As the saying goes, it’s good to put a name with a face. Descriptions go a long way, but a description is only one person’s opinion. Thus, I decided to go to Aberdeen, Washington, and see the town where Kurt Cobain grew up for myself.
I first passed through Aberdeen and saw the town welcome sign on the way to the Olympic National Forest; it still reads “Come As You Are,” in tribute to the town’s most famous son. For those who know Kurt’s story, the sentiment feels ironic, as the man who wrote the line never felt the same kind of acceptance growing up in this shuttered logging community.
Aberdeen has been described as a small town with not much culture to offer, though Kurt wasn’t the only artist to come from here. Dale Crover, drummer for the Melvins, was born in Aberdeen; the local band served as an inspiration for budding musicians like Kurt and Krist Novoselic. Krist moved to Aberdeen with his family in 1979, which is how Kurt eventually met him and the two ended up forming a band together.
The hotel I stayed at was literally on the Wishkah River, but even in all its quasi-familiarity, Aberdeen looked a little different during my visit than it does most days. The girl at the front desk kept looking out the window like a spooked animal, prompting me to ask, “Do you guys usually get this kind of snow here?”
“No. We usually get snow once or twice a year,” she said. “And never this early.” She was worried this onset of early snow meant Aberdeen would be getting more than their fair share over the winter. For all her worries and the horror stories I heard about Washington drivers in the snow, the roads were as clear as they would be in any other small town, and the drivers were no more panicky than anyone in the Midwest. Unlike Seattle, the town of Aberdeen is relatively flat and doesn’t feature the same hair-raising hills that can make snow driving a thrill ride. The town sits in the middle of Grays Harbor, between Hoquiam and Cosmopolis, and is conjoined to the former so that it’s hard to tell where one ends and one begins. The town is split by the boat-clogged Chehalis River, which the Wishkah pours into. While city people may consider the town “small,” Aberdeen is three times the size of the town I grew up in, so I came to it with a different perspective.
Yes, Aberdeen is run down. Yes, it clearly has a lot of poverty. More than a few houses sit abandoned in the neighborhood where Kurt’s childhood home still sits. The closing of the lumber mills in the 1970s and 80s did this town no favors. But honestly? It’s not much worse than some of the small Midwestern towns near where I live now. Maybe it’s just a place that got too big for its britches. It still has some nice things, even a community college, and while the surrounding hills bear the scars of their pillaging, it doesn’t look like a bald-faced ghost town. Some of the trees have even grown back in the surrounding area. To me, Aberdeen looks like a town with possibilities. If you look hard enough, you can see the buds of an artist’s community starting to grow, the route many old mining towns in the West have taken on the road to salvation.
I have to admit I was mildly relieved not to find any hideous billboards dotting the highway with Kurt’s likeness. Aberdeen doesn’t advertise its ties to Cobain—you have to know what you’re looking for when you visit, which is just the way I like it. There are no signs marking homes with historical significance; only the Young Street Bridge is designated with Kurt’s memorial park, and even the bridge exists as a place where only fans know to go and leave their tributes. The bridge isn’t a major throughway, spanning a peaceful part of the Wishkah mostly crossed by locals. Riverfront Park doesn’t have any real public parking, either—the spot sits on the edge of the river, next to the bridge with a few plaques and a sculpture of Kurt’s Fender Jag-Stang guitar with lyrics from “On a Plain:” “One more special message to go and then I’m done and I can go home.” The guitar was erected only in 2011, and is much nicer to look at than the “Cement Resurrection” sculpture, which was never put on public display.
During my visit, Kurt’s childhood home was still for sale and sitting unoccupied. There was no sign outside designating this, but anyone who follows a music publication could tell you about it from the blitz of stories on the house this past year. It’s just as modest as you might expect, and has a tiny, tidy lawn and a microscopic backyard. It looked innocent under a blanket of freshly-fallen snow, and a little sad with a couple of broken windows. Across the street sits an abandoned house mocking the $500,000 price tag.
I’m glad the house sits unchanged, because I like to see things as they always have been. Inevitably, someone will buy it and probably fix it up. Maybe they’ll make a museum out of it, or better yet, a place for underprivileged kids to come and be exposed to the arts, a safe haven for budding artists who like Kurt, didn’t have a place to go when home stopped feeling like an option.
Downtown Aberdeen has a walk of fame for their local celebrities, and Kurt has a star on the sidewalk in front of the building that used to house the music store where he bought his first guitar. On this day, finding the marker was a bit more difficult, but after a bit of searching, I uncovered the star in the snow.
The Pourhouse is the only public place in Aberdeen Nirvana (or at least, a version of the band) ever played a show. The saloon is still open, and as it turns out, serves pretty decent food. A recent renovation added a stage for bands on the side room of the building, an upgrade from the tiny space at the front window, the spot our waitress designated as the old stage where Nirvana actually performed.
Maybe it was the snow, maybe it was the quiet or the lack of tourists, but I kind of liked Aberdeen. While I completely understood why anyone with an appreciation for culture wouldn’t want to live there, I have a soft spot run-down, gritty cityscapes and the history they leave for dead. As an artist, dirt is more interesting than the sanitized; survivors speak about perseverance and the people who abandoned them for something different. This is exactly the kind of place that would inspire a soul to want more out of life, to leave the ruins of a past glory far behind.
Kurt Cobain is not in Aberdeen, but it’s obvious this was the place that shaped him.