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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Aberdeen, Wash.

After 15 years, smells like Cobain spirit in town

A native son is beginning to be recognized and honored, but not without some controversy.

August 16, 2009|Kim Murphy

'I sing and play the guitar," Kurt Cobain once said, "and I'm a walking, talking bacterial infection."

Is it any wonder the good citizens of Aberdeen, Wash., have always had mixed feelings, some loving, some reminiscent of stepping on shards of glass, when it comes to claiming the Nirvana front man as one of their own?

Fifteen years after the suicide that ended the legendary musician's drug-fueled life at age 27, Aberdeen has the title of one of Cobain's songs, "Come as You Are," posted at the entrance to town. The local museum offers a walking tour map of important locales from his childhood. And an unofficial park has been established next to the bridge under which Cobain hung out and wrote songs.

Then a few weeks ago, a granite plaque of Cobain sayings was installed at the park. Not only the one about the infection -- that was Kurt being Kurt -- but also the one about how "drugs are bad for you, they will . . . you up," using a word the Aberdeen Daily World described as "the F bomb."

Lines were drawn.

"I'm no prude, but I don't think that's the kind of thing we want to see on city property," said Bill Simpson, mayor of this down-on-its-luck logging and fishing town.

"I don't like that word. The city pays thousands of dollars a year just to remove it from our parks -- painting and sandblasting," City Councilman Jerry Mills said.

Others argued Cobain's frank warning about drugs was a good thing to convey to young people.

"The majority of the people who are going to make their way down there, it's not like that's the first time they're ever going to see that word," said Councilman Paul Fritts, co-founder of the official Kurt Cobain Memorial Committee.

Amid the dust-up, the masonry company that had etched the offending word in the granite etched it out, or at least the last three letters.

Then on Wednesday, the City Council voted unanimously to accept the revamped monument. Officials also OKd the table, benches and memorial signs that former lumber mill worker Tori Kovach had installed on city property at the base of the bridge, next to his home.

It is perhaps a testament to the enduring spirit of grunge rock that lingers in this town that someone almost immediately penciled in the missing letters.

"A concession has been made to those with genteel sensibilities. And hopefully that will placate them. Everyone else thinks it's either sad or hilarious," Kovach said.

The 66-year-old retiree, bald and bespectacled, lives with his wife and a long-haired dachshund in a carefully restored historic riverfront house filled with antiques and bric-a-brac.

By his own admission, Kovach doesn't fit the profile of the typical Nirvana fan.

He wasn't, he said, until he listened to some of the band's acoustic arrangements and realized that the young man reviled as a druggie and reprobate by many among Aberdeen's older generation also was an accomplished artist.

"Kurt had his issues with being from here. He came from a broken home. There are certain facets of his life that resonate with mine," Kovach said. "When I heard his music, some of it just seemed to me to be a kind of guttural crying out. An expression of angst to some degree, and rebellious anger. And in-your-face nonconformity that just appealed to me. He was a musical genius to a degree."

Once he began listening to the music, Kovach said, he knew the bridge was a special place: A Nirvana album released two years after Cobain's 1994 death is called "From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah" -- a reference to the river that runs through Aberdeen -- and one of Cobain's songs commemorates the hours he spent there.

Over the years the small park Kovach erected has become a destination for visitors from as far away as Australia and Japan.

Others around Aberdeen are following Kovach's lead.

Don Sucher, who owns a "Star Wars"-themed souvenir shop downtown, has set up a "Kurt Cobain Information Center" with photos, news articles, maps and Cobain action figures. The police chief said he's thinking of posting Cobain's mug shot from a 1985 graffiti arrest outside the police station with a small plaque for tourists. A local winery is releasing a "Pinot Noirvana" and donating some of the profits to the memorial committee's proposed youth center.

"I think our city, over the past 15 years regarding Kurt Cobain, has really missed the boat," Fritts told the council. "And I think a youth center that reaches out to youth more like him is a step in the right direction."

Kovach is thinking of erecting a statue of Cobain holding a steel guitar at the bridge park. But he worries about "punk purists" who say Cobain would roll over in his grave if he became a park statue. Maybe it should be simply a guitar on a pedestal?

"That way, I wouldn't have to spend my nights at the window with a pair of binoculars," Kovach said, "wondering if somebody was going to take a baseball bat and smash the heck out of the thing."

--

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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