Twenty years after Kurt Cobain’s death, Charles R. Cross, author of the New York Times bestseller ‘Heavier than Heaven,’ revisits the sites that still hold the essence of the Nirvana frontman’s life, music, and tragic last days.
In a city that he came to define musically, there is no “official” memorial to commemorate Kurt Cobain in Seattle. No streets are named after him, no statutes exist, and there isn’t even a park named for him. That doesn’t stop thousands of fans from making a sort of Grunge pilgrimage from around the world to Seattle every year, in search of the spots where Nirvana made history and where the essence of Cobain still seems to linger 20 years after his 1994 suicide.
Kurt actually only lived in Seattle for 18 months of his 27 years, but the city was the backdrop to his rise, and it was where he died. Kurt spent his first 20 years in Aberdeen, a mid-size city near the Washington coast. Not as many tourists visit Aberdeen, but those who do can see the house he grew up in, where Nirvana first practiced and the infamous Young Street Bridge, which is where Cobain retreated as a youth, and memorialized in the lyrics to “Something in the Way” off the Nevermind album.
But like many bands from the Northwest, Seattle was where Nirvana migrated to find a larger audience, a record deal with Sub Pop, and to be a part of a larger identity of a music scene. Once Nirvana and Sub Pop became international sensations, the byline to every story on Cobain included Seattle.
In the past two years much of the landscape of Seattle has changed due to development, and few of the original locations Nirvana played existed. Many of the buildings still exist — like the O.K. Hotel in the Pioneer Square neighborhood where the band debuted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the world — but their use has changed (that building is now apartments.)
Nirvana’s first Seattle concert was at the tiny Vogue club at 2018 First Avenue (at Virginia St.), which long ago closed and is now a hair salon. It’s called Vain and is run by music fans who are happy to welcome visitors (and to dye their hair red if they wish, as Kurt did often).
A few blocks away at 2200 Second Avenue is the Crocodile, which is one of the only clubs that has remained in operation for the past two decades. Nirvana didn’t actually get their start there, and their only concert at the Crocodile was a 1992 surprise gig opening up for Mudhoney, but it is still worth a visit. The club is frequently listed as one of the best in the nation, and it has live music nearly every night of the week.
Most of the other clubs Nirvana played at are long gone, though the Central Saloon in Pioneer Square still exists. It doesn’t have same the same grimy patina that it had when only a few dozen fans gathered to see unknown Sub Pop bands, but they do still book live music (when sports aren’t on the big screen televisions, another nod to change).
Fans also often gravitate to Seattle Center, which was the location of Nirvana’s last ever Seattle concert in January of 1994, just a few months before Cobain’s death. They played in the now closed Mercer Arena then but also performed at Key Arena two years before in 1992, when they were at the height of their fame.
Just outside Key Arena is the International Fountain, a public park and usually a gathering place for young families to watch their kids run in the water spray. But on April 11, 1994, just two days after Kurt’s body was discovered, it was the site of a public memorial. In the pre-Internet era, and through word-of-mouth, 10,000 fans gathered to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Kurt Cobain.
Yet the one stop that nearly every Nirvana fan makes is Viretta Park, which sits next to a house at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard, where Cobain lived at the time of his death. He took his own life in a greenhouse on the grounds of his mansion there, and though the greenhouse has since been demolished, fans seek to be close to his essence.
Kurt only lived in the house for a few months, but neighbors reported that he occasionally was seen on the bench of the adjacent public park. So for that reason, fans called it “Kurt’s park,” and the boards of the bench have become their unofficial bulletin board. It is covered with graffiti, messages to take with him in the great beyond. “We miss you Kurt,” one marker scrawl said recently. “You are Seattle,” another read.
In a way, the city and the man are forever linked, with a history that was short. Yet for many music fans it was, and is unforgettable.