NY Conversation August 2011

“Welcome to Aberdeen. Come as you are.”

The large sign appears on the side of the highway as you round the last bend on the highway into Aberdeen, WA. It’s a wholesome Brunswick green, the reassuring colour of governmental initiatives the world over. The lettering is bold and friendly, and the whole thing is topped with a cast-iron sailing ship sailing merrily into a cast-iron bay.

It’s hard to imagine what Kurt Cobain would have made of it.

If you’re any sort of Nirvana fan, you’ll know that Aberdeen is the town where Cobain spent his teenage years. Despite the local council’s cheery appropriation of his legacy, the songs that Cobain wrote about the place didn’t exactly cast in a particularly flattering light. When you visit, you can understand why.

The drive here has been strange enough — we take the b-roads instead of the highway, and find ourselves winding through thick pine forest that occasionally gives way to glimpses of the coast. We stop for a while on the beach for lunch and watch two kids playing in the shallow grey estuary, their voices echoing across the flatness. In the already diminishing light, the seaboard has a frail briny beauty, the colour of bleached driftwood and lurid seaweed. The water speaks of eels and slime and barnacles and general subaquatic freakiness.

An hour further along the road, we pull into a lay-by for a final leg-stretching break and find ourselves looking at an old, clapped-out sawmill. There are machines painted in peeling yellow and sky-blue, sheds with cracked walls, foundations melting into the water. It looks like a machine someone’s left running and forgotten about, slowly winding down into stillness.

The sun is already starting to head down toward the horizon as we reach Aberdeen. NY Conversation is here out of curiosity as much as anything, although we’re entertaining vague notions of asking locals what they make of the Nirvana industry, 20 years on from Nevermind. This turns out to be an impractical idea, mainly because there don’t seem to be any locals to ask — on a Saturday afternoon, Aberdeen feels almost spookily empty. The town’s population peaked in 1930, in the boom times of the logging industry, and has been declining slowly ever since — it now sits at a smidgeon under 17,000.

The shops along the main drag, where we pull in for a fruitless attempt to find coffee, go something like this: Something called a “Child Evangelism Fellowship”. An abandoned shopfront. An insalubrious-looking pool hall. An abandoned shopfront. A shop selling “Leather and collectables”. A forlorn sex shop. A place called “Faith Hope Outreach”. A pawn shop. An abandoned shopfront. And a café. It’s closed.

We drive aimlessly for a while, then decide to search for the Young St Bridge, under which Cobain famously slept. We find it almost by accident — it’s as unassuming a bridge as you’ll ever see, a two-lane piece of asphalt that crosses the Wishkah with barely a bump, before the road takes a long curve and winds off into the forest.

A path leads along one side of the river, where the entire underside of the bridge is adorned with graffiti left by Nirvana fans who’ve made the pilgrimage here. There’s also a little park, wherein there’s a large placard with a portrait of Cobain and the lyrics to “Something in the Way” — surely the only song about homelessness ever to be immortalised on a government-funded billboard — and a curious little plaque set into the ground with a number of Cobain quotes carved into it. As with every other Nirvana memorial in Washington State, there’s no mention of his suicide, just his “untimely” or “tragic” death.

Getting down under the other side of the bridge requires climbing over the railing and forging through the undergrowth that grows along the banks of the Wishkah (which are, indeed, muddy). But this side is quiet and peaceful, like being in a cave, and as we sit down, I’m struck by a sudden certainty that if Kurt slept anywhere — he was never above a bit of self-mythologizing, after all — it was here. The view out along the water is startlingly beautiful — weeping willows dip down to the slow current, and the water catches the last of the sun in a thousand rippling reflections.

And I find myself thinking just how strange it must have been to go from sleeping under this bridge to global megastardom, from post-industrial penury to festival stages, from being just another lost boy to being called the voice of a generation. From this peaceful cave to the never-ending glare of flash bulbs. Down here, the myth seems a long, long way away.

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