FRESH YARN presents:
Altars. Saviors. Rock 'n Roll. My life is best represented in verse -- verse, chorus, verse. Every memory is a song or an album or a chord strummed on a distorted guitar. I don't know if I can do justice to my own story the way my favorite songs could. I don't know if I will ever be able to describe the surge of memories and ideas that charge every synapse in my brain when I hear my favorite band, Nirvana. I know that I have never been able to capture the feeling in my stomach when I heard the news of Kurt Cobain's suicide on April 8, 1994, an event that seems central to my story.
In 1994, I was 14 years old and, as much as I wanted to go, I had no way to make it to Seattle from Oak Park, Illinois for the very first public vigil for Kurt Cobain. It wasn't until 10 years after Kurt's death that I could afford the trip and had people to go with. I joined up with four girls I met on a music website. We came from Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, Southern Illinois; one of the girls came all the way from Australia. The five of us spent a week exploring Seattle together, all of us seeing the city for the very first time, focusing mostly on finding places from Nirvana's history, such as music venues where they had played.
We also traveled two hours to Aberdeen, Washington, the town Kurt Cobain grew up in. We spent most of our time in Aberdeen at the Young Street Bridge, a place where Kurt escaped to as a teenager. Sitting beneath the bridge, on the muddy banks of the slow-moving Wishkah River, where every inch of concrete is covered with markered and spray-painted messages for Kurt, I stared out at the little houses and evergreen trees that lined the shore; the heavily pregnant, gray clouds above. Though Kurt's presence in that place had dissipated, it is one of the two places the energy of his spirit is most powerfully felt, tended by every fan who goes there to remember him.
The other place is Viretta Park, called "Kurt's Park" by his fans, the small park in Seattle right next to Kurt's last home. My friends and I went there on April 5th (10 years to the day that Kurt died), April 8th (10 years to the day his body was found), and April 10th (10 years to the day the first organized public vigil was held for him). We bought flowers and candles at the Public Market, took the number two bus to the end of the line, and walked about half a mile up Lake Washington Boulevard to get there. On the first two days we watched people of all ages, from all over the world, come and go, leaving flowers, candles, pictures, letters, even a box of macaroni and cheese, on the bench in the center of the park that had become an unofficial shrine to Kurt. On our third visit, however, we found that everything -- even the large cross that someone had made out of pink flower petals below the bench -- was gone, thrown out by the Seattle Police. But we were prepared, armed with more flowers, and a bag of one hundred tea light candles, which we used to spell out "KURT" below the bench. We sat there through the afternoon. A few people came and went, but only two other boys stayed with us on through dusk, and when the darkness fell, the seven of us, armed with only three lighters, lit up Kurt's name. You could see it clearly from the street; it burned with the same ferocious brightness as Nirvana's music.
* * *
I entered junior high in a suburb of Chicago in the fall of 1991, at the dawn of an era. Perhaps you can't call a couple of glorious years an era, but because those years echo so strongly culturally and personally for so many people, I call them one. I was a skinny, awkward, stringy-haired girl who had given up all attempts to fit in over that summer. I had never done a very good job to begin with. In sixth grade I had given it an honest go, putting away my odd outfits of oversized, boldly-colored shirts topped with berets or witchy dresses and granny shoes from the vintage boutique by my house, and buying Keds and Gap pocket t-shirts. But I hated being plain. Just a month before seventh grade, my friend Kendra, a kindred spirit who was also just too naturally strange to fit in, played me a tape that contributed greatly to my decision to give all attempts at popularity the big kiss-off.
Kendra's room always seemed so much more sophisticated than mine. It was her arty touches, the cool hats she left sitting out, the collages she made with pictures clipped from fashion magazines. I was sitting on her bed while she flipped through a shoebox full of tapes that she kept on her dresser. Kendra was on top of underground music in a way that still seems unfathomable to me.
band," she was saying as she pushed her dark brown, sharply angled
hair out of her pale face, "you might like them. This is their first
album, but there's a new one coming out soon. I don't know what I think
of it really, but oh, here it is."
After the song ended Kendra got up to turn it off. "What do you think?"
I told her
to put it back on.
article I have read about the impact of Nirvana was written by someone
who was at least in their twenties when "Nevermind" came out
and remembers what it was like to be "there" and how they rediscovered
their passions because of it. I was twelve years old; I didn't really
know about the "underground scene" or even know that I should
be "disillusioned with the mainstream" though I definitely knew
I didn't like Pop or Hair Metal. Kurt Cobain didn't help me rediscover
my voice or my passion; he gave me that passion and the permission to
use my voice. And as for Nirvana's music being the release from pain that
everyone speaks of, well, it says a lot for a man in his early twenties
to be able to give a voice to that indescribable pain that every adolescent
And then over the summer between seventh and eighth grade I did theater and somehow managed to make enemies with the popular girls. They chased me home every day, all of us on rollerblades. I remember their blazing eyes and their long, perfectly conditioned hair flying out behind them. My spine curved, bent over like the speed skaters I had seen in the Olympics, arms pressed close to my sides, pumping back and forth to try gain enough speed to stay in front. My messy brown hair twisted around the headphones I used to insulate me, punk rock protecting me from their threats and insults.
But nothing was as bad as the way my best friend Juliet changed. She had been my other half and with her around, I could turn a blind eye to everyone else. Then she found out her grandmother, her primary caretaker, was dying of cancer and she took her anger out on the only person she had: me. One night when I slept over she told me she was going to cut off all my hair when I fell asleep. She slept with scissors in her hands; I stayed awake staring at her Garfield poster. By the end of seventh grade, Juliet's grandmother was so sick Juliet had to move away to go live with an aunt in Rockford.
Her grandmother died less than a year after she moved. As much time as I spent at Juliet's house, her grandmother was like my own. The scent of her pork chops or corned beef would creep in beneath Juliet's bedroom door, sneaking past the piles of clothes and books on the messy floor, circling her daybed to torture us while we played Nintendo. Finally, she would call Juliet to get out the dishes. We would rush into the kitchen, pile food on our plates, and eat in the living room with Juliet's grandparents, watching Star Trek. Juliet's grandmother had the couch at the back of the room to herself. Books and papers were stacked on the cushion beside her, along with her carton of More cigarettes. My last image of her haunts me. The same brown sofa, the stack of books and papers, and, despite cancer, the cigarettes; on the table next to her was a mannequin head with a wig. Juliet's grandmother sat there, draped in a blanket, head wrapped in a pretty scarf, looking small, forcing her tired face to smile. Hers was the first death I experienced and it was so shocking I remember nothing of it, not where I was, who told me, or how I reacted.
The second death, a year later almost to the day, was Kurt Cobain's and it was Juliet who broke the news to me. The phone was ringing when I walked into my room that Friday afternoon after school.
Juliet was cackling. "Kurt Cobain is DEAD! He won't be making any more crappy music!" She hated Nirvana and just about every other band I liked.
"No, he's not," I countered hotly. "That's just a rumor." Gossip had been swirling about this since he overdosed in Rome and I figured that was what she was talking about.
"He's DEAD! He SHOT HIMSELF! Turn on Q101, turn on MTV, if you don't believe me!"
I hung up the phone and ran over to my stereo. "All Apologies" was ending and then the DJ announced: "It has now been officially confirmed Kurt Cobain is dead."
* * *
Though I saw them on MTV and in magazines in the days and weeks following Kurt Cobain's death, the first time I saw Viretta Park, up close and in person, and the house where Kurt's body was found was 10 years later. When we first arrived at the park, there were already little groups of Nirvana fans, and there was also media.
"Let's just ignore them," one of my friends muttered as we walked over to the bench. Like hundreds of other fans, we wrote our messages to Kurt. Soon after that, MTV approached me for an interview. I was still feeling numb to it all, overwhelmed by the passion of Nirvana's fans that was evidenced in the park, and by seeing the house, just over the fence, where Kurt Cobain had spent his last living moments.
"Uh, I guess." I agreed and let MTV film my disorganized speech about what Kurt Cobain and Nirvana meant to me.
I wandered over toward the bushes that bordered the house and started
crying, all of my emotions finally spilling forth about being in the park,
including anger at myself for letting the press capitalize on my grief.
Eventually I rationalized it, remembering how when Kurt died, MTV was
the only connection I had and for some fans, it still was. Though the
presence of media was overwhelming at the time, I know that part of the
memory will fade and the images of the fans I met there will remain.
On my first day at Viretta Park, I stayed from 10 in the morning until the police asked us to leave around midnight. By mid-afternoon a circle had formed around a couple of kids with guitars sitting on the grass just to the right of the bench. My friends and I spent the rest of that day singing Nirvana songs with them. Our circle fluctuated in size as people came and went, but we kept a candle burning in the center next to a copy of the issue of The Rocket that had come out when Kurt died. In the sunlight we were rowdier, often screaming the words at the top of our lungs, sometimes off-key, guitarists breaking strings, laughing at ourselves when we forgot the right line. It mimicked the energy of Nirvana and the world during those two magnificent years that they were huge -- the chaos, the honesty, the general good goddamn time. As night fell, everyone in the circle lit white candles, which we held until they threatened to burn our fingers. The mood became more somber, our voices quieter, but more powerful. Someone showed up with a cello to play along. I huddled closer to my friends for warmth, cupped my fingers around the heat of the candle, and closed my eyes to the darkness of the park as I sang, knowing this was the beginning of what had been 10 years in the making, my goodbye to Kurt, and all the memories the moment was stirring.
* * *
After the death of Kurt Cobain I wanted more than ever to experience the camaraderie of the underground that Nirvana's music had exposed to me. But I found that my underground was not housed in sweaty, hole-in-the-wall rock clubs chock full of best-kept-secret bands, it was outside, right out in the open in Scoville Park, just two blocks from my high school. Around fifty kids hung out there: punk rockers, ravers, skaters, metal heads, sci-fi geeks, and the just plain bizarre who defied any kind of categorization. Fall of my sophomore year, when I first set foot on Scoville Park's dying grass, I thought it was my Mecca. I was amazed by the creativity of the people I met there, and the way the park seemed to be a home for kids who had always been left out. But by the time I left my hometown, just two-and-a-half years later, I wanted to burn Scoville Park down because of all the bad that had come out of it. Drugs were destroying many of the people I loved the most, gossip had shredded most of my friendships, and a boyfriend had almost completely shattered me.
of that park was the relationship that diseased my memories the most,
made all my words, all my favorite songs sound ugly for years. My first
affectionate image of him is still untouched. Him in his basement, playing
with his band. He was the drummer, but he came out to sing and play guitar
on the last song, a cover of "Aneurysm." He was wearing a blue
cardigan, a Nirvana t-shirt, and jeans with massive holes in the knees.
His stringy, chin-length black hair hung in his face, but his hazel eyes
were locked on me. That was all that I wanted then, a boy who sang songs
to me, my own Kurt Cobain.
"Watch your teeth," he demanded and I pulled my lips even tighter over my teeth. I tasted my own blood, but I still couldn't make him come. So he said, "We should make love."
He still called it this even though that phrase had lost its meaning for me two months before when I had said no the first and only time, and he had refused to speak to me until I gave in.
"Your little sister's upstairs."
He shrugged like I should know better. So I shut up, got on my hands and knees for the last time, the short, cheap carpet ripping the hell out of them. He leaned over me, the t-shirt he wore kept on rubbing against my bare back, and entered me from behind. Didn't hurt as bad as the first time I took back my "No." After I had given in I was so scared to say anything to him that I let him pound his chest against mine, between them on a chain that dangled from my neck, a ring that he had given me, which created little circular bruises that I still felt the day we broke up.
Perhaps it seems that this relationship is my story, that it defined my life more than the music, more than Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. For a long time it did, the six months I spent with this guy repeated on a loop in my head for years after everyone, myself included, thought I should have been over it. But that story is no different than all the stories like it. There was no hitting, but there was the controlling, the isolation from friends, the constant berating, the never-good-enough-never-right. It destroyed me twice. The first time while it was happening and the second while I was trying to work through it. It swallowed the rest of my high school career, only one friend staying at my side through all of it, patiently waiting for me to let go of all of the pain. I don't know which was worse, the actual events or that it was bred in the cozy, underground scene I had searched so hard for. I don't know why I had always had it in my head that the underground was sacred and nothing bad could touch it. After all, Kurt Cobain was dead.
* * *
Though no place figures into my past more prominently than Scoville Park, it makes sense to me that I would come to terms with everything at Viretta Park. After all, it was what I saw on TV in 1994 -- the kids at Viretta Park joining together to comfort each other over the loss of Kurt Cobain -- that had driven me to seek a place like Scoville. On my third night in Viretta Park, my last night in Seattle, after we lit the candles, I went up to the bench by myself to stare down at the blinking candles that spelled out Kurt's name. That's when it really sunk in: what I had been searching out for the past 10 years, that pure creative force, that voice that Kurt Cobain had given the world, was inside me. I had carried it with me through my destructive adolescence and my slow recovery, to Seattle, to Kurt's Park, the place I had wanted to be for 10 years. Or, perhaps, it had carried me.
When I walked back down the hill to where the others were sitting, admiring our dedication in silence, we had to figure out what to do about the candles -- they were starting to go out in patches. Burning out or fading away, we debated. It seemed to be a precise metaphor for the Neil Young lyric Kurt had quoted in his suicide note, "So, remember, 'It's better to burn out than to fade away.'" As much as I hated that line and the decision to die that he had justified with it, we decided quickly, collectively, against letting the candles fade away, wanting our memory of them to remain as vivid as our memories of Kurt. So we blew out the candles, each making a wish.
As we walked slowly away from the bench, out of the park, and past Kurt's house, I remembered a quote in a magazine that I read the year after Kurt's death. A fan had written, "He was." I had cut it out and put it above the picture of Kurt that Rolling Stone put on the cover when he died. I realized it was all I needed to say about my past. It happened and it was over. I didn't need to think about it anymore, I didn't need to forget or to forgive, I just had to stop looking back and the dull ache would be gone.
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