The magnolia trees are in bloom again in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood. In this hillside enclave of timber-baron mansions and waterfront estates, wealthy homeowners employ a phalanx of gardeners to keep the blossoms fine-tuned. But amid the Martha Stewart-like affluence is another more somber spring ritual. During the first week of April, a public park becomes ground zero for a steady stream of mourners paying homage to the memory of Kurt Cobain. It was in Denny-Blaine, while living in a three-story mansion next to Viretta Park, that Cobain committed suicide in April 1994.
The faithful come daily to this quiet community, many from faraway states or nations, all touched in some way by the music of Cobain and his band, Nirvana. The 10th anniversary of Cobain’s death will bring even more fans, media and curiosity-seekers to Viretta Park, where every square inch of each park bench is covered with messages. “This is Kurt’s Park now,” one person has written in black marker on a slat. “I miss you,” says another, echoing the sentiment of many. They’ve become message boards of mourning.
Cobain’s shadow over music remains remarkably large, considering that Nirvana enjoyed only three years in the national spotlight. When the album “Nevermind” came out in 1991, Nirvana became a superstar band almost overnight, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became the ultimate teen anthem.
By the time Cobain died, he seemed permanently linked to the Seattle music scene and the phenomenon of grunge. Yet when the band -- Cobain, longtime bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl -- released “Nevermind,” none of the members even lived in Seattle. (“We couldn’t afford it,” Novoselic jokes.) Cobain wrote most of his songs while living in Olympia, Wash., and Seattle was his home for only the last year and a half of his life.
He spent most of 1992 in Los Angeles, a time much less is known about. In an apartment on Spaulding Avenue, at the height of his fame, he put down his guitar, picked up a paint brush and contemplated a life without music. For several months he was ensconced in a mad world of creation. He painted using acrylics and oils, but at times he mixed his own blood, semen, cigarette ash and fecal matter into his medium. It was astonishing work. Most of it has only been seen by his closest friends.
Cobain died at 27. The music he created in the last year of his life was some of his best, which leaves critics and fans to forever wonder about what might have been. But none of the Cobain “what-ifs” are as fascinating as the one that imagines his quitting the spotlight of the music business and retreating to the world of art. It was an option he talked about frequently with his closest friends and the turn that might have saved his life.
Artistic talent recognized
When he was growing up in Aberdeen, a town of 19,000 in southwestern Washington, drawing was Cobain’s first love. His family quickly noticed his skill. “Even when he was a little kid, he could draw a picture of Mickey Mouse that looked perfect,” remembers grandfather Leland Cobain.
In high school, he won an art contest, the first recognition of his artistic talent. “He had both the ability to draw, and a great imagination,” his art teacher Bob Hunter observes. Some of Cobain’s classwork was controversial, including an illustration of Michael Jackson holding his crotch.
At 20, Cobain moved to Olympia. He lived with girlfriend Tracy Marander in a $137-a-month apartment, unsuccessfully tried to get illustration work and spent his days painting on board games he bought in thrift stores. “I gave him his first and probably only commission,” his friend Amy Moon recalls. “I had a dream, and I wanted him to paint it. He told me to buy a canvas for him, since he couldn’t afford the $10 it would cost. The painting was amazing -- exactly as I had described the dream.”
When he wasn’t painting, he was practicing guitar or writing songs for his other great love -- Nirvana, which he and Novoselic had formed in 1987. His song-craft improved, and Nirvana began to tour extensively, eventually signing a $287,000 deal with Geffen Records’ DGC label. In April 1991, the band spent six weeks cutting “Nevermind” at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys.
During that L.A. stay, Cobain ran into Courtney Love, and romance ensued. On a late-night walk, they discovered a dead bird. He pulled three feathers off its wing. “This one is for you, this is for me, and this is for our baby we’re gonna have.” They both laughed at his melodrama, Love remembers. Ten months later, she was pregnant.
They married in Hawaii in February 1992 and moved to Los Angeles. By then “Nevermind” was the biggest album of the year -- it would go on to sell more than 10 million copies. They didn’t move to L.A. for fame -- by then Cobain was the foremost star in rock -- but instead they sought a level of anonymity they couldn’t find in the Northwest.
Though Nirvana kept getting offers to tour, Cobain turned down million-dollar deals and chose mostly to stay inside his two-bedroom apartment in a stucco building in the Fairfax district. Love didn’t drive, and Cobain rarely did. He ate at Canter’s, bought expensive hi-fi gear at Silo, and retreated to painting and narcotics, using the latter in hopes of inspiring the former.
100 feet of canvas
Friends who visited in summer 1992 found a full working artist’s studio in the Spaulding apartment. “He had 100 square feet of canvas,” says Jesse Reed, Cobain’s best friend from high school. “He was talking of quitting music and opening his own gallery.”
The work was striking. One painting was a modernistic bright orange background with a diseased dog tooth hanging from the center of the canvas on a string. Another showed an alien, on puppet strings, with a miniature, shriveled penis; a small cat peered in from the corner looking like something from a Lewis Carroll story.
Many of the creations were multidimensional and had bits of flowers, newspaper clippings and broken porcelain doll parts adhered to them. The themes: death, birth, menstruation, sexuality, heaven and hell. Ghosts hid behind crosses; images of Satan sported huge erect penises. Love’s pregnancy played into his artistic themes, and he did dozens of paintings around photocopies of a sonogram image. Cobain had long suffered from a mysterious stomach ailment and he told friends some paintings were his attempt to visualize the pain.
Though their time on Spaulding represented Cobain’s greatest immersion in painting, it was short-lived. Pressure had built for Nirvana to tour, and while the couple were away one weekend, the apartment flooded. They were forced to move, and most of Cobain’s art that wasn’t destroyed went into storage, where it has remained. Though he continued threatening to quit the music business, art again became secondary to leading Nirvana.
Kurt and Courtney moved to a rental house on Alta Loma, in the Hollywood Hills, that had been used as the location for Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.” It was their home when their daughter, Frances, was born at Cedars-Sinai. The birth elated Kurt, but he went mad when a Los Angeles County social worker, citing a Vanity Fair article mentioning their drug problems, began trying to take their child from them. He came to the hospital with a pistol, attempting to persuade Love to join in a double suicide. She grabbed the gun from him, she has said, but it was the beginning of a downward spiral that over the next two years would include multiple suicide attempts, frequent drug overdoses and bouts of depression.
The court action over Frances forced Kurt into rehab, the first of at least five recovery attempts he made. After one rehab stay in late 1992, they moved to a Seattle hotel, leaving L.A. for good.
In March 1993, Nirvana finished “In Utero” at a studio in Minnesota, and a week after the sessions ended, the couple were given unrestricted access to their daughter for the first time in eight months. “In Utero” seemed an appropriate title for a new father, but Kurt had wanted to call the album “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.”
On Jan. 19, 1994, they bought a $1.13-million mansion in Seattle’s Denny-Blaine. It was a house that would have fit into the hills of Bel-Air, though some wondered about the wisdom of a celebrity living adjacent to a public park. Kurt barely had time to move in before Nirvana began a tour of Europe, which would prove to be the band’s swan song.
After only 16 shows, Cobain complained of sickness and canceled the tour. On March 4, he attempted to take his own life in Rome by swallowing 60 tablets of the sedative Rohypnol. He miraculously recovered. Yet before he arrived back at his Seattle home, he had persuaded drug dealers to stash heroin in the foliage of his lush yard. His last attempt at rehab lasted only 48 hours. He spent the first few days of April trying to avoid police, private detectives and friends who were searching for him. On April 5, in a greenhouse on his estate, he took his own life with a shotgun. In his one-page suicide note, he cited the pressures of fame, his lifelong stomach pain and the despair he felt at not enjoying music anymore.
His body wasn’t discovered until April 8, three days after his death, leaving mourners confused over when, and how, to honor him. “April 5 has to be one of the most important days in Seattle history, and, of course, one of the saddest,” says KNDD-FM program director Phil Manning. The station plans to play only Nirvana on the anniversary, and perhaps some Alice in Chains.
(In a bizarre twist, coroners believe April 5 was also the date of death for Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley in 2002. Staley’s body went undiscovered for weeks, making the time of death difficult to establish.)
Unlike Elvis Presley, Kurt has no grave, which is part of the reason the park is the de facto hallowed ground. Love sold the Denny-Blaine house in 2000 and moved to Los Angeles, where her own troubles continued. The new owners have put up privacy fencing and landscaping. The greenhouse was torn down in 1998.
Most Nirvana fans know that Cobain was cremated and his ashes scattered in a number of spots, including Olympia. But few know that there is a sliver of Cobain left in Denny-Blaine -- some of his remains were also sprinkled around the magnolias, willow trees, and rhododendrons in the neighborhood. For an artist who mixed ashes and his own body fluids into his paintings, this living landscape seems appropriate.
Ten years after his death, Cobain’s songs remain tremendously influential. He is on the cover of no fewer than 10 magazines this month, and Nirvana’s music has experienced a resurgence of radio play. “Rock of the ‘90s” has become a hit radio format, primarily centered on “classic” Nirvana. Cobain’s place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could not be more assured.
Since his death, there have been three posthumous Nirvana albums, making the continued interest all the more significant. Love controls the Cobain estate and, with Novoselic and Grohl, also oversees Nirvana. The trio have been watchful of over-commercializing Kurt.
The private artist Cobain, the painter, has never been put on display to the public (although one of his paintings is on the cover of 1992’s “Incesticide”). There’s been some talk, though, of a gallery exhibit, which might give him in death something he never got in life: serious attention as a visual artist. “He was truly very talented,” Novoselic told me once. “If you look at his drawings, and the stuff that he did even as far back as high school, it was really good. He was an artist, really, in every sense of the word. In every village there’s a carpenter and a blacksmith. Well, Kurt, he was the village artist.”
Charles R. Cross wrote “Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain,” (Hyperion, 2001). He is writing a biography of Jimi Hendrix.