A CELEBRATION AND A REDEMPTION Kurt Cobain & Nirvana (Pt. 2)

We visit Seattle’s Experience Music Project’s extensive,
emotionally resonant retrospective on the career of Cobain and his fellow
grunge gods.

 

BY
GILLIAN G. GAAR

 

Ten days
after our Aberdeen and Olympia
sojourns [go here for Part 1] we reconvene in Seattle for the Member Preview of EMP’s
Nirvana exhibit Nirvana: Taking
Punk To The Masses
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.

 

 

[Check out official images from the EMP
display here.
]

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