In the 20 years since Kurt Cobain took his own life…an unbearable number of people (about 2 million, according to Google) have headed think pieces about the addled rock star's legacy with some derivation of that phrase. That's the problem for journalists tasked with coming up with new perspectives on the brief, sensational history of the most important musical event of the '90s. With no stones left to unturn, we feel like everyone knows everything. The lack of new information can stoke creative perspectives, though, and Charles R. Cross' new book, Here We Are Now (HarperCollins, 192 pages, $22.99), has a few worth considering.
On the day Cobain's body was found in the greenhouse of his Seattle mansion, Cross was managing editor of the now-defunct Seattle newspaper The Rocket. As rumors of Cobain's death solidified into fact, Cross became de facto press secretary for an event he spends the book unpacking as "the most famous suicide of the past two decades." When a cold call from Larry King sneaks past his secretary amid the chaos and confusion, Cross is forced to contextualize the death of Cobain on the spot. "Tell me, Mr. Cross," King says. "Why did Kurt Cobain matter?"
The impact of Cobain's songwriting makes for an auspicious first chapter, but you may throw up in your mouth when Cross starts name-checking butt-rock staples like Creed, Three Days Grace, and Evanescence as trenchant evidence of quiet-loud dynamics' lasting impact on modern "alternative" music. Rather than justify the existence of Candlebox, however, he hangs a sharp left and ventures into uncharted territory: the adoration of Cobain within the rap community. Cross says hip-hop artists see a kindred soul in Cobain's anguished, misunderstood pariah persona. "Kurt died young and is seen as a martyr in the hip-hop community," Cross writes. "In a culture where premature, violent death is a dominant theme, Kurt fits in thematically."
Cross spills more ink over the waves Cobain sent through pop culture in areas such as fashion, drug addiction, and the way society approaches the topic of suicide. Cross argues that the net effect turned out to be positive: "The attention and circumstances of Kurt's death may have actually encouraged people to seek help: research concluded that Kurt's death statistically decreased suicides among Nirvana fans in the period studied. In some strange way, Kurt dying may have saved lives."
Stacked against the piles of other books on the topic, the brevity of Here We Are Now is both its greatest feat and most glaring weakness. It reads much like a CliffsNotes version of the Nirvana story for a tl;dr generation. For those who comb this quick read in search of meaning in their own lives, getting closer to the ghost of St. Kurt is not an expected outcome. It explains why your cousin in Minnesota wears flannel and listens to rappers that sample "Lithium," but you may have to dig deeper for something that resonates on an emotional level.
GO: Charles R. Cross reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Monday, April 28. 7:30 pm. Free.