Never More

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

"Fuck Kurt Cobain. I can't get a job."

photo: Staci Schwartz


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  • Gregory Askew is slumped against the side wall at the Café Paradiso, Capitol Hill's grooviest late-night caffeine station, the night of the announcement. The 20-year-old moved here from New Jersey a year or so ago, but he's had it with bohemian utopia. "I'm going down to Eugene, just to find a mellow town where everybody's not competing."

    Askew's hardly the only kid who's unimpressed with Cobain's departure from the world; this reaction has been so common on the West Coast that the San Francisco Examiner did a feature on it Saturday. Like every generation of cool teens, these young fans have invented their own strange style of tuning out. They wear the clothes, play in the baby bands, hang out at the bars and coffee houses, all the while perfecting the art of indifference. When that lackadaisical attitude is personified in figures like Winona and Ethan or Courtney and Kurt, the kids still look up. But they keep their glances quiet and speculative.

    In Seattle, these teen-to-twentysomethings are major players in moving the economy from industry to service, working in the bars and record stores they frequent, maintaining the circular flow of cash. "They're making the town what they thought it would be," says Rich Jensen as he sits in one of the current hot spots, a laundromat-café called Sit & Spin. Sub Pop's inexhaustible entrepreneurship is just one example of the attitude: you want a job, open a store. It's indie at its most vibrant, a culture tossed up in storefronts and basement rooms.

    But some kids, like Askew, remain discouraged. The recession hit Seattle a little later than the rest of the country—Boeing laid off 11 percent of its work force last year and there were quieter adjustments at Microsoft as well—and although slacker jobs may seem unlimited, there are only so many gigs available pulling espresso. One Paradiso customer, 16-year-old Nathan Hatch, escaped from a dreary life much like the young Cobain's to find some people "even close to weird." He dropped out of school in Elma, near Aberdeen, in ninth grade, and moved to Portland with a skater dude named Paul. Now he's looking for janitorial work. "I'm hopeful," he says. "But I'm pretty drunk right now."

    Busy with their own anxieties, Seattle's club kids don't seem interested in making Cobain a hero. Maybe, as Nils Bernstein thinks, they're already over the mystery that not long ago fueled much of the average outcast's passion for rock and roll. "I've seen 12-year-old kids on the bus discussing record deals, dollar amounts," says Bernstein. "The know way, way, way more than they should about the industry."

    If an idol demands distance, an icon wants to be put inside a devotee's pocket. The kids I found who did mourn Cobain, hovering behind police lines at the house where he'd died or building shrines from candles and Raisin Bran boxes at the Sunday night vigil organized by three local radio stations, seemed to think of him more as a lost friend than as a candidate for that dreaded assignment, role model. In fact, they seemed a lot like he did: small, unsure, bowled over by the need to feel, but worried about what to say. "When we found out, my friend Blair and I went out to our fort and just played some CDs," says Dave Johnson, a blond boy from Puyallup who's in a baby band called Thrive. "Kurt took the wimpy way out. He could have gone somewhere to gather his thoughts. I know places like that to go."

    Johnson and about a dozen friends sit around a heap of flowers, votives, notes, and Xeroxed photographs of Kurt. The girls don't say much; they look like they're about to cry. The boys are enjoying all the chances to be interviewed. Even though it comes so awkwardly, through the death of a loved one, they tentatively embrace this moment of prominence. But they agree that, like Kurt, they wouldn't be able to handle it full time.

    "Being a rock star would be kinda stressful," says Johnson. "I'm not really looking for it. I'm in it for the enjoyment and fun." I wonder if he was inspired by Cobain's suicide note, which Love read to the 7,000 vigilgoers in a taped message. "I haven't felt excitement in listening to as well as creating music . . . for too many years now. The fact is, I can't fool you, any of you." And the weary, too-wise kids in the audience really don't seem fooled.

    The speakers at the vigil—a preacher, a poet, a suicide prevention specialist—have nothing to do with why the kids were there. Even a brief taped message from Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic seems beside the point. Only Love's statement has a visceral effect. But the weirdness of 7,000 people standing around, looking at an empty stage, listening to a tape recording of a grieving widow and of the band they wouldn't hear new music from again, pushes the crowd out of its grief into an anger that soon turns playful. Near the end, a bunch of kids overrun the Seattle Center's biggest fountain, climbing on top, forming a mosh pit to no beats and no guitars. "Kurt Cobain!" they chant, then, "Fuck you!" when a security guard tries to move them along, then just "Music!" Would Kurt have felt honored by this action? Well, he was a punk, he liked disruption. But the spirit that moved these kids had nothing to do with Kurt Cobain. It was simply their own spirit, the only one they feel they can trust.

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