Gary James' Interview With Charles Cross
Remembering Kurt Cobain
The world will soon observe yet another anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain. There's a new book out on Kurt Cobain titled Cobain Unseen. Written by Charles Cross, it includes an audio CD showcasing spoken word material by Kurt Cobain. Some of it never before released, Kurt's handwritten sticker sheet of Nirvana name tags, facsimiles of unseen journal pages and gatefolds of his graffiti embellished guitars.
Charles Cross spoke with us about Kurt Cobain.
Q - Charles, the world will soon observe the 15th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. How much interest is there in Kurt Cobain's life and music as we speak?
A - Well, there remains a lot of interest. Kurt was the biggest Rock star in the world the year before he died. What's insane is, fifteen years later, I'm not sure there is another Rock star who is as enigmatic and compelling. He remains one of Rock's legendary figures. Even as his biographer and someone who knew Kurt, I wasn't his best friend, I knew him casually, I'm surprised at the lasting endurance of his legacy. I guess that as a fan of music my whole life, I was hoping there'd be some other big star that would come on and capture that mantle. In the last fifteen years, music has changed. There has not been one single figure that I think ranks with Cobain since his death. That's not to say there aren't people putting out great records and there aren't people that I love their music, but there's nobody that combines that personal charisma, the musical quality and most importantly the songwriting genius that Kurt Cobain had. That's the reason I think his legacy has endured. The quality of those songs are incredible. We've had a lot of other people put out some great albums, but the body of the work he created, there has yet to be somebody in the last decade and a half that has matched that.
Q - Did you see Kurt's performance in the early days?
A - I did. I was editor of a magazine called The Rocket, which was kind of the music magazine in Seattle. It was sort of the magazine of record when it came to music. Cobain had actually used our magazine on at least three different occasions, advertising, trying to find a drummer. Every time Nirvana would lose a drummer, he'd come in the office and place an ad - "Band seeks drummer." So, I knew him casually from the scene. I don't pretend that I was his best buddy, but I don't know that to be a biographer, sometimes the person that is extremely close to the act, kind of can't see the forest beyond the trees, if you get my drift.
Q - Better to be a little distant, which makes for more of an objective look.
A - Yeah. And I was an editor of a music magazine. We were gonna always have the kind of relationship where he was gonna be sort of suspicious. He clearly respected what I did. I had the benefit of a biographer of going through Kurt's personal effects and things. He kept copies of my magazines and articles that I had done among his stuff. That I guess is the ultimate compliment that a music star could pay a journalist. So, I was respected in the world he was in. I'm not sure what else to say about that. I certainly had followed the band very closely and saw them many times. The qualifications of any journalist have more to do with what you do with the material than what your access is.
Q - How did you get access to many of these previously unseen items? Did you have to go through Courtney?
A - To a degree. Courtney controls the Kurt Cobain estate, which basically by an estate, it's not like it's a separate company or anything. I mean, it's a bunch of stuff in a storage locker. But she trusted me. When I wrote my 2001 biography of Kurt, Heavier Than Heaven, which pre-dated this new book, she gave me access to his material. This book somewhat grew out of discussions around that book where I kept saying "the stuff in Kurt's locker is amazing stuff. You ought to let the world see it." She let me describe it in my other biography. I wasn't able by the nature of what a biography is, it wasn't a picture-laden biography. It was mostly words. I wasn't able to picture it. This book came out of my saying "You really ought to show the world this stuff. He was an amazing artist. People, if they saw it, would have a very different appreciation of him." At one point she came to me and said "OK. You can do the book." So, I was given access to the archives, but it's important to state there were no parameters put on that use. Basically I was allowed to put whatever I wanted in this book, and I did. She didn't edit out anything that I wanted to say or anything I wanted to include. So, all the opinions are mine...good or bad. But yeah, legally she controls the estate, so I did have to make sure that she was down with the idea of it.
Q - Has she seen and read the book, or you don't know?
A - (laughs) Well, she's seen it. As for reading it, that's another matter I don't know how to respond to. But, yeah. I guess she did see it and she did read it. She loved it. Her response was that she felt that she was re-encountering him again. So, that's the ultimate compliment for a biographer. I didn't live with these people. I don't pretend that I'm an expert when it comes to every aspect of their lives. I'm a biographer. But when people who knew your subject will say "I think I re-encountered him," then you feel like you accomplished something.
Q - Did you get to speak to Kurt's mother and father?
A - I did interview his father and his step-mother. His mother, I had discussions with, but she didn't co-operate with either of my books. She is wanting to do her own book and consequently she's not wanting to sort of talk to other biographers.
Q - She's going to do her own book?
A - Well, whether she ever does it or not is certainly a whole different matter. There's certainly some questions about that. She says she's doing her own book. Again, whether she does or not, I don't know whether she will. But she's trying to sell a book.
Q - Were you a fan of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana?
A - Yeah, absolutely. I think one thing it's important for people to remember is that early on, Kurt Cobain wasn't born of the womb as a genius. His first album had some moments of brilliance, but the band early on were pretty darn ragged. They toured America five times before they became famous. I certainly saw the band. I loved some of the early band stuff. I always admittedly liked the Pop material that they did better than the Punk material. There is some of Nirvana that is so loud and raucous that it's almost un-listenable, but it's brilliant none the less, even in that Punk element. I sort of cite the song "Silver" as kind of a before and after Kurt's great moment. After "Silver", he had figured out what great songwriting was and the material changed greatly after that point. "Nevermind" is certainly a different album than "Reach". But, I loved the band and was a big fan of the material from the beginning.
Q - Did you learn anything new about Kurt Cobain after writing the book?
A - Well, you would think that somebody who's written now two books on Kurt Cobain wouldn't have learned anything new, but I did. Even going through Kurt's archives, which I had gone through before, I found things this time that I had not seen, most specifically I was not aware of the fact that Kurt himself was such an avid photographer. He shot a number of pictures himself.
Q - Of the band?
A - All kinds of stuff. I was not aware that he had such a strong interest in photography. So, many of the pictures that are in this book, some of them at least were photographed by Kurt himself. The cover picture is one that Courtney took. So, I didn't know they were such great photographers. I guess that's sort of the one thing that's news to me, even doing the book.
Q - Your book has been described as "A fascinating portrait of the creativity, madness and genius of Kurt Cobain." Where was the madness in Kurt Cobain?
A - Well, by the very nature, someone who suffers from addiction. This is difficult material. Kurt was a heroin addict. Sometimes it's a little over-stated because the truth was, with drugs he didn't sort of descend from casual user to addict until sort of the last few years of his fame. By the time of "Nevermind", when he recorded that record, he only occasionally used drugs. Not long after that album came out, he descended into full fledged addiction. By it's very nature, addiction is insanity. Kurt's behavior, his reckless use of drugs. These things one would have to look at and think of as somebody who suffered from serious demons. One of the more difficult things as a biographer was looking through Kurt's journals and seeing how often he would write about his addiction and essentially beg God to please help him with it. He did not want to continue to suffer and basically writes in his journals, "God, I will do anything. Please, please, please help me." But for whatever reason, that help did not come.
Q - I've heard it said that Kurt was on medication for stomach problems. Was that true?
A - Yeah. That was true. He had a variety of stomach issues. They were never properly diagnosed I guess, or never clearly diagnosed. Exactly why he had them, he didn't know and the doctors he saw didn't know either. So, unfortunately it was an instance of either bad medical care or a mysterious ailment. But, that is part of the reason he did drugs. He felt that the drugs helped with his stomach in a way no other medication did. That probably makes some degree of sense according to the people that I've talked to that are physicians and understood. He probably had what we now call irritable bowel syndrome. He also had back problems. One of the most remarkable things in Cobain Unseen is I got a copy of an x-ray of his back and you can actually see from the x-ray that he indeed did suffer from those back problems.
Q - And they couldn't have diagnosed that?
A - Oh, they diagnosed that, it's just treating what he had, which was scoliosis. It's not clear on what the best way to treat that is. So, he felt that drugs were effective and I'm sure they were, in their ability to deaden the pain, but of course they came with their own set of problems. Most clearly, the addiction itself became a devastating onus on him that he could never escape. So, Kurt was a complicated guy and those were complicated issues that he had. It's extremely unfortunate that he didn't get the help that he needed.
Q - And the genius of Kurt Cobain is the unique presentation of his songs.
A - Absolutely. He is very unique and that's the thing I think we miss now fifteen years after his death. The greatest sadness is that we can't hear that voice again. That's the thing I miss. He had such a strong voice, so unique. But, both the way he used his voice and just literally the sound of that voice that he had and the fact we will never hear that again, is sad for anybody who's a fan of the music.
Q - Where were you when you heard the news of Kurt's death?
A - Well, I was in my office in The Rocket. I was one of the first people to know and I knew before it went public. I had contributed to a radio show here in Seattle. That was with a station called KXRX. When the electrician who was working at Kurt's house found his body, that electrician's company called KXRX and I think the infamous words were "You're gonna owe me some great Pink Floyd tickets for this news." That radio station, before they went on the air, called me to see if they could confirm it because they knew I was sort of closer to that scene than they were. So, I remember hearing the news to this day. My feeling was, "No. It can't be Kurt." But at the same time, it's part of the denial. I knew it was him. Everyone in the Seattle scene knew he had struggles. I kept hoping that the body that was discovered would not be Kurt, that it would be mistaken and instead would be one of his drug-buddy friends. And of course, that wasn't the case. But that's what I thought when I heard it. But I was one of the first people to know. It was heart-breaking to get the news, just like it was for everybody who was a Nirvana fan.
Q - Did you ever think that maybe he didn't commit suicide?
A - No. I think unfortunately because we love Kurt as a fan, we so want so much to be able to blame anybody other than him. The sad reality is that he took his own life. There is no evidence what-so-ever that his death was anything but a self-inflicted suicide. I spent a lot of effort researching his death. The police were very thorough. And despite the fact there are people who want to believe in conspiring theories, there's absolutely no evidence that his death is anything but a self-inflicted death. The sad part about it is, Kurt tried to kill himself several times. This final time that we talk about was the last attempt. He attempted to take his own life on more than one occasion. So, to anybody that knew Kurt, his death was not a surprise. Of course suicide is just by its nature so shocking, I think that it's hard for anybody to wrap your hands around it. But, when you read Kurt's diaries and you read what he wrote and then you go back as I did and research his life and see that he was threatening suicide when he was thirteen years old, it starts to make more sense.
Q - Now, Tom Grant makes a very convincing case that Kurt did not commit suicide. And he goes on to detail why.
A - Well, usually when people want to talk this, I say I don't even want to talk about it. But, you're obviously an intelligent guy. Tom Grant makes those allegations. Those things are not repeated in the police report. So, the question is, do you want to believe the Seattle Police Department, for reasons that Tom Grant or no one else can make clear, lied and covered up over this, or do you want to believe the Seattle Police Department? Tom Grant sells his conspiracy theory book or pamphlet on the web. He has a profit reason to want people to believe that. I'm just telling you that what he says is simply not true. So, debating the individual particularities of it, is wrong. It's simply not the case. The police looked at everything from the angle of the bullet...on and on. They came up with a very different conclusion than Tom Grant did. Courtney Love found Tom Grant in the Yellow Pages. Do you want to believe a private detective hired out of the Yellow Pages, who also worked for Bill Clinton on Paula Jones, or do you want to believe the Seattle Police Department? Having looked at the evidence and talked to the medical examiner, it's so clear to me, there's only one answer to what happened here and Kurt Cobain took his own life. It was one of several suicide attempts he made on his life. So in any case, I get tired of debating it because generally the people who believe in a conspiracy theory, they don't want to believe anything else. If you had a video tape of it, they would claim the video tape was forged. I think some of that simply comes out of the denial of not wanting to believe that Kurt is gone or that he himself is responsible for his death. He is gone and he was responsible for his death.
Q - What about this talk that part of Kurt's suicide not was not written in his own handwriting.
A - For Heavier Than Heaven I spent a significant amount of time researching suicide notes and looking at suicide notes from a variety of people, not just people that are Kurt Cobain. When somebody is in a state of mind, I don't know if you have ever attempted suicide or not...
Q - I have not.
A - Anybody, by the fact of attempting suicide is technically by any societal standard, is obviously extremely distraught and suffering from depression. People are not of their right mind when they're suicidal. What I can tell you is, I looked at thousands and thousands of pages of Kurt's writing in his diaries to research my book. A lot of that is in Cobain Unseen. In my opinion, this is his writing. Tom Grant can believe whatever he wants, but I feel he is in error. So, I don't know how else to say that in a polite way. This is Kurt Cobain's writing. When a guy is probably on heroin when he wrote part of the note, one can't imagine it to be clear. But, having looked at hundreds and hundreds of suicide notes as part of my research, it's not exactly a time for great penmanship. A person is extremely distraught by the nature of what is going on in their life at that point. So, if someone has some real evidence otherwise, I'd love to see it, but short of that, I'm tired of hearing people talk about it.
Q - How do you think Kurt Cobain will be remembered?
A - Well, I think first and most importantly, he will be remembered for those songs. I think that's the reason we're talking about him still today. The quality of that songwriting I think will last and has lasted. That is ultimately the way I think he will be remembered. I think he will be remembered for creating this incredible body of work. The circumstances of his death and all those other things matter far less now fifteen years later. It's truly those songs and that music that is his legacy.