Thursday, April 10, 2014

1994: The Year Kurt Broke

In August of 1994, our band Creature Did took to the road by way of our 1978 Green Chevy Suburban.  A cross-country month-long journey that would bring us to the West Coast for the first time.  After a great gig at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, already a few weeks and many shows into our tour, we headed west through states brand new to us, our sights now firmly set on reaching the Oz in our yellow brick road. 

Seattle, the “real” Emerald City, had gripped our conscience ever since the late ‘80s when the great and powerful  Sub Pop Records was hard at work spewing out their brand in a seemingly endless stream of bands, the likes of which included; Mudhoney, The Fluid, Afghan Whigs, Sebadoh, Tad, Soundgarden, Seaweed, Green River, and of course Nirvana.  As we approached the city limits and Seattle’s skyline came into view, I had a difficult time corralling the flood of thoughts in my brain.  Here it was right in front of me.  My ‘60s San Francisco, my ‘70s London, my Graceland, my Dollywood and we approached it at a time and in a way that somehow felt predestined, the final act playing out according to script.

Arriving here just months after the tragic events of Kurt Cobain’s death felt more than right, it felt significant.  In a few hours our music would hit the air of Seattle and the city’s influence on me would be apparent.  The 3,000-mile journey to perform here would give me a platform to show my gratitude, and an opportunity to deliver a small personal good-bye.

Road To Seattle - Mike, Me, Scott & Nina - Badlands, SD August '94

On April 8, 1994 I was 23-years-old.  I was the singer/guitarist for the aforementioned band, I was working at a record store called Volt Music in Danbury, CT, and I was sauntering through life with little direction and few cares about the world beyond my own.  On this sunny Friday morning two of my bandmates, Scott and Nina and I had decided to blow off work and, for no reason in particular, drop acid.  Mike, our other bandmate, in a typically responsible fashion left for work shaking his head at the three conspirators sitting on the couch, most likely questioning the wisdom of attaching his life to us.  So as the tiny bits of paper took hold, we lazily lied about watching TV and amusing ourselves, not daring to venture into the world outside in our altered state.  Unfortunately our attempts to avoid anything that might disturb the Candy Land adventure in our minds came to a screeching halt when Mike phoned us from his job.

The phone conversation went something like this:

Scott & I on tour - NYC '94
Scott:  Hello?
Mike:  Did you hear what happened?
Scott:  Hey it’s Mike!  We were just watching a rerun of Match Game!  It was hilarious!
Mike:  What?!?!  Wait...listen, did you hear about Kurt Cobain?  He’s dead.
Scott:  Yeah…hahahaha!!
Mike:  No seriously!  He’s dead!  It’s all over the news.
Scott:  What?!? 

As I watched the phone call play out, I found myself fixated on Scott's face as it mutated into a variety of expressions.  Mike's words took a while to crystallize in Scott's brain, but when they did there was an emotional shift that can only be described as a Smurf morphing into The Scream from Edvard Munch.  We had done our best that morning to repel any sniff of unease for fear of the tripper's downward spiral.  That dreaded decline into panic and paranoia that leaves you in a fetal position hugging a pillow and begging God to let you off this ride.   But it was too late.  The IV attached to our joyous feedbag had been unceremoniously yanked out, and Nina and I hadn’t even heard the news yet. 

Scott:  Mike says Kurt Cobain shot himself!?!  He’s dead.  We should put the news on. 

MTV News greeted us with a somber Kurt Loder.  As his words reached my ears, I remember straining to make sure there was no artificial interference with the incoming message.  There wasn’t.  Although Kurt's body was discovered on April 8th by an electrician who had arrived to install security lights, reports surfaced that he had actually killed himself days earlier on April 5th.  We sat and listened to the confirmation about the suicide, followed by images of thousands of distraught teenagers and young adults alike screaming, crying, dropping to their knees overcome with grief as journalists did their best to be respectful but still do their jobs.  There was a constant stream of Nirvana imagery both in photos and video, and a reading of Kurt's suicide note by an emotional Courtney Love.  All this while the words kept repeating over and over; dead…suicide…shotgun…Seattle…Kurt Cobain.

I’m not sure how long we sat there transfixed by this sensory overload, but finally Nina had the good sense to exclaim loudly, “I need to get out of here.”  Her words as effective as smelling salt snapped us back to life.  With the safety of our basement apartment breached, we now embraced the outside world in all its realness.  We needed air, clarity, and with poor judgment, a car ride.

We spent the afternoon taking refuge at the only place we could think of:  Trash American Style, a pop-culture shop in Danbury lead by the city’s parliament of cranky old punk rockers (and I say that with as much love as possible).  I knew we would get little sympathy here from the cynical "old guard", but it felt good to be surrounded by music.  As I aimlessly flipped through records I made it a point to avoid the "N" section.  Time and time again patrons entered the store and greeted us with some variation on the words, “Did you hear about Kurt Cobain?”  Each conversation presenting another story on where they were, how they found out, and ending ultimately on a statement about their level of disbelief. 

Feeling the effects of our morning activity beginning to fade, we ventured back home where we met up with Mike, bought a bunch of beer and headed to Compo Beach in Westport, CT for some early evening soul searching and binge drinking.  As we watched the sun set over Long Island Sound, the four of us talked at length about Kurt and the significance of his death to both ourselves and our generation.

I remember thinking, so this is what it feels like.  To experience a death of such magnitude that the whole country seemingly crashes into despair.  A death that feels so impossibly personal that you internalize it, feel cheated, cut short from what was sure to be a perfectly harmonious future.  I thought aloud is this our where-were-you-when moment?  Our JFK?  Our John Lennon?  A tragedy that cuts so deeply into the fabric of a generation that for a period you can look a total stranger in the face, shake your head, and they know exactly what you mean? 

All of this I thought about while a small sense of anger also crept its way into the mix.  When Kurt Cobain pulled that trigger he not only took his own life, he also blasted a hole through the impenetrable happiness of my early 20s.  I'm aware of how unabashedly self-centered this thinking is, but I was 23 with no direction and one of my brightest guiding stars had just flipped off the light switch.  So amongst the flurry of emotions ranging from shock to heavy sadness, there was also a sense of abandonment and betrayal.  But rather than sort it all out, I allowed myself to feel it fully.  Inviting it in and hoarding it away, aware that these emotions were the final pieces of Kurt that he would ever offer again.

Kurt on stage with Mudhoney - Crocodile Cafe '92

Months later, our pilgrimage across the country had landed us in Seattle.  Our show that night was at The Crocodile Café on 2nd Ave, a club that had opened just three years prior but had already staked a claim as a “must play” venue.  I had seen a picture once where Kurt Cobain had joined Mark Arm and the rest of Mudhoney on this very stage and thought to myself, “Of all the places I’d love to plug in my ‘66 Fender Jaguar, it’s here.” 

Sub Pop Mega Mart - 2nd Ave.
We arrived to the Croc, setup and blew through a sound check.  Since we had a few hours before we actually played we decided to explore the city a bit.  We made our way to the Sub Pop Mega Mart.  The first Sunny Day Real Estate album had just been released a few months earlier and one of the employees handed us a roll of the band's stickers to put on our gear (we ended up using them to mend the torn upholstery in the ceiling of our truck).  I also bought a Sup Pop hat which I treasured until it was stolen right off my head at a Hole concert just four weeks later in New Haven, CT.  We then made our way down to a pier that looked out over the Puget Sound.  It was my first time standing on the edge of the West Coast. 

With the city skyline looming large behind us and the Pacific waters in front, we all quietly took in the new but oddly familiar surroundings.  We had made it to Oz, even though the wizard had long since shot his way out of town.  At some point Mike and I broke away our stares into oblivion long enough to make eye contact.  He shrugged and shook his head.  No words were necessary.  I knew exactly what he meant. 

The show itself was sadly uneventful.  I’m not sure what I expected.  We played well and there was a good size crowd that seemed to like us.  We opened for a talented local band called The Incredible Force of Junior who were really kind and welcoming.  It was all I could’ve hoped for, and yet it all felt limp.  Not even the presence of Soundgarden’s Kim Thayl at the club did much to amp up the experience.  As we packed up our gear that night and prepared to get back on the road it hit me…it’s over.

The scene that I had worshipped from afar for so long had reached its curfew and gone home.  Was this because Kurt was gone or did the party die well before he gripped that shotgun?  Or was I just expecting too much from this place, a city that never asked to be famous.  A scene that was probably worn out and all too willing to show the party crashers the exit.  This wasn’t New York City or L.A., cities that thrive on celebrity and relish the attention bestowed upon them.  This was a city that felt familiar to me, blue collar, unassuming.  An over-sized dive bar where the locals are celebrated whether famous or not.

I had come out here to see the miracle that was Seattle, to say good-bye to Kurt and to prove that I belonged.  After years of immersion in the sound that was, I had convinced myself that somehow from our small practice space 3,000 miles away we were a part of it.  We can argue we were.  After all, doesn’t a movement spread beyond the city limits of its birth?  Doesn’t it cross borders and infuse itself in places far from its core?

Creature Did on stage

The far-reaching tentacles of Seattle seemed to land everywhere with kids like me taking up arms and joining the fight. 

But as I watched Seattle’s skyline fade from sight in our rear-view mirror, I couldn’t help but feel like a spectator leaving a game I had never played in.  We were just one of thousands of bands that had made the same trek.  Bands that looked like us, thought like we did, arriving to the promised land where the fog of our generation would certainly be lifted and clarity would prevail.  An ironic hope from a city that only saw the sun 67 days a year.  But instead of feeling a sense of unity I felt lost in the crowd.  Disconnected from it all.

As we drove on, a visceral fatigue set in.  I became painfully aware of how tired I was of this long-distance relationship.  Tired of the Generation X tag.  Tired of news stories and daytime talk shows debating about what to do with us all, this slacker generation, these misguided youth.  Tired of runway models in flannel and companies that celebrated heroin chic.  I was sick of forced angst and bands that looked miserable on stage as if playing was a chore.  I realized that Seattle had already awoken from the dream that was, but the rest of the country was a little slow on the uptake.  Clarity had prevailed.  The journey unlocked a door for me, and for the first time in my life I looked out far beyond the walls of my isolated existence into the future and it terrified me.

Mike and I looking out over the Puget words necessary

In a few weeks we would be back home on the East Coast and I dreaded the arrival.  Things felt different.  Kurt was gone, Seattle was smoldering from the wild fire that had spread through it, and I was in the unfamiliar position of trying to decide what to do next.  The suicide had lifted the spell I was under, and reality had a new unwelcoming sense about it.

If April 1994 had made me ask, “Why?” then our stop in Seattle had made me ask, “What now?”  Kurt chose to jump ship, maybe because it’s easier than facing the rough seas ahead.   Or maybe the pedestal he had been forced onto had reached so high that he had lost sight of the ground around him.  Or perhaps, like Seattle itself, he just wanted it all to go away, to be left alone.  I have no answer for “why” and I doubt anyone besides Kurt does.  But “what now” was for me and the rest of the young converts to figure out.

As the big green Suburban chugged along back East, I picked up a used copy of The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle in a small bookstore in Dayton, Ohio and came across this quote:  "Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale." 

As I sit here today in Boston, MA, 20 years separated from that night on the beach in Westport, CT, I think about Kurt Cobain and that watershed moment that ended the innocence of my youth.  Here in my 40s, married and no longer directionless, I put on my headphones and for the first time in a long time I listen to Nirvana.  As the sounds of Kurt’s genius wash over me I think about that spring, that summer and all that has happened since.  As I drift further and further into my memory, I can still hear the voice of Kurt Loder echoing upward from some cavernous region of my younger self; dead…suicide…shotgun…Seattle…Kurt Cobain.

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