Kurt Cobain still belongs to Seattle – 25 years later
Friday April 5, 2019, is the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The death of frontman Nirvana remains one of the darkest moments in pop history.
His status as an icon in music seems cemented, and almost all the great music polls make it near the top of the list. Nirvana was immortalized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the first year of its feasibility, and the band remained a radio subject year after year.
But Cobain’s status is something completely different in Seattle, the city that formed it, and in the way it forms. Grunge and the Seattle music scene pioneered by Nirvana changed the way Seattle was seen outside the city, but they also changed the way Seattle looked at itself. Music gave Seattle an identity outside of Microsoft and Boeing and instead of being the place to make planes and software, Seattle became a zero point for youth culture and alternative music. When Nirvana’s Nevermind reached the top of the Billboard charts in January 1992, the achievement itself was the beginning of a different Seattle, a city that created culture rather than following trends. After Microsoft gave Seattle economic influence, but only in the post-Grunge era Seattle had cultural pride.
There are many other Seattle music stars, but few are bound to Seattle in the popular zeitgeist mind like Kurt Cobain. Jimi Hendrix was born here, but his music is rarely described as “the Sound of Seattle,” and Hendrix had to go to London in search of fame. Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and thousands of other bands all play a role in our music revolution, but in the minds of the whole world, and on the charts, everyone follows Nirvana.
Almost all retrospective “think” or news sections that look back on Cobain’s influence will contain a description of “Seattle’s Kurt Cobain.” That is the way that the wire service section is always read, as was done by the initial news reader. The connection seems permanent to the city and Cobain, although he only officially had a home address in Seattle for 13 months, and most of the time was on a road tour.
He spent his first 19 years in Aberdeen and only moved to Seattle’s home address in March 1993. He had lived in hotels in the city for several months and in 1992 had bought holiday homes in Carnation, but rarely spent time there. Seattle’s first address was, from all places, a house in Lake City was rented for nine months. He and Courtney Love then bought a house in Denny Blaine in January 1994 for $ 1.3 million. Cobain died there, committed suicide in a greenhouse above a separate garage, dismantling boxes scattered throughout their homes. Park next to his house on Lake Washington Boulevard as close to the Seattle warning, and that’s where fans usually gather on anniversaries. They will do it again today.
Another irony is that even for Kurt Cobain, Seattle is a city that is too expensive. He couldn’t afford to pay $ 137.50 for an Olympia apartment that he shared with a boyfriend, and when they broke up he really struggled. He works as a part-time janitor and has other odd jobs while doing his music. Finally, Nirvana signed a major label recording contract and he went to Los Angeles in the spring of 1991 to record Nevermind. When he returned to Olympia, he found all his belongings on the side of the road, because he had been expelled. After recording an album which then sold 25 million copies – which no one knew would happen at that time – Cobain then slept a few days ahead in his car.
Driving to Seattle from Olympia is often a financial hurdle that Cobain cannot manage. I read all of Cobain’s journals and diaries, many of which were not published, and Seattle was often mentioned, long before he moved to the city. He wrote many bio sheets for Nirvana, and in almost all, he tried to connect himself to Seattle (usually by claiming the band was “from the outskirts of Seattle”). He also complained about how expensive Seattle was, and how much it cost to travel to Seattle from Olympia. In a letter not sent to Dale Crover of the Melvins, Cobain wrote that he had planned to go to Seattle for the Melvins show, but in the end, he was only unable to buy gas. because he only found one other person to share costs. “That would be too expensive” with only one passenger, he wrote. Back in those days, gasoline was less than a dollar per gallon.
Finally, Nirvana began to get attention at Seattle clubs and, at first, the band made gas money and finally made a profit of several hundred dollars a night. In another letter not sent, to a friend from high school, Cobain boasted, “We were very well received in Seattle … The promoter calls us to see if we want to play, instead we have to hunt people for the show. Now it’s only a matter of time for labels to hunt us down, now we have promoted ourselves quite well by taking a small long distance tour. The club shows sold out, which draws a big label for them.
Another myth around the line “Seattle’s Kurt Cobain” is that until 1990, Nirvana was still not considered the biggest band in Seattle, or even on the Sub Pop label (Mudhoney was in control of it). It takes Nirvana to tour college towns and tour Europe for the band to get an attraction. Cobain also began writing pop-oriented songs such as “Sliver” and “Lithium.”
Nevermind left in September 1991 but did not reach the top of the charts nationally until four months later. It was a direct hit in Seattle when the KNDD station played “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But it was really MTV who broke Nirvana wide when the video of the song made a famous album and Cobain.
There are no songs closer to Seattle than “Teen Spirit,” but even this song has a weak connection with the city and a lot of mythology. Cobain wrote the song at Olympia, Nirvana first playing it at an exercise in Tacoma and Nirvana recording it at a studio in Van Nuys, California.
Seattle’s claim is that Nirvana debuted “Teen Spirit” here before the audience at O.K. The hotel club on Pioneer Square on April 17, 1991. For all the song legends, you would think that the Seattle audience in the building would destroy the building enthusiastically. Instead, the audience was more enthusiastic about responding to other famous songs on the set.
Buildings that accommodate O.K. The hotel is still there, but has long stopped hosting the event. Now, like almost everywhere Nirvana plays Seattle, the space is O.K. Apartment Hotel.
If there is one sign of how much Seattle has changed in the past 25 years, it can come to trace the places where Nirvana actually played in the city. There are several dozen places that host Nirvana on the road, but only a small number of them still have music.
The following is an incomplete list, starting in 1988, with current use recorded:
– The Vogue (the building is still standing, the club is long gone, now a hair salon).
– The Central Tavern (still standing, renovated).
– Theater Moore (still standing).
– Squid Row (destroyed, condo).
– Underground (destroyed, office).
– University of Washington HUB Ballroom (still standing, renovated).
– Annex Theater (demolished, condominium).
– C.O.C.A. (destroyed, condo).
– Motor Sports Garage (destroyed, condominium).
– Off Ramp (still standing).
– WELL. Hotels (still standing, different uses).
– Beehive Record Store (still standing, usage is different).
– Paramount (still standing).
– Seattle Center Coliseum (still standing, being rebuilt).
– Crocodile (still standing, renovated).
– King Theater (destroyed, condo).
– Pier 48 (still standing, use is different).
– And finally, the last place the band played in Seattle, Mercer Arena (destroyed).
People don’t have to be land use lawyers to realize that, 25 years later, this is a very different landscape for music in Seattle. Nirvana has never played Showbox, partly because it did not host Seattle’s rising band in Nirvana’s early years.
There are only three places that Nirvana has played for years in Seattle that still have an interior similar to what they did when Nirvana played there: Moore, Paramount and Off Ramp (now El Corazon). The first two are theaters that are protected by landmark conservation status, while El Corazon, the club which also hosts Pearl Jam’s first show, recently made news because the site could be developed.
Nirvana’s performance on Off Ramp drew five different big labels and basically it was that performance, and watched the response from the Seattle crowd, who persuaded DGC’s major label to sign it. There are many things that make Nirvana and Kurt Cobain an icon, but one small part of that history was made in a slum club in Eastlake, which is currently still there.
Warning of death is very difficult to understand or to be included. I spent years researching Cobain’s life, but there are many who still feel like mysteries, perhaps because suicide and addiction itself are unknown demons. There are 30,000 suicides in the U.S. the year when Kurt died; in 2017 there were around 45,000, including two people I knew, one of whom was Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, who often raised Cobain when we talked. Suicide claimed the lives of more Americans now than traffic deaths.
And don’t make me start using opioids because I think about that and Cobain every time I drive on Aurora Avenue, the part of town that is still full of rotten hotels where Cobain often lives with drugs. The word epidemic was finally used to talk about the opioid crisis, but for those who are on Seattle music, this is old news. Starting with Andrew Wood in 1990, there has been a long list of famous deaths and soon became famous.
The most haunting place in Aurora is in a small area near Shoreline that was once a weapons shop. That’s where 25 years and three days ago, Cobain bought a box of shotgun rifles for a gun he had bought the previous week at Lake City Way. I think the most pain in my heart is thinking about that moment, trying to understand what is impossible to truly understand, and trying to make peace with the loss that ensues.
Fans did not gather there, but instead, they headed for a very different landscape of vast wealth, on Lake Washington Boulevard and into Viretta Park, next to Cobain’s house. The house is a private house, with a high fence installed after Courtney Love sold it to people with Microsoft money. The greenhouse where Cobain died was torn down many years ago. Fans leave messages, flowers, and notes on the park bench. Usually, on anniversaries, there are crowds and tears and someone sings Nirvana songs on an acoustic guitar.
Kurt Cobain lived in Seattle for a very short time, but 25 years later, the music still blew, sometimes only in my memory, sometimes coming out of destroyed buildings or from windows of luxury condominium developments. Back in history, rock ‘roll’ was once alive and vital and so was he.