Kurt Cobain may be synonymous with the city of Seattle, but the Nirvana frontman spent much of his tragically short life two hours southwest in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. Cobain (and bassist Krist Novoselic) grew up in the harbor town and, depending on which stories you believe, had what could be described as a love/hate relationship with his hometown. But Aberdeen resident, local newspaper editor and author of Kurt Cobain: Oh Well, Whatever, Nevermind JEFF BURLINGAME says Cobain held onto the same sort of built-in belligerence any teenager has when they yearn for bigger city life. In 2004, Burlingame co-founded the Kurt Cobain Memorial Foundation to help keep Cobain’s memory alive in the town that very well inspired countless Nirvana songs. In this interview, he opens up about Cobain’s connection to Aberdeen and Aberdeen’s connection to its prodigal son.
INTERVIEW: Tim Karan
What’s your personal connection to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana?
I was 14 years old when I first met Kurt. He was living with one of my friends, Eric Shillinger. The first time I saw Kurt, Eric and I were at his house for lunch during a school day, and Kurt was still asleep on Eric’s couch. Our relationship, such as it was, evolved from there and we occasionally hung out. Mostly, I’d see Kurt down the street hanging out at Melvins practices at [drummer] Dale Crover’s place.
Why did you form the foundation?
In April 2004, the 10th anniversary of Kurt’s death, I was working as an editor at a newspaper in Aberdeen. Three Aberdeen High School girls wrote a letter to the paper asking why there was no memorial for someone as famous as Kurt in his hometown. I had long been wondering the same thing. Across town, my friend Paul Fritts, an Aberdeen city councilman, read the girls’ letter and wondered, too. He contacted me, we formed an exploratory committee and held a public meeting at City Hall to brainstorm. Some 40 people showed and, when I asked who felt something should be done to honor Kurt, every person’s hand went up. I had expected there to be some resistance, but there wasn’t any, at least not in that room. So we formed a nonprofit with the state, filed for the same with the IRS, hand-picked some stellar committee members-including Kurt’s grandfather, Leland Cobain-and went for it. Our main goal is to build a youth center in Kurt’s name in Aberdeen. We want to give artistic and talented teens, like Kurt was, a place to get off the streets and an opportunity to shine.
There are conflicting stories about Cobain’s thoughts on Aberdeen. What is the real story?
Over the years, I have heard [about his thoughts on his hometown] from a lot of people, with a few prominent exceptions, who knew Kurt well. I tend to believe what [Nirvana bassist] Krist Novoselic once said: Kurt did not hate Aberdeen, that the “hate” story was simply a myth perpetuated by the media because it made for a good, rebellious angle. Sure, Kurt said some disparaging things about his hometown. But what kid hasn’t–especially when that kid is an adventurous soul living in a small town that lacks many of the big-city cultural opportunities? I still get that today from people who think Kurt wouldn’t have wanted to be memorialized in the place he “hated.”
Does Aberdeen get a lot of fans visiting throughout the year?
Aberdeen receives a large number of Cobain and Nirvana fans throughout the year. There’s no way to quantify how many, but if you stop into any business in town, you’ll hear stories about the people who stopped by seeking Cobain-related directions. They stop at the “Come As You Are” sign we put up in 2005 as they come into town and they visit the bridge he spent some time under. For the last three years, they have been coming from all over the U.S. and even from abroad to attend our annual fundraising concert, Lounge Acts. The first year, we even had a band from Belgium show up the day of the show and talk their way onto the bill to play a couple of songs before the opener’s set. It was fantastic seeing how happy and honored they were to be allowed to do that.
Is there a memorial planned this year?
This year’s Lounge Acts benefit show will be held in the fall, as it has been since 2007. We are planning the event now. Last year’s Lounge Acts sold out our 1,200-seat venue days in advance, which is not an easy thing to do in a city the size of Aberdeen. To my knowledge, it was the biggest show in the history of Aberdeen. Candlebox headlined and the bill and also featured former Nirvana drummer Chad Channing’s current band, Before Cars. Two local bands opened. Seeing them get the opportunity to play in front of that many people was amazing. There were three Cobains in attendance and two former Nirvana drummers.
What do you believe made Cobain great?
There were a lot of things that made Kurt a great musician. His natural talent was one of them. His drive, which most people don’t talk about, was another. The situation he grew up in–both the area and the circumstances in his personal life–was another. This may sound like a stretch for some, but I see Aberdeen in Nirvana’s music. For me, and maybe it’s because I grew up there, that’s the vision that pops into my head when I listen to Nirvana songs, even the ones written years after Kurt had moved away. Good songs, like good books, take you someplace in your mind. Nirvana’s songs take me to Aberdeen.
How do you think the world would be different if he hadn’t passed away?
Prior to Kurt’s death, I was excited to see where he would end up. Musically, that is. All of us diehard fans have heard the bluesy folk demos from [the 2004 Nirvana box set With The Lights Out]. That’s where I think Kurt would have headed. The incredible pain in his voice we all remember from the MTV Unplugged In New York show would have transferred well to those two genres. There also wouldn’t be a Kurt Cobain Memorial Foundation, nor would I have written a book about him. I would be perfectly OK with trading in both those things to have Kurt back. alt
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