The Last Time I Met Kurt Cobain, Part 1
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story. The conclusion will appear in Monkey Goggles tomorrow.
The first time I saw Kurt Cobain was the first time I saw Nirvana. It was the summer of 1990, and they were playing a show in Seattle at the International Motor Sports Garage, which was, as the name implies, a huge garage that was used for rock shows from time to time. It has long since been razed, and is a parking lot today. Accompanying Nirvana on the bill that night was the legendary Mudhoney, the punk outfit The Derelicts, and the infamous Dwarves — a band whose most popular album has a cover that features two hot naked women and a dwarf covered in blood. In most respects, it upstaged their forgettable music.
I had come especially to see Nirvana. I had gotten turned onto them a few months earlier and listened to my “Bleach” tape daily, letting the C sharp tuned-down cough syrup-induced shrieks and melodies enter into my marrow. I was 19 years old and a massive fan, though I had never seen the band live nor knew what they looked like. I could, however, scream along with every track on the album, relying on phonics guesswork when the lyrics failed me. I absorbed every grunt, wail, and oscillating wave of feedback. I was hooked.
I had traveled from Olympia with my friend, “Skater Shawn” and a girl named Tasha — a half-Japanese colleague at the Sizzler (where I was the dishwasher) and the object of a hopeless crush. We drove up early and spent the afternoon hanging out in Volunteer park, watching hippies play Frisbee and gay men cruise, getting drunk on Monarch vodka out of a plastic bottle and smoking loads of contraband that I had scored from a buddy working at the old Piecora’s in U-Village. By the time the summer evening set in we were floating and ready for a loud, sweaty show.
We stumbled down the hill to the Motor Sports Garage only to find out that the show had sold out. The Derelicts were already well into their set and the place was packed. We were undeterred, however. We had driven sixty miles to get to this show and within twenty minutes we had managed to sneak in, squeezing through a gap in the building’s dilapidated siding. We got dirty in the process, but I was already dirty, so I didn’t care.
When Nirvana took the stage I was hit with a pure blast of electricity and adrenaline. I felt possessed, as did the other few hundred people there that night. Most shows these days are taken in by hipsters, who passively sip their beer and nod their heads — and that’s when they’re really into it. What I was a part of that night was the absolute opposite: It was pure abandon – jumping, dancing, pogoing, moshing, stage diving, and crowd surfing.
It was the first time I saw Kurt Cobain. He wore ripped-up jeans and a blue flannel shirt. His blonde hair was stringy and long. He performed with a white-hot intensity that made him massively stand out from anyone else who had been on that stage that night. He nearly melted the platform. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. This guy was it, a star. I knew in an instant that he was going to be huge.
The first time I met Kurt Cobain was in Olympia a few months later, after one of their shows at an all-ages venue called “The North Shore Surf Club.” They had played with the local lo-fi act “Beat Happening,” or “Butt Humpening” as some us liked to refer to them. I had been at the front of the stage the whole time, losing myself once again. I was awash in cheap vodka downed in the alley between sets and put my head right up to the main speakers for a real sonic pummeling. I remember that Kris Novoselic played barefoot that night. I was right next to him for the whole show. He had really nasty hairy feet. He looked like a hobbit with a glandular disorder.
After the show I approached Cobain, who was winding up his guitar cord, and said:
“Great show, man.”
“Thanks,” he replied.
I shook his hand. It was damp and limp.
The next time I saw Kurt Cobain was at the same place. They played another show a couple months later with a strange local band called “Witchypoo,” featuring a dude in a football helmet pressing single notes on an old Casio keyboard and moaning Devo-esque lines – some sort of abstract Olympia retard rock, it seemed. I didn’t get it and was generous with my hate, matching curses and insults with my like-minded friends. Moat of my bile sprang from jealousy – that such an obviously sh—y band could open for whom I then considered best band around, if not the world. And at the time I was also in an Olympia band, though one decidedly less hip. That night we gave our demo tape to Calvin Johnson, the singer for Beat Happening and owner of K Records. He played the tape over the house sound before Nirvana started. We were stoked. It helped make up for us having to endure “Witchypoo.”
A few months later I saw Kurt Cobain again. The First Gulf War had just started and Nirvana was headlining an all day anti-war show at the library of the Evergreen State College. Once again I got drunk on straight vodka — this time in the bushes with my friends Ken and Chuck — and we staggered into the show, catching a band called “Nubbin” and then Nirvana.
The band set up and Kris Novoselic proceeded to deliver a rambling, inarticulate anti-war diatribe. I agreed with his sentiment, but he grated and went on for far too long, like an interminable street corner socialist who hadn’t really done his homework — hardly a rousing call to arms. But when he finally shut up and the actual music started, we were well-motivated.
They played a short set that night. At then end of the final song, Kurt Cobain grabbed a hammer and proceeded to annihilate his guitar, going at the thing with pure hate. He threw the wreckage to the side and then collapsed onto the floor, where he lay motionless for the next twenty minutes. His eyes were open but he appeared catatonic, just staring at the ceiling while we all milled around him. There was no proper stage for this show. Everything took place on the floor, and Cobain just laid there with pupils like quarters, projecting himself into the astral plane. I was told that he had taken a heroic dose of mushrooms that night.
The second time I met Kurt Cobain was in Olympia again. This was a week after “Nevermind” came out, right at the beginning of the supernova that would be the next three years. Soundgarden was playing a show at the Capitol Theater and Cobain was hanging out. He wore a black trench coat and eyeliner. I was wearing my “Bleach” t-shirt (“Fudge Packin’ Crack Smokin’ Satan Worshippin’ Mother—-ers”). At one point I went outside for some fresh air. Cobain was sitting on the curb with a few other people. He had a pile of envelopes in his hand. He was opening a pile of mail. I sat next to him.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“My mail,” he replied. “Check this out.”
He showed me a letter, from Billboard. “Dear artist,” it said, “we are please to inform you that your song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is at number ___ in the Billboard charts this week…”
Soon after that Nirvana got huge. Massive. Many people who were early fans were surprised that they became so popular, that they were so widely embraced. I wasn’t, because from the first time I saw Kurt Cobain perform I knew that he had that rare combination of talent and energy and pure charisma that can mesmerize anyone. However, it was disconcerting to see my favorite local band become everyone’s favorite band overnight. It felt like a slight betrayal, like our precious thing was now being enjoyed by the un-hip hordes, by the masses; that the mall kids who were singing along with their New Kids on the Block CDs just a few months ago were now rocking away to songs like “Lithium”; that frat boys were singing along to the lyrics of “In Bloom” and missing the irony, unaware that the song was about meatheads like them.
So, like many of the original fans, I threw up my arms and left Nirvana to MTV. They had been co-opted. It just wasn’t “cool” to like them anymore.