Ain’t No Telling

Seattle Weekly plays Jukebox Jury with Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross.

Charles R. Cross

Charles R. Cross

Charles R. Cross was born in Virginia and raised in Pullman, Wash., before moving to Seattle for college in the late ’70s. After a stint editing the University of Washington’s student newspaper, Cross founded Backstreets, a Bruce Springsteen fanzine, in 1980, and began freelancing for other outlets, eventually settling into editorship at the influential Northwest music biweekly The Rocket in the mid-’80s. When that paper folded in 2000, Cross began work on Heavier Than Heaven, an acutely written biography of Kurt Cobain published in 2001, which won the ASCAP Timothy White Award for best biography. This summer, Cross released Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix (Hyperion, $24.95), which most of our talk revolved around. This Jukebox took place at the Weekly offices on a late summer evening, while Cross was in the midst of a publicity blitz for the new book.

Ray Charles: “Mess Around” (1953) from The Ray Charles Story Vol. 1 (Atlantic)

Charles R. Cross: This is probably the most-heard rock song of all time or something, right? Is this Ike Turner or Little Richard?

Seattle Weekly: Neither. Think lead instrument.

Cross: The lead instrument is piano. Trevor Johnson? Fats Domino?

SW: I’m surprised that you’re not getting it on the voice.

Cross: Well, I’m sure that if I wasn’t brain dead I could. [laughs]

SW: What are you brain dead from?

Cross: Doing interviews all day, talking at 7 in the morning to radio jocks and doing TV.

SW: It’s Ray Charles.

Cross: Oh yeah. This is the song that sort of began his career. The chorus originated in Seattle, but it was recorded elsewhere. There is a song that was recorded in Seattle.

SW: He was more of a Nat Cole–style, Charles Brown–style crooner on the early stuff, then he did this and sort of upset the apple cart.

Cross: One of the interesting things about Ray—that movie is so off in its depiction of Seattle. You see that movie and you see the clubs that Ray was in, that whole strip, and they’re all brick. I don’t even know where they filmed that—I think they may have filmed that on a sound stage and re-created it all. You know, places that Ray Charles used to play, the main place was I think called the Rocking Chair—it was an old house. Most of the African-American clubs in Seattle [in the ’40s and ’50s] weren’t actual clubs—they were literally houses that had been converted to restaurants or clubs. That’s the way it was, because these places were operating illegally when they began. African-American culture was living-room culture.

SW: Rent parties.

Cross: Exactly. There is a place in Vancouver called the Chicken Inn. Al Hendrix, Jimi’s dad, worked at the Chicken Inn as a waiter briefly. Basically [it] was a woman’s house. Literally, there was no other place that you could get fried chicken. It began as her kitchen counter or dining-room counter, and then slowly they took the living room and the bedrooms and it became this place where everybody stopped. I’m sure Jimi must have visited the times he went up there. I’m not sure the year it even closed down. In Seattle, a lot of people forget there was a restaurant on Lake City Way and 85th or so called Coon’s Chicken Inn.

SW: Spelled Coon and not Kuhn?

Cross: C-O-O-N. gives you a whole history of this restaurant. It’s amazing what year it closed, like 1964 or something. The place is now a Chinese restaurant.

To really understand Jimi Hendrix or Seattle music, you have to understand that we had racism and our color line, which was Denny Way, just like everywhere else. And up in North Seattle, the sign was a giant picture of an African-American man that went around the place: Coon’s Chicken Inn. A number of people that I interviewed would say Coon’s Chicken Inn would sell their chicken in boxes, and when racial tensions grew, some more dangerous and egregious whites would cut the box, take the circle [with the logo], and paste it to their hubcaps. Imagine that you’re a young African-American male driving around and you see a car with Coon’s Chicken Inn on the hubcaps, what that must have made you feel like.

SW: Jesus.

Cross: One of the other things that really surprised me, that I didn’t understand as a white person, was [that] in Seattle, because of the huge disparity between the number of African Americans versus the number of whites, most [racially motivated] violence up through 1970 was white against black. In our current culture, part of what we are taught is that crime is perpetrated by African Americans [against] Caucasians, which is not the case statistically. But that’s the white fear. I was surprised [by] talking to African Americans who grew up here about the huge fear they had of getting killed or beaten up. If you were African American and you were in Ballard, there was a good chance that you were going to get the crap beat out of you. And you kind of have to understand that to understand what it was like to grow up here in the ’40s and ’50s black. Some people said there was a huge change when African Americans finally realized that white people were actually scared of them. It was like, finally the tables turned! And of course they took that to the extreme, and that’s why the Black Panthers had one of the strongest chapters in Seattle.

There’s a hilarious story in the book: A guy I interviewed named Mike Tagua went to high school with Jimi Hendrix. Japanese ancestry, and he was one of the first people to join the Black Panthers who wasn’t black. They came and solicited him. He said, “But I’m not black.” And they said, “Well, you ain’t white, either.” There is this huge cultural divide still here in Seattle. We’d like to think of it as so smooth and together. If you were black in 1962 and you joined the service, [it was] because there really wasn’t another option.

SW: When Jimi was in the Army, he kind of dug being a soldier as much as anything.

Cross: I think he grew up with such a lack of identity that [he liked] being in the service and having that patch on his arm, which was the Screaming Eagle patch of the 103rd Airborne. He apparently talked about that patch incessantly. I see the patch as an identity, almost the way today a kid would wear a Misfits patch or a Ramones patch or a Mohawk or whatever, a sense of self-esteem and a way to identify himself.

SW: There’s something really kind of perfect about it being a screaming eagle, which is a pretty typically Hendrix kind of symbol.

Cross: It is, it’s great.

Another thing about the Ray Charles movie: Ray Charles began using heroin in Seattle, as he writes in his own autobiography. And the movie has him doing it because of the struggles with his brother. Well, he began doing heroin up in the Central District because drugs were a big part of the loop. It was a dangerous place.

SW: When you think of Vancouver and Seattle, obviously weed is everywhere. Was Jimi experimenting with drugs before he became famous?

Cross: No, absolutely not. My guess is that he probably never smoked pot in Seattle.

SW: That’s amazing.

Cross: It is. Part of it was that in the world that he was in, the money for marijuana just wasn’t there. He also didn’t drink. I mean our image of Jimi as this wild man of drugs and alcohol just doesn’t match with how he was in high school—one of the straightest kids possible and, in all likelihood, left Seattle a virgin at 18.

One of my absolute favorite stories in the book: Jimi, when he’s 18, I think, he and Jimmy Williams, his best friend, go to a party. This other friend of theirs named Purnell Alexander comes up to them and says, “You boys ready? There some hot girls here at this party tonight. Are you ready to get lucky? You know about all this stuff don’t you?” And they kind of look at each other like, “Yeah, we know, we’re ready.” And Purnell says, “These girls are ready to go. You’re going to get lucky tonight.” So he goes into the party, and Jimi and Jimmy sort of look at each for a while and are so terrified that they go home. They don’t even go into the party. Of course, later he’s identified as the superstud—you know, sex is one of his greatest needs. This wasn’t the case when he was a teenager.

Elmore James: “Hawaiian Boogie” (1951) from The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James (Rhino)

Cross: It’s way too rocking for any of the blues guys.

SW: Don’t be too sure. Who’s the most rocking blues guy of that era?

Cross: Well, Elmore James.

SW: That’s it.

Cross: Elmore James was a huge influence on Jimi.

SW: He was definitely the blues player most into noise for noise’s sake, although this track is a little milder.

Cross: I think that people forget that blues was popular music. One of my very favorite guys I interviewed for the book was a guy named Bob Summerise. He was the first African American on Seattle radio, and he also owned his own record store. Everyone thinks that Pat O’Day is a huge influence in the Northwest, and Pat O’Day was. Bob Summerise, though, so many white musicians and black musicians said, “He was the shit.” He’s still alive and in relatively good health, maybe in his 70s. He had this whole little empire going that was sort of the black side [of town], the secret Pat O’Day. He had a record store, he promoted shows; there was a place in Tacoma—you drove into this drive-in restaurant, and Bob Summerise sat in a booth and played records out to your car. It was one of those great places.

SW: That must have seemed space age at the time.

Cross: His place, I think it was called Bob Summerise House of Records on 23rd and Jackson, and everybody bought records there. People want to think that African Americans only like African-American music, or that Caucasians only like Caucasian music. I mean, Jimi Hendrix himself loved Frank Sinatra, loved Perry Como, loved Dean Martin. Dean Martin was one of his very favorites as a kid. But Summerise, who catered to a 99 percent African-American audience, mostly carried the blues, which was the popular black music of the day. He also carried Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, but he kept those records behind the counter, which is hilarious. It’s the exact opposite of what most white-owned stores did. They kept the black records behind the counter.

The Sonics: “Witch” (1966) from Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968 (Rhino)

Cross: [immediately] “The Witch.”

SW: Did you grow up in the city?

Cross: Pullman.

SW: How far away is that?

Cross: Five and a half hours.

SW: Growing up, what kind of sense of local music history did you have?

Cross: Well, this wasn’t on the radio when I was growing up. That was the ’60s, and I was too young. When I came to Seattle, the bands that had Seattle history were Jimi Hendrix, Heart, the Wailers, and the Sonics. Those four groups were 90 percent of Seattle/Pacific Northwest history that you knew about at the time. The Sonics are my single most favorite Seattle band of all time.

I wrote a cover story for The Rocket, which is still legendary because we had an insane art director at the time, Art Chantry, who I was feuding with at the time. I wrote the first story, arguably, that anyone had ever done in appreciation of the Sonics. I tracked all of them down and wrote about their legendary tours and recordings. It was a massive, 5,000-word story, the biggest story that [The Rocket] had ever run. Art decided to get me back—he would run the entire story, but he would run it in 8-point type. So he has a gigantic out-of-focus picture and then here’s this massive story that fit onto one single page. I mean, literally, you need a magnifying glass to read the story.

Gerry Roslie of the Sonics was the one guy who wouldn’t talk to me. Never talked to anybody. I felt happy to get everybody else. Gerry Roslie wrote me a letter saying he liked the story, a handwritten letter, and in my years at The Rocket, I kept four or five things on my wall, and that was one of them.

SW: Did he write it in 8-point type?

Cross: No, he wrote it in cursive.

Funkadelic: “Friday Night, August 14” (1971) from Free Your Mind . . . and Your Ass Will Follow (Ace/Westbound)

Cross: Well, it’s an African-American artist. I’m going to date it as 1966.

SW: You’re off by five years. It’s post-Hendrix both chronologically and spiritually. In a way, you could say it’s the most definitive post-Hendrix black artist.

Cross: Sly Stone?

SW: Close.

Cross: George Clinton?

SW: Yes, Funkadelic.

Cross: What’s interesting is that Hendrix had a huge influence on young African Americans, making them realize they didn’t have to necessarily play traditional R&B. That’s a huge lasting legacy. A larger thing was the idea that an African American could own his own studio, [call] his own shots, and have some level of power in the industry—that was maybe even more influential than Jimi’s music.

Two weeks after Woodstock, Jimi played a free concert at 133rd and Lenox in Harlem. It was put together by his friends, the Aleves, and it was literally on the back of a flatbed truck, primarily to an African-American crowd, and he was booed and upstaged by a bad R&B singer. Jimi came on with a white pair of pants, and people didn’t like that. He was with a Puerto Rican girlfriend—people thought she was white and yelled at her. In today’s world, we can’t even begin to understand how hot things were with the racial divide in this country at that point. And Hendrix was at the forefront of that. No matter what he did, it was a controversy. He was always too white for the black audience and too black for the white audience. He really wanted to be played on black radio. I mean, Funkadelic wasn’t necessarily played on black radio.

SW: Not until George Clinton remade them as Parliament, with horns and fewer loud guitars.

Cross: You had to have horns. Which is funny—Jimi wanted horns. When he first went to England and formed the Experience, he made phone calls back to Seattle to horn players. He always wanted horns, and he never really got them. The Woodstock band was the closest thing he got to [a soul] ensemble.

SW: Was there ever a point where he was sort of adding more guitar to sort of make up for that? I think of Keith Richards saying in interviews that he added fuzz tone to “Satisfaction” because he heard it as a horn part.

Cross: Well, the Woodstock band has got Larry Lee on secondary guitar. If you ever actually listen to the entire Woodstock performance, it’s very, very uneven. What we see in the film is a couple of beautiful little nuggets; what’s on the soundtrack is, again, an edited version. What actually got played at Woodstock, Larry Lee sings four or five songs. Who wants to hear Larry Lee or his guitar solos? I mean, this did not make a lot of sense. So yeah, Jimi did add a bunch of stuff trying to give a fuller, more authentic R&B sound.

SW: The communitarian aspect was a big part of what made P-Funk—everybody chipping in at once with one mastermind. It seems like that was something Jimi aspired to.

Cross: I think so. Absolutely. His studio jams, which became legendary, created some of his greatest music. The stuff on Electric Ladyland, I mean, he was inviting people in. There’s a great story about how he invited his cab driver in and his cab driver came in and played congas. No one knows who the cab driver is, he is uncredited, but there is some conga that the cab driver contributed. Of course, one of the greatest stories of that is “Voodoo Child.” Jack Casady, the tremendous bass player in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, says they were at a club. It was Casady and Stevie Winwood and a couple of other people. Jimi said, “Let’s go back to the studio,” and they cut “Voodoo Child” at 7:30 in the morning after partying all night. And Casady said he was in the studio for half an hour and had to leave. [Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist] Jorma Kaukonen almost played on it—they were like, “You want to play?” He was like, “You know, I don’t know, I’m tired.” You listen to that track now and you imagine being in the studio watching that track being re-created—my God.

Bruce Springsteen: “Incident on 57th Street” (1973) from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (Columbia)

Cross: Well, of course I know who this is.

SW: I want to ask you about Backstreets, the Springsteen magazine you founded.

Cross: God—I’d like to just avoid that chapter of my life. In fact, I was so happy when the Cobain book came out, it never got mentioned. Can I bribe you not to include this?

There were a handful of artists that I listened to in my teenage bedroom—Bruce Springsteen was one, Bob Dylan was one, and Jimi Hendrix. This was one of my absolute favorite songs. What I loved about this record was the romanticism that it suggested. I grew up in the small town of Pullman, and this suggested such a wonderful kind of West Side Story–ish world, sort of a romanticism, so beautiful. Springsteen was never as good—and I know it sounds ridiculous to say—after ’75 when David Sancious left the band. That’s the ultimate, like, when Deadheads say that when Pigpen died everything was over. . . . 

SW: They’re right.

Cross: Well, they are. Maybe they are right about David Sancious, too. I mean, that guy was just brilliant.

SW: So you’re reluctant to talk about your early publishing history?

Cross: Well, you know, I loved Bruce Springsteen and started a fanzine partially because I felt that the mainstream media was not covering him enough. I was a teenager, essentially. And it was kind of a crazy idea to start a fanzine. It still is going. It’s remarkable. The strangest thing about Backstreets is that it is very successful and Bruce cooperates with it in ways he never did when it was a fanzine—I was at times very critical of him. Now it’s a huge Web presence. He can’t do a Web site better than the Backstreets Web site. If anyone wants to know what Bruce played in Columbus, Ohio, which he played two days ago, they go to Backstreets and they’ll find out. Columbia’s, which is his official site, they’re not going to have anything about it for days! So they’ve made it sort of his unofficial press office.

I have to say that as a creative artist, I’m tremendously disappointed with what Bruce has done from Human Touch and Lucky Town on, [though] I still think Tunnel of Love is an absolutely tremendous record.

Tori Amos: “Professional Widow (Armand’s Star Trunk Funkin’ Mix)” (1996) from CD-5 (Atlantic)

SW: This one’s a left curve, but it leads somewhere.

Cross: See, I thought that you’d be playing obscure ’50s stuff. Whatever this is, I have never heard it.

SW: This is Armand Van Helden’s remix of “Professional Widow,” by Tori Amos.

Cross: Ann Powers wrote a book on Tori Amos.

SW: Ann started her writing career at The Rocket. I wanted to talk about that magazine’s early days.

Cross: So this is an obscure way to go there. You could play the Heats’ “Ordinary Girls”—you could pretend to play that. The Heats were the first color cover of The Rocket ever. At that point, it cost like an additional $4,000 to do the cover and back.

A lot of great people worked at The Rocket, and what’s funny is that not a single person while they were working there thought the magazine they worked on was anything special. Basically, as long as I was editor or publisher or whatever, I heard nothing but grief from our staff. But the instant everybody left and went on to jobs at other places, they all look back on it and say, “My God, we were doing something special.” You know, I think that’s even true for me. Even I took it for granted. We published some great people early on and paid them very poorly, but gave them a place where you could really write what you wanted about music.

One of the most flattering things that I’ve heard in my entire career is to talk to people who were in very famous Northwest bands—who I won’t embarrass by identifying, but people who have platinum records on the wall—when they say, “We were on the cover of Time and Newsweek and Rolling Stone, but what really mattered was when we were on the cover of The Rocket, because our moms saw it.” To realize that reminded me of how fucking old I am. They were growing up reading the magazine that I was an adult doing. But it also made me realize with that paper that we did do something that was unique, I think, in America. It’s not my job to put The Rocket‘s place in history, but I do think the Seattle music scene’s exposure, without The Rocket trumpeting [it], we might not have seen the exposure that we did.

SW: What were the early years like?

Cross: The Rocket was a collective that sprang out of an entertainment section of The Seattle Sun, which was a Capitol Hill weekly paper. It was very hippie and very liberal, and I had a brief stint as an art director. I had a story in the second issue of The Rocket, but I wasn’t one of the initial cabal of editors. But not long after that, I became a senior editor, which meant that you got $200 a week—excuse me, a month—rather than five and you worked full time. I think I became a full-time editor in 1985 or ’86.

SW: Is it true that The Rocket‘s staff would lay each other off every six months to collect unemployment?

Cross: Yes! This is probably admitting to a felony in the state of Washington, but early on, basically everybody at The Rocket was living on absolute peanuts. We were barely surviving, and if you worked for six months, you could collect unemployment. So we had a rotating thing where person A would work for six months, then get laid off, collect unemployment. You made more money on unemployment than you did working at The Rocket.

For the first three or four years, The Rocket was pasted up at Franklin Press, right across from Trattoria Mitchelli’s. Trattoria Mitchelli’s was one of [our] first advertisers. God bless Danny Mitchell— he supported us when no one else did. Basically, the deal was, if you were on The Rocket‘s staff, you could eat at Trattoria Mitchelli’s for free after 2 a.m. It was open [until 4 a.m.]. And so you would wait until 2 a.m., and you would go and eat. That was one of the only benefits of working at The Rocket. One night when I was there at 2 a.m., I sat next to [playwright] Sam Shepard, which was a trip. I talked to him about Patti Smith and a variety of other things, [so] there were benefits to such late nights. That was how you survived. You literally were hoping for a trade to get free spaghetti.

SW: The other reason I chose this song was that, although Tori Amos never went on the record and said so, it was allegedly written about Courtney Love.

Cross: I actually wrote this story in The Rocket once. There [are] more than a dozen songs about Kurt Cobain, and now more than a dozen about Courtney Love, half of which are written by Dave Grohl.

I’m an adamant nonsmoker. Our office was nonsmoking—I think the rule was that [employees] could smoke pot in their office, but not cigarettes. Courtney Love came in smoking a cigarette. The person behind the front desk said, “Could you please put that cigarette out?” And she put it out on the carpet and rubbed it in with her shoe. She was depositing a classified ad looking for a drummer for Hole, and she gave us a check for, I think it was $12.57, and it was signed by Kurt Cobain. At that point, Cobain was starting to become fairly known, [Love] was with him, he already had a platinum record. The receptionist came back and said, “Should we deposit this?” I said, “Shit, we need the money.” I kept a Xerox—that was my one nod to what I thought might be history—but we deposited the check. We treated everyone as equals. That was one of the worst financial decisions I made in my life.

Roy Buchanan: “Hey Joe” (1974) from That’s What I Am Here For (Polydor)

Cross: I picked up “Hey Joe” immediately but I’m not sure who it is.

SW: This is Roy Buchanan, from ’74.

Cross: I saw Roy Buchanan in 1974 at the Newport Jazz Festival, and the guy behind me was the single most obnoxious man I have ever sat next to in my life. I was just a teenager at the time and not very big or strong, so I didn’t fight the guy, which would have been required to shut him up. The entire concert the man stood up and screamed, “The messiah! The messiah!” which was what his nickname was at the time.

SW: Buchanan’s?

Cross: Yeah.

SW: Based on this, I have to say that’s a little misplaced.

Cross: Yeah.

SW: How did Hendrix first hear the song?

Cross: There is a debate. [It’s] one of the things that I really struggled with, that I had to just plain leave out, because we can’t say definitively. Some people say it’s the Leaves [who had a 1965 hit with it]; some people say it’s Tim Rose. I had people telling me that Hendrix and Tim Rose were drug buddies together, and that didn’t make sense. There were so many stories that I got that I couldn’t put into the book ’cause I couldn’t authenticate or they didn’t smell right. But one of the stories is that Jimi heard “Hey Joe” on the jukebox at Café Wha?, and that’s possible, but he probably heard it a little earlier is what I’m guessing. But who knows?

[Hendrix’s manager] Chas Chandler had heard “Hey Joe” earlier himself and thought, “Wow, this would be a great hit in England.” A record being released in America [then] meant nothing in the U.K. And not long after, he ran into Linda Keith, and she said, “I’ve met this guy; I need to find somebody to promote him.” She had already struck out with three other people at that point. She brought Chas down to the basement of Café Wha?. The Café Wha? didn’t serve liquor. It was an all-ages club way before there were all-ages clubs. Chandler was drinking a chocolate milk shake, heard Jimi break into “Hey Joe,” and got so excited he spilled his milk shake on his lap. I literally was able to find their waitress, who was able to confirm their story. The reason she knew was because a guy walking in with a British accent stood out.

SW: Prior to Hendrix and even the Leaves and the Byrds doing it, “Hey Joe” had been associated with the folk scene. Was Jimi interested in folk music beyond Bob Dylan?

Cross: Bob Dylan was it for Jimi. It was like Einstein and the theory of relativity. Jimi discovered Bob Dylan, and the world was never the same. That began with Jimi’s hair, with his approach to music, with lyrics, with his appreciation of his own voice. You know, he slept with girls different after listening to Bob Dylan. It changed everything. Food tasted different, the world opened up. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t hanging out with the folk appreciation society people. It was mostly folkies and beatniks at the time in the Village. That was not Jimi’s deal. He wanted to be a blues artist who looked like Bob Dylan.

Leadbelly: “In the Pines” (1942) from Folkways: The Original Vision (Smithsonian/Folkways)

Cross: OK, Nirvana . . .

SW: It’s not Nirvana.

Cross: OK, it’s Leadbelly.

SW: That’s right.

Cross: I thought that you might have a bootlegged cassette of Kurt’s.

I guess ultimately you pool these two characters together; in some ways, these are similar in that they are biographies of left-handed guitar players from Seattle who died at 27. That’s pretty remarkable in and of itself. They both grew up in poverty, and though Hendrix knew race and racial poverty, Cobain’s is also a story of class, and that’s something that African Americans still today can understand. Class and race are things that define America today, and both of these men overcame that. I think that you have to understand what they came from and the barriers that they conquered to understand how sweet their victory was.

Hendrix’s ancestors, like Leadbelly’s, included slaves. On both sides of his family, his great-great-grandmothers were impregnated by their slave masters. I mean, it’s rape in every other term, and, you know, that doesn’t just affect one generation. That’s something that stays with the family for years. [When] you go to Aberdeen and see where Kurt Cobain grew up, it ain’t that different than where Jimi Hendrix grew up. And Cobain’s options weren’t that different than Hendrix’s. At one point, Cobain considered going into the service, not unlike Hendrix, and chickened out at the last minute. But ultimately, these two men’s stories are not that different. Addiction really played a different role in Kurt’s life; everything Kurt experienced later in his life was through that lens of drugs. To Hendrix, drugs were more of a celebratory thing, but both careers were four years.

SW: And pretty much transformed . . . 

Cross: Transformed music. I mean, it is kind of eerie. The joke is, who else can I write about? There are no more 27-year-old left-handed guitar players from Seattle.

Charles R. Cross reads at Barnes & Noble (2700 N.E. University Village, 206-517-4107), 7:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 12. Free.

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