Friday morning I woke up to another beautiful, sunny, summer day in Seattle. I did more catch-up work on the computer at the hotel, then headed to Denny's for some brunch. I had planned to go back to the hotel to do more catch-up work, but at the last minute decided to head back into the city instead. On Wednesday when I was on the hop-on/hop-off bus tour, I saw something I really wanted to check out while I am here: an exhibit on Kurt Cobain at the Seattle Art Museum.
I drove up I-5 and veered off into downtown, parked the Civic on 1st Street and walked up to the museum. I bought my ticket and headed up to the 2nd floor for the exhibit, and was pretty surprised by what I found.
I didn't know what to expect exactly, but I guess I had quickly assumed it would be a bunch of photographs of Kurt, maybe some videos of live performances, I dunno. The exhibit I discovered had some of these, but it was mainly made up of pieces by many different artists, all expressing something about how Kurt had affected them. As such, there weren't many straight-on photos of him or video or audio of him playing with Nirvana. There were sculptures, drawings, paintings, multi-media pieces with poems mixed with drawings of various things. There was a video of an artist listening alternately to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana and the old disco hit "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor on headphones and dancing to each tune in a public square or market area. Only she could hear which song was playing so the observer is left to guess which one she is moving to at any one moment.
Probably the most eerie and moving piece was a large installation. It was a circular wooden wall with an opening for the observer to walk into. I walked in, and saw the circular, makeshift room lightly populated with a few simple items - a microphone on a stand in the center, two small guitar amplifiers stacked on top of each other against one part of the wall, a few different types of speakers scattered at different points. As I stood in front of the microphone, over the speakers I heard a rock concert crowd suddenly come to life, the sort of cheering one typically hears when they've been waiting for a headlining act for quite a while and they finally catch a glimpse of them taking the stage under dim lights and picking up their instruments. This cheering then suddenly cross-faded to a quick, loud series of Kurt's mid-song screams of anguish and fury layered on top of each other. Then that faded out and a few moments later the cycle would begin again.
There isn't enough space here to describe what this piece did to me, both during and after I experienced it, or what Kurt's life and death means to me and others. The reality of course is that in one sense, Kurt was just a man. A talented young man, most definitely, but still human the way we all are. But like so many celebrities, our society and culture made him into something else, a myth, a legend, whatever you want to call it. I think his music and what he was able to express with it was worthy of myth and legend. But of course there are countless artists who are extremely talented and never get the notoriety that Kurt did. And Kurt knew this, and had some degree of unrest with it. At times it seemed unfair to him that he became as successful as he did while bands he respected so much were relegated to much smaller amounts of attention from fans and the media.
On my way out my eye caught another exhibit not connected with the Cobain pieces. It was one of those machines set up to snap 4 little 1-inch by 2-inch photos of you, or you and someone else, in quick succession. Then on the wall next to it, they had long strings with clips attached, and hundreds of tiny little photos of various people. All sorts of different people, all with different expressions. The exhibit invited the observer(s) to get their little photos taken in the booth, then cut one off and clip it onto one of the strings, contributing their own image to the hundreds already on display.
I thought this was an awesome idea, hopped into the booth, got my 4 photos snapped, and added one to the wall of people. (The 3 I didn't choose are seen above.) As I looked at everyone, I saw an amazing myriad of humanity - nobody famous, but every person unique, special and just obviously an amazing creature. Some people were comfortable in front of the camera, some were obviously not. Some were goofy, some serious. Some had 2 lovers being cute or romantic, others had a parent kissing their child. We're all special in this life - looking at this gallery of humanity it was so obvious. So why do we sometimes think that only famous people are important or special?
I wish I had something brilliant to say that summed up Kurt's life, death and his impact on me. I don't really. Like my other artistic hero, monologuist Spalding Gray, who also committed suicide during my lifetime and well after I had become a devoted fan of his work, Kurt's 16-year-old decision to take his own life still feels like discovering an intriguing riddle only to realize the only answer was written on a piece of paper, crumpled up and burned into ash.
I can say this: I loved music from a young age, and I had wanted to play music from a young age. But I'm pretty sure Kurt's the one who gave me the final push. His music told me to go do it. Ironically, the reluctant "King of the Slackers" was my final motivation to become a musician myself. One of my favorite quotes of his goes something like: "Punk rock means freedom. Freedom to make whatever music you want, to play however you want. As long as it's good and it has integrity."
I'm sad he's not around, but I'm grateful for what he gave the world, originally thinking it might at best reach a select group of college-attending indie rock nerds. One other piece in the exhibit had a series of stereos arranged in a large circle playing different songs by various artists, but one playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Kurt came to loathe the way American radio overplayed that song and certain "mainstream" kids only knew that one track from the radio and claimed to be true Nirvana fans anyway. I get why he was pissed, I basically agree with him. But GOD DAMN, that is one fucking amazing song. As I heard its gloriously raunchy riffs and those beautiful, scratchy lyrics amongst the cacophony of other tunes, all I could think was:
"Damn. I wish I had written that fucking song."