Grungy, depressing, and oozing undiluted DIY attitude, the mixed-media installation Standing Wave Seance pretty much captures the essence of the late Kurt Cobain. The 2010 work is a life-size approximation of a dingy practice space echoing with disembodied crowd noise and an overamped sample from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It’s one of the dramatic centrepieces of the Seattle Art Museum’s new exhibit, Kurt, which opened on May 13. But Standing Wave Seance might have ended up looking entirely different if its creators, Hadley + Maxwell, had had better luck tracking down the spirit of the late Nirvana singer-guitarist. The duo, formerly of Vancouver and now based in Berlin, attempted to do just that in the Emerald City while looking for inspiration for their installation.
“Hadley + Maxwell made a pilgrimage to Linda’s, which is a dive bar that is supposedly one of the last places that he [Cobain] was seen alive in public,” says Kurt curator Michael Darling, on the line from Seattle. “They went there to see what the aura was like, and I guess they didn’t really feel it. There wasn’t much going on there.
“I think one thing that Hadley + Maxwell were surprised by,” he continues, “was that there was not really any attempt to capitalize on the fame of Kurt there. There were no pictures on the wall to try and turn it into a tourist destination. The bar is still cool, still kind of underground, and has a certain authenticity to it.”
The same could be said for Seattle itself, a city that seems to have resisted all urges to exploit its most famous son. And sorry, Jimi Hendrix, but Kurt Cobain is indeed Seattle’s most important rock icon. Becoming—against his will—the public face of grunge, he literally revolutionized rock ’n’ roll. Without Nirvana, punks like Green Day and the Offspring would never have been played on the radio, bands such as Sonic Youth and the White Stripes would never have cracked the mainstream, and indie labels wouldn’t have become powerhouses able to break acts like Spoon and the Shins.
Most importantly, without Nirvana, art would never have become more important than commerce in the often plastic business of rock ’n’ roll. By following up Nirvana’s breakthrough, Nevermind, with the deeply confessional, flaming cannonball that was In Utero, Cobain showed the world that it’s okay to aim for something more real than radio-friendly unit shifters. Through it all, he refused all notions that he was a rock star, which is perhaps why Seattle has little interest in treating him like one.
Vancouverites making pilgrimages to Seattle to find the spirit of Cobain discover that gentrification has changed many ground-zero landmarks of the grunge explosion. Where the Frontier Room in the city’s Belltown neighbourhood was once the preferred skid-bar of the Screaming Trees and Mudhoney, it’s now an upscale barbecue joint for young urban professionals. The Crocodile Cafe is no longer the sweaty, dirty hot box where Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and the Melvins all headlined, but has been gutted and sanitized, the renovation stripping out much of the venue’s original, um, grungy charm. The Off Ramp, where Pearl Jam made its debut back when it was known as Mookie Blaylock, has been through a couple of name changes, with its current incarnation, El Corazón, the most despised club in the city, if message boards are to be believed.
What’s most noticeable when you travel to Seattle is that there are no huge shrines to grunge in general or Cobain in particular. Where Jimi Hendrix gets his own massive room at the Experience Music Project museum, Nirvana is shoehorned into a single display case spotlighting one of the singer’s well-abused guitars.
Twenty years after Cobain’s final public sighting there, Linda’s on Capitol Hill is indeed still beyond laid-back, the charmingly rundown bar more Twin Peaks meets Barfly than grunge’s last stand. Instead of a framed cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind, you’ll find posters for old Roy Rogers dusters like Idaho and Heldorado. Forget Pearl Jam and Tad—the jukebox blares Buzzcocks, the Who, and the Beatles. The attitude from the staff is entirely nonjudgmental, to the point where it’s like they’ve cribbed their impossibly welcoming attitude from one of Cobain’s most famous songs, “Come as You Are”.
If Hadley + Maxwell were looking for a place that inspired Nirvana numbers like “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die”, Linda’s wasn’t the place. Hell, the bar’s slogan is “a nice place for nice people”. As Darling notes, though, Hadley + Maxwell did pick up on a sense of authenticity, and that probably would have thrilled Cobain, who was far happier playing underground dives than sterile hockey rinks.
Back at the SAM, Nirvana fans will also find there’s a low-key, fitting authenticity to the nearly 80 Kurt works, some of which predate Cobain’s 1994 suicide in Seattle. Pieces range from crude, hand-drawn sketches to iconic photos by Alice Wheeler and Charles Peterson to sound collages that fuse songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”. Some works are brilliantly high-concept: for the endlessly looped Nirvana Alchemy Film, artist Jennifer West took 16mm footage of her jumping on a trampoline to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with her son, and then distressed the film by soaking it in pennyroyal tea, lithium, bleach, and cherry antacids, all of which come up in Cobain’s lyrics.
Some are nothing less than captivating, with Scott Fife’s Kurt Cobain consisting of a giant Cobain head constructed out of cardboard, ink, glue, and screws. Ash-grey and ravaged-looking, the sculpture suggests that sometimes it is better to burn out than to fade away.
And then there’s Hadley + Maxwell’s Standing Wave Seance. Inside a makeshift practice space built out of foam-covered plywood we find a double stack of red Marshall amps. A dirty carpet is duct-taped to the floor, and a dimly lit, flickering light bulb is suspended over a microphone set in the middle of the room. Scraps of paper are taped, set list–style, to the walls.
The whole piece works as a throwback to pre-gentrified Seattle, and pre-fame Nirvana. Kurt Cobain died as rock royalty, but he started out as just another unwashed loser in a dank and grungy jam space. Hadley + Maxwell capture that brilliantly. Forget about looking for Cobain’s ghost at Linda’s, amid the yuppified patio restaurants of Belltown, or anywhere else in Seattle. If you really want to make contact, start with Standing Wave Seance and Kurt.