Here we are now, on the day Nirvana released their breakthrough album Nevermind 25 years ago. I’m pleased to end the 90s nostalgia series with a piece by Jon Eekhoff today, and his memories of what it was like to live out here in the Pacific Northwest, where the band originates from. Thanks to all who followed along this past week and participated, it’s been a lot of fun!
Jon Eekhoff has several unpublished novels on his computer waiting to be held hostage by Russian hackers. His fiction tends to be about strange people who don’t understand how the world works. His non-fiction/blog writing focuses on how he doesn’t understand how the world works. He enjoys cold beer, hot coffee, and warm socks right out of the dryer.
From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah,
by Jon Eekhoff
Most people haven’t been to Aberdeen, Washington, and that is a good thing. There aren’t more depressing towns in North America, the overcast skies, the deteriorating downtown, the muddy tidal rivers, and the rain…the rain is the type of rain most people think of when they think of Seattle, but Aberdeen has the real stuff: cold, blowing in sideways, and heavy. There aren’t many reasons to go to Aberdeen unless you are one of those people in search of Kurt Cobain’s hometown, or looking for a meth fix.
In 1990, I was living and finishing up my seventh year of college in Spokane. I worked evenings at Cavanaugh’s Inn at the Park as I tried to cobble together my multiple years of education into something someone else would recognize as valuable. I had a couple degrees but my friends all agreed, we didn’t know anyone from our college who had a real job and that was what I needed, a real job. I had been married for a little more than a year and my wife had started looking for teaching jobs around the state of Washington. The late nights of neon Chinese restaurants and Spokane summers were coming to an end and it wouldn’t be long before my friends and I were separated by the pull of adulthood and responsibilities.
Todd and Scott were the guys I spent most of my time with. Todd worked for an environmental agency in a small office in a dirty part of Spokane and Scott was the Guest Services Manager at Cavanaugh’s. We shared a love of basketball and music. Our empty hours were spent in the rougher areas of Spokane playing pick up games on courts where scores were kept by someone on the sidelines to reduce the fights and in record stores looking for something new.
Todd was the one who found Nirvana first. It was only right. He always had a nose for the new cool thing. He rode his bike to work before it was cool, he smoked cigars before they were cool, and he had an ear for music that introduced me to Teenage Fanclub and The Stone Roses…he was one of those guys. (The last I heard from him he was spending summers in a van down by the Columbia River to windsurf and winters skiing at Whistler before anyone knew Whistler existed.) So when Todd popped the new Nirvana album into Scott’s tape deck and the noise started to fill the car, I held an open mind for as long as I could. I didn’t like it. The lyrics were convoluted and ridiculous. The self-absorbed lead singer was far too dark for me, but I hadn’t been to Kurt Cobain’s hometown at that point in my life.
A few months later, when Nirvana could be heard in places other than Scott’s car, I was in one of the branches of the Spokane Public Library looking through the Yellow Pages for Grays Harbor County which included Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Elma, and Montesano (the four horsemen of depression) because my wife had been offered a job at a small school, Wishkah Valley, near Aberdeen and we were considering moving across the state to start our lives. I looked for restaurants, movie theaters, and other things that could make our stay in a tiny town worth the move. There were no WebPages, no Yelp to help me know anything about this place other than what those yellow pages offered.
A job I was qualified to fill opened in a beach town nearby and before August was over we had moved into a small moss covered house in Westport, Washington. My wife commuted to her tiny school 45 minutes each way. It was a long drive for her, but we decided living at the beach was better than in Aberdeen because we only had one car and, well, I wanted to live near the ocean because I was still a Californian deep in my heart and living near the ocean was a dream I could only fulfill in a place like Westport.
The sun never came out. Never. On days that Seattle had sun it rained in Grays Harbor. On days it rained in Seattle it poured buckets in Westport and Aberdeen. By the time we reached October I understood Kurt Cobain’s depression.
Grunge filled the airwaves and Seattle suddenly became the coolest city on the planet. It was a shocking shift from Day-Glo Miami Vice colors to plaid flannel. I wish I could say I took advantage of it, but I didn’t. I knew people who traveled the two hours to Seattle to see Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains at the Showbox, at the Paramount, or if they were really lucky at the Crocodile, but I never went.
I didn’t really get how big grunge was while I was standing right next to it. I was the age when you figure that life is like that, everything revolves around you and your presence bends the world. There was the MTV Real World in Seattle, the MTV New Year’s Party where Nirvana played a disturbingly sloppy set, and then there was Nirvana Unplugged. Unplugged was where I finally recognized the brilliance of Cobain but by that time he was spiraling into the thick black abyss. He looked fragile in that pale green Mr. Rogers cardigan as he strummed through the acoustic set in a performance that even I couldn’t deny was otherworldly.
I remember traveling to California over a Spring Break and walking through a mall, there were Nirvana shirts everywhere. Girls wore flannels, combat boots, and ripped jeans in 90-degree heat. It was California grunge. It looked like grunge from a distance, but it wasn’t the real thing, it was the cleaned up corporate version stamped out in t-shirt factories around the world and shipped back to places like Wichita so kids could be cool. They didn’t realize the darkness of Aberdeen, they didn’t get that Cobain’s angst wasn’t like Kiss’s devil worship kitsch. Jocks liked Nirvana, popular kids liked Nirvana, and the outcasts who liked Nirvana were mocked for wearing a Nirvana shirt when they should have known better. Cobain’s lyrics resonated with kids who were grounded from their BMWs over the weekend, kids who hadn’t seen the Wishkah River when the tide was out and the mud looked like thick black tar.
It happened in a hurry and then it was over.
It wasn’t until years after Cobain’s death that I bought my first Nirvana album. By then the internet and iTunes made the purchase much easier than committing to flipping through the record stacks, picking an album that everyone already owned, standing in line with that album, and spending money on a Nirvana album as opposed to something I couldn’t hear on the radio.
For me, it’s still hard to separate Nirvana from Aberdeen. I hate Aberdeen. There isn’t much to see other than closed businesses, empty sawmill lots, and a busy Wal-Mart filled with desperation. People who survive there are heartier than I am.
Cobain hated Aberdeen too. The town motto is “Come as you are” and I do wonder if Cobain ever missed his hometown: The gray skies, the rain, the grit and dirt that soaked into him and made the world bend to his music.