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Tuesday, April 06, 2004 - Page updated at 10:00 A.M.

Kurt Cobain: a life 10 years gone

By Charles R. Cross
Special to The Seattle Times

When Kurt Cobain performed at the legendary Motorsports Garage show in 1990, Nirvana had not yet reached superstar status, but the band was quickly building a reputation around Seattle.
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First of two parts. Tomorrow: Kurt Cobain's last days, and the legacy he left behind. Plus: an interview with Cobain on the day "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released.

The magnolia trees are in bloom again in Denny-Blaine. In this Seattle neighborhood of timber-baron mansions and waterfront estates, wealthy homeowners employ a phalanx of gardeners to keep the blossoms fine-tuned. Centered by Lake Washington Boulevard, the neighborhood is home to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and many of the region's newest tech millionaires. But amid the Martha Stewart-like affluence is another more somber spring ritual. During the first week of April, Viretta Park becomes ground zero for a steady stream of mourners paying tribute to the memory of a Seattle musician. It was here, while living in a three-story mansion next to the park, that Kurt Cobain took his own life on April 5, 1994.

The faithful come daily to this postage-stamp-sized park on Lake Washington Boulevard. Many travel here from faraway states or nations, all touched in some way by the music of Cobain and his band Nirvana. There are rarely crowds, except on anniversaries, but locals notice fans regularly making the pilgrimage, and the park is listed in guidebooks as the "Kurt Cobain park."

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The 10th anniversary of Cobain's suicide will bring more fans, media and curiosity-seekers to Viretta Park. Already, every square inch of each park bench is covered with messages. "This is Kurt's Park now," one person has written in black marker on a slat. "I miss you," says another, echoing the sentiment of many. Like the graffiti-covered walls outside Memphis' Graceland, Viretta Park's benches have become message boards of mourning.

Cobain's shadow over music remains remarkably large, considering that Nirvana enjoyed only three years in the national spotlight. When "Nevermind" came out in 1991, the band became international superstars almost overnight, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became the ultimate teen anthem. They already had been local heroes for several years, but soon Nirvana was on the cover of every national magazine and headlining "Saturday Night Live."

At the time, Cobain seemed permanently linked to the Seattle music scene and the phenomenon of grunge. Yet when the band — Cobain, longtime bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl — released "Nevermind," none of the members lived in Seattle. ("We couldn't afford it," Novoselic joked once.) Cobain wrote most of his songs while living in Olympia, and Seattle was his home for only the last year and a half of his life. Most of his life was spent in Aberdeen or Montesano, Grays Harbor. His initial forays into Seattle were brief, usually for concerts or to visit Sub Pop. He did consider moving to Tacoma in 1988, but freaked out when he saw bullet holes in the side of the rental he was considering.

Kurt Cobain's painting and collage on the back of a board game was made in Olympia, in the late '80s. Most of his artwork has been seen only by his closest friends. The Aberdeen Museum of History, however, will display some of Cobain's work in an exhibit on musicians from Grays Harbor County. The exhibit will open this summer.

In 1992, at the height of his fame, he moved to Los Angeles, a time less is known about. In an apartment in the Fairfax district, he put down his guitar, picked up a paintbrush and contemplated a life without music. For several months he was ensconced in a mad world of creation. He painted using acrylics and oils, but at times he mixed his own blood, semen, cigarette ash and fecal matter into his medium. It was astonishing work. Most of it has been seen only by his closest friends.

Cobain died at 27. The music he created in the last year of his life was some of his best, which leaves critics and fans to forever wonder about what might have been. But none of the Cobain "what-ifs" are as fascinating as the one that imagines him quitting the spotlight of the music business and retreating to the world of art. It was an option he talked about frequently with his closest friends, and the one turn that might have saved his life.

Talent spotted early on

Growing up in Aberdeen, drawing was Cobain's first love. His family quickly noticed his skill. "Even when he was a little kid, he could draw a picture of Mickey Mouse that looked perfect," remembers grandfather Leland Cobain.

Kurt Cobain's drawing on the back of a large rock poster was made in Olympia in the late '80s.
In high school, he won an art contest, the first recognition of his artistic talent. "He had both the ability to draw and a great imagination," his art teacher Bob Hunter observes. But some of Cobain's class work was controversial, including an illustration of Michael Jackson holding his crotch.

At 20, Cobain moved to Olympia. He lived with girlfriend Tracy Marander in a $137-a-month apartment where he unsuccessfully tried to get illustration work and spent his days painting on board games he bought in thrift stores. "I gave him his first, and probably only, commission," neighbor Amy Moon recalls. "I had a dream, and I wanted him to paint it. He told me to buy a canvas for him, since he couldn't afford the $10 it would cost. The painting was amazing — exactly as I had described the dream."

When he wasn't painting, he was practicing guitar or writing songs for his other great love — his band Nirvana, which he and Novoselic had formed in 1987. The band's first album for Sub Pop, "Bleach," came out in 1988, which began the misidentification of Nirvana as "a Seattle band." The record was recorded at a Ballard studio for $606. Most of the band's early gigs were in Olympia, Tacoma or Seattle, but soon they were touring nationally. By 1990 they were sought after by major record labels, and their shows in Seattle began to sell out.

In the fall of 1990, they signed a $287,000 deal with Geffen Records. In April 1991, they spent six weeks cutting "Nevermind" at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Calif. The hair-metal band Warrant was the previous Sound City client and could have retired that week — "Nevermind" was the death knell for the '80s-metal scene.

In Los Angeles, Cobain ran into Courtney Love, and romance ensued. On a late-night walk, they discovered the body of a dead bird. He pulled three feathers off its wing. "This one is for you, this is for me and this is the for our baby we're gonna have." They both laughed at his melodrama. Ten months later, she was pregnant.

They married in Hawaii in February 1992 and moved to Los Angeles. Cobain had briefly considered moving back to Aberdeen, but Love put the kibosh on that. By then "Nevermind" was the biggest album of the year — it would go on to sell more than 10 million copies. They didn't move to L.A. for fame — by then Cobain was the foremost star in rock — but instead they sought a level of anonymity they couldn't find in the Northwest.

Though Nirvana kept getting offers to tour, Cobain turned down million-dollar deals and chose to stay inside his two-bedroom, stucco-walled apartment. By that point, both Novoselic and Grohl were living in Seattle, but the trio rarely spoke for several months. The Cobains were an odd couple for L.A. — Love didn't drive, and Cobain rarely did. He ate at Canter's Deli, bought expensive hi-fi gear at Silo, and retreated to painting and narcotics, using the latter in hopes of inspiring the former.

100 feet of canvas

Friends who visited in the summer of 1992 found a full working artist's studio in Cobain's L.A. apartment. "He had 100 square feet of canvas," says Jesse Reed, Cobain's best friend from high school. "He was talking of quitting music and opening his own gallery."

The work was striking. One painting was a modernistic bright orange background with a diseased dog tooth hanging from the center of the canvas on a string. Another showed an alien on puppet strings with a miniature, shriveled penis; a small cat peered in from the corner looking like something from a Lewis Carroll story. Many of the creations were multidimensional and had bits of flowers, newspaper clippings and broken porcelain doll parts adhered to them. The themes: death, birth, menstruation, sexuality, heaven and hell. Ghosts hid behind crosses; images of Satan sported huge erect penises. Love's pregnancy played into his artistic themes, and he did dozens of paintings around photocopies of a sonogram image.

Though the time in L.A. represented Cobain's greatest immersion in painting, it was short-lived. Pressure had built for Nirvana to tour, and while the couple were away one weekend, their apartment flooded. Most of Kurt's art that wasn't destroyed went into a storage unit, where it has stayed ever since. Though Kurt frequently threatened to quit the music business, art again became secondary to the job of leading Nirvana.

While they were in L.A., their daughter Frances was born. The birth elated Kurt, but he went nearly mad when a social worker, citing a Vanity Fair article mentioning their drug problems, began efforts to take their child from them. He came to the hospital with a pistol, attempting to persuade Love to join in a double suicide. She grabbed the gun from him, but it was the beginning of a downward spiral that over the next two years would include multiple suicide attempts, frequent drug overdoses and bouts of depression.

The court action over Frances forced Kurt into rehab, the first of at least five recovery attempts he made. After one rehab stay in late 1992, they moved to Seattle's Inn at the Market. For the next three months, they lived in several of the city's finest hotels, moving only after hotel staff became exhausted by their antics and their habit of trashing rooms. Though he and his wife would spend the next several months shuttling between various four-star hotels, Kurt Cobain finally could call Seattle home.

Part 2: Tomorrow

Charles R. Cross is author of "Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain," (Hyperion, 2001). He is writing a biography of Jimi Hendrix.


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