Kurt Cobain's life and legacy: A conversation with biographer Charles R. Cross
Twenty years ago, we lost Kurt Cobain. Few singular stars were as deeply influential as the Nirvana frontman, who smashed apart the otherness of the rock star persona and made it a more egalitarian pursuit.
No two Nirvana albums were ever alike, and it seemed like Cobain’s musical horizons were continuing to expand when he left us. His approach to singing, his songwriting style, and his band’s shifting dynamics so permeated rock radio that there seemed to be an entire subgenre of hit-making bands (Bush, Silverchair, Sponge, and the like) who seemed to exist solely as Nirvana avatars.
But as time marches on, Cobain’s influence is harder to detect in 2014. As a part of EW’s exploration of what Kurt Cobain’s music might have sounded like had he made it out of ’94, I sat down with journalist Charles R. Cross, author of definitive Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven and the recently-released Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain.
EW: Where do you hear Kurt Cobain today?
Cross: You hear him on most every act on alternative rock radio. The way you hear Kurt today is you hear squealing guitars, which were never on any radio station except college radio. Bruce Springsteen in the ’80s didn’t have guitar that was going in and out of phase. The metal of that era didn’t have it. And Kurt’s not the only person who did that. It’s easy to look at him because of his oversize shadow, and in this book I didn’t want to attribute too much to him. He’s not the only one that gets credit for the way music has shifted. I hear him in guitar sounds, and I hear him in the loud-soft dynamic. If there was anything that was trademarked by Nirvana’s sound, it was that. Led Zeppelin did it, but they did it in a nine minute rock song that had an acoustic segment, and they didn’t do it with songs on pop radio. In pop radio, when you hear a chorus that comes in all gangbusters and a verse that is much quieter and then that smash—that’s Nirvana. The song that does that clearest is the last song they ever recorded, which was “You Know You’re Right.” It’s quiet and then it’s a powerhouse. If that’s what they were doing the last time they were in the studio, to some degree that becomes the echo that is still heard.
What about lyrically? Did Kurt have that kind of impact?
That’s an argument I make in the book, about lyrical content and what songs can cover. That is dramatically different than it was 25 years ago in music. You can write a song about your own internal dialogue. Pop radio did not touch that. I don’t think people sit down and write in the style of Kurt Cobain, but that whole thing has shifted. Even looking at Lorde’s “Royals,” I can’t imagine that coming out in 1988. Pop music can be about an internal dialogue in the voice of the singer. Kurt didn’t invent that, but he transformed it and brought it into the pop landscape in a way that no one else had done in a long time.
In examining Kurt’s legacy for your new book, did anything surprise you?
The thing that most surprised me was the impact on hip-hop, which I was not aware of. That’s the impact of MTV and music videos and the VMAs. He became a cultural figure, like Al Pacino in Scarface. He became an image on a t-shirt, and people who didn’t grow up with the music see him as a representative of violence or suicide or general f—ed-upness or drug addiction or music. He becomes this time marker for a whole generation. At times, we look at music through racial blinders, and if Kurt can be influenced by Lead Belly, then why can’t a young black hip-hop artist be influenced by Kurt? Because he was the biggest and most influential rock artist of his time, in a crazy way, he becomes the biggest rock influence on hip-hop. “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.” That could be the lyric to a hip-hop song. Very few people were putting a personal story in the first person in rock music in that era. To some degree, hip-hop always was confessional, but Kurt helped bring the idea of lyrical confession to the mainstream.
Let’s talk about Kurt’s relationship with other people’s music. Was he the type of guy who was always searching for new records?
Absolutely not. There are 20,000 people in Brooklyn today whose music collection and their input on what they found today is more than what Kurt found his entire career. What’s interesting is he was interested in things, but what went into that petri dish of his musical creativity was only a few things, and they were sort of random. He stumbles upon the Knack record. He meets the Melvins and gets to know them and hears a few records that Buzz Osborne gives him, like Slayer. So these things start to come in to him, but it’s only a few things. But the things he found that he loved, he really loved: The Vaselines, the Pixies. He loved those bands so much, more than he probably should have to some degree. He got something out of all those. Let’s say Kurt had 10 major influences, but he got something from every one of those influences. Now we’re in the era where musicians can go to iTunes and be exposed to millions of recordings without ever leaving a computer. But there’s so much out there that the ability to for one band or album to have an impact on you becomes diminished. So someone tells Kurt to listen to the Beatles, and he gets into Meet The Beatles, and that directly inspires “About a Girl,” and to some degree the pop influence that stretches through Nevermind. That one record has so much more influence on his career than any record will ever have on the National or Coldplay.
Do you think Kurt would be able to function better now, with technology making all aspects of the music business much easier?
It’s very hard to make of what Kurt Cobain would have done in the era of iTunes. I still think he would have been the same. I think he still would have gone to record stores and swap meets. There’s a sense of discovery to it, and that was part of what he was after. I don’t think people can even begin to understand that. When Kurt was young, one of the first records he ever bought was REO Speedwagon. He had to get his aunt to pick him up and drive him from where he lived in Aberdeen to Seattle, which was a long drive. Then he had to hunt through all the used record stores in the University District to find this REO Speedwagon album at a price he could afford, which would have been only one or two dollars. I grew up in that era, and some of my best friends worked at those stores. It’s crazy to think that one of my friends might have sold an REO Speedwagon album to a 14-year-old kid who eight years later would release Nevermind.