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Editorial: Harbor has traveled a long road to embrace Kurt Cobain

Ten years ago, I stepped foot in Aberdeen and was astonished that there was absolutely nothing honoring Kurt Cobain or Nirvana or the legacy for the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame act.

But, boy have things changed in the last decade. As I watch the criticsm come in from outsiders and Nirvana idolizers, who think there’s nothing here to honor Kurt, I’ve found myself in this awkward position of defending Aberdeen — mainly because I’ve seen the slow progress that has been made.

Think about it. Ten years ago, there was no “Come As You Are” sign at the entrance way to town and the local Walmart didn’t even sell Nirvana CDs.

The area of the Young Street Bridge has since been officially named Kurt Cobain Landing by the city. There are now signs helping visitors find their way to the citizen-created park — complete with a city-funded, left-handed concrete guitar sculpture to honor Kurt; as well as a memorial plaque with his quotes and a giant sign, all courtesy of neighbor Tori Kovach, who shares an easement for the property. The city is decorated with tree guards with Kurt’s picture on them plus banners and other artwork. There’s a star on the ground in front of the old Rosevear’s music store with Kurt’s name on it; plus there’s another star honoring Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic. The Aberdeen Museum of History is in the process of opening up an exhibit on music, including honoring Nirvana.

A Portland woman is currently leading an effort to crowdsource enough funds to purchase Kurt’s childhood home in Aberdeen. Current asking price: $500,000 — despite being appraised by the county at $67,000.

Cobain died on April 5, 1994. His body was discovered three days later. Aberdeen had just as much media attention thrust upon it in 2004 on the 10th anniversary of Cobain’s death as they do now on the 20th anniversary. And the attention will just keep coming as the years progress.

But journalists re-hashing the same criticism that Aberdeen should be doing more to honor Kurt are, frankly, blind to their own obsession of finding ways to hack down a rural populace or ignorant to the reality that a lot of things really have been done. It’s kind of been like pushing a giant rock down a hill. That first thrust takes a bit, but once it starts rolling, it’ll eventually get to the goal. Admittedly, I do think more should be done — but to ignore the progress that has been made doesn’t help anyone.

The real heroes of the Kurt Cobain legacy on the Harbor are the volunteers of the Kurt Cobain Memorial Foundation, who spearheaded the efforts to put the “Come As You Are” sign at the entrance way to the city back in 2005. The sign has since been featured in countless publications and TV shows and even appeared on Jeopardy. The foundation has conducted several fundraisers all with the goal of crafting a youth center in Kurt’s name — some place he would have liked to have gone as a youth, growing up in a family where alcoholism and money troubles were rampant and divorce was a reality.

But the real sign that Kurt’s image has improved in recent years is the fact that businesses are now embracing Kurt.

Look no further than the Aberdeen McDonalds for that proof — where pictures of Nirvana are found in the interior lobby. I have seen Nirvana fans enter the McDonalds just to order some food and stare at the pictures. The Westport Winery crafted “Noir-vana,” an obvious play on Nirvana, that has “berry aromas dominating fruit forward experience with subtle, soft, nuanced oak.” In 2009, the entire business community came together in downtown Aberdeen and celebrated Kurt with the “Come As You Art Walk,” a riff on the popular art event that featured a Kurt Cobain look-a-like contest, musicians performing Nirvana tunes and artists displaying Cobain-related art. Attendance flourished.

“Come As You Are,” the title of a famous Nirvana song, has basically been embraced in recent years by the city as its unofficial motto, etched not just on the sign at city limits, but it’s the first thing people see on a giant mirror in the city’s business office to pay their water bill. The mayor’s “keys to the city” all state “Come As You Are.”

It was just a minority of business interests, who wondered if the sign should come down as recently as last year. The talk was immediately and appropriately shut down by Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson and the Aberdeen City Council.

Seriously, what would it have been like to have on the 20th anniversary of Kurt’s death, every media outlet paying attention to the city demolishing the “Come As You Are” sign? What kind of message would that have sent?

Instead, Aberdeen should just declare “Come As You Are” as its official motto — and that would be another positive national news story.

Anytime Grays Harbor does anything relating to Kurt Cobain, there’s a good chance it’ll become national news. Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney declared that it would celebrate April 10, the day Cobain will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his fellow Nirvana bandmates, as Kurt Cobain Day — because Cobain once lived in Hoquiam. That made national news. Not to be outdone, Mayor Simpson declared Kurt’s birthday of Feb. 20 to also be Kurt Cobain Day — and it made national news several times — with some pretty ugly remarks about the “creepy statue” now featured at the Aberdeen Museum of History. But, even if it is creepy, it’s sure to spike attendance.

Montesano joined Aberdeen and Hoquiam this past weekend as part of The New York Times official Kurt Cobain tour, showcasing all of the places Kurt had lived, including a home in Montesano on Fleet Street and his grandfather’s manufactured home on Clemons Road. Maybe Montesano should have a Kurt Cobain Day, too? Pretty sure that would be national news.

As a side note: Colleen Simpson, who is married to Bill, recently discovered in her 1972 YMCA Ladies Auxiliary recipe book an ad for the old Morck Hotel, which clearly states, “Come As You Are” as its advertising line. I shared a copy of the ad with Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross last month, who immediately saw what I saw: The origins of the Nirvana “Come As You Are” song has never really been explained. But, the Morck was one of the places where Cobain had crashed during the time he was “homeless.” It’s entirely possible Kurt saw the phrase at the Morck and it stuck with him.

“In all likelihood this appeared on letterhead, and signage, at the time,” Cross says. “Whether Kurt directly took something from that, or whether it simply stayed in his subconscious a few years later when he wrote the song is unknown, but it’s a fascinating twist, and perhaps an explanation of the genesis of the title of one of Nirvana’s greatest songs.”

Just this tiny news tidbit, generated because Colleen spotted it in a recipe book from the 1970s, made national news thanks to interviews Cross was doing to promote his new book, “Here We Are Now. The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain.”

I accept the fact that the Harbor has been home to many other nationally known figures. But who else on the Harbor has the power to generate so much national news 20 years after their death?

And with all of this national news comes attention — and publicity that is practically priceless.

People are coming this month from all over the world. They will clip out The New York Times tour article and go on a journey through Montesano, Hoquiam, Aberdeen and from Olympia to Seattle — just to walk in Kurt’s shadow.

And the Harbor will experience all of this free promotion — without spending a dime out of its tourism tax funds.

And that’s the crux of the next step the Harbor should take. Cross offers some pretty significant suggestions as to how to further embrace the tourism potential for Nirvana, including installing a sign at the entrance to town that says “Birthplace of Grunge,” because, as Cross explains, nobody else wants to own that word — yet Aberdeen could own it, brand it and take it as its own to sell T-shirts at the local museum. Cross also offers the idea of installing plaques at the various Nirvana-related places around the Harbor and crafting a map to give to these tourists, noting that’s exactly what Beatles fans have done in England.

One of the suggested stops for this map is the PickRite Thriftway in Montesano, where local rockers the Melvins performed a concert in the parking lot attended by a teenage Cobain, who was trying to join the band. He’d later write about the experience in his journal. The Melvins actually picked up their name from a clerk that worked at the grocery store — and went on the road to success, particularly in the aftermath of Nirvana’s success.

“You know, I wouldn’t mind something like that,” Thriftway owner Ann Galland said this week. “Another interesting fact is Kurt Cobain did some maintenance work for us one summer. He did some interior painting of the store so maybe that could be included, too.”

Since becoming editor of The Vidette, and installing a couple Kurt Cobain-inspired pieces of art on my wall visible from the giant window on Marcy Avenue, I have seen many, many people stop and look at them. Many give them a thumbs up — even though my building and office have no connection that I know of to Kurt. In fact, I looked in The Vidette 20 years ago and there wasn’t even a mention that he had died. Kurt had Montesano ties — and not a word by the newspaper of record in the entire month of April of 1994 But I’ve had people stop and buy a newspaper just to talk to me about Kurt — and if someone also wanted to do some shopping at the Thriftway after seeing a Nirvana-related plaque, so much the better for the local economy, as well.

But these plaques will take money. Luckily for us all, the county has a whole chunk of money dedicated exclusively for tourism purposes that comes from a special tax placed on those who sleep in local motels. It’s a fund that can’t be used to host events, but can be used to pay for signs, maps and published materials. What it will take, however, is a desire by the county to use this fund for this purpose — and someone to make some noise and make the request. Recently, the county tapped $28,000 to advertise on a Thurston County-based website and approved $50,000 to promote Seabrook with a contest designed to award a stay at a beach house. It’s a good bet the media attention of doing Nirvana-related signs will dwarf any kind of attention from these other two projects.

How much would some signs and plaques cost? And how much attention would the installation of those plaques generate?

As soon as the first ones go in, it’ll be a positive, national news story — and will automatically go out to the fans who will want to know about them.

Accept this fact — if you don’t care about Kurt Cobain or the way he lived or died, many, many people out there do. And they have a wallet full of cash they’re willing to spend right here on the Harbor.

The potential is there. We just need to embrace it.

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at