You know that feeling you get when you think you’ve found something so meaningful to you, but it turns out it means approximately the same amount of things to everyone else you know? That’s Kurt Cobain. Charles Cross’s new book, Here We Are Now, examines Cobain’s impact on the culture at large. And not surprisingly, it’s like a meteor shrieked through the world circa 1991, splintered apart and left craters all over the place. Cross is the author of the excellent Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven, but for the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death, he decided to cover different, broader ground.
The best parts of Here We Are Now are when Cross talks about the personal spirals Cobain’s death sent him into. One morning, he gets a call from a radio station saying a body’s been found at Cobain’s house; that day ends when Larry King cold-calls and asks him—live on the radio—why Kurt Cobain matters. Cross grew up in rural Washington, a nice confluence of fate that really informs his reporting on the town of Aberdeen’s mixed attitude towards its famous son, and his personal attitudes toward suicides and heroin addiction. Myths are dispelled all over the place. Cobain barely lived in Seattle, never wore Doc Martins, did not usher distraught fans to suicide with his own. My personal favorite chapter is the one about fashion, mostly because I don’t know anything about fashion and I’m amused at Marc Jacobs buying a flannel shirt from Goodwill and sending it to Italy to be copied in expensive silk.
Here We Are Now is just 181 pages long, which is its primary problem. While it’d probably be rather offputting if Cross were to go into an anthropological term paper about Cobain’s relationship to fashion, feminism, and his hometown, or cover more topics, like his impact on the art world and/or gay rights, this just doesn’t feel like enough. Maybe someone else has done more extensive research, and this is just a sampler, fragments that pique the interest of Cobain’s fans or the culturally conscious. Cross hints at that fact in a few places, and sometimes just leaves tantalizing subjects untouched, like the fact that Cobain’s stomach problems were so intense that they are a case study for doctors. I don’t doubt a lot of Cross’s research, that he had conversations with fans and doctors, but some of it feels like he Googled some “Best songs of all time” list and nodded along. You can get a lot of the same analysis from a Wikipedia page.
For a sampler, it’s a quick, even breezy read that makes you go “huh”. It might be good for a beginning anthropology class or a casual fan. It’s going to stay on my shelf as a reference if I ever need to know Grunge’s place in the modern fashion landscape, or that hip-hop artists routinely sample Nirvana. But I can’t help feeling that we might already know all this in the first place, and an expert on Cobain should be able to deliver more insights and analysis than an internet search.
Charles R. Cross
It Books, March 2014