American stories:Talking with Charles Cross about Hendrix and Cobain

The doomed princes of rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, emerged out of Seattle onto the world stage, captivated their respective generations and then dissolved. Each left his fans shocked and grieved. Why do they endure in the public imagination? How are their tragic lives valuable to us, as a culture?

Those questions were on my mind as I prepared to talk with Charles Cross about "Room Full of Mirrors," his 2005 biography of Jimi Hendrix. Cross' 2001 Cobain biography "Heavier than Heaven" was a bestseller.

But I brought sorrow as well as questions to this interview, an emotion I feel is part of this story. After Cobain committed suicide, I strenuously avoided everything to do with him. Cobain's sad-eyed face, features finely drawn, reminds me of one of my close friends who died from a combination of alcohol and sleeping pills. His suicide summons up my memory of the same shotgun act by another friend.

And as a Pacific Northwesterner, I feel pride in natives who carry the high creative charge of this moody region into the world. Yet Cobain self-destructed. Behind my questions was the grief of many, and my own need to face - and forgive - the ghost.

Through "Heavier Than Heaven" I learned about the darkness that crossed through Cobain, like pitch falling again and again on snow. He had a naïve, good heart. He was deeply hurt by his parents' divorce. As pain and depression invaded his childhood, he sought creative joy. He needed it, in fact, to survive, but his background did not offer him that richness.

As we had coffee on a filmy Northwest morning, Cross pointed out that, considering Cobain's family and social climate, it's amazing he found the discipline to express his musical genius. He thinks the lives of both Cobain and Hendrix stand out because of their heroic overcoming of obstacles.

"They both suffered so much, when they rise to fame you're rooting for them," he said. In the end, "what made them famous was the work they created."

That is why their young deaths flamed inside the culture of celebrity. Hendrix died in 1970, aged 28, of accidental drug overdose. Cobain's 1994 suicide, aged 27, shocked the world.

In some ways, Cross sees Cobain's life is a morality tale. Like Cobain, kids today deal with drugs, divorce and depression. Is there anyone now-adays, Cross asked, whose life has not been touched by those elements?

His certainly has. Although they weren't close friends, Cross knew Cobain personally, and those deep feelings, poignant and strong, lift "Heavier Than Heaven" to a classic.

The destructive forces against which Cobain and Hendrix strug-gled challenge our society today, and Cross thinks we need to understand what is going on. Thirty thousand people kill themselves every year, and somewhere around 600,000 try to. "It is absolutely remarkable, yet we don't talk about it," Cross said.

"We don't have enough respect for depression," he maintained. "There is a link between creativity and madness. Certainly there are many links between depression and creativity." For example, he observe, someone happy in high school was more likely to get steady work, become an accountant. Unhappy ones became guitarists.

For Cross, Cobain is heroic because "he took depression and turned that pain into art. A lot of people who suffer from depression sit in their La-Z-Boy recliners and do nothing."

Also, in Cobain's day celebrities were less open about their struggle with addiction. Cobain was on his own. "He was a bright spirit struggling to get free of these things," Cross said. "His private journal has some revealing entries, like 'Please, God, let me kick these drugs.'"

Cross talks to kids in schools and shelters, using Cobain's life - which intrigues many kids - as "an entrée to talk about these hard issues." He does not glamorize drugs. "I'm trying to strip Cobain and Hendrix of their myths. I want people to think of them as regular, real people."

The Cobain biography has actually helped people turn away from drugs. The e-mails Cross most prizes are from kids who say, "I thought being a drug addict was more glamorous. After reading your book, I'll never do drugs."

I told Cross that Cobain reminds me of Icarus, the boy in Greek myth who attached wings on his back with wax, then flew so close to the sun that the wax melted and Icarus plummeted.

"Cobain was fascinated by that kind of iconography," Cross said. He used to perform in front of the image of a woman with wings. Hendrix used a similar image in what Cross thinks one of his best songs, the ballad "Angel." (The EMP displays lyrics in Hendrix's handwriting, of an angel with silver wings, bringing a moon and sea love. The "pure joy" made him cry.)

The song is about Hendrix's mother, Cross explained. Like Cobain , Hendrix had a chaotic upbringing. His parents fought constantly. His mother died. Hendrix grew up in a world of turmoil, trauma and neglect, bordering on abuse.

"That was the key," Cross said; "his life was a mess, but his music wasn't."

Hendrix grew up in the African-American culture, rich and vibrant, around the Central District in Seattle. In those days, the Central District was one of the safest, and "Hendrix was truly raised by a village," Cross said. "Neighbors, aunties, friends fed him when his parents did not. A person could walk through the district, hear music, go in and ask, 'Can you teach me something?'

"Hendrix became an incredible, technical guitar player. He had the ability to make a guitar talk emotionally. Not many people can do this. There is a sadness, wistfulness and longing expressed in all his great songs. There are also songs with bravado, and overt sexuality."

Unlike Cobain, Hendrix died accidentally, combining sleeping pills and alcohol. But Cross pointed out that "addiction is not the lens you look at his life through." For Hendrix, drugs were more celebratory, not to escape horrible reality. His drug use was in the 1960s, when everyone was wearing flowers in their hair.

Cross's remarks put Hendrix and Cobain in a wider perspective: sensitive, tragic princes of rock and roll, who fought to emerge from the stone which shut them in, blocks of family quarrels, death and depression.

Their stories are tragic. Yet it is heroic what each young man achieved, the musical sculptures they carved out of lives that surely gave them an excuse to opt out. They were both driven, through darkness and suffering, toward something bright and angelic. While most only dream, they set out on their Lord of the Rings quest. And their aborted quest mirrors back something our culture has yet to face. What does our culture offer the artistically hungry?

As he left, Cross said, with the hint of a wistful Hendrix, if our "culture was more accepting of its oddballs, maybe Hendrix and Cobain would still be alive."

Charles Cross will sign copies of "Room Full of Mirrors" at the University Village Barnes & Noble, 7 p.m. tonight, Oct. 12.

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