house had in fact been identified as Kurt’s, I had the surreal task of directing our art staff to take Courtney Love off the cover of The Rocket and put her now-deceased husband on.
Amid that deadline drama in my office, the phones never stopped ringing. I tried to juggle the calls while, with my staff, I chose an iconic Charles Peterson photo of Kurt for the cover. It showed him jumping high in the air, almost as if he was already no longer of this earth; it was perfect. Our first cover story on Nirvana had run with the headline nirvana invades berlin. That had been an easy headline to write. Nirvana was on the rise back then. But this time around, no string of words could sum up the loss. It was too big to put into words, really.
In the end, we used the airborne photo with no type other than our logo and the date.
And the phones just kept ringing and ringing. Many of the calls were from media who had never even covered Nirvana before, or had maybe mentioned “Grunge” in one article, and were now trying to create a story where there was nothing to report other than an obituary. The barrage of phone calls began to rattle our office receptionist. This was a woman who was usually so sure of herself that she once had the nerve to demand Courtney Love put out a cigarette when Courtney walked into our office smoking (Courtney dropped it on the carpet and rubbed it out with her shoe). But that April day, the endless phone calls had unnerved the receptionist, and I could hear that strain in her voice when she buzzed me for the thousandth time with another call. She didn’t say who was waiting. She told me flatly, “Pick up line one.” When I did, I heard a raspy sound I recognized immediately, but that didn’t make it any less bizarre.
“This is Larry King, and you’re on the radio live,” said the voice on the line. “What is this thing called Grunge music?” I was speechless. His show was so desperate to get someone in Seattle to take their calls that they’d bypassed the normal protocols of putting in a request for an on-air interview first. I wasn’t given a chance to say no. I had been cold-called, and now I was live on the radio with Larry King.
Only a few weeks before, I’d read a column from James Wolcott about Larry King and his constant seizing on celebrity death. One quote read, “Who elected Larry King America’s grief counselor? We, the viewing public, did, by driving up his ratings whenever somebody famous passes.” Now I was a pawn in Larry King’s indelicate dance between legitimate news and ratings-driven scandal.
King kept on, undeterred by my silence, moving forward in his typical style of asking a series of questions without waiting for answers. “Tell us, just who was Kurt Cobain? Why Seattle? Why should we care? What about drugs?”
I muttered something; I don’t recall what. Larry continued: “Why Kurt? Why Grunge music? Who was he? Why do people care?” This nightmare of a day was spiraling out of control and Larry King, of all people, was interrogating me.
And then, uncharacteristically, Larry King paused for a moment, and asked the one question that had significance. It was more to the point, and it had the kind of clarity that you find when the simplest question is asked instead of a more complicated one. It was the way that Larry King sometimes could end up being brilliant, finding the one truth amid the clutter.
“Tell me, Mr. Cross,” Larry King said, “why did Kurt Cobain matter?”
I don’t recall what I said to Larry King. Given that day’s madness, and the fact that Kurt’s body lay under a coroner’s drape just a few miles away, I’m sure I didn’t properly answer the question. In some small way, this book is my attempt, twenty years later, to do so. The impact of any person’s life is difficult to fully see on the day a life ends, but the long view offers a wider and more accurate vista.
My goal with these pages is to examine how in the long view Kurt’s work and life affected music, fashion, gender roles, the way we treat suicide and drug addiction, the way his hometown views itself, and the very idea of Seattle in culture. In some of these arenas, his impact has been tremendous; in others, it’s been subtle. Still, his twenty-seven years on this earth had ramifications. His legacy continues to evolve and to change. The reality is that in twenty years we haven’t stopped talking about Kurt Cobain. He still matters to me, and, I would argue, he still matters to an entire generation.
Larry King never would have put it this way, but what I’m seeking to address is the eternal question of history: how do we measure the life of a man?
This is not a biography of Kurt Cobain. I’ve already done that with Heavier Than Heaven in 2001. That book was a third-person narrative of the events of Kurt’s life. Here We Are Now, in contrast, is my first-person analysis of what that life meant, and how that meaning can be quantified—when it can be at all. There were many places in Heavier Than Heaven where I could have inserted myself as a narrator because I witnessed events, or because I was part of them in some slight way. Doing so would have broken the reader’s trance of experiencing history, though. Here We Are Now is not objective, and it brings forth my own intersections with this tale, before and after Kurt’s death, my analysis of that history, and, in some places, the voices of a few other select experts.
I know there are some critics who have already suggested, and certainly will say of this book, that as a society we have talked enough about Kurt Cobain. Maybe. I don’t seek to canonize Kurt, glorify him, or portray him as if he were some kind of God of Rock. Doing that is to take away his humanity, and to sketch him as he would never have wanted. As a human being, he often showed incredibly bad judgment and made choices that hurt many people who cared for him, his suicide being the most obvious example. But even Kurt’s demons have had an impact on the larger culture over the past two decades; his suicide, for example, has been studied and written about extensively. It is without any doubt the most famous suicide of the last two decades. That suicide, as horrible as it was, had an impact on who “we”—as a culture—“are now.”
At the very least, Nirvana’s music touched the generation it was made for. The world has changed much since 1991 when Nevermind was released, but the influence of that album has only grown as the years pass. Technology has since turned the music industry upside down, fractionalized genres into smaller slices, and diminished the possibility of any rock act dominating the way Nirvana did. I would argue that no rock star since Kurt has had that same combination of talent, voice, lyric-writing skill, and charisma—another reason he is so significant, two decades after his death. The rarity of that magic combo is also part of the reason Kurt’s impact still looms so large over music. There are many reasons for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to include Nirvana, but the catalog of songs Kurt wrote is central to that recognition. Many bands never even get nominated, but Nirvana were nominated the first year they qualified, and they deserve their place on that hallowed ground.
Kurt has become a touchstone as Nirvana’s music continues to find an audience with a new crop of teenagers every year. I think some of his enduring popularity is similar to the way every teen I know ends up reading The Catcher in the Rye at some point. Kurt and Nirvana are now part of a rite of passage through adolescence, the true “teen spirit.”
I was well past adolescence when Nirvana came on the scene, but their music made me feel young again, alive, full of possibility, and helped me understand some of my own adult angst. The greatest gift Kurt Cobain gave listeners was putting his honest pain into his lyrics. J. D. Salinger did the same thing with his prose in The Catcher in the Rye. Both men had demons of different sorts, and they also shared an uncomfortable relationship with fame. And both could proclaim, as Kurt sang on “Serve the Servants” off In Utero, “Teenage angst has paid off well.”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” often comes on my car radio, and during those few minutes I’m a teenager again. Suddenly my Volvo wagon—the same car Kurt drove—turns into a hot rod and I’m screaming, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous.” The two speeding tickets I’ve gotten over the past twenty years are solely the fault of Kurt Cobain.
The lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana’s biggest hit, were difficult to comprehend and were debated by fans long before the official lyric sheet was finally published. To see how important those lyrics still are, type “s-m-e-l” into Google and you’ll see that the most common search in the world for those four letters is “ ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ lyrics.” Music fans in the UK recently ranked the line “Here we are now, entertain us,” as the third-greatest song lyric in music history. The Here We Are Now book you hold in your hands seeks to reinterpret that lyric into a statement of where we, as a collected body of fans, are now after Kurt’s death. He’s gone, dead for two decades, but here we are now. And in that space and time, how do we measure his significance?
Or, in the words of the philosopher, wise man, and sage sometimes known as Larry King, “Why did Kurt Cobain matter?”