Cobain biographer is ‘almost famous’

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Tuesday, September 4, 2001 9:00pm
  • Local News

There he was, Charles R. Cross, with an hourlong block on the Bumbershoot schedule. Literary Stage, the grid said.

I didn’t see him Sunday, being occupied with my own Bumbershoot schedule. My older son had begged a ride to Seattle’s mega-arts festival to catch a band called MXPX – don’t ask, I don’t know. My stroller-riding son and I spent an afternoon with RatDog, a ghost-of-the-Grateful Dead band fronted by Bob Weir – don’t ask, I can’t explain.

The author didn’t need a 2-year-old in the audience.

Cross is a writer of note these days. No less a literary voice than The New Yorker magazine called “Heavier Than Heaven,” his portrait of grunge music superstar Kurt Cobain, “a compelling new biography.” USA Today said “Cross untangles the soul of a man.”

Charley, my friend, somehow I knew it.

I knew it not long after I took a job as a proofreader at the University of Washington Daily, the campus newspaper. This little blond kid would come flying in, and from a worn-out backpack slung over a slim shoulder, he’d pull out a treasure, or he’d sit down and type one.

He was an eccentric vegetarian escapee from the meat-and-potatoes heartland of Pullman. He wrote about what he loved – music. He did it better than anyone. I knew that and was envious of it.

This was 1977, ‘78, along in there. I was mostly done with school and too old to be at The Daily, where I had landed after slamming into a personal bump in the road.

It turned out to be a great place to land, both for me and for Charley, who wasn’t old at all.

“How old are you now?” I asked Cross Monday, midway through a phone interview arranged by his New York publisher, Hyperion. He was hurrying off for a flight to San Francisco, a stop on a book tour.

“Forty-four, how about you?” said the Seattle author, who spent much of the past 20 years as editor of The Rocket, Seattle’s now-defunct music magazine. “Forty-seven,” I answered, to which he said, “wow.”

Wow is right. And look where I’ve been all these years.

“I have fond memories of The Everett Herald,” said Cross, laughing about an internship he had on the copy desk here the summer after I had the same job. “That was really hard for me, I had to get up at 5 a.m.,” he said.

After I had moved on to a real job, my former Herald boss asked if I knew anyone for the internship. Charley, no question. My boss trusted me and hired my friend.

Charley, I’m afraid, was a little ahead of The Herald’s time. He didn’t wear socks, he hated alarm clocks, that sort of thing. I’m smiling now, sitting in the office sockless and in sandals.

Long ago, Cross teased me about my conventional path. But he admitted Monday, “a job like yours doesn’t look so bad now. We all need the health insurance.”

A job like his, chronicling a cultural phenomenon of the 1990s, doesn’t look so bad, either.

“The music stood out,” Cross said of Nirvana, Cobain’s band that whipped punk and pop into the brand-new blend called grunge.

“The songs were so well written, so impassioned, so emotionally honest. They knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts.”

Reams have been written about Cobain, his druggie romance with rock-star bride Courtney Love and his 1994 shotgun suicide that threw Gen X into a collective state of mourning.

In a way, Cross identified with Cobain. Yet success dragged the musician down; the writer finds it gratifying.

Cobain came from small-town Aberdeen. “Growing up in Pullman, I was an outcast like Kurt and also a child of divorce. But my circumstances are definitely different,” he said.

At Bumbershoot, Cross’ path came full circle. His Pullman High School journalism teacher, now retired, showed up at a reading.

“It was amazing to have him buy a book I wrote and ask me to sign it,” he said. “He was a real counterculture guy, and he really influenced me.”

Years ago, Cross was influenced by the music writers of Rolling Stone magazine. He hooked his dream to that star and held on.

He admired Cameron Crowe, who at 16 became a Rolling Stone staff writer. Crowe’s story is fictionalized in the movie “Almost Famous.”

“Cameron Crowe got famous and rich quicker than I have managed to do,” added Cross, whose work now appears in Rolling Stone.

“Isn’t life so weird, Charley?” I asked him as we ended our talk. I promised to stop by his book signing at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at the University Book Store, near where we met at the UW. “Here I am interviewing you,” I said. “You’re famous.”

“No I’m not,” he answered. “I’m almost famous.”

Contact Julie Muhlstein via e-mail at, write to her at The Herald, P.O. Box 930, Everett, WA 98206, or call 425-339-3460.

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