The winter comes in hard to Grays Harbour, nearly the westernmost point of the mainland United States. Some snow, but rain mainly, 12 inches a month from November into March. Wind and rain rip the forest of red and orange leaves from their branches, leave the sky low and white, the water slate grey, hardened. From Hoquiam and Aberdeen, the harbour towns, you could once have looked across a bay filled with floating logs, ships, naval vessels, but no more. The industry killed itself through overlogging in the 1970s, and then fell prey to global competition.
Aberdeen once had a reputation as a wild town, a remnant of the old pirate coast of Oregon, and the parade of ships coming in for a few days turnaround. It’s said that its most notorious killer, Billy Gohl, convicted for two murders, may have killed upwards of a hundred people up and down the coast over decades. It is violent still, as the local paper’s police blotter (a back page section listing all court appearances and arrests) tells you, but the crimes are small and pathetic: car theft, fights outside taverns, domestic violence restraining order breached, vagrancy. Aberdeen has died twice — once in the 1960s, when the compact harbour town sprawled and the downtown slumped, and then starting in the ’80s, when the jobs went and it lost around a quarter of its 19,000 population.
About the best you can say is that it’s not doing as badly as its twin town across the bay, which is called, of course, Cosmopolis. From here and right up the Olympic peninsula south-west of Seattle, you can find an America that has only been touched lightly by the last half century of boom-and-bust. From Aberdeen up through McCleary it’s broken-down wooden bungalows and deserted gas stations, strips of shops with a forlorn modernist touch, an angled veranda, a semi-circular single bay window, displaying nothing, even one or two old old “ham, eggs, cheese” shops, what Americans had before convenience stores took over. At Olympia, state capitol, hippie town extraordinaire, home of beatnik redoubt Evergreen State College, it all stops, sort of, and greater Seattle takes over. A forgotten peninsula, this is dirty real country (Raymond Carver grew up in Yakima, to the east), where the skies are always white as paper.
Should you be coming down here on the peninsula bus, back and forth about four times a day, for the reason many people come to Aberdeen these days, you’ll be checking out the other passengers for fellow travellers. Kids in retro gear, Miller shirts and cheap, ill-matched trainers? Hair died blond with soda? Check and check again. Trouble is, everyone looks like that on the peninsula bus — kids who are either very poor or English majors at Evergreen, but not both. Vets in wheelchairs they’ve cutely hotrodded, with GT stripes and flame decals, hippie women in rainbow skirts, and just the poor, the poor poor, in sweatpants and cotton zip-ups. Should you be going for the reason that Japanese kid at the back of the bus appears to be going, with SLR cameras, you can’t help but look out and think, “He must have ridden this a hundred times, he must have seen that veranda, that shop might have been open”.
“What made Cobain’s music so powerful, distinct, and really, the last moment of rock, at the last point when a singular and focused mass culture dictated global tastes, was that he created a sort of punk infused through heavy metal … giving it a pop sheen, and a lyrical complexity.”
Should you be going there for that, as I was, don’t go to Aberdeen. Or don’t stay there. With the full collapse of the timber industry in the mid-2000s and 500 jobs going in one hit, the town is now scratching around for anything it can get trade from. “Welcome to Aberdeen — come as you are” the sign on highway 101, and you know that the place is getting its full Cobain on. There’s a Kurt Cobain memorial park, people will offer you tours of the star’s houses — he lived in about 20 of them during his chaotic childhood, drifting between uncles and aunts, all in their 20s and 30s — and if you’re a reporter, the mayor will offer to pick you up from the bus station in his SUV and drive you round. Not quite a clapboard Salzburg, no Cobain candies to match the Mozartkugel, but it’s on the way. There is, of course, no chance of it working, the way Graceland works, because Cobain wasn’t that type of rock star. It is the beaten-down greyness of this place, an unAmerica, that makes it so compelling, a place that without anti-muses like Carver or Cobain, barely signifies, fades back into the sky. What persists of that blankness can be found back up the road, in the inland town of Montesano.
Monte, as its known, is a small town with a four-by-four grid, known for, well, nothing. Just another small town with a diner, a couple of barbers, some old banks, and a big Thriftway supermarket. Cobain lived there for a few years off and on with his father following his parents’ divorce when he was nine, but it was something in 1983 that makes it special. As Cobain tells it in his journals:
“In the summer of 1983 … I remember hanging out at the Montesano Thriftway when this box-boy who kind of looked like the guy in Air Supply, handed me a flyer that read … “The Them Festival. Tomorrow night in the parking lot behind Thriftway. Free live rock music.’ … I showed up with stoner friends in a van. And there stood the air supply box boy holding a Les Paul with a picture from a magazine of Kool Cigarettes on it. They played music faster than I ever imagined music could be played … This was what I was looking for.’
The box boy was Buzz Osborne, and the band was the Melvins. The local kids didn’t like them (“play some Judas Priest!” they yelled), but the Melvins just got off on the hate. That was punk, and that was Kurt Cobain, made in that moment.
What had happened was, in retrospect, obvious and unremarkable. The Melvins, formed a year earlier in Montesano, had taught themselves to play from Clash records and cassettes of those records and cassettes of cassettes done on old double tape machines, as it was in those days. The Melvins were, and remained, punk purists, music that starts to wear on you by your 20s and eventually becomes unlistenably tedious. But what was it like to hear it at 17 in a north-west nowhere town, in the car park of a supermarket called Thriftway? It would have cut through the air, sounding not heavy — in a place where metal was the only approved style for kids in Miller shirts and ’70s long hair — but light and agile, on point and precise.
By the early ’80s, metal had routinised itself, relentless, steady, quasi-industrial music for a working class in a place where industry was disappearing, overlaid with lyrics that were either mythical claptrap, strutting assertion or suicidal meditations at pace. Cobain was as much a fan as any, and as attracted to its resistant anger as any kid from an angry working-class family — a violent grandfather, a frustrated and thwarted dad, a 19-year-old mother drifting into alcoholism, petty crim uncles, suicide further back, everyone living in trailers or getting the power cut off — but he was also, by this point, artistic, curious, reading widely, smart and poetically minded, wielding, inevitably, left-handed, a restrung right-handed guitar. Later, as he started to write the music that would define, not very accurately, the Seattle sound, he would drift up the road to Olympia, become part of the city’s alternative scene, a place that might well qualify as the seedbed of the “alt” culture that would spread across the world.
What made Cobain’s music so powerful, distinct, and really, the last moment of rock, at the last point when a singular and focused mass culture dictated global tastes, was that he created a sort of punk infused through heavy metal, taking on some of its structural complexity (which is well buried, but there), giving it a pop sheen, and a lyrical complexity. The Pistols and the Clash came from Soho and Chelsea, played art schools and the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. Cobain heard them in a parking lot at the edge of the Western world. He was the last punk, just as punks were the last rock ‘n’ rollers, and, pre-internet, it had taken seven years for it to get to him.
“For the moment, no one’s put a plaque at the Montesano Thriftway, thank god. There’s no Cobain trail. Maybe there never will be. I get the feeling that Kurt’s hold on the popular imagination will not cross the generations the way that Jim Morrison, or Jimi, or Janis, has, and certainly nothing like Elvis, whose repeated sightings across the decades marked him as a quasi-religious figure.”
That explains why the parking lot moment matters as a minor cultural event, but not why, for more than a decade, it has obsessed me. I’m no Nirvana fan of any great measure, liked a half-dozen of their songs, found them arresting and compelling, heard them in my mid-20s — they were about the last musical moment that really had any big effect on me before I started picking up new songs I liked from bank ads. I don’t even have a good aural-mental image of half their songs. Yet ever since I read about that parking lot in a Cobain biography in the late ’90s, the idea of it has obsessed me. I have nurtured it for more than a decade, made sure not to accidentally see it on Google, knew that I had to go there sometime. Didn’t even know it was in Montesano, not Aberdeen, till I did the research. Had to go through Montesano to start at Aberdeen, so kept my eyes shut when we hit the start of the town on the way there. Didn’t even know if it would still be there. When the bus came back in to Monte, it turned out that it was and that the bus stop was practically in it.
And it did not disappoint, all still there. As we pulled in, the Thriftway sign loomed large, the supermarket not only still bearing the name, but the enormous, ’50s-era sign still there. The supermarket itself had been schmicked up around the edges a little, but nothing fancy. Next to it was a Valu Drug pharmacy, and the door to the Beehive Diner’s “Honeypot” nitespot room opened onto its north side. It was everything I could have hoped for, which is to say nothing at all. I stood in the middle of it for a few minutes, going into some sort of borderline state. It was possible to see and hear the concert, what it would have been like, the dozen or so kids who got it, the other 30 or so who were bored and looking for something to do, the uncomprehending adults, the Saturday afternoon feeling, of something on the edge of meaning something, but not quite. The sign anchored the fantasy, it would have been exactly as it was, star-pointed, ’50s moderne typography, a promise that something sophisticated was somewhere, the cosmopolis, and could be got here, thriftily.
For the moment, no one’s put a plaque at the Montesano Thriftway, thank god. There’s no Cobain trail. Maybe there never will be. I get the feeling that Kurt’s hold on the popular imagination will not cross the generations the way that Jim Morrison, or Jimi, or Janis, has, and certainly nothing like Elvis, whose repeated sightings across the decades marked him as a quasi-religious figure. They stride like gods across our cultural memory, because they came at their culture’s last great triumphal moment, the post-war boom, and then the social revolution that augmented it, and became a carrier for the country’s deepest values. Cobain came along at a time when that moment had passed — Smells Like Teen Spirit is in fact “smells like Teen Spirit”, Cobain’s mocking swipe at a deodorant marketed to 13-year-olds in the ’90s — consumed in branding, malled. And he was of that time, lost from the start in it. Writing and rewriting his lyrics on the fly, an early version of Teen Spirit‘s refrain goes: “Here we are now/Blame our parents”, an infantilised cry of pain from a kid whose world shattered when his parents divorced in his 10th year, and who was talking of suicide from his 12th.
By the time he recorded them, he’d turned them into graceful elegiac satires, by which the less deceived spoke back to the routinisation of desire. References to “my libido” as a “mulatto, a mosquito, an albino” — i.e. despised, hybrid, parasitic and mutant — are the exact opposite of “break on through to the other side” or knowing you’ve got it if it makes you feel good. You always feel bad, and there is no other side. Even the Pistols had a rambunctious carnivale to their nihilism, the cultural centre of the world being a rather more congenial place to do all that.
Cobain’s muse was a stretch of asphalt on the road from somewhere to somewhere, in a shattered world. His half-dozen or so best songs may well rank as rock’s — not R&B or funk, or pop or rap, but rock’s — half-dozen best, come last: cool, expertly crafted, now quiet, now explosive, dryly poetic. After that, there was nowhere to go for a genre that had been based on having a rocking good time, and all that has come after has been footnotes on footnotes. That’s not generational snobbery; the music now is as good as it ever was, even if the radical function of it has died, just as it has died for art. But rock is over, a minor genre, on the way to trad jazz status, played by paunchy men for their friends and children.
Recognising myself as one such now, I pushed out from the diner, nerved myself to see what anyone remembered and fashioned a story — “I’m doing an article on the Kurt Cobain trail, have you seen any tourists coming through?” — that would get people talking without weirding them out. I worked my way down the row of shops that faced the carp ark. “Were you here? Do you remember? Did you?” But of course it’s 30 years ago, and while the town hasn’t changed, it’s changed. Shops open and close, people move on and in place like the Olympia peninsula, they just die in their 50s or 60s.
My last roll of the dice was Tracey’s print shop, keys cut and trophies engraved also, in a small wood building directly across. Cully, the owner, was lounging in an executive chair. Neat hair, small moustache. We talked about Nirvana and ’70s rock and AC/DC and REO Speedwagon and all the stuff that Cobain had put into the mix.
Had he seen any tourists? Was he here in ’83, by any chance.
“Naw, I came here in ’86.” Pause. “But Kurt’s granddad, Leland, used to come in here all the time.” Pause. A light smile. “He used to make copies of Kurt’s old artwork to send to friends.” Had he kept copies? His smiled widened below the ‘tache. He had told this story before. “Of course I did.” He reached into a filing cabinet and pulled out three watercolours, done by a 13-year-old Kurt, a harbour scene of tormented storms, a tropical scene. Unremarkable by subject matter, they have an eerie luminescence even in copies, bespeak imagination, a different take. They were a veronica of a veronica, and they broke my thin self-deceit that this trip was just a jaunt. You have to cop to what moved you in popular culture, even at the ridiculously late age of your late 20s, an age at which most of Kurt Cobain’s forebears had become grandparents. Something in his stuff spoke then to me, a child of divorce, of, in very different circumstances, a division in self that comes from it, something that can become something like a war within, when things get out of true. Cobain’s lyrics are unlike anything else in rock, abject, and finding a way through it to a sort of peace, or at least a truce, and a generation after Woodstock, and a decade after Reagan, I bet I’m not the only person they spoke to in that way. A parking lot, unmarked, seems the only fitting memorial to that. Such pointless obsessive journeys are worth going on, because there are no other kind, and Cosmopolis is always and forever across the water.