In search of Nirvana
Twenty years since 'Nevermind' changed modern music and a whole generation, visits to Kurt Cobain's hometown and to an exhibition about his legendary grunge band offer a context for grasping the singer's despair.
SEATTLE - "Come as you are," states the sign at the entrance to Aberdeen, a town of 17,000 in Washington state. Most of the locals work in the timber, fishing and cranberry industries, but two of them changed the history of pop music. Thanks to their band, Aberdeen is not just another hole in the northwestern United States, but the hole in the northwestern United States where Nirvana was born.
Two and a half hours south of Seattle, Aberdeen is a half-forgotten place where the noise of the paint peeling off the walls of the wooden houses is the only audible sound at midday. It was amid this quiet that Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic grew up, attending the local high school and then forming Nirvana (whose best known lineup included the drummer Dave Grohl, who joined in 1990 and is now the Foo Fighters's front man ).
In Nirvana mythology, Aberdeen is the worst of places and the best of places. Its indifferent complacency was the seed for some of Cobain's songs on "Bleach," Nirvana's 1989 debut album. "Something in the Way," the concluding song on "Nevermind," was also written here, under the bridge that crosses the Wishkah River - two streets from Cobain's aunt's house, in whose basement he wrote his first songs for his band Fecal Matter. Here, too, in this small, faded mustard-colored house and on the banks of the muddy river, was also where his depressive personality was formed; he shot himself in the head in 1994, at the age of 27. One-third of Cobain's ashes were scattered in the Wishkah, whose name comes from an Indian word meaning "stinking water."
These days, there is a cluster of monuments under the bridge, where Cobain used to escape in order to hide and write. There is a sign put up by the town, with a portrait of the singer-songwriter, a marble plaque installed by the family, and graffiti by fans. Last April, a concrete guitar was installed at the site, adorned with lyrics from the legendary grunge band's songs. A 1996 album of live performances by the band also took its title from the river: "From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah."
Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the release of "Nevermind," Nirvana's second studio album. The occasion inspired a slew of retrospective looking at the early 1990s, the golden age of grunge in Seattle, a time when record companies were rich enough to take small bands from nowhere towns and morph them into international rock stars. The reminiscing also focused on the heroin and psychological problems facing Cobain, who was and remains the face of Generation X. But here, in a region where it rains most days of the year, people choose to focus on the roots of Nirvana and on the underground cultural infrastructure from which it sprang.
The search for roots can start here, on the banks of the Wishkah. Or in 1963, when The Kingsmen released "Louie Louie," from which Cobain said he took the guitar riff for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - Nirvana's biggest hit. Jacob McMurray, curator of the exhibition "Taking Punk to the Masses," which is now on at the EMP Museum in Seattle and is devoted to Nirvana, tried to find the midpoint between the two in a show of 1,200 items from the end of the 1970s until 1994. The exhibition will run until April 2013 and then travel to museums around the world. McMurray also has published a book with the same title, which contains interviews with figures from the time. EMP was established by Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft and a Jimi Hendrix fan.
The museum, which was designed by Frank Gehry, opened in 2000 and houses an impressive collection of Hendrix's costumes and guitars, alongside other exhibits from the realms of pop culture and science fiction. On display is the green sweater Cobain wore when he was featured on the cover of Spin magazine, fragments of guitars gathered after one of Nirvana's first concerts, letters, musical instruments, crinkled playlists, tapes of demo recordings, sketches for flyers drawn by band members, album covers, drawings by Cobain from high school and his collection of canned meat.
McMurray spent two years collecting items for the exhibition. The breakthrough, he says, came when Nirvana cofounder/bassist Novoselic - who is now a political activist and is studying law - joined the project and opened his attic to the curator.
"He just told me to take whatever I wanted," McMurray says. "He had no interest in preserving the official history of Nirvana. He is very proud of what he did, but 20 years have passed since then. He said Nirvana owed its success to the bands around them back then, and that he wants to give them the credit."
The exhibition tries to refute the prevailing opinion that Nirvana emerged from nowhere. It does so with great success by means of a detailed, concrete depiction of an entire network of independent bands, labels and journalists from which Nirvana emerged. The idea of placing Nirvana in the context of the punk scene in the northwestern United States might seem self-evident to Novoselic and McMurray. However, the latter relates that he has received letters from grunge lovers who don't like the exhibition's title. He tries to explain to them why they are mistaken.
"These bands did not consider themselves grunge. In interviews from the period they style themselves rock, punk rock or punk bands. For the fans who got to know this music in 1992, it is simply grunge - that was the way to refer to all these bands together," he explains. "Which is also fine. But contrary to the way people have thought, Nirvana did not come out of nowhere. The punk scene in Seattle developed over the course of 15 years, and then, suddenly, radio stations were exposed to it. The music video of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' helped a lot, but that was not where everything started."
Bursting from the fringes
In the conservative political and cultural climate of the Reagan years - before MTV mediated rock for every adolescent, and without the support of the mainstream music industry - fringe bands forged their own independent network that handled distribution and organized concerts. These bands set up their own performances across the United States, created posters and flyers, and put out independent magazines that covered developments in the non-mainstream world.
From the late 1970s, this form of organization increased accessibility to punk rock, and even though its music was diverse, its underlying ethic was one of non-dependence. Indeed, the essence of "do-it-yourself" in the punk context was that every level of talent was good enough.
The first band that burst from the fringes into the center was R.E.M., which Warner Bros. signed in 1988. But it was Nirvana that changed the rules of the game, exposing the whole independent music network to the mainstream, and generating hysteria among record companies, which signed every Cobain look-alike they could get their hands on. This was the genesis of "alternative rock" within the big music companies, and its golden age lasted until it collapsed in the early 2000s. But before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became a household phrase, the independent network supported the emergence of Nirvana and was the single greatest influence on the band's aesthetics and music.
These days, Seattle calls itself a "city of music," but in the 1980s young bands here had a hard time finding a venue to perform at. Regulations prohibiting the display of posters on electricity poles, and preventing clubs from admitting anyone under age 21 pushed the new punk bands to the margins of the margins. Independent labels, such as Sub Pop - which released Nirvana's debut album and was the first home for bands such as Soundgarden and Mudhoney - struggled to stay afloat. The situation was a little better in nearby Olympia, between Seattle and Aberdeen, because the local radio station, Kaos, devoted 80 percent of its airtime to independent music.
A few walls in the EMP exhibition are given over to bands that operated on the West Coast at the time and influenced Nirvana. They include the Avengers, Wipers, Green River, Beat Happening and Black Flag. But no other band encouraged Nirvana like the Melvins, whose members grew up in Montesano, near Aberdeen. The Melvins were and are (they still perform and even visited Israel recently ) a highly innovative group - among the first to cross genres and fuse punk with heavy metal, a sound that would typify grunge bands later on.
One of the fascinating items in the exhibition is a letter that Buzz Osborne, the Melvins' founder and front man, sent to Novoselic in April 1986, almost six years before Nirvana burst into the global consciousness. "Ko-Bain and Dale [Crover, of the Melvins] went up to his aunt's house and made a tape of some of Kurt's songs. I was pretty impressed. Some of his songs are real killer! Despite the poor sound quality ... I think he could have some kind of future in music if he keeps at it," he wrote. Osborne played Black Flag's "My War" for Novoselic and Cobain and persuaded them that punk was better than every other type of music.
Although the exhibition is definitely aimed at Nirvana fans and grunge lovers, and many of the items on view give the impression of nostalgic souvenirs, McMurray says he thinks of the show as subversive. "Obviously people come because of Nirvana, but they get the whole background, all the punk rock that no one gives a shit about," he explains. "I think that's awesome. I could never have sold the museum on an entire exhibit devoted to Black Flag, but in the context of Nirvana I can bring them in."
Where the sun never shines
"Nevermind" was released in September 1991. DGC, which bought Nirvana's contract from Sub Pop - the band was not pleased with the shaky management of the indie label - distributed 500,000 copies of the album in the United States and 35,000 in Britain. They expected sales to match "Goo," Sonic Youth's mainstream breakthrough album.
But sales took off when MTV started playing the provocative music video "Smells Like Teen Spirit" relentlessly. Within a month, "Nevermind" hit a million copies. On January 11, 1992, Nirvana dislodged Michael Jackson at the top of the Billboard charts. The age of grunge had officially begun. In large measure, this also marked the end of another era in Seattle's musical history. Nirvana's mega-success drew musicians to a city that had once been considered a bland no-place that consumed its artists.
Nirvana's appearance on MTV from their unplugged concert, recorded five months before Cobain's death, is still one of the most hair-raising artifacts of Generation X. The band did not even perform "Teen Spirit" and closed the set with "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," best known from blues and folk singer Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter )'s performance of it. "In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines," Cobain sang, before screaming through the last verse, which receives its proper context for the first time on the road between Seattle and Aberdeen: two and a half hours of evergreens. Aberdeen is a small town surrounded by pine trees. It might be pastoral were it not for the fact that the town's entrance is lined with kilometers of fast-food chains and used-tire lots.
Afternoon comes to Aberdeen and the sun sends sparks flashing on the Wishkah. Two high-school girls in matching jeans cross the bridge over the river, gossip on the bench, smoke a cigarette, part. Now a white Toyota pulls up. "Seen any salmon?" asks Jim, a man nearing middle age. This is the season: The salmon swim by every year, on the way back to where they were born. Jim lights up a joint. No one comes to this bank of the Wishkah to see salmon. After a few minutes of silence he starts to play Nirvana's "Lithium." "I knew them - Kurt and Krist," he says. "We used to hang around here on the hill, riding dirt bikes and hiding from the cops." It's hard to know if that's what he tells every tourist or whether it's a true confession.
"Those were good times," he says. "I live outside town now, but I still come here to listen to music."