RIP Kurt Cobain: The Journey To The Nirvana Frontman's Shrine

As a dedicated fan I recently visited the Seattle park that has become a shrine to his memory to contemplate the Nirvana frontman’s legacy.
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Seattle has given us Bill Gates, Boeing, Frasier, Starbucks and grunge but among those ‘Famous Five’ only one mattered to me. For a die-hard indie kid defined by 90s music, it was something of a pilgrimage to visit the city that gave us Nirvana on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death.

More than that, as someone who has consistently failed to rise from his bed with a jubilant, spring-heeled leap, and tends instead towards a tardy lollop accompanied by a brow-beaten scowl, Cobain was bestowed with hero status in my eyes for being the patron saint of slackers.

Cobain was found dead at his Lake Washington home on April 8, 1994 (though the coroner said he had died on April 5) and his ashes scattered in the nearby Wishkah River. As he has no grave, fans visit Viretta Park – which borders the house where he used to live with Courtney Love – to pay their respects.

I timed my arrival for mid-afternoon hoping to meet some fellow disciples and figuring no self-respecting fan would pitch up before midday given everything Cobain stands for.

On the drive there I listened to ‘Nirvana Unplugged In New York’ and was struck by the authenticity of his vocal. He delivered an incredibly powerful performance during that MTV set which is generally regarded as the best ‘Unplugged’ ever and was recorded a mere six months prior to his death.

In the early 90s, Cobain’s raw, tortured voice reached out to those who were alienated by the saccharine smiles of the pre-packaged pop acts that blotted out almost everything else in the charts. Idolized by gen x-ers, people saw in him, and his music, part of their own disenfranchised, apathetic youth which in my case effortlessly progressed into a disenfranchised, apathetic adulthood.

Nirvana themselves were repelled by the commercial music world once releasing a song called ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ highlighting their disdain. Of course, this couldn’t stop their sound being railroaded by the A&R men who latched onto ‘grunge’, saw it as an opportunity to sell millions more records, and countless imitators being spawned.

It was a brisk, overcast spring Seattle day and my initial impression of Viretta Park was that is resides in an extremely affluent area, Seattle’s equivalent of Hampstead Heath. I later discovered the Starbucks founder, Howard Schultz, used to live on the other side of the park from Kurt and Courtney.

Shortly after I arrived I met a young Aussie guy, Greg, who was backpacking around the world. He encouraged me to walk with him up the driveway of Kurt’s former house. A greenhouse used to exist above the garage beside the main house, Greg told me, destroyed by Courtney after his death, and where Cobain’s body was found.

Cobain’s death was almost a defining moment. The day the music literally, and metaphorically, died.

It was eerie to see the house and contemplate what happened there back in 1994. And what really happened continues to be feverishly speculated. It was intriguing to hear Greg’s thoughts. He, like many others, remains convinced something underhand took place, and was resolute in his belief that a lot of hard evidence brings into question events surrounding Kurt’s suicide.

We wandered next door to the park. It was tiny but immediately recognisable as the Cobain memorial site with two wooden benches etched in graffiti messages from fans. Slowly but surely a trickle of mourners came. Within an hour at least 30 had been and gone.

To see so many younger fans pitch up, many of whom must have discovered Nirvana retrospectively, was a striking reminder of the way music spans generations. A steady stream of teens and early 20-somethings paid their respects, dressed with that timeless, ‘alt rock’ élan – black t-shirts, dyed hair and assorted piercings heavily to the fore.

One teenager had driven from Portland, Oregon on his own. He went back to his car and returned with a bouquet of white tulips he laid respectfully on one of the benches. A pink tulip had already been placed there along with some daisies.

I was intrigued to learn these peoples’ stories. What had inspired them to make the trip to Viretta Park? Why had Nirvana’s music, and Cobain in particular, touched them so profoundly?

I met a local guy called Brad who gave me his take. ‘There was something about his voice. It’s very real and spoke to me. You couldn’t see his face, you couldn’t quite make out what he was saying sometimes. He had a certain mystique.’

Brad was 27, the same age Kurt was when he died, and coincidentally shared the same birthday as him – February 20. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He had the inside track on the park, the house, the surrounds, the entire Cobain life story.

‘Nirvana was the first music I bought,’ he divulged wistfully. ‘It was a cassette single of Teen Spirit with a piece of card in it. I remember the smell of it. When I get that smell it sends me straight back there.

‘When I was about 13, I think it was 7th grade, in 1994, they came and played in my home town. Man, I’ll never forgive my mum for not letting me go to see them.’

He explained that candle-lit vigils would take place that evening when fans would gather round listening to Nirvana. It was becoming apparent this tucked away park in a peaceful Seattle suburb is as significant a shrine to a dead rock star as Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

I then met Adam who had driven all the way from Las Vegas. He, too, was 27, and said it had felt like a calling for him to make the trip to Seattle. He spoke movingly about what Cobain meant to him.

‘Nirvana is my serenity; where I like to go. At the time Nirvana came out to the time of Kurt’s death I was heavily into grunge. It was a big blow when he died. I think about him every day. I think about what he did, what he went through and I’m glad to finally be here.’

He told me he was planning to visit Aberdeen, about a 2-hour drive from Seattle, where Cobain grew up. In 2005, a sign was put up there, paid for by the Kurt Cobain Memorial Committee (a non-profit organisation created in May 2004 to honour him) that reads: ‘Welcome to Aberdeen – Come As You Are’.

‘He did what he wanted to do. He didn’t care what anyone else thought,’ Adam continued. ‘That’s why so many people look up to him. He wanted to make something different, something sacred and thought he was doing something wrong when people attached meaning to it. The name of the band entails everything to me. He is my hero, my inspiration and I hope he is somewhere better.’

Adam’s devotion was tangible. I couldn’t claim to be the most avid Nirvana fan but I remember vividly, and with great fondness, that first powerfully evocative live TV performance in the UK on ‘The Word’, having arrived back from the pub in time to watch the show – something of a Friday night tradition for an entire generation of 20-somethings – and being blown away by the raw energy and intensity of the track and Cobain’s performance.

Adam pointed out the peculiar coincidence that Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27, known as the ‘27 Club’. It struck us both as the ultimate injustice that while genuinely gifted individuals like them got cut off in their prime, a tyranny of the talentless are lauded as successes and proliferate.

There was a common theme that emerged talking to fans. Cobain, to them, was genuine. He was ‘real’.

‘Your presence is needed right now in our world,’ read one poignant message inscribed on one of the benches.

Who among the modern fraternity of pop stars will be remembered with such adulation? I caught up with Brad and sat on one of the Kurt benches discussing this point.

‘Music since the 90s hasn’t been nearly as good,’ he lamented. ‘I feel no connection with it. It has no depth. When you first listen to it it’s kind of cool, but you soon get tired of it because it offers nothing new. It’s like nothing is good enough to last any more.’

It was reassuring in some small way to hear someone over ten years younger express similar views to my own. Maybe we weren't just victims of nostalgia and there was genuine substance to our lament.

I wondered whether Brad had inadvertently stumbled upon a modern truth. Has everything become so throwaway that we are unable to hold on to it, and cherish it, for any length of time? Could it be that we are bombarded with so much choice, and sold to so relentlessly, that nothing is able to achieve longevity?

Much like other musicians and artists who have died before their time, Cobain’s suicide and tragically young death has given greater resonance to his life and work. ‘Nevermind’ was an epoch-making album, contributing to a period in music that, for a certain person of a certain age, has come to have lasting significance, because what was happening in Seattle was echoed back in the UK by the Manchester scene and emergence of bands like The Stone Roses.

As Brad alluded to, compared to back then it feels like something has gone missing. Had I misplaced it, or had the world? Cobain’s death was almost a defining moment. The day the music literally, and metaphorically, died.

‘Music since the 90s hasn’t been nearly as good,’ he lamented. ‘I feel no connection with it. It has no depth. When you first listen to it it’s kind of cool, but you soon get tired of it because it offers nothing new. It’s like nothing is good enough to last any more.’

I returned to the car still contemplating Cobain’s legacy. There is a certain poignant beauty in bowing out when your life force is at its strongest, and like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Diane and Jim Morrison, Cobain will forever be remembered in his pomp. While we all age, he stays the same and his young rock star image lives on on millions of CD covers and thousands of student bed-sit walls.

‘Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam. ’Cause sunbeams are not made like me,’ Kurt sang as I drove slowly past, glancing across at the park one final time.

I wondered if he would have been happy with his shrine. The beauty of artistic creativity is that it lives on beyond your years, and if the message conveyed is powerful enough it becomes timeless. Witnessing so many fans pay their respects, Cobain’s mythology clearly grows by the day and he will always remain an incredibly potent symbol of youth.

Maybe Kurt got it right. At least he didn’t have to confront the demons of middle age and live on helplessly as the egg-timer of youth slowly emptied. He hit the nail on the head with what he wrote on his suicide note, quoting a Neil Young lyric from the song ‘Hey, Hey, My, My’: ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away.’

As I drove away I felt a pang of sadness as defining 20-something moments played out vividly in my mind’s eye. Dancing on a packed nightclub floor which became a frenzied mosh pit when ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came on. Pogoing up and down at the front of a Stone Roses concert chanting, ‘I am the resurrection and I am the light’.

These were moments that made me feel so alive; the music that shaped my very disposition. The teen spirit Kurt articulated was still barreled deep inside me and always would be, perhaps indicative of Cobain’s greatest legacy of all.