Seeking Nirvana: Kurt Cobain in Seattle

by Chris on July 12, 2010

Memories of Kurt Cobain & Nirvana at the Seattle Art Museum, his former home on Lake Washington Blvd and Viretta Park.

Kurt Cobain

I remember exactly when I heard Nirvana for the first time.

I had taken up residence in a hostel meant for long-term travelers, on leafy Store Street a few blocks from the University of London. Armed with a work permit and a journalism degree that meant nothing, at least as far as employers were concerned, I punched the clock as a secretary in Senate House, a monolithic monument to bureaucracy where George Orwell had reportedly worked before writing 1984. At night, I poured pints at the University of London’s Union bar, where drunk students called me “Cali” because of my blond hair and American accent, despite the fact I was from Minnesota. I took up smoking just so I could have more breaks.

In some ways, I was having the time of my life, spending all my money in the pubs and on weekend trips around the British Isles. I talked books and movies and art with my fellow hostel mates, most of whom were also recent college graduates unable to game the 1991 recessionary job market. Two in particular stood out, not only for their intellectual bent, but for the hash that they always seemed to have on hand. These “Arizona stoner boys,” as I nicknamed them in letters back home (yes, my children, once we travelers hit the road without cell phones and email), became close friends; I joined them often for smoke, conversation and music education, as they owned tapes (tapes! I am old!) that I had never heard before.

On one of those nights, Mark pulled out a copy of Nevermind, which his friend back home had sent. “You’ve got to hear this,” he told me. Sean nodded in agreement. Apparently they had placed the album on heavy rotation already. The opening chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit rocked the room. Transfixed,  I ponied up the money for my own copy and played it on my Walkman throughout my year long Euro travels.

I’m not sure why the dark lyrics and brash music appealed to me so much. Perhaps it was because I felt I had followed all the rules – college, internships, precocious professionalism – without a noticeable payoff.  Or perhaps it was because my solo European backpacking adventure was the first time that I allowed myself to envision what could happen if I colored outside the lines. If my love for pop-py ’80s New Wave appealed to the optimist in me, grunge spoke to baser fears.

Kurt Cobain, exhibit, Scott Fife, Seattle Museum of Art (SAM), Seattle

Sculpture of Kurt Cobain by artist Scott Fife

By the time Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, I had joined the mainstream, albeit not exactly in my dream locale. I lived in rural York, PA (a far cry from central London), working for a small daily newspaper. My colleagues, most of them also urban expats, felt equally displaced in York. We spent most weekends talking writing and drinking in our shitty apartments, plotting out our next career moves. Grunge proved itself an able soundtrack for this life phase too and although it’s not cool to admit it, we were depressed when Cobain pulled the trigger. Better to fade away? We were still young enough to wonder.

Kurt Cobain exhibit, Alice Wheeler, Seattle Art Museum (SAM), Seattle

Photo of kid wearing Kurt Cobain T-shirt by Alice Wheeler

As is the case with rock stars who die young, Cobain has served as a muse for other musicians and artists. This summer, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) has gathered some of those works into a special exhibit called Kurt. It runs through Labor Day, along with a collection of Andy Warhol media. You can see them both for the $15 suggested admission (SAM is free on the first Thursday of the month).

Kurt Cobain exhibit, Jack Pierson, Seattle Art Museum (SAM), Seattle

Kurt lettering by artist Jack Pierson, Seattle Museum of Art

Overall, I enjoyed the exhibit. While some of the homages seemed a little literal and simplistic, I loved the photos taken by Alice Wheeler, a photographer who knew Cobain while he was alive. Not only did she have some behind-the-scenes photos taken when he was alive, she captured some great shots of modern teens wearing Cobain’s image, showing that something about his music resonates even among kids who weren’t alive back in the early ’90s. I also appreciated that the museum played Nirvana’s music throughout the rooms.

Andy Warhol exhibit, Seattle Art Museum (SAM), Seattle

The Andy Warhol exhibit of his media works seemed insignificant in comparison, although I loved the museum’s interactive take on the artist’s 15 minutes of fame philosophy. For $4, you could take your picture in a photo booth and add it to a constantly changing wall collage.

Andy Warhol, exhibit, Seattle Art Museum (SAM), Seattle

What can I say? I can’t resist a photo booth. I’m in the middle of the second row, putting on my lipstick while wearing sunglasses. Apparently it might show up on the Museum’s Facebook page later in the week.

 

House where Kurt Cobain died, Lake Washington Blvd., Seattle

After viewing the exhibit, I felt compelled to seek out the house that Cobain shared with wife Courtney Love. The Tudor-style home is located at 171 Lake Washington Blvd East, in the affluent Madrona/Madison Park area. It’s ringed by hedges and a driveway gate but there’s not much to see anyway; the greenhouse above the garage where Cobain killed himself was torn down years ago.

Viretta Park, Kurt Cobain, memorial bench, Seattle

In nearby Viretta Park, fans have turned two benches into makeshift memorials.

Kurt Cobain, memorial bench, Viretta Park, Seattle

No fans were present in the park when I was there this weekend, but apparently they gather every year on April 5, the anniversary of Cobain’s death.

Kurt Cobain, memorial bench, Viretta Park, Seattle

Honestly, I felt a little stupid visiting the park. I turn 41 this week and that Nirvana-loving time seem so far away now. Gen X may have long passed into middle age, but we still pull out our reflexive “whatever” attitude when needed.

At the same point, maybe there’s something useful in revisiting the icons of your past, if only to see how much your tastes have evolved. At least to a degree. Because let’s face it, Smells Like Teen Spirit is still a kickass song, no matter how many years go by.

 

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Crystal aka Travelers Barista July 13, 2010 at 11:43 am

I saw that exhibit at the museum this past weekend while I was in Seattle, but I found the head sculpture a little disturbing. I didn’t go into the museum but thought it would be interesting. I was a Nirvana fan as a teen and honestly didn’t even realize at the time that he was a Washington native just as I was, just liked his music.

Reply

Chris July 13, 2010 at 9:55 pm

The head sculpture was disturbing. That’s probably why it’s been featured in all of the ads as an attention-getter. I didn’t expect it to be lying on the floor like that. All in all, I liked the photos the best. Thanks for reading!

Reply

Keith July 15, 2010 at 12:00 am

Loved this post. I’m a huge Nirvana fan and was something of an obsessive conspirator at the turn of the millennium. I did massive amounts of research on his death and read numerous books. I was sure Courtney was to blame. Now, I enjoy Nirvana’s music when the time is right, which usually whenever because the music, while grunge, is timeless in its emotion.

Reply

Chris July 15, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Thanks, Keith. If you’re ever in Seattle, you might want to stop by Viretta Park, just to see the bench and the house. I didn’t include it in this post, but there’s also the Experience Music Project museum, which has an exhibit on grunge (as well as quite a bit on Jimi Hendrix).

Reply

Erica July 15, 2010 at 12:15 am

It is amazing what we will do for nostalgia and music. <3

Reply

Chris July 15, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I really enjoyed this post, great to see the world still being inspired by Kurt. The time you spent in London, must have been an amazing experience. I’m currently in that inbetween stage, having just graduated college, I studied in Leeds for a semester and would love to be able to live there again for any length of time.What was your original plan when you set off for London?

Reply

Chris July 15, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Chris – My only plan was to see as much as Europe before my money ran out! Working in London helped me extend the whole experience for nearly a year. Christine Gilbert over at Almost Fearless had a great post about why recent grads should take time to travel – you should check it out, as she has some great tips. Thanks for reading and I hope you get the chance to hit the road, at least for a while!

Reply

Chris July 19, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Thanks Chris! I appreciate the link, it’s definitely a scary thought going halfway across the world without any real plan and without much cash… but then again that’s what the whole experience is about! I hope I get some time to hit the road too. Definitely a life goal of mine so I’ll be sure to make time for it. :)

Reply

Jonathan July 16, 2010 at 6:47 pm

As disturbing as the head is, I think what has happened to the legacy Cobain left behind even more so. Its interesting that you bring this up, too, because I just read an article about him in STOCKYARD magazine )… must be a Cobain synesthesia!

Reply

Chris July 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

Jonathan – Thanks for the link. Interesting….

Reply

Summer July 26, 2010 at 10:31 pm

THANKS for this post!! I am heading to Seattle in two weeks. I am a huge Nirvana fan, thanks to my mother. I have always been drawn to Kurt ever since I saw his music video for the first time! I am 26 years old AND I still adore Nirvana and Kurt. I am going to make sure I go see this exhibit while I am in town!! THANKS!! Now,just have to figure out the public transit system up there!!

Reply

Chris July 28, 2010 at 2:12 am

Summer – Glad the post was helpful. The art museum is downtown and is fairly accessible. Getting to the house might be a little more difficult, however.

Reply

Hayden September 17, 2010 at 10:22 pm

loved your post, im huge fan of good music and among all those bands and the people i admire its nirvana krist kurt and dave, and just like john lennon, daniel johston, leadbelly, leonard cohen, bradley nowell, lou reed, michael stipe, its kurt cobain i cant hide my fascination for his life and the way he was, but i dont constantly show this up so people dont think im obsessed, well i was 7 years when he died and i cant clearly remember but i know that sometime in 1993 i had a nevermind tape in my hand cause my older brother use to listen a lot rock n roll music so im pretty sure i heard nirvana before 1994 even before i listen to black flag for the first time and next year im planning to go to seattle to the viretta park his house, and stuff to just hang around so gotta keep saving some money

Reply

taraden January 21, 2011 at 11:45 am

I just ran across this post. I too have been to Viretta Park, I went last year for the April 5th anniversary and will be heading there again this year… April 5th 2011. When I was there last year there were several fans there. One girl even flew from San Diego, just to be @ Viretta on April 5th!!! It would be great to run into some Kurt/Nirvana fans again this year!

Take Care…

Reply

Leave a Comment


{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: