‘Here We Are Now’: 20 years after Kurt Cobain’s death
A review of author Charles R. Cross’ reflection on the legacy of Kurt Cobain, “Here We Are Now.”
Special to The Seattle Times
Charles R. Cross
The author of “Here We Are Now” will discuss Kurt Cobain’s legacy in conversation with KEXP’s John Richards at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 3, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call 206-652-4255.
Nothing breeds immortality like death. One of the ironies of the posthumous beatification of Kurt Cobain is the press’s revisionist assessment of his artistry. As longtime Seattle music journalist Charles R. Cross describes in this incisive but thin postmortem, “Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain” (It Books, 181 pp., $22.99), numerous publications revised upward their ratings of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” as its impact became clearer every year after the bandleader’s death.
Rolling Stone gave the seminal album three stars out of five when it first came out; in the online archive of that review, the same music now rates four.
There’s nothing wrong with changing one’s mind. It’s better to correct a wrong course than steer into a reef. Certainly, “Nevermind” was a transformative release even before Cobain took his life, 20 years ago next month; its mainstream success caught most pundits off guard.
But when talking about dead rock stars, there’s always the danger of mythologization. Thirteen years after his excellent “Heavier Than Heaven” Cobain biography was published, Cross has certainly earned the right to reflect on the artist’s legacy, and he gamely tries to avoid overt hagiography.
Still, “Here We Are Now” carries a whiff of critical necromancy. Timing the publication of this extended think piece to coincide with the anniversary of Cobain’s death, not to mention Nirvana’s April induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, It Books undoubtedly wanted a piece of the considerable cash cow that Cobain has become.
Cross powerfully argues against glamorizing the singer/songwriter/guitarist’s gruesome suicide. His chapter about addiction and suicide is smart, well-researched, and poignant. Drawing upon interviews with health professionals and analysis of their studies, the writer argues that rather than inspiring a wave of suicides, Cobain’s death might have actually discouraged copycat acts.
Unfortunately, in the next breath, Cross declares his subject “The Last Rock Star” because of Cobain’s “combination of raw talent, charisma, ambition, and, most important, songwriting genius.”
Now, I love me some Kurt Cobain, but I can’t honestly say that his oeuvre is better than any number of artists who have apparently made the mistake of surviving — like, say, Jack White, Kathleen Hanna, Adele, Jay-Z, etc. Cross seems to narrowly and problematically define “rock” and “star,” with little ideological self-awareness.
That’s a failure in a book that’s about reflective overview. With poorly edited sentences left to trip over too many clauses, “Here We Are Now” stumbles to find its footing in the Cobain canon. (One such sentence: “Listening to rock radio now, two decades after Kurt’s death, it sometimes feels as if Eno’s paradigm could be far truer for million-copy-selling Nirvana, who possibly spawned a million bands.”) Even at under 200 pages and a trim cut size, there’s ample padding, such as not one but five sequential superfluous quotes from Courtney Love about her husband’s abiding importance.
Cobain’s effect on music, fashion, activism and health issues has long outlasted him, as Cross authoritatively documents in well-argued chapters. He may not have been the last rock star, but he was certainly one of the most impactful, ever.
Evelyn McDonnell’s most recent book is “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.” She teaches journalism at Loyola Marymount University.