Kurt Cobain, From Aberdeen: Last Tour Through the Hometown

Posted: September 20, 2013 in A Young Kurt Cobain 1967-1987, Nirvana Maps and Locales

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Just a cool guitar signed by a whole series of past members of Nirvana including Dave Foster – a very rare autography, he doesn’t do this kind of thing – that they’re preparing for the Aberdeen Museum…The single below was handed to Mitch by Kurt Cobain personally…Oooooo…handled by the man himself! Oooooo…

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Reflecting on the tour so far, reading comments and so forth, a few people have felt a little underwhelmed at what they’ll find if they choose to visit State of Washington in pursuit of Nirvana. My belief, my feeling, is that the issue is nothing to do with the physical reality of the Pacific North-West, nothing to do with the presence/absence of anything — its entirely to do with the inherent craziness of the decision to visit a state of over 70,000 square miles and seven million people in pursuit of, in essence, one long gone man. Once Jack Endino had finished reading the Dark Slivers book he kindly congratulated me including the line “you’re obsessed and insane, but what else is new,” and that sums it up; Cobain fandom of the kind of depth that would lead someone to ramble around the furthest corner of the United States trying to catch glimpses of houses and venues is lunatic — it’s the venture that is at fault not the locales.

There’s also a dichotomy in the sense that the entire point of such a visit is to come closer to the reality of the band and people concerned; yet by reminding oneself of their reality means shedding the ridiculous expectations created by glossy magazine images, illusions of wealth and/or artistic grandeur, plus twenty years of hagiographic coverage. No one tours the brothels and former brothels in which The Beatles learnt their trade while playing two shows a day high on amphetamine; no one goes to stare at the crack-houses Tupac Shakur’s mum frequented — it’s nicer spending a holiday in the Graceland mansion or scrawling on the wall of Abbey Road Studios…It all comes down to whether people would rather turn real life into blue plaques, glass cases and Disneyland style monuments or would rather the locations continued to evolve and change…And die.

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You saw the minimal Aberdeen/Hoquiam maps I prepared the other week — here’s a slightly consolidated version and, of course, you’ll see immediately the value of a local guide; there’s a load of places we’ve looked at the last couple days that I’ve not included. The other venue I took a photo of then deleted (it was a bad shot) is The Pourhouse at 506 E. Wishkah Street, just by the bridge — I’m not even sure it’s the original Eighties venue and I forgot to check (https://www.facebook.com/ThePourhouseAberdeen). That’s a major sin on my part given it’s the one venue in Aberdeen at which Cobain/some precursor or variation of Nirvana ever played (in 1986 and 1988 respectively). Plus it’s nice to know someplace with history to have a drink at. You’ll see I forgot to note the address of the Schillinger house, of the various graffiti locations, of the YMCA, Maria’s Hair Design and so forth — I’ll have to get on this sometime and improve.

I don’t have a hometown. When people ask where I’m from my answer always goes like this; “well, I was born in Newcastle in Northern England, but I’ve lived a lot of places,” which leads into a long description of Low Fell, Gateshead, Clacton-on-Sea, Eaton Socon, Eaton Ford, Kirton, Sidney Sussex, St Neots, Battersea. The place though of which I’ve had the longest experience is St Neots and whenever I’ve been back there I’m always fascinated not just by what’s changed but by what’s survived or remains frozen in time. New facades and businesses appear inside the shells of much older buildings, some buildings become restored to previous glories while others are replaced — it’s not survival OR removal that creates the feeling, simply the tension between change AND stasis.

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Aberdeen looks, in many ways, like a town of a former era — coming from a land where these boarded exteriors are only used for barns on farms the houses look completely foreign to me. So, though I think this post is about stasis, the building that stood out for me was the Radio Shack building; a corporate logo and survivor tying September 2013 to January 24, 1988 (http://www.openculture.com/2013/07/nirvana-plays-in-a-radio-shack-the-day-after-recording-its-first-demo-tape-1988.html) or on You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHbX8Vsyyo8).
It emphasised me the importance of ‘labels’ — somehow a building with Radio Shack emblazoned on it did jolt the head in the way a persistent but anonymous house does not.

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Speaking of the houses though…There are many. On one side of the sports field, opposite Judys and adjacent to the YMCA, here we are at the Schillinger’s residence — a family that seems to have done what they could for a kid who wasn’t exactly good at accepting care; the kind of lashing out as a defensive measure to keep people away and prevent the dangers that arise when you let someone get emotionally close.

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Though I dwelt the other day on the deletion of Cobain’s home at 1000 ½ East Second Street, there’s a lot more still remaining. Walking back from the Schillinger’s carry on past Judy’s and you’ll reach Krist Novoselic’s mum’s former business premises, Maria’s Hair Design, where Nirvana practised. Again, it’s a well kept building, still in residential use.

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I’m often a fan of pointing out where wider cultural, political or social waves moved people rather than placing the emphasis always on individuals shifting the world. But the significance of proximity in the creation of Nirvana (as well as the importance of Melvins) stands out when strolling down the back lane between the following two properties; Aaron Burckhard’s former home is on one side of the street while Dale Crover lived across on the other. Mitch explained the lane was known as “swagger alley” due to the droves of drunken/drugged youngsters weaving back and forth down that stretch. Credit where its due, it’s his theory that the weather over Aberdeen — generally tending toward the gray and wet — made it desirable for kids, in the days before widespread Internet usage and console ownership, to take up instruments and make music simply because it was something they could do indoors. I’m very sure he’s right — admittedly the same would then go for something like writing (requiring hours confined somewhere where one can get words down on paper), or for drug-usage or alcoholism; solitary activities are rarely encouraged by good weather, blue skies and great outdoors. Maybe there’s something in the parental desire to get kids out of the house and doing physical activity…

Most of Cobain’s residences have survived intact and in good condition; I’m not sure what comment to make on them baring the whistle-stop tour between properties…So this is the home of baby Cobain, the young family’s place in the rain…2830 ½ Aberdeen Avenue, Hoquiam.

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A raise allowed the family to move from the small building at the rear into the house at the front — a brief and unspecified origin trailing back to the Grey Harbor Community Hospital….

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…And forward to 1210 East First Street, Aberdeen; the usual progress toward a little more room, a little more comfort. It’s a standard family tale played out in homes that look so small from the outside. There’s nothing extraordinary in the birth circumstance of Kurt Cobain, no horses turning wild or strange omens in the sky — just young people crawling up the ladder. I admit compared to British homes the first home looked strikingly small unless I’m deceived I can’t imagine much privacy or space for anyone concerned; a family life lived out on top of one another. This property though, whatever criticisms readers of the Nirvana bibliography may aim at Don Cobain, was a substantial step forward and I’m glad there was a blue sky to background the home where Cobain describes living out his idyll up to age nine. If you wanted to trail a finger over a physical remnant of Cobain’s presence then this is it; this is the place in which he lived the longest, around eight years with Pear Street, Olympia trailing in second at a mere four. This was the last time Cobain’s life was rigid, before the fluidity of circumstance set in interrupted by the refuge provided by Tracy Marander.

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Keep driving. We’ve switched towns now, we’re at 413 South Fleet Street, Montesano; three and a half years of increasing familial antagonism, fresh relatives and their rejection before his sojourn back over to the trailer and his grandparents.

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From the time he steps off this doorstep in March ’82, a mere fifteen years old, he’s swirling toward the plughole — maybe it’s too easy in retrospect to see he made it but there’s a thousand people twirled and flipped to this same point of departure and many you’ll never hear of again except as bad statistics. He pirouettes from one relation to another so fast there’s little information tracking him around town, winding up back at 1210 East First Street in far less happy circumstance and heading toward couch-surfing before his father tracks him down on a couch in a back-alley and makes one last try at 413.

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Beyond that he hits the Reeds, he heads back out to whatever he can find, then parental subsidy gives him less than six months in the rooms at the back of 404 North Michigan Street.

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Even that first bout of independence is temporary and dependent on cash from mum, the next house is 408 West First Street for another brief period of time living on the sufferance and patience of others (the Schillingers) before crashing in the Melvins’ practice space (I can’t remember if this was still Dale Crover’s house or another place I didn’t picture) then over to 1000 ½ East Second Street, the denouement of his Aberdeen story, prior to the commencement of his spell in Olympia enjoying Tracy Marander’s largesse and enamoured forbearance. It’s a fascinating thought that from birth to age 23 or 24, until the advent of the major label in late 1990-early 1991, Cobain rarely has the wherewithal to stand on his own two feet financially and, therefore, domestically; parents, the Reeds, the Schillingers, Tracy — Cobain benefitted over and again from the affection others had for him and the kindnesses they showed him. It takes a force of will or a deep wound to feel so alone when so many tried to bring him near. Now that’s a sadness. How about we all look away at this picture of one of Krist Novoselic’s homes for a moment…

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Now, I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets when I say that people make a holiday more than places. I also believe that there are some things in life where one simply enjoys the experience and keeps the camera tucked away — I didn’t take many shots of Sleeper Cell playing in Tacoma because I preferred to sink into the moment and enjoy the honour they were doing me. Two similar experiences occurred during the tour of Aberdeen and the surrounding area. Over in Montesano, at the former trailer home of Leyland Cobain, Kurt’s grandfather, I was lucky enough to meet Gary Cobain — Kurt’s youngest uncle — and his long-haired Chihuahua with her pleasingly rebellious streak. This wasn’t tourism, this was just meeting someone — I mainly stayed quiet, let these guys speak to one another (Mitch and Gary), shared a jokey line or two, let it be. Gary clearly isn’t one to trumpet the life and sad end of his nephew and that’s only to be respected. The trailer park had that well-modelled air of a golf course facility, tree-lines, well-tended lawns, tidy driveway branching off to the various homes; a comfy place it must be said. I don’t know what squeezing Kurt, his father, his grandparents into the single caravan must have been like — a little confined must be my nearest guess — but beyond the matter of space it was a pleasant and well kept exterior with a little set of steps to the door, a solid awning creating a porch/garage area, a not unwelcoming place. Again, letting people have their time together just gave me time to observe and agree I didn’t see a deep-set family resemblance.

The second experience of which I took no photos was the visit to the graves of Leyland Cobain, Iris Cobain, one of Kurt’s uncles and a distance relative who died young sometime in the 1920s (1926 I believe it said). Not everything needs recording, not everywhere is a tourist destination or fodder for sharing with the world. I believe there should always be places that are about communion with thoughts, a respectful pause in day-to-day concerns, some insufficient mark of respect for the dead. I didn’t want to do anything but stand, bow a moment, remember that these were real people and that this was their last remnant on Earth. Leyland’s grave proudly declares his time as a marine, flies a small flag, a vestige of what he was proudest of. I hope no one takes a photo of this place — there should be somewhere left that’s sacred. We stood a while — I tried to leave Mitch with his thoughts, Mitch worked for Leyland, they were close companions and having VERY recently lost someone dear to me the least I could do is share the peace. Eventually, nothing more to say or consider, we headed back to the car. It’s a well tended spot, a single stone for three/four relations then the earliest relative sitting a little apart.

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We moved on from there, via Raymond, to a small park, site of the 1991 Cosimopolis Festival at which Kurt’s aunt Mari sang and played. There’s some brief footage of it, undoubtedly someone has a better edition but what the hey…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5hXSXeqk_s
Just a quiet glade, tree canopy, children’s play area and significantly sized covered picnic area which has been elevated by simply adding cement pillars under each leg — it served as the bandstand in 1991 when Cobain popped by to spend time with his family. Was curious picking a spot by the riverbank to stand, one of the rare times that man ever returned to the vicinity of his family and his own personal history. I admit I’m genuinely unsure he would have approved of this kind of ramble through his past — that Foo Fighters’ line, “there goes my hero, he’s ordinary,” feels ever more apt. I guess the motto is be ordinary but choose to do extraordinary things — it’s something anyone can apply if they have a desire plus the guts to fulfil it.

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…Rest. I think I’ve poured out a few thousand words on Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Raymond, Montesano — a lot of memories and (probably too much) thought covering a place at the furthest edge of America away from where I live and breathe my daily air. I know I spluttered indignantly, and not perhaps in a balanced way, about the ups and downs and trials and tribulations of the area — I still need to go back and reduce the levels of inflammatory verbiage, try to move away from hyberbole. It’s both strange and wonderful to attend a place that is the nearest I might ever come to a Lourdes that suits my soul and loves. I really can’t get away from the sad sense of the place so quietly recalling its triumphs, even if I simultaneously acknowledge that this is a small place without the budgets a London or a New York might lavish; heck, when the highest paid academic officials in the U.S. are the football coaches it’s hard to imagine musicians or creative side souls being high on the list of ways to splash cash. I mean that line though, I travelled 22 hours from bedroom to hotel room door to get to Seattle. I trekked from Tacoma, to Olympia and onward over the course of a few days, all to get to Aberdeen; it marked the mid-point and simultaneously the furthest extent of my journey; all this travelling to make it there — that’s how significant Aberdeen is in my cosmology.

Any last thoughts? Not really. It was a physically pretty place with beautiful surroundings, but the declining fortunes of logging, the port, the industry has left it looking a bit baleful — ironic that the things that scarify the landscape and make it ugly make the town sadder for their fall. It maybe shows my naïve side that I’ve never been to a town where I’ve seen needles discarded in a public space, or someone twerking down the street (or on my damn bus!) thanks to whatever they’re on at that time of the morning — in a way it stands out for me because its rare and for good or ill I count rare as a good thing. I’ve also seen, however, good people whether Mitch, Dann and the Aberdeen Museum (check this! Do it! http://www.aberdeen-museum.org/kurt.htm), Gary, Ally from Raymond, Aaron Burckhard, plus all the people who’ve chipped into the blog this past week (I need to write up some of what you’ve all said — thank you Gary Lennon and Steven Friederich!). I’ve also seen the time and energies invested by individuals such as Lora Malakoff and her husband Kim, or by Tori Kovach (non-geezer, true trooper), or Kathi Hoder, or Denny Jackson, or the Kurt Cobain Memorial Foundation or the crew who made the ‘breaker’ happen (replace each ‘or’ with an ‘and’ and amend grammar and phrasing accordingly.) This isn’t an object of study, it’s a real place, with a lot of people putting time and energies into making it a better one. A genuine hope for that. Its also nice to know that Nirvana isn’t yet safe enough that everyone agrees on it – that counts for a lot.

Heck, all very well for me to snipe but given the number of Nirvana fans out there you’d think that a campaign that hooked in LiveNirvana, the Internet Nirvana Fan Club, the thousands of Facebook groups and Twitter feeds, the Tumblrs, the Reddits, all this other gubbins, you’d think there’d be enough loose change for the fans (like me) who give two hoots (I think I do…I’d like the four novel’s worth of words on this hobby site, plus the book, plus the several hundred graphics and photos spread across the 281 articles online and counting, plus the fact I flew across the world to look — all taken into account when judging whether I care or not) to put together enough for something that was a worthy conclusion.

Go to Aberdeen. There’s a walking tour, there are willing guides, there’s a wicked monument in a meaningful location, there’s a sign at the edge of the city, there are surviving properties, there’s a star on the sidewalk…There’s enough to make it worth your while. Go see how your hero lived — it just made me realise there’s not much stopping me doing something amazing too.
Very late night rant concludes here with apologies for late night ranting and with photos of the abandoned nuclear power station complex at Satsop. If they’d finished building it and had put it into operation before realising that a major fault line ran right through it then we probably wouldn’t be touring the area today…

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Comments
  1. The Pour House you saw is the same one as in the 80s. It was closed for awhile and then reopened. It is not uncommon to see 10-20 Harleys parked in front of it when the Beach Run (not sure that’s what it’s called) is happening.

  2. Gary Douglas Lennon says:

    A very introspective summary, indeed. I can understand your impressions and they are valid in that you have an individual vision, and that’s exactly what I think everyone needs to strive for in these days. Stepping outside of ones self and exploring another’s past life is quite a sojourn in itself. Thank you for visiting and seeing. Have a pleasant trip home and I do hope you think of having your experience published one day. I think it would make a fine book of sorts. You have also created a good spark of interest in the many people here who are striving to reinvent Aberdeen. That is always our pleasure!
    Gary Douglas Lennon

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