The Kurt Cobain Memorial

Four days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, thousands gathered in his home city to attend the event that became his public funeral, falling somewhere between touching mass tribute and warped media circus. Dave Thompson talks to some of the mourners.

Jo-Ann Greene (Journalist): As soon as the news of Kurt’s death began circulating, people just went into shock. No-one knew what to do, where to go, but the city needed to grieve. The local radio stations picked up on that, what with all the people calling in absolutely unable to believe what they’d heard, and by the end of the day, three – KISW, KXRX and KNDD – who’d been playing Nirvana virtually non-stop all day, got together with the Mayor’s office to put on a Memorial vigil at the Center.

Wade Alin (Musician): Kurt touched a lot of people in many different ways. The Memorial Service was a way for them to share their grief, but it was also clever in that they timed it to coincide with the family’s own private service, which made sure theirs wouldn’t be disrupted by strangers, fans, whoever.

Jo-Ann Greene: The vigil wasn’t starting until five, but people began arriving much earlier, trying to get as close to what would be the stage area as they could without being moved along by the security guys, or just standing around in little knots. Even early in the day, everybody was very quiet. A lot of people were crying, there were a lot carrying photographs and records, and one or two were playing Nirvana on their ghetto blasters. By four, there must have been a couple of thousand people already there, and more arriving, and you’ve never heard such a quiet crowd.

Amy Hanson (Artist): I don’t think most people knew what to expect when they got there, they just knew it was for Kurt, and when they saw the stage, the PA, the news cameras, the outside broadcast units, all the media people just lined up, there was a sense of outrage. This was for the fans and for Kurt, and the cameras and all that just didn’t belong there.

Jo-Ann Greene: It was your usual sick, over-the-top media circus. There were people with tape recorders moving through the crowd; I saw one group of kids actually form a circle around one of their friends, who was on the ground crying, just to stop a camera crew from sticking their lens in her face and grilling her. These were just kids come to pay their respects and be with one another. And the national media…they couldn’t get into the family’s service, so they came down to badger the fans.

“Bat Ears” (Fan): One journalist asked me what I was feeling. I said, “Thirsty. Give me a soda.” He said he didn’t have any. I said, “Fuck off.”

Wade Alin: There was a candlelight vigil in Aberdeen the evening before, which I drove down to, and I was expecting the same kind of thing in Seattle: a lot of fans, but very quiet, very respectful, and nobody grandstanding. But at the Center there’s a stage and PA, and that immediately started rumours that bands would be playing – I remember hearing that Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were going to appear. There was a rumour that Courtney Love would be there, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl. A lot of people were there because of Kurt, but others just went with their autograph books.

Mark Ball (Head of Procession Records): I was there with the guys from (local band) Running With Scissors, but there was no intention to play, even if they’d been asked to. It wasn’t about music. What was interesting was that a lot of musicians, a lot of Kurt’s friends and contemporaries, actually left town immediately after they heard what had happened, which was very good, because it stopped fans from turning the Memorial into a star-spotting exercise.

Jo-Ann Greene: When the first people came on stage to talk – the local disc jockeys – and they played taped messages from Novoselic and Courtney, there was a bit of unrest because it was an intrusion. One of Kurt’s uncles told some really long-winded story, and because of the typical Seattle sound system turning everything into mud, you couldn’t make out half of what he said. It was about going fishing or something, and people were scratching their heads, saying, “What’s he on about?”

I think people would have preferred to be alone with their thoughts or talking with people around them. The messages were well-meant, but they were totally unnecessary, really. And then the tape of Courtney started…

Wade Alin: The first a lot of people knew about Courtney reading the note was when they heard it on the news later. The sound system was atrocious. There was a succession of people across the stage and they all said something, but you could only hear odd words – the wind and the echo swallowed everything else. And when the tape of Courtney came on, all you could hear, for some reason, was her swearing, all the bits they bleeped on the television. It didn’t sound like a grieving widow; it sounded like a bar fight.

Amy Hanson: You knew something was going on because people were cheering some of what she said, and there was the “asshole” chant; Courtney called Kurt an asshole and had everybody repeat it. A lot of people were booing her because of that. I missed it on television later, but apparently it was like listening to the Emergency Broadcast system, they had to keep the beeper on so long.

Gaku Torii (Fan): I heard afterwards that a lot of people were complaining because they couldn’t hear anything, but I don’t think that went for everyone. It was so silent while Courtney’s tape was playing, you could hear people crying around you. It was one of those moments – even when I think about it now I get goose bumps. I started crying when Krist (Novoselic) was talking about punk rock, how all you need is a guitar and a soul and you’re already a superstar. Because that’s what Kurt was, and it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d never made a record in his life, because he had those two things.

Wade Alin: They started playing music after the speeches, and all of a sudden people started climbing down into – there’s this huge fountain, the International Fountain, in the middle of the area where they were staging this, and people started climbing down there, moshing to the music, chanting Kurt’s name, taking their shirts off. The next day, the local paper said they were setting light to them and throwing inflated condoms around, but I didn’t see any of that. It was pretty out of control for a few minutes, though.

Amy Hanson: The security guards were on to them really quickly – it was strange, this really peaceful, really melancholy event suddenly blowing up like that. There was no sense of mischief or violence, it was people letting go of an awful lot of emotion, getting into the music which was still blasting out, and the security waded in. They over-reacted, I think, because I heard there was only one arrest. I think people, as soon as they realised what they’d got caught up in, which was this sudden outpouring of emotion, rather sheepishly blended back into the crowd.

Steve Walken: These people had just listened to the last words Kurt Cobain wrote, feeling so guilty for faking it in front of his fans, and what did they do? They started behaving in exactly the kind of fashion which had bothered him, not listening to what was being said, to what Kurt was saying to them, but just lurching with the crowd, drunken frat boys out to party…there was a girl there with a placard which said “Kurt died for your sins”, which was utter crap. Kurt Cobain died because he couldn’t deal with people like her. That wasn’t a memorial, it was an afternoon of self-flagellation.

Mark Ball: The whole thing was about turning his death and the tribute into a giant party, at which they were able to both mourn his death and celebrate his accomplishments in a positive manner.

Gaku Torii: Courtney arrived just as the crowd was breaking up, walked through the people and went and sat with some of the kids who were still there. She brought some of her own mementoes, and just sat very quietly with them talking. It was a wonderful gesture, I thought, because after everything that had been said about her and Kurt, it was like the media almost wanted Kurt’s fans to blame her for what happened to him, like Yoko breaking up The Beatles. But there was a genuine sympathy for her and a lot of love, and it went both ways. It doesn’t matter how she’s behaved since then, that a couple of months later she was out stalking Trent Reznor. When she turned up at the vigil, she proved how much she loved Kurt, and we loved her for doing that.

Wade Alin: She looked like a fucking black widow spider. The grieving widow? Give us a fucking break!

Jo-Ann Greene: Weird, isn’t it? Kurt allegedly committed suicide to escape fame and fans, then his wake turned out to be one of his biggest gigs ever.”

© Dave ThompsonQ, April 1996

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