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This April 1994 photo provided by the Seattle Police Department shows items found at the scene of Kurt Cobain's suicide, in Seattle. The image has never before been released. Police spokeswoman Renee Witt said Thursday, March 20, 2014, that several rolls of undeveloped film were found when a detective re-examined the Cobain case recently. (Uncredited/AP)
This April 1994 photo provided by the Seattle Police Department shows items found at the scene of Kurt Cobain's suicide, in Seattle. The image has never before been released. Police spokeswoman Renee Witt said Thursday, March 20, 2014, that several rolls of undeveloped film were found when a detective re-examined the Cobain case recently. (Uncredited/AP)

Notes from Seattle: 20 years later, what is Kurt Cobain’s legacy? Add to ...

I’m not sure I can say this about any other pop song, but I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. The angsty wall of sound blasting out of my friend’s roommate’s boom box may not have announced itself immediately as the voice of a generation, but it demanded a thrilled, “What is this?”

Less than three years later came that other remember-where-you-were-when Nirvana moment.

April 5 marks 20 years since Kurt Cobain shot himself at his Seattle home. He was 27, with superstar-level fame and wealth – not to mention a wife and a one-year-old daughter. He also had many personal issues, including depression and a heroin addiction.

With this grim anniversary, and Nirvana’s induction next week into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cobain is making headlines again. His hometown of Aberdeen, Wash., has unveiled a (much-maligned) memorial statue. His mother is trying to sell the tiny, wrong-side-of-the-tracks house where he grew up for $500,000 (U.S.). New police photos have been released of the death scene by the Seattle Police Department. His widow Courtney Love is musing about a Nirvana Broadway musical.

And in rainy Seattle, a week before the anniversary, a steady stream of fans made the pilgrimage to the closest thing the city offers to a memorial – a bench thick with graffiti and carved tributes in the tiny park next to the lakeview home where he lived, and died. A Nirvana exhibit at the EMP Museum (formerly the Experience Music Project) was doing a brisk business too.

There will be nostalgia aplenty this weekend. But as we light our candles, in a daze, we also have the distance to examine through a contemporary lens the legacy of this god we found and then, way too soon, lost. For rather than fade, Cobain’s stamp on the culture continues to evolve in unexpected ways, even if he did not live to experience the popular culture he helped shape.

EMP Museum

COME AS YOU ARE

The first guitar Cobain ever smashed.

In his new book Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana and Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross, who chronicled the band’s career from the very early days for his now-defunct Seattle alternative magazine, The Rocket, makes the case for a legacy that is enduring, evolving and at times, surprising.

Rather than simply feel like time-capsule rock, or some compulsory ingredient in shaping contemporary artistic identities, Cobain’s music continues to resonate and attract a new fan base.

“The reason it has resonance for so many people is that whether you discovered it in 1990 or you discovered it in 2013, if it touched your identity, who you are as a person, then it has significance and meaning,” said Cross in an interview in Seattle. “And I think that was his greatest gift. It wasn’t the ... squealing guitar. That wasn’t how he changed the world. What he did was he put his voice into the lyrics more than anything else and when you listen to it, you feel as if he’s speaking to you, or you feel as if he’s speaking about you. Or maybe both. And not many songwriters have that capacity.” (His own 14-year-old son is learning to play the music, without any push from his Nirvana expert dad.)

At 16, Vera Zveryayeva was born years after Cobain died, but discovered the music growing up in Moscow, and is deeply devoted. “His music is something which still inspires us and something we can relate to, which is really important when you’re a lonely teenager and you have problems and you can just listen to him and get a feeling that somebody understands you,” she said, as she knelt by the park bench, scrawling messages to Cobain. Zveryayeva, an exchange student living in Salem, Ore., came to Viretta Park prepared, with Come As You Are playing on her iPod, art supplies packed in her purse, and the makings of a little shrine – four photos of Cobain, four tea lights, and a poem she wrote in Russian.

“It describes the way Cobain looked and it admires his sincere voice and it also says how much we love him,” she explained. “And that before going to bed instead of praying to God, we listen to his songs.”

HEART-SHAPED BOX

This April 1994 photo provided by the Seattle Police Department shows items found at the scene of Kurt Cobain's suicide, in Seattle.

Kurt Cobain’s body was found on April 8, 1994 by an electrician who had come to the home to do some work. Cross was one of the first to find out – a dispatcher from the electrician’s office had tipped off a local radio station, and a DJ then called Cross, who, as editor of The Rocket, went way back with Cobain. Later that day, once the news had been confirmed, Cross had the grisly task of replacing what would have been his magazine’s cover – a photo of Courtney Love, whose band Hole was about to release the album Live Through This – with a photo of her now dead husband. The Rocket ran it with no headline.

It was determined that Cobain, who had escaped rehab in California, likely died on April 5. There was a lot of heroin in his system.

When the news began to spread, fans bearing candles headed for Viretta Park. Two days later, on April 10, a vigil at Seattle Center – where EMP now stands – drew an estimated 7,000 people. A tape made by Love reading Cobain’s suicide note held the crowd in stunned silence, but first she asked the crowed to yell “asshole” really loud. They did.

Later, she showed up at the vigil, with the note, and sat with groups of fans, letting them hold and read it. “Shakespeare never wrote such drama for the stage,” writes Cross, who, of course, was there too.
EMP Museum

ENDLESS, NAMELESS

The Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses exhibit at the EMP Museum.

It’s hard to argue that Cobain’s lasting relevance is not influenced by his death – the staggering shock of it (and the inevitable conspiracy theories that have accompanied it), but also the fact that it prevented him from aging, making mistakes. He’ll never have a Vegas Elvis phase.

“He’s forever frozen, perfect at 27,” says Jacob McMurray, senior curator of EMP’s exhibit Nirvana: Taking Punk To The Masses. “They never produced a crappy rock album.”

Cross suggests that, had Cobain begun work in the Internet age, things might have turned out very differently. Consider the impact of easy, scathing and anonymous reviews on an ego made dangerously fragile by personal demons like Cobain’s. “Would today’s Kurt Cobain see a negative review on Facebook and hang it all up after he earned only 10 likes?,” Cross writes.

Further, he wonders if technology might have even prevented the genius from forming in the first place. Cobain’s pop influences – growing up, he listened to the Knack, Cheap Trick, the Beatles – gave his compositions a melodic accessibility other punk bands didn’t deliver, and that was an important element in Nirvana’s success. Coming of age, Cobain’s tastes were eclectic in part because there was no Internet to tell him that some of the music he liked – The Knack, say – was lame. And there was no Google to tell him that Teen Spirit was in fact the name of a deodorant, which surely would have led him to a different title.

“I think technology has changed so much that Smells Like Teen Spirit, if it came out today, would be in Starbucks or licensed or on a commercial immediately,” Cross explained during our Starbucks interview. “And that would take away some of the feeling of us against the world as people discovered it and had a secret crush on it.”

And yet, the evolution of the music industry has granted Cobain a different kind of staying power, his influence expanding even into hip hop. (Nirvana has been sampled more than 60 times, according to the website whosampled.com.) In a convergence of musical icons, last year’s Holy Grail by Jay Z featuring Justin Timberlake sampled Teen Spirit, leading to the weirdness of Cobain being nominated – along with his old bandmates, Jay Z, Timberlake and others – for best rap song at this year’s Grammy Awards. They lost to current Seattle darling Macklemore’s Thrift Shop.

IN BLOOM

This April 1994 photo provided by the Seattle Police Department shows a wallet containing Kurt Cobain's Washington state driver's license, found at the scene of his suicide, in Seattle.

Despite Cobain’s huge influence on Seattle – which now calls itself “City of Music” – there is no formal memorial to him here. This infuriates Cross, who calls it “insane” to suggest that such a memorial would be glorifying a drug user. “The people who founded Seattle, which was a whorehouse and saloon town, were no moral stalwarts either and we named streets after them. And they couldn’t play a guitar solo to save their lives.”

So fans go to the park. There will, no doubt, be many there on Saturday. But even on a non-anniversary date, they come to the park – where the graffiti-filled bench planks have been replaced by the city several times over the years – with friends, bandmates, tour groups, sometimes bearing gifts. “I brought him a cigarette,” said Australian-living-in-Vancouver Dean Daniele, tucking the hand-rolled token behind one of the photos Zveryayeva had left on the bench earlier.

Fans sometimes bring their kids. Ruth Marleau, 41, has been playing Nirvana for her sons – aged 11 and seven – “from their cradles,” she says. Last weekend, the whole family, who lives in Portland, Ore., visited Viretta Park.

“It’s modest and small and powerful all at the same time. I think he would have liked it. It kind of suits him – understated,” said Marleau, who remembers vividly the shock of waking up to the news that day at college 20 years ago.

“We lost a voice for our generation,” she says, standing in the wet grass in her grunge-era standard-issue Dr. Martens. “I don’t know that Gen X really got it together after that.”

Follow on Twitter: @marshalederman

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