20 Years Later
My group of college friends at the University of Missouri-Columbia were very music and film savvy. Most of us were journalism or psychology majors, and shared a lot of artistic commonalities. My freshman year, there were three albums seemingly on constant rotation in our dorm: Check Your Head by the Beastie Boys; the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack and Nirvana’s In Utero.
As a Portland native, my flannel outfits didn’t always seamlessly translate to my new Midwestern lifestyle, but my friends respected the Pacific Northwest, primarily because of Soundgarden and Nirvana, so I got along okay. Even though I only began truly embracing the bands after I moved to Missouri.
Around Christmastime in 1993, about six of us gathered in my friend Nick’s room to watch the first showing of MTV Unplugged in New York, featuring Nirvana. He was one of my only friends that had a VCR in his room, and he graciously let me tape the performance as we watched it.
The room fell silent at the first sounds of “About a Girl” and none of us spoke until the first commercial break. We were speechless. It was so beautiful, and Kurt seemed to be in good spirits.
Predictably, we watched my tape of the show repeatedly the rest of the winter. It became the tonic for breakups, college exam fatigue and general teenage discontent (yes, as freshmen, we were all still teens).
As spring emerged, we began making summer plans—most of us would go back to our respective cities for three months, but we were all committed to meet up for Lollapalooza, which was the concert festival of the 90s. It was our Woodstock. And Nirvana was headlining.
When Kurt Cobain attempted suicide in Rome on March 3, we were horrified. The man was the most successful musician on the planet. He was happily married to his grunge Goddess. He had a beautiful little girl he seemed to adore. Drinking beer as we discussed it, we all blamed the drugs and were thankful his attempt was unsuccessful. I remember us debating how long he’d be out of commission in rehab, etc. and my friend Matt saying they had better string him up like a puppet with his guitar if he’s not ‘present’ enough to perform at Lollapalooza. We all laughed because it was so absurd to imagine—Lollapalooza wasn’t until July and he had four months to get his act together. Surely his wife and band would see to it that he got well.
On a sunny April day in Columbia, I came back from an early class to our usually boisterous dorm, stopping on the boys’ floor to say ‘hi’ when I realized no one was in the hallway. There were doors open, but there was no one out chatting; no frisbees being tossed; no music playing except a few rooms which all coincidentally had “Something in the Way” watfting out of them.
I peeked into my friend Scott’s room, and two other friends were gathered with stunned looks and tears in their eyes, facing the TV set. What on earth was going on?
I quickly saw the loop of the MTV clip of a shaken Kurt Loder announcing that Kurt Cobain was dead. I was stunned; too in shock to cry, too sad to know what to do.
I immediately went across the street to the dining hall where Brendan was in the middle of his work study shift. He’d already heard the news by the time I arrived, so as he wiped down counters, I filled him in on all the details. He was sad, but not at all surprised.
From there, I went to my own room and talked with Lauren about what had been on the news since I’d been gone. She said they were still not formally identifying the body, but the news outlets in Seattle were sure it was him, so it probably was.
I called Jeff, who was at Brandeis back then, to see how he was taking the news. He said everyone around him was also in shock and they were following the story as closely as we were.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had reacted as if one of my own family members or friends had passed. I was in denial, in a haze of sadness, making phone calls and seeking community to deal with it.
I returned to the boys’ dorm as evening approached, and we all gathered in the hallway to collectively grieve. Bursts of Nevermind and the Unplugged album permeated the building, but none of us wanted to hear “Come As You Are.” The lyrics about Kurt swearing not to have a gun were too haunting in the moment.
One gentleman who was as obsessed with Nirvana as I was (am) with U2 came home from a work shift sobbing, stormed past all of us and slammed his door. Another friend went after him. Copycat suicides were inevitable and we didn’t want him to become one.
Soon we were watching footage of the spontaneous memorial at The Seattle Center and listening to Courtney recite his suicide note. That’s when the tears came. I wished so badly I could be there, amongst my people, to grieve properly under the Space Needle.
That June, during a visit to my sister (who lived in Seattle at the time), I went to his house to pay my respects. I left a bouquet of flowers at the entrance to his home, feeling nauseous as I caught a glimpse of the room where he passed.
I continued to love Nirvana, buying every ounce of music the studios could resurrect from the Cobain legacy, wearing black Converse sneakers like the pair he was found in, and absorbing every book that was written about his life.
My favorite among the biographies was Heavier Than Heaven by Charles Cross, a Seattle author who appeared regularly on shows discussing Nirvana.
And here’s where life gets interesting:
I moved to Seattle in 1999, and eight years later began working for an independent school north of the city. Each year, that school hosts a fundraising auction that boasts impressive ‘experience’ items to purchase, such as once-in-a-lifetime trips and meet-and-greets with famous celebrities. Though I enjoyed attending the annual event as a staff member, I was never completely comfortable when the bidding began because the items were always well outside of my price range.
In 2010, the volunteers needed some help cleaning up after the event, so I stayed the course and assisted them in carrying box after box of decorations and supplies out to their cars. As a result, I ended up being the last person out of the venue, well after midnight, which did not go unnoticed by some of my colleagues. When I arrived at work the following week, they surprised me with the ultimate “thank you” gift for my extra efforts: lunch with Seattle author Charles R. Cross. One of the auction prizes.
I was incredibly touched by their kind gesture and ridiculously excited about the upcoming meal. I exchanged many e-mails with him to set up the lunch and within a month was meeting him at a local supper club. I have to admit, I don’t remember a thing about the food.
After the usual pleasantries, Charles indulged me with many stories about his rock-and-roll reporting and I peppered him with U2 groupie tales. There was never a dull moment.
Following the fantastic meet-up, I blasted Nirvana as loud as I could from my car stereo all the way home. Hosting California friends many months later, I noticed a promotional poster as we strolled past the Seattle Art Museum. There was an exhibition called “Kurt” in tribute to Mr. Cobain.
I visited that display the following weekend, alone, in the quiet of a gloomy Seattle morning.
As I walked about the classic photographs and fan art, I was content, but not impressed. I had more of a reaction years ago when I saw his cardigan at EMP. Something about the essence of Kurt was missing.
I vowed to look at each and every piece of artwork no matter how silly (one “modern” display consisted of a woman who had filmed herself dancing to Nirvana music—oh, Seattle). I sat through footage of a concert I was sure I’d seen before. I had to read the description closely for another picture: it was a confusing representation of angel hair and baby’s breath in honor of the lyrics from “Heart-Shaped Box”.
Then, as I entered the final room of the exhibit, it hit me. At the farthest end of the space was a painting of the evidence photo that was taken of Kurt’s body as he lay dead in that Seattle greenhouse. His hand was in a fist; his denim jeans ending above a neatly tied sneaker that so many of us at the time wore. I burst into tears.
I’d stared at that crime scene photo for hours when it was repeatedly published in a parade of magazines in 1994. I was never okay with how alone he appeared.
Fast forward to a few days ago—I happened to read my Town Hall calendar of events and noticed that Charles R. Cross would be appearing in conversation with KEXP’s John Richards. It was 48 hours before the 20th anniversary of Kurt’s death. I had to be there.
The room was packed. The sense of community as we all sat there, glued to their heartfelt commentary, was palpable. Nervous laughter erupted when Cross made a joke about the God-awful Tori Amos cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; many of us teared up at the sweet story of Kurt bringing his demo of “Love Buzz” to the Seattle radio station and then driving south, stopping at a gas station to call in and request they play the song from a pay phone. They did.
After the Q & A, I bought Cross’s most recent book and stood in line for him to sign it. Before I could get out the words, “You probably don’t remember me…” he was telling me that he did, and he specifically recalled my passion for U2. I told him I’d happily volunteer some PR time for a project he mentioned on stage, to bring proper honor to Kurt’s memory here in Seattle. He asked if I had the same email address. Luckily, I do. Writers, of course, keep everything, so I still had his too.
As I rode home that night, listening to In Utero, I reflected on some of the things the men had spoke about. Some of the last places Cobain had been in Seattle. The recording studio where his final song was made; the sketchy motel where he used to shoot up; the gun store where he bought the fatal bullet. Sadly, I live very near to all of them.
Today, as I was taking a break from voiceover work, I decided to get in the car and drive around, listening only to Nirvana music. I thought perhaps the car would take me back to his house, but I decided against it. I was still in my pajamas and there was certain to be a crowd—possibly also press—there. And besides, the greenhouse is gone anyway.
I drove South and ended up at the sketchy motel you see in the photo above. Seattle’s own Marco Polo, which is very much still a functioning establishment. As I saw the maids working their way down their route, I resisted walking up to room 226. Cobain’s favorite.
Heck, there were probably guests in it at that moment, and it was doubtful they realized they were in the shadows of rock royalty’s heroin den of choice.
I instead snapped a photo of the sign (it’s been updated since ‘94) and sat in the parking lot for a moment, sulking at the grey rainy day. The mood still somber after all of these years.