I mentioned in my last post that I’m a night owl. I cannot overstate just how useless I am in the mornings, so it’s no small feat that on my third day in Seattle I woke before dawn, voluntarily, and got out of bed without hitting snooze even once. Through the kitchen window, I saw a sliver of a crescent moon peeking out from behind the Space Needle, and smiled. Seattle had so far exceeded even my most unrealistic expectations. To start my busiest day in Washington State by catching a glimpse of the moon hanging low over the Space Needle, postcard-perfect – it sounds silly (it is silly), but it felt like a good omen. Had it been cloudy, or had I overslept by just a few minutes, I might not have seen it. Instead, everything lined up perfectly for me.
My day started so early because I wanted to see the sunrise from Kerry Park. The half-mile walk to the park was up a steep hill – my phone logged it as 18 flights of stairs – and as I was struggling up it, wheezing and coughing and wondering how I got so out of shape, some bastard had the audacity to run past me. Maybe that’s how you spot a tourist in Seattle: who’s out for a casual jog up Queen Anne Ave N., and who looks like they need a defibrillator?
The view from the top would have taken my breath away even if I were at peak fitness.
Though I think that’s a pretty good picture – especially considering my smartphone camera and nonexistent photography skills – it doesn’t fully capture the beauty of it all, or how peaceful it was. It was unbelievably quiet. There were a few photographers snapping pictures, and a couple of other people who were, like me, just taking in the view, but no one was talking. There was no traffic noise. Only the occasional caw of gulls and the soft click of camera shutters broke the silence.
I put on my special ‘Sunrise in Seattle’ playlist – 45 minutes of grunge’s softer, more mellow side. (Screenshots, for those who don’t have Spotify.) You can laugh at me all you want. I’ve already written pity pieces about my busy lifestyle, and my complete inability to chill – there’s no need to elaborate here, but I will say that it was perhaps the first time in four years that I’ve truly slowed down. For 45 minutes, I did nothing. Layne Staley, Andy Wood, Eddie Vedder, and Chris Cornell gently crooned in my ears as I watched the sky fade from hues of deep purple to pink. Ferries crisscrossed Elliott Bay, bringing commuters from Bainbridge and Bremerton before the sun had fully risen; before the lights of the city had even dimmed. The sky burned gold at the horizon, and the moon slowly disappeared as the streaks of colour faded to bright blue.
I’ve never seen anything like it. If this was right on my doorstep – if I could wake up and see this every day – I think I’d turn into one of those mythical ‘morning people’.
Once the sun had risen, I bused downtown to pick up my rental car. I wandered around the waterfront, grabbed breakfast (and coffee) to go from Pike Place Market, and set off on my little road trip. I couldn’t come all the way to Washington state and not see Aberdeen.
Throughout the drive, I was listening to and thinking about Nirvana. They were more than just my gateway to grunge. Along with Chili Peppers, Nirvana helped me discover a love for music that I didn’t know existed in anyone, let alone me. My parents aren’t really music lovers, and of all the great sounds to come out of the 70s and 80s, they favoured ABBA, Dr. Hook, and the Bay City Rollers over legends like Hendrix; even ‘dad rock’ like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin is (I quote) “too bang-crash” for them. The distorted guitar, screeching vocals, and fast, angry drums of Nevermind were nothing like the cheesy 70s disco and soft rock my parents casually listened to. More importantly, it was nothing like the melodic, uplifting Chili Peppers I knew from By The Way. It blew my mind that I could equally love both, and it was that love for two vastly different bands which made me realise I could connect to music on an emotional level. I just needed to find the right music – and Nirvana opened that door for me.
On a more sombre note, my tendency to obsess over things led me to read everything I could about Kurt Cobain. While it was something of a morbid fascination, bordering on unhealthy, it made me feel less alone with my depression long before I received a formal diagnosis or even fully grasped what depression was. I had to visit the town where he grew up. I had to see where it all started for the man who gave me so much.
There were many places I wanted to see along the way: the Crescent Ballroom, at 1302 Fawcett Avenue in Tacoma, which had hosted Nirvana, Green River, Soundgarden, the Melvins, Malfunkshun, and the U-Men. In Olympia, there were several venues where Nirvana played, including Capitol Lake Park, where in August 1988 they played one of their only shows with Soundgarden. On May 3, 1986, Kurt made his public debut – as part of Brown Towel, a one-off trio with Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover of the Melvins – at the Greater Evergreen Student Community Cooperative Organization (GESCCO) Hall, located at 503 Cherry Street SE. GESCCO Hall also hosted Malfunkshun and Skin Yard, two bands which, so far, were sadly lacking on my ‘completed’ list. In Montesano, there was the high school where the Melvins began, and the Thriftway parking lot where Kurt first saw them play. If I’d had a couple of extra days in Seattle, I’d have stopped at every single spot – yes, even a Thriftway parking lot – but with only three days and sixteen hours and such a long ‘must see’ list, I decided to head straight for Aberdeen without stopping, in the hope that on the way back I’d have time to visit a landmark or two. About an hour into the trip, the coffee was wearing off. I thought, I’ll pull off at the next exit, whatever it is. It’s Washington state. There’ll be coffee somewhere. I pulled off at the next exit….
…and I happened to be in Olympia. I didn’t check out the Olympia venues – I didn’t trust my ability to find them without getting lost, losing valuable time, and my priority was getting to Aberdeen as soon as possible. I did at least get out the car and wander around for a little bit, taking in the beautiful views. Pull off at a random exit where I’m from and you might find a sketchy strip mall, if you’re lucky. Pull off at a random exit in Washington and apparently you’ll find coffee shacks overlooking mountainous inlets.
Coffee in hand, I drove on. Passing through McCleary, I got all excited to see… …a highway sign. Have you ever been excited to see a highway sign? I have. Just this once. Just this specific sign.
(I know I’m a dork, thanks.)
And then, finally, after driving for a little over two hours and thinking about it for years before that, I was in Aberdeen.
I fought against my Type-A urge to hurry up and get to my first stop, instead pulling the car over at the earliest possible opportunity. I’d spent weeks poring over maps; planning a minute-by-minute itinerary; planning a backup “in case I’m behind schedule” minute-by-minute itinerary; and I’d debated whether it was worth making a 4-hour round trip just to see Aberdeen, a town that wasn’t exactly bustling with attractions. I was quietly sure that by day three in Seattle I’d be so horribly behind schedule I’d have to give up the idea. Yet here I was, walking along the banks of the Chehalis River.
Aberdeen was built around the lumber and fishing industries, and its history is often told as a ‘boom and bust’ tale. Census data shows that the population exploded in the early twentieth century, growing from just 3,747 in 1900 to 13,660 in 1910, and quickly reaching its peak of 21,723 by 1930. With the First World War came a need for wooden ships to supplement the merchant marine, and Aberdeen’s shipbuilding industry received a boost directly from Congress; by 1924, the town earned the title of “Lumber Capital of the World” when it shipped its one billionth foot of lumber. But the depression and the decline of the logging and fishing industries hit Aberdeen hard. Since its 1930 boom, the population has almost continuously decreased. The unemployment rate hit double digits in 1970 and remained that way for decades.
I tell you all this not just because I’m an insufferable history nerd, but in an attempt to give a sense of the Aberdeen Kurt grew up in. Though he was born several decades after the town’s economic boom, he lived among an adult population that surely remembered it – which, in my mind, conjures up an inherently sad picture: an older generation who remembered when the town was thriving; a younger generation with parents out of work; both as bitter as each other. (I have no statistics related to ‘bitterness’, of course. Perhaps that’s just my imagination going haywire.) I wouldn’t be the first writer to mention that he grew up poor; to bring up “that legendary divorce” which turned his world upside down at age nine; or to point out that he bounced around from place to place, calling twelve addresses (that I know of) ‘home’ in his short 27 years. The 1210 E. First Street house which people often call his ‘childhood home’ was one of many:
The Cobains moved here from Hoquiam when Kurt was two. He was three when his sister, Kim, was born in April 1970. The years the Cobains spent here as a family of three were happy by all accounts, including Kurt’s own:
Up until I was about 8 years old I had an extremely happy childhood – a really good one, with a totally affectionate mother, and she was totally supportive in helping me do art. I was always drawing and reading and she was really into supporting me… …I had a really good childhood during that time.
About A Son
In About A Son, Kurt describes himself as a hyperactive child so loved and well-supported that he felt he could do anything: he could be the President of the United States, if he wanted; the world felt about as big as his back yard, and he thought every town in America was like Aberdeen, where “everyone just got along”. In Montage of Heck, Kurt’s mother Wendy paints a vivid picture of that hyperactivity, recalling her son “running and jumping and doing somersaults, and jumping off of things… And rocking in the rocking chair like, ninety miles per hour.”
Though he describes his childhood as happy, there is a tinge of sadness to some of Kurt’s earliest memories. By age seven, most of his friends were asking the same question: why are my parents divorcing? What went wrong? Kurt described it as “a plague, a total disease.” In February 1976, a week after Kurt’s ninth birthday, the plague struck his own home when Wendy told her husband that she wanted a divorce. Wendy and Donald Cobain had struggled financially throughout their marriage: Don held down an office job in the logging industry, but his $4.10 hourly wage wasn’t enough, and even with the extra money he took in doing inventory at the lumber yard on weekends, the Cobains frequently had to borrow money from family to pay their bills. Financial stress and conflicts over parenting may have led to the divorce, which was finalised on July 9, 1976. Donald moved into his parents’ trailer in Montesano. In Kurt’s own words:
I never felt like I’ve really had a father, you know? I’ve never had a father figure who I could share things with. I had a mother and father [before the divorce]… …and then he got married and after that I was, you know, like one of the last things of importance on his list…. …he just gave up.
About A Son
After his parents’ divorce, Kurt “started becoming this manic depressive”. His view of the world – and his behaviour – changed dramatically. In June 1979, an overwhelmed Wendy granted Don full custody of his son. While living in Montesano with his father, Kurt met Buzz Osborne, who made him a compliation tape of punk rock.
…by the end of the week I was a certified self-proclaimed punk rocker. I’m so glad that I got into punk rock at the time that I did, because it gave me those few years that I needed to grow up, and just put my values in perspective, and realize what kind of a person I am.
About A Son
But Kurt’s rebellion was too much for his father to handle, so for a while he couch-surfed with family and friends: at one time, ‘home’ was back in Aberdeen, in a refrigerator box on his friend Dale Crover’s porch, at 609 West Second Street. He eventually moved back in with his mother. In high school, he struggled to belong:
Well, I wouldn’t have been so unusual at all if I would have found at least one kid with a wacky haircut. If I could have just found one punk rocker… I mean I wanted to fit in somewhere, but not with the average kid. I mean not with the popular kid at school.
About A Son
It was at high school that Kurt met Krist Novoselic, and found the punk rocker friend he’d been looking for.
I remember seeing him in high school a few times and thinking he was definitely somebody I wanted to meet, but I never saw him other than at pep assemblies. I remember thinking he was a really clever, funny, loudmouth person… …I kept always making it obvious I wanted to be in a band, and wanted somebody to play with… …I made the Fecal Matter tape with Dale [Crover] and always made it available for Krist to hear, and he just never bothered to listen to it, until one day he just came over and said “I finally listened to that tape you made. It’s pretty good. We should start a band.” Okay, finally!
About A Son
Kurt had discovered his love for music at a very early age: now, he walked a thin line between wanting to become a rock star just to prove he could, and questioning why he should, when the approval of others mattered little to him. Shortly before graduation, he made up his mind, and dropped out of high school.
My family was certain that I was gonna go to art school, but at that time I was so heavily into punk rock that I decided I wanted to be in a band instead. I had two scholarships waiting for me…. …I made my mind up at the end of the year that I wasn’t going to go. I was immediately kicked out.
About A Son
Homeless again, Kurt lived at a number of different addresses before eventually moving into his own place. Meanwhile, he and Krist had recruited Aaron Burckhard as drummer for their band, which practiced, in its early days, at Krist’s mother’s hair salon. The little building is still there, at 107 S. M Street. Needless to say, I stopped by to check it out. It looked inhabited, so I didn’t get pictures, but you can take a tour via this real estate listing, if you like.
After visiting the spot where Nirvana rehearsed before they were Nirvana, my next stop was where they played some of their earliest shows, and where Krist made his first public appearance:
The D&R Theatre is located at 205 S I St. It was closed when I got there, though I appreciated that speakers were blasting Jimi Hendrix into the entryway. Just around the corner, at 211 E. Wishkah Street, is where Rosevear’s Music Center was originally located: Kurt’s first guitar, a gift for his 14th birthday, came from Rosevear’s. After supplying Grays Harbor with instruments and music lessons for 80 years, Rosevear’s sadly closed in 2015. A post from the store’s Facebook page reads:
For a short time at our location on the corner of Wishkah and H we had this map up on the wall. We invited anyone that visited Aberdeen and our store because they were fans of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain put a star on the map showing were they had travelled from. Quite a few of the stars have fallen off but most of them are still there. Pretty cool to know that some hometown boys have had such a far reaching influence!
I had one more stop to make in Aberdeen – something I’d intentionally saved for last. I headed back in the direction of E. First Street, looking for a certain park, and a certain bridge.
Kurt’s claim that he lived under the Young Street Bridge during periods of homelessness has often been questioned, but he certainly hung out in the area. A park has been built there in his honour:
Near the bridge there are a couple of benches where fans scrawl tributes. I paused to leave my own, and to read the messages others have left. They ranged from simple “thank you”s to lengthier notes of appreciation; doodled hearts and “I love you”s; Nirvana lyrics and choice quotations from the man himself. One of the names was familiar:
I have no way knowing if that message was really left by Aaron Burckhard, of course – I know it’s about as verifiable as a spray-painted “DAVE GROHL WOZ ‘ERE” – but I want to believe.
There was one more thing I had to do before I could leave Aberdeen.
I sat underneath the bridge for a while, reflecting on Kurt and Aberdeen. It was eerily quiet. Occasionally a car would pass overhead, but the sound was muffled, barely louder than the gentle lapping of the Wishkah. I couldn’t imagine sleeping here, on the cold, muddy banks, exposed at all sides – you almost hope that Kurt was making it up. A piece published by AP News last year called Aberdeen a place “drowning in despair”; in a letter to Grays Harbor County newspaper The Daily World, Aberdeen Rep. Jim Walsh derided the article, calling it “a classic hatchet job, designed to portray this area in the worst possible light…. ….to portray us in a buffoonish, pathetic manner to make self-styled sophisticates feel morally superior.” I can’t make judgments about Aberdeen based on the few hours I spent there on a sunny, windy Monday. What I can tell you is that many of the houses in Kurt’s ‘Felony Flats’ neighbourhood are boarded up, or in disrepair. I can tell you that (as of 2016) 21.6% of its residents live in poverty. I can tell you that I didn’t spot any needles laying around Kurt’s memorial park, despite the grim warning posed by a local resident’s handmade sign, but the town’s opiate-related deaths doubled last year.
Before I left the bridge, I put on Something In The Way. I had to. I’m sure Kurt would have hated it – he probably would have hated me, the extra fangirl who traveled nearly 2,800 miles to sit on a riverbank under a bridge. All I can do is hope he’d understand that the way he describes first hearing punk rock in About A Son is how I felt the first time I heard Nevermind; that his music is to me what Buzz’s demo tape was to him. The song finished and I got up to walk back to my car. I had to listen to something, and nothing seemed more fitting than Nevermind.
Except, suddenly, the music would ‘play’ but there was no sound whatsoever. Some weird shit was happening to my brand new phone, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get Nevermind to play. Maybe it’s a total coincidence. Maybe it was a personal “f*ck you, you creepy, obsessive freak” from Kurt himself.
I had no time to stop anywhere on the way back to Seattle – I had an appointment I couldn’t miss. There’s no way I could ever forget the trip I’d been dreaming of for more than a decade, but I wanted something special to mark it. Something that would last forever. A way to take a piece of Seattle with me everywhere I go:I have to give a huge shout out to the staff at True Love Art Gallery and Tattoo, who were wonderful from start to finish, and to my artist, Eric Schandelmeier. I was in the studio for a little over an hour, and had a few more sites to squeeze in before dark.
The first was Comet Tavern. Most of the venues in my novel are fictional, but there are a couple of nods to real bars. How could I not feature a bar The Stranger described as “a place to start your night with a shot of whiskey with a couple grizzled regulars. A place where a hazmat suit should have been provided before entering the bathrooms. A place where tales of drugs, drunks, and debauchery were never in short supply”? Drugs, drunks, and debauchery could be the byline to my novel.
I didn’t pack my hazmat suit, so I couldn’t stop for a drink – I was also rushing, racing against daylight and Mother Nature, who didn’t give a damn about my schedule. I had a couple more sites to check off my list before the sun set:
Neumos opened as Moe’s Mo’Roc’N Cafe in 1994 – by that point, many of the bands that epitomise the grunge movement had already left Seattle. To my knowledge, just one of the bands with a permanent spot in my ‘recently played’ list played here: in 1996, Moe’s hosted Pearl Jam’s first collaboration with Neil Young. Moe’s also hosted No Doubt for their first appearance in Seattle, and it was here that an infamous free Radiohead show nearly caused riots.
My next stop, Oddfellows Hall, has had its own share of controversy: a Mudhoney show here was shut down by police for violating the Teen Dance Ordinance. The Teen Dance Ordinance placed such heavy restrictions on music venues that bars often refused to host local acts, who would instead rent Oddfellows Hall for their performances. The Hall was an essential part of the early music scene, and is also where Skin Yard played their first show, on June 7, 1985.
Of course, while I was in the area, I had to pay homage to one of the most legendary musicians Seattle ever gave us:
Still with me? I did warn you this was my busiest day, but we’re almost done.
Having seen the sun rise over Seattle, I also wanted to see it set. I rushed over to Alki beach/Alki point in the west. West Point, 14 miles north of Alki, is the westernmost point of Seattle and may seem like the best place to see sunset, but for me, it had to be Alki. Many pivotal scenes in my novel take place there, and it has special significance to one character in particular. By the time I arrived, the sun had pretty much disappeared, but it was stunning nonetheless:
Rumour has it Eddie Vedder lives in Alki – watching the waves roll in as the last glimmer of light disappeared over the horizon, I could see why he’d choose to live here, and why there are so many references to the ocean in Pearl Jam’s lyrics. It was beautiful, in a way that felt completely different to watching the sunset from the Space Needle. At the top of the Space Needle, you’re surrounded at all sides by the city: it’s inescapable. From this spot of Alki beach, it didn’t feel like I was in the biggest city in the Pacific Northwest. It could have been any remote corner of any country in the world, and that’s exactly why my characters come here so often: to escape. On my way home, I drove through my characters’ neighborhoods: I walked around the industrial district, where I currently have my band’s bassist living in a shithole apartment flanked by train tracks on one side and the Spokane St Viaduct on the other. I drove around Beacon Hill, where my guitarist lives, and swung by her high school. I took careful notes for realism; I scribbled down a few landmarks so I can repeat the journey on Google maps if ever my memory needs refreshing.
I’d hoped to go out for the night. I had this silly idea that I could wander around downtown and find live music somewhere; that I should step out of my comfort zone and do something without thoroughly planning it first. Be spontaneous for once. In the end, I stayed in. I was exhausted, but that wasn’t all: I was inspired. I’d seen the sun rise from Kerry Park. I’d visited Aberdeen. I’d got a tattoo while all the memories it represented were still fresh, and I’d finished the day the way my characters so often do.
Truth be told, before coming to Seattle, I hadn’t written in weeks. I’ve been in a creative slump for some time now, so I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity. I set up a writing spot overlooking the Space Needle, laying out my itinerary maps and pebbles from Alki for a little extra inspiration.
I cracked open a beer, and I finally wrote a chapter that’s been plaguing me for months. I kept writing until the early hours of the morning, fighting against sleep. There were so many ideas rushing around in my head. Eventually – around the time I thought I’ll just ride this little inspiration wave a bit longer and then started cackling to myself, singing “I’ll ride the wave where it takes meeeeeeeeee” – I begrudgingly called it a night.
After all, I had another busy day ahead of me.
If you enjoyed reading about my fangirl adventures through Seattle, keep an eye out for the final instalment- part 4!