A hideous statue of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain is now displayed in his awful little hometown's local history museum, so that visitors can remember him not as the last rock 'n roller to rule America but instead as a weeping bummer playing acoustic guitar.
February 20 was Kurt's birthday, so his one-time hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, celebrated yesterday with a sad little festival. And this horrible statue, which had been sitting unwanted in a muffler shop for two decades, now has a home in the Aberdeen Museum.
The television show Twin Peaks was briefly popular just before Nirvana finally pushed punk rock into the charts, nearly two decades after it burst out of New York and England, made a media commotion, and dropped into the small and seething subculture of Reagan's America and Thatcher's U.K. Twin Peaks opens with the corpse of a high schooler, wrapped in plastic sheeting, dumped on the gravelly shore of a gray little lake under the forever gray skies.
That's Aberdeen, and that would've been Kurt, too—dead under the bridge, probably from the same shitty heroin that has plagued the gloomy Pacific Northwest for decades and has now been mostly replaced with Oxycontin and the like, easily available from the Wal-Mart pharmacy.
But Kurt got out. He didn't go very far, distance-wise, just to Los Angeles for a while and then a nice suburban house in Seattle, where he stuck a gun in his mouth on April 5, 1994. After life as a poor kid in a crap town like Aberdeen, Seattle must've felt like Paris. Or Rome, where he nearly killed himself on pills and champagne during the 1994 world tour.
Nirvana was gigantic in Europe, because the band's hook-filled angst was perfect for the weird times of 1992 and 1993, when "Come As You Are" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" blasted out of cement-floored black-walled nightclubs like The Bunkr in Prague, filled with post-Iron Curtain kids who had suddenly realized the end of Soviet communism wasn't going to change their lives one way or the other. Heroin was everywhere there, too. Stringy long hair and worn-out jeans and No Hope and needles in the bathroom were not at all limited to America.
Like the kids who listened to it, grunge hasn't aged well. Most of the music is plodding and dull, orcs on methadone yelling about being misunderstood. It's depressing to remember that grunge—rock music for teenagers created by working-class musicians playing real instruments—was the last asthmatic gasp of rock 'n roll.
The unfortunate style of the era is still with us today, on the grotesquely tattooed arms of 45-year-old tire-changers at Sam's Club, and in the milk-crate record bins lining the living room wall of a garbage apartment you're never going to escape. Nirvana's music is the most palatable of the brief era, because of Cobain's ability to put Beatles-esque pop hooks in the grungiest of settings, but in visual style the band was as terrible as anything of its time, precisely because it wasn't a style at all. Even when Kurt tried to look rock 'n roll, he looked like garbage. Wearing a dress, dying his hair, not even shooting heroin could make Cobain look hip. He was the eternal part-time fry cook throwing together a Halloween costume at the last minute, from whatever was in the garage.
Flannel and jeans and work boots are the uniform of working class losers from the Pacific Northwest to Minnesota to New England to Rhode Island, the whole of America's Gloom Belt. Having adopted whatever their moms brought home from Sears as a permanent costume, the grunge generation's aesthetic was so aggressively nonexistent that it required a lot of ink and piercings and missed trips to the Supercuts to make it clear that you intended to look that way.
This is the sad-sack vision of the Cobain statue: the figure as gray as Aberdeen's skies and gravel piles, leaning over an acoustic guitar, crying like a miserable hippie.
There is no doubt that Kurt Cobain cried, and he obviously wrote songs (and performed a memorable Unplugged set) on an acoustic, and he always dressed like a bum. But the affection that still exists for "Kurdt" was a result of the joy Nirvana brought to people with its instantly hummable heavy rock music and lyrics that mixed the wry and poetic. Things were awful, but for a few minutes they were thrillingly awful, and the only way grunge kids knew how to show how much they loved their friends was to smash against each other in the mosh pit.
It may be fitting that Kurt Cobain's glum little hometown has this ugly statue in its gloomy local history museum, in that 1990s form of no-expectations irony, but it's not at all proper. The Experience Music Project in Seattle is a vulgar tourist trap in another ugly Frank Gehry building, but at least it represents where Kurt went, rather than the dead-end place that only inspired his mental escape into music.
Rock is dead, maybe for good this time—nothing made this more obvious than Nirvana's one-time drummer, Dave Grohl, playing behind a middle-aged composer of industrial and electronic soundtrack music as the Grammy credits rudely rolled over their wrinkled faces before the "rock segment" was cut off altogether for the local news tease. The artificial and virtual is culture now, youth or otherwise. It's positively quaint how the balding and graying remnants of the "alternative music" world complained about the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing to pre-recorded music at this month's Super Bowl, like an old person complaining about smart phones.
The alternative bands of today can't even make a living from rock 'n roll, let alone rule the culture. They're background music for Brooklyn yuppies at web startups, and not even people paying $3,000 a month for rent feel the need to spend $10 for an iTunes album. It's lifestyle music for the rich, and if it vanishes it doesn't even matter, because the most banal pop music produced entirely on computers is also perfectly acceptable for headphone listening or at the bar with the artisan cocktails made by the guys wearing straw boaters and suspenders.
Who even knows what poor kids listen to, in 2014. Corporate hip hop, classic rock, New Country, Swedish techno-pop, it hardly matters. They sure don't start bands, because bands are for Ivy League graduates who can afford to screw around with their indie project for a while, before they go into viral marketing or law full time. Rock isn't an escape from lower-class drudgery, it's an amusement for the 1%.
Anyway, Kurt Cobain is still dead and this wretched statue of a crying wino will sit in his downer hometown forever, until the waters rise up and claim the dreary Washington-state county so accurately named "Grays Harbor." Maybe it still means something, to somebody.
I was not the target demographic for grunge, but I still loved Nirvana. And Cobain was so deep in our collective consciousness that for months after his lonesome death, I had vivid dreams of Kurt appearing here and there in my life. Especially at a greasy little diner in Polk Gulch, down the block from an apartment building full of junkies that I managed at the time. I would be sitting there with the Chronicle and an iced tea and a tuna melt, with a couple of my loser friends or sometimes alone, and Kurt would shuffle in, wearing a moth-eaten sweater over his yellowed T-shirt with some obscure band's name. Each time this happened, there was an immense warmth and happiness that is almost impossible to explain in the context of a dead guitar player who screamed his choruses, but there it was.
I have wondered for twenty years if anyone else had these vivid dreams—visitations, really—in the dark April and May of 1994, and now seems like a good time to ask. Because if you stuck with me all the way to the end, Nirvana might've meant a little something to you, too.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke.]