I went on a Kurt Cobain pilgrimage around Washington – it wasn’t what I expected

Underneath the bridge that spans the muddy banks of the Wishkah River, in the diminutive logging town of Aberdeen in Washington state, you’ll find sacred ground for Nirvana fans.

A third of Kurt Cobain’s ashes were scattered on this dank spot, beneath the Young Street Bridge, where Kurt would find refuge as a troubled youth. As the poorly scrawled graffiti on its cement pillars attest, this is the location that inspired Nevermind’s intense, intimate closing track – a dirge played on a slightly out-of-tune, five-stringed acoustic guitar – “Something in the Way”.

The bridge Kurt Cobain visited Credit: James Draven
Aberdeen City Council is planning on pulling down Young Street Bridge by September 2026 (Photo: James Draven)

Throughout my teens, Kurt murmured those words through my stereo speakers, and like so many other disaffected youths, I felt a connection to a troubled young man I would never meet.

It’s been 30 years since dark star, Kurt Cobain, imploded. The reluctant rock legend and guitar antihero is inextricably linked with Seattle. However, despite the city being ground zero of the grunge quake that rocked the global music scene, Kurt only lived there for around 18 months.

As Everett True, a music journalist and friend of Kurt, says: “Everyone gets that wrong. They were never a Seattle band. Nirvana was from Olympia.”

kurt cobain nirvana anniversary death washington state
Aberdeen in Washington state was one of Cobain’s childhood homes (Photo: Aaron McCoy/Getty)

The story of Nirvana actually stretches from Washington state’s logging communities of Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Montesano, where Kurt grew up and was passed between guardians, to – as True says – the state capital of Olympia, where Kurt found his voice. I’ve come to the Pacific North-west to get closer to his story.

In a way, it’s lucky Kurt was cremated, because his hometown tributes would likely have him spinning in his grave. On a patch of grass beside the Young Street Bridge, a large metal A-frame is cemented into the ground. It looks like a repurposed handle from a vintage sack barrow, but the plaque beneath it reveals that it represents an empty, oversized guitar stand. “Kurt’s Air Guitar,” the sign reads.

The Kurt Cobain Memorial Park also features the following: a granite slab emblazoned with a selection of Kurt’s least edifying quotes (“Drugs are bad for you”, for example); a sculpture of the Jag-Stang guitar that Cobain designed with Fender and a plaque in Comic Sans font; and a sign featuring a pencil-drawn image of Kurt that bears a passing resemblance to Axl Rose. It feels like a tone-deaf tribute, disconnected from its subject.

Sign next to KC Memorial Park Credit: James Draven
A sign next to KC Memorial Park (Photo: James Draven)

Kurt’s best-known childhood home was two blocks down the road from here, at 1210 East First Street. There’s nothing outside to signify that this modest, yellow Craftsman-style cottage was once Cobain’s home, where he mostly lived with his mother and sister between 1968 and 1984.

It languished on the property market for years in the 2010s, with a starting price of $500,000. This allowed countless Nirvana fans to visit the property as ersatz potential buyers, before it was finally sold for $225,000 in 2018. It has since been listed as a historic landmark and the owners hope to open it to the public.

Kurt Cobain's home in Aberdeen Credit: James Draven
Kurt Cobain’s childhood home in Aberdeen
(Photo: James Draven)

Inside, the house is a 1970s time capsule. You can see the battered, wood-shingled attic room in which Kurt played his Univox High Flyer, while his graffiti remains scrawled on the walls. His hand-drawn Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin logos, and a beer brand mascot, remind me that Cobain wasn’t the visionary musician he would one day become when he lived here. He was just an unhappy kid emulating his punk, rock and metal heroes.

I make brief stops outside Kurt’s tiny first house in Hoqiuam, where he lived until the age of two, and then at the house in Montesano where he stayed for a while with his father after his parents divorced. Under pregnant grey clouds, the buildings stand only as sombre reminders of his tumultuous upbringing in an area Kurt described as “Twin Peaks without the excitement.”

There’s a dissonance between this environment and the sardonic, sensitive songwriter the world would come to know.

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during MTV Live and Loud: Nirvana Performs Live - December 1993 at Pier 28 in Seattle, Washington, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
Cobain found his sound in Washington state (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic Inc/Getty)

It was in Olympia that Kurt flourished. At 114 Pear Street, he lived with his girlfriend Tracy Marander. She famously shouldered responsibility for paying the bills while Kurt concentrated on his music. “About a Girl”, from Nirvana’s debut album, is about Tracy.

Kurt later dated Tobi Vail, a central figure in the Riot Grrrl scene and drummer for Bikini Kill. It was her bandmate and lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, who unwittingly titled Nirvana’s breakthrough hit when she inked “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on Kurt’s bedroom wall in this building. Cobain took it as a statement of rebellion, not realising Teen Spirit was the name of a deodorant marketed to adolescent girls. Kurt wrote the majority of Nevermind in this apartment, and it’s where he and Dave Grohl lived together when the latter joined the band.

Kurt Cobain's home in Olympia Credit: James Draven
Kurt Cobain’s home in Olympia can be rented through Airbnb (Photo: James Draven)

These days, 114 Pear Street is a cosy Airbnb. The graffiti may be long gone, but the fixtures look likely to have predated Kurt’s time living here. Nirvana biographies on countertops, Nirvana posters on the walls, and pictures of Kurt – including a cute photograph of Kurt in the backyard with a kitten on his shoulder – serve to remind its short-term tenants why they’ve chosen to stay in a dated studio apartment.

As I jump back in my car to head to Seattle, the city where the unwilling voice of a generation died, the radio flicks on to a national grunge station, named after a Nirvana song, “Lithium”. Driving around the familiar landmarks of Cobain’s life has failed to connect me with him. There have been no physical roadblocks, but there is something in the way. I didn’t find Kurt in any of these places; I found him on my stereo.

Travel essentials

Getting there
Several airlines offer direct flights from London to Seattle. The flight time is around 9.5 hours. Aberdeen is around one hour, 40 minutes’ drive from Seattle–Tacoma airport.

Staying there
James stayed on the Sub Pop floor of Hotel Max in Seattle. Mini rooms are available from $119 (£94) a night, hotelmaxseattle.com
114 Pear Street is next available in June. A two-night stay, including fees, is £438, airbnb.co.uk/rooms/12012498

Further information
stateofwatourism.com