6,557 Miles To Nowhere
Death is part of life. Generally, it’s the shortest part of
Death is part of life. Generally, it’s the shortest part oflife, usually occurring near the end. However, this is notnecessarily true for rock stars; sometimes rock stars don’tstart living until they die. I want to understand why thatis. I want to find out why the greatest career move any musiciancan make is to stop breathing. I want to find out why plane crashesand drug overdoses and shotgun suicides turn longhaired guitarplayers into messianic prophets. I want to walk the blood-soakedstreets of rock’n’roll and chat with the survivors asthey writhe in the gutter. This is my quest. Now, to do this, Iwill need a rental car.
Deathrides a pale horse, but I shall merely ride a silver Ford Taurus. Iwill drive this beast 6,557 miles, guided by a mind-expanding globalpositioning system that speaks to me in a soothing female voice,vaguely reminiscent of Meredith Baxter. This voice tells me when I needto exit the freeway, how far I am from places like Missoula, and how tolocate the nearest Cracker Barrel. I will drive down the easternseaboard, across the Deep South, up the corn-covered spinal chord ofthe Midwest, and through the burning foothills of Montana, finallycoming to rest on the cusp of the Pacific Ocean, underneath a bridgewhere Kurt Cobain never lived. In the course of this voyage, I willstand where 112 people have fallen, unwilling victims of rock’sglistening scythe. And this will teach me what I already know.
Nancy Spungenstabbed to death1978
New York City (Wednesday, July 30, 3:46 p.m.): When I walkinto the Hotel Chelsea, I can’t decide if this place is nicer orcrappier than I anticipated. There are two men behind the receptiondesk: an older man with a beard and a younger man without a beard. Iask the bearded man if anyone is staying in room 100 and if I can seewhat it looks like.
“There is no room 100,” he responds. “They converted it into an apartment 18 years ago. But I know why you’re asking.”
For the next five minutes, these gentlemen and I have aconversation about drug-addled Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, andmostly about the fact that he was an idiot. However, there are lots ofpeople who disagree: Visitors constantly come to this hotel with thehope of staying in the same place where an unlikable opportunist namedNancy Spungen was stabbed to death. “We hate it when people ask aboutthis,” says the younger employee. “Be sure you write that down: We hate it when people ask us about this.”
I ask the older man what kind of person aspires to stay in a hotel room that was once a crime scene.
“It tends to be younger people — the kind of people withcolored hair,” he says. “But we did have one guy come all the way fromJapan, only to discover that room 100 doesn’t even exist anymore. Thething is, Johnny Rotten was a musician; Sid Vicious was a loser. Somaybe his fans want to be losers, too.”
While we are having this discussion, an unabashedly annoyedman interrupts us; his name is Stanley Bard, and he has been themanager of the Hotel Chelsea for more than 40 years. He does not wantme talking to the hotel staff and orders me into his first-flooroffice. Bard is swarthy and serious, and he tells me I should notinclude the Hotel Chelsea in this article.
“I understand what you think you’re trying to do, but I donot want the Chelsea associated with this story,” says Bard, his armscrossed as he sits behind a cluttered wooden desk. “Sid Vicious didn’tdie here. It was just his girlfriend, and she was of no consequence.The kind of person who wants to stay in room 100 is just a culticfollower. These are people who have nothing to do. If you want tounderstand what someone fascinated by Sid Vicious is looking for, gofind those people. You will see that they are notserious-minded people. You will see that they are not trying tounderstand anything about death. They are looking for nothing.”
At this point, he politely tells me to leave the hotel. We shake hands, and that is what I do.
100 Great White Fansclub fire2003
West Warwick, Rhode Island (Saturday, August 2, 5:25 p.m.):For some reason, I assumed the plot of land where dozens of peopleburned to death during a rock concert would look like a parking lot. Ithought it would be leveled and obliterated, with no sign of whathappened on February 20, 2003, the night pyrotechnics from blues-metaldinosaurs Great White turned a club called the Station into a hellmouth. Small towns usually make sure their places of doom disappear.But not this town: In West Warwick, what used to be a tavern is now anad hoc cemetery — which is the same role taverns play in most smalltowns, really, but not so obviously.
When I pull into the Station’s former parking area, I turnoff my engine next to a red F-150 Ford pickup with two dudes inside.They get out, walk through a perimeter of primitive crosses thatsurround the ruins of the club, and sit on two folding chairs next to apair of marble gravestones. They are James Farrell and his cousin GlennBarnett; the two gravestones honor Farrell’s uncle, Tommy Barnett, andTommy’s best friend, Jay Morton. The story they tell me is even worsethan I would have expected: Farrell’s grandfather — Tommy’s father –suffered a stroke exactly seven days and five minutes after his son wasburned alive.
I realize that this story must sound horribly sad, but itdoesn’t seem that way when they tell it; Farrell and Barnett are bothas happy as any two people I’ve ever met. Farrell is like ahoney-gorged bear, and he reminds me of that guy who starred in The Tao of Steve. He’s wearing a tie-dyed shirt and a knee brace. He comes here every single day.
“I will remember the night this place burned down forever,”Farrell says. “I was in a titty bar in Florida — I was living in Largoat the time. I looked up at the ceiling, and I noticed it was coveredwith black foam, just like this place was. And I suddenly knewsomething was wrong. I could just feel it. Then my mom called me, andshe told me what happened. I moved up here to help out my grandma. Sheobviously has been through a lot, what with losing her son and then herhusband. The doctor said my grandfather’s stroke was completelystress-related. I mean, he stroked out a week after the fire, almost tothe very minute. That was fucking spooky.”
Farrell is 35, his uncle was just four years older, and theywere more like brothers. Tommy, a longtime regular at the Station,didn’t even want to see Great White. He referred to them as”Not-So-Great White” and only went because someone gave him freetickets.
A few months after the accident, Farrell, Tommy’s daughterand his girlfriend, and two female strangers built all of the Station’scrosses in one night. The wood came from the club’s survivingfloorboards. Originally, the crosses were left blank so anyone couldcome to the site, pick one, and decorate it however he or she saw fit.There are only about five unmarked crosses remaining, partially becausesome people have been memorialized multiple times accidentally.
As we talk, I find myself shocked by how jovial Farrell is.”I hide it pretty well,” he says. “And between you and me, I just did aline. Do you want to go do some blow?”
It turns out that this kind of behavior is not uncommonhere: These grounds have fostered a community of both spirituality anddecadence. Almost every night, mourners come to the Station cemetery toget high and talk about how they keep living in the wake of all thisdeath.
“Nothing in West Warwick is the same,” Farrell says later,as he paints his uncle’s gravestone. “It changed everyone’spersonality. Everybody immediately started to be friendlier. For weeksafter that show, if you wore a concert T-shirt into a gas station,everybody acted real nice to you. If they knew you were a rocker or ahead, they immediately treated you better. It’s that sense ofcommunity. It’s kind of like the drug culture.”
I ask him what he means.
“I mean, I just met you, but I would give you a ride anywherein the whole goddamn state of Rhode Island if you asked me, because Iknow you’re a good guy. I have something on you, and you have somethingon me. It’s like that here. The people who hang out here at night –it’s definitely a community of people dealing with the same shit. Icall it ‘the fellowship.'”
A kid pulls into the parking lot and hauls an upright bassout of his vehicle; it’s one of those seven-foot monsters like theStray Cats’ bassist used to play. He faces the grave markers, whips outa bow, and begins to play Eccles’ Sonata in G Minor. Either I am at theStation at the absolute perfect journalistic moment, or West Warwick isAmerica’s new Twilight Zone.
“Oh, I used to play at this club all the time,” he says whenI wander over. “I was in a band called Hawkins Rise, and I playedupright bass through an amp. We were sort of like Zeppelin or the Who.”He tells me his name is Jeff Richardson, that he is a 24-year-old jazzfanatic, and that he knew five of the people who died here. He wasvaguely familiar with many of the other 95.
“The same people came here every night,” Richardson says.”When a band like Great White or Warrant would come into town, all thesame people would come out. There was never any pretentiousness at thisclub. You wouldn’t have to worry about some drunk guy yelling about howmuch your band sucked.”
To me, that’s what makes the Great White tragedy even sadder than it logically should be: One can safely assume that noneof the 100 people who died were hanging out at the Station to be cool.These were blue-collar people trying unironically to experiencerock’n’roll that had meant something to their lives when they wereteenagers.
Tonight, I will go back to the graveyard at 11 p.m., andlots of the deceased’s friends will pull up in Camaro IROC-Zs and ChevyCavaliers. They’ll sit in the vortex of the crosses, smoking mentholcigarettes and marijuana, and they will talk about what happened thatnight. I will be told that the fire started during the first song(“Desert Moon,” off 1991’s Hooked). I will be told that theStation’s ceiling was only ten feet high and covered in synthetic foamand that when the foam ignited, it (supposedly) released cyanide intothe air. I will be told it took exactly 58 seconds before the wholebuilding became a fireball. I will be told that a few firemen at thescene compared it to seeing napalm dropped on villages in Vietnam,because that was the only other time they ever saw skin dripping off ofbone.
I will also be told (by just about everyone I speak to) thatGreat White vocalist Jack Russell is a coward and a hypocrite and thatthey will never forgive him (the fact that his bandmate Ty Longley alsodied in the blaze doesn’t seem to affect their opinion whatsoever).Around 1 a.m., Farrell will read me a poem about how much he despisesRussell, and after he finishes, he will stare off into the night skyand say, “I would really like to hit him in the face.” But he won’tsound intimidating or vengeful when he says this — he will just soundprofoundly sad. And it will strike me that this guy is a relentlesslysweet person with a heart like a mastodon, and I would completely trusthim to drive me anywhere in the whole goddamn state of Rhode Island,even if he had never offered me drugs.
Three members of Lynyrd Skynyrdplane crash1977
Magnolia, Mississippi (Wednesday, August 6, 8:20 p.m.):Despite the GPS, I’m semi-lost in rural Mississippi. And when I say”rural,” I mean rural: Ten minutes ago, I almost drove into a cow that had meandered onto the road. This is especially amusing because if I haddriven into a cow, I would be only the second person in my immediatefamily to have done so. When my sister Teresa was in high school, sheaccidentally plowed into one with our father’s Chevy. Teresa hit it at40 mph, and the old, sleepy-eyed ungulate went down like a tree struckby lightning. Those were good times.
I am hunting for the site of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1977 planecrash, which killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, andGaines’ sister, backup singer Cassie. This tragedy is the presumedinspiration for the airplane scene in the film Almost Famous,although it’s a safe bet nobody on the Skynyrd plane came out of thecloset just before they collided with the Mississippi dirt.
My initial plan was to ask for directions at the localMagnolia bar, but there doesn’t seem to be one. All I find arechurches. Near the outskirts of town, I spy a gas station. Theauburn-haired woman working behind the counter doesn’t know where thecrash site is; however, there is a man buying a 12-pack of Bud Light,and he offers to help. “My old lady can probably tell you for certain,”he says. “She’s waiting in my pickup.” We walk out to his extended-cab4x4 Ford, and his “old lady” (who looks about 25) instructs me to takethe interstate southbound until I see a sign for West 568 and thenfollow that road for ten miles until I see some chicken coops. There’sone problem: There are a lot of goddamn chicken coops in Mississippi.It’s getting dark, and I’m almost ready to give up. Then I see a signby a driveway for Motefarms.com. This is the first time I’ve ever seena farm that has its own website, so I suspect it’s more than just achicken ranch. I’m right, and when I pull into the yard, I’mimmediately greeted by a shirtless fellow on a Kodiak four-wheeler.
John Daniel Mote is the 21-year-old son of the farm’s owner.He is a remarkably handsome dude; he looks and talks like a young JohnSchneider, patiently waiting for Tom Wopat to get back from the Boar’sNest. “This is the right place,” he says. “Follow me.” We drive down adirt road behind the chicken coops. I can hear the underbrush rubbingagainst the bottom of the Taurus, and it sounds like John Bonham’s drumfills from “Achilles Last Stand.”
He finally leads me to a landmark that his father constructed years ago. It’s dominated by an archway with Free Birdpainted across the top. There is a Confederate flag, of course, and astatue of an eagle. Mote says that if I were to walk through the Free Birdarch and 50 yards into the trees, I would find a tiny creek and somerandom airplane debris. I start to walk in that direction. Heimmediately stops me. “You don’t want to go in there,” he says. I askhim why. “Snakes. Cottonmouths. Very poisonous. Not a good idea.” Andthen young John Daniel Mote drives away.
By now, the sky is as dark as Nick Cave’s closet. I amsurrounded by fireflies. There is heat lightning to the east. Thetemperature is easily 100 degrees. It feels like I’m trapped in thepenultimate scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which IndianaJones and Marion are tied to a stake while the Nazis try to open theArk of the Covenant. Or maybe I’m just thinking of that movie becauseMote mentioned the snakes.
Still, part of me really wants to see where the plane wentdown. I feel like an idiot for having driven 547 miles in one day onlyto be stopped five first downs from pay dirt. I drive the Taurus up tothe mouth of the arch and shine the high beams into the blackness. Iopen the driver’s side door and leave it ajar so that I can hear theradio. It’s playing “Round and Round” by Ratt. The headlights don’thelp much; the trees swallow everything. I start to walk into thechasm. I don’t make it 50 yards. In fact, I don’t even make it 50 feet.I can’t see anything, and the cicadas are so loud that they drown outRatt. I will not find the spot where Ronnie Van Zant was driven intothe earth. I turn around, and the cottonmouth snakes gimme three stepstoward the door.
Elvis Presleydrug overdose1977
Memphis, Tennessee (Friday, August 8, 3:14 p.m.): So here isthe big question: Is dying good for your career? Memphis offers two keypoints of investigation for rock’n’roll forensic experts. The first isGraceland, where Elvis Presley overdosed while sitting on a toilet. Thesecond is Mud Island, where the Wolf River meets the Mississippi. Thisis the spot where singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley went for a swim andnever came back. One could argue that both artists have significantlybenefited from dying: Presley’s life was already collapsing when hepassed in 1977, so his death ended that slide and, in all likelihood,kept his legacy from becoming a sad joke (it is virtually impossible toimagine a “noble” 68-year-old Elvis, had Presley lived into thepresent). Meanwhile, Buckley’s death is precisely what turned him intoa star. He was a well-regarded but unfamous avant-garde rock musicianwhen he drowned on May 29, 1997. Almost instantly, he became aChristlike figure (and his 1994 album Grace evolved from “very good” to “totally classic”).
I am typing this paragraph while sitting by the banks of theWolf River, presumably where Buckley disappeared into the depths. Thewater is green and calm as a sheet of ice. Buckley’s mother onceinsisted he was too strong a swimmer to die in these waters. I don’tknow how I feel about this supposition, as I cannot swim at all (Ican’t even float). The ¤ber-placid river looks plenty deadly to me; asfar as I’m concerned, it may as well be a river of hydrochloric acid.
But how or why Buckley died really doesn’t matter at thispoint; what matters is how his death is perceived by the world. And asfar as I can tell, Buckley’s demise is viewed 100 percent positively,at least from an artistic standpoint. There is an entire cult ofdisciples (led, I believe, by Minnie Driver) who project the knowledgeof Buckley’s death onto his work, and what they then hear on songs like”Drown in My Own Tears” is something that would not exist if he werealive. It’s a simple equation: Buckley is dead, so Grace isprofound. But this says more about the people who like Buckley than itdoes about his music. Even when it’s an accident, dying somehow provesyou weren’t kidding.
Robert Johnsonsold soul to devil1930
Satan’s Crossroads (Friday, August 8, 4:33 p.m.): Just northof Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49,the spirit of rock’n’roll was spawned from Satan’s wheeling anddealing. You see, this is the “crossroads” where Robert Johnson soldhis soul to the devil in 1930, thereby accepting eternity in hell inexchange for the ability to play the guitar like no man before him.Satan’s overpriced guitar lesson became the blood of the blues — and,by extension, the building blocks of every hard-rock song ever written.
Obviously, this never actually happened. Robert Johnson (whowas poisoned to death at 27) met the devil about as many times as JimmyPage, King Diamond, and Marilyn Manson did, which is to say never. Butthis doesn’t mean rock’n’roll wasn’t invented here. Rock’n’roll is onlysuperficially about guitar playing?it’s really about myth. And the factthat people still like to pretend a young black male could becomeLucifer’s ninja on the back roads of Coahoma County (and then employhis demonic perversity through music) makes Johnson’s bargain as real as his talent.
Unfortunately, these present-day highways to hell don’t looklike much. They look like (duh) two highways. There is spilled barleyon the shoulder of each road, so this must be a thoroughfare for localgrain trucks. The only thing marking the site is a billboard promoting”microsurgical vasectomy reversal.” Ironically, I was able to findRobert Johnson’s crossroads with the Ford’s GPS: Somehow, it seems likesatellite technology should not allow you to find the soul of America’smost organic art form. You’d think the devil would have at least blownup my transmission or something.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Saturday, August 9, 11:47 p.m.): Fivehours ago, I was looking for a motel. Then I heard something on theradio waves of rural Iowa: 36 miles away, Great White were performing abenefit concert in Cedar Rapids to raise money for the Station FamilyFund. Sometimes, you just get lucky.
After turning around and driving to Cedar Rapids, I realizeI have no idea where this concert is, and the kind of bars that hostGreat White shows in 2003 are not exactly downtown establishments. Idecide to just walk into a Handy Mart gas station and ask the kidworking the Slushee machine if he knows where this show is. He doesnot. In fact, he hasn’t even heard about it. “Well, where do you thinka band like Great White would play in Cedar Rapids?” I ask. He guessesthe Cabo Sports Bar and Grill, a new place next to the shopping mall.And his guess is absolutely right.
The show is outside on the club’s sand volleyball courts;admission is $15. When I arrive, the opening band — Skin Candy –aredoing a cover of Tesla’s “Modern Day Cowboy.” There are maybe 1,000people waiting for Great White, and it’s a rough crowd. When you lookinto the eyes of this audience, you can see the hardness of thesepeople’s lives. More than a few of them are complaining that the16-ounce Budweisers cost $3.50. This is exactly what the crowd in WestWarwick must have looked like.
I go backstage (which is really just the other side of theparking lot) and find Great White vocalist Jack Russell. He’s wearing asleeveless T-shirt and pants with an inordinate number of zippers, andhe’s got quite the little paunch. Somebody walks by and stealthilyhands him some tablets, but it turns out they’re merely Halls coughdrops.
I ask him what he remembers about the fire in Rhode Island,but he balks. “I can’t talk about any of that stuff, because there isan ongoing investigation, and I don’t want to interfere with anythingthe [Rhode Island] attorney general is doing.” This is understandable,but I ask him the question again. “Well, it changed my life. Of courseit changed my life,” he says. “But I had to make a choice betweensitting in my house and moping forever or doing the one thing I knowhow to do.”
Russell tells me he can’t discuss this any further. However,guitarist Mark Kendall is less reticent. He’s wearing Bono sunglassesand a black ‘do rag, and he fingers his ax throughout the duration ofour conversation. He seems considerably less concerned about theattorney general. “That night was just really confusing,” Kendall says.”I was totally numb. I didn’t know what was going on. I had mysunglasses on, so I really couldn’t see what was happening.”
I tell him that there are people in Rhode Island who will never forgive him for what happened.
“Oh, I totally understand that,” Kendall says. “That is acompletely understandable reaction on their behalf. I mean, I’ve nevergotten over losing my grandfather, and he died 15 years ago. On the dayof that show, I met five different people who ended up dying thatnight. I feel really, really bad about what happened. But no blameshould be cast.”
I ask Kendall how Great White can donate the profits fromtheir tour and still afford to live. “Well, we did sell over 12 millionrecords,” he says with mild annoyance. Twenty minutes later, the bandopens with “Lady Red Light,” and, much to my surprise, they soundpretty great. After the first song, Russell asks for 100 seconds ofsilence to commemorate the victims. It works for maybe a minute, butthen some jackass standing in front of me holds up a Japanese import CDand screams, “Great White rules!”
Bob Stinsonchronic substance abuse1995
Minneapolis (Monday, August 11, 1:30 p.m.): There are a lotof disenfranchised cool kids in downtown Minneapolis, and most of themhave a general idea where Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson drank anddrugged himself to death in February 1995. They all seem to think itwas the 800 block of West Lake Street, near a bowling alley. They arecorrect. Stinson died in a dilapidated apartment above a leather shopand directly across the street from the Bryant-Lake Bowl.
I knock on the apartment door. No answer. I knock again.Again, no answer. This is strange, because I know for certain thatsomebody is in there. While outside, I saw a pudgy white arm ashing acigarette out of the window. Granted, I don’t really have a plan here.I’m not exactly sure what I should ask this person if and when he orshe opens the door. But I feel like I should at least see the inside ofthis apartment (or something), so I keep knocking. And knocking. Iknock for ten minutes. No one ever comes out. I try to peep into thewindow where I witnessed “the cigarette incident,” but now the shade isdown, and I’m starting to feel like a stalker. I decide to walk away,having learned zero about a dead musician I knew practically nothingabout to begin with.
Seattle (Saturday, August 16, 2:12 p.m.): Lots of dead peoplehere. if rock musicians were 15-ton ivory-bearing pachyderms, Seattlewould be America’s elephant graveyard.
First, you have Mia Zapata of the Gits, the female punk whorepresented liberation and self-reliance before she was raped by asociopath and strangled to death with the string of her sweatshirt.There is Kristen Pfaff, the Hole bassist and smack addict who overdosedin her bathtub. And one cannot forget the (entirely predictable) demiseof Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, a man who OD’d in perhaps theleast rock’n’roll spot in all of Washington: a generic, five-story tealcondominium in an area of town widely considered Seattle’s least coolneighborhood (it’s a block from a Petco).
Perhaps you are wondering how I knew where all these peopleperished; the truth is that I did not. The guided Seattle death tourwas provided by Hannah Levin, a rock writer for the alternativenewspaper The Stranger and a freewheeling expert on local tragedies. Of course, all the aforementioned demises pale beside the Citizen Kaneof modern-rock deaths: the mighty K.C. This is what Levin and I discussas we maneuver the long and winding Lake Washington Boulevard, beforefinally arriving in what used to be Kurt Cobain’s backyard.
“In the weeks before he killed himself, there was thislitany of rumors about local singers dying,” Levin says. Back in ’94,she worked at Planned Parenthood but was immersed in the grungeculture. “There was a rumor that Chris Cornell had died, and then therewas a rumor that Eddie Vedder had died. So even though a bunch of myfriends called me at work and said Kurt was dead, I didn’t believethem. That kind of shit happened constantly. But then I went out to mycar at lunch to smoke cigarettes and listen to the radio. My radio wason 107.7 The End, which was Seattle’s conventional modern-rock station.And as soon as I turned the ignition key back, I heard the song’Something in the Way.’ That’s when I knew it was true, because The Endwould have never fucking played that song otherwise. It wasn’t even asingle.”
The greenhouse where Cobain swallowed a shotgun blast wastorn down in 1996; now it’s just a garden. One especially tallsunflower appears to signify where the Nirvana frontman died, but thatmight be coincidence. When we arrive at the site, there are four guysstaring solemnly at the sunflower. One of them is a goateed 24-year-oldmusician named Brant Colella. He’s wearing a Glassjaw sweatshirt, andit has been a long time since I’ve met someone this earnest. Colellamakes Chris Carrabba seem like Jack Black.
“I’m from New York, but I moved to Portland to make music.I’m a solo artist. I used to be in a band, but my band didn’t have itin them to go all the way, and that’s where I’m going,” he says, andthen looks longingly toward the sunflower. “His heart is here. My heartis here, too. I wanted to see where Kurt lived and hung out. I wantedto see where he was normal. The night before he died, I had a dreamwhere Kurt came to me and told me that he was passing the torch on tome. Then we played some music together.”
Colella was 15 when Cobain died on April 5, 1994. Lastnight, he and his friends attended a Mariners game — Ichiro Suzuki hita grand slam to beat the BoSox — but Colella wants to make it veryclear that seeing Cobain’s house was his primary motivation forvisiting Seattle. He also wants to make it very clear that (a) he hatespeople who wear Abercrombie & Fitch and (b) that Kurt probablydidn’t kill himself.
“There are some people who assume he was completelysuicide-driven, but he wasn’t like that,” Colella says. “I don’t wantto stir up waves and get killed myself, but the information thatindicates Kurt was murdered actually makes way more sense than theconcept of him committing suicide. But I’m not here to point fingersand say Courtney Love did it. Only God knows the answer to thisquestion. And I realize there are people who want to believeKurt Cobain committed suicide. People are kind of broken into twofactions: There are right-wingers who want to use his death to pointout that this is what happens when you listen to rock’n’roll, and thereare also all his crazy fans who want to glorify depression and haveKurt be their icon forever.”
When Colella first said this to me, I thought it wasreductionist, simplistic, immature, and — quite frankly — prettystupid. But the more I think it over, the more I suspect he’scompletely right. Except for the murder part.
Aberdeen, Washington (Monday, August 18, noon): Kurt Cobain’shometown can be described with one syllable — bleak.Everything appears belted by sea air. The buildings look like they’resuffering from hangovers. Just being here makes me feel tired.
In the early 1990s, the suicide rate in Aberdeen was roughlytwice as high as the national average. This does not surprise me. It’salso a hard-drinking town, and that doesn’t surprise me, either: Thereare actually road signs informing drivers that the Washington DUI limitis .08 (although it would seem that seeing said signs while you are actually driving your vehicle is like closing the barn door after the cows are already in the corn).
I notice these roadside markers as I drive around looking for a bridge that does not exist.
What I am looking for is the bridge on the Wishkah River that Kurt Cobain never lived under. He liked to claimthat he did. Nevermind’s “Something in the Way” is the supposed storyof this non-experience. It’s quite possible Cobain did hang out downthere, since hanging out under bridges is something lots of bored,stoned high school kids are wont to do. But Cobain didn’t really liveunder any bridge; he just said he did to be cool, which is a totallyacceptable thing to do, considering what he did for a living. Beingcool was pretty much his whole job.
There are a lot of bridges in Aberdeen — this would be awonderful community for trolls. I walk under several of them, and Icome to a striking conclusion: They all pretty much look the same, atleast when you’re beneath them. And it doesn’t matter if Kurt Cobainslept under any of them; what matters is that people believe he did, and that is something they want to believe. Maybe it’s something they need to believe, just like they need to believe that a legend’s death meanssomething. If they don’t, they will be struck with the depressingrevelation that dead rock stars are simply dead. Cobain’s death was nomore remarkable than anyone else’s — it was just more “newsworthy,”which is something else entirely. All he did was live, sing, and die.Everything else is human construction. Everything else has nothing todo with the individual who died and everything to do with the peoplewho are left behind (and who may even wish those roles were somehowreversed).
As I walk back to my car and prepare to return to the worldof the living, I think back to the conversation I had with theunabashedly annoyed man who runs the Hotel Chelsea. It turns out thathe was right all along: I am not a serious person. I do not have anyunderstanding of death. And I am looking for nothing.