My Own Nirvana
by Amy Dupcak
Catholic school, sixth grade, early into ’96. Boxy desks, white-board markers, snowflake decals decorating windows. A piggy bank named Nicholas and pet chameleons in a tank. A classroom of girls and one unfortunate boy, all wearing maroon and gray plaid.
We are sitting at our desks when Christina presses play on the stereo, filling the room with a serrated guitar riff. The singer’s voice sounds frayed, the music lazed, a melody lurking somewhere underwater. Low “hello”s build to a crescendo of screamed vocals and fast-paced drums. I look down at the lyrics Christina photocopied from the liner notes. What does “libido” or “mulatto” mean? Why does the title mention a deodorant that doesn’t appear in the song?
Before this moment, I didn’t hold many musical opinions. My father is a trained jazz keyboardist and my mom a huge Beatles fan, but they separated when I was five and neither has exposed me to much of their music. As a girl who grew up dancing, I worshipped Madonna and Michael Jackson; for two months, Dangerous got stuck in the tape deck of Mom’s car and the King of Pop sang to us on every ride. Come middle school, I started listening to some ’90s alternative, like Green Day and the delightfully vengeful Alanis Morissette. I’ve heard of Nirvana and know the singer died, but somehow I never paid much attention to their songs, even though we’ve all been wearing oversized flannel and Converse high-tops (mine imitation) for a couple of years.
Of all the kids in our class, Christina is the most mature: the first to smoke cigarettes, first to make out, first to dye her hair, and the first to visibly align with a musical subculture. When Mrs. O’Connor told us we could play songs one day in class, Christina proudly stepped up to bat.
The song she chose transforms our small classroom. It’s anthemic and raucous, careless and hazy, the singer’s voice coated in pain. Forget ballet, this music makes me want to overturn my desk and hurl my limbs against the walls. As the final “denial” drags on, Christina switches tapes to segue right into Hole’s unabashedly self-destructive “Miss World.” I’m surprised Mrs. O’Connor doesn’t step in and stop here.
These two songs, perfectly coupled like a pair of parentheses, are now etched into the lining of my bones. There’s something about them, something raw and anarchistic, something that speaks to a truer self lying dormant inside me. A self that’s just beginning to stir.
I save the photocopied lyrics and place them inside a protective plastic sleeve in my purple binder, which begins to fill with handwritten poems and magazine cut-outs. I buy Nevermind on cassette. Its parenthetical mate, Hole’s Live Through This, soon follows.
I don’t yet possess the self-awareness to understand that I’m looking for something to represent me as an individual while also bonding me to my friends. I’m a petite white girl growing up in the suburbs just north of New York City and I don’t feel a strong allegiance to my hometown, Italian heritage, American traditions, or Catholic ideology (aside from loving Christmas and sipping on that holy wine). Instead, I start to carve out an identity based on a lifelong passion for words and my new musical obsessions—Nirvana, namely. Christina’s primary obsession is Pearl Jam; Rachel’s The Smashing Pumpkins; Mary’s Sublime. We respect each other’s men while revering them collectively under the umbrella of ’90s alternative, blasting music in black-lit bedrooms and listening to our Walkmans on boring bus rides.
During sleepovers, Rachel and I challenge ourselves to stay up all night watching music videos on MTV. My favorite among favorites is “Heart-Shaped Box.” With its saturated colors and haunting Christian symbolism, the video inspires an affinity for the strange and surreal. At nearly four a.m. one night, I confidentially tell Rachel, “It’s gonna be next.” I already possess a sixth sense about Nirvana, accurately predicting when their songs will play on KRock, the radio station we call occasionally to make requests. Just as my mother barges into the living room—“shut off the TV and go to bed!”—Kurt’s opiate-drenched, drop-D tuning kicks in and an elderly Jesus appears in a hospital bed. “I knew it, I knew it!” I scream. Mom promptly turns off the television, denying me my prize.
Born in January of ’84, I am a few years late to the Gen-X party, missing grunge in its prime and all that came before it, but also a tad early to be considered a full-fledged Millennial, then referred to as Gen-Y. Stuck in a narrow space between, fiercely loyal to cassettes and nostalgic for the years I missed, I find myself at odds with my generation. I am irritated and embarrassed by the trends of the late ’90s, like sanitized boy bands, “Mmmbop” nonsense, and the downfall of MTV. I do, however, participate in the ’90s appropriation of the late ’60s, ditching straight-legged jeans for raggedy flares. In sixth grade I did an extensive project on hippie culture and now romanticize it, which seems like a predecessor to the bare-bones authenticity at the heart of grunge.
Like other illustrious members of the 27 Club—Jim, Jimi, Janis—Kurt already died by the time I truly discovered him, which, although lamentable, means he will never make music I don’t love, never say anything with which I disagree, and never play a show I cannot see. By my own internal logic, I don’t have to worry about sharing him because the Gen-X’ers have already gotten their fill and have largely moved on. Many of those older teens already abandoned him for the next big rockstar, and I assume that he is mine to mourn, despite his obvious popularity and the fact that Nirvana became the biggest band in the world, a far cry from Kurt’s punk-rock ethos and underground origins.
On sunny days, you might find us middle-school girls sitting in a circle on the grass, wearing our pink spring-uniform skirts. Christina and Rachel play “Stairway to Heaven” and “Purple Haze” on their Fender guitars while the rest of us sing along, heads on each other’s shoulders, dandelions in our hair. It’s no wonder our principal calls us the hippie class. Together we are trying to resurrect the past as the inevitable future comes knocking at our door.
By ninth grade my once girly bedroom has become a shrine to Kurt, the wood-paneled walls covered with his disheveled hair, squarish hands, torn jeans, and piercing eyes. I have studied and dissected him, not only by listening to his songs on repeat but also by reading books and watching documentaries that might help me decode him and in turn myself.
Along with my high-school uniform, I wear fingerless gloves, a pit-bull chain as a choker, black Docs, black nail polish, and a long black coat (until Columbine, that is), believing in the power of said accessories to symbolize my subcultural leanings and mounting inner turmoil while visually representing my denouncement of the mainstream. Most students at my all-girls high school in White Plains sport manicured nails, puffy coats, and a Tiffany’s charm bracelet. They sing along to radio hits and attend events at our brother school. With my closest friends in tow, I reject those social norms and rebel against our school’s overbearing rules, even though I’m an honors student. I’m not blatantly antagonistic, nor bullied and ostracized like Kurt, but I don’t give a fuck about fitting in. I take Kurt’s lyric “rather be dead than cool” to heart.
On New Year’s Eve—the highly anticipated Y2K—I sit amongst friends in Rachel’s apartment waiting for the ball to drop. I have brought along a picture of Kurt, the one I keep framed on my nightstand next to my old Lion King alarm clock and First Communion cross so Kurt’s face is the first thing I see when I wake up. He’s wearing a red button-down shirt with the tag still on and lifting his white bug-eyed sunglasses to reveal that empathic blue-eyed stare. When the clock strikes midnight, I play “Heart-Shaped Box” and tell Kurt goodbye. He will never exist in this brand-new century and I’m convinced that part of me never will either.
As high school drags on, I collect Nirvana bootlegs from flea markets and record stores, like Generation Records down in the city, eventually piecing together all six Outcesticides plus a hoard of recorded live shows, interviews, singles, B-sides, and imports. I know all the tracks that have multiple names and all the band names Nirvana once used and I can spit out this information like an autistic savant, which makes me feel smart. I read William S. Burroughs because he was Kurt’s favorite author and Suskind’s Perfume because it inspired “Scentless Apprentice.” I listen to The Melvins, The Vaselines, Bikini Kill and other bands associated with Kurt. I work part-time at Sam Goody, where I meet fellow music enthusiasts and score a sweet employee discount. I write a paper for Health class about heroin and dress up as Kurt for a Communications project. I dream of him singing me secret lullabies, or showing up in my cafeteria. I buy turtle and seahorse objects because Kurt felt symbolically connected to those creatures. I scrawl his lyrics on my Converse and plan to get a tattoo in his honor—the Nirvana smiley face, no the In Utero angel, no the K Records logo Dave Grohl poked into his arm—once I finally turn eighteen.
“Why don’t you go to a football game?” my mother asks. She has gotten into the habit of making snide remarks about my clothes and my habits. She forbids me to burn candles or incense in my room. She calls my male friends “degenerates.” She worries about my fascination with dead or suicidal poets and musicians.
“I’m not that kind of person!” I shoot back at her. Quite frankly, I have not turned out the way Mom expected, or even the way I expected back when my life’s ambition was to become a high-kicking Rockette (I’m five inches too short anyway), or a cheerleader like my older cousin. My own “teen spirit” looks bitterly misshapen compared to the vast majority of girls at my school, not to mention my younger sister, who idolizes the Spice Girls.
I have to train my mother to accept the person I’ve become, flawed as she may seem. To her credit, Mom lets me plaster my walls with Kurt’s image and doesn’t make me take down my Rage Against the Machine poster depicting nuns holding guns. She grants permission to attend concerts in the city and supports my love of writing. We may erupt into screaming matches, especially over clothes, but I know that she loves me even if she doesn’t get me.
The more I grow up, the more I seem to grow into Kurt. Like him I’m plagued by chronic pain and miasmic sadness, as well as anti-authority angst and self-imposed isolation, and like him I have a love/hate relationship with these states of being. On the one hand, I want nothing more than to be healthy and carefree; on the other, I believe that my pain informs my writing and makes me feel things more profoundly, including my favorite music. I observe the world and my own emotions with ballpoint pen in hand, penning poem after poem as I sit in homeroom sneakily wearing headphones. My classmates know me first as a writer and second as a Nirvana fan. “I heard Nirvana today,” they’ll say, “and it made me think of you.”
In my favorite photo of Kurt, he is sitting on a windowsill wearing a black T-shirt that says “grunge is dead” and holding baby Frances Bean’s hands. Their expressions perfectly mirror one another: mouths open in one resounding roar. I read somewhere that the photographer had captured contagious yawns, but nothing can convince me it isn’t a scream, from one soul to another, echoing across time.
Kurt not only screamed through his pain but actively tasted death. He flung his fragile body into drum kits. He shot drugs into his veins. He held a gun to his open mouth. In some ways, I want to be as daring and as reckless. I walk along rooftop ledges just for a taste of it. I need that whiff of death to keep me here, alive.
My boyfriend is known for overdoing the holidays; he bought me a gently used acoustic guitar for Christmas after we’d only been dating three months. It’s been two years since then and I’m almost nineteen, sitting in his bedroom to unwrap my gift, which turns out to be a library book about Washington state. I laugh in confusion.
“You’re going to have to return that in two weeks,” Jay says through his smile.
I open the book and flip through glossy photos of mountains, lakes, and evergreens. Then an envelope falls out—an envelope containing two plane tickets to Seattle! I shriek and cry and tackle him to the floor.
I’ve hardly traveled anywhere, but over the next few months I plan our entire trip, finding addresses for nearly every place Kurt ever lived, crashed, or hung out, which means we’ll be passing through Seattle, Aberdeen, Montesano, Hoquiam, and Olympia, with a pit stop at the Pacific Ocean. I treat this journey like a pilgrimage to Mecca.
In June of ’03, we drive our rental car to Kurt’s hometown of Aberdeen, a once thriving logging town about two hours southwest of Seattle and completely unlike my New York suburb. It’s a sunny blue day and will remain so for most of the week—nothing like the dreary rain I expected from this hallowed ground of grunge.
Standing on his soil, his sidewalk, his end of the block in front of his house, the facts roll off my tongue: Kurt’s childhood home is 1,000 square feet and cost the family only 7,950 dollars, located in a neighborhood he once described as “white trash posing as middle-class.” I look up at the windows, wondering which one used to be his bedroom. Of course another family lives here now; I’m sure they’re used to voyeuristic fanatics who have traveled several hundred miles to ogle their cheap vinyl siding. Still, I imagine eight-year-old Kurt—blond ’70s bob, blue eyes full of light—looking down at a young woman who permanently inked his initial (via the K Records logo) on her ankle. What would he make of me?
After a full day of exploring Kurt’s hometown, I cry long and hard on our hotel bed. I try to articulate my emotions to Jay, saying, “I feel like I’m home, like I finally belong,” as if these are my origins too. If Kurt’s soul is still out there, drifting painlessly through the universe, then certainly he is watching me now. Certainly I have found him.
I experience physical difficulties during the trip, like swimmer’s ear and a UTI in addition to my usual migraine, stomachache, and iron-deficiency anemia. But none of this fazes me. Jay and I wrestle through thorny brush to duck beneath the bridge on the muddy banks of the Wishkah River, where Kurt supposedly slept sometimes, memorialized in the melancholic “Something in the Way.” We visit his first independently owned house, which isn’t much more than a shack. We walk the halls of his middle school, though his high school burned down. By happenstance, we hear about a muffler shop that displays but doesn’t advertise a statue of Kurt that the mayor refused to erect in the park. We walk in hesitantly, not even sure we have found the right place. The owner immediately intuits our mission and leads us further inside, pulling a black curtain to reveal the life-sized statue his wife made with cement. Statue Kurt is crying; I give him a hug.
In Seattle, we visit the Experience Music Project Museum, which exhibits a life-size In Utero angel with exposed organs from Nirvana’s 1993 tour. Behind it, there’s a large photo of Kurt leaning his head on the very same figure, before the loss of its arms. Overwhelmed by the damaged beauty, I nearly burst into tears. I disobey the “No Photographs” sign and rely on Jay to distract the security guards so I can snap my forbidden photo.
Our final stop is Kurt’s final home, number 171. The residential road snakes around glittering Lake Washington and we pass mansion after mansion until finding the right one. We park our car and slink around the back of the house, surprised to find the gate unlocked. I glance into the yard but don’t dare enter, since there’s a surveillance camera attached to the gutter. The garage and its second-floor “attic,” where Kurt ended his life, were torn down years ago, but it isn’t hard to envision it standing next to this house. No, it isn’t hard to imagine Kurt sitting there alone, making the decision to inject those drugs and pull that trigger. In his last moments on earth, the blue of Lake Washington called him home.
Back on the lakeside street, we notice a tiny park with two benches, their wooden planks covered with words and etchings, dried flowers and melted candles: an unofficial memorial. I always wanted Kurt to be mine, but it’s beautiful to see the evidence of so many other lives he’s touched. I kneel on the grass and write him a short message. Then I lay atop my words, and his words, and their words, all of them speaking for me, all of them a song.
Bolstered by the Washington journey, I feel more attached to Kurt than ever. For the spring semester of my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence, I enroll in an ethnomusicology seminar. Eric, my new professor, teaches us about Balkan folk, Brooklyn hip-hop, and Harlem jazz among other scenes, subcultures, and ethnomusical traditions. When we meet privately to discuss my semester-long conference project, which often takes the form of a twenty-page research paper adjacent to the course material, I propose my intended topic: grunge culture, Generation X, and how Kurt Cobain became a reluctant generational icon. Perhaps I want to better understand my persisting obsession by approaching him from an intellectual rather than emotional perspective.
Eric, however, resists the idea. He doesn’t want this to become a “fan paper” and tells me so plainly. He tries to talk me out of it, but I do my best to convince him that Kurt will only appear in one section of the paper—my true aim is to gain a better understanding of how grunge emerged as a genre and flourished as a subculture that extended far beyond the Northwest. I even refer to the readings he assigned, comparing Guthrie P. Ramsey’s definition of folk as music that “revolves around providing an authentic experience of community” to the influence of grunge in Seattle locally and within Gen-X at large. I earn my right to write the paper and vow to make it a masterpiece to behold.
Everything seems to be falling into place. On top of my regular coursework, creative writing assignments, heavy-duty conference paper about Medieval Europe, and social events on campus, I work tirelessly at building the grunge paper. Much of my research actually happens in reverse; I already know something and have to locate a source to prove that I know it.
My Middle Ages history teacher, Leah, knows about and respects my love for Kurt; to my utter envy, she grew up as a member of the Seattle scene I’m currently researching. On April 5—the tenth anniversary of Kurt’s passing and a holy day for people like me—Leah gives me a Seattle newspaper with a cover story about the anniversary, which she picked up on a recent visit home. That night in my dorm room, I smoke a cigarette in Kurt’s honor, write his name in the crook of my arm, and listen to KRock playing Roma in its entirety.
Just like in high school, my college friends know my obsessions. But this time I’m attending a co-ed school, and it’s the boys with whom I share the most in common musically; it’s the boys whose identities also revolve around their favorite bands. I make some of them customized CDs with collage covers from the little business I conceived in my dorm room: Kid A mix tapes. One friend is also fluent in Nirvana, and we often gush about our favorite songs on every album when we see each other. I christen his bass guitar Buzz—after Nirvana’s “Love Buzz” and Melvins lead singer Buzz Osbourne—one night at the Coffee Haus when our mutual friends’ band needs to use it mid-performance after a broken string emergency. The lead singer of that band, who will also die tragically young, sometimes scoffs at my love for Kurt and disrespects my musical opinions despite loving the same albums. Perhaps it’s a blow to his ego that I too own the entire Nine Inch Nails discography and know every interlude on Surfer Rosa. He says he doesn’t listen to Björk, whom I also adore, because her music is “too feminine.” Kurt himself was vehemently feminist, but at shows I often find myself greatly outnumbered by aggressive men who can’t wait for permission to slam into each other.
Amid my escalating Kurt mania, my boyfriend Jay and I experience major issues, one of which involves his inability to accept the time commitment college requires. This is nothing new, and will soon spell our demise. He is four years older than me and a musician (of course) who briefly attended community college and hasn’t yet moved out, so he doesn’t understand how stressed and involved in school I’ve become.
Ever since we started dating, I have always made time to accompany him to the Chiller Theatre horror convention in New Jersey for one weekend in October and one weekend in April. He isn’t about to let me off the hook this spring, even though I have way too much work—the first draft of my grunge paper is due the following week and despite my best efforts to chip away at it, I still have to actually write most of the thing. But like other moments in our relationship, Jay guilt-trips me. “You have to go,” he says, “this is too important to me. It’s only fair.”
I spend most of that weekend hunkered down in our hotel room with my bulky laptop. I type like mad, slamming keys, clicking between library databases, and making sure the Ethernet connection doesn’t cut out. My books are splayed like upturned turtles all over the carpet.
Meanwhile, Jay takes frequent trips downstairs to squeeze past tables cluttered with horror memorabilia. Every time he reappears, he presents some new purchase: Something Weird videos, autographs from film legends, a myriad of collectible figures. Though I do venture downstairs, as well as attend Saturday’s night costume party, I remain a relative fixture at the desk, doing my academic duty in the name of Kurt Cobain, even though my professor is the only person who will ever read the result of my labor.
Somehow I manage to churn out twenty pages that weekend, which soon balloons into forty-one pages with a whopping bibliography of fifty-one sources. It’s a behemoth, to put it mildly. I prepare videos for my presentation and dress the part for emphasis. Eric gives me an A.
Over time, my obsession plateaus and its intensity wanes. After college, I channel my passion into working as a writer and features editor for an independent music and culture magazine, which grants me access to concerts, album release parties, and festivals like CMJ and SXSW. I review dozens of albums and shows, start my own column, and interview up-and-coming bands like A Place to Bury Strangers as well as older legends such as J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and ohGr of Skinny Puppy. And I continue to support my friends’ bands, belting their songs in beloved venues across the city. To be honest, I don’t even listen to Nirvana all that often, which sometimes makes me feel guilty, as if Kurt will assume I’ve outgrown him. But no matter how many bands populate my playlists—darkwave, post-rock, indie, etc.—it’s Kurt’s threadbare voice that fits me like a second skin, that feels like home.
In 2019, a gracious friend puts me in touch with Michael Azerrad, the Rolling Stones journalist who wrote the Nirvana biography Come as You Are in ‘93—the only book that had Kurt’s stamp of approval even though it wasn’t officially “authorized.” Michael spent about twenty-five hours interviewing Kurt for the book, some of which can be heard in the film About a Son, and thus became his good friend and confidante.
Michael is looking for a knowledgeable Nirvana fan with whom to have an in-depth conversation about a new project: writing an annotated version of Come as You Are. As soon as our mutual friend makes the email introduction, I express my desire to act as the ideal soundboard against which Michael can bounce his ideas. To my utter delight, he gives me the green light; it feels like all the time I devoted to Nirvana in my youth is finally being rewarded. I feverishly reread my original copy of Come as You Are, which I devoured at fourteen, with the same academic vigor I applied to the grunge paper, highlights and marginalia gracing every page.
Michael and I are practically neighbors in downtown Manhattan, and we meet for hot chocolate in a mostly empty café. I promise myself not to show him my tattoos or tell him about hugging that crying statue sixteen years ago. I need to prove I’m more than a former superfan (or worse, a girl who crushes on Kurt); I’m a writer like he is, as well as an educator. But my excitement is palpable; here is someone who knows every major and minor player in the story of Nirvana. He’s an unassuming figure: soft-spoken, witty, bespectacled, easy to talk to. And talk we do, for three hours straight.
At one point I ask Michael, who is fast becoming a friend, how he gained Kurt’s trust during his initial Rolling Stones interview in LA, when Kurt was lying dope sick in bed surrounded by teddy bears. He had been rightfully wary of reporters after a vicious Vanity Fair article caused Social Services to take away Frances Bean, but Michael says he bonded with Kurt over their shared personal and generational experiences. Kurt opened up about how macho jocks had bullied him for his disinterest in sports and his size, and Michael reenacts his reaction to this statement by rising from his seat, stretching real big to accentuate his own small stature, and saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
When we inevitably touch on the tragedy of Kurt’s death, a pall falls over Michael’s face. We sit in silence for a moment; I don’t know what to say. For me, Kurt’s suicide has always been a fact of his existence, since I barely knew of him before he ended his life. But Michael saw Kurt in his pajamas. He spoke with his parents, slept on his tour bus, laughed with his daughter, and watched as Kurt read all the pages he’d written for a book about his life. And what I know about Kurt comes from books like Michael’s, and from what Kurt wrote and sang and allowed others to know. No, I’m not an expert on who Kurt was as a living, breathing human being. And no, Kurt was never mine.
But getting to “know” Kurt helped me know myself. Through him I have embraced and expressed the deepest parts of who I am without shame or apology. Many teenagers develop obsessions, but I’m glad mine amounted to more than a passing phase, exposing me to music, art, and literature that sparked creative ambitions and validated my desire to live life on my own terms. Just as the mainstream came to Kurt, who didn’t change to please the masses, I remain authentic to my core self: the same Amy who wears scuffed Docs and worn Converse whether or not they’re in style, the same Amy who saved those photocopied lyrics in sixth grade, even the same Amy who sometimes loves dancing to Madonna in leg warmers. And yet I am older, and possibly wiser, than my beloved Kurt Cobain. He cannot define me; I write my own story.
Amy Dupcak is the author of the short story collection Dust (2016) and co-editor of the prose and poetry anthology Words After Dark (2020). Her fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Entropy, Phoebe, Sonora Review, Pangyrus, District Lit, Hypertext, Passengers, American Writers Review, and other journals. Formerly a music and culture writer, she currently freelance edits and tutors; she’s also a longtime writing instructor for Writopia Lab in New York City, where she primarily works with teens, and teaches across genres for The Writer’s Rock and 826NYC. Her playlists can be found here.
Image source: Valeria Diaz Gallegos/Unsplash