Monday, April 05, 2004

A Denial

[Graffiti at an abandoned business in West Seattle, April 1994]

Come dowsed in mud, soaked in bleach
As I want you to be
As a trend, as a friend, as an old memoria

Ten years ago today I was riding my bike to work -- it was a little after 11, I think -- when I rode past Kurt Cobain's home, which was along my daily route. And I knew something was up.

The house was one of the many mansions situated along Lake Washington Boulevard. The estate sits in a little depression of sorts, right next to a tiny green place called Viretta Park, which has mostly a lot of steeply sloped lawn, a couple of trees and a bench.

The gated entrance to the estate, though, was crawling with police. Inside the gate I could see an ambulance, and outside were several cruisers. I kept riding, since I was still nearly an hour away from work.

At the time I was still the news editor of the Journal American, the Bellevue-based newspaper that has since transmogrified into the suburban King County Journal (I stepped down from the job shortly thereafter). When I pulled up to the newsroom a little after noon, I notified our police reporter and entertainment editor of what I had seen. Just about then, video began arriving over the local news stations from the scene. We sent our reporters out to chase the story, and they shortly confirmed the initial reports: Kurt Cobain had been found dead inside, the victim of an apparent suicide by gunshot.

In the ensuing days we partook, almost by necessity, of the media circus surrounding his death. There were the necessary profiles and biographies, the photos from the scene and from his career; the columns and letters tut-tutting the latest rock n'roll suicide.

I kept riding my bike that week past the place, and for the first few days it was a circus there, too -- TV trucks and teenagers and gawkers. My return ride took me past the place late at night, and for several days there were steady candlelight vigils.

Viretta Park, which is not much more than an acre in actual size (part of the park is a wooded slope), became the center of the Cobain mourners. Even after the circus settled down, the park attracted a steady trickle of daytime visitors. The center of it all was the solitary bench, which not only collected a wealth of graffiti, but also became a message center for parents trying to reach their runaway teens. Here is a shot of the bench about a month later.

I went to the memorial service at Seattle Center and watched the young people climbing on the fountain, and listened to Courtney Love's strangely self-serving eulogy. I watched the TV specials, listened to the Nirvana sets on the radio, even listened to Rush Limbaugh's revealingly inhuman rant against Cobain on his radio show (""Kurt Cobain was, ladies and gentleman, I just -- he was a worthless shred of human debris...").

I was oddly disconnected from it all, partly because I hadn't ever had a chance to see Nirvana live or meet Cobain. I wanted to feel something, but all I had was regret. I'd had a chance to see Cobain just a few months before -- at the MTV taping at Pier 48, and had missed it, thinking, well, they'll be around a few years. I can see them sometime. When I go to my grave, it will be one of my real regrets.

I was 20 and living in Idaho in 1977, the year punk broke. Though at the time I was a devotee of more mainstream fare -- the usual, you know: Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, The Who -- I had developed a taste for more obscure fare as well, from Bruce Springsteen (before he hit it big; I hated Born to Run as a sellout, and to this day think that The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is his best work) to Roxy Music.

The first punk album I ever heard was the first Ramones album, which threw me for a complete musical loop and hooked me all at once. Within a few months, I was gathering up all the Sex Pistols and Damned and X-Ray Spex and Buzzcocks and Clash albums I could find. In Idaho, as you can imagine, this was a feat.

Good punk only lasted a couple of years. It split off into hardcore -- some of which I liked, some not -- and New Wave (likewise) and who knows what else. But it never really made it big, except among people who had the ears to hear. We were like a secret club. Me especially -- I was working straight jobs and looked straight, and it threw people off when I played punk for them. I always gravitated to other people who liked punk.

One of these was my friend Tim, who ran the record shop in Missoula where I would scout out albums to review for the local paper. Tim always had great taste, and had forgotten more about music than most people know, and he loved punk. We used to both talk about how we liked to put on "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" first thing in the morning.

Another kid who liked to hang out in Tim's record shop was this basketball player from Big Sandy who played bass in local bands and eventually moved to Seattle to make it big. His name was Jeff Ament.

I followed out to Seattle a couple of years later (in 1989), and when I began checking out the music scene, was pleased to see Jeff doing well. He played in one of the city's seminal punk bands, Green River, and then making waves with a much more straight-up rock band called Mother Love Bone. But MLB's lead singer, Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose, a tragedy that made big headlines locally. It was a precursor of the doom that seemed to hang over the Seattle scene.

It was in this time frame that the movement everyone called "grunge" seemed to come together, and better rock journalists than I (notably Charles Cross) have admirably charted its course. It seemed to have three or four real internal factions, bringing together under one "sound" bands that in fact inhabited very different universes: Soundgarden, which was more in the mold of a straight-up heavy metal band; Pearl Jam -- to which Tim's friend Jeff Ament gravitated -- who played mainstream guitar rock; and angry punks, like Mudhoney and Screaming Trees.

But the best of the punks, without question, was Nirvana.

They played punk the way it is supposed to be played: Loud, fast, pissed-off. And on top of that, they wrote great fucking songs. (It's difficult enough to produce a single album on which all the cuts, if not great, are really good; and Nirvana made three of them.) And because they were punk, I loved them. The other bands were good, they were interesting; but you only had to listen to Nirvana once to know they were great.

However, because I wasn't writing about music much my first few years in Seattle, I was lackadaisical about seeing them. I hung out at local music bars on the nights I could get away -- I was doing evening shifts at the JA -- but it wasn't often enough. I caught Mudhoney and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, the Posies and Screaming Trees, but somehow never was in the right place at the right time to see Nirvana.

I had that one last chance, in December 1993, to see them, when I was offered a press pass to go the Pier 48 performance. But I had some duty or other pressing upon me and gave it to another reporter instead, a middle-aged fellow who surprised me by coming back and raving about what a great show it had been. I was jealous.

The truth was, though, that the rot was already setting in around the grunge scene then. It had become a cliché of the local comedy show that record executives were descending on the city and trying to scout out and sign anyone who could pass themselves off as a Seattle band. And many of them were crap, but knew how to play off the grunge image. Sad, but all too true.

Cobain's death was the stake that plunged right through the heart of an already dying moment in music. It marked the end of "grunge" -- and just as well. Many of the big-name acts just crumbled; others, like Alice in Chains, succumbed eventually to the same doom. The surviving bands -- notably Pearl Jam -- still are capable of turning out music with integrity, but it isn't vital anymore, not the way it once was. Or maybe that was an illusion.

I've read Cobain's diaries and tried to understand what it was that tormented him so. I wonder if it wasn't quite literally fame that killed him. Cobain seems to have been acutely aware that the music business is built on hype, so even a real artist can never know if what he's doing really matters.

The massive popularity that hit Nirvana seems to have undermined the very integrity of his own sense of who he was. The cognitive dissonance of feeling like the same loser he had been for all those years, while being assaulted by the fake adulation that comes with a No. 1 album, seems to have driven him to want to destroy it all. Most suicides kill themselves not because they feel sorry for themselves or are simply depressed, but because they are in unending psychic pain, and after awhile, suicide seems like the best way to relieve it. Cobain, in the end, seems to fit this mold.

Cobain's suicide also underscored the rampant phoniness in the grunge scene. For a music whose image is all about artistic integrity, the flow of money proved to be poison for the community well. Egos were inflated and then burst. Once-good bands began miring down in mediocrity. And drugs, particularly heroin, were just killing both the artists and the artistry.

By 1996 or so, it was clear grunge was gone for good. Seattle moved on. Its music scene has become healthier in recent years -- more diverse, but not cohesive either -- and culturally, everyone seems to have forgotten Nirvana and what they once meant.

Except for the young kids. I still see a lot of Cobain T-shirts. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, Viretta Park hosts a gathering of them to listen and remember. This year, the 10th anniversary, was no different.

What was a little different -- besides the larger crowds at Viretta -- was that this year the media remembered. On previous anniversaries, little has been said or observed; but this being the 10th, they checked in with the dutiful memorials. Both the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer carried remembrances this weekend. But it all has a hollow ring to it.

The reality is that Seattle has had a great deal of difficulty dealing with its fallen stars over the years, regardless of how significant their contributions. Perhaps it is, as Cobain seems to have suspected, the curse of Frances Farmer.

Certainly, Jimi Hendrix -- who met a similarly troubled death -- inhabited the same sort of limbo for years as far as the city was concerned. Sure, he may have been the greatest rock guitarist of all time, but the civic and business leaders recoiled at the very idea of honoring someone who had died because of a "drug overdose" (or so went the myth; Hendrix actually died of asphyxiation, not an OD).

For years, the only Hendrix memorial to be found anywhere in Seattle was a brass plaque imbedded in a rock at the Woodland Park Zoo, donated by a local radio station. You could always drive down to Renton and visit his grave (completely nondescript, except for the Stratocaster engraved in the granite). Nowadays, of course, we have the Experience Music Project, the ugly-but-cool rock museum built around a great Hendrix collection; but it took Paul Allen's clear philanthropy (the thing loses money like a sieve) to get it built, which in itself raises all the usual conflicts about corporate money's role in rock. Ah well.

Likewise, there has not, to my knowledge, been any serious discussion of a Cobain memorial. Seattle has moved on, and no one seems to want to remember.

The little A-frame house where Cobain killed himself is gone now. It was a guest house on the estate, and in fact was quite visible from the park, including the upper room where the suicide occurred:

Courtney Love had it torn down before she sold the place and moved off to Malibu (where her sellout career has recently been reaching new heights). After she moved away, the main mansion itself was torn down and completely replaced as well.

The only really fitting memorial to Cobain is in his hometown, Aberdeen, a depressed logging center near the Washington Coast. If you go just outside the city limits, there is a bridge over the Wishkah River that is a place Cobain used to inhabit when he was a homeless teenager. Underneath it is a marvelous collection of graffiti, most of it in Cobain's honor.

But Cobain -- who actually only lived here for a year and a half -- deserves better from Seattle. The circumstances of his death can't obscure the fact that he was one of those momentous figures in music history, just as Hendrix was. As Vernon Reid observed in the recent Rolling Stone that placed Cobain among rock's 50 greatest icons (he'd probably be in a Top 10, for that matter), "Cobain changed the course of where the music went."

Then again, one can just imagine Cobain cringing at the very idea of a memorial. It's hard to imagine what shape a fitting tribute could possibly even take. Maybe the whole concept of memorializing someone is anathema to what Nirvana was about.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

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