About six years ago I drove to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to hike the pristine trails near Lake Quinault, and on my way I drove through the mill town of Aberdeen—actually I smelled the rotten egg vomity mill scent when I was still several miles up the Chehalis River. My first impression was the town looked like a place that could steal one’s soul or create a new one of some primitive forsaken nature. Rusted traffic lights and signs swayed in the rainy intersections. Farther up the road, dilapidated houses and businesses lined the streets like the Roman Army had partied with frat boys, and left the place in a hurry. Weeds were doing their best to cover the damage but there was just too much to hide. Suddenly, Kurt Cobain’s Nevermind began playing in my head as this was the town where he was raised. Suddenly, I had a satori-like moment of the importance of place in art. Aberdeen was grunge. Grunge was Aberdeen.
Here, as in Cobain’s music, stark reality made the glossed-over, cruel at the core, 21st Century urban reality clear to audiences that mostly remain too stressed to focus or too affluent to care. Upon my arrival from central Illinois, where I taught English for two years, to San Diego, where I currently teach, a local prepared me, “To survive here you must understand there is a thin candy coating over everything.” And there was. And there is. But not in Aberdeen. Sure, grunge was ugly but it was real too, and in that way more beautiful than anything posing in the hard-bodied billboards, prozaced cars and escapist mall windows of San Diego. In addition, Aberdeen was surrounded by wilderness which meant there was still hope no matter how much modern people and institutions screwed things up.
I would like to think that when life went bad for Cobain as a kid in the 1970s, he let some of that stark reality surrounded by primitive wilderness stew in his imagination. Recently, I watched a documentary called About a Son which was narrated by Cobain in a series of phone interviews with journalist, Michael Azerrad. In it, Cobain said as a boy he felt he was a child whom aliens had placed on Earth from a spaceship. Many writers, artists, and musicians in our quickly-sinking pseudo-capitalist culture can likely still relate to that.
For a brief time in the early 1990s, Cobain’s fuck conformity-and-live-under-a-bridge-if-that’s-what-it-takes-to-be-free theme tapped a latent nerve among exploited youth throughout the country and their wanna-be cool suburbanite cousins. As a result, Nevermind, according to the 1992 Billboard charts, rose to number one, and, according to The Recording Industry Association of America, shipped “10 million copies.”
Now, in January 2010, with staggering unemployment, empty promises of mortgage bailouts, “strategic defaults” on the rise, and desperate people abandoning pets to animal shelters or fate, many of us are waking up to our own private Aberdeens. A lesson from Cobain would be to take up a pen, brush, or a musical instrument instead of a brick, or better yet, as a brick.