APRIL 1984–SEPTEMBER 1986
It amazes me, the will of instinct.
—Lyrics from “Polly,” 1990.
Early that Monday morning Kurt walked the streets of Aberdeen sniffing her sex on his fingers. For a person who was obsessed with smell it was an intoxicating experience. To relive the act, all he need do was rub his fingers in his own crotch, and when he sniffed them, her scent was still there. Already his mind was forgetting the fact that his sexual initiation was a near catastrophe, and instead he was turning it into triumph in his memory. The actual circumstances didn’t matter—crummy sex or not, he was no longer a virgin. Being a romantic at heart, he also assumed this first sexual encounter was just the beginning of many pleasant romps with this girl; that it was the start of his adult sexual experience; a balm that he could count on, like beer or pot, to help him escape his lot. On the walk toward Weatherwax, he stole a flower from a yard. Jackie saw Kurt sheepishly heading toward the smoker’s shack outside the high school with this one red rose in his hand—she thought it was for her, but Kurt delivered it to the girl he had slept with, who was unimpressed. What Kurt failed to understand was that it was Jackie who had the crush on him. The other girl, in contrast, was embarrassed by her indiscretion, and further embarrassed by the flower. It was a painful lesson, and for someone as sensitive as Kurt, it further confused his need for love with the complications of adult sexuality.
After school, there were more immediate concerns, the first being finding a place to live. Buzz drove with him to get his stuff. As Kurt had correctly surmised, this tiff with his mother was different from the others; they arrived to find her still in a rage. “His mom was just freaking out the entire time, telling him what a total fucking loser he was,” Osborne recalled. “He just kept saying, ‘Okay, Mom. Okay.’ She made it clear she didn’t even want him in the house.” As he gathered his precious guitar and amp, putting his clothes in a series of Hefty garbage bags, Kurt began his final emotional and physical flight from his family. There had been other flights, and his retreating as a habit began soon after the divorce, but most of those moves were his. This time he was powerless with a very real fear over how he might care for himself. He was seventeen years old, a junior in high school, but failing most of his classes. He had never had a job, he had no money, and all his stuff was in four Hefty bags. He was sure he was leaving, but he had no idea where he was going.
If the divorce had been his first betrayal, and his father’s remarriage the second, this third abandonment would be equally significant. Wendy was done with him. She complained to her sisters that she “didn’t know what to do with Kurt anymore.” Their battles were exacerbating her conflicts with Pat, whom she was planning to marry, and she could ill afford to lose that relationship, if only for economic reasons. Kurt felt, perhaps correctly, that yet again one of his parents was choosing a new partner over him. It was a marginalization that would stick with him: Combined with his earlier emotional wounds, the experience of being kicked out would be something he would return to repeatedly, never able to completely free himself from the trauma. It would lie there just under the surface, a pain that would enshroud the rest of his life with a fear of scarcity. There could never be enough money, enough attention, or—most important—enough love, because he knew how quickly it could all vanish.
Seven years later he would write a song about this period and title it “Something in the Way.” The “something” was unexplained by the oblique lyrics, but there was little doubt that he was what was in the way. The song implies that the singer is living under a bridge. When asked to clarify it, Kurt always told a story of getting kicked out of the house, dropping out of school, and living under the Young Street Bridge. It would eventually become one of the touchstones of his cultural biography, one of his single most powerful pieces of myth-making, the one piece of Kurt’s history certain to appear in any one-paragraph description of his life: This kid was so unwanted he lived under a bridge. It was a potent and dark image, made all the more resonant when Nirvana became famous and pictures began to appear in magazines of the underside of the Young Street Bridge, its rank fetid nature apparent even in photographs. It looked like something a troll would live under, not a child. The bridge was only two blocks from his mother’s house, a distance, as Kurt told it, that no amount of love could cross.
The “living under the bridge” story, however, just like the “guns for guitars” story before it, was greatly embellished by Kurt in the telling. “He never lived under that bridge,” insisted Krist Novoselic, who met Kurt in school that year. “He hung out there, but you couldn’t live on those muddy banks, with the tides coming up and down. That was his own revisionism.” His sister echoed the same belief: “He did not ever live under the bridge. It was a hangout where all the neighborhood kids would go to smoke pot, but that’s all.” And if Kurt ever spent a single night under anyAberdeen bridge, locals argue it would have been the Sixth Street Bridge, a much bigger span a half mile away, stretching over a small canyon and favored by Aberdeen’s homeless. Even this setting is hard to imagine because Kurt was a world-class whiner; few whiners could survive an Aberdeen spring outdoors, where the weather is something just short of a daily monsoon. There is significance, though, to the bridge story, if only because Kurt emphatically told the tale so many times. At a point, he must have begun to believe it himself.
The true tale of where he spent his days and nights during this period is more poignant than even Kurt’s rendition of events. His journey began on Dale Crover’s porch, where he slept in a cardboard refrigerator box, curled up like a kitten. When his welcome ran out there, his ingenuity and wiliness did not fail him: There were many old apartment buildings in Aberdeen with central heating in the hallways, and this is where he would retreat most nights. He’d sneak in late, find a wide hallway, unscrew the overhead light, spread out his bedroll, go to sleep, and make sure to get up before the residents began their day. It was a life summed up best by a line he’d write a few years later in a song: “It amazes me, the will of instinct.” His instinctual survival skills served him well, and his will was strong.
When all else failed, Kurt and another kid named Paul White would walk up the hill to Grays Harbor Community Hospital. There they would sleep in the waiting room. Kurt, the more daring of the two, or maybe the more desperate, would brazenly go through the hospital cafeteria line and charge food to made-up room numbers. “There was a television in the waiting room, and we could watch that all day,” remembered White. “People always thought we were waiting for a patient who was ill or dying, and they’d never question you when it concerned that.” This was the real story behind the emotional truth captured in “Something in the Way,” and perhaps the greatest irony in his life—Kurt had ended up back where he began, back in the hospital with the territorial view of the harbor, back where he was born seventeen years previously. Here he was, sleeping in the waiting room like a fugitive, sneaking rolls out of the cafeteria, pretending to look like a bereaved relative of someone who was ill, but the only real illness was the loneliness he felt in his heart.
After about four months of living on the street, Kurt finally returned to live with his father. It wasn’t easy for Kurt, and that he’d even consider moving back in with a parent shows his level of desperation. Don and Jenny heard Kurt was homeless and found him sleeping on an old sofa in a garage just across the alley from Wendy’s house. “He was very angry at everybody at that time, and he wanted everyone to think that nobody would take him, which was pretty much what was true,” Jenny remembered.
Back in Montesano, Kurt returned to his basement room in the Fleet Street house. His authority struggles with his father escalated—it was as if the time away from Don had only made his resolve stronger. All parties knew Kurt’s presence there wasn’t a permanent arrangement— they had mutually outgrown their need or want for each other. Kurt’s guitar made life tolerable, and he practiced for hours. His friends and family began to notice he was becoming skilled at playing it. “He could play any song after listening to it just once, anything from Air Supply to John Cougar Mellencamp,” recalled his stepbrother James. The family rented This Is Spinal Tap and Kurt and James watched it five times in a row—soon he began to recite dialogue from the film and play the band’s songs.
While Kurt was back with Don and Jenny, there was yet another suicide in the family. Kenneth Cobain, Leland’s only remaining brother, grew despondent over the death of his wife and shot himself in the forehead with a .22 caliber pistol. The loss was almost too much for Leland to bear: The cumulative effect of the tragic deaths of his father, his son Michael, and his three brothers tempered his bluster with severe melancholy. If you consider Ernest’s death a suicide by alcohol, all three of Leland’s brothers had died by their own hand, two by shooting themselves.
Kurt wasn’t close to these uncles, but there was a mournful pall over the house; it seemed as if the family was cursed on all fronts. His stepmother made efforts to find Kurt a job doing lawn work, since that was the only work that could be found in Monte other than logging. Kurt mowed a few lawns, but quickly became bored. He looked in the want ads once or twice, but there weren’t many jobs to be had in Montesano. The county’s biggest economic enterprise—the Satsop Nuclear Power Plant—had gone bust before being fully constructed, leaving unemployment at fifteen percent, twice as high as the rest of the state. Things came to a head when Don announced that if Kurt wasn’t going to go to school, or work, he had to join the service. The next night, Don invited a Navy recruiter to talk to his son.
Instead of a strong, willful man—who later in his life might have grabbed the Navy man by his collar and thrown him headfirst out the door—the recruiter found a sad and broken boy. Kurt, to everyone’s surprise, listened to the pitch. At the end of the evening, much to his father’s relief, Kurt said he’d consider it. To Kurt, the service sounded like a hell, but it was a hell with a different zip code. As Kurt told Jesse Reed, “At least the Navy could give you three hots and a cot.” To a kid who had been living on the street and sleeping in hospital waiting rooms, the security of shelter and food without a parental price to pay appeared tempting. But when Don tried to convince him to let the recruiter return the next night, Kurt said to forget it.
Desperate for something, he found religion. He and Jesse had become inseparable during 1984, and this extended to going to church together. Jesse’s parents, Ethel and Dave Reed, were born-again Christians, and the family went to the Central Park Baptist Church, halfway between Monte and Aberdeen. Kurt began to attend Sunday service regularly, and even made appearances at the Wednesday night Christian Youth Group. He was baptized in the church that October, though none of his family members were present. Jesse even remembered Kurt going through a born-again conversion experience: “One night we were walking over the Chehalis River bridge and he stopped, and said he accepted Jesus Christ into his life. He asked God to ‘come into his life.’ I remember him distinctly talking about the revelations and the calmness that everybody talks about when they accept Christ.” In the next couple of weeks, Kurt displayed the tone of an evangelical born-again Christian. He began to chastise Jesse for smoking pot, disregarding the Bible, and being a poor Christian. Kurt’s religious conversion coincided with one of his many sober periods; his history with drugs and alcohol would always consist of a binge, followed by a fast. He wrote a letter to his Aunt Mari that month espousing his views on marijuana:
I just got done watching Reefer Madness on MTV...It was made in the thirties and if people took one toke of the devil drug, marijuana, they spaced-out big time, killed each other, had affairs, ran over innocent victims in cars. They sent this teenager, who looked like the Beaver, on a murder rap. Wow, that’s more excitement than I can handle. It was like a big over-exaggeration. But I accept the whole idea behind it. Pot sucks. I know that from personal experience, because for a while there I became almost as lethargic as a moldy piece of cheese. I think that was a big problem with my mom and I.
Yet almost as soon as he mailed the letter and found himself settling into the pattern of church life, Kurt discarded his faith like a pair of pants he’d outgrown. “He was hungry for it,” Jesse said, “but it was a transitory moment out of fear.” When fear subsided, Kurt started smoking pot again. He attended Central Park Baptist for another three months, but his talk, as Jesse remembered, “was more moving against God. After that he was on an anti-God thing.”
Jesse’s parents had grown attached to Kurt, and since he was at their house so often, they suggested he move in. They lived in North River, a rural area fourteen miles outside of Aberdeen. At the time the two boys seemed to provide something to each other that was missing in their individual lives. The Reeds discussed the possibility of Kurt moving to North River, and Wendy, Don, and Jenny all agreed it was worth a try. Wendy told the Reeds she was “at her wit’s end,” a point echoed by Don and Jenny. “Dave Reed came to us,” recalled Jenny, “and said he thought he could do something for him. They were a religious family, and Dave felt he could discipline him when no one else could.” “We really loved Kurt,” explained Ethel Reed. “He was such a sweet kid; he just seemed lost.” In September, Kurt packed his belongings once again—this time he had a duffel bag—and moved to North River.
The Reeds lived in a 4,000-square-foot home and the boys had the run of a huge upstairs. Perhaps the best thing about the house was that it was so remote, they could crank their electric guitars as loud as they wanted. They would play all day. Though Dave Reed was a Christian Youth counselor—he resembled Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons,” with his short hair and mustache—he wasn’t a square. Reed had been playing rock ’n’ roll for twenty years, and had been in the Beachcombers with Kurt’s Uncle Chuck, so he was known to the family. The house was stocked with amps, guitars, and albums. The Reeds were also less strict than Don: They let Kurt travel to Seattle with Buzz and Lukin to see the seminal punk band Black Flag. The Rocket called the show the second best of 1984, but to Kurt it was second only to the Melvins’ parking lot show. In every interview he did later in his life, he claimed that this was the first concert he ever saw.
It was here at the Reeds’ house where Kurt first jammed with Krist Novoselic. Novoselic was two years older than Kurt, but he was impossible to miss around Grays Harbor: At six-foot seven, he resembled a young Abraham Lincoln. Krist was of Croatian heritage, and came from a family marked by divorce that could compete against Kurt’s for dysfunction (Krist had been known as “Chris” in Aberdeen; he changed the spelling of his name back to his original Croatian birth name in 1992).
Kurt had met Krist in high school and at the Melvins’ practice space, but their lives had also intersected in one place neither of them would ever mention again—the Central Park Baptist Church. Krist had been attending the church, but even the elders like Mr. Reed knew he was there “just for the girls.” Jesse invited Krist to his house one afternoon, and the three jammed. Krist was playing guitar at this point, as were Jesse and Kurt, so the session sounded like a “Wayne’s World” taping as they ran through the usual Jimmy Page imitations. Krist and Jesse switched guitars for a while; left-handed Kurt just stuck with his own. They did play a few of Kurt’s original songs with the three-guitar assault.
Once Kurt moved in with the Reeds, he made several short attempts to return to school at Weatherwax. He was already so behind in his classes it was inevitable he wouldn’t graduate with his class. Kurt told his friends he might pretend to be retarded to get into special-ed classes. Jesse would tease Kurt and call him “Slow Brain” because of his poor grades. His only real participation in school was art class, the one place he didn’t feel incompetent. He entered one of his class projects in the 1985 Regional High School Art Show, and his work was put into the permanent collection of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Mr. Hunter told Kurt that if he applied himself he might be able to get a scholarship to an art school. A scholarship, and college, would have required graduating from Weatherwax, something Kurt didn’t see as a possibility unless he was held over an extra year (later in his life, he claimed falsely to have been offered several scholarships). Eventually Kurt dropped out completely, but not before first enrolling in Aberdeen’s alternative Continuation High School. The curriculum was similar to Weatherwax’s, but there were no formal classes: Students worked with teachers on a one-on-one basis. Mike Poitras tutored Kurt for about a week, but the boy didn’t stick with it long enough to complete the orientation. Two weeks later, Kurt dropped out of the school for dropouts.
Once Kurt stopped going to school altogether, Dave Reed found him a job at the Lamplighter Restaurant in Grayland. It paid $4.25 an hour, and he worked as dishwasher, prep assistant, relief cook, and busboy. It was the winter season and the restaurant was usually deserted, which suited Kurt fine.
It was through exposure to Dave Reed, along with his Uncle Chuck and Aunt Mari, that Kurt first began to imagine that one day he might have a future in the music business. Dave and Chuck had recorded a single with the Beachcombers in their early days—“Purple Peanuts,” backed with “The Wheelie”—and it was a prized possession in the Reeds’ home. Kurt and Jesse played the record constantly, mimicking it on their guitars. Kurt himself was writing songs faithfully—he had several Pee Chees stuffed with sheets of lyrics. Some of the titles were “Wattage in the Cottage,” “Samurai Sabotage,” and a tune about Mr. Reed called “Diamond Dave.” Kurt even wrote a song mocking a fellow Aberdeen classmate who had committed suicide. The boy’s name was Beau; the song was called “Ode to Beau” and was sung in a country and western style.
A former member of the Beachcombers had gone on to become a Capitol Records promotion person in Seattle. The instant Kurt found this fact out, he clung on to it for dear life. He hounded Dave to introduce him, not knowing at the time that a promotion person was not a talent scout. “He always wanted to meet him because he thought it would catapult his career,” recalled Jesse. This was the nascent beginning of Kurt Cobain, the professional musician, and his constant pleading for this introduction—which never came—is evidence that, at seventeen, he was imagining a career in music. If Kurt had admitted his major label ambitions around the Melvins’ rehearsal shack, he would have been treated as a heretic. He kept his ambition to himself, but he never stopped looking at ways to move beyond his circumstances.
Life with the Reeds came close to recreating the family he’d lost in the divorce. The Reeds ate dinner together, attended church as a group, and the boys’ musical talents were encouraged. A real affection and love was obvious and tangible among all members of the household, Kurt included. When Kurt turned eighteen in February 1985, the Reeds held a birthday celebration for him. His Aunt Mari sent him two books: Hammer of the Gods, the Led Zeppelin biography, and a collection of Norman Rockwell illustrations. In a thank-you note Kurt wrote his aunt, he described his birthday party: “All the kids from the church Youth Group came over, brought cake for me and Jesse, then we played stupid games and Pastor Lloyd sang some songs (he looks exactly like Mr. Rogers). But it was nice to know people care about ya.”
Yet even with a church youth group, Pastor Lloyd, and the surrogate family of the Reeds, Kurt could not psychologically escape the abandonment he felt from his own fractured family of origin. “He was hard on himself,” Dave Reed observed. Though Kurt had little contact with his mother, Dave Reed would update Wendy monthly. In August 1984 she had married Pat O’Connor, and by the next spring she was pregnant. During her pregnancy Kurt stopped by the house once, and when Wendy saw how lost he looked, she broke down crying. Kurt got down on his knees, embraced his mother, and told her he was fine.
And he was, at least for the moment, but then crisis returned. In March 1985, Kurt cut his finger washing dishes at work and quit in a fit of panic. “He had to get stitches,” remembered Jesse, “and he told me that if he lost his finger and couldn’t play guitar, he’d kill himself.” With no job and an injury that kept him from the guitar, Kurt hibernated in the house. He convinced Jesse to skip school, and the two of them would spend all day drinking or doing drugs. “He withdrew more and more,” remembered Ethel Reed. “We tried to draw Kurt out, but we just couldn’t. As time progressed we decided that we weren’t helping him, and that all we were doing was providing a place for him to withdraw further from people.”
Kurt’s dissociation came to a head in April, when he forgot his key one afternoon and kicked in a window to get in. That was the last straw for the Reeds, and they told Kurt he had to find another place to live. It was a rainy April that year in Grays Harbor, and while most kids his age were concerned with going to the prom or preparing for graduation, Kurt was once again looking for shelter.
Back on the streets, Kurt resumed the endless cycle of crashing in friends’ garages or sleeping in hallways. Desperate, he finally turned to the mercy of the government, and began receiving $40 a month in food stamps. Through the local unemployment office, he found a job working at the YMCA beginning May 1. It was part-time and administered by a local “Youth Work” grant, but he would describe this brief employment as his favorite day job. The job was a glorified janitorial position, but if other employees were sick, he was the substitute lifeguard or activity instructor. Kurt loved the work, particularly working with kids. Though Kurt wasn’t a particularly strong swimmer himself, he enjoyed filling in as a lifeguard. Kevin Shillinger, who lived a block away from the YMCA, observed Kurt teaching five-and six-year-olds to play T-ball—during the entire lesson there was a huge smile on Kurt’s face. Working with children, he could find the self-esteem he lacked in the other areas of his life: He was good with them, and they were non-judgmental.
He also took a second part-time job, though this one he rarely discussed. It was a position as a janitor at Weatherwax High School. Each evening he would don a brown jumpsuit and push a mop through the hallways of the school he had dropped out of. Though the school year was almost over by the time he began, the contrast between his peers’ preparing for college and his own particulars left him feeling as diminished as he ever did in his life. He lasted two months before quitting.
Once Kurt left the Reeds’ household, Jesse followed. For a while the pair stayed at Jesse’s grandparents’ house in Aberdeen. Then, on June 1, 1985, they moved into an apartment at 404 North Michigan Street. By any standards this tiny $100-a-month studio—the walls of which were painted pink and thus earned it the name “the pink apart-ment”—was a dump, but it was their dump. The apartment came with some modest furnishings, which they supplemented with lawn ornaments, Big Wheel tricycles, and backyard recliners stolen from the neighborhood. A picture window faced the street and Kurt took this to be his public easel, writing “666” and “Satan Rules” on the glass with soap. A blow-up doll hung from a noose and was covered in shaving gel. Edge Shaving Gel was everywhere in the apartment; samples had been given away in the neighborhood and Kurt and Jesse discovered they could suck the fumes from the cans and get high. One night they had taken a couple of hits of acid when a Grays Harbor County sheriff knocked at the door and told them to remove the doll. Luckily, the officer didn’t enter their apartment: He would have observed three weeks of dishes stacked in the sink, numerous pieces of stolen lawn furniture, Edge Shaving Gel wiped on all the walls, and the booty from their latest prank—stealing crosses from headstones at the graveyard and painting them with polka dots.
This would not be Kurt’s only run-in with the law during the summer of 1985. Kurt, Jesse, and their buddies would wait like werewolves for nightfall and then go forth to terrorize the neighborhood by stealing lawn furniture or spray-painting buildings. Though Kurt would later claim that his graffiti messages were political (“God is Gay,” “Abort Christ,” he listed as a few of his slogans), in fact, most of what he wrote was nonsensical. He enraged a neighbor with a boat by painting “Boat Ack” in red letters on the ship’s hull; on the other side he lettered, “Boat people go home.” One night he painted graffiti on the wall of the YMCA; in no small stroke of poetic justice, the next day he was assigned the job of cleaning it off.
On the night of July 23, 1985, Detective Michael Bens was patrolling Market Street—just a block from the Aberdeen Police Station—when he observed three men and a blond-haired boy in an alley. The men fled as Bens’s car approached, but the blond kid stood frozen, looking like a deer in the headlights, and Bens saw him drop a graffiti marker. On the wall behind him was the prophetic statement: “Ain’t got no how watchamacallit.” Typographically, it was a work of art, as the letters were in random upper and lower case, and every “T” was four times larger than the other characters.
Suddenly, the boy bolted and ran two blocks before the patrol car caught up with him. Once it did, he stopped and was handcuffed. He gave his name as “Kurt Donald Cobain,” and was a picture of politeness. At the station, he wrote and signed a statement, which read in full:
Tonight, while standing behind SeaFirst Bank in the alley by the library talking to three other people, I wrote on the SeaFirst building. I don’t know why I did it, but I did. What I put on the wall was, “Ain’t got no how watchamacallit.” Now I see how silly it was for me to have done this, and I’m sorry that I did. When the police car came into the alley I saw him, and I dropped the red marker that I had used.
He was fingerprinted, had mug shots taken, and was then released but required to show up in court for a hearing a few weeks later. He received a $180 fine, a suspended 30-day sentence, and was warned not to get into any more trouble.
For eighteen-year-old Kurt, that was easier said than done. One night when Jesse was at work, the usual “Cling-Ons” came over and everyone jammed with their guitars. One of the neighbors, a large man with a mustache, pounded on the wall and told them to be quiet. In Kurt’s later telling of this story, he said the neighbor mercilessly beat him for hours. It was one of the many tales Kurt told about his constant abuse at the hands of Aberdeen’s rednecks. “It wasn’t like that,” recalled Steve Shillinger. “The guy did come over, told him to be quiet, and when Kurt wised off, the fellow punched him a couple of times and told him to ‘shut the fuck up.’ ” Jesse wasn’t there that night, but in the entire time he knew Kurt he recalled only one fight: “He was usually too busy making people laugh. I was always around to protect him.” Jesse was short like Kurt, but he had lifted weights and was heavily built.
During the pink apartment period, Jesse probably would have killed for Kurt, a fact Kurt took full advantage of. One day, Kurt announced they were both getting Mohawks. They marched down to the Shillingers, hair clippers were produced, and Jesse soon had a Mohawk. When it came time for Kurt’s shave, he declared it was a dumb idea. “One time, Kurt said if he could write something on my forehead, I could write something on his,” remembered Jesse. “He took permanent ink and wrote ‘666’ on me, and then he took off running. I was always the nitwit who everyone used to experiment on. If there was a chemical or a drink, they’d always want me to try it first.” There was a dark side to Kurt’s torment of his best friend. Despite all his goofing off, Jesse had managed to graduate that spring. One night when Jesse was at work at Burger King, Kurt ripped the pictures out of Jesse’s yearbook, pasted them to the wall, and marked red crosses through them. It was more of a display of his own self-hatred than it was a reflection of his feelings for Jesse. Perhaps in a fit of shame over his rage, Kurt decided to kick Jesse out of the apartment. Never mind that Jesse had been the one who had put down the deposit. Soon Jesse was living with his grandmother, and Kurt was on his own. Jesse had plans to join the Navy anyway, and Kurt felt threatened by this. It was a pattern he would play out his entire life: Rather than lose someone he cared for, he would withdraw first, usually by creating some mock conflict as a way of lessening the abandonment he felt was inevitable.
Kurt continued to write songs while living in the pink apartment, and though most were still thinly disguised stories of the characters and events around him, many were humorous. That summer he wrote a song called “Spam,” about the meat product, and another called “The Class of 85,” which was an attack on Jesse and the graduating class he missed. It went: “We are all the same, just flies on a turd.” Though his songs were about an insular world, even at this stage Kurt was thinking big. “I’m going to make a record that’s going to be even bigger than U2 or R.E.M.,” he bragged to Steve Shillinger. Kurt loved both these bands, and he talked unceasingly of how great the Smithereens were, though these were influences he was careful not to mention around Buzz for fear of breaking the punk code that no popular music mattered. He read every fanzine or music magazine he could find, which in Aberdeen wasn’t many; he even wrote out lengthy imaginary interviews with himself for nonexistent publications. Kurt and Steve talked about starting their own fanzine, going so far as to draft up a sample issue; Steve bailed on the project when he realized that Kurt was writing positive reviews of records he had never listened to. Kurt also talked about starting his own record label, and one night he and Steve recorded a friend named Scotty Karate doing a spoken word monologue. Like so many of his ideas at the time, nothing ever came of it.
There wasn’t money for fanzine publishing or record labels, and even paying the rent was hard. Two months after Jesse’s departure, Kurt was evicted. His landlord came to the apartment when Kurt wasn’t home, boxed up the few belongings he had, including the stolen crosses and Big Wheels, and left them on the street.
For the third time in two years, Kurt was without a home. Once again, he considered the Navy. Trevor Briggs was signing up for the service, and he urged Kurt to take advantage of the Navy’s buddy system, where they could be placed at boot camp together. Unemployment had grown even higher in Grays Harbor, and options for an eighteen-year-old dropout were limited. Kurt went to the Navy recruiting office on State Street and spent three hours taking the ASVAB vocational aptitude test. He passed, and the Navy was willing to take him; later Kurt claimed he received the highest score ever registered on the test, but this could hardly be believed since the test included math. At the last minute, as he had before, Kurt balked when it came time to join.
Most nights Kurt would sleep in the backseat of Greg Hokanson’s mother’s beat-up Volvo sedan, jokingly called “the vulva.” By the time October rolled around, and the weather turned bad, nights were miserable in the car seat. Kurt soon found a new benefactor in the Shillinger family, who, after intense lobbying from Kurt, agreed to take him in.
Lamont Shillinger was an English teacher at Weatherwax, and like Dave Reed, he came from a religious background. Though he’d left the Mormon church years before, Lamont still attempted to be, as he described it, “a freelance decent human being.” There were other similarities to life at the Reeds’: The Shillingers ate dinner together, spent time as a family, and their sons were encouraged to play music. Kurt was accepted like family and put into the rotation of chores, which he did without complaint, grateful for being included. Room was a bit short in the Shillinger household—they had six kids of their own—so Kurt slept on a sofa in the living room, storing his sleeping bag behind it during the day. He spent Thanksgiving and Christmas morning of 1985 with the Shillingers. Lamont bought Kurt a much-needed new pair of Levi’s. Later on Christmas Day, Kurt visited Wendy’s house— she had just given birth to his half-sister Brianne. The new baby made the O’Connor home a happier place, though there was no talk of Kurt moving back in.
In December 1985, Kurt began to rehearse some of the songs he’d written with Dale Crover on bass and Greg Hokanson on drums. He called this grouping Fecal Matter, and it was his first real band. He convinced Crover to accompany him on a trip to Aunt Mari’s to tape some of the songs. “He arrived,” Mari remembered, “with a huge notebook full of lyrics. I showed him how to adjust a few things, how to record with the reel-to-reel, and he went right at it.” Kurt recorded his voice first, and then he and Crover would track the guitar, bass, and drum parts over the vocals. Mari was troubled by the lyrics to “Suicide Samurai,” but wrote it off as typical teenage behavior. The boys also cut “Bambi Slaughter” (the story of how a boy pawned his parents’ wedding rings), “Buffy’s Pregnant” (Buffy from the “Family Affair” television show), “Downer,” “Laminated Effect,” “Spank Thru,” and “Sound of Dentage.” When Kurt got back to Aberdeen, he used the Shillingers’ tape deck to dub off copies. Having the actual tape in his hand was tangible proof to him that he had talent—it was the first physical manifestation of the self-esteem he found through music. Nonetheless, Fecal Matter broke up without ever playing a single gig.
Despite his external circumstances, Kurt’s inner artistic life was growing by leaps and bounds. He continued making movies using the Super-8 camera. One short silent film from this period has Kurt walking through an abandoned building wearing a KISW “Seattle’s Best Rock” T-shirt and trying to look like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, with his wraparound sunglasses. In another he puts on a Mr. T mask and pretends to snort a huge quantity of what looks like cocaine, a special effect he created with flour and a vacuum cleaner. Without exception, these films were inventive and—as with everything Kurt created—disturbing. That spring he attempted to start a business decorating skate-boards with graffiti. He went so far as to put up flyers around town, but only one teenager ever hired him, asking for an exploding head. Kurt gladly drew this—it was his specialty—but the customer never paid and the business failed.
On May 18, 1986, Kurt again fell under the care and supervision of the Aberdeen Police Department. At 12:30 in the morning, police were called to an abandoned building at 618 West Market, and Officer John Green found Kurt climbing around on a roof, seemingly intoxicated. Green remembered Kurt being a “nice kid, if a little scared.” Kurt was charged with trespassing and being a minor in possession of alcohol by consumption. When the cops found that he had an outstanding warrant for malicious mischief (he had failed to pay the fine for the graffiti arrest), plus an earlier alcohol arrest from Seattle, and he couldn’t come up with bail, they put him in jail. The cell he stayed in was straight out of an old gangster movie: iron bars, concrete floor, no ventilation. On his statement, Kurt listed a “bad back” under “medical conditions,” and described himself as “19 years old, 135 pounds, five-foot nine inches, brown hair, and blue eyes.” He exaggerated in describing both his height and weight.
Kurt used his one phone call to dial Lamont Shillinger and beg him to bail him out. Lamont decided his parenting of Kurt Cobain had gone far enough, and that Kurt would have to get out of this jam by himself. Lamont did visit the next day, and even though it was against Lamont’s religion, he brought Kurt a carton of cigarettes. Unable to raise bail, Kurt stayed eight days.
Several years later Kurt used this experience to create folklore that accentuated his wit and adaptability. He alleged that during his jail time he drew pornography for the other prisoners to masturbate to. His home-drawn porn was in such demand, as he told it, he traded for cigarettes, and soon he had collected all the cigarettes in the jail. At this point he became, the story went, “the man” who “ran the jail.” He only dared tell this fictional tale to people who didn’t know him—his Aberdeen friends remember him being so scared from all the images of prison films he’d seen over the years that he didn’t say a single word to another inmate during his entire stay.
Life at the Shillingers was soon to end for Kurt. He’d been there a year and, at nineteen—well past the age of emancipation—he was neither their blood relative nor official foster child. He’d also begun to quarrel with Eric Shillinger, who thought Kurt had overstayed his welcome. One weekend the Shillinger family went on vacation without Kurt and upon their return discovered he had coerced their two dogs to defecate on Eric’s bed. But even this slight wasn’t the final straw; it came one night in August 1986, when Eric and Kurt got in a fight over a Totino’s mini pizza. By all reports it was the most serious fight Kurt was ever in and Kurt tried to hit Eric with a two-by-four. “I saw Eric the next day,” remembered Kevin Shillinger, “and he had a black eye. I saw Kurt, and he had two black eyes.” Kurt left that night, nursing a swollen face, and retreated to the Melvins’ band room. The next day he paid Steve $10 to haul all his remaining stuff down to Crover’s. His life had been reduced to an all-too-familiar pattern of intimacy, conflict, and banishment, followed by isolation.
One of the only bright spots came when Krist Novoselic seemed interested in forming a band. Krist was one of the first people upon whom Kurt had bestowed his Fecal Matter tape. “He had this little demo tape and it had ‘Spank Thru’ on it,” Krist recalled. “I thought it was a really good song.” Shelli Dilly, Krist’s girlfriend, had been friends with Kurt since high school, and they began to let him crash behind their house, sleeping in Krist’s Volkswagen van. “I always made sure he had enough blankets so he didn’t freeze to death,” said Shelli. She also gave him free food whenever he came into the McDonald’s where she worked.
In early September 1986, Hilary Richrod, a librarian at the Aberdeen Timberland Library, heard a knock on the door of her home late one afternoon. She looked through the keyhole and saw a tall boy with red eyes and Kurt, who she recognized: He would frequently spend his afternoons in the library reading or sleeping. Seeing these two motley characters on her doorstep—in a town where burglary and robbery were a part of life—she felt a twinge of alarm as she opened the door. Her alarm was increased when Kurt reached under his coat. But what he pulled out was a tiny pigeon with a broken wing. “It’s hurt and can’t fly,” Kurt said. Richrod was momentarily taken aback. “You’re the bird lady, aren’t you?” Kurt inquired, sounding almost annoyed. She was indeed the bird lady, running the Aberdeen wild bird rescue organization, but usually people telephoned her when a bird was injured. No one had ever just shown up on her door before, certainly not two stoned-looking teenagers.
Kurt told her he’d found the pigeon under the Young Street Bridge, and they had walked the fifteen minutes to her house as soon as they saw it. How they knew she was the bird lady was never explained. But they watched intently as she began to care for the animal. Walking through the house, they spotted a guitar that belonged to Richrod’s husband, and Kurt immediately sized it up: “It’s an old Les Paul. It’s a copy, but a very early copy.” He offered to buy it, but Richrod said it wasn’t for sale. She momentarily wondered if they might steal it.
Yet their only concern was the care and comfort of the tiny pigeon. Back in the kitchen, the two men observed while Richrod slowly moved the bird’s wing to try to determine how badly it was broken. “He’s hurt, isn’t he?” Kurt asked. Richrod had two nighthawks in her kitchen, two of the only birds of this species in captivity, and she told them the birds had even been featured in a story on the front page of the Aberdeen Daily World.
“I’m in a band,” Kurt replied, announcing this fact as if it should have been common knowledge. “But even I’ll never get on the front page of the Daily World. Those birds have me beat by a mile.”