Northwest Nuggets Series: Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Seattle, Washington, is well known as the birthplace of both Starbucks and Jimi Hendrix, the home of airline manufacturing giant Boeing, and the mecca of international hipsterdom (spell check says this not a word…but it lies).

Seattle is also the resting place of Bruce Lee, the residence of The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, and the home of beloved Pike Place Market (a little-known feature of which is a large outdoor wall covered in brightly-colored wads of chewing gum, known simply as, well, the gum wall).

Lesser known, perhaps, is the fact that Seattle is also the birthplace of Frances Farmer, a woman whose talent and beauty were overshadowed only by tragedy. Famed critic Roger Ebert once declared that she might have been one of the all-time great actresses, if only she hadn’t been so unlucky.

Farmer was born on September 19, 1913, in Seattle, Washington. From an early age she proved to be a stubborn, free-thinking spirit who many people found troubling to deal with. She won a writing award at West Seattle High School for an essay titled “God Dies,” a rather controversial title and subject for a teenager to take on in 1931 America.

She also worked her way through school at the University of Washington, despite being the daughter of a prominent lawyer. In 1935 she won a contest with the leftist newspaper The Voice of Action. The prize was a trip to the Soviet Union, which she accepted in order to attend the Moscow Art Theatre. Again, this was a controversial move in that time and many people branded her communist.

After returning from her Soviet Union trip, this young woman, bursting with confidence, stopped in New York to audition as an actress, and was signed on the spot with Paramount. From there, the stage was set for a fairytale story of success. However, things never quite worked out that way.

Frances Farmer was an achingly beautiful woman with enormous talent. She was also extremely intelligent, individualistic, and hot tempered. She resisted the studio’s attempts to control her and refused to use her personal life as a promotional tool.

She regularly dressed down in frumpy clothes and no makeup, and steered away from Hollywood parties. If she’d been in a different time, or maybe of a different sex in her time, then she could very well have become an outlaw, a countercultural icon.

Unfortunately, she was not born in a different time, or a different sex. Her willful, brash, and erratic behavior was not becoming of a lady in the ’30s and ’40s, and certainly not of a movie star. So, rather than being lauded for her courage, passion, and integrity, she was increasingly branded crazy.

In January 1943 she was arrested for the first time for failing to pay a fine for a driving violation. Simultaneously, charges were leveled that she dislocated a hairdresser’s jaw while working on a movie set.

In court, she accused the police of violating her civil rights and demanded an attorney. She also threw an inkwell at the judge, which probably accounts for her sentencing to 180 days in jail.

Considering that Farmer was asking for her Constitutionally-guaranteed right to an attorney and was not getting it, one must ask the question if the throwing of an inkwell is really so difficult to understand. Regardless, the incident landed her in the Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta, California, where she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and given insulin shock therapy.

From that point on, Farmer’s life was spent getting into and out of various forms of trouble with the psychiatric industry, the law, and the movie studios. She was also said to be an alcoholic. But, considering the trouble she suffered through her years, one has to wonder if the alcoholism was the cause of any of her problems, or the result.

In the end, Frances Farmer died of esophageal cancer, leaving behind a legacy of unrealized talent and tragedy, which was immortalized by Jessica Lange’s incredible performance in the 1982 film Frances.

Cobain’s lyrics in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” are characteristically ambiguous and enigmatic, but not so much that the song’s meaning is hard to discern. Having been one who also struggled with fame and societal norms, he seems to be saying that he simply wants to be left alone to be who he is and feel what he feels, regardless of how others think about it.

The connection with Frances Farmer is pretty easy to see. They were both passionate, talented, sensitive souls who had ways of seeing life that were very different from the mass of society.

“France Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” was included on 1993’s In Utero, Nirvana’s third and final studio album, released less than a year before Cobain’s suicide. Cobain wanted to title the album I Hate Myself and I Want to Die as a joke, but was talked out of it due to fears that it could lead to lawsuits.

The album reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, UK albums chart, and the Swedish Sverigetopplistan. It climbed near the top of the charts in several other nations, as well.

In the year that was 1993, angst was in style. It was cool to be cynical and to resist the corporatization of the world. Dressing in ragged clothes and railing against authority wasn’t just allowed for celebrities, it was expected.

Looking at it now, maybe Frances Farmer was just born in the wrong time. Maybe she would have done much better in 1990s Seattle.

 

 

This post is part of my Northwest Nuggets series. It originally appeared in Songplaces.com

Northwest Nuggets Series: Something in the Way in Aberdeen, Washington

Aberdeen, Washington, once went by such auspicious titles as The Hellhole of the Pacific and The Port of Missing Men. Founded in 1884, the city was known in its early years as a place of whorehouses, dice, whiskey, and murder.

A notable resident was Billy “Ghoul” Gohl, who may have killed as many as 140 people between 1902 and 1910. This cheery fellow was only officially found guilty of two 1909 homicides, and eventually died in 1927 in Walla Walla State Penitentiary of health problems, including syphilis.

Clearly, those early Aberdeen days marked the city for great things.

By the time Kurt Cobain was born in Gray’s Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen on February 20, 1967, the city’s moniker had been changed to The Gateway to the Olympic Peninsula. Though cast in the near-perpetual shadow and fog of that part of Washington State, it had evolved into a small town not wholly unlike any other small town in America.

The way that Cobain has spoken of it, however, Aberdeen is a much more hopeless place.

Describing Aberdeen as “Twin Peaks without the excitement” (referring to the TV show), Cobain spoke of the town almost entirely as a source of neglect, fear, and sadness. The contentious relationship between Cobain and his hometown was hardly a one-sided one.

The city itself abstained from recognizing their former pop-rock-revolutionary-superstar-grunge-counterculture icon for years. They acquiesced and made an official gesture of acknowledgment towards Cobain only in 2005, 11 years after his death, when an article by three local teens in the Aberdeen Daily World prompted the posting of a sign outside the city reading “Come As You Are,” in reference to the Nirvana song by the same name. In early 2014, the city also announced that February 20 would be declared the official Kurt Cobain Day; they also built a park named Kurt Cobain’s Landing.

It would be interesting to hear Cobain’s thoughts on having Aberdeen declare a day in his honor. Nirvana’s first rehearsals were held in the city, but the band never actually played there, and Cobain wanted to get out as quickly as possible. Most of his statements about the place – those that have been recorded and related to the public, anyway – did not indicate happy times.

Cobain’s earliest years seemed relatively normal, but he started becoming increasingly depressed and alienated after his parents divorced when he was seven years old. By the time he reached high school, he was so fed up with the people around him that he would pretend he was gay in hopes that he’d be left alone.

He dropped out of school in his sophomore year, after he discovered that he didn’t have enough credits to graduate. His mother told him to find a job or leave, so he left. This was when he started wandering around Aberdeen, sleeping on friend’s couches and in hospital waiting rooms, and sometimes hanging out under a bridge over the Wishkah River.

There is debate over whether or not Cobain really lived under the bridge. Cobain claimed he had, but Nirvana bassist Kurt Novoselic and biographer Charles Cross have each stated that doing so would have been impossible. The fluctuating levels of the Wishkah likely would have swept him away, and the muddy banks made the spot uninhabitable.

Regardless of its myth or exact fact, Cobain’s time under the bridge became a part not only of his personal mythology, but of the emotional mythology his fans have built around him. Also part of fandom’s mythology is that “Something in the Way” deals, at least partly, with the time that Cobain spent under that Aberdeen bridge.

The lyrics to the song are so ambiguous and surreal that any precise factual meaning is probably impossible to prove, and it’s very likely that one was never intended, anyway. That’s very rarely how creativity works. Still, in plumbing the depths of Cobain’s myth, the story connecting the Aberdeen bridge with the bridge in “Something in the Way” has taken on its own life. Its emotional reality has eclipsed any concerns of historical veracity.

Cobain wrote “Something in the Way” in 1990. Nirvana first performed it on November 25, 1990, at Seattle’s Off Ramp Café. While recording the song for Nirvana’s mega-album Nevermind in 1991, Cobain was unhappy with the sound. After repeated failed attempts to nail it, he ended up lying on a couch, strumming his guitar, and mumbling the lyrics so low that producer Butch Vig had to bring the microphones close and turn off all other sources of background noise to hear it. Dave Grohl and Novoselic added their parts later, as did Kirk Canning, who added a cello line. This unorthodox method undoubtedly lent to its strange, unique sound.

Nevermind, of course, went on to alter the course of music history and explode planets. It has since reached Diamond status in the United States and multi-times platinum and gold in several other countries.

“Something in the Way” was never released as a single and doesn’t jump out to casual listeners the way that classics “Lithium,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” or “Come as You Are” do.

But for many, “Something in the Way” is emblematic of Nirvana’s spirit. The song is a beating heart viewed through grimy, mud-streaked lenses, a song of ennui deriving its power from the certainty that there is something else, something brighter, lying underneath the surface.

There might be something in the way, but the fact that this anguish is even being sung indicates that there’s life on the other side. It’s a difficult message, but it’s one that resonated powerfully with an entire generation of youth. It might not be pretty, but it’s real, and in the rosy convolutions of the ’90s United States of America, reality was increasingly difficult to come by.

Looking back, it’s very poetic to think of the song originating in the lonely musings of a young man living under a bridge in Aberdeen, Washington. Whether or not that’s how it actually happened, and whether or not that’s what the song is really talking about, the association has become part of the mythology.

It’s a touchstone to everything that drew hordes of alienated youth to the band in the first place, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting image to go with the tune.

 

This piece of part of the Northeast Nomad Northwest Nuggets series.

This piece originally appeared in Songplaces.

Old Machinery in the Yard at Blue Heron French Cheese Company

Close-up image of rusted tractor-side reading "Built by Buffalo Company, Buffalo, NY."I love rust. I can’t really explain why; I just do. My appreciation for the aesthetics of metallic aging is particularly strong in regards to old machinery.

Something about the pattern and gradation of rust on tractors, cars, and trains is beautiful and fascinating to me.

So, whenever I visit the Blue Heron French Cheese Company in Tillamook, Oregon, my interest in the aesthetics of rust is what drives me to leave behind the delicious wine and cheese and spend most my time photographing the old machinery that fills the grounds like art installatnions in a sculpture garden.

Old Machinery in the Yard

It’s kind of a no-brainer that the Blue Heron has great cheese and wine. What you may hear less about is the old machinery in the yard (there are animals to pet, too).

For the aesthetically minded person, though, those rusted relics are captivating and fascinating. Well, they are for me, anyway. Maybe it takes a weird sort of mind to find so much intrigue in such a thing; if so, then be it—this is a post for the select group of weirdos that enjoys rusted and old machinery.

Vehicular Dinosaurs

The Blue Heron sits on a large piece of land with ample room to fit all kinds of decorative oddities, including the old tractors and buses I’ve alluded to.

If you’re the weird sort of person who also enjoys this kind of thing, then I highly recommend that you visit. Here are some pictures from my latest excursion:

Honestly, I’m not entirely happy with the quality of the shots I got, but that’s okay because it’ll just give me another excuse to go back and get more!

 

 

In Order to See the World, You First Have to Get Your Ass Off the Couch

Knock, knock…

If you answered “who’s there,” you’ve already failed, sucker, because that means you were home when you should be getting your ass off the couch!

Bam, I just got caught you in the act!

……

Okay, that was an obnoxious opening, I know, but that’s actually the effect I was going for (and the one I’m most personally inclined towards). You’ve heard of tough love; well, this is “obnoxious love,” and it’s even worse. You’ll probably hate me (if you don’t already) by the time it’s done but, hopefully, you’ll get frustrated enough to get your ass off the couch.

Seriously, I’m tired of hearing people talk wistfully about how they can’t wait to get out there and see things and finally be happy, finally really grab life by the horns, soon as they get the bigger paycheck.

Look, going on some momentous trip is a great goal, but unless you cultivate the passion to GET OUT THERE in the world RIGHT NOW, to see the things all around you, you’ll never make the big trip happen, anyway.

As I’ve been screaming at the sky ad nauseum: travel is wonder, and wonder is free. I’ll say it again: travel is wonder, and wonder is free.

We all think we want to travel in order to experience this or that place, but that’s not really true. It’s a trick we play on ourselves.

The real reason we travel is because of what we believe those external things will do inside of us. We’re after the emotion and the wonder. The object, the thing outside of us, is really just a vehicle to get to the inner goal.

There’s no doubt that hiking Mount Rainier or doing the Appalachian Trail are big, unforgettable experiences. But, if you cultivate the right mind-eye and wonder-heart, there’s just as much adventure right outside your door. Just as importantly, if you learn to cultivate that daily passion for life, then you’re more likely to make that big adventure happen, anyway.

Every town has its oddities, like the terrible, mysterious suspended bike of the Ruston waterfront, or the weirdest damn building in Tacoma, just as every town has its local stores full of history and character.

I fully encourage everyone to get out and make those big adventures, but in the meantime, why not strive to awaken your passion by exploring the world right outside your door?

You can get your ass off the couch, right now, choose to renew your curiosity, passion, and wonder, and revitalize your daily life. Isn’t that what you really want, anyway?

You don’t want the big vacation or adventure for the momentary thrill. No, not really. Deep down, you want that experience to shift something permanently inside of you, to make you a richer, deeper person.

That’s all fine, but the irony, is that if you first make the shift by looking at your own world with new eyes, you’ll rekindle the fire that is gong to make sure you actually book that big vacation in the first place.

 

If you’re fixated upon some big trip, then that means travel and new experiences are things deeply meaningful to your personality. It’s a driving force in your psyche, which means it’s potentially an engine for self-transformation.

So, harness that psychological power by getting your ass off the couch, right now, and getting out and seeing your own neighborhood, your own road or yard or the park up the way, as places of wonder.

Walk around the block. Walk down the street. Drive to the park. Whatever. Anything. Get your eyes off this screen and stop reading this stupid post and get out there into the world.

Life is waiting for you in all its weirdness and wonder right outside your door, and it’s in learning to embrace each day that you’ll stoke the soul-fires that will enhance everything in your life, including making it more likely that you’ll actually go on that big adventure that you’ve been saying “someday” about for the last 10 years.

Okay, that’s all I have to say for today. Hopefully no one is reading at this point, because if you didn’t get your ass off the couch and get out there, then I’ve failed.

Maybe I need to be more obnoxious next time.

My Visit to the Wolf Haven International Wolf Sanctuary (Great Bald Eagle Views, Too)

Wolf Haven International

I still can’t believe that Wolf Haven International has been in my backyard all this time, and I’d never even heard of it before two months ago. Luckily, I did happen to stumble upon information about the site, and I immediately decided to visit. I would have done so already a dozen or so times if I’d known it was there.

Located in Tenino, Washington, just outside Olympia, Wolf Haven is a sanctuary for wolves that have been rescued from unhealthy or just unhappy situations. Some of the animals have dramatic stories of being sold into travelling circuses and living day after day hooked to a wall by a chain barely longer than they were. Others were taken in by well-meaning but ill-equipped adopters who didn’t realize that wolves can’t be domesticated the way that regular dogs can. Whatever the wolf’s particular story, Wolf Haven exists to give them a safe space to live in with dignity and a measure of freedom.

The Wolves

The sanctuary is located on a beautiful piece of land full of towering trees and mossy rocks. Even before you step inside the sanctuary itself, the area has a great energy to it, that deep, rich smell of untrammeled nature.

The sanctuary itself is located beyond a metal gate. Within that area are several fenced enclosures, ranging in size from 1/2 to 3/4 of an acre. Each one of the enclosures is home to two wolves, a male and a female. Each of these has a name, and each has a story, which the guide will you about during your tour. You have to make reservations to join in on one of the guided tours and can’t lead yourself through unattended.

This wasn’t exactly what I expected, to be honest. For some reason I didn’t research the details of the sanctuary, and I thought it was going to be a wide open space with the wolves ranging freely about.

Still, I wasn’t disappointed. What was most important for me was knowing that the animals had a safe place to call home, away from the abuses of their former lives. Besides, while these wolves are accustomed to their homes, they are still wild at heart. You can see it in their eyes. Even with the fence between them and you, the animals’ savage grace was apparent in every powerful movement.

There are Eagles, Too

Though it’s not advertised and not part of the sanctuary’s mission, there are several bald eagles frequenting the area. I watched one hunt a raven and attemp to snatch it out of a tree branch (the raven caught on and escaped in the nick of time) and watched three of them fly together for a while and then perch in treetops, crying out to the sky.

Two bald eagles flying together.

The trip would have been worth it for the eagles alone. Seeing them so close and hearing them calling out to each other was awe inspiring.

A Sense of History and Community

There was a real sense of history at the sanctuary, and the love that the volunteers put into the place is obvious.

Burial plot of a wolf named Tahoma. Outside the wolf enclosure area is a trail winding through a wolf graveyard, with each of the animals honored by a burial site and a stone with their name and time of passing.

The gesture made it clear how deeply and sincerely the people at Wolf Haven care about the animals under their care.

Nearly everyone in my tour group seemed touched by the energy of the place, and they asked for volunteer forms so they could help out, too.

There’s no way to know how many will actually follow up on those applications of course. I’m just happy I got mine before the office ran out of them.

Wolf Haven International is well worth the visit. I’ll be going back again soon.