Friday, April 4, 2014

20 Years Gone, 10 Years Found

Tomorrow marks twenty years since Kurt Cobain's death, but this is less about him and more about me because with that anniversary comes another one that is harder for me to explain, a personal turning point that is just as significant—no, maybe more significant.

I've tried on many occasions to put what Kurt Cobain and Nirvana's music meant to me into words. I think my story is similar to a lot of Nirvana's fans no matter when they discovered the music—in the thick of when it was all happening, like me, or a decade or so after Kurt's death. I was lost, broken, and angry. I'd been bullied, and even though I had a few good friends, I was so depressed that I still felt like an outsider, an alien. Above all, I felt voiceless. And then along came this man, this band, who understood all of that, who knew what it was like to be trapped in school with no recess, to "miss the comfort of being sad," who channeled it into noisy, distorted guitars and gave those difficult feelings a voice. That, in turn, gave me the courage to use my voice because if Nirvana could do it and change the entire world, surely I could do it to empower myself.

Then April 8, 1994 happened. The day we learned that Kurt's depression and addiction had won out over his voice, silenced it with a shotgun blast. I heard about his suicide from the girl who'd been my best friend since third grade and she delivered the news is a nah-nah-nuh-nah-nah sort of sing-song. She didn't like Nirvana, saw them as one of the new differences that had been cropping up between us. And I would learn later, she was pissed at Kurt, thought him a selfish coward for taking himself away from his family on purpose when just a year earlier, cancer had taken away her grandmother, her family without giving anyone a choice. I was pissed, too. I called him selfish in my journal, asked him how he could do it to his wife and his baby. I didn't write, but I remember thinking, "And how could you do it to me?"

Me in my bedroom at 14, November 1993
This is probably where my story differs from other Nirvana fans. My story is so tied to the fact that I was fourteen when Kurt killed himself and I was a pretty fragile/angry/depressed fourteen. His suicide flicked a switch inside of me, it dialed my self-destructive, "oh, fuck it" feelings up to eleven. It made me want. Desperately want. I wanted a tribe. I wanted mosh pit bruises. I wanted to taste and try everything. I wanted to live. Not all of this was bad. It was time for me to come out of my shell and when I did many of the friends I found were amazing and so was the music and the shows and those mosh pit bruises. But since self-destruction lurked underneath it all, there was a lot of ugliness, too. A lot of mistakes. A lot of pain. A whole fuck-ton of anger. I emerged with scars and foggy memories as well as crystal clear ones I wished I could erase—especially that day almost exactly a year after Kurt's death when a boy who idolized him taught me that saying yes once means saying yes forever. (God, why do so many boys who idolize Kurt get it so fucking wrong? "He's the one who likes all our pretty songs... But he knows not what it means...")

In my early twenties, I started to come out of that.... Well, I started trying at least. I was still drinking too much sometimes, still in a fucked-up codependent relationship, still feeling married to my past. I'd taken a bit of a break from Nirvana in my late teens; sadly, they reminded me too much of that asshole boy. But when I was ready to crawl out of that bloody, angry, booze-drenched hole I'd dug myself into After Him, I turned to those songs again. Kurt's howl reminded me that I could howl and I needed that more than anything. I became obsessed. I spent hours on message boards, talking to other fans, trading bootlegs and memorabilia, trolling eBay for the limited edition vinyl and mint copies of the magazines I'd cut up and collaged my bedroom with as a teenager:

A piece of the Nirvana collage between my windows that I started in eighth grade

In retrospect, I think I was trying to go back and fix it. I still didn't have the strength to get out of my alcoholic codependent relationship, so instead I avoided it by locking myself in my office and trying to time-travel back to 1994. Maybe with enough bootlegs, enough vinyl, enough magazines I could do it. Maybe in alternate 1994, Kurt wouldn't die, or even if he did, I would do a better job of living through it, of surviving high school, of being punk and artsy and weird without being destructive. I would just have a bunch of really cool friends, which is what I did find on the message boards. More specifically, I found them on the Hole message board because that's where the girls were and I didn't really want to talk to boys about Nirvana. I'd spent real 1994 listening to boys talk about Nirvana. It was old. It was boring. And half the time, thanks to my 1995 boyfriend, I didn't trust male Nirvana fans. I wanted to talk about them with girls. Girls like me who heard something in the music, heard the respect they'd never gotten from male artists before and turned it into self-respect, heard a voice that made them feel understood, that made them feel invited to create and did create something—something far more interesting than all the boys who picked up guitars to emulate Nirvana. ("I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll."- Kurt Cobain)

Even though so much of my obsession seems silly now, like some weird version of therapy that I feel uncomfortable talking about most of the time (the fact that I'm blogging about it now might seem to indicate otherwise but I'm basically pretending this is my journal), I don't care because those months—no, those years, really—locked in my office trying to time travel back to 1994 brought me my girls, Jenny and Eryn, two of my very best friends in the entire world:

Jenny, Eryn, and me at Viretta Park, Seattle, April 5, 2004

After exchanging emails, letters, and packages, Eryn and I started talking on the phone. She's a couple of years younger than me, but her heart broke like mine had when she heard about Kurt's suicide, and like me, she'd watched the news coverage of the vigil in Seattle and wished she was old enough to go. She'd promised herself that she would one day. I had too at some point, but I'd forgotten about it and while talking to her, I wondered if maybe that forgotten promise had fucked things up for me. Maybe if I made the pilgrimage, I could let go of my teenage baggage. So Eryn and I started planning our trip and recruiting people to accompany us to Seattle in April of 2004 to pay homage to Kurt on the tenth anniversary of his death.  This was the beginning of a real transition for me—from trying to time travel to trying to find closure.

I was home sick a couple of weeks before we were to meet in Seattle, me coming from Chicago, Jenny and another friend of hers from St. Louis, Eryn from Denver with another friend of ours from the message board who'd come all the way from Australia. While zoning out on the couch to the bootleg Nirvana videos that were my greatest comfort then I realized how significant the trip was. Ten years. A part of me had needed to do this for ten fucking years. So if I was going to do it, I should DO IT all the way. I pulled all of the Nirvana biographies I owned off the shelf. Heavier than Heaven by Charles Cross was the most detailed, giving exact addresses or solid descriptions of locations. I tore up tiny pieces of paper and marked each important mention: childhood homes, recording studios, concert venues, shady motels where Kurt escaped to shoot heroin, the morgue where he was cremated. I wanted to see it all. I NEEDED to see it all. I took the book upstairs, shut myself in the office and painstakingly Mapquested everything. Yeah, Mapquest. These were the days before Google maps with street view and integrated public transportation schedules, before GPS and smart phones. Or at least before I could afford them. I was still in college and had saved for a year to go on our week-long trip. We were renting a car for a day, but reliant on public transit for the rest, so I went back and forth between Mapquest and the King County Metro transit website trying to locate everything and fit it all in to our schedule. Eventually I came up with a full itinerary. Eryn was as excited as I was. The others might have been a bit freaked out by the depth of my obsession, but they didn't show it. Jenny, who'd volunteered to drive the rental car, exhausted herself so we could do it all: the bridge and the childhood homes in Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and Montesano, the site of Nirvana's first show at a house party in Raymond, the Pear Street apartment in Olympia, and even McLane Creek where Charles Cross described Courtney, Wendy Cobain, and Frances spreading some of Kurt's ashes.

Me under the Young Street Bridge, Aberdeen, Washington

Jenny, me, and Eryn at McLane Creek, Olympia, Washington

Last week, Eryn sent me a link to a New York Times article by a dude who had gone to all of these places and wrote an ultimate guide. Not gonna lie, I was a little bitter. We did that ten years ago back when Aberdeen was not into celebrating Kurt Cobain at all—when there was no park by the bridge and people at gas stations misdirected you because they didn't like Kurt or his fans. I pitched the story of our journey to every major publication I could think of, but had no takers. Maybe ten years wasn't long enough. Maybe the interest in Nirvana is extra high now because of their impending induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Maybe I didn't have enough writer cred yet. (Okay, I definitely didn't; I was still four years away from publishing my first book and seven from writing for Rookie.) Maybe writing about Nirvana has long been dude territory and no one wanted to hear a woman's point of view on Kurt Cobain and how he transformed her life twice—once as a junior high misfit and again when she went to Seattle at 24 to retrace his footsteps and light up his name.

Our tribute to Kurt at Viretta Park on our last night in Seattle, April 10, 2004

But that's okay because I wrote it anyway and for an essay site created by a woman named Hillary Carlip, who'd inspired me as much as Kurt did when I was teen. Hillary helped me shape it into the thing I wanted it to be: less of a Nirvana travel guide, more of the story of a personal journey. Go ahead and read it if you want because I don't really want to rehash it. It was a huge moment for me, the moment I finally started to let go of my past, but it happened ten years ago. That's why after a little bit of bitterness and venting that someone else got to write the piece I'd researched, lived, and wanted to write ten years ago, I quickly realized that I didn't care. Now any Nirvana fans, old and young, who still need to go on that journey have a guide and that’s a good thing. Hopefully it will lead them where it led me: to blaze their own path.

This brings us to that other anniversary, the one I am far more focused on than the twentieth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. Ten years ago around this time I found the place where I belonged and something clicked inside of me—maybe that self-destructive switch turning off?—and I started to set myself free. It was definitely a process. Even though I had the giant “It was” revelation on April 10, 2004 that I documented in my “Ten Years Gone” essay, disentangling from ten years of damage wasn’t that simple. I didn’t go straight home, break up with my alcoholic boyfriend and move to the city I’d fallen in love with on my ten-day trip. In fact, I stupidly bought a house in the city I knew I didn’t want to live in anymore with the guy I knew I shouldn’t be with. But I was changing on the inside. I was thinking non-stop about Seattle—not about Kurt, but about my experience there. That was and still is the hardest part to explain, the way I fell in love with Seattle and drew strength from it sort of in the same way I did from Nirvana’s music. Sort of but different. I did my best to explain it here and also here and now I explain mostly in pictures on my Tumblr. I have to admit that I feel self-conscious sometimes about its connection to Nirvana. It’s not just because the depths of my obsession in my early twenties was strange and personal, but because that makes it less mine somehow.... Or worse, it keeps me tied to my past, and my love for Seattle, my moving here, is not about my past—quite the opposite. When I fell in love with Seattle, I started fighting to live in the present and to give myself a future.

My trip to Seattle in 2004 was the farthest I’d gone from home on my own, without the boyfriend, without any link to teenage me (well, besides the Nirvana fandom). The girls I was meeting up with were new friends, internet friends. They became best friends, people who knew and understood me as well (and better in some ways) as those who’ve known me most of my life, but that bond was forged during our trip. In some ways that week was more intense than spending four years of high school or four years of college together. And though Nirvana brought us there, our friendship was so much than that. The shit that we’ve gotten each other through and that we’ve celebrated together over the past ten years proves it.

Me, Eryn, and Jenny on my wedding day, October 3, 2009

My relationship with Seattle is quite similar. Nirvana may have brought me there, but the old venues where they played or recorded, the house where Kurt died and the park next to it is not what made me fall in love with it. Much as I loved grunge and 90s music, I’d never thought of the city as some sort of Promised Land—that’s probably why I’d forgotten my fourteen year-old promise to go there someday until I talked to Eryn. It was just a faraway place, a rainy and gray place from what I’d heard. Just a place. Except from the moment I arrived at the waterfront, I knew it wasn’t a place. It was the place. My place.  

My first glimpse of the Seattle waterfront, April 3, 2004
But like I said, it was a process to get there—a process that involved a lot of visits. I took my boyfriend there in December of 2004, partially because I already missed Seattle so much after six months and partially as a test. If he saw the city the way I did, maybe our relationship would be worth salvaging. He didn’t. The two of us finally broke up after I took another trip to Seattle with Eryn in April 2005. It quickly became a tradition for the two of us, sometimes Jenny joined us, too, and once we went with a couple of other message board friends and one of my best friends from college. That was the fifteen year anniversary of Kurt’s death, so we did Nirvana-themed things then, but for the most part my trips with Eryn or Eryn and Jenny had changed—we went in June or August instead of April, we always visited Viretta Park, but we spent most of our time exploring the rest of the city, especially the parks and beaches, the places I had nothing similar to back in Chicago.

I stopped hanging out on message boards and collecting. I’d found my girls, and once I’d started ridding myself of the damage and baggage from my past, I didn’t need it anymore. Actually, I didn’t have room for it anymore. I was too focused on my own art and building my first healthy romance with a guy I would eventually marry. I did still buy the music—the reissues of Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero as they came out, and I had to have them on vinyl. The music will always be my everything and to paraphrase Britney, one of our diarists at Rookie, when your favorite band is no longer, has been no longer for more than a decade, and will never create anything new because the frontman is dead, you take what you can get. You listen closely to remastered songs to hear something new, you relish lives tracks and the scraps of partially written songs. (I’m sure that Britney actually said this much better. She writes insanely insightful diaries for Rookie. You should read them.) But aside from the music and a recent impulse buy of a special edition commemorative Nirvana Rolling Stone, I’ve stopped collecting.

I didn’t even see Hit So Hard, the documentary about Hole’s drummer Patty Schemel until it had been out on DVD for a while, and when I did, I reacted to the old video footage of my teenage idols in a surprising new way. Instead of wishing I could time travel back to the early 90s and live forever in the period before everything went wrong, instead of being pissed at Kurt for leaving behind the baby girl he clearly loved and the people who clearly loved him, I felt that empathy he'd written about over and over again in his note. I remembered being 24, still grappling to understand teenage me, something he must have been grappling with too and during his meteoric rise to fame. I remembered being 26, right after that long, codependent relationship finally ended and struggling to find the ground beneath my feet. Even after I found it, I still battled depression. Hell, at 32, just a couple months before I watched Hit So Hard, depression and severe artistic blocks combined in such a way that I was regularly writing journal entries wishing for my own death. If this has happened to 26 or 27 year-old me, I might have picked up a shotgun (or my version of it, which would have been a razor blade and a cocktail of pills) but instead I picked up a phone and made an appointment with a sliding-scale, feminist therapist who helped me remake my life. I survived. It was surreal for 33 year-old survivor me to watch 26 or 27 year-old Kurt, the man I’d always thought of as my savior, and want to go back and tell him that it would be okay. It could have been okay. He could have survived. Not for me, not for his art, but for the people who loved him. Yes, outliving and outlearning your idols is a very strange experience indeed.   

Right around that time April 2014 became a different sort of anniversary in my mind—my ten-year anniversary with Seattle. In late 2012, I started to grow anxious. I told my husband that I felt pathetic for wanting to live in this place for almost ten years, but not being brave enough to go for it. I had to be there by the ten-year anniversary. Had to or I’d feel like I failed myself. This is when the biggest change in me happened, bigger than “It was,” bigger than my break-up, bigger than publishing my books and becoming an artist in my own right. It’s still so fresh that I haven’t been able to fully unpack it yet, though I tried in this Ms. Fit Mag series. All I can say is that I feel like a fully-formed person now, one who let go of fear and self-imposed limitations to become brave and assertive enough to go after what she wants and live how she wants to live. I am new in this new city. I am the person that I dreamed of being ten years ago when I was still trying to time travel to fix it. Time travel wasn’t necessary. Fixing wasn’t necessary, processing was and I did that through cross-country travel, through friends, and through art.

It’s still a work-in-progress. It was only a couple of months ago through a conversation with Anaheed Alani, one of my brilliant editors at Rookie, that I realized how connected to my past I remain in my art. I expect that settling here in Seattle, living fully in the present and dreaming of the future, will change that immensely over the next ten years (or hopefully over the next year or two!). It’s a little bit scary, seeking inspiration in new places, but mostly it’s exciting and hopeful.

So what does tomorrow bring? April 5th, 2014, the twentieth anniversary of the death of my teenage hero, the man who sort of brought me here, the man who I outlived, what does it mean to me now? It’s been a little bit bizarre because ten years ago and especially twenty it felt like it meant as much if not more to me than it did to the rest of the world, but not this time. There’s been a frenzy of stories—the creepy, crying statue in Aberdeen, the newly released photos from the suicide scene, all of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame hoopla, and that New York Times piece that briefly stirred my writerly jealousy. I’ve clicked on them, skimmed, and then closed the browser window and glanced out the real window at the Seattle sky that I consider mine now.

A Seattle morning as seen from my house
What tomorrow brings for me—what tonight brings actually—is my girls. Jenny and Eryn as well as my college best friend Jenny and Lynn, a message board friend turned real-life friend when she came to Seattle the first time five years ago. We will go to Viretta Park and I’m sure I’ll bring flowers and light a candle to pay tribute and say thanks because I’m still very grateful for what Kurt and his music did for me. He helped me find my way to this path. I do still wish he could have found his way to one that helped him, but mostly I'm just grateful that I did survive. I made my way here to this beautiful, healthy life that is fully mine and I don’t need to retrace footprints, I’m leaving my own and so are my girls. That’s what we will really be honoring and celebrating this weekend and I think Kurt would have appreciated that.


Annika said...

It is absolutely incredible to me, to think that we met only three years (and change) after his death.

I love you and I love this post and the insight into the way you've grown and become so much happier than you were.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

It is incredible to think about! And thank you, that means so much coming from you, Annika. Love you too, lady!

Larissa S said...

I just read this after a few random internet clicks. I am glad I found it bc it has helped me feel less alone in my 'obsession' and I super relate to your experience... I have always been drawn to Seattle and am finally getting to go there this October. I am not sure i'll see EVERY kurt thing along the way as you did, but I do think part of me is looking for some sort of closure.. it's not about him as much as that part of me that connected to someone/ something like that, a part of my child hood/ teenage years that I need to experience or let go of? I'm not sure. Either way, just a fellow nirvana and kurt fan here! Thanks for sharing. Any tips on what to do/ where to go in Seattle that isn't touristy, where I could get a sense of the real seattle scene/ vibe?