Never More

The death of a hometown antihero: Ann Powers reports from Seattle on the suicide of Kurt Cobain

In our century, "fame kills" is almost a mantra; add Cobain's name to the pantheon and sign him up for a page in Hollywood Babylon. But it's hard, especially in a hometown, to pinpoint the moment when a star like Cobain slips into that nether realm, becomes flat and reproducible, something read instead of someone known. And Cobain spent his short career pulling away from this transformation, jumbling his statements, turning his back. For most stars, even the tragic ones, the transformation magnifies; for Cobain, it worked as erasure. His death can be viewed as the final step on a chain of denials that are echoed in the story of his adopted town, his scene, his generation, every one radically unwilling to speak for itself. So it's no surprise that in the days following Cobain's death, nobody emerges to speak for them. Even the journalists hesitate in the face of such grief-benumbed wordlessness.


"It's a much different thing here, with the rock scene," says Sub Pop publicist and former Nirvana fan club head Nils Bernstein about the process of mourning. "It's one thing to suffer these losses on your own, and another to do it with MTV in your face. People who didn't know Kurt feel like they did. His death is an ongoing event."

Bernstein, who holds to the Sub Pop view that Cobain was "suicidal forever," is tired and would like to retreat to Linda's Tavern and drink a Red Hook with a tight circle of friends. But in a painful coincidence, this is the Saturday long since scheduled as the date of Sub Pop's sixth anniversary party. "Yesterday, everyone was pretty dazed," he says. "Everyone just got drunk." They'll do the same tonight at the Crocodile Café, at a party that becomes a wake in a sideways manner well after the camera crews have abandoned their positions outside the windows: no speeches, no photographs held aloft, just old buddies getting around to the subject gradually.

"There was a great vibe there," says Warnick the next day. "It would always come into the conversation, but everyone was very respectful of everyone else. It was really insulated very well." Warnick's right—the party felt better by far than any other moment in the weekend following Cobain's death. For a semi-outsider like me, born and raised in Seattle but now a decade gone, it felt like a welcome earned by my willingness to be cool. Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop, Warnick's husband Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and numerous other band members, label types, and writers—all would smile, give a brief hug, murmur, "Weird day, isn't it?" and move on to more manageable subjects.

The jovial skepticism, downing another microbrew and telling a joke rather than analyzing or grieving too obviously, was pure Seattle. Native Northwesterners cultivate this say-no-more attitude, the roots of which I always identify in the historic drive toward seclusion that pushed the area's pioneers across the map. It's not the rain—it's the mountains. A full, snow-capped range on either side of the municipal area. They hold us in.

Seattle's indie-rock scene reenacts, on a smaller level, the balancing act inherent in every Northwest community, whether as big as Seattle or as small as Cobain's native Aberdeen, between the interdependency of an isolated group and solitary individuals' preference for total self-reliance. "It's a really tight community," says one local scenester, "but when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure how much people will help each other." Her words make me think about the phrase that I've come to consider Kurt Cobain's motto, from "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter": "Hate, hate your enemies, save, save your friends." This phrase means to build a fortress around a group of like-minded people; the problems come when you find yourself at odds with your friends and thrown into contact with strangers who may or may not be enemies (and if you fear the world it's very hard to tell).

The Northwest's growth over the past decade, attributable partly to rock's ascendancy but mostly to the encroachment of Microsoft and other software companies, has shifted the area's balance. It's become a mecca for the young, the affluent, a forest of espresso stands and specialty boutiques. Yet at heart, it remains a company town—Cobain's death was bumped off the top of the news Saturday morning by the unveiling of Boeing's newest jet, the 777. And it retains a working-class suspicion of pretense and opportunism that's shared by the musicians and even the businesspeople who dominate Seattle's rock world. So they find a way to stand outside themselves, as if all this success wasn't happening to them, almost as if they don't want it.

"People don't let each other cross over the line, away from reality," says Ken Stringfellow, whose own fine band, the Posies, embraces pop and polish much more readily than most Seattle acts. "What makes Nirvana interesting is that they didn't have to be unrealistic to be extraordinary." Later, though, he admits that the dichotomies don't always work out so neatly. "Sometimes people's skepticism overwhelms them, and they can't enjoy what's happened."

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