SEPTEMBER 1986–MARCH 1987
I obviously didn’t love him enough, as I do now.
—A 1987 journal entry.
On September 1, 1986, Wendy loaned Kurt $200— enough for a deposit and first month’s rent—and Kurt moved into his first “house.” That legal description of the structure at 1000½ East Second Street in Aberdeen was far too generous; it was a shack that in many other municipalities might have been condemned as uninhabitable under any reasonable building code. The roof was rotting, the boards on the front porch had fallen to the ground, and there was no refrigerator or stove. The floor plan was bizarrely broken up into five tiny rooms: two living rooms, two bedrooms, and a single bathroom. It sat behind another house, which was the reason for the strange address.
Still, the location—two blocks from his mother’s house—was ideal for a nineteen-year-old who wasn’t completely free of Wendy’s psychic control. Their relationship had improved in the past year. With Kurt out of the house, they drew closer emotionally; he still very much needed Wendy’s approval and attention, even while hiding this vulnerability. She would occasionally bring him food, and he could go to her house to do laundry, use the phone, or raid the refrigerator, all provided that his stepfather wasn’t around. The shack was near the Salvation Army and behind a grocery store. Since the house didn’t have a refrigerator, Kurt stored beer in an icebox on the back porch until the neighbor kids discovered this.
For a roommate, Kurt chose Matt Lukin from the Melvins. Kurt had always wanted to be in the Melvins; living with Lukin was as close as he got. Kurt’s main contribution to the house was sticking a bathtub full of turtles in the middle of the living room and drilling a hole in the floor so the turtle effluence would run under the floorboards. Lukin, at least, used his construction skills to try to rearrange the walls. As an added bonus, Lukin was 21, so he could buy beer. The Fat Man would soon become a distant memory.
It was both a party house and, eventually, a band house. With Lukin as a roommate, Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover visited frequently, and since the living room was filled with band gear, there were impromptu jams. A motley crew of Melvins’ “Cling-Ons” came to inhabit the shack. Though much of the bonding was centered around the goal of inebriation, this halcyon time in 1000½ East Second was the most social of Kurt’s life. Kurt even became friendly with the neighbors, or at least their teenage kids, who were victims of fetal alcohol syndrome—that didn’t stop him from giving them beer. Another neighbor, a senile senior citizen nicknamed “Lynyrd Skynyrd hippie,” would visit every day to listen to Kurt’s copy of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Greatest Hits as he drummed along.
To pay the rent, Kurt got a job as a maintenance man at the Polynesian Condominium Resort in nearby Ocean Shores. He would take the bus for the 25-mile trip to the coastal resort. It was an easy job, since his main responsibility was to repair things, and the 66-room resort wasn’t in need of repair. When a job as a maid came up, he recommended Krist’s girlfriend, Shelli. “He used to sleep on the bus,” she remembered. “It was funny because he wasn’t really a maintenance man at all. He’d sleep in the motel rooms or go and raid the refrigerators in the rooms after people left.” One benefit of the job, other than the $4-an-hour starting pay, was that he only had to wear a brown work shirt, and not a dreaded uniform.
He bragged about how easy the job was to his friends—describing it as “maintenance butt-boy”—and how he was able to pass most of his days sneaking into rooms and watching television, but what he didn’t tell anyone was that he also had to occasionally clean rooms. Kurt Cobain, who was such a bad housekeeper that he should make some kind of hall of fame, had to work as a maid. On the bus to the resort each morning, usually hung over, Kurt would dream of a future that did not include scrubbing toilets and making beds.
What he did think of, all the time, was the idea of forming a band. It was a constant refrain in his head, and he spent endless hours trying to figure out how it could be done. Buzz had done it—and if Buzz had figured it out, he was sure he could too. On a dozen occasions during 1987, he had traveled as a roadie with the Melvins to gigs in Olympia, a college town an hour east, where he’d observed an enthusiastic audience for punk rock, albeit a small one. Once he’d made it all the way to Seattle with the band, and though that meant he had to schlep equipment and go to work with no sleep the next morning, it was a taste of a larger world. Being a Melvins’ roadie was not a glamorous job: There was no money or groupies to speak of, and Buzz was infamous for treating everyone like a servant. But it was an abuse Kurt gladly withstood, as there was little that escaped his study. Kurt had pride developing, particularly when it came to his guitar playing; as he carried Buzz’s amp, he imagined the roles reversed. He practiced every moment he could, and the fact he was getting better was one of the only avenues to self-confidence he found. His hopes were rewarded when Buzz and Dale asked him to jam with them in Olympia, at the closing night of a club called Gessco. Though only about twenty people witnessed the show—the poster had billed them as Brown Towel, but their name was supposed to be Brown Cow—the night would mark his debut performance in front of a paying audience. Yet rather than playing guitar, Kurt read poetry while Buzz and Dale thrashed at their instruments.
Many of the self-destructive habits he had indulged in at the pink apartment were still evident at the shack. Tracy Marander, who met him during this period, said the amount of LSD he ingested was notable. “Kurt was doing a lot of acid, sometimes five times a week,” she recalled. At least part of the reason for his increased drug usage was, strangely, union loyalty; an Aberdeen grocery strike at the time meant you had to either drive to Olympia to buy beer or cross a picket line, and Kurt’s usual choice was to take acid instead. When he did buy beer, usually it was “Animal Beer,” so called because the Schmidt cans featured wildlife images. When he had more money, Kurt would splurge for Rolling Rock because, he told his friends, “it’s almost like ‘rock ’n’ roll’ spelled backwards.”
The shack year was one of Kurt’s longest and most extreme periods of drug abuse. Previously his pattern had been one of bingeing and then drying out, but living in the shack, he embraced getting messed up like he embraced little else. “He always was pushing it,” remembered Steve Shillinger, “using just a little bit more than anyone else, and taking more as soon as he was no longer high.” When he was out of money for pot, acid, or beer, he’d go back to huffing aerosol cans. “He was really into getting fucked up; drugs, acid, any kind of drug,” Novoselic observed. “He’d get hammered in the middle of the day. He was a mess.”
He also continued to talk of suicide and early death. Ryan Aigner lived one block away and from the moment he met Kurt, he remembered daily conversations about death. Once Ryan asked Kurt, “What are you going to do when you’re thirty?” “I’m not worried about what’s going to happen when I’m thirty,” Kurt replied in the same tone he would use to discuss a broken spark plug, “because I’m never going to make it to thirty. You know what life is like after thirty—I don’t want that.” The concept was so foreign to Ryan, who viewed the world with a young man’s sense of possibility, he was momentarily speechless. Ryan could recognize a torment inside Kurt: “He was the shape of suicide. He looked like suicide, he walked like suicide, and he talked about suicide.”
By late spring, Kurt had left the resort job. Desperate for money, he would occasionally work as a carpet installer alongside Ryan. The supervisors of the carpet company liked Kurt, and Ryan let him know that a full-time job was possible. But Kurt balked at this prospect because the idea of serious work to him was anathema, and he was afraid of injuring his guitar-playing hand on the double-edged knives used to cut the carpet. “These hands are too important to me,” Kurt argued. “I could mess up my guitar-playing career.” He said if he cut his hands and was unable to play, it would end his life.
The very fact that Kurt would even use the word “career” to describe his music shows the one place where optimism existed. Those incessant hours practicing were beginning to pay off. He was writing songs at a prodigious rate, crudely scratching out the lyrics on pages in his notebook. He was learning so fast and absorbing so much from the shows he saw and the records he listened to, you could almost see his brain piecing together a plan. There wasn’t much focus on “the band,” since no single unit existed at the time; instead, caught up in his exuberance to make music, he arranged three or four groups simultaneously. One of the first groupings to practice in the shack featured Kurt on guitar, Krist on bass, and a local drummer named Bob McFadden. Another had Kurt playing drums, Krist on guitar, and Steve “Instant” Newman on bass. To even call these groups, as Kurt did later, was a bit of an exaggeration: They were only real in Kurt’s mind, and he would put them together in the way someone might plot the ideal fantasy baseball team. Observing that the Melvins had been paid $60 one night for a gig, Kurt and Krist formed a band called the Sellouts, which only rehearsed Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, knowing these would go over big in Aberdeen taverns. Kurt discussed these bands as if they had lengthy careers, when most just played rehearsal. Only an outfit they called the Stiff Woodies was put on public display, at a kegger of high-school kids who ignored them.
While the jam sessions and parties kept Kurt occupied, by the beginning of 1987 he was already developing a restlessness with Aberdeen. His friends observed that while they were content to use music as a fun way to pass a Friday night, Kurt was practicing a guitar riff or writing a song on Saturday morning. All he lacked was a vehicle for his creative vision, but that was about to change. He and Krist began to play with a neighborhood drummer named Aaron Burckhard in an unnamed group; Krist played bass, Burckhard drummed, and Kurt played guitar and sang. It was the incubation of Nirvana, and Kurt’s first exploration of being a musical alpha male. They would practice almost every night during the first few months of 1986, until Kurt thought they had done enough for the evening. After rehearsal they would drive to Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Kurt loved Chicken Littles from KFC,” recalled Burckhard. “Once Kurt took electrical tape with him and made an inverted cross on the speaker of the drive-thru. We watched from the van laughing our asses off while the employees had to come outside to peel it off.”
In early spring, Buzz announced he was moving to California and the Melvins were breaking up. It was an important point in Aberdeen band history, and watching it, Kurt must have thought that he was seeing a Judas in his midst. “What happened,” remembered Lukin, “was that I got left behind. The band was supposedly broken up, which was just a way to get me out. Buzz said, ‘Oh, no, I’m not even going to be in a band. I’m just moving to California.’ But then a month after they moved, they were playing as the Melvins again. It was hard, since it was exactly the same way Buzz had me kick out our previous drummer.”
The severing of his roommate from the Melvins would mark a major milestone in Kurt’s own development: Everyone took sides in this spat, and Kurt, for the first time, dared challenge Buzz. “Kurt moved away from the Melvins artistically and emotionally that day,” Ryan remembered. Kurt could already see that his own pop-influenced music was never going to live up to Buzz’s expectations. Though he would continue to talk about his love for the Melvins, he had begun to outgrow Buzz as a role model. It was a step that had to happen if he was going to develop his own voice, and though it was painful, it freed him creatively and gave him artistic space.
Kurt and Lukin had also grown on each other’s nerves—Kurt didn’t like a few of Lukin’s friends. In a move straight out of an “I Love Lucy” episode, he took masking tape and ran it down the center of the house and told Lukin and his friends they had to stay on their side. When one of Lukin’s buddies complained he needed to cross the tape to go to the bathroom, Kurt’s reply was, “Go to the bathroom out in the yard, because the bathroom is on my side.” Lukin moved out. Kurt lived for a while without a roommate, until a friend from Olympia, Dylan Carlson, moved in. With long, brown hair and a scruffy beard, Dylan looked a bit like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys during his lost years, but what came out of his mouth were outrageous views on religion, race, and politics. Dylan was a character, but he was bright, talented, and friendly—all qualities Kurt admired. They had met at the Brown Cow show and a friendship was formed.
Dylan moved to Aberdeen, ostensibly to work with Kurt laying carpet. The jobs left something to be desired: “Our boss was this total drunk,” Dylan recalled. “We’d show up for work in the morning, and he’d be passed out on the floor in the office. One time, he was passed out in front of the door, and we couldn’t get it open to get in to get him up.” The jobs fell apart but the friendship between Dylan and Kurt would stick. With a band, a new best friend, and some great songs, it was a more positive Kurt that greeted 1987 and his twentieth year. And soon, surprisingly, even his sexual life would blossom, when Tracy Marander became his girlfriend.
They bonded over rodents—both Kurt and Tracy had pet rats. He had first met her two years earlier outside a punk club in Seattle—it was the location of one of his alcohol arrests. He and Buzz were drinking in a car when Tracy came by to say hi, and Kurt was so enraptured he failed to notice a police car pulling up. They ran into each other over the next year, and in early 1987 they cemented a relationship. “I had been flirting with him for quite a while,” Tracy said. “I think he had a hard time believing a girl actually liked him.”
Tracy was the ideal girlfriend for the twenty-year-old Kurt, and she would signify a major marker in his path toward adulthood. She was a year older than he was, had been to hundreds of punk rock shows, and knew lots about music, a huge sexual turn-on to Kurt. With dark hair, a curvy body, and large eyes that were as strikingly brown as his were blue, she was a homespun beauty with a down-to-earth attitude. Everyone she met turned into a friend; in this way, and in many others, she couldn’t have been more different from him. He was instantly taken with her, though from the beginning he never felt like he deserved her. Even early in their relationship, these inner wounds and his pattern of withdrawal exhibited themselves. One of the first times they went to bed together, they lay in the afterglow of sex, when she commented, seeing him naked, “God, you are so skinny.” Though she didn’t know it, Tracy couldn’t have said anything more hurtful. Kurt’s response was to throw on his clothes and storm outside. He came back, though.
Tracy decided she would love him enough so his fear would disappear; she’d love him so much he might even be able to love himself. But for Kurt this was treacherous ground, and at every corner sat an excuse for self-doubt and fear.
The only thing he loved more that spring than Tracy was his pet rat Kitty. He had raised the male rodent from birth, feeding him with an eyedropper the first few weeks. The rat usually stayed in his cage, but on special occasions, Kurt would let it run around the house, since a few rat turds weren’t going to spoil the filthy carpet. One day, while Kitty was running around the shack, Kurt found a spider on the ceiling and urged Kitty to get it. “I said, ‘See that fucker, Kitty? Get him, kill him, get him, kill him,’ ” Kurt wrote in his journal. But Kitty failed to attack the spider, and when Kurt returned with a can of Brut deodorant spray in an attempt to kill the spider, he heard a heartbreaking noise and looked down to see:
My left foot...ontopofmy rat’s head. He jumped around squealing and bleeding. I screamed, “I’m sorry,” about 30 times. Picked him up in a pair of dirty underwear. Put him in a sack, found a piece of two by four wood, took him outside and clubbed, and laid it on its side, and stepped all over the sack. I felt his bones and guts crush. It took about two minutes to put him out of his misery and then I went into misery for the rest of the night. I obviously didn’t love him enough, as I do now. I went back into the bedroom, and observed the blood stains and the spider. I screamed, “Fuck you,” to him and thought about killing him, but left him there to eventually crawl across my face as I lie awake all night.