Revisiting Kurt Cobain's Hometown Roots, 20 Years After His Death (Video)
The real meaning behind "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is traced to a fascination with childhood innocence and sexual politics.
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain infamously died 20 years ago — April 5, 1994 — in Seattle, but he wasn’t really from Seattle’s scene.
“He was a kid from Aberdeen who had, like, nothing,” Matt Lukin told me in 1992. Lukin co-founded The Melvins, the Aberdeen-area grunge band for which young Cobain served as a roadie. (Lukin was also in Mudhoney, the band that taught Nirvana how to be a stage act.)
“What’s Aberdeen like? Lotsa beer, loggers, alcoholics, no jobs, a high suicide rate,” says Lukin. “Walk into a party and the smell of ammonia knocks you out because everybody’s freebasing. It’s definitely not an artistic center.” Actor Bill Murray, who played pro baseball in Aberdeen when Cobain was 11, told me, “When I heard Kurt Cobain had killed himself, I thought, ‘What took him so long?’ Aberdeen is the most depressing place on the planet.”
The place where Cobain found reason to live – his creative identity — was the tiny, yet enormously ambitious artistic center Olympia, located between Aberdeen and Seattle, a college town whose indie spirit produced Matt Groening, Macklemore and, in the mid-’80s, Nirvana.
Utopian Olympia kids declared absolute independence from what local mogul Calvin Johnson of K Records called “the corporate ogre,” and Cobain reinvented himself among its brilliant, questing eccentrics.
“I was once a magnet for attracting new, offbeat personalities who would introduce me to music and books of the obscure,” Cobain wrote later, “and I would soak it into my system like a rabid, sex-crazed junkie, [a] hyperactive, mentally retarded toddler who’s just had her first taste of sugar.” Only to his journal did Cobain confess his uncool goal: success in corporate-ogre culture: “Nirvana No. 1 on billbored [Billboard] top 100 … 2 times on the cover of Bowling Stoned.”
Corporate-ogre rock culture was macho – even a gentle soul like Michael Jackson struck a groin-grabbing attitude. By contrast, Olympia was rife with feminist artists and performers. “An innately sensitive person, Kurt felt at home with a scene that really embraced sensitivity as opposed to machismo — his feminist and gay rights philosophy were definitely rooted in the Olympia community,” says Experiencing Nirvana author Bruce Pavitt, who founded his Subterranean Pop empire in Olympia and later, with partner Jonathan Poneman, created Sub Pop Records, Nirvana’s first label.
But before Nirvana came pounding on Sub Pop’s Seattle door for a contract in 1989, Cobain spent years perfecting his art, getting educated by Olympia’s eccentric DIY scenesters. “I use bits and pieces of others’ personalities to form my own,” he wrote. Artist Nikki McClure, who lived next door to his ghastly apartment, recalls walking over in her pajamas to bring him waffles: “There were things stacked to the ceiling: books, rabbit cages on the fridge, clothes. Kurt was somewhere in the midst of these collections, soft and quiet and blue-eyed, small and animal-like.”
“Teen spirit – it’s basically just about … friends,” Cobain explained in an unpublished interview with critic Patrick Macdonald by phone from his mom’s Aberdeen home in October 1991. Reflecting on his four years in Olympia’s cozy little zoo of the artistically inclined and willfully developmentally arrested, Cobain said, “We still feel as if we’re teenagers because we don’t follow the guidelines of what’s expected of us to be adults. It also has kind of a, like a teen revolutionary theme to it, too.”
Olympia’s kid revolutionaries had strict rules, however – many of them dictated by bossy feminists like Tobi Vail, the “over-bored and self-assured” Riot Grrl rocker who helped enlighten Cobain’s mind and toyed with and broke his heart, resulting in the angsty tunes of Nevermind. Olympia’s top culture czar, K Records founder Johnson, rejected Cobain’s music, yet profoundly influenced him (in his journal, Cobain called him “that elitist little fuck Calvin Johnson” running an “indie fascist” scene).
Johnson distributed and popularized music from other underground scenes that passed his strict moral test and became Cobain favorites: Scotland’s The Vaselines and Japan’s Shonen Knife, which Pavitt calls “a punky, bubblegum pop band that sounds like they’re in third grade. They were Kurt favorites – he called them ‘cutie bands.’ ” As a performer with his band Beat Happening, Johnson’s childlike, “cutie,” tummy-wiggling, weirdly asexual persona was so shocking that in one legendary Olympia show, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins apparently felt that Johnson was mocking Rollins’ own aggressively masculine persona – so Rollins, from the audience, grabbed Johnson’s groin onstage. Instead of punching Rollins out, Johnson sneered, “Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?” Testosterone, you just got served by estrogen!
“It was so perfect,” says Pavitt. “Beat Happening and Black Flag represented the two polar opposites of punk at that time.” Cobain, a connoisseur of contradictions, in some ways aesthetically fused cutie pop and macho rock, but he ideologically despised machismo. Axl Rose sang about male lust and pretty strippers as objects; Olympia-bred feminist Cobain sang, “I’m so horny – that’s OK, my will is good!” As a star, Cobain glorified passive defiance like Johnson’s, celebrated rape victims tougher than their assailants and wore a ball gown on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, saying, “The only reason I wear a dress is because it’s comfortable and I look pretty.” If he’d stayed in Aberdeen and never saw Calvin Johnson perform wearing a string of pearls, Cobain might’ve resembled a conventional headbanger.
Olympia in the ’80s was an adolescent fantasy world where many people (including Cobain) decorated their apartments with kids’ toys. Strange as it sounds, it was frowned upon to form traditional romantic unions. Like 19th century Transcendentalist free-love communards at Brook Farm, scenesters were expected to forge a new society and be pure children forever.
“We’ve made a pact to learn from whoever we want without new rules,” Cobain sings in “Lounge Act.” The famous tune “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a utopian vision of a cultural revolution led by the “King & Queen [Cobain and Tobi Vail] of the outcasted teens.”
Cobain described the Olympia night that inspired “Teen Spirit,” but he may not have known what it meant. “My friend [Kathleen Hanna, Vail’s bandmate] and I were in my bedroom drunk, having a really fun time talking about all kinds of revolutionary things, and we wound up destroying my bedroom,” Cobain said in 1991. “My friend wrote, ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit … what she actually meant by it was that I smelt like this deodorant for teenagers called Teen Spirit.”
But according to Here We Are Now author Charles R. Cross, Vail wore Teen Spirit, and what Hanna actually – rather nastily – meant was to tease him for bearing Vail’s scent after sex – for being conventionally mated like a grownup, instead of tummy-bopping with the cool kids. Cobain, clingy and needy and damaged after his mother (and many others) rejected him, desperately wanted a girl to settle down with, and no way was feminist, revolutionary college girl Vail going to be anyone’s long-term steady.
Cobain also sought intimacy with the warm circle of his punk audience, and reacted badly when Nirvana blew up on the world stage. “In indie culture, you’re not really a commodity; you’re a friend,” says Pavitt. “You reach a point of success where you’re no longer playing for friends; you’re a symbol, a commodity.” When success first struck Cobain in Seattle, says former Sub Pop publicist Nils Bernstein, “At a stoplight, people started pounding on Kurt’s car with tons of stuff for him to sign.” In 1989, when Nirvana toured Europe, crowds multiplied, and fame got crazier, says Pavitt: “He picked up on the testosterone level of the crowd in Italy, and said they looked like the people who used to beat him up in high school. He had a nervous breakdown onstage, when he climbed a PA stack and wanted to harm himself. And the crowd chanted, ‘Jump!’ It was scary.”
Pavitt says the vibe was utterly different from another celebrated grunge concert in Tacoma in which Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, a Cobain friend and mentor, climbed a PA stack and swung out on a fluorescent light, risking his life. “It was a forest of lights hanging by a few wires – kinda insane,” recalls Pavitt. “Mark tended to go into a trance and do things and later go, ‘What the hell did I just do?’ But Kurt was trying to harm himself.”
To save Cobain, Pavitt and Poneman took him sightseeing in Rome, cheering him up with great food, coffee and trips to the Sistine Chapel and the Coliseum. “I took a shot of him at the Vatican gift shop obsessing over cherub tchotchkes,” says Pavitt. “Later, he put a lot of cherub decals on his guitar.”
As fame, depression, addiction and angry denial darkened his spirit, Cobain’s art became preoccupied with symbols of innocence in peril from corrupt ogres. Did his visit to the Sistine Chapel, with its scary murals of humanity’s rise and fall, and all those cherubim, influence Cobain’s later masterpieces? “It certainly crossed my mind,” says Pavitt. “A young man growing up in a remote logging village winding up in one of the world’s most historically significant cities – I’d think there’d be some kind of rich connection there.”
One good example of his mature art is Cobain’s video for “Heart Shaped Box.” As a teen, Cobain used to pore over the Aberdeen library’s copy of Dante’s Inferno. “I’m not well-read, but when I read, I read well,” Cobain wrote in his journal. Late in life, Cobain incorporated more esoteric references, like the art he saw in Rome and the 1935 movie Dante’s Inferno, in which Spencer Tracy takes over a Coney Island carnival attraction based on the book.
“Ask about Dante’s Inferno movie from the ’30s to use instead of making our own props,” Cobain wrote in his notes for the video, which also involved an innocent girl trying to escape her corrupt KKK family. “We will use the scenes of people intwined [sic] old withering oak trees,” wrote Cobain, referring to the souls of suicides (in the frightening film and in Dante’s book), whom God turns into trees to punish them for stealing their own souls. God also sends winged harpies to torment the suicides, which Cobain turned into attacking crows in the video. The Cobain figure in “Heart Shaped Box” is an old man on a cross (like the crosses Cobain used to carry, and the large one he poses by in Pavitt’s photo from Rome), wearing a Pope’s mitre.
The video is partly about Cobain’s agony over losing the childhood innocence he sees in his toddler daughter, and which was celebrated on Olympia’s scene. In the 1935 film, Tracy is a corrupt carnival barker who takes the Dante’s Inferno attraction over from a kinder, original carnival guy, who warns Tracy, “Youth is a time for fun and happiness, not the serious entertainment we have in here [the inferno tableau].” In his journal, Cobain wrote, “Me — old man.” He felt that he had failed a moral test by becoming old and cynical and exiled from childhood’s paradise – the fantasy of Olympia and the childhood visions celebrated in songs like the Vaselines’ “Molly’s Lips” and Cobain’s own more tortured tunes. “The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun,” he wrote in his suicide note, addressed to his imaginary childhood playmate Boddah. “I’m too sensitive. I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasms I once had as a child.”
Cobain’s decline is appalling, but it also expresses a sophisticated artistic vision, deepened by his four years of study in Olympia, his appreciation for Roman art, and his idiosyncratic scholarship. On the historic 1989 Nirvana tour, Cobain told Nils Bernstein, "I feel like we’ve been tagged as illiterate, redneck, cousin-fucking kids that have no idea what’s going on at all. That’s completely untrue.”
“He kind of worked both sides, both angles,” notes Pavitt, who points out that Cobain, besides complaining about his stereotyped image, also helped market himself as a rural logger anarchist, in his quest for stardom and artistic perfection. “But, of course, he was no illiterate redneck. I started Sub Pop to help support a decentralized network of independent scenes, trying to both observe the way they intersected, and give some shape to that – creative types in visual art and music riffing on themes of alienation.”
At a time when popular music and culture were at an artistic nadir, cut off from authentic roots in local culture, people like Cobain and Pavitt came along to prove that culture didn’t have to be a top-down phenomenon created by corporations in L.A. and New York and imposed on the passive masses. “Sensitive, intelligent people – they can grow up anywhere,” says Pavitt.