No Future

Kurt Cobain's Final Denial

"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."

Death of an idol: Kurt Cobain in 1994
photo: Charles Peterson
Death of an idol: Kurt Cobain in 1994

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."

"We lived cloistered away for so many years and nobody gave a damn," Warnick adds. "And because of all the resources we have here, people are really against all the Guns N' Roses stuff. All that compromise."

Because of the city's growth and Seattle's current dominance, of course, compromise is unavoidable. But the way Seattle has become a mecca differs from the East Coast norm, in which small groups import their culture, take over a corner, and slowly integrate. There are plenty of new immigrants in the Northwest, many of them Thai or Vietnamese, but the city's self-conception obscures these communities. And among the young, Seattle isn't a place where you can come as you are: you come to integrate yourself into a vision based on affinities you believe you share. For someone like Kurt Cobain, the college community of Olympia and, later, Seattle represented a chance to go inside after a childhood in the cold as a small-town outcast. And perhaps inspired by his expression, kids have flocked here to join what he sardonically called "our little tribe."

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