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Behind "Cobain Unseen": Charles Cross on Kurt's Private Archives

"It's almost impossible to describe how obsessive Kurt was over monkeys and anatomical models"

August 28, 2012 3:06 PM ET

While researching his Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, journalist Charles R. Cross came across the nearly 100 boxes of the rocker's belongings that had been moved into a secure storage facility. "When I went and saw that stuff, I called up Courtney and I said 'Jesus fucking Christ, I cannot believe this art and how amazing all this stuff is.' " Cross' new book, Cobain Unseen mines that archive for artwork, photographs and journal entries that have been locked away since the Nirvana leader's death. Rolling Stone spoke to Cross about the project, and what it revealed about its mysterious subject. (See a gallery of images from the book here.)

I'm familiar with a lot of Nirvana photos, but I've actually never seen a lot of the photos in Cobain Unseen.
I had seen Kurt's archives and it would take a lot to surprise me, at this point, but I was surprised by some of the stuff. We were working on this book when we found out that there were undeveloped rolls of film that Kurt had shot at least 15 years ago — and they were still sitting around the archive collection, and no one had ever developed them.

Where is the archive collection?
An "undisclosed location." And it literally was at an underground bomb-proof bunker that Bill Gates stored his stuff in. When I first went to visit it, it was the first time I my life my retina was ever scanned. It was like James Bond. The week Kurt died, Courtney had the sense to tell someone "put all this stuff away," and it had all been boxed up and never opened. I think I was the first person to open these boxes — and I cannot tell you how freaky that was, to open up a Rubbermaid container and inside were Kurt Cobain's board games that had been put away.

He was amassing all of this stuff over the years but moved around so much, so how were they able to keep it all?
Well that was one of the things that amazed me. If you read Heavier Than Heaven and you know a little of Kurt's history, he was homeless after he recorded Nevermind. But that didn't mean he wasn't a major collector. He had a bunch of crap, he basically carried these boxes around everywhere. Most of the stuff in the archive was bought after he got famous, because when he got money, he started buying stuff. The basement of the last home he lived in, which he only lived in for three months, there was something like 80 boxes of stuff in there that — a lot if it was Kurt's junk. So that stuff, after he died, was moved into this archive and never touched.

There are only a few of Kurt's paintings in the book. Why include so few?
Many of the paintings are three-dimensional and multifaceted, and there was just not a way to reproduce those in any book that would do them justice. At some point, there will be a gallery showing. He would take a porcelain doll, and then paint something on it — maybe blood, maybe paint, I don't know — and then glue his own hair on these dolls. So to be in these archives and holding this stuff, to literally have pieces of Kurt's DNA falling off me as I held it, just blew me away.

Would you say that the Chim Chim monkey is the most valuable piece of memorabilia that he's left behind?
I wouldn't — there's several Chim Chims. There's the one pictured on Nevermind, but Kurt had so many of them, and the names occasionally changed. One of my favorite pictures in the book is that page where we stacked like nine monkeys. But you know, there's another 30 of them that we couldn't picture. It's almost impossible to describe how obsessive Kurt was over monkeys, anatomical models, you know the things that he was obsessed by he was obsessed in a large degree.

Why was he so interested in these things?
Well, that's a question for Dr. Freud. That was the theme of the things that he was interested in, fascinated by birth and death and feces, elimination and sexuality. And these things show up in his songs. I think people forget how many songs are about masturbation in Nirvana's catalog. Certainly there are some about suicide, but there's more about masturbation. I'm not sure why he was obsessed with the monkeys. And ironically, you know that's one of the reasons that this is still fascinating for me, having spent numerous years of my life writing about him, I still can't completely figure it all out. He was such an odd character that that's one reason I think we're still talking about him.

How cooperative was Courtney during the making of this book?
She was very cooperative. Completely hands-off. Her only direction was "make sure the material is in good taste, don't put things that are ghoulish, and don't put things that focus on the darkness."

What did you come across that might have been considered in bad taste?
The only thing that there was a debate on was the X-ray of Kurt that is reproduced there. There has been some debate about Kurt's drug addiction and how much of that was his own fabrication and how much [was the result] of the physical problems that he wrote about — they literally showed up in the songs, there are lines about how his bones hurt. So this was not stuff that he kept to himself. The fact that he still had an X-ray that showed that he had scoliosis as an adult, that to me was fascinating. Kurt kept all this stuff. He didn't get a report card or a note from the doctor that he didn't stash somewhere.

What other photos really stood out for you when you came across them?
The pictures near the end of the book of Kurt and Frances. He took so many pictures of himself and Frances and every single one of them breaks your heart to look at. There's a picture where Kurt is sitting in an overstuffed striped chair, and Frances is sitting on his lap — it absolutely sent a chill through my body. What really struck me, and I've seen thousands if not hundreds of thousands of pictures of Kurt before, but these are not pictures you would see, normally. These are pictures of a family, not Kurt Cobain. There's also a picture on there towards the end that, again, just absolutely slayed me. It's a picture of Kurt lying in this iron bed, kind of in a fetal position. And Courtney told me that that was her favorite picture of Kurt. And it's so beautiful, it's so him. And yet at the same point it's so sad, so harrowing, so haunting, and so innocent — it's all caught up in there.

What's fascinating to me is you can see the stuff in the periphery of these photos.
There were some debates about what to put on the cover. I really like the picture of Kurt in his Olympia apartment. Basically everything is there: you've got the Visible Man poster on the wall, you've got these little tiny beetle figurines glued to a speaker. But all the stuff on the wall, or in the periphery as you say — this is Nevermind. It's right there. All the elements end up in his work. That's the room he wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in. It's Picasso in his studio, to a degree. It's Bob Dylan at the house in Woodstock.

When did you first meet Kurt?
Well the magazine that I was the editor of, The Rocket, wrote about the very first single, and I knew [Sub Pop founder Jonathan] Poneman and knew the band when they were on Sub Pop, but I don't think I met him until seeing them in early shows, in the late '80s. You know it's funny, I know Novoselic far better. He would come into our office and basically say, "Will you write about our band?" Everybody thought he was the leader of the band.

Can you talk about the werewolf picture in the book?
When I wrote Heavier Than Heaven I interviewed one of Kurt's kindergarten classmates, and you know you meet all these people in Aberdeen, and to be blunt it's hard to know what to believe. And he said, "You know, Kurt could draw anything. There was a picture once he took of a werewolf out of a comic book and drew it, and it looked exactly like the werewolf." I thought, "This guy's making this up. How can he remember something from kindergarten?" And then in the process of doing this book, we discover this picture, and it's like, "Oh my God! This kindergarten kid was exactly right." That was April 1975, when the giant-sized werewolf came out.

There's a striking photo of Kurt with his dad — can you talk a little bit about their relationship?
Well, it was a very complicated relationship and I think that unfortunately Kurt said some things when he became famous that lead people to believe that he hated his father when the truth was in his childhood he was closer to his father than he was to his mother. But once his father remarried it brought so many complications to the family. In some ways that was a betrayal for Kurt who always wanted attention, and who loved it when he and his father lived alone. They essentially both acted like teenagers and shot bee-bee guns and rode motorcycles or motor bikes. And when his dad remarried that was a relationship fraught with emotional problems for Kurt, though again all this stuff gets apocryphal. You know the story is Kurt hated this, and Kurt hated that. The truth was we have copies of letters and cards, and there are a few of these that are actually in the book — he clearly had a much closer with relationship with his step brothers and sisters, and enjoyed that relationship when it first began. But, he had been, his intimate relationship with his father shifted and there's no way that could ever remain the same.

What about the 1989 photo where he's drinking strawberry Quik? He wasn't doing heroin at this point was he?
He was having serious stomach problems then and his thought drinking strawberry Quik would help relieve his stomach, and of course any physician who understands bowel problems would tell you is that that was the exact opposite of what you should do, that milk products are only gonna irritate your stomach problems and not soothe them. Kurt was convinced that that was the cure.

He wasn't doing heroin. What's remarkable about that particular tour is that Kurt not only didn't do drugs, he didn't smoke, he didn't even smoke pot and he didn't drink. Kurt's drug stories always get so blown out of proportion, but for the majority of the band's touring he was the most straight-laced one in the band, and would freak out if someone smoke a cigarette near him, because he felt that his vocal chords were so sensitive that he couldn't stand to be around that.

[From Issue 1064 — October 30, 2008]

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