Pictured: Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic.
I don’t know what Aberdeen, Washington is like today. But back when Kurt Cobain was growing up there in the ’60’s and ’70’s, it sounds as if its best years were behind it if in fact they ever even arrived. Wikipedia is informative: “By 1900, Aberdeen had many saloons, whorehouses, and gambling establishments populating the area. Aberdeen was nicknamed “The Hellhole of the Pacific”, or “The Port of Missing Men”, because of its high murder rate.
During the Great Depression, Aberdeen was hit hard, reducing the number of major sawmills from 37 to 9. The timber industry continued to boom, but by the late 1970’s, most of the timber had been logged. Most of the mills were closing down by the 1970’s and 1980’s.” So, one can fairly say, not a boom town and, minus even a mall or a pinball arcade, not much for disaffected teens to do (except to sing for a rock and roll band.)
Salvation for a young Cobain came in the fact that not only was there some musical talent in his family but in that he was also artistically inclined, drawing cartoon characters in his bedroom. According to Come As You Are, The Story of Nirvana, “Everybody thought Kurt’s drawings and paintings were great. Except for him.” His mother Wendy said, “Everybody was telling him how much they loved his art and he was never satisfied with it.”
A young Kurt got Beatles and Monkees records from his mother. He actually played drums before he took up the guitar. “I was an extremely happy child,” said Kurt. “I was constantly screaming and singing. I took play very seriously. I was just really happy.” And by all accounts, he was very close to his mother.
But in 1976 when he was nine, his parents divorced, turning a happy-go-lucky boy into a sullen, withdrawn kid. In fact, every member (but one) who has ever been in Nirvana came from a broken home.
Kurt didn’t much care for his stepfather and went to live for a while with his father Don in Don’s prefabricated house. “It wasn’t one of the more luxurious ones – the double-wide ones that the rich white trash get to live in,” Kurt advised. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Cobain was homeless for long stretches and even somewhat nomadic, sleeping where he could. Truthfully, he was a handful and nobody seemed to really want him.
But one thing Kurt did have access to was his father’s record collection which included bands such as Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. (Raise your hand if rock ‘n roll was your salvation.) And given the choice on his fourteenth birthday between a bicycle and a guitar, he chose the guitar.
He took lessons for one week, “just long enough to learn how to play “Back in Black.”” And he pretty quickly started writing songs. He heard punk rock and wanted to combine some of the riff-rock he heard with what he envisioned angry, alienated punk would or should sound like. (He didn’t think Sandinista was punk enough and declared the Sex Pistols 1,000,000 times more important than the Clash.)
“I had this feeling all the time – I always knew I was doing something that was special,” he said. “I knew I was better, even though I couldn’t prove it at the time. … I knew eventually I would have the opportunity to show people that I could write good songs – that I could contribute something musically to rock and roll.”
Kurt met a guy named Matt Lukin who was bass player in a local band called the Melvins and started to hang out at their rehearsals. The Melvins, far from being some forgotten “grunge” band from Washington State, are together to this very day. This band impressed Cobain as not only did he dig their hardcore sound, they actually had gigs! As far away as Seattle! (100 miles northeast.) Which, at that point, was about the limit of what Kurt saw as his own possibility for fame and fortune.
A little-known (outside of Washington) compilation album was released in 1986 which featured the then-burgeoning Seattle Scene. Deep Six featured not only the Melvins but also Soundgarden and Green River, some of whose members would go on to form Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. (If you are by now saying to yourself there was some real shit going on in the Pacific Northwest around this time, yes indeed.)
For the record, the term “grunge” as applied to Seattle-area music initially came from singer Mark Arm of Green River who – in a letter to a music zine – said their music was, “pure grunge! pure noise! pure shit!”
This is what Kurt would have heard and was unquestionably influencing him back in the mid-’80’s. This is the Melvins doing “Scared:”
By now, Cobain was looking for a kindred soul to form a band with. And in 1981, while in high school, he met a California-raised guy who had just returned from a stint living in his parents’ home country of Croatia. His name was Krist Novoselic.
Next – a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism
Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, my own dim memory, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Michael Azerrad. Broadway Books, Montage of Heck (Kurt Cobain documentary).