1991 CLASS REUNION: Kurt Cobain & Nirvana

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind. In April,
our writer traveled from Aberdeen to Seattle journey for a
series of Nirvana festivities.

 

BY
GILLIAN G. GAAR

 

In
Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are: The
Story Of Nirvana
, the author recounts Dave Grohl’s arrival at Sea-Tac
Airport on September 21, 1990 to audition for Nirvana, noting how Grohl
attempted to break the ice with his prospective bandmate, Kurt Cobain, by
offering him an apple. “No thanks,” Cobain replied. “It’ll make my teeth
bleed.”

 

It’s an
innocuous enough anecdote. But for some reason writers can’t resist changing it
in the retelling. In Mojo Classic‘s
2006 special “Nirvana & The Story Of Grunge,” the meeting is said to have
taken place at “Seattle Sea-Tac,” with Cobain “cryptically” responding, “It
will make my teeth bleed” to Grohl’s offer (notice also the absence of the
contraction). In the version of the story that appears in the 2007 Foo Fighters
edition of Kerrang! Legends, the
meeting now takes place at “Seattle’s
Sea-Tac Club,” and, more dramatically, has Cobain “sneering” his response.

 

Aside
from the lack of basic fact checking (there is no Sea-Tac club in Seattle; Seattle-Tacoma
International Airport
is commonly abbreviated as “Sea-Tac”), it’s surprising that the original story
was changed at all, as it’s reported very straight forwardly in Azerrad’s book.
This is how myths are created, by changing a story little by little over the
years, until its relation to the truth is negligible. Once writing replaced
oral tradition, you could actually track the changes as they happened, and the
arrival of mass communication only speeded up the process. Nowadays I’m no
longer surprised at the wealth in inaccuracies in stories. I’m more surprised
that they get anything right at all.

 

And when
dealing with a major act like Nirvana, the temptation to mythologize, and thus
stamp a little bit of yourself into the story, is irresistible. And then it’s
only a small step to start grafting on elements that weren’t there to begin
with, in order to take the story in the direction the writer wants it to go.
When Rolling Stone wrote that Cobain
sang “Pain” in the chorus of the last recorded Nirvana song, “You Know You’re
Right,” it neatly tied in to the view of him as the doomed, tortured artist.
But in fact, as the isolated vocal track used in the game Guitar Hero shows, he wasn’t making such a grandiose statement at
all. He was simply singing “Hey.”

 

Nirvana’s
story is a constantly evolving one, with writers adding to and broadening it,
first in articles, then in books. And as the Nirvana era recedes further and
further into the past, retelling the story remains the only way to attach
yourself to it. Perhaps that’s the real reason for non-fiction writing; it’s a
chance to make a grab for a little reflected glory while hopefully creating
some glory of your own.

 

And 2011
is set to be a big year for Nirvana stories, not least because it’s the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind.
This past April 5, the 17th anniversary of Cobain’s death, a
commemorative statue was unveiled in his hometown of Aberdeen, an acknowledgement that the town is
slowly coming to terms with its connection to Cobain. And on April 16, the
retrospective exhibit Nirvana: Taking
Punk To The Masses
opened at Seattle’s
Experience Music Project museum, endeavoring to cut through the myth and simply
tell the Nirvana story through a wealth of artifacts and oral histories.

 

“Everybody
knows that rock star mythologized story of Nirvana, and that certainly has a
big presence in the exhibit,” says Jacob McMurray, the senior curator at EMP
who put together the Nirvana exhibit (and edited the accompanying book, Taking Punk To The Masses: From Nowhere To
Nevermind
, just published by Fantagraphics). “I mean, there are giant
beautiful mythologized Charles Peterson murals and broken guitars and stuff
like that. But on the other side, there’s lots of really candid shots of them
goofing around. I feel like for a lot of the Nirvana story, it’s become
something that has been distilled down into tragedy and sadness and drug
addiction. And certainly that was a part of it, but what was exciting for me
was finding all of these examples where they’re just being goofballs. My goal
for the exhibition wasn’t to tell Kurt’s story, it was to tell the story of the
band. Of which Kurt was a part, but also to tell that Nirvana story within this
wider context, of the broad evolution of punk rock.”

 

For me,
looking back on Nirvana’s history also means reliving much of my own. Nirvana
wasn’t just part of my life, they were part of my work as well. Covering them
was part of my job as a staff member at Seattle
music magazine The Rocket during the
years that saw the rise and fall of “grunge” (a word I first used in my review
of Bleach for The Rocket‘s July 1989 issue, and which I now can’t write without
putting in quotes as a gesture of irony). I’ve since written articles about the
band for numerous magazines, authored various books about them, and – full
disclosure – served as “Project Consultant” on the 2004 box set With The Lights Out. (A platinum record
award hangs on the wall for my efforts.)

 

So the
story has a strong personal resonance for me. I’ve been involved with this band
for half of my life, watching as my own version of the story gets disseminated
and rewritten. And out of all the writing I’ve done, perhaps my most valuable
contributions to Nirvana’s history were purely factual: listing the songs
recorded at the band’s first professional demo session in 1988 in their proper
order; presenting the correct setlists for the 1993 MTV “Live And Loud” show
and Nirvana’s final show on March 1, 1994; covering all the songs recorded at
the band’s last recording session in January 1994. You can debate the merits of
one Nirvana history over another, but a verifiable fact stands for all time.

 

And I’m
still drawn back to the story, still looking for ways to go over it again (on
April 8, 1994, I was writing a Cobain memorial piece for The Rocket; on this same day 17 years later, I’m still writing
about him). Which was how I found myself in heading to Aberdeen on April 5 to witness the statue
unveiling in the company of Aaron Burckhard, Nirvana’s first drummer.

 

***

 

When the
idea of a commemorative statue to Cobain was first mooted in the wake of his
death, there were mutterings of discontent from Aberdeen’s residents, skeptical about any
effort to honor an admitted drug user, not to mention their resentment at
Cobain’s occasional disparaging comments about the place. And even those close
to Cobain felt uncomfortable; the band’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, has always
expressed discomfort with the “idolatry” aspect of his friend’s death, writing,
“The deity part is not my concern; that’s for people who need the mystique” in
his memoir From Grunge To Government:
Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy!
.

 

But
enough time has passed, and enough tourists have trickled in to Aberdeen in search of
Cobain, that such rigid feelings are beginning to soften.

 

The
“Welcome To Aberdeen” sign at the town’s east entrance has been embellished
with a second sign reading “Come As You Are” in reference to the Nirvana song
on Nevermind (though a TV interview
shown on April 5 revealed that not all of Aberdeen’s
residents were aware of the connection). [Ed.
note: view our Aberdeen and
related images photo gallery here
.
] Once they arrive, fans often head first to the Young Street
Bridge, a site that
provided the inspiration for the song “Something In The Way.” Typically, the
nature of that hangout has become a subject for debate, due to the fact that
Cobain originally told Azerrad, for a Rolling
Stone
story, that he “lived” under the bridge. Though he scaled that story
back to merely sleeping under the bridge “sometimes” in Come As You Are, some insist Cobain couldn’t have slept there at
all because the tide rises too high. It doesn’t; you can see by the water line
on the bridge supports that there would still be plenty of dry ground left at
high tide. A sign claiming that some of Cobain’s ashes were scattered here will
also surely become a subject for debate. But all accounts do agree it was one
of his hangouts, and given that both his childhood home, and the house where he
first jammed with the band that would become Nirvana are within a few blocks of
the site, he no doubt passed over and under the bridge dozens of times.

 

When I
first went underneath the bridge in 1994, it was a lot less accessible; you had
to skitter down a narrow path on the side, hoping you wouldn’t tumble into the
murky water of the Wishkah
River. Up where the
bridge supports meet the ground, visitors leave graffiti, while the less
respectful leave trash (beer cans are especially prevalent). The area
immediately adjacent to the bridge was rightly called an “eyesore” by Tori
Kovach, who lives next door. “I just couldn’t bear to keep looking at this pile
of crap over here, which it was,” says Kovach. “Brambles this tall, and it was
strewn with garbage from decades of abuse. And I just made up my mind one day
that I was going to start working on it. That was five, six years ago.”

 

Once the
area was cleared of brambles and trash, further refurbishments were made, a
result of Kovach’s curiosity about the number of people he saw trekking to the
bridge. “As I worked on this site, it became apparent to me that something was
special here,” he says. “I’d never heard of Kurt. Never heard of his music. But
I’d seen the graffiti under the bridge and I wondered, ‘Who was this guy?’ I didn’t
really like his music, not until I heard his Unplugged album. And that turned me on to who he was. And then as I
studied the man and learned about his family life, learned more about him, I
just figured, why not make a park dedicated to him? That’ll be my mission.”

 

And so,
visitors now find green grass instead of brambles, a table and benches, and a
gravel path leading under the bridge; on the bridge supports, a sign reading
“In Memorium: From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah” has been posted, in reference
to the live Nirvana album of the same name. There have been a few hiccups; a
plaque embedded in the ground with Cobain quotes drew complaints regarding his
observation that drugs will “fuck you up.” The “uck” has since been removed.
And the new statue, Kovach says proudly, will be the “pièce de résistance” of
the park.

 

On our
way to the ceremony, we stop at the home of Leland Cobain, Kurt’s grandfather.
As usual, Leland is entertaining Nirvana fans, who routinely arrive on his
doorstep, and send him letters and presents (when I examine a package of coffee
from Kaua’i that he’s been sent, he urges me to take it, saying, “I only use
instant!”). Today, a young man named Nicklas Makinen has turned up, in the
company of his father. Makinen, an artist/actor based in LA, is making his
first pilgrimage to the area, and admits to being “Blown away. I feel like I’m
flying!” by everything he’s seen. Makinen became interested in Cobain following
the release of Gus Van Sant’s 2004 film Last
Days
(loosely based on Cobain’s life). “Everybody kept talking about how I
looked like Kurt and all this stuff,” he explains, reasonably enough, given his
blue eyes, blonde hair, and slight beard. The 2006 film Kurt Cobain: About A Son made him a passionate devotee. “I got it
right as it came out, and started watching it, day in and day out and became
really fascinated with the story,” he says. “And since then I’ve been studying
him, thinking about him, talking about him, reading about him. And I realized
that Kurt is way more than just a rock star. He was an icon, he was a
messenger, he was a prophet, you know?”

 

Though
it’s rained off and on throughout the day, there’s a welcome break for the
statue unveiling. Instead of a bust, the statue is a Jag-Stang guitar, a
melding of a Jaguar and Mustang that Cobain created shortly before his death.
The concrete, steel-reinforced statue was made by Lora and Kim Malakoff, a
husband and wife team who once lived in Aberdeen.
“We chose the medium that we did because and we wanted to keep it more relaxed
and real,” says Lora, who saw Nirvana when she lived in Seattle. “Because that was the way Kurt was.
No polished shiny yuppie – there was no such thing as that for him. He was
real. And I spent a long time trying to decide how to make it more of a
memorial than just a big guitar. So I started going through his lyrics and
going through his lyrics, and I came up with the one from ‘On A Plain.’ And I
thought, ‘That is so beautiful, the words are just so beautiful. That’s what it
needs to be.'” The lines from the song – “One more special message to go/Then
I’m done and I can go home” – spiral up in a ribbon alongside the guitar.

 

A crowd
of around 50 or so turn up for the event, the reporters busying themselves by
interviewing Leland Cobain, Aaron Burckhard, and Aberdeen’s mayor Bill Simpson
before the unveiling (though not overly familiar with Nirvana’s songs – “Some
of the words I couldn’t understand, you know” – Simpson diplomatically adds “I
enjoy Kurt’s ability to play and make music”). Burckhard is especially pleased
by the attention he’s receiving. “Most of the reporters ask me, what would I
think Kurt would think about this?” he tells me. “And I said I think he’d just
laugh. He’d giggle. He’d just think it was a kick. He’d tell everybody, ‘Do you
believe this? They put a park there?'”

 

Afterwards
we make our way to the site of the first Cobain statue to be made in the area,
designed by Randi Hubbard soon after Cobain’s death. Hubbard had hoped a place
for her five-foot-six, 600 pound statue of a seated Unplugged-era Cobain might be found in a local park. But due to
public resistance, the statue was left in a corner of her husband’s business,
Hubb’s Muffler Shop. No one pays attention to us as we troop in, and lift a
black sheet covering the corner where the statue sits in a kind of purgatory.

 

The rest
of the day is spent chasing ghosts, as we take Makinen to see a few more sites
around town (“This is a billion times better than Vegas!” he enthuses). The
“Kurt Cobain” star in front of the former site of Rosevear’s Music Center,
another of the town’s recent nods to Cobain. The library where Cobain spent
much of his spare time reading. The alley where he once spray-painted graffiti
(since removed). The former site of Maria’s Hair Design, the beauty parlor
owned by Novoselic’s mother, also used by a nascent Nirvana as a practice
space. The former YMCA where Cobain briefly worked. It’s not the same town
Cobain grew up in – there weren’t as many empty storefronts on the main streets
for one thing. But Cobain spent the majority of his life here, and the fans
continue to be drawn to both pay tribute and try and gain a sense of how
growing up in this small, remote community influenced him. 

 

And we
wind up, unexpectedly, in Olympia,
where Cobain moved in 1987, and where he lived until the release of Nevermind. During the day, we’ve met up
with the owners of the apartment building where Cobain lived, and we’re invited
to see the tiny studio apartment he lived in. We’re then allowed into the
garage, used as a storage space, and now something of a mini-museum, with
posters, artifacts, and musical instruments. Burckhard immediately picks up a
guitar and starts banging away, oblivious to the guitar’s being out of tune,
and is soon joined by Makinen, and Anthony Smith, a Nirvana fan who’s traveled
across the state to attend the statue unveiling, carrying a guitar he won at a
show by the Nirvana tribute band “Nevermind” (which he has Burckhard
autograph).

 

As the
three jam together, Makinen’s father turns to me and says, “My son is in heaven
right now. I assure you, he is in heaven.”

 

***

 

Ten days
after our Aberdeen and Olympia
sojourns we reconvene in Seattle
for the Member Preview of EMP’s Nirvana exhibit on April 15 (opening to the
general public the following day). Burckhard is again on hand, as well as the
founders of the Nirvana websites nirvanaguide.com, which offers a wealth of
detail about every live Nirvana show, and livenirvana.com, the most
comprehensive Nirvana site on the web. We meet at The Crocodile, where Nirvana
played a secret show opening for Mudhoney in 1992, though the club’s since been
extensively remodeled (and is now co-owned by Alice In Chains’ Sean Kinney). A
huge Charles Peterson photograph of Cobain looks down on us as we consume pizza
and beer.

 

The Croc
is also within walking distance of EMP, and as we head over, we pass numerous
sites with Nirvana connections for me, adding to the nostalgic feeling of the
evening: one of the Rocket offices;
Bad Animals Studio, where work on With
The Lights Out
was done; the apartment where Novoselic lived, where we
repeatedly spent an evening listening to Cobain’s demo of one of his last
songs, “Do Re Mi,” over and over again; the site of the former Sub Pop offices
where the label first relocated after the grunge windfall; The Funhouse, a club
where Novoselic performed with Flipper (a show I reviewed for Blurt). EMP is on the grounds of the
Seattle Center,
where Nirvana performed their biggest-ever Seattle show at the Coliseum (now Key Arena)
in 1992, and their final US shows at the Arena (now Mercer Arena) in 1994. In
between EMP and the Arena is the Memorial Stadium, built in memory of the Seattle high school
graduates who died during World War II, and most commonly used for high school
football games. Its dedication now has a new poignancy as I arrive at the
Nirvana event: “Youth hold high your torch of truth, justice and tolerance,
lest their sacrifice be forgotten.”

 

A VIP
function kicks off the night at 6 pm, with the less VIP members allowed in at 7
pm. In contrast to other openings, which have featured live bands, this event
will only have a few speakers and guest DJs. “I wanted to keep it low-key,” EMP
senior curator Jacob McMurray explains. “Obviously it would be bizarre to have
a cover band or anything like that. The focus is on checking out the exhibition
and having fun, and having drinks, hanging out with your friends.” We’re all
giddy with anticipation as we approach EMP, pausing to have our picture taken
by a sign directing which door to use, giggling like school kids.

 

After
checking in, you ascend the stairs to EMP’s galleries. A Charles Peterson shot
of Cobain crowd surfing at a March 8, 1991 show in Canada fills the wall beside
the stairs, accompanied by a quote from Peterson: “It’s when the band and
audience are melded into one that the true nature of what they were trying to
accomplish – the cathartic release of pent up angst and rebellion – reached its
chaotic fruition. I feel fortunate to have been there to capture that.”

 

The
Nirvana exhibit [see our photo gallery here] is in a somewhat narrow space that used
to house EMP’s “Northwest Passage” exhibit.
The low key lighting and ambient soundtrack created by Steve Fisk (who produced
a Nirvana session in 1989) give the space a dark, organic feel. The cases for
the exhibit are fashioned from a century-old elm tree that was felled in a wind
storm in front of the Grays River Grange, where Novoselic serves as Grange
Master. “So it connects the exhibition to the environment, but it also has this
tangential connection to Nirvana itself,” McMurray explains. “We’ve really
tried throughout the exhibition to have subtle reference to the Northwest
environment, so that the wood in the casework, some parts are smooth, but some
are kept rough – it has that sort of wooded feeling to it. From grange to
grunge!”

 

Hanging
from the ceiling throughout the gallery is a white mobile, using elements also
seen in the logo on the Member Preview invitation, as well the cover of the Taking Punk To The Masses book. It
neatly encapsulates Nirvana’s story: a microphone at the top, above a speaker
flanked by a bass and guitar, above a cloud, above a pair of drumsticks, above
two arrows pointing outwards, above a skull hanging upside that’s dripping with
what could raindrops, tears, or blood, depending on your interpretation.

 

“It can
be as symbolic as you want, or it can just look cool,” explains Jacob Covey,
who designed the logo. “Like Kurt’s lyrics – some people think they’re utterly
nonsensical, some see larger narratives. It was risky to do something that
doesn’t rely on the visual stereotypes of either grunge or punk, but when I
came up with the idea of icons building up the logo, Jacob [McMurray] and I
both felt like we’d found the look that we wanted. The skull is just a totem of
ROCK with all the baggage that symbol is loaded with. Really, it’s just a
stand-in for the human element. I tend to view that ‘blood’ as sweat, for what
it’s worth. More a nod to sweaty crowds or maybe flying off Cobain as he spins
on his head in that iconic Charles Peterson shot.” Even the type used in ads
for the exhibit, and the cover of the Taking
Punk To The Masses
book, is Nirvana-influenced, the same typeface as the
band’s original logo: Onyx. (At least according to some sources: In yet another
sign of how the tiniest detail in the Nirvana story is worthy of being
scrutinized, Grant Alden, The Rocket‘s
managing editor and chief typesetter, who did the typesetting for Nirvana’s Bleach album, insists it’s Bodoni Extra
Bold Condensed, as Onyx wasn’t available on his machine.)

 

Fisk’s
music fills the gallery, a spooky drone that surrounds you both above and
below. “The music’s deliberately supposed to not rock,” says Fisk. “And it’s not supposed to mimic or sound like
anything coming off the screens,” he adds, referring to the numerous screens
and kiosks throughout the gallery that have film and interview clips. “Notice,
this is in E, this is good old classic E,” he says, pointing to a screen
showing a clip of The Ramones chugging through one of their songs. “And my
music’s in D. The idea was that punk rock or grunge or whatever would be
playing in the space [via the film clips] would hopefully blend better if it
was all tuned to one chord. And the majority of the grunge music was all
dropped-D [tuning], which kind of works with E, kind of works with A. And
there’s no melody. There’s almost no melody in an hour’s worth of music.”
There’s also a subtler narrative at work in Fisk’s soundtrack. “At the top of
the hour there’s this guitar that hits and kind of resonates along the way,” he
says, a reference to both Nirvana’s sudden end, and their lingering influence.
“It’s 2011 and you can still hear it. And it’s still echoing and it’s still
bouncing around space.”

 

On first
entering the exhibit, you see the instruments from the classic line up of the
band: Cobain’s Mosrite Gospel guitar (which he was playing when the band first
performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in public, at Seattle’s OK Hotel);
Novoselic’s black Gibson Ripper bass, and Grohl’s Tama Rockstar-Pro kit. It
sets the stage for what’s to come, but they’re also the kind of obvious
artifacts you’d find in any exhibit of a major band. The real meat of the show
is further in, and is largely due to the connections McMurray was able to make
with the local community. “When I started out with the exhibit, I wasn’t really
thinking that we were necessarily going to have the involvement of the bands,”
he says. “I was thinking, worst comes to worst, I would entirely draw from the
material that we had in our collection. Which was pretty good to begin with.
But Krist and I got to know each other, and he was really interested in helping
out and I was able to go through his archives. And then also go through the
archives of Shelly Hyrkas [Novoselic’s first wife] and various other people.
And it became such a different exhibit, because all those people had just
really amazing candid photographs, and other documents, letters and things like
that, going as far back as 1983. And so, to me, it changed the whole focus of
the exhibition.”

 

As a
result, like the use of the elm tree for the cases and Fisk’s soundtrack, the
show that has a very personal touch. And it’s a show that couldn’t have been
done with such sensitivity anywhere else but Seattle. You see the pink suitcase Cobain
used as a drum on his first known demo, with the early band names “Skid Row”
and “Pen Cap Chew” scrawled on the front. A 1986 letter from Buzz Osborne to
Novoselic, lauding another Cobain demo: “Some of his songs are real killer! … I think he could have some kind of future in music if he keeps at
it.” Numerous candid shots of the band members – in t-shirts and jeans, loading
up the van for yet another tour; drummer Chad Channing lounging against one of
the lions in London’s
Trafalgar Square;
the band members sharing backstage desserts with Sonic Youth. A display
documenting a Halloween 1988 show, where Cobain is believed to have smashed his
first guitar, showing two pieces of the guitar, snapshots by Cobain’s
girlfriend of the show, a letter from a fan who attended the show and grabbed
one of the guitar shards, and interview and audio clips, including the moment
at the end of the show where you can hear the guitar being smashed. The
long-sleeved Sounds magazine t-shirt
Cobain is seen wearing in many 1991 photos. A photo strip taken in the instant
photo booth at Seattle’s Re-bar club on the night of Nevermind‘s record release party, the band members all crammed into
the booth, pulling faces, looking excited, happy, and very young.

 

The
interview clips alone would take hours to go through; you hear from Novoselic,
Channing, Dan Peters (the Mudhoney drummer who played one memorable show with
Nirvana and recorded the song “Sliver” with them), Dale Crover (the Melvins
drummer who also played on Nirvana’s first professional demo); producers Fisk,
Jack Endino, Butch Vig, Barrett Jones, and Steve Albini; Bruce Pavitt and
Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop; crew members Earnie Bailey and Craig Montgomery.
And that’s just the people with direct connections to the band; others
interviewees discuss the Northwest music scene and the alternative rock scene
that developed across the country in the ‘80s. One display features 20 albums
from Novoselic’s collection that he considers to be especially influential,
from Led Zeppelin to the Stooges, Flipper to The Smithereens, with interview
clips discussing each one. And there are also wonderfully playful moments, as
in the display where Fisk talks about the music scenes in Northwest cities from
Bellingham, Washington to Eugene, Oregon, at one point singing a jingle written
for an Aberdeen Federal Savings & Loan radio ad: “See those trees against
the sky/Northwest breezes blowing by/Life’s so full of good things/Life’s so
good!”

 

At the
end, you can sit in a small theater space where live clips of Nirvana run
continuously. In a little booth off to the side, you can record you own memory
of Nirvana, with the clip then slotted in to play between the live footage. In
a corner is a pedestal with Cobain’s collection of canned meat: Prairie Belt
Smoked Sausages, Gerber Chicken Sticks, and Armour’s appetizingly named “Potted
Meat Food Product.” It’s a nice humorous touch to find at the end of the story.

 

But on
this night, it’s difficult to get through the exhibit as the gallery quickly
fills up. Servers walk around with drinks and not enough food. Others pass out
bars of the official chocolate for the event, Theo organic and fair trade 70%
dark chocolate in a wrapper featuring yet another of Peterson’s photographs
(greedy collectors snatch up ten bars at a time). I manage to snag a limited
edition bottle of “Thoughtfully Made” Gimbal Gin made especially for this event
by Seattle’s
Westland Distillery; it’s called “In Bloom.”

 

There are
too many friends to catch up with, and not enough time; “It’s like a bizarre
high school reunion,” says McMurray at one point. As I walk around, I see Jack
Endino talking to Aaron Burckhard and Dave Foster (yet another Nirvana
drummer); Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt; Duff McKagan; former Sounds journalist Keith Cameron,
covering the event for The Guardian;
Nirvana guitar tech Earnie Bailey; Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil; Soundgarden/Alice In
Chains manager Susan Silver; Rocket editor Charles Cross; photographer Alice Wheeler (who shot the pictures on the
cover of the “Love Buzz” single); Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel.
Cobain’s mother Wendy (in attendance with his sister Kim) is seen talking to
her sister Mari (at whose home Cobain recorded his early demos) for the first
time in 17 years.

 

Guest DJs
for the night include Peterson and Pickerel, among others. But you don’t hear
Nirvana blaring through the common areas, instead, it’s a great mix of cult
favorites (“Ça Plane Pour Moi”) and local acts (pre-grunge stars The U-Men). It
is a night for hanging out, having drinks, enjoying being with your friends.
The VIP crowd was treated to brief remarks, but longer speeches are saved for later
in the evening. The night’s most rock ‘n’ roll moment comes when EMP CEO and
director Christina Orr-Cahall, thanks us for attending and then begins thanking
the sponsors. Standing in front of a large screen displaying not only the
Nirvana exhibit logo but also logos of sponsors like Qwest, Boeing and Wells
Fargo, she’s suddenly interrupted when Burckhard boldly ascends the stage and
shouts, “Corporate America still sucks!” Orr-Cahall is momentarily non-plussed,
but Novoselic neatly defuses the moment with a jocular “Shut up, Aaron!” and
Burckhard good-naturedly leaves.

 

King
County Executive Dow Constantine also speaks, with a credibility few other
politicians could manage. For while Constantine has worked with Novoselic on
various political issues, he also has bonafide rock roots, having been a DJ at
local college radio station KCMU, where his longtime girlfriend, Shirley
Carlson, was the first to play a Nirvana song on the radio (“Because it’s in a
book, I’m going to assume it’s true,” he jokes). So Nirvana was part of his
growing up as well, and he recalls falling in love with the band as he listened
to an advance tape of Bleach “while
driving in my parents’ hand-me-down Buick” and realizing “Holy smokes! Those
doofuses that hung around The Melvins were good!” It’s another sign of the
close knit feel of the Seattle
community; it’s hard to think of many other public officials who’d even know
who The Melvins are.

 

The most
heartfelt remarks come from Novoselic, wearing a brightly patterned shirt made
by his wife. After thanking those in attendance, he gives credit to his
bandmates. “I love Dave,” he says of Grohl. “He released a new record this
week. [Wasting Light] And it rocks!
And he’s out there and he works hard; he’s never lost focus. He’s carrying the
torch, and he’s out there, packing the arenas, speaking to people.”

 

And then
he speaks of Cobain, and to a greater extent than he usually does publicly;
perhaps a sign of how comfortable he feels here. “Kurt Cobain. Here was a man
who – he would never clean his kitchen or take out the garbage, or do those
kind of chores. But Kurt Cobain was not a lazy person. He was a compelled
artist. He excelled in any form that he wanted to do. Kurt, as you’ve seen in
the exhibit, was an excellent painter. He did cartoons. He was a sculptor. I
have a little sculpture of this writhing, weird spirit man [he did] … He had
a natural talent, and that’s what compelled him to share so many things with so
many people. I walk down the street and even tonight, people walked up to me
and said, ‘Nirvana changed my life.’ And I think that’s a testament to Kurt
Cobain’s vision … I owe him so much, I can’t even start. And so many people owe
Kurt Cobain.”

 

And
that’s why we’ve all gathered here tonight. Nirvana’s work touched us all, and
it still does. In his remarks, Constantine
expressed the hope that the exhibit would help people to put the tragedy of
Nirvana behind them, and appreciate their music and their influence anew. But
tragedy is the reason Nirvana’s story has such resonance. It’s the reason it
gets inside your emotions, digs in, and hangs on. Nirvana’s sad end is as much
a part of the tale as their hopeful, hardscrabble beginnings.

 

And it’s
the acceptance of the tragedy that truly allows you to get past it. The same
way that a scar always remains a part of you, but it gradually stops hurting.
It makes Nirvana: Taking Punk To The
Masses
both a celebration and a redemption. “People that are my age that
experienced everything, it’s time to say, ‘Okay, let’s look at this,'” says
Steve Fisk. “This is a cool thing. The crazy stuff’s out of the way, and the
band and the music continues to get influential.” Kurt Cobain’s last guitar
chord is still ringing out, the echo reverberating for many years to come.

 

 

[This
article was originally published at Blurt-online in April. Check out official
images from the EMP display here
.
]

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