1991 CLASS REUNION: Kurt Cobain & Nirvana (Pt. 1)

Our writer – who was actually
there in ‘91 – travels to Aberdeen
for a special Cobain unveiling and ventures once more into the Bleach.

 

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.”

 

To be continued. Tomorrow in Part 2, journalist Gaar, Burckhard and others go to Seattle and take in the Experience Music
Project’s retrospective exhibit
Nirvana: Taking Punk To The Masses. Meanwhile, go here to check out our photo gallery of images
referenced in the article above.

 

 

 

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