Aberdeen, Washington's first Kurt Cobain Day is being held this week on Thursday, February 20th. Writer Chris Nickson, author of the Emerald City crime series set in Seattle, remembers him...
This April it will be 20 years since Kurt Cobain killed himself. Think about that for a minute. 20 years. In that time Seattle’s changed in remarkable ways – not least having a football team that won the Super Bowl and a soccer team to be proud of in the Sounders. Music has moved on, too, and the legend that was Nirvana has become burnished in gold.
Grunge has gone and been revived, empires and kingdoms have fallen. And this years, two decades after its most famous son died, Aberdeen, Washington is having a Kurt Cobain day on February 20. It’s taken them long enough.
I’m not here to rehash the story of the band; my friend Charles Cross has managed that perfectly well in his definitive Cobain book, Heavier than Heaven. But I remember the sense of grief all through the Seattle music community after the news came out. There was a kind of numbness, maybe more among fans who’d taken the albums to heart more than anyone. An era really had ended.
I saw the band twice. Once in the early days, before Dave Grohl joined, in a club in Pioneer Square, probably the Central. They were good and they had potential. The second time, if I recall, was in a venue near Re-Bar whose name I don’t recall. By then they’d improved. If there was a shambles, it was deliberate. They were loud, punchy, and committed.
Their success came as Seattle was riding a wave. In the early ‘90s, with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the city led the world musically. Just a few years before it had been named America’s most liveable city. Its time had come, quite a feat considering two decades before it had seemed on the verge of extinction. 20 years, again.
I’m not the world’s biggest Nirvana fan. Never have been. I liked them but there were others things that moved me more. I never interviewed Cobain or Grohl. I did meet bassist Krist Novoselic once, for a feature on his post-Nirvana band Sweet 75. We had lunch at the Deluxe on Broadway, and out of that I ended up doing a little work for his political action committee, JAMPAC. No big thing, I was one of many.
Nirvana really did change everything. The rules, the ethos of success. But sometimes the boundaries are too strong to break down. You form a band and you want people to hear what you’ve done. You want them to like your creation. The problem, perhaps, was that too many people saw themselves reflected in Cobain’s songs. He couldn’t be everything to everyone. Maybe he found it hard to know just who he was anymore.
In the wake of his death another friend of mine wrote a book about him. Dave Thompson’s Never Fade Away was completed in a remarkable seven days. Amazingly, it wasn’t exploitative, but a very sympathetic portrait of a talented man.
And now it’s two full decades since Cobain went. He was born and raised in Aberdeen, one of the few from there to break out and make his mark. The word ‘legend’ is overused, but he’s become one.
So, Aberdeen, what took you so long? - Chris Nickson
"West Seattle Blues", second in Chris Nickson's Emerald City trilogy, publishes later thisyear.