Kurt Cobain wasn’t ours

©Bill Wadman

“Kurt Cobain wasn’t ours, in Portland. As suburban middle-schoolers who mass-transited it into town every weekend to pick up our copies of The Rocket, we loved Nirvana, naturally. But after the suicide, my punk-rock songwriting pal and I felt a little bit angryleft behind. And so we were excited about the beginnings of Candy Ass Records, each of us devoting hard looks to each new CD from the label that showed up at Ozone on Burnside, across from Powell’s. We didn’t need it to become as big a deal as Sub Pop; we just wanted something we could get next to from the start.

Elliott Smith’s breakaway from PDX grunge outfit Heatmiser was exciting. He went acoustic and played all-ages closets. When Roman Candle came out on Candy Ass the summer before we were sent up to high school, it seemed like the beginning of something. We spent the Oregon summer evenings in my friend’s backyard tentsufficiently far away from the parents who barely tolerated our garage compositionsand played the CD on a battery-powered boombox. ‘Your tears are cheap / Wet hot red swollen cheeks’ and ‘I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain’ felt like expressions of angst that also served as ballasts against their way of enabling self-destruction. It seemed like this singer with a head ‘full of flames’ wouldn’t let them burn him down from the inside. It didn’t work out that way. Final cause-of-death mysteries aside, it became clear that Smith was not immunized against mutilation.

Neither was my friend, who died a few falls ago. We had grown apart, and I was living abroad when it happened. Was not invited to the funeral. Whenever I want to feel close to him – which is to say, often – I play several records from that time and place, though most often it is this one. No, it’s not a comfort per se. But before all the strands of indie had been mapped out as scientifically as they have in the interim, Smith’s move from played-out grunge to a personal language of folk still suggests to me something like a chance to build a strange vessel in which to meet the world.”

Seth Colter Walls


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