MARCH 1982–MARCH 1983
Don’t be afraid to chop hard, put some elbow grease in it.
—From the cartoon “Meet Jimmy, the Prairie Belt Sausage Boy.”
It was at his own insistence that in March 1982, Kurt left 413 Fleet Street and his father and stepmother’s care. Kurt would spend the next few years bouncing around the metaphorical wilderness of Grays Harbor. Though he’d make two stops that were a year in length, over the next four years he would live in ten different houses, with ten different families. Not one of them would feel like home.
His first stop was the familiar turf of his paternal grandparents’ trailer outside Montesano. From there he could take the bus into Monte each morning, which allowed him to stay in the same school and class, but even his classmates knew the transition was hard. At his grandparents’, he had the sympathetic ear of his beloved Iris, and there were moments when he and Leland shared closeness, but he spent much of his time by himself. It was yet another step toward a larger, profound loneliness.
One day he helped his grandfather construct a dollhouse for Iris’s birthday. Kurt assisted by methodically stapling miniature cedar shingles on the roof of the structure. With wood that was left over, Kurt built a crude chess set. He began by drawing the shapes of the pieces on the wood, and then laboriously whittling them with a knife. Halfway through this process, his grandfather showed Kurt how to operate the jigsaw, then left the fifteen-year-old to his own devices, while watching from the door. The boy would look up at his grandfather for approval, and Leland would tell him, “Kurt, you’re doing good.”
But Leland was not always so kind with his words, and Kurt found himself back in the same father/son dynamic he’d experienced with Don. Leland was quick to pepper his decrees to Kurt with criticism. In Leland’s defense, Kurt could truly be a pain. As his teenage years began, he constantly tested his limits, and with so many different parental figures—and none with ultimate authority over him—he eventually wore out his elders. His family painted a picture of a stubborn and obstinate boy who wasn’t interested in listening to any adults or working. Petulance appeared to be an essential part of his nature, as did laziness, in contrast to everyone else in his family—even his younger sister Kim had helped pay the bills with her paper route. “Kurt was lazy,” recalled his uncle Jim Cobain. “Whether it was simply because he was a typical teenager or because he was depressed, no one knew.”
By summer 1982, Kurt left Montesano to live with Uncle Jim in South Aberdeen. His uncle was surprised to be given the responsibility. “I was shocked they would let him live with me,” Jim Cobain remembered. “I was smoking pot at the time. I was oblivious to his needs, let alone to what the hell I was doing.” At least, with his inexperience, Jim was not a heavy-handed disciplinarian. He was two years younger than his brother Don but far hipper, with a large record collection: “I had a really nice stereo system and lots of records by the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles. And I’d crank that baby up loud.” Kurt’s biggest joy during his months with Jim was rebuilding an amplifier.
Jim and his wife had an infant daughter and, for space reasons, soon asked Kurt to leave. From there Kurt stayed with Wendy’s brothers and sisters. “Kurt was handed down from relative to relative,” recalled Jim. He was the quintessential latchkey kid. He got along better with his uncles and aunts than he did with his parents, yet authority issues followed him. His uncles and aunts were less strict, yet in the more laid-back households there was less of an attempt at structured family togetherness. His relatives had problems and struggles of their own— there wasn’t anyone with the space for him, both physically and emotionally, and Kurt knew it.
Kurt spent several months with his Uncle Chuck, where he began to take guitar lessons. Chuck was in a band with a fellow named Warren Mason, one of the hottest guitar players on the harbor. Whenever they rehearsed at Chuck’s house—rehearsals that always included pot and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s—Kurt would watch from the corner, eyeing Warren like a starving man looking at a meatball sandwich. One day Chuck asked Warren if he’d instruct the boy, and so began Kurt’s formal training in music.
As Kurt told the story, he only took one or two lessons, and in that short period he learned everything he needed to know. But Warren remembered the instruction stretching on for months, and Kurt being a serious student who spent hours trying to apply himself. The first thing Warren had to deal with was Kurt’s guitar—it was more suited for showing off at school than playing. Warren found Kurt an Ibanez, for $125. Lessons themselves were $5 per half hour. Warren asked Kurt the question he asked all his young students: “What are some of the songs you want to learn?” “Stairway to Heaven,” was Kurt’s reply. Kurt already knew how to play a crude version of “Louie, Louie.” They worked on “Stairway” and then progressed to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” The lessons ended when Kurt’s poor grades made his uncle reconsider this choice of afternoon recreation.
Kurt continued to go to school in Monte through the second month of his sophomore year, but then transferred to Aberdeen’s Weatherwax High. It was the same school his mother and father had graduated from, but despite the family roots and the proximity to his mother’s home—it was ten blocks away—he was an outsider there. Built in 1906, Weatherwax stretched over three city blocks, with five separate buildings, and Kurt’s class had 300 students—three times as large as Monte. In Aberdeen, Kurt found himself in a school with four factions—stoners, jocks, preppies, and nerds—and he initially fit into none of them. “Aberdeen was full of cliques,” observed Rick Miller, another Monte boy who transferred to Weatherwax. “Neither one of us really knew anybody. Even though Aberdeen was Hicksville compared to Seattle, it was still a major step up from Monte. We never could figure out where we fit in.” Changing schools as a sophomore would have been difficult for most well-adjusted teenagers; it was torturous for Kurt.
While he’d been popular in Monte—a preppy in his Izod shirts, a jock because of his involvement in sports—in Aberdeen he was an outsider. He kept up with his friends in Monte, but despite the fact that he saw his buddies nearly every weekend, his sense of loneliness increased. His athletic skills weren’t sufficient to gain him notoriety in a large school, so he dropped out of sports. Combined with his own self-doubt from his fractured family and nomadic lifestyle, his retreat from the world continued. Later, Kurt would tell repeated tales of being beaten up in Aberdeen, and of the constant abuse he suffered at the hands of redneck high-school kids. Yet his classmates at Weatherwax don’t remember any such incidents—he exaggerated the emotional isolation he felt into phantom tales of physical violence.
There was at least one redeeming grace to his studies: Weatherwax had an excellent art program, and in this one class Kurt continued to excel. His teacher, Bob Hunter, found him an extraordinary student: “He had both the ability to draw, coupled with a great imagination.” Hunter allowed his students to listen to the radio while they worked— he was an artist and musician himself—and encouraged them to be creative. To Kurt, he was the ideal teacher, and like Mr. Kanno before him, he proved to be one of the few adult role models the boy could look up to.
That first year at Weatherwax, Kurt took commercial art and basic art, fifth and sixth periods. These two 50-minute classes—scheduled right after lunch—were the one time when he was certain to be in school each day. His skill impressed Hunter and at times shocked his classmates. For a caricature assignment, Kurt drew Michael Jackson, with one gloved hand in the air and the other holding his crotch. During another lesson the class was asked to show an object as it developed: Kurt depicted a sperm turning into an embryo. His drawing skills were exemplary, but his twisted mind was what drew the attention of his classmates. “That sperm was a shock to all of us,” recalled classmate Theresa Van Camp. “It was such a different mental attitude. People began to talk about him, wondering, ‘What does he think of?’ ” When Hunter told Kurt the Michael Jackson illustration might not be appropriate to display in the school halls, he instead drew an unflattering illustration of Ronald Reagan with a raisin-like face.
Kurt had always drawn obsessively, but now, with the encouragement of Hunter, he began to imagine himself an artist. His scribbles became part of his education. He was adept at cartooning, and in this way he first began to learn the art of storytelling. One recurrent cartoon from this period was the adventures of “Jimmy, the Prairie Belt Sausage Boy,” named after a canned meat product. These tales documented the painful childhood of Jimmy—a thinly veiled Kurt—who was forced to endure strict parents. One full-color, multi-panel edition not so subtly told the story of Kurt’s conflicts with his father. In the first panel, the father figure lectures Jimmy: “This oil is dirty. I can smell the gas in it. Get me a 9-mm wrench, you lousy little creep. If you’re gonna live here, you’re gonna live by my rules and they are as serious as my moustache: honesty, loyalty, dedication, honor, valor, strict discipline, God and country, that’s what makes America No. One.” Another panel shows a mother shouting, “I’m giving birth to your son and aborting your daughter. PTA meeting at seven, pottery class 2:30, beef stroganoff, dog to vet 3:30, laundry, yes, yes, mmm honey, it feels good in the ass, mmm, I love you.”
It’s unclear whether the mother in the cartoon is meant to be Jenny or Wendy, but the decision to attend Weatherwax had also entailed moving back in with his mother at 1210 East First Street. This was as close to a permanent home as Kurt had, since his upstairs room had remained untouched, a shrine to earlier days within the nuclear family. He’d spent weekends here on and off, continuing to decorate the walls with band posters, many of them now hand drawn. Of course, the best part of his room, and his life, was his guitar. Wendy’s house was emptier than his other stops during these years, allowing him to practice without distraction. But the domestic front was only slightly improved; his mom had finally freed herself of Frank Franich, yet Kurt and Wendy were still fighting.
Wendy was a very different mom from the one Kurt had left six years previously. She was now 35 years old, but she was dating younger men and going through a stage that can only be described as the kind of mid-life crisis typically associated with recently divorced men. She was drinking a lot and had become a regular at Aberdeen’s many taverns—one of the main reasons Kurt wasn’t immediately deposited back in her care after he left Don. That year she began casually dating 22-year-old Mike Medak. During the first few months they saw each other, Wendy didn’t even mention to Medak she had kids; mostly she stayed at his house, and he didn’t see her children until several months into their relationship. “It was like she was a single woman,” he recalled. “It wasn’t like we were waiting around Friday night for the baby-sitter— it was as if there was no kids.” Dating Wendy wasn’t all that different from dating a 22-year-old. “We’d go out to the nearest tavern or dance hall. And we’d party.” Wendy complained how Franich had broken her arm, how she struggled financially, and about Don’s distance. One of the few stories she told about Kurt was how at five he had walked into the living room sporting a hard-on in front of Don and a bunch of his friends. Don was embarrassed and carried his son out of the room. The incident would become family legend; it still gave Wendy a chuckle to tell it.
As a 22-year-old dating a 35-year-old, Medak was in the relationship mostly for physical reasons; to him Wendy was an attractive older woman, an ideal date if you weren’t looking for commitment. Even fifteen-year-old Kurt could sense this, and he was quick to judge. Kurt discussed his mom’s dates with his friends, and his words were harsh, though they didn’t touch upon the psychological conflict he must have felt at seeing his mother take a lover who was only seven years older than he. “He said he hated his mom, that he thought she was a slut,” remembered John Fields. “He didn’t agree with her lifestyle. He didn’t like her at all, and he’d talk about running away. Kurt would vacate the house if she was there, since she’d yell at him a lot.”
Wendy’s siblings remember being concerned about her drinking, but because their family communication style was non-confrontational, it was rarely discussed.
His mother’s attractiveness also proved to be an embarrassment for Kurt. All his friends had crushes on her, and Wendy’s habit of sunbathing in a bikini in the backyard had them peeking through the fence. When friends would spend the night, they would joke how if there wasn’t enough room they would gladly agree to sleep with Wendy. Kurt would punch anyone who made this joke, and he did a lot of punching. Wendy also seemed attractive to these young boys because she would occasionally purchase alcohol for them. “Kurt’s mom bought us booze a couple of times,” remembered Mike Bartlett. “It was with the understanding that we would drink it at the house.” Once Wendy paid for beer for the kids and let them watch a video of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “One time a few of us were spending the night there,” said Trevor Briggs, “and we talked his mom into buying us a fifth of tequila. We got drunk and went out walking. And when we came back, his mom was on the couch making out with a guy.” Kurt’s drunken, fifteen-year-old response was to yell at his mom’s paramour, “Give it up dude! You ain’t going to get none. Go home!” It was a joke, but there was nothing comical about his desire for a more traditional family.
That Christmas, Kurt’s main request was the Oingo Boingo album Nothing to Fear. At the Fradenburg Christmas celebration his aunt took a photo of him holding it. With his still-short hair and boyish looks, he appears much younger than fifteen. Aunt Mari gave him the album Tadpoles from the Bonzo Dog Band, containing the novelty tune “Hunting Tigers Out in Indiah.” It was Kurt’s favorite song that winter and he learned to play it on guitar. Right before Christmas, he’d visited Mari, who’d moved to Seattle, to search record stores. One of the items on Kurt’s wish list was a soundtrack album to the “H. R. Pufnstuf” television show, which he adored. Another album he sought, his aunt had never heard of: REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity.
He turned sixteen that February and passed his driver’s test. But the biggest event that spring was something far more important to him than his learner’s permit—it was a milestone he talked about constantly through adolescence, though never in adulthood. On March 29, 1983, Kurt journeyed to the Seattle Center Coliseum to see Sammy Hagar and Quarterflash, his first concert. Being big fans of Seattle radio station KISW—the signal would come in clear at night—Kurt loved Hagar’s “butt rock” and he also had a fondness for Quarterflash’s hit “Harden My Heart.” He went with Darrin Neathery, whose older sister drove them. “It was a big deal because it was the first concert we both saw,” Neathery said. “Somehow we got a six-pack of Schmidt. Kurt and I sat in the backseat on the way up and had a hell of a good time. When we got to the show, I remember standing on the floor down by the back, where they did the lights, after Quarterflash had played. We were just in awe of it all: the lights and the production. Then a whiskey bottle came flying from the very top stands and smashed right by us. We about crapped our pants. So we hauled out of there and found a place in the upper rafters to watch Sammy. I bought a T-shirt and Kurt did too.” Kurt would later rewrite history and claim that the punk band Black Flag was his first concert. Yet what every one of his classmates in Weatherwax remembered was the sixteen-year-old Kurt coming to school the next day, wearing an oversized Sammy Hagar T-shirt, and talking like a pilgrim who had just returned from the holy land.
As the 1983 school year ended, Kurt discovered punk rock, and the Sammy Hagar T-shirt was stuck in a bottom drawer, never to return. That summer he saw the Melvins, and it was an event that would change his life. He wrote in his journal:
In the summer of 1983...I remember hanging out at a Montesano, Washington Thriftway when this short-haired employee box-boy, who kind [of] looked like the guy in Air Supply, handed me a flyer that read: “The Them Festival. Tomorrow night in the parking lot behind Thriftway. Free live rock music.” Monte was a place not accustomed to having live rock acts in their little village, a population of a few thousand loggers and their subservient wives. I showed up with stoner friends in a van. And there stood the Air Supply box-boy holding a Les Paul with a picture from a magazine of Kool Cigarettes on it. They played faster than I ever imagined music could be played and with more energy than my Iron Maiden records could provide. This was what I was looking for. Ah, punk rock. The other stoners were bored and kept shouting, “Play some Def Leppard.” God, I hated those fucks more than ever. I came to the promised land of a grocery store parking lot and I found my special purpose.
He had twice underlined “This was what I was looking for.”
It was his epiphany—the moment when his small world suddenly became a larger one. The “Air Supply box-boy” was Roger “Buzz” Osborne, who Kurt had known as an aloof older kid at Montesano High. When Kurt complimented Buzz after the show, he played to Osborne’s vanity, and Buzz was soon playing mentor, passing along punk rock records, a book on the Sex Pistols, and dog-eared copies of Creem magazines. Despite his journal entry, it was not a complete transformation—Kurt still saw Judas Priest play at the Tacoma Dome that summer. Like other kids in Aberdeen, he mixed his punk with loads of heavy metal, though he didn’t brag about this in front of Buzz, and he now favored punk T-shirts.
The Melvins had started a year before, naming themselves, mock-ingly, after another employee at the Thriftway. Buzz claimed to have taught himself to play guitar by listening to the first two Clash records. In 1983, the Melvins had no real fan base—they were heckled and ridiculed by most of the metal-heads in Grays Harbor. Yet a dozen impressionable boys would gather around their practice space behind drummer Dale Crover’s house at 609 West Second in Aberdeen. This motley crew of fans were called “Cling-Ons,” a name coined by Buzz to describe both their “Star Trek”-like geekiness and habit of clinging to every word he uttered. Buzz himself looked more like Richard Simmons, with his white-man’s afro, than the fellow in Air Supply.
Buzz dispensed advice to the “Cling-Ons,” made them tapes, and acted as the Socrates of Montesano, an elder statesman spouting off his views on all things worldly to his band of followers. He decided who was allowed at practices and who was banned, and he made up nicknames for all accepted. Greg Hokanson became “Cokenson.” Jesse Reed, who Kurt had met in class at Weatherwax and quickly befriended, became “Black Reed” after the band Black Flag, though like all of the crew, he was Caucasian. Kurt never had a nickname that stuck. His friends from this time period always called him “Cobain.” His lack of a nickname wasn’t a sign he was afforded any special status. In fact, it was the opposite—he didn’t have a nickname because he was thought of as this runt who didn’t deserve the recognition.
Like Kurt, the Melvins stretched geographically from Monte (where Buzz lived with his parents) to Aberdeen (Crover’s practice space). The Melvins’ bass player was Matt Lukin, also from Monte, whom Kurt had known from wrestling and Little League, and he soon became a friend. Anytime Kurt traveled to Monte, he was more likely to look up Buzz or Lukin than visit his father.
One particular trip to Monte that summer was fueled by something other than his new love for punk rock—it was motivated by a girl. Andrea Vance was the younger sister of Kurt’s friend Darrin Neathery, and she was baby-sitting in Monte one afternoon when Kurt unexpectedly appeared. “He was darling,” she recalled. “He had really great blue eyes and a killer smile. His hair was really pretty and soft. He wore it medium length. He didn’t talk a lot, and when he did, he was soft-spoken.” They watched “The Brady Bunch,” and Kurt played Sock-and-Bots with the kids. Like clockwork, he returned the next afternoon, and Vance rewarded him with a kiss. He returned every day for a week, but the romance never progressed beyond necking. “He was very sweet and really respectful,” Vance remembered. “I didn’t feel like he was a walking hormone.”
But underneath the surface, his hormones were raging. That same summer Kurt had what he’d later describe as his “first sexual encounter,” with a developmentally disabled girl. As he reported in his journal, he pursued her only after becoming so depressed about the state of his life that he planned suicide. “That month happened to be the epitome of my mental abuse from my mother,” he wrote. “It turned out that pot didn’t help me escape my troubles too well anymore, and I was actually enjoying doing rebellious things like stealing booze and busting store windows....I decided within the next month that I’ll not sit on my roof and think about jumping, but I’ll actually kill myself. And I wasn’t going out of this world without actually knowing what it is like to get laid.”
His only avenue seemed this “half-retarded girl.” One day Trevor Briggs, John Fields, and Kurt followed her home and stole her father’s liquor. They had done this numerous times, but this time Kurt stayed after his friends departed. He sat on the girl’s lap and touched her breasts. She went into her bedroom and got undressed in front of him, but he found himself disgusted both with himself and with her. “I tried to fuck her, but I didn’t know how,” he wrote. “I got grossed out very heavily with how her vagina smelled and her sweat reeked, so I left.” Though Kurt retreated, the shame would stick with him for the rest of his life. He hated himself for taking advantage of her, yet he also hated himself for not seeing the scenario through to intercourse, an almost greater shame to a virginal boy of sixteen. The girl’s father protested to the school that his daughter had been molested, and Kurt was mentioned as a suspect. He wrote in his journal that only a bit of serendipity saved him from prosecution: “They came with a yearbook and were going to have her pick me out, but she couldn’t because I didn’t show up for pictures that year.” He claimed he was taken to the Montesano Police station and interrogated but escaped conviction because the girl was over eighteen, and “not mentally retarded” by legal statutes.
Back in Aberdeen, Kurt began his junior year at Weatherwax by starting up a romantic relationship with fifteen-year-old Jackie Hagara. She lived two blocks from his house, and he timed it so they would walk to school together. He was so behind in math, he’d been forced to take a freshman math class, where they’d met. Though many of the kids in the class thought Kurt was weird for being kept behind, Jackie liked his smile. After school one day, he showed her a drawing he’d made of a rock star on a desert island. The man was holding a Les Paul guitar with a Marshall stack plugged into a palm tree. For sixteen-year-old Kurt, it was his vision of paradise.
Jackie said she liked the drawing. Two days later he approached her with a gift; he had redrawn the same image but in poster size, complete with airbrushing. “It’s for you,” he said, looking at the floor as he spoke. “For me?” she asked. “I’d like to go out with you sometime,” he explained. Kurt was only slightly disenchanted when Jackie told him she already had a boyfriend. They continued to walk to school together, occasionally holding hands, and one afternoon in front of her house, he pulled her close and kissed her. “I thought he was so cute,” she said.
During his pivotal junior year even his appearance began to transform from what had universally been described as “cute” to what some of his Weatherwax classmates would call “scary.” He grew his hair long and it was rarely washed. His Izod shirts and rugby pullovers were gone; now he sported homemade T-shirts with the names of punk bands. One he wore frequently read “Organized Confusion,” a slogan he fantasized would be the name of his first band. For outerwear, he always had a trench coat—he wore it year round, whether it was raining outside or a 90-degree summer day. That fall, Andrea Vance, his Monte girlfriend from that summer, ran into Kurt at a party and didn’t even recognize him. “He had on his black trench coat, hi-top tennis shoes, and his hair was dyed dark red,” she recalled. “He didn’t look like the same boy.”
His circle of friends slowly shifted from his Monte pals to Aberdeen buddies, but with both groups their main activity was getting intoxicated in one way or another. When they were unable to raid a parental liquor stock, they would take advantage of one of Aberdeen’s many street people to help buy them beer. Kurt, Jesse Reed, Greg Hokanson, and Eric and Steve Shillinger developed a regular commerce with a colorful character they dubbed “The Fat Man,” a hopeless alcoholic who lived in the run-down Morck Hotel with his retarded son, Bobby. The Fat Man was willing to buy them alcohol as long as they paid and helped him get to the store. This was a laborious process that in practice looked a bit like a Buster Keaton skit and could take all day: “First,” said Jesse Reed, “we had to push a shopping cart to the Morck. Then we’d go up to his room, and we’d get him up. He’d be in his crusty underwear, and it stank and there were flies and it was awful. We’d have to help him put on these tent pants. Then we’d have to help him downstairs, and he weighed about 500 pounds. He was too fat to walk all the way to the liquor store, so we’d put him in the cart and push him. If we just wanted to drink beer, we’d push him to the grocery store, which, thankfully, was closer. And all we had to do for him was buy a quart of the cheapest malt liquor.”
The Fat Man and Bobby, an odd couple if there ever was one, unknowingly became the first subjects of some of Kurt’s storytelling. He wrote short stories about them, crafted imaginary songs about their adventures, and sketched them in his journal. His pencil drawing of the Fat Man looked like Ignatius J. Reilly, the anti-hero of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Kurt loved nothing more than to imitate Bobby’s squeaky voice, eliciting fits of cackling laughter from his friends. His relationship with the Fat Man and Bobby wasn’t completely without affection; there was a level of empathy Kurt felt for their seemingly hopeless situation. That year for Christmas, Kurt bought the Fat Man a toaster and a John Denver album at Goodwill. Upon grasping these presents in his giant mitt-hands, the Fat Man asked in disbelief: “These are for me?” He started to cry. The Fat Man spent the next few years telling everyone in Aberdeen what a swell fellow Kurt Cobain was. It was a small example of how at times, even in Kurt’s shadow world, a sweetness would emerge.
With a regular supply of booze from the Fat Man, Kurt continued to abuse alcohol that spring, and his conflicts with his mother increased as a result. The arguments were worse when Kurt was stoned or frying on acid, which became a regular occurrence. Greg Hokanson recalled going to Kurt’s house with Jesse Reed and hearing Wendy yell at Kurt for an hour, as Kurt tripped on LSD, completely unresponsive to her shouts. “Wendy was awful to him,” Hokanson said. “He hated her.” As soon as they could escape, the trio left the house and went to climb the water tower on “Think of Me Hill.” Jesse and Hokanson made it to the top, but Kurt froze halfway up the ladder. “He was too afraid,” Hokanson remembered. Kurt never managed to climb the tower.
Trevor Briggs recalled one evening at the Cobains when the battle between Kurt and Wendy went on all evening: “I think she was a little intoxicated, and she came upstairs into his room. She was trying to party and get loose with us. He got pissed off at her about it. And she said, ‘Kurt if you don’t watch it, I’m going to say in front of your friends what you told me.’ And he loudly yelled, ‘What are you talking about?’ She eventually left. So I asked him what was she going to say. He said, ‘Well, I made a comment to her once about how just because a guy gets hair on his balls, doesn’t mean he’s a grown man or mature.’ ” This singular issue—having hair on your testicles—was a monumental point of embarrassment for Kurt. His pubic hair arrived later than most boys’, and he obsessively inspected his testicles daily, repeatedly watching his friends cross this threshold before him. “Pubes,” as he called them, were a frequent topic in his journal. “Not enough pubes yet,” he wrote. “Lost years. Gained ideals. Not yet developed. Much past the time in which our pubes fail to grow.” In gym class he would dress in a bathroom stall rather than open himself up to the inspection of the boys’ locker room. When he was sixteen pubes finally appeared, though since his coloring was light, even these weren’t as obvious as those of other boys.
Around the time Kurt turned seventeen, Wendy became involved with Pat O’Connor. O’Connor was Wendy’s age and earned $52,000 as a longshoreman. His salary was a matter of public record because soon after he and Wendy became involved, Pat was the subject of one of Washington’s first palimony lawsuits. It was filed by his ex-girlfriend, who charged he’d convinced her to quit her job at the local nuclear power plant and then dumped her for Wendy. It was a nasty case, stretching on for the next two years. In court documents, Pat listed his assets as a small house, a few thousand dollars in savings, and a gun rack with three guns—these guns were, oddly, to play a role in Kurt’s career. Pat’s ex prevailed, winning $2500 in cash, a car, and her attorney’s fees.
Pat moved into Wendy’s house that winter. Neither of Wendy’s children liked O’Connor, and Kurt grew to hate him. Just as he had with his biological father and Franich, Kurt made Pat the ridiculed subject of many of his songs and cartoons. And almost from day one, Pat and Wendy had arguments that made the battles between Don and Wendy look mild in comparison.
One particular blowout served to provide one of the cornerstones of Kurt’s own musical mythology. After a big fight, Wendy went out looking for Pat and found him, according to Kim, “cheating on her. He was drunk, as usual.” Wendy stormed home in a fit of rage, mumbling about how she might kill Pat. In a panic, she had Kim gather Pat’s guns in a big plastic bag. When Pat returned, Wendy declared she was going to murder him. Kurt claimed, in telling this story himself, that Wendy tried to shoot Pat but couldn’t figure out how to load the gun; his sister doesn’t recall that twist. Upon Pat’s exit, Wendy and Kim dragged a bag of guns two blocks from their house to the banks of the Wishkah River. As they pulled the guns along the ground, Wendy kept repeating to herself, “Got to get rid of these or I’m going to end up killing him.” She tossed them into the water.
While Pat and Wendy reconciled the next morning, Kurt quizzed Kim on the location of the guns. With his thirteen-year-old sister pointing the way, Kurt and two of his friends fished the rifles out. When Kurt would later tell this story, he’d say he traded the guns for his first guitar, though he actually had owned a guitar since he was fourteen. Kurt was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story; the tale that he’d pawned his stepfather’s guns for his first guitar was simply too good for the storyteller in him to resist. In this one story were all the elements of how he wished to be perceived as an artist—someone who turned redneck swords into punk rock plowshares. In truth, he did pawn the guns but used the proceeds to acquire a Fender Deluxe amp.
The “guns in the river” incident was just one of many of Wendy and Pat’s blowouts. Kurt’s technique to avoid these fights—or to avoid becoming the subject of them, since Pat loved nothing better than to lecture Wendy on what should be done with her errant son—was to beat a quick path from the front door to his room. In this way, he was typical of most teenagers, though his entrances and exits came at a furious pace. When he needed to surface for some household task—like using the phone or raiding the kitchen—he tried to time his excursions to avoid Pat. His room became his sanctuary, and his description a few years later in his journal about a trip back home was as much emotional as it was physical:
Every time I come back, it’s the same déjà vu memories that send a chill up my spine, total depression, total hatred, and grudges that would last months at a time, old Pee Chees with contents of drawings of rocker dudes playing guitar, monsters, and sayings on the cover like, “This Bud’s for you,” or, “Get high,” intricate sketchings of bongs, alterations of sexual puns on the happy tennis-playing girl. Look around and see the Iron Maiden posters with ripped and hole-filled corners, nails in the walls where tractor hats are still displayed today. Dents in the table from five years worth of playing a beer game called quarter bounce. The stained rug from snoose spittoon spills, I look around and see all this fucking shit and the thing that reminds me the most about my worthless adolescence is, every time I enter the room I run my finger across the ceiling and feel the sticky residue from a collection of pot and cigarette smoke.
During the spring of 1984, his conflicts with the adults in the house grew to a boiling point. He loathed Wendy for her weakness when it came to men, just as he had found issue with his father’s desire to remarry. He hated Pat even more, since the older man provided advice in a manner designed to point out Kurt’s inadequacies. The two males in the household also differed on how they thought women should be treated. “Pat was a womanizer,” Kim said, “and Kurt wasn’t. Kurt was very respectful of women, even if he didn’t have a lot of girlfriends. He was looking for someone to fall in love with.” Pat’s lectures on how “a man needs to be a man and act like a man” were unending. When Kurt repeatedly failed to live up to Pat’s standards, he’d be called “a faggot.” One Sunday in April 1984, Pat’s epithets were particularly vehement: “Why don’t you ever bring any girls home?” he asked Kurt. “When I was your age, there were girls in and out of my bed all the time.”
With this nugget of manly advice, Kurt went to a party. There he ran into Jackie Hagara. When she and a girlfriend wanted to leave, Kurt suggested they retreat to his house—perhaps he saw an opportunity to illustrate a point to Pat. Still, he snuck them upstairs without disturbing the adults. The girlfriend was quite drunk and proceeded to pass out on the twin bed in the playroom outside of Kurt’s bedroom. With her friend incapacitated and unable to walk, Kurt told Jackie, “You can crash here.”
Suddenly the moment Kurt had been waiting for arrived. He had long yearned to leave behind his adolescent sexual fantasies and to honestly declare to his high-school classmates that he was no longer a virgin (in fact, like most boys his age, he had been lying about the matter for several years). Growing up in a world where men were rarely touched except with the occasional slap on the back, he was starved for the feel of skin on skin. In Jackie, he had picked a more-than-willing compatriot. Though only fifteen, she was already experienced and on the night she found herself in Kurt’s bedroom, her steady boyfriend happened to be in jail. She knew what was going to happen next as they moved into Kurt’s room. There was, as Jackie remembered, a moment when they looked at each other and lust filled the room with all the power of an internal combustion engine revving up.
Kurt turned off the lights, the pair pulled off their clothes, and they excitedly jumped into bed and held each other. It would be Kurt’s first embrace of a fully naked female, a moment he had long dreamt about, a moment that in many nights of adolescent masturbation, on this very bed, he had imagined. Jackie began to kiss him. At the moment their tongues touched, the door flew open, and in walked Kurt’s mother.
Wendy was not, by any stretch of the imagination, happy to see her son in bed with a naked girl. She was also not pleased to see another girl passed out in the hallway. “Get the hell out!” she yelled. She had come upstairs to show Kurt the lightning outside—the fact that a major storm was raging had been lost on the young lovers—only to discover her son in bed with a girl. As she marched down the stairs, Wendy yelled, “Get the fuck out of my house!” Pat, for his part, was completely silent on the matter, knowing any comments from him would further enrage Wendy. Hearing a commotion, Kurt’s sister Kim ran in from the next room. She observed Kurt and Jackie putting shoes on a girl, who was passed out. “What the hell?” Kim inquired. “We’re leaving,” Kurt told his sister. He and Jackie dragged the other girl down the stairs and they went outside into one of the biggest storms of the year.
As Kurt and his two cohorts began walking down First Street—the fresh air had revived the drunk friend—it began to rain, and though that seemed like an ominous sign, before the sun would rise Kurt would lose his virginity. Already he was visibly shaking, his raging hormones mixing with anger, shame, and fear. It had been humiliating to dress in front of Jackie, still sporting an erection. As in his encounter with the retarded girl, lust and shame were equally strong drives within him, hopelessly intertwined and confused.
They headed to Jackie’s friend’s house. But as soon as they walked in, so did Jackie’s boyfriend, just sprung from jail. Jackie had warned Kurt about the violent nature of her paramour, and to avoid a confrontation, Kurt pretended he was the other girl’s date. When Hagara and her boyfriend left, Kurt and the girl ended up spending the night together. It wasn’t the greatest sex, or so she would later tell Jackie, but it was intercourse, which was all that mattered to Kurt. He had finally walked through that door, the great vaginal divide, and he was no longer leading a life that was a sexual lie.
Kurt left early in the morning to walk around Aberdeen in the pale light of dawn. The storm had passed, birds were chirping, and everything in the world seemed more alive. He walked around for hours thinking about it all, waiting for school to begin, watching the sun come up, and wondering where his life was heading.