Why Kurt Cobain Was the Last Rock Star: An Interview With Charles R. Cross


When Kurt Cobain killed himself on April 8, 1994, music journalist Charles R. Cross was in his office at the Seattle magazine The Rocket, “trying to figure out why Courtney Love kept putting off the interview she had promised us that week.” Later, he found out that Courtney was searching for Kurt, who had disappeared from rehab.

A phone call from a local radio station was the tip-off that Kurt was dead, and Cross’ magazine had to stop the presses to pull Love off the cover, replacing her with Cobain. Cross had a front seat for the surreal aftermath of Kurt’s death and the emotion it left in its wake, perhaps best summed up with the Seattle memorial for Kurt that ended with Courtney reading his suicide note aloud to an audience of thousands, leading them in a chant of “Asshole!”

In the span of 20 years, Cross has distinguished himself as the premier journalist on the life, death, and legacy of Kurt Cobain, from his essential biography, 2002’s Heavier Than Heaven, to this year’s Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain. The latter book is a smart, necessary read, tracing how Kurt’s short life, 27 stupid years, still ripples out today, in the worlds of fashion (Heidi Slimane just brought grunge back), hip hop, addiction, and “underground’ culture, from riot grrrl to Daniel Johnston. I talked to Cross on the phone and by email to get his thoughts on our post-Kurt Cobain world.

Flavorwire: What’s your take on how the Internet era has gone for Courtney Love? She’s so smart, and her perspective in Here We Are Now is refreshing and sharp.

Charles R. Cross: It’s the best of times for her and the worst. She revels in and shows off her smarts, but she also says things that get her in trouble. And get her sued, even. Of course she was the first person who was sued for Twitter defamation. But what Courtney most needs to do — and Twitter is a distraction — is write some great new music.

Did you see Kurt Cobain coming when you were working in Seattle, or were you thinking that nearly everybody was going to be a big-deal rock star?

No one in Seattle had any idea that Nirvana were going to be as big as they ended up. And anyone who says they did is lying. Geffen only printed 42,000 of the CD [Nevermind], and that alone shows that they didn’t believe it was going to sell 25 million, or they would have made 25 million and saved themselves a lot of money on re-pressings.

Does Abderdeen have responsibility towards Kurt? What about the recent crowdfunding campaigns trying to make his childhood home into a museum?

Aberdeen should do more. This campaign is just one sign that fans also want Kurt’s family and his hometown to do more. Kurt’s mother owns that house; she could donate it the town for a museum as well and bypass the Kickstarter, but that’s a whole other topic.

Kurt’s stomach pain played such a big role in his life. Would it have been, potentially, different these days, when there’s knowledge about the sources of stomach pain and how it’s tied up with anxiety and depression?

It’s still all unclear exactly what he had going on, but I do have to say that if that would have been treated, I’m sure his depression would have improved. But we’ll never know.

Is Kurt truly the last rock star? I miss having generational icons who weren’t afraid of the word feminism or talking about bands like The Melvins.

He isn’t the last star in rock ’n’ roll, but he is the last true Rock Star that we’ve had to date who earned Icon status. He existed in a period that is now lost to history, when a rock artist could be played on all formats of radio, when rock was the dominant musical form. In the age of Internet, there are celebrities aplenty, but few true stars. Rock stars today often think of their Twitter, or marketing, or how to get a commercial gig. Kurt thought mostly just of his art. He wrote great work; the marketing he only began to think about in the last year of his life.

Kurt in my mind is the last true great rock star to date because his level of artistry, charisma, and songwriting skill have not been matched since his death. As a fan of music, I still hope there is another great on the line of rock stars. But until there is, Kurt’s influence remains oversized.

Is it better to have icons who grew up scrappy and poor?

Scrappy yes, and being poor is usually something that motivates an artist. However, it is more about desire and voice than circumstance. Kurt had all of those attributes, though: poverty, desire, and motivation to create art.

You had access to many of Cobain’s personal items after his death — including all of his journals. What did you find there? What surprised you the most?

There was so much about those journals that was revelatory, but I think what most surprised me was two things: that there clearly was a deep affection he felt for Courtney; and that he so, so wanted to kick drugs. From the outside I didn’t understand how horrid his drug addiction was, how unglamorous, how much he was a slave to it, and how much he wanted to be free of it. Holding in my hand a sheet with his handwriting on it that read “please please God, please let me kick this” was moving beyond description, but also tremendously sad.

What do you think Cobain would have made of Nirvana’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination?

Kurt wanted fame and success and recognition, even when he played it in the press that he did not. So I think he would have accepted the honor, but managed to make his speech one where it looked like he didn’t care. He was tremendously skilled at controlling his message. It would have been a joy to watch his speech.