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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Looking At The Legacy Of Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City, November 18, 1993. On the 20 year anniversary of Cobain's death and with Nirvana about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we look back on Cobain's lasting legacy. (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City, November 18, 1993. On the 20 year anniversary of Cobain’s death and with Nirvana about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we look back on Cobain’s lasting legacy. (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

It’s been 20 years since Kurt Cobain, leader of the rock band Nirvana, committed suicide. It was April 5, 1994, and his death left a legion of fans grieving his loss. But according to a new book, Cobain lives on in Nirvana’s music, and you can still see his spirit in culture and fashion. So with Nirvana about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next week, Cobain biographer Charles Cross joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to talk about the Nirvana frontman’s legacy. Producer Alex Ashlock shares some of his thoughts below.

April 8, 1994 was a Friday. I was working at WILL, the public radio station at the University of Illinois. We still had typewriters in the newsroom, I think, along with an old Associated Press teletype machine. The paper spooled through on big yellow rolls. A bulletin clicked over. It said that the body of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had been found at his home in Seattle. Then more clicking. Eventually the AP copy told me Cobain it appeared to be a suicide.

I had seen the band in concert just a few months before.

Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington on February 20, 1967. He would have turned 47 in February.

Charles Cross, who wrote the definitive biography of the Nirvana leader, “Heavier Than Heaven,” has written a new reflection on Cobain that’s called “Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact Of Kurt Cobain” (excerpt below). Cross says he wrote the second book because in some ways Cobain is still alive. You can see his influence in music of course, especially hip-hop, but also in culture and fashion. Think the grunge look, which wasn’t really a look; it was actually what Cobain really wore.

Seattle writer Charles R. Cross writes about the legacy of Kurt Cobain in his latest book about the Nirvana frontman, "Here We Are Now." (Doug Manelski)

Seattle writer Charles R. Cross writes about the legacy of Kurt Cobain in his latest book about the Nirvana frontman, “Here We Are Now.” (Doug Manelski)

But Cross says Cobain’s true and lasting impact is his incredibly personal and powerful music. “Those songs have such meaning to so many people. And when we talk about Kurt and why he mattered, that is by far and away the reason he mattered — is that that body of songs that he created and wrote still speak to listeners today, both listeners that heard it in the ’90s and people that are just discovering it now. It’s the reason that we still talk about him.

“When we talk about his legacy, it’s also to some degree our legacy, our youth. It was the one time where it suddenly felt to everybody here that the world could go on its end.”

I know it seems silly, but I still have a Kurt Cobain scrapbook of stuff I collected about him and Nirvana.

His death really bothered me, still does.

But something I heard yesterday made me feel a little better. Robin was interviewing Rhett Miller about the Old 97′s new record, “Most Messed Up,” which is a knockout by the way. Robin asked Rhett whether Nirvana had any influence on him and his band.

Here’s what he said. He mentions his band mate Murry Hammond.

Book Excerpt: ‘Here We Are Now’

By Charles R. Cross

Book jacket image of "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain." (It Books, HarperCollins Publishers)

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?”

Excerpted from the book HERE WE ARE NOW by Charles R. Cross. Copyright © 2014 by Charles R. Cross. Reprinted with permission of It Books, HarperCollins Publishers.

Guest

  • Charles R. Cross, Seattle-based author and journalist. His latest book is “Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact Of Kurt Cobain.” He tweets @charlesrcross.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

HOBSON: Next week, Nirvana will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band's former members, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, will be there. But, of course, their friend and band mate Kurt Cobain will not. He killed himself, as we know, on April 5, 1994. That's 20 years ago this weekend.

Journalist Charles Cross covered Cobain for the Seattle magazine The Rocket, which was the first publication to put Nirvana on its cover. He later wrote "Heavier than Heaven," the biography of Kurt Cobain. And he has a new book out now to mark this anniversary. It's called "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain." Charles Cross joins us from KUOW in Seattle. Charles, welcome.

CHARLES CROSS: Thank you.

HOBSON: Why did you feel it was necessary to write a second book about Kurt Cobain?

CROSS: Well, "Heavier than Heaven" is a straight-on biography where it's written in the third person, and I do not insert myself as a narrator at all. That book ends essentially with Kurt's death in 1994. And a lot has happened since he has died, and his impact on music and on culture, we can see with a much wider lens now.

I felt like there were certain things that I kind of wanted to get off my chest, and I wanted to tell the story in a first-person way, and so this book is kind of more like a conversation with me. It's some of the topics that I feel were very important about Kurt's legacy - addiction, suicide, music, fashion - and how he changed the perception of Seattle. I think I just felt impassioned that somehow had more to say.

HOBSON: And we want to talk about all of those things. But first of all, let's get to his musical impact. What do you think it has been 20 years now after his death?

CROSS: Well, it's truly an extraordinary impact. I think it's greater than anyone would have imagined 20 years ago. To some degree, that's affected by technological change. Nirvana's impact both in terms of the sales of their album - somewhere around 35 million albums sold - we haven't seen a rock group have that kind of huge, mass cultural impact since Kurt died partially because there hasn't been someone else to follow them. I think their legacy has been somewhat increased.

But I also think that their greatest legacy is simply those songs. Those songs have such meaning to so many people. And when we talk about Kurt and why he mattered, that is, by far and away, the reason that he mattered is that that body of songs that he created and wrote still speak to listeners today, both listeners that heard it in the '90s and people that are just discovering it now. That is an incredible body of work, and it's the reason that we still talk about him.

HOBSON: And people that are in a completely different genre - I'm thinking of Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake who referenced Cobain's death and adapt the lyrics from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in their song "Holy Grail." Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLY GRAIL")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) The fame, keep cheating on me. What I do, I took her back. Fool me twice, that's my bad. I can't even blame her for that. Enough to make me wanna murder. Momma, please, just get my bail. I know nobody to blame. Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself. And we all just entertainers and we're stupid and contagious. And we all just entertainers.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) And we all just entertainers and we're stupid and contagious. And we all just entertainers.

HOBSON: Did that surprise you that Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake referenced Kurt Cobain like that?

CROSS: Well, in some ways, it didn't surprise me. In this book, I actually chronicled the fact that there are 55 hip-hop artists who have sampled Nirvana. I think what did surprise me was that in this year's Grammy Awards, Kurt Cobain, because of that Jay-Z song, was nominated in the best rap category. Then in the ultimate irony, Kurt Cobain loses that category to Macklemore, another great Seattle up-and-coming artist. So that is so wild you just couldn't have made that up in, you know, your wildest kind of dream.

But, you know, Kurt had a big impact on a lot of people who grew up in that era. And just because an artist is a hip-hop artist or a rap artist, that doesn't mean that the music didn't mean something to them.

HOBSON: You write that Kurt had both everything and nothing to do with the term grunge, which we associate with these bands that came out of the Pacific Northwest. What do you mean by that?

CROSS: He hated the word grunge and pretty much everyone in Seattle hated the word grunge. And the reason was is that grunge was kind of a journalistic laziness to describe all the music that came out of here. And if we just take Nirvana, for example, and we compare some of their music to Pearl Jam, there are so many differences. And though there are squealing guitars here and there, they aren't even really playing exactly the same genre of music. Yet to everybody in the world, suddenly it all became grunge. And then you throw in Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, who had both more metal influences, it's just was not really a fair term to describe everyone from our region as grunge.

So Kurt hated it. Musicians hated it. But to some degree, it couldn't be stopped. It was the name that defined that music. It defined that generation. And it went on crazily to also even define fashion and a number of other things. Grunge has had a life in fashion that goes far beyond the life it has had in music.

HOBSON: OK. Let's talk about Kurt Cobain's impact on fashion. This is not something that I thought much about before reading your book. But he really was a fashion statement in the way that he dressed, and there are certain things about what he did that not only made a big splash back then, but are still big in the fashion world today.

CROSS: Well, it's truly amazing because there has never been a fashion icon who put so little effort into their appearance...

(LAUGHTER)

CROSS: ...and yet sold so many clothes at such a high price tag later on in his life. So Kurt wore flannel shirts, which he bought from Army-Navy stores for $5 or from thrift shops. And the reason he wore that is that's what people in Aberdeen in the Pacific Northwest wear because it's freezing for a lot of the year. And those designs eventually were co-opted by some of the hottest, you know, fashion designers, including Marc Jacobs, and were touted on fashion runways at $400 a pop. And they still are.

Even this last year, there were a couple fashion designers who debuted what they call their grunge collection. So what's really remarkable is that grunge, to most people in music, means a certain time. It means the '90s. But in fashion today, if you went to nordstrom.com and typed the word in, grunge, you would find a half-dozen outfits or styles that are described as grunge with current fashions.

HOBSON: And how do you think Kurt Cobain would feel about that?

CROSS: He would think that'd be the craziest thing that ever possibly could have happened. I mean, Kurt wore his jeans till they had holes in them and were all worn out because he couldn't afford new jeans. And now that exact same look, which we now call distressed denim, i.e. trashed, often sells for a great premium over jeans that are actually new and look good.

HOBSON: We're speaking with Charles Cross. His new book is "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain." Cobain died 20 years ago this weekend. This is HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN BLOOM")

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW.

And let's get back to our conversation about the legacy of Kurt Cobain, who died 20 years ago this weekend. The leader of the rock band Nirvana killed himself on April 5, 1994. And when the news came out, there was shock in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's just too bad. I knew him for quite a long time. He's one of my friends. He lived right up by me.

HOBSON: Well, we've been speaking with journalist Charles Cross, who covered Nirvana from the beginning for the Seattle magazine The Rocket. His new book is called "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain." And he's with us from KUOW in Seattle. Charles, Kurt Cobain sang about his hometown Aberdeen in the song "Something in the Way." Let's listen to some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING IN THE WAY")

KURT COBAIN: (Singing) Underneath the bridge, tarp has sprung a leak. And the animals I've trapped have all become my pets. And I'm living off of grass and the drippings from the ceiling. It's OK to fish because they don't have any feelings. Something in the way. Hmm.

HOBSON: Charles Cross, how is Kurt Cobain remembered in Aberdeen?

CROSS: Well, it's funny you would play that song because the bridge that that song is ostensibly placed at, where Kurt, you know, sort of is metaphorically going in that song, is still there. And that is one of the only things in Aberdeen that has been done to sort of honor Kurt. An individual, kind of this old guy near there, took it upon himself and he took a bulldozer and created a park on his own because the city of Aberdeen had done nothing to honor Kurt. And that park is right next to that bridge.

The city of Aberdeen eventually took over maintenance of the park. So they have officially sort of endorsed it, and it's called the Kurt Cobain Riverfront Park. And if you went there right now, you would see a steady stream of fans from all around the world who visit Aberdeen and want to see this one little piece of Kurt. But Aberdeen has had a difficult time figuring out how to honor its most famous son.

Some of the political entities there have felt that doing anything to honor Kurt would somehow be endorsing drug use, which I think is just absolutely crazy because, truly, we talk about Kurt because of the music he created, not because of any personal foibles he had. But it does seem like it's finally starting to shift 20 years after his death.

HOBSON: Although we do need to talk about the fact that he did commit suicide and that that has become a major part of his legacy. A few days after his body was found, there was a memorial vigil in Seattle. His widow, Courtney Love, recorded a message for his fans that was played during that vigil. Here she is reading from Cobain's suicide note.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COURTNEY LOVE: (Reading) Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage. I've tried everything within my power to appreciate it, and I do. God, believe me I do, but it's not enough.

HOBSON: Charles Cross, you say that that event turned into brilliant public health policy. Why?

CROSS: And rarely is that that the words Courtney Love and brilliant public health policy appear anywhere near each other. But in some strange way, that outpouring of emotion that you heard from Courtney and that you also felt in the crowd - and I was among the 10,000 there - there was such anger. It took away the romanticism of suicide.

When Marilyn Monroe had died earlier with pills, it's sort of been romanticized by the press. But because Kurt's choice of suicide was so violent, so final, and frankly because we got to actually hear his words - and everyone in the crowd at one point screamed a giant F you to Kurt, Courtney asked everyone to do that - there was this kind of collective unconscious primal scream that gave us a chance to kind of go through that emotion. And it took away that kind of English mysticism-romanticism of suicide. We got to see the face and hear the words of a person that had lost her husband, and I think it changed the way people thought about his suicide.

HOBSON: You think it kept people from committing suicide - other people?

CROSS: Well, shockingly, the theory had always been that Kurt's death had, you know, set off a number of copycat suicides. For this book, the main new research that I was able to kind of break was that I interviewed some of the people who actually study suicide. And they extensively researched Kurt's suicide both in the United States and in Australia. And they looked at suicide rates and found that they either stayed even or went down slightly in the wake of Kurt's death. Unfortunately, that statistic has eked up over time. And suicide remains an epidemic throughout the world and certainly in the United States.

But Kurt Cobain's death in some weird way that almost seems impossible to imagine may have actually stopped some people from committing suicide more than what we thought, that it would send a wave of copycat suicides.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AS YOU ARE")

COBAIN: (Singing) Come as you are, as you were as I want you to be, as a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy. Take your time...

HOBSON: We're talking about him in a way in the abstract here. You, of course, knew him. You were a fan. What impact did he have or does he continue to have on you personally?

CROSS: Well, the music certainly impacted me. It was part of my life. The magazine that I edited, The Rocket, Kurt was also our customer. He advertised in The Rocket several times looking for drummers. So when we lost him, we really felt like we lost part of Seattle's soul, frankly. You know, Kurt Cobain is owned by the world. But Seattle - even though he only lived here for 18 months of his life, ironically, we feel that he is ours and we are his, to some degree.

These songs are so much the fabric of my life and I think so much the fabric of every music fan in Seattle's life that when we talk about his legacy, it's also, to some degree, our legacy. It was the one time where it suddenly felt to everybody here that the world could go on its end.

I mean, as you had introduced me, we're talking in the offices of KUOW in Seattle. In the basement of this building, Nirvana played. So I'm 50 feet away from where this band played, one of their very first Seattle gigs. So it really is a huge part of Seattle's historical legacy and part of our culture.

HOBSON: By the way, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. is inducting Nirvana into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next week. You say there couldn't be a more appropriate choice for that role.

CROSS: Absolutely. I mean, Michael and Kurt were friends. And towards the end of his life, Kurt was talking about sort of retreating and going to work with Michael. And Stipe says he sent Kurt a plane ticket, and Kurt did not use that plane ticket.

So I think there were sort of kinship between the two. They were sort of both people who are underdogs and had come up from independent rock to, you know, be spokespeople of their generation. So Michael's a very smart guy, and I'm sure his words are going to be very eloquent. And I can't wait to hear him.

HOBSON: Charles Cross is the author of "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain." You can read an excerpt of the book at hereandnow.org. Charles, thanks so much for joining us.

CROSS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL APOLOGIES")

COBAIN: (Singing) Married, buried. Married, buried. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

HOBSON: And if you're listening in Seattle, on KUOW, or around the country for that matter, let us know what Kurt Cobain meant to you if anything.

HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW.

COBAIN: (Singing) All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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  • L Karamazov

    This interview is perfect proof of why Nirvana is one of the most over rated bands ever. If Cobain had to listen to droning pretentious slobs like this guy all day its no wonder he killed himself.

    • RAOUL

      Pretentious slobs, pretty good, I haven’t heard the phrase in a while. Keep up the good work.

    • BettyCarterSucks

      Derp.

      • L Karamazov

        Betty carter sucks? You’re the greatest fool in the world.

  • RAOUL ORNELAS

    This is guy is all crap! It’s about making money from a dead musician junkie. The only reason (supposedly) Mr. Cobain could not afford blue jeans is because he was spending money shooting up on dope or he refused to get a real job. I’m from the Pacific Northwest – flannel shirts are just one of many items worn in the Pacific Northwest including the entire west coast of the U.S. Wearing blue jeans with holes is hip then, now and in the past when one is in his or her teens. In the 60′s in Southern California teens never washed their jeans so they would become stiff, dirty, and hip – nor was it because they could not afford Tide detergent. The bottom line to teen style is: It’s about being hip with ones peer group which eliminates adult participatient. Teens of every age have their own secret body language that is exclusive to them. As far as Mr. Cobain being another Ralph Lauren or Karl Otto Lagerfeldt, well, this is a huge stretch of the imagination unless one smoking weed.
    The good news is this: Mr. Cobain will not be making a Christmas album.

    • It’sMe

      I was always confused at how many people would speak so highly of Kurt Cobain without mention of his drug addiction, but bring up Whitney Houston and those same people would probably say she was nothing but a smack junkie.

      • L Karamazov

        I’m always surprised that people call him a talented musician.

      • http://www.lo-res.com/ Jeff Sepeta

        Ms. Houston had more hits, and was a better singer. But I’m not sure she wrote ANY of her material. That’s the difference between Pop stars and Rock stars: Rock stars usually play their instruments and often write their own songs.

    • L Karamazov

      ‘Mr. Cobain will not be making a Christmas album.” Now THATS good writing!

  • Tim Brown

    I remember when Nirvana hit the seen while stationed at RAF Greenham Common, near Newbury, UK. I liken it to a bomb going off! Smells Like Teen Spirit was everywhere. The dorms, the pubs and on the radio.

    • Gary

      I was at Greenham in 91! I graduated high school in June and flew back to the States. I was in WA state for college and bought Nevermind with my birthday money. It was playing at all the dorm parties I went to there. They were and are my favorite band. I used to go to HMV in Newbury, and one of the records I used to look at and think about buying was the KISS tribute Hard To Believe. If I’d bought it then, I would have first heard Nirvana doing Do You Love Me. But I didn’t. In college, I used to buy all my records from Mark Pickerel’s Rodeo Records. He played drums in Kurt’s side-project The Jury. And my ex-girlfriend’s boss did Kurt and Courtney’s home loan. She didn’t know who they were at the time, but she said Kurt was cute but didn’t say anything.

      • Tim Brown

        Were you in the last class to graduate from Greenham? If so I was involved in the cookout at the ball field put on for the graduates. I stayed at Greenham until it closed completely and then worked the draw down at RAF Welford.

        • Gary

          Yes, I graduated in June of 91. I was on a plane back to the states the next day. I may have skipped the cookout. I don’t remember anything about it. I was in a daze, though. I was one of 7 senior guys, so if I was there I was hard to miss. I stayed at Welford for a month when we first got there in 89, and we used to visit it periodically right up until we left. First time I ever saw a bowling alley with only 4 lanes. Or was it 2?

  • Kara Amundson

    I lived in Seattle & points northwest from 1988-1999. In the spring of 1991 some friends and I formed a garage band…we didn’t listen to much local music, though. We were writing original music, mostly, and working that out took all we had. But one day our bassist strolled into the kitchen holding, I THINK, a 45…he said, “You guys should listen to this, it’s really different.” “What is it?” I asked. “Nirvana.” Click…all the posters on the telephone poles (that was before the mayor outlawed them–asshole move). Stupidly we never listened to the little 45 (was it a 45? I think so because it seems like he liked the B side…but I’m not sure), but in another flash of time Nirvana was like the moon–a beautiful bright surprise, everywhere, regular as time. By 1994 I had a friend whose toddler would not nap unless you put her in the kid-backpack and danced madly to Nevermind, which she’d heard loud and clear as a baby and–fer reals!!–in utero.

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      Kara Amundson, I wonder what songs were on that 45? I wasn’t really aware of them until I head Nevermind, which changed everything for me musically.

    • L Karamazov

      Thats sad that a baby was exposed to such crappy music.

  • ocdhickson

    So Cobain invented distressed jeans? I just watched a video of the Eagles from 1976 and Don Felder had on a pair of worn out jeans and a flannel. I think he invented Grunge. Cobain was 15 years too late on that one. Funny how this guy blows Cobain up into some kind of a hero in order to sell books but journalist Jeremy doesn’t challenge him on anything.

    The true impact of Kurt Cobain — he sang a bunch of b-level songs that nobody except a few from Seattle will remember. And his relationship with Courtney Love illustrated what a nut she is.

    • L Karamazov

      I couldn’t agree with you more. This interview just went on and on. NPR seems to only care if the people they interview SOUND like they know what they’re talking about. Can they string together a series of mono-tonal sentences that won’t offend their suburban listeners. This was really an excruciatingly painful interview. I ended up turning the channel.

      • http://www.lo-res.com/ Jeff Sepeta

        excruciatingly painful.

  • friarslantern

    Dear WBUR: kudos for doing a show on Gen X, on grunge in particular. Despite the frothing from the hard-hearted detractors here who are probably more jealous than anything else, Nirvana was an emotionally-articulate expression of what it’s like to grow up in the first generation *after* the crash of a century-long trend of expanding economy. Kurt’s music was not *pretty* — and authentically so. That was the beauty of it.

    • http://www.lo-res.com/ Jeff Sepeta

      We went from an extremely DIVERSE economy of music on the radio pre-grunge to a decade of DERIVATIVE crap like Stone Temple Pilots post-grunge. Nirvana may have been good, but they ruined rock and roll radio for a DECADE.

      • friarslantern

        Oh, and they caused people to have more abortions, lowered the minimum wage, and encouraged the consumption of genetically-modified organisms, too. Not to mention how they brought on 9/11. Sheesh.

  • http://www.lo-res.com/ Jeff Sepeta

    It’s rare that I hear such sloppy kisses given to Kurt Cobain and the Seattle Grunge Scene. Kurt was overrated and although they had a few good songs, there were so many more talented musicians making good music at the time; the Sidewinders and the Doughboys both had better debut albums than In Vitro (or Into the Bleach, your pick). The name “grunge” was great for marketing and making Kurt richer than he deserved. Had it not been for MTV they never would have had such worldwide appeal. Will be glad when this anniversary passes and we forget about his “legacy” — the 5 stringed Jagstang, oh boy. As Nirvanna, Mudhoney, and Pearl Jam were all influenced by the moderately-talented Kiss, it’s not like we could have expected better of Nirvanna. The Foo Fighters have a larger catalog of good songs.

    • friarslantern

      I smell jealousy along with some Teen Spirit….

  • Jan

    The best thing that came out of Nirvana was Dave Grohl. Why is it that he doesn’t get the recognition of Kurt? Because Kurt has been glorified after death. And since I took the time to give my two cents… On this story. This “grunge movement” that Nirvana supposedly started… Have you guys forgotten about Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers they were as main stream as Nirvana in the early 90′s with the same grunge look.

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