PENINSULA - "I'm in 1957, [at] 2603 S. Washington and Jimi Hendrix's mother is going to die this afternoon," said biographer Charles Cross as he took a lunch break at an Ilwaco bistro recently. Cross spent the better part of a week working on his biography of the rock guitar god in a hideaway in Oysterville.
Though he's "only" been working on it the last three years, Cross said in some ways it has been a work in progress for much longer.
"To a writer who writes about Northwest music, it's almost like an actor wanting to study drama - you know one day you're going to have to encounter Shakespeare - Hendrix looms like that," he said.
Over the years he has written several smaller pieces about him for magazines and such, most recently in this month's issue of Tracks magazine.
Last week, Cross found himself yet again hunkered away in the tranquil peace that is the town of Oysterville, writing about one of the biggest rock n' roll stars ever in a place that is anything but rock n' roll. Over the last few years Oysterville has become a sanctuary where Cross feels he can go to get away.
He was there to get work done, being a little further behind in his writing then he had hoped at this stage. The trip was a success as far as the work was concerned, finishing several portions of the book. It was not, however, the best for him personally.
"I look like I've gotten 12 hours of sleep the last three days," he said truthfully upon returning from having a look at himself in the bathroom mirror. Being out here by himself, his wife and children staying home this time, he's been able to work whenever and however long he wants or needs.
Cross has been coming out to Oysterville for this purpose the last few years as he worked on "Heavier Than Heaven" - a biography of Kurt Cobain, who fronted the Seattle rock band Nirvana, as well as a screenplay for that book - and now the Hendrix biography.
"Just like a number of visual artists down here, there's something about the geographic isolation, the natural beauty that does fuel the creative juices," he said. "Also, there's simply the matter of there's nothing else to do down here. It's an imposed exile on some level."
Even so, Cross said he's come to love this area. When doing the Cobain book, he spent a significant amount of time in the Southwest Washington area, due mostly to the fact that Cobain grew up in Aberdeen.
"It made me appreciate it [the area] in ways that I hadn't before," he said. "There is obviously a bias that people from Seattle have that anything south of Auburn is 'hick-ville,' and you know, that's not the case."
Last April, while staying on the north end during an Espy Foundation Fellowship, Cross spoke to a handful of classes at Ilwaco Junior/Senior High School about writing and his books.
When it came to writing his current book, Cross had his work cut out for him. For one thing, the main character has been dead for over 30 years, and another, there have already been several books written about the star.
"When I went into this book there had been a lot more written about Hendrix than there had been about Cobain," Cross said. "He's been dead for a long time and virtually everyone who knew him has written their own 'my story with Jimi' book. When I first went into it I thought, 'Boy, that's going to be hard for me to come up with new stuff to say,' but it actually ended up being the opposite."
One of his goals is to tell the socio-political story that was growing up a black youth in one of the whitest parts of the country, in a time when color lines were still very bold. Cross mentioned that at the time Hendrix dropped out of high school in 1960, black people couldn't even try on clothes at the Bon Marche in Seattle.
"It's African-American history, that is part of American history that hasn't been written about that much," he said. "Now it's true that I am the whitest-looking person who could possibly attempt this, but that doesn't mean that I don't have an understanding and a desire to tell the story."
He went on to explain that Hendrix spent two-thirds of his life in Seattle, all within four square miles of the central district, the African-American center of life in that city.
"I'm trying to create a colorful sense of what that life was like," he said. "At the same time there's lots of insights that I've discovered, that only locals would appreciate."
One of these little morsels is the fact that in 1955, former Washington state Gov. Booth Gardner was Hendrix's high school football coach.
"He was one of those people who had never really talked about it, never bragged about it," he explained. "I just finished writing the section today where Gardner is talking about the Hendrix household. One of the nice things about [him], is that he's one of those incontrovertible witnesses. When he talks about the fact that the Hendrix family lived in poverty, he's someone that no one can really call into question, he's such an unbiased witness."
It is the little things that other biographers just don't look for or find that sets the level of research used in Cross's books apart from other rock 'n' roll biographies. As he says, whereas others might concentrate on what a musician played at a certain concert, he's really looking to tell the story of what made up their life.
"I write about rock music, but what I'm writing about really isn't an analysis of the music itself, I consider myself more of a storyteller, a historian," he said. "To understand why in Hendrix's case or in Kurt Cobain's, that music meant so much to people, that's essential. You have to get that, I think, to be able to know why they were important. What they created was important. But the real key of these books is the storytelling. I'm very intentionally writing books that non-music freaks will read."
He related it to being like a jigsaw puzzle, but in this case putting said puzzle together without knowing what it is going to look like, only to get half way done and realizing what the portrait is of. And he keeps finding new pieces as goes along. Cross said he originally thought he would only do about 100 interviews for the book. That 100 has turned into 270, even completing one on his trip down to the Peninsula.
In the end he hopes to have a compelling story that turns people on to more than just Hendrix as a rock star, guitar genius - everybody already knows that. Cross hopes to convey Hendrix as a person and what he was all about.
"All of that, I think, is a fascinating story, whether you like 'Purple Haze' or not."