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'Heavier Than Heaven' author examines Kurt Cobain's impact 20 years after death

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Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross (It Books)

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Charles Cross has the distinction of having written the definitive Kurt Cobain biography to-date, 2001's Heavier Than Heaven. As he mentions in the prologue to this follow-up, Here We Are Now: the Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain, he refrained from inserting his own experiences and personal feelings into the biography because he knows it wasn't about him. But there is a bit of hypocrisy right out of the gate as Cross goes on to chastise Larry King for opportunism in the face of celebrity deaths. He even recalls his own interview on Larry King about Cobain in the wake of the 27 year-old musician's suicide, culminating in a question that he uses as his mission statement for this book, “Why did Kurt Cobain matter?”

Certainly, to some, he didn't. But for those of us who, in 1994, were young and felt disenfranchised (and a huge segment of that population likely did), Cobain's suicide was arresting and startling. Some were left devastated but most eventually moved on with their lives. The thing about that question is that it has more answers than can be summed up in 177 pages. The same can be said for nearly any person. Why or how someone matters depends entirely on the influence that person had on others' individual lives, as Cross himself later acknowledges and fully understands. This book deals in the quantifiable and tangible ways. Unfortunately, many of them wouldn't have mattered to Cobain or, even worse, embarrassed him.

Does there really need to be an entire chapter about “grunge” style and Cobain's role in it? Saying that a man that “became such an icon [in fashion] because he rarely changed his clothes” is hardly a fitting tribute. The entire idea is in poor taste. He grew up poor in a colder town. He was thin and insecure about it so he wore lots of layers. He wasn't Audrey Hepburn.

The most touching part of the book is in discussing the collective opinion that Kurt's hometown of Aberdeen, Washington has of its most famous resident. Over time, the majority of townspeople have forgotten the derogatory remarks Cobain made against its citizens. A local senior citizen made a grassroots campaign to build a park because he felt Kurt deserved to be immortalized and was tired of local government refusing to acknowledge their superstar native son. The “bigoted redneck logger-types” have since even embraced one of his song title as the slogan on the town's “Welcome to Aberdeen” sign. Now emblazoned with the words, “Come As You Are”, the sign exhibits a sense of welcoming and acceptance that Cobain never felt while he lived there.

Here We Are Now discusses the impact Kurt Cobain left on the society at large, for better or worse, for meaningful or superfluous. It's a shame but also a reality that Cobain's lasting effect on the whole of society isn't only about his music, but his death, and even his propensity for wearing torn jeans and cardigans. But for those that loved his music and his ideals, what are they going to tell their children about the reluctant “voice of their generation”? How will they answer the question of “Why did Kurt Cobain matter?” Flannel will likely not be the first word out of their mouth. Maybe if Kurt was just your weird lumberjack uncle. The answer lies in the eye, ear, and heart of the beholder.

For those that won't be able to experience the thrill of his meteoric rise to rock god, just as others had with the Beatles generations ago, the hope is that the music will still matter. Maybe they can ascribe the meaning of his music and make it matter so that to Generations Y, Z, and beyond, he won't be just another cautionary tale. Cross's book is built on a flawed but well-intentioned premise, that things have changed as a result of Kurt Cobain's existence, and that's all there is. As long as his music is being discovered by new ears, his impact will last forever.

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