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His last L.A. days

At the peak of his fame, Kurt Cobain hid from the rock scene and tried to lose himself in a world of paint.

March 28, 2004|Charles R. Cross | Special to The Times

Seattle — The magnolia trees are in bloom again in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood. In this hillside enclave of timber-baron mansions and waterfront estates, wealthy homeowners employ a phalanx of gardeners to keep the blossoms fine-tuned. But amid the Martha Stewart-like affluence is another more somber spring ritual. During the first week of April, a public park becomes ground zero for a steady stream of mourners paying homage to the memory of Kurt Cobain. It was in Denny-Blaine, while living in a three-story mansion next to Viretta Park, that Cobain committed suicide in April 1994.

The faithful come daily to this quiet community, many from faraway states or nations, all touched in some way by the music of Cobain and his band, Nirvana. The 10th anniversary of Cobain's death will bring even more fans, media and curiosity-seekers to Viretta Park, where every square inch of each park bench is covered with messages. "This is Kurt's Park now," one person has written in black marker on a slat. "I miss you," says another, echoing the sentiment of many. They've become message boards of mourning.

Cobain's shadow over music remains remarkably large, considering that Nirvana enjoyed only three years in the national spotlight. When the album "Nevermind" came out in 1991, Nirvana became a superstar band almost overnight, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became the ultimate teen anthem.

By the time Cobain died, he seemed permanently linked to the Seattle music scene and the phenomenon of grunge. Yet when the band -- Cobain, longtime bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl -- released "Nevermind," none of the members even lived in Seattle. ("We couldn't afford it," Novoselic jokes.) Cobain wrote most of his songs while living in Olympia, Wash., and Seattle was his home for only the last year and a half of his life.

He spent most of 1992 in Los Angeles, a time much less is known about. In an apartment on Spaulding Avenue, at the height of his fame, he put down his guitar, picked up a paint brush and contemplated a life without music. For several months he was ensconced in a mad world of creation. He painted using acrylics and oils, but at times he mixed his own blood, semen, cigarette ash and fecal matter into his medium. It was astonishing work. Most of it has only been seen by his closest friends.

Cobain died at 27. The music he created in the last year of his life was some of his best, which leaves critics and fans to forever wonder about what might have been. But none of the Cobain "what-ifs" are as fascinating as the one that imagines his quitting the spotlight of the music business and retreating to the world of art. It was an option he talked about frequently with his closest friends and the turn that might have saved his life.

Artistic talent recognized

When he was growing up in Aberdeen, a town of 19,000 in southwestern Washington, drawing was Cobain's first love. His family quickly noticed his skill. "Even when he was a little kid, he could draw a picture of Mickey Mouse that looked perfect," remembers grandfather Leland Cobain.

In high school, he won an art contest, the first recognition of his artistic talent. "He had both the ability to draw, and a great imagination," his art teacher Bob Hunter observes. Some of Cobain's classwork was controversial, including an illustration of Michael Jackson holding his crotch.

At 20, Cobain moved to Olympia. He lived with girlfriend Tracy Marander in a $137-a-month apartment, unsuccessfully tried to get illustration work and spent his days painting on board games he bought in thrift stores. "I gave him his first and probably only commission," his friend Amy Moon recalls. "I had a dream, and I wanted him to paint it. He told me to buy a canvas for him, since he couldn't afford the $10 it would cost. The painting was amazing -- exactly as I had described the dream."

When he wasn't painting, he was practicing guitar or writing songs for his other great love -- Nirvana, which he and Novoselic had formed in 1987. His song-craft improved, and Nirvana began to tour extensively, eventually signing a $287,000 deal with Geffen Records' DGC label. In April 1991, the band spent six weeks cutting "Nevermind" at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys.

During that L.A. stay, Cobain ran into Courtney Love, and romance ensued. On a late-night walk, they discovered a dead bird. He pulled three feathers off its wing. "This one is for you, this is for me, and this is for our baby we're gonna have." They both laughed at his melodrama, Love remembers. Ten months later, she was pregnant.

They married in Hawaii in February 1992 and moved to Los Angeles. By then "Nevermind" was the biggest album of the year -- it would go on to sell more than 10 million copies. They didn't move to L.A. for fame -- by then Cobain was the foremost star in rock -- but instead they sought a level of anonymity they couldn't find in the Northwest.

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