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Long live the '90s

Oh, the '90s... Is it even possible to feel nostalgic about a decade that has never really gone away? People of every generation are still watching Friends and wearing Nirvana t-shirts. On April 5, it will be 30 years since Kurt Cobain died, and yet somehow the '90s feel more present now than the '60s or even the '70s ever did in the '90s. In part it's because we have the internet now, and all the music that's ever been recorded is available for free, for less effort than it takes to check a fact. That, and because people like me, who lived through the best decade ever, just won't let it die. Shout out to Rob Harvilla, who recently published the wildly entertaining book, 60 Songs That Explain the '90s, based on his podcast of the same name, which just wrapped up after 120 episodes.

The first time I remember feeling nostalgia for the 90s was watching the documentary About a Son, a hauntingly grunge-free series of intimate, informal conversations with Kurt Cobain, collected over almost ten years and paired with a stark, atmospheric photo montage. Images of the Pacific Northwest form a parallel narrative, keeping pace with the interviews that carry us from Kurt's childhood to within a few months of his death. I spent much of my own childhood in Seattle and, after five years on the east coast, most of my early 20s, so my personal feelings of nostalgia were triggered by the imagery as much as anything else.

The opening scenes unfold at an almost torturous crawl, meandering through the damp, depressing town of Aberdeen, drifting aimlessly down gravel roads, through lumber yards and diners. The shifting images pick up speed as we descend down I-5 into Seattle's northern outskirts and the featureless expanses of highway that were then also the Green River Killer's hunting grounds. Finally we reach the streets of Pioneer Square, rolling past laughably inauspicious entrances to infamous holes in the wall where this particular chapter of music history was largely written.

Nirvana's Nevermind was released in September 1991, the month I started college. Psychologically speaking, I was primed to imprint on it for life, like a baby duck that thinks you're its mother. I had just arrived in Baltimore for my first year at Maryland Institute, College of Art and student housing was an iconic three-story row house like the ones made famous on The Wire, which was filmed about 20 blocks away. My neighborhood was slightly more gentrified, but we were strongly cautioned not to walk alone at night, and the father of one of my roommates gave us all cans of pepper spray as housewarming gifts.

I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. I was in my tiny, cramped bedroom surrounded by a mountain of half-unpacked boxes, sweating profusely in the 90-degree late summer heat. I literally "stopped in my tracks," turned and stared at the radio as if I were in a commercial. I only caught the second half but that was enough to know I loved it.

When the song abruptly came to an end, I listened for the band's name and almost caught two indecipherable syllables before the opening chords of the next song (probably Joyride by Roxette) filled the room. I momentarily despaired of ever finding out who played my new favorite song. But of course, we all know I needn't have worried; soon everyone in the world knew who they were.

As soon as I learned that the band's name was Nirvana and they were from Seattle (okay, the Seattle area but that's how they said it back then), I called my best friend who still lived there and, like an idiot, asked if he knew them. As it turned out, he kind of did — or at any rate, he'd seen them around at local bars and house parties. They were several years older than us but he knew people who had gone to school with at least one member of the band.

And here I was living in Baltimore, surrounded by art students from Philadelphia and New Jersey, one of only two of that year's freshmen who hailed from the West Coast. The other was my roommate who was from Eugene, Oregon. When we went to the art supply store on campus together, the manager would shout "California" and flash the "hang ten" sign at us, as if we were all in the same gang. It would take another year and a half before I acted on the impulse, but it's possible that, somewhere in the back of my mind where Nevermind was now playing on perpetual repeat, I was already starting to formulate a plan to return to Seattle.

It was about six months into the meteoric rise of Nevermind when Tori Amos covered Smells Like Teen Spirit. At first everyone was like: who is this chick? The next thought: oh my god, that's what they're saying! It was tempting to think it was a bit of a sacrilege but her voice was just too perfect; sweet and high and powerful, lingering with obvious reverence, piercing through the feedback and rage of the original to infuse Kurt's emotion-laden lyrics with unearthly beauty.

In the summer of 1993, I moved back to Seattle. My partner at the time drove the entire way since I didn't (and still don't) have a license, and we made it in just under seven days. I was so excited to return after five years on the east coast, watching the northern highways of the nation whip by outside the window of our rented minivan.

After the wide, dry, desolate glacier-scraped expanse of Eastern Washington, there's a moment when you know you've almost made it. All that remains is a steep, winding, harrowing careen down the west side of the Cascade Mountains into the damp, railroad-carved forest canyons, watercolored in every shade of green. Haphazard buildings cling to the mountains surrounding the highway like clumps of peat-moss, remnants of half-abandoned towns in steady decline after the gold rushes of a forgotten century. It felt like coming home.

Unfortunately, my first year back in Seattle was relentlessly depressing. My ex was working 9-to-5 in commission-sales purgatory, waiting interminably for the dream job to finally pay off. Meanwhile I was working the 4pm to midnight shift at the Space Needle gift shop, selling kitschy Mount St. Helens souvenirs to tourists. It was so slow after the dinner rush it felt like solitary confinement, and we barely saw each other. Even though we were both working full time, he had no income and I was making minimum wage, so we could barely afford groceries, much less partake of the city's world famous music scene.

In January 1994, I had traded someone for an afternoon shift when one of my friends, a chef at the revolving restaurant, came bounding over to me, breathlessly announcing that Nirvana was playing that night at the Seattle Center Arena. He wiped sweat from his forehead and stared at me expectantly. "We've got to go!" But it must be sold out, I demurred...

"It doesn't matter," he interrupted with a grin, brimming with a confidence I can only describe as Sagittarian. "We'll find tickets. There are always tickets." But, I said, interrupting his bubbling stream of consciousness — hating that my excuses had become so predictable, so easy and automatic that he'd already begun mocking what I would say — I can't afford it. "Don't say that," he pleaded. "You've never seen Nirvana live and you don't know when you'll have another chance." I tilted my head as if to say, Oh sure, they're only from here... but his face was dead-serious. "Come on. You don't want to miss this."

Looking back on this scene from my privileged vantage point, in a then-unimaginably faraway future, it pains me beyond measure to describe what happened next. I stared at my friend, still sweating from his day behind the line in the busy restaurant's kitchen, hunching down over the cash register to meet my eyes. I imagined standing outside in the cold January night, watching him haggle with ticket scalpers. I thought about what it would cost and how he would tell me not to worry about it, as he often did when he appeared at our door with a bottle of vodka or all the ingredients to cook us a meal. I thought about my partner, who was just getting home from the job where he still hadn't received a single commission and was now embroiled in a dispute with his employer that would eventually force him out, empty-handed and embittered.

"I can't." I might have even added something about "next time," but that could just be my memory fucking with me, embellishing the moment from one of simple, profound regret into one of epic, electrically-charged regret, laden with heavy-handed foreshadowing. My friend reluctantly left me to my customers and their overpriced souvenirs. When I mentioned it to my partner later that night, of course he said, "Oh, you should go with your friend." But there was something about the way he said your friend that reinforced my unspoken reasons for saying no.

Three months later, to the day, I was getting ready for work and I turned on the radio in the living room. They were playing a track from Nirvana's Unplugged album, recorded the previous September. I turned it up and sang along. Instead of fading out or cutting to commercial, it went right into the next song and I wondered if the DJ was on a bathroom break.

When the next song was a track off of Nevermind, I felt a premonitory chill down my back. It had only been a month since Kurt Cobain's near-overdose in Rome, which sent fans around the world into a 24-hour deathwatch. We had all held our collective breath for word that he had come out of the coma induced by a mix of alcohol and Rohypnol. We would later learn that he had written a suicide note before ingesting a mind-boggling 50 individually blister-packaged pills and washed them down with champagne.

After the fourth Nirvana song in a row, the DJ came on and reported the partial story that would be repeated countless times with ever-increasing detail and certainty throughout the day. Rumors had been circulating all morning after a local radio station received a phone call from an electrician with a story about his colleague who had arrived to do some work at Cobain's house and found "a body" on the property. The station had contacted the police but at that point they still hadn't officially confirmed the report. The story was soon picked up by other radio stations and local news outlets. It seemed like they were all just playing one Nirvana song after another; even the pop stations would play In Bloom or something, repeating the story every hour between Top 40 sets.

Late that afternoon, the official announcement was finally made by Kurt Loder in an MTV Special Report. The radio stations in Seattle would continue their memorial marathon for months, long after the story had faded from the national news.

Two days after Kurt Cobain's body was found, there was a memorial service at the Seattle Center Flag Pavilion. Even if I had wanted to avoid it, it would have been impossible since it was right in the middle of my walk to work — but of course, I didn't want to avoid it. What I did manage to do, however, was arrive just in time to miss what the other 6,000+ attendees had ostensibly come to hear; a taped message from the grieving Courtney Love, in which she read parts of his suicide note to his stricken fans ("considering that it's addressed to most of you"). I heard bits and pieces of the recording later and realized that I probably had very good reasons for subconsciously delaying my arrival. I could easily imagine feeling haunted by her overwhelming grief and living with the echo of her words in my head, if I had been there to hear them firsthand.

By the time I got there, they had already taken down the PA system which had amplified her breaking voice over thousands of bowed heads. The memorial had dispersed and people were milling around in small groups, holding hands or lighting candles, a sea of tear-streaked faces obscured by unkempt hair in every color of the rainbow. I drifted around the edges of the crowd, through the gates of the normally festive Flag Pavilion towards the fountain where I had fond memories of frolicking as a little girl. Evidently those memories were not unique. I stood at a distance and watched as the central dome housing the fountain's impressive array of nozzles disappeared under the well-worn Converse All-Stars of a legion of fans.

Photo credit: @nirvanatribute, X

The crowd was emotionally exhausted, having absorbed and reflected back the uncensored anguish of Courtney's words, awash in their own feelings of loss, confusion and anger, drawn to a powerful symbol of the joyful innocence of childhood. They abandoned themselves to the rapture of the fountain in an unmistakably Piscean ritual of cleansing and release, dancing and laughing as soaring arcs of water drenched them and the wind carried clouds of glittering, rainbow-studded mist across the pavilion.

My face damp, I wandered around a bit more, making occasional eye contact but mostly just observing. I probably didn't look like someone who was there to mourn anyway, dressed as I was for work, in my black uniform pants and polyester blouse. The background roar from the fountain's powerful jets suddenly dropped into a lower register, causing an uncoordinated bellow of disapproval to erupt from the revelling mourners (or were they mourning revellers?). The plumes of water geared-down to about half their previous height and, despite the protesting cries of the sodden crowd, they continued to shift ever lower.

Soon, only a dozen or so people remained standing at the center of the fountain, looking perplexed amid the spiky array of nozzles, some as high as their knees. A few jets of water sputtered and bubbled around their ankles. They looked like mannequins in a grunge fashion display. Like someone had lit a cigarette and set off the sprinkler system, triggering a deluge. One guy sat down cross-legged and started trying to set his shoelaces on fire with a wet lighter. I slowly made my way back towards the Space Needle to start my shift.

You know, the problem with the Internet — and maybe with the world, generally, as it is today — is that you can find almost any event you experienced in real life online somewhere, immortalized in other people's photos, easily accessible by image search. You'll be looking for some event from your past — Kurt Cobain's Memorial on April 10, 1994, for example — and maybe it looks the way you remember it, maybe not. But after a while you realize you're not looking for something you saw back then. You're looking for YOU. You know you were there and maybe you don't remember seeing any cameras but who's to say there couldn't be some random photo out there of you? That you couldn't actually stumble across yourself somewhere on Memory Lane. Proving what, exactly? That it really happened? That you're woven into the fabric of history? That your stalker knows how to use Photoshop? One day, facial recognition AI will make easy work of this particular form of naval gazing, but we're not there quite yet.

Anyway, if there was a life lesson encoded in this story, it would probably be more about how I wasn't really there, even when I was.

The day after the memorial, both of the city papers carried the story on the front page. I saw them as I was walking down Queen Anne Hill to work; the Seattle Times had a photo of a bunch of kids in shredded jeans and flannel shirts splashing around in the fountain. Beside it was the inconsonant headline: "Fountain of teen spirit for Kurt Cobain."

It couldn't have been worse if they had run the words that were not quite yet, but soon would be, on everyone's lips: Grunge is Dead.

But that was 30 years ago. Again, I needn't have worried. As we all know now, grunge will never die. RIP Kurt. Long live the '90s.

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Sionainne L. O'Neill
Sionainne L. O'Neill
Apr 02 write, you express so well!

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