Best-selling rock biographer explores the ‘Cult of 27’

Slouched in his chair at the Lucy Cuddy Hall, his chin tucked between his chest and a bowl of vegetable soup, best-selling writer Charles R. Cross gazed beyond the other tables, contemplating his profession.

“It’s far from a dream job. It’s a nightmare job,”Cross said. “You’ve got to deal with drug addicts and Courtney Love and ego trips and rock stars and uncooperative estates and head cases.”

Cross has authored books on such rock legends as Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen. His 2001 biography on Kurt Cobain, “Heavier Than Heaven,” received national acclaim. He was also the editor of the Seattle-based music magazine “The Rocket” from 1986 to 2000.

Despite cynicism about his subject matter, Cross said he is compelled to write about rock ‘n’ roll both by his love for storytelling and his love for music.

“I think the work helps me understand the motivation behind these artists’ music,” he said. “It gives me an extra dimension. It’s almost like a sensation that I can taste in a way that I couldn’t before I knew these stories.”

Cross lectured on “The Cult of 27” at the Fine Arts Building, Nov. 10 at an event cosponsored by Student Activities and the Campus Bookstore.

The title of the lecture refers to the many musicians who died at the age of 27, including Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson and Jim Morrison, among others.

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Anchorage was Cross’ last stop on a worldwide tour to promote his latest book, a biography of Hendrix titled “A Room Full of Mirrors.”

“He’s been to London. He’s done some promotional efforts in Australia – the West Coast, the East Coast. We’re really lucky to have him,” said Mike McCormick, Student Activities coordinator.

McCormick, a fan of Cross’ writing, was instrumental in bringing the author to UAA.

“I had read his books,” McCormick said. “I loved the Cobain book and I really gained an appreciation of Nirvana that I didn’t have before reading it. He really made me care about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Even if I didn’t like music, the writing was so strong, that I thought it was a great book.”

Attendance at the lecture, though initially sparse, increased due to a steady stream of trickle-in latecomers, most of them unassociated with the university.

Gordon Samuel, who describes himself as a “huge Nirvana fan,” said he’d read “Heavier Than Heaven” and was excited to meet the author.

“He provided some serious insight into the band,” Samuel said. “This is one of the best things I’ve seen at UAA.”

Although Cross’ latest book is a biography of Hendrix, the question-and-answer session turned repeatedly to Cobain, whose suicide in 1994 remains a tremendous scar in the collective consciousness of Generation X.

Cross was in a unique position to write Cobain’s biography, since he had a well-developed professional friendship with the grunge icon throughout the early 1990s.

Ashley Bodley, who attended the event with a friend, said she was impressed with Cross’ story about receiving a duffle bag full of Cobain’s private papers from Love, Cobain’s widow.

“I’m pretty impressed that he got to read all of Kurt Cobain’s journals that no one else has ever read,” Bodley said.

In an interview before the lecture, Cross shared his lack of enthusiasm for the mainstream music industry’s current offerings.

“I basically like nothing that’s on the charts. If it’s on the charts, it’s going to stink,” Cross said. “But Death Cab For Cutie might be the exception to that.”

Cross points out the industry was experiencing a severe talent drought before Nirvana arrived on the scene.

“Nirvana changed things and made it safe to be artistic again,” Cross said. “The band that was using the studio before they recorded ‘Nevermind’ was the band Warrant, who was famous for this song called ‘Cherry Pie.’ Nirvana came in and suddenly it wasn’t about the girl in your video, it was about the quality of your music.”

Cross said music can recover from being inundated with untalented bands and performers.

“I’m not sure who’s going to save rock ‘n’ roll but there’s always somebody who will.”

Cross has several topic ideas for his next book, and said he might tackle a subject outside music.

Cross’ biography of Jimi Hendrix, “A Room Full of Mirrors,” and his biography of Kurt Cobain, “Heavier Than Heaven,” are available at the Campus Bookstore.