Today I’m happy to welcome William Dickerson the author of No Alternative.William was kind enough to share this guest post and excerpts of the book with us.
The Young Street Bridge, Aberdeen, Washington
Underneath the bridge/
The tarp has sprung a leak/
And the animals I’ve trapped/
Have all become my pets/
And I’m living off of grass/
And the drippings from the ceiling/
But it’s ok to eat fish/
Cause they don’t have any feelings.
So goes the opening lyrics from Nirvana’s “Something In The Way,” the minimalist last track on their breakthrough album, Nevermind. As legend has it, Kurt Cobain wrote these lyrics while he was homeless and living underneath the Young Street Bridge in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington.
I visited Aberdeen, specifically to check out the bridge, several years ago. Here’s a brief video of some footage I shot while I was down there:
I’ve posted variations on this video several times and, like clockwork, I receive rather irritated responses from fans who say Kurt never actually “lived” down there. Some say he did, some say he didn’t (including Nirvana bassist, Krist Novoselic), and I’m not sure anyone but Kurt knows for sure. And I like that; I like the mystery of it, the lore. That’s what it is: lore. To have a physical manifestation of that lore, which has since gone from makeshift memorial to government-sanctioned park, is terrific. Whether he lived down there or not is, frankly, irrelevant. What is not irrelevant, nor up for debate, is the fact that this place inspired him, and that’s all that matters. Whether he lived there or not, the song remains, and it remains the same. What is also undeniable, and can only really be grasped in person, is how peaceful, beautiful and otherworldly it is down there. Much to Aberdeen’s chagrin, Kurt was never kind in his descriptions of the city in which he grew up, and admittedly, there’s nothing much to see there. It’s a stark logging town; however, underneath the Young Street Bridge, it’s really beautiful. It’s beautiful in the way the sunlight hits the Wishkah River, in the way rogue pillars extend from the water, and in the way the concrete cracks below your feet, battling the nature underneath, and losing.
It is a place that’s full of mystery in a town where everything is to the point. As I stood down there, I understood why Kurt was lured down there, and hung out down there, and perhaps even slept down there. I have a feeling that whatever was “in his way,” literally or metaphorically, disappeared while he spent time under this bridge.
Postscript. For a behind-the-scenes retrospective on “Something In The Way,” I direct you to a terrific clip in which Butch Vig, the producer of Nevermind, recalls the recording session of the song:
No Alternative, Excerpt 1
Suicide is a universally human phenomenon. It’s what separates us from the animals, despite the fact that people shun it and cloak it in taboo. Animals do not commit suicide, at least that’s the common wisdom. It is this received wisdom that reveals something about our attitudes on the subject, as suicide is most always painted in the light of shame and pity, something we reserve for lesser beings than ourselves. In actuality, suicide is a refined and selfless act, usually a result of many thoughtful hours, days, months, or years of meticulous and steadfast preparation. Suicide is not thoughtless; it’s precisely the opposite.
In order to commit suicide, one must be aware of one’s life coming to an end – this awareness is wholly human, since animals are thought to be incapable of sharing this recognition. But how can we really know this? This is a purely clinical assumption. There are occasions when dogs sink into depression, whether as a result of old age or from a reaction to emotional stimuli such as a master dying, and they willfully stop eating, eventually starving themselves to death. Do they understand that if they do not eat, they will die? Perhaps not in any literal sense, but it’s difficult to believe that such actions are taken without any awareness of the consequences.
Take as an example the story of one such case. In Rome, Italy, the owner of a Spanish Cocker Spaniel passed away. When paramedics removed his prone body from his house, the dog hurled itself from the third floor. The pet lived, suffering a broken leg. After being treated by the vet, its leg immobilized in a cast, it returned home in the custody of one of its owner’s distant relatives. In spite of a profound difficulty moving, and the supervision of the relative, the dog broke free of its leash and again threw itself from the third floor of the house in which it was raised. This time, it accomplished what was presumably its goal: it died.
Suicide is unbiased, non-partisan. It transcends gender, perhaps even species. In a biological sense, it’s pure. At no other time in recent memory was suicide so prominent in the zeitgeist of Americana than in the early 1990’s. The perceptive pop listener might argue that the 80’s foreshadowed such a day of reckoning. In Billy Joel’s song, “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” history ended when the 80’s did, as if each day that passed after his song debuted was one match strike closer to oblivion. Listeners were left longing for his song to stretch into the 90’s, if for no other reason than to reference Crystal Pepsi in his “Cola Wars.”
In a way, history did come to an end. There was an overwhelming stench of death in the air, emanating from the rotten music that decadent decade dished out. What was considered music in the 80’s was reduced to ashes in the wake of the conflagration of three unknown musicians from Seattle, Washington – actually, two were from a shithole logger town called Aberdeen, and their drummer, Dave, was from Olympia. They declared war against the music industry, whether intentionally or not, and their declaration was a singular record album, Nevermind; an album on which there’s not a single fade-out. Every song simply crashes to an abrupt and decisive end. As the band’s front-man appropriately said in his suicide letter, it’s “better to burn out, than to fade away…” That line was taken from Neil Young, but what 15 year-old nose-picker plugging his ears with punk knew that at the time Cobain quoted him?
What Billy Joel couldn’t “take” anymore in his Billboard Top One Hundred tune was different from what teenagers at the time couldn’t take anymore. To be quite frank, we couldn’t take anymore of his fucking song. Or of Guns and Roses and their sweet children; or of Warrant and their baked goods; or of Def Leppard’s sugar, some of which Warrant must have borrowed to make their cherry pie. The 90’s ushered in an independent, do-it-yourself, ethic; a way to proactively and publicly flush the 80’s down the toilet. Some music critics have argued that this was simply a resurgence of the punk rock ideology that thrived in the late 70’s, and there’s some truth to that. History is cyclical and not only was punk rock reinvented in the early 90’s, so, apparently, was the suicide cult – what Jim Jones did for the Peoples Temple, in which he and 914 of his followers died in a mass murder-suicide at Jonestown in 1978, the charismatic David Koresh did for the Branch Davidians, and their 55 dead adults and 21 dead children, in Waco, Texas, in 1993. From Sid Vicious to Kurt Cobain, Jim Jones to David Koresh, artists and psychopaths alike were immersed in the cumulative whirlpools of thought, aggression, freshly clipped nerve-endings, disaffection, and the do-it-yourself zeitgeist of the moment.
Absolutely nothing is more do-it-yourself than suicide.
Suicide is the thing; the goal; the beginning and the end; the next big thing; the be all, end all; the eye in the sky – it’s the Tylenol bottle with the 20 bonus pills, because swallowing an entire bottle of Tylenol can kill you.
Suicide is an option; it’s an alternative; it’s aqua seafoam shame; it’s dead of a shotgun blast to the head.
Suicide is the lyric of a song; packaged inside a gold record.
Spin the black circle.
If the lyric is death, then the song is life itself, trapping its lyrics within a recurring embrace of murder and conception, all controlled by your Aiwa Minisystem’s three-disc CD player, its repeat button the key to everlasting life. Some traditionalists will prefer the analogy of a vinyl record, the black circle, a turntable needle skipping along its groove; however, to recent generations, the black circle is a relic, just another obstacle to sidestep in the attic when it comes time to store your sweaters. To some boys and girls, the black circle is an object unknown. If you can’t see your image reflected in it, it won’t play your music. There’s something appropriate about that.
There were still tape cassettes around in the 90’s, stacked up on shelves somewhere, neatly organized in shoeboxes, an arm’s length away for the convenient use of breaking up weed. By this time, though, they were mostly used to record rock bands in garages on four-track machines or used to record mix-tapes to win the affections of girls – magnetic pleas for admittance into their unsullied jeans in the back of your Mom’s Ford Taurus.
If you were a teenager in the early 90’s, music as you knew it died on April 8th, 1994. The day the music died and grunge was born, but only grunge as a catchphrase, as an advertising motif. It was the beginning of a movement. Back when MTV actually aired music videos, rather than the onslaught of reality television programming they broadcast now, and viewers made a point to sit at home in their beanbags and watch those videos, on this day, they stopped airing their music videos, however briefly, and their perpetually coiffed and stoic news anchor, Kurt Loder, commandeered the airwaves to impart a Special Report to a legion of slacker viewers:
The body of Nirvana leader, Kurt Cobain, was found in a house in Seattle Friday morning dead of an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. Cobain’s body was discovered by an electrician carrying out repairs at the musician’s house. Sources claim he had been missing for several days. The singer, whose band achieved global fame with the release of its album, Nevermind, in 1991, recently survived a drug and alcohol-induced coma in Rome last month. A statement from Nirvana’s management company said: ‘We are deeply saddened by the loss of such a talented artist, close friend, loving husband and father.’ Police found what is said to be a suicide note at the scene, but have not yet divulged its contents.
Spin the black circle.
Thanks to William for sharing this and to Kris Morton for connection with me.