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Travel

HERE WE ARE NOW For 20 years, Aberdeen all but ignored its most famous son. Now, with a host of new memorials to Kurt Cobain, the Washington town hopes to attract adoring fans. Writer Bill Donahue goes on a pilgrimage.

Bill Simpson, is a sweet older fellow who used to sell men’s slacks at the local JC Penney. He’s bald and round and when he laughs, his bifocals ride his cheeks up toward his twinkling eyes. “This is a very special day for Aberdeen,” he begins. I’m standing at the back of Moore’s Interiors, a local flooring shop. The rug samples have been rolled away, and two dozen of the town’s dignitaries are milling about, nibbling on cucumber hors d’oeuvres. We’ve gathered here for the unveiling of a new mural, titled Nirvana and Aberdeen, which stretches 68 feet along the outside wall of Moore’s Interiors and is financed by Our Aberdeen, a booster group whose recent efforts include the dedication of a healing gallery at the local hospital and Critters on the Map, a selfguided walking tour of the town’s whimsical metal sculptures. “And it’s my great pleasure to introduce ...” To the microphone steps Krist Novoselic, bassist for Nirvana, and Aberdeen’s second most famous native son. Novoselic, 49, used to perform barefoot, his pale white, size-14 feet a gleaming statement of punk freedom. Today he looks dapper in a black bowler hat, with salt-and-pepper flecks in his beard. “I am very grateful,” he says of the mural, in silky tones. “Here’s to our great future. Here’s to the future of Aberdeen.” The future of Aberdeen, a downbeat logging town an hour west of Olympia, Washington, has been a buzzy subject lately. And to understand why, you’d need to know something about its first most famous native son, Kurt Cobain. The oldest child of divorced working-class parents, Cobain lived here in a series of cracker-box homes. As a teenager, he cut class at Weatherwax High and stole stone crosses from a local cemetery. In 1987, he started his seminal band in a ramshackle garage. At the height of its success in the 1990s, Nirvana was the biggest rock band on the planet, selling some 75 million records worldwide and spawning a new musical genre, grunge. When I first heard Nirvana in 1991, it fed my veins. The music was such a pure expression of what it is to be young and angry and unsure, and when I squint a little in Aberdeen, I swear I can still see Cobain rising from the mist: wraith thin, unshaven, a The Young Street ratty mustard-colored cardigan hanging from his slenBridge, one of der frame as he screams, “Waaaa! Waaaaa!” No words, Kurt Cobain’s favorite hangouts. just the throaty, guttural sound of a confused heart

THE MAYOR OF ABERDEEN,

Photographs by

JOHN CLARK


WA ND E R LUS T

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Travel

opening up—the five sequential yells that appear on the “Intro” track of his second posthumous album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. The one we all listened to knowing that in early April 1994, 27-year-old Kurt Donald Cobain took his own life with a 20-gauge shotgun. The mural is one of a handful of official Cobain tributes that have sprung up the past few years. On State 12, there’s now a sign that reads welcome to aberdeen. come as you are, a reference to a Nirvana song. Cobain’s favorite Aberdeen haunt—the underside of the Young Street Bridge—has officially become Kurt Cobain Landing, a well-tended pocket park that annually draws about 5,000 solemn visitors from all over the world. Meanwhile, last year on Cobain’s birthday, February 20, the mayor of Aberdeen marked the city’s first-ever Kurt Cobain Day by unveiling a concrete statue of the musician. “We hope,” Simpson told a rapt audience, “that Aberdeen will be just as big as Graceland.” Certainly, the town needed to reinvent itself. In Aberdeen’s circa-1900 heyday, when its canneries and logging operations thrived, downtown was a crime-ridden hive of brothels and saloons. The economy never fully 28

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bounced back after the Northwest timber industry all but died in the mid-1980s. Still, the mayor’s posthumous embrace of Cobain is jarring. For 20 years now, Aberdeen has largely shunned him, even as fans have trickled into town to roam the same streets and riverbanks their idol once did. For one weekend, I’d join them, riding my bicycle along the flat streets of Aberdeen, through a sleepy town where, it seems, everyone remembers Kurt. “Kurt used to play in my yard when he was little,” my waitress, Sue Muhlhauser, tells me, as she refills my $1 cup of coffee at the VFW hall. “I could probably sell the blades of grass if I wanted to.” I’ve stopped by for a ham-and-eggs breakfast, and also to take the town’s temperature on its evolving relationship with Cobain. “I don’t care for his music,” a woman at my table intones. “But then again, I’m a country-western person myself.” Terry Holderman, quartermaster of VFW Post 224, introduces himself. “Celebrating Kurt is a good thing,” he says. “There’s such creativity in his music. I think Aberdeen needs to hold on to that, because for a while it felt like we just gave up.” We’re outside now, and I notice a man standing nearby, smoking a cigarette. John Bryant works as the Post’s janitor. He, too, knew Cobain. “Oh yeah, Kurt could be sarcastic,” he says, taking a long, contemplative drag. “I was one of the guys old enough to buy beer for him and his friends. But he was a good kid. He just pushed the envelope a little too far.” I leave the VFW and pedal past Rosevear’s Music Center, where Kurt took his only guitar lessons. I Mayor Bill Simpkeep going past the elegant Aberdeen library, then son: “We hope along modest residential streets to an old armory that Aberdeen that’s now The Aberdeen Museum of History. Inside, will be just as big as Graceland.” a concrete statue of Cobain sits, a bit incongruously, amid an array of old fire engines and Model T cars. Sculptor and onetime high school teacher Randi Hubbard created the statue in 1994, not long after the musician died, shaping it with the help of local high school students at her husband’s muffler shop. “It was a raw time,” Hubbard tells me when she meets me at the museum. The statue was Hubbard’s attempt to bring about healing. But when she tried to display it publicly back then, the Aberdeen City Council balked. Concrete Kurt looks larger than life-size and unnervingly stiff; his fingers are rigid as they splay on his guitar, and a single tear streams from his eye. “I think we all have a little Kurt Cobain in us,” she says. “I knew him when he was a boy. He lived near me, and he was precious. He played with a foster child who lived in the neighborhood. He just loved the real people in this world.” We talk for maybe an hour, and by the time we finish, Hubbard is focusing her bottomless maternal affection on me: “I can’t let you ride your bike back to the motel,” she says. “It’s just too far.” So we throw my bike into her husband’s pickup and drive there, a flat mile, with my bike rattling in the back atop a heap of rusted-out mufflers.


Travel I come back across town at dusk, past Grays Harbor Stamp Works and Aberdeen Office Equipment Co. and B&B Appliances, until I’m in a residential district right by the Wishkah River. There, with its blinds drawn, is the house Kurt Cobain lived in until his parents divorced. It’s a modest little yellowand-brown affair, built in 1923 and assessed last at $67,000. Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s mother, has spent the last year trying to sell it for $500,000. When I pull up out front, the place elicits a dark memory for me. In 1994, I covered Cobain’s death for a gossip magazine. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. At one point, I got a fax from my editor saying, “Go interview his mother.” I got to the house and it seemed so small, so sad and lonely, that I couldn’t bring myself to knock. I told my editors she wasn’t home, and as I slinked away in my rental car, I felt desolate. Nirvana was playing on the radio, and Cobain’s voice was brooding and shadowed like the fog-shrouded hills near town. Every so often, his songs crackled with a glossy pop riff, sweet as candy. “Here we are now, entertain us,” he cried over melodic guitar riffs in Nirvana’s hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There was something unguarded in his voice—a purity of spirit that was lacking in my own little paparazzo mission. I admired him, and I felt sorry for him. I consider stepping toward the house to peer in past the shades. Then I remember the peppy real estate listing: “Kurt left his mark, quite literally, in his upstairs bedroom, including some artwork drawn directly on the walls and a hole in one wall where he punched it as a teen, almost breaking his hand.” I already know enough, I decide, and I just gaze at the house from the street. It looks just as it did two decades ago: still and silent, without a flicker of life in it.

meandering route to the Young Street Bridge, first climbing through the trees on Think of Me Hill, then wheeling along a quiet backroad outside town, toward Lake Sylvia. When I get to Kurt Cobain Landing, there’s a man with a goatee pulling weeds beside a statue of Cobain’s guitar. A few feet away, a plaque honors Cobain as “our beloved hero.” Tori Kovach, 71, tells me that he spent five years beautifying the land here, once a blackberry thicket cluttered with years of accumulated refuse. “I did it for selfish reasons,” says Kovach, whose business card reads “Town Curmudgeon.” “This place abuts my property.” But as he got deeper into the project, Kovach learned that he and Cobain had much in common. “I was from a dysfunctional family too,” he says. “Both of us grew up trying to prove something to ourselves and to others. He was an underdog, and he deserves recognition.” As I leave, a group of teens make their way through the pocket park to the bridge. I sit there, on a bench, watching the pilgrims arrive: a couple from Michigan, three women from Spain. Everyone is solemn, almost silent. “I just needed to stop,” says one woman. It strikes me that listening to Nirvana is essentially a private experience. Unlike, say, The Grateful Dead or The Rolling Stones, it’s not party music. It’s one person opening up his heart and singing his pain into another person’s ears. And so the graffiti under the bridge reads like so many solitary prayers to a saint: “Kurdt, come back as you were.” “Thank you for keeping me alive and letting me know I am never alone.” I head back to the mural at Moore’s Interiors, and I meet its principal artist, Erik Sandgren, a Grays Harbor College instructor with a wispy beard and the weathered mien of a Norwegian fisherman. We grab a window seat at the Pizza Hut across the street and look up at his work. Nirvana and Aberdeen is a quarreling medley of images à la Picasso’s Guernica, and it pays homage to history. It intermingles ’90s-era rock iconography—Cobain playing guitar, a pink MTV logo—with glimpses of the land where Nirvana’s music took root. Here’s an 18-wheel logging truck rumbling up a hill. Here are a few Native American gillnetters; here are the hourglass-shaped towers of the nearby, never-used Satsop Nuclear Power Plant. Sandgren tells me that as he painted the mural, he meditated on that bond. “The guys in Nirvana were like young loggers,” he says. “They took risks, and that risk-taking goes right back to the roots of what this place is, back to when my grandparents came out to the Pacific Northwest to start a new life.” Cobain roamed the world’s stages in a flannel logger’s shirt. Truth is, he never really left Aberdeen. In his 2002 biography of Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven,

Aberdeen’s embrace of Cobain isn’t just a money thing. It is also forgiveness. It’s love in its most hard-bitten form, and like all expressions of love, it opens the door to new possibilities.

involve expectations. If we go to London, to tread the same cobbled streets Charles Dickens strolled, we half-want the buildings to be decrepit and blackened by coal dust. If we travel Cuba for the Hemingway tour, we keep our eyes peeled for the big fish. And in Aberdeen, paying homage to Cobain, we want bleak, we want gray, we want brooding—and, yes, it’s there, but not unremittingly. On my second morning in town, I take a long,

ARTISTIC PILGRIMAGES

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writer Charles R. Cross notes that Cobain “rarely did an interview without discussing [Aberdeen], as if it were a lover he’d left behind.” Once, driving back there late at night, after a long time away, he told an old friend how much he loved the verdant landscape and its unrehearsed people. So Aberdeen’s embrace of Cobain isn’t just a money thing. It is also forgiveness. It’s a family taking its runaway kid back into the fold. It’s love in its most hardbitten form, and like all expressions of love, it opens the door to new possibilities. Like this mural, which is a piece of robust art sprouted out of the dark wreckage of Cobain’s ashes. Neither Sandgren nor I say it, but the mural carries the possibility that maybe in time Cobain’s memory will inspire more hopeful gestures. And maybe—who knows?—all these gestures put together will carry Aberdeen to a comeback. On my last night in Aberdeen, Sandgren invites me to a party he’s hosting to celebrate the mural. When I arrive at his book-lined home, I find it’s an artists’ party, with guests spilling comfortably into the kitchen, cradling paper plates of hummus and vegetables. After a while, two young guys start strumming guitars. Then a woman begins to sing. Sandgren’s mother-in-law is 87

Freestyling in Big Sky

and bird-boned. She’s a lifelong cabaret singer with her own stage name, Pearl Coté. She is singing and swaying her arms, belting it out until all conversations stop and everyone watches, transfixed. I can’t help but think of another, long-ago performance: Nirvana playing unplugged, with two acoustic guitars, at MTV’s New York studio in late 1993; Cobain, sleep-deprived, ravaged by addiction, finding it within himself to deliver what many regard as the performance of his life. The show ends with a Lead Belly cover, and the words, halfwhispered, half-screamed, “I would shiver the whole night through.” Coté keeps singing: “Sentimental Journey,” The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” then a litAberdeen lies 110 miles tle impromptu scat. From the doorway, southwest of Seattle via I-5 her daughter watches, slender and birdand State 8. boned herself. She is leaning into the Mural: 201 S. Broadway. music now, coaxing her mother along. Statue: The Aberdeen When the show is all over, she rushes toMuseum of History. $2; ward the couch. She presses her mom aberdeen-museum.org. close to her and kisses her once, fiercely, Sign: West side of State 12. on the cheek. Kurt Cobain Landing: Young Street Bridge.

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More pilgrimage sites across the West: sunset.com/memorials.

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Cobain sunset  
Cobain sunset  

A little over twenty years ago, I traveled to Aberdeen, Washington, a gray, rainy working class town on the Olympic Peninsula, to report on...

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