Finally! God bless Starbucks at SW Oak St/SW 4th Ave Portland (including Allison, Diana, Daniella and Mandy) for having decent WiFi service! Thank you guys – perfect service, hope the management knows you’re cool. A full day its taken me to get this uploaded. Phew. Now, let me confess to a serious error of judgment. A few months back I remember the articles about how Aberdeen, WA was considering removing the ‘Come as You Are’ sign outside of town — I thought it was just a case of local authorities drumming up interest and attention; It didn’t make sense to me, the idea of a town choosing to delete its most famous son.
It makes more sense now. I’m stunned how innocent I’ve been…A certain (small) portion of Aberdeen is genuinely embarrassed by an association with a man they see as a representative of drug culture and nihilism; regardless of the beauties of his art or the scale of his achievement, irrespective of how much inspiration and positivity was bestowed on people who came to love his music. I’d like to thank Mitch at this point for giving me a thorough and informed tour of the town — I couldn’t have been in better hands, he was there then, he’s here now, he knew Kurt and Krist personally and had a long standing friendship with Leland Cobain. If you’re ever thinking of heading to the area and you’re game to pay the man for his time and energies then I can totally recommend him to you. He’s a guardian of history, heritage and local memory.
My surprise arises from numerous sources, for example, there the statue of Kurt Cobain now located in a motor garage because the town wouldn’t accept it for the park. There is though a Cobain star on the sidewalk where he shares space with a guy who coached the U.S. soccer team for the Olympics and the inventor of the self-cleaning oven.
And the famous bridge under which Cobain spent time as a teenager, inspiration for the song Something in the Way? A gentleman called Tori Kovach, a man in his seventies who still saw the artistry and talent in the music of Kurt Cobain (albeit only loving the MTV Unplugged in New York performance) took personal responsibility for creating the memorial space and still takes the time day-by-day to clean and maintain it. Firstly, that’s a beautiful thing for a private individual to do, though he states plainly that a degree of support was provided by the town.
The ultimate expression for me though was how sad it was to see that the old shack at 1000 ½ East Second Street was demolished to leave a barren plot of waste-ground. It was on this site that the song Mrs. Butterworth from the With the Lights Out box-set was recorded and for mere pennies a place that lures many respectful and starry-eyed tourists to the furthest corner of the U.S. could have been purchased, maintained and turned into something of beauty. Instead it was torn down and left as a rutted piece of overgrown scrub.
I’m quite serious. THis is the site of 1000 1/2 East Second Street – sad isn’t it? Its hard to tell if this is just overzealous town-planning or a deliberate desire to erase Kurt Cobain from the history of Aberdeen. I mean, I was delighted to be able to stand on the exact spot where Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Aaron Burckhard recorded the song known as Mrs Butterworth (plus two other unreleased shreds) but still…Sad!
Aberdeen is a place with a few problems – perhaps this shouldn’t overshadow the good of the town but remember this was a very brief visit I made and my opinion based on a single day doesn’t add up to the totality of the place. I was still stunned though. I’ve never been to a town where a crystal-meth user got on the bus to town, body twitching and jolting, where I saw another couple as soon as I got off the bus, saw the lady from the bus again the next morning — and that’s not counting the number of alcoholics and visible homeless. The sheer quantity really did stand out; I’d already been surprised by the scale of the homeless situation in the Pacific North-West, I live in a city of ten million and still don’t quite see this many people in need – Aberdeen’s centre, given the scale of the town, seemed quite a magnet for this. Mitch showed me a photo of a doped-up guy naked on top of a Police car – hilarious but…No, hold on, I still think its hilarious. It explains Gillian G. Gaar’s mention of the guy arrested the other year in Aberdeen who kept protesting as he was carted off that he was Kurt Cobain.
On the other hand, it’s genuinely not an unpleasant place either, I’m not saying its an awful town – it isn’t! I was lucky catching it on a bright, sunny day — so hot my lengthy nose has burned — but the scenery all around is spectacular, the river and sea inlet lend that good vibe that always arises from proximity to waters, the town streets are clean and peaceful. It really did have a good vibe all day long – so quiet too, we drifted quite a distance round town, as you’ll see in subsequent posts, barely meeting a soul out among the houses. A very pleasant lady over by that Cobain address I mentioned earlier took the time to come out and tell us she still has photos of the place as it used to be – I always like it when strangers take the time to talk to me.
The town has a comfortable uniformity, mostly looking like the buildings are unchanged since the 1920s when a lot of the clapboard houses went up. On the other hand, those same features have their other side; the town streets are quiet because most of the main street is closed up shops. It did look like a town in a slump – this is not to overlook the truly wicked Star Wars shop, of course, the biggest collection of Star Wars I’ve ever seen and apparently a magnet for rich collectors. There’s a certain amount of Nirvana stuff tucked into one of the crammed corners of this place.
I was a bit surprised by the loan place, religious establishment and porn store sandwiched up next door to one another — it’s stood for me as a bit of a metaphor for that small minority who would refuse to celebrate one of the few spectacular lives to emerge locally then wonders why there’s not more ambition or spirit among its young. Oh, by the way, that’s the main street in Aberdeen I kid thee not!
There’s also that industrial edge to the place but not enough to keep the town in work and functioning smoothly – the logging activity is down to the bone so what the heck is left…?
As an example of that mood at work, the plaque by the bridge that Tori maintains, the town authorities took the time to come and demand he scrub the word ‘f*** from a Cobain quotation; yet it looks like its all on Tori to clear up the litter that people leave there. Whenever I mentioned, in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, that I was heading out to Aberdeen, people laughed, it seems to be seen as the scowling alcoholic in the corner everyone makes jokes about — but then, I’m kinda sure a more celebratory attitude and a warmer vibe to the place would really help. I’m sure someone’ll say that its about zero tolerance, about tough love, about self-reliance – frankly all three phrases are euphemisms for fighting the lazy n’ easy battles rather than having the courage or endurance to deal with the hard, complex and lengthy wars; lazy phrases that sound tough but are limp-wristed and lame in practice. It seems that the Cobain memorialisation work has been primarily a private endeavour.
To be fair, I can understand nervousness about Cobain. I was shocked that under the bridge some people are coming along cooking up heroin and leaving their needles there as a tribute to Cobain. The idea that anyone would look at the absolute decay in his productivity and creativity and decide the moral of the tale is to celebrate drugs is imbecilic in the extreme — almost awe-inspiringly stupid. There’s definite criticism to be made of the truly ignorant fans who would do this.
But that doesn’t justify attempts to tar ALL Nirvana fans with the same brush (anymore than what I write here is an attempt to get at ALL people from Aberdeen, that’d be ludicrous) – I’ve got two degrees from Cambridge University, have written and published one book, work at a homeless shelter one Saturday a month, love my family and have a desk job for a major corporation; does that make me too normal to be a true Nirvana fan? In the eyes of a certain portion of Aberdeen, fans like me who love the music, are inspired by the man, but don’t approve of all his actions, don’t exist.
It’s also a tragedy that instead of fans taking the time for true art of the kind their hero dedicated himself to, they’ve reverted to lunk-headed “I was ‘ere” graffiti that lends nothing to any legacy, not even respect. But then, some people will claim its all part of ‘anarchy’ and ‘punk values’…Strange. I look at the music of Nirvana and see energy under control, precisely deployed, practised in a dedicated manner, expressed with polish and poise…Not daubs. For perspective, I love good graffiti art – there’s so much street talent out there; I’d just like to see more of it. Again, its a fair reason to be dubious about drawing yet more people in.
The positive side is people like the guy we met just as we were leaving who had chosen to come spend a little time in contemplation there, or the Spanish family Mitch met once who flew all the way from Spain to scatter their son’s ashes into the River Wishkah simply because Cobain had meant so much to their son (he died in an auto-accident). Heck, my take on the Cobain story has always been that history doesn’t have to be written by the landed gentry, by the corporate elite, by those with money or power — you can be anyone, from anywhere, and if you put your all into it you can do something amazing whether or not anyone else knows it. Aberdeen, if it chose to formalise and live out that side of the Cobain message could be a true inspiration.
The local museum was good fun by the way — thanks to Dann for being such a pleasure to hang out with there. It’s fun being in a town so small that they can even tell which was the very first piano in town — that’s incredible to me, wonderful when the origin of an item such as that can be traced so readily to a marriage between founding families.
The old fire engines were fascinating too; the horse-drawn fire engine was still being used as late as 1944! There’ll be a music exhibit opening at the museum sometime in the near future focusing initially on the Melvins — that’ll be worth seeing. If you do go to Aberdeen do pop in and take a look at the town’s donated items and relics. I did history at uni so browsing old items tickles me. They even have a Mrs. Butterworth jar — ironic that it should become the town’s main monument to that lost song when there was once a tiny place just down the road that could have been so.
I was told a story while we were in the museum, that a family came from Germany to visit Kurt Cobain locations – parents, two kids, a respectable family. They decided, while here, that they should buy a Nirvana CD in Aberdeen so off they went to the major local supermarket and into the music section where the Nirvana section stood empty…They inquired about whether they had any Nirvana CDs in stock and were told “we don’t stock that crap.” They were stunned. The guys with me didn’t believe it so went back, got the manager, asked again, and received the precise same answer. Stunning… In fact the museum is the only place in town you can buy a Nirvana CD in Aberdeen – they had to order to a different state just to get a few copies of the Heavier than Heaven book.
I will say though, its easier to explain the more troubled aspects of Kurt Cobain having visited Aberdeen. Its understandable that the vibe of the town, the attitude of certain portions of it toward creative arts types let alone teenager trouble-makers and drug-users (which he was, no mistake) would not have been inviting or welcoming. Beyond the flippant point though he really is a local product; people want to see him as a representative of some kinda wooly drug-addled liberalism when this really is a guy who believes fervently in gun-ownership, who has no truck with ‘hippy types’ and who has a sexually puritan streak in him too. Heck, he marries his girlfriend when he gets her pregnant – the boy from the town that looks like 1950 ends up acting like he is too. Kurt Cobain is Aberdeen’s son no doubt about it. It explains a degree of his self-criticism too; not only does he come from a town that was clear it hated most of what he was, he was sharp enough to know that he exhibited a lot of the same traits as his critics. Just a shame he expressed this complexity in a dour self-destructiveness.
I’ll halt there. More Aberdeen touring tomorrow – I promise I had a GOOD TIME!!! I’m sorry it turned into a bit of a rant but… My thinking is always the same; wishing away the downsides of something just makes one look like a liar, like a child who can’t stand scary stories so still reads kids’ books at age thirty in a pretence that real life isn’t more complex than good/bad, nice/nasty.
It’d be nice to come back see the city had seized control of Kurt Cobain’s story in Aberdeen; it would give the town the chance to speak and show that there was a lot of good to it — to speak more of the creativity and hard work and positive small town values that took Cobain to the pinnacle of world fame. A proper Cobain exhibit in the museum, a Cobain walking tour making use of the excellent presenting skills and long memory of a number of local residents, a small driving tour and more information online about how to do it, a touch of care and TLC to the places of interest and reinforcement of Tori’s efforts — the authorities in Aberdeen could be true neighbours. I’m serious that something as minimal as the ‘blue plaque’ scheme that operates in London to identify properties of significance could draw attention to the town’s legacy. If the town doesn’t want to attract troubled souls, if it wants to attract a higher-class of tourist, more trade for local restaurants and motels, more chances for local work for local people, mothers and fathers bringing their kids to check out the place where their own childhood hero lived, then the town needs to pick a strategy that isn’t about telling those tourists to piss off. I didn’t see much that was about official efforts rather than local enthusiasts. Both have their place but more of the former would give the community as a whole greater control.
Similarly, it’d show people locally that regardless of their sins and flaws, the city will live out Christian values by leaving God to do the judging. It would show people that they would be supported and celebrated for the good they do, rather than excoriated and spoken of only in terms of the worst they can be — maybe it’d be a more spirited message to present to the young of a town where there are few jobs and a few problems. I’ve taken out an over-dramatic end line here, I was wrong, it was writing for impact not reality so I’d rather show it by formally saying that a line had vanished in the reediting; I would go back to Aberdeen. And at its best it was a pretty place; for a Nirvana fan it’s a must-see place once in your life.