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.