Monday, April 15, 2013

Astoria to Aberdeen

Ubiquitous purple flowers, somewhere in Oregon or Washington
These flowers are everywhere along the coast. They look vaguely like Physostegia virginiana, but that plant is not found west of Utah. More likely they are Physostegia parviflora, although it is equally possible that I am clueless.

An earlier version of our itinerary had us spending the night in Aberdeen, where Nirvana's former lead singer and guitarist, the late Kurt Cobain, spent his formative years. I didn't adore Nirvana's music the way many did, but I liked it well enough, and Cobain symbolized a post-modern apathy that spoke to my generation.

After he committed suicide in 1994, I wrote a poem based on a photograph of the death scene. I also wrote a song for a band I played in at the time (our singer named his first son Kurt and had invited me to see Nirvana live on the In Utero tour; “next time,” I said). The poem was called “Burning, Not Fading” and ended up in a chapbook I published a year later for my own amusement:

Two glass doors with wooden frames,
one open, the other shut;
branches of a tree or bush not quite in focus;
pills or gun shells on the linoleum floor
laid out in perfect, retreating squares;
a bald-headed man in a dark suit
behind the door that is closed;
an open box, socks,
a baseball cap, towel,
unfolded wallet, driver's license;
a man in black shoes, squatting,
holding a notebook in his hands;
to his left a tennis shoe
whose toes are slightly off the ground;
to his right another shoe,
dark, canvas, with a star on the side,
neatly laced and tied,
wrinkled jeans,
long-sleeved shirt,
a wrist,
and a clenched white fist.

I will never forget the photograph, nor the experience of studying it. Neither will I forget the feeling of helplessness at knowing this young man wasted his future. He was 27, which is when all the great ones seem to die–Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. It's a romantic thought, but also a sobering one for this then-25-year-old trying to figure out what the hell to do in life.

This is my role model? A guy who mumbles, doesn't shave, then shoots himself?

The title of the poem was supposed to be patterned after Stevie Smith's “Not Waving but Drowning,” only I got it wrong. I forget the name of the song I wrote. Maybe “No Apologies,” as a play on Nirvana's “All Apologies.” It is the sort of title I would have liked.

I forget many of the lyrics as well. The chorus went something like this:

Anger of a generation
Forgotten but not gone
You were seen as their salvation
Something they had won
No apologies will be

Musically it borrowed from several Nirvana songs–an homage–starting with a low murmur in the style of “All Apologies,” rising to a frenetic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” style chorus, and ending with a call to “Heart-Shaped Box.”

This was a long time ago, and all I have now are fragments... “Bullet to the head, better off dead... you could teach them something... bitter, angry words.”

I am 43 now, and what little sense of romance there may have been in suicide at the time is long gone. Days, weeks, and months are cherished as singular, unrepeatable events on a one-way trip.

This afternoon, Aberdeen is a balmy 74 degrees. We stop at a convenience store to buy water, then drive through town, with its front yards full of beer-gutted women. I have been to places like this, but in very different parts of the country. The scene runs counter to my stereotype of the Pacific Northwest, reminding me that stereotypes are rarely as useful as reality.

In a flash, Cobain's angst makes sense to me. His death, not so much, but I get him in a way that I didn't before spending 10 minutes here. Aberdeen had no clue what do with him, and vice versa.

Back in San Diego, I will ask a friend who grew up in the area about his impressions of Aberdeen. I want to be certain that I am not making a snap judgment based on an insufficient sample of the place, that I am not reporting a stereotypical view and feeding the romance of Cobain's life and death. My friend will assure me that what I saw is what there is.

This is both comforting and disturbing. We continue driving.

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