The Best Time “I” “Climbed” Kurt Cobain’s Fence
by Jennifer Pan
People raised in East Coast cities often ask me what it was like growing up up in Idaho, a state they incorrectly perceive to be part of the Midwest and correctly perceive to be rural, fresh-smelling, and home to a populace as white as peeled potatoes. Sometimes I tell a story about the first week of seventh grade, when a middle school neo-Nazi student threw a chair at me. He was assigned to a seat across the table from where Ben and I sat in art class and slashed large graphite swastikas onto his drawing pad for our benefit. Ben, who was Jewish, and therefore the only other person in our class not descended from solid-limbed Rocky Mountain Protestant stock, was a friend of sorts; we rode the same bus. It was through Ben that I began eating lunch with a group of punks, and it was these punks who, upon learning of the art class assault, would arrange to beat up the Nazi in the soccer field after school.
People raised in East Coast cities always look relieved to hear that I had come under the wing of adolescent anti-fascists. But in truth, I didn’t speak much to the punks, though we sat together in a loose sprawl outside the school every day. I was a fumbling step behind — -still wearing my Nirvana shirt while they had moved on to Germs and Black Flag — -and was quietly intimidated by their combat boots, straight-legged black denim, and other menacing sartorial flourishes (which, in my defense, seemed not entirely dissimilar to what neo-Nazis wore).
Though I was anxious for the approval of this aggressive masculine clique — -which regarded me with a kind of bored benevolence when they weren’t beating up my Nazis — -my friends were girls. Two of them were also punk-group hangers-on. Michele had a glum Christina Ricci face and a crush on Billy Corgan (with hair, she insisted). Lily had a mom who was a witch and two tiny, writhing dachshunds. Her hair was blonde, dyed black, and when the roots started to grow out, it looked like her hairline was receding. Amy hung around us for a while, but when she got a fitted Tommy Hilfiger shirt and went to cheerleading tryouts, we stopped speaking to her. And then there were the girls I never met in person.
When school ended each day and the punks milled on the dusty sidewalk in front of the building, I took the bus home and spent my afternoon hours on the computer. By methods now mysterious to me, I had learned HTML and how to cobble together rudimentary graphics in Photoshop. I was submerged in a peculiar network of websites created and operated by other teenage girls. Though online friendship now feels unremarkable, in 1999, it occurred at a halting 56k dial-up pace, while people’s mothers worried about chatroom predators and health publications warned of “internet addiction,” the symptoms of which included checking one’s email first thing in the morning and spending over four hours per day “connected.”
A teenage subculture had flourished despite, or perhaps because of, these illicit undertones of online activity. Girls were registering their own domains, which bore names like poetic-jester.org, inherwake.com, and infective.net, or else had their websites “hosted” by these domains under subdirectories like inherwake.com/landslide, militant.infective.net, or virose.net/bacteria. These personal sites housed mostly standard teenage fare: lists of favorite bands, halting efforts at writing and photography, and public journal entries.
And there were, of course, divisions within this subculture. “Teenyboppers” ran chatty, high-traffic domains like gemz.net and way2kewl.com. Serious, slightly older girls wrote impressively opaque prose-poems and listened to PJ Harvey. They used pseudonyms that paid homage to their favorite books and movies (Jem, Lux, Legs) and quoted with great importance the scene from Cruel Intentions in which Sarah Michelle Gellar called herself “the Marcia fucking Brady of the Upper East Side” and declared that she wanted to die.
My online friends were, in retrospect, versions of Michele and Lily that the distance of computer screens had romanticized. We formed our friendships mostly on the basis of the bands we liked. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Propagandhi,” they would write on their sites, so I would listen to Propagandhi, too, which impressed the punks at school. Sometimes we called each other at night, locking ourselves into our rooms with cordless phones so our parents wouldn’t know. We talked about the girls at our schools we didn’t like, the ones who acted slutty and whorey, but then, after reading about a band called Bikini Kill, virtuously pontificated about how that was okay.
In eighth grade, Lily and her witch mom moved to Seattle. When they had been living there for a few months, Michele and I went to visit. In her new life, Lily had done what seemed impossible in Idaho: she had joined a group of fifteen-year-olds who drove their own cars and smoked a lot of weed. They called when Michele and I were eating hamburgers at her house and she invited them over. The Seattle friends were more terrifying than even the punks I knew, because instead of listening to Dead Kennedys (with which I had become passingly familiar) they listened to Joy Division (with which my online forays hadn’t yet acquainted me). I knew enough to be embarrassed when it came out that I still liked Nirvana, but when they asked, “Do you want to see Kurt Cobain’s house?” of course I agreed.
They took us to the house, which was set back from the road and surrounded by hedges and iron gates. Michele and I stood in quiet reverence, craning our necks to see if we could catch a glimpse of the famous shed, immortalized in Spin and Rolling Stone photos, where Cobain had expired. While we were reading the graffiti that had been left on a bench near the house, which consisted of loving messages to Kurt written by fans from around the world, one of Lily’s friends began to scale the fence. When a woman leaned out of a window to watch him warily, he shouted, “Are you Courtney Love?” The others laughed, and I felt very square.
Later, we all went to one of the Seattle friends’ houses for dinner. It was the girl’s birthday. Her parents had made Vietnamese noodle soup and presented her with a neon sign that read “Vietnamese noodle soup.”
“We wanted to get you a neon sign for your room but didn’t know what it should say. We’ll customize another one for you at the shop,” her dad said, and Lily’s Seattle friends all piped up, “No way, a sign that says ‘Vietnamese noodle soup’ is awesome!”
I didn’t know why it was awesome, and I could tell by Michele’s rigid face that she didn’t, either. We drank our soup and didn’t speak at all. The Seattleites continued talking, and my unease grew in tandem with what I thought to be the erudition of their conversation. They began discussing vegetarianism, which several of them had undertaken, they said, for animal and environmental, rather than health, reasons. When one of them, trying to be kind, turned to us and said, “I want to hear from the Idaho people,” I burst out, “I don’t know you,” inaugurating a terrible silence.
Lily was annoyed at our ineptitude for the rest of the trip. When I got home, I updated my website with a public journal entry for the benefit of my online friends. “I was in Seattle this weekend. I went to Kurt Cobain’s house and tried to climb the fence,” I wrote. “Some lady looked out the window. It was probably, like, Courtney Love.”
I maintained both my website and the claim that I had personally attempted to enter Kurt Cobain’s property until college, where, on the first day, I successfully attracted the attention of kids from cities like LA by wearing my Sonic Youth shirt and a vile haircut I had copied from someone on Livejournal. One of the girls from the internet had sent me a tiny Nirvana postcard, which I taped next to my bed in my dorm room. When one of my new college friends, who dressed in straight-legged black denim and combat boots, saw it, he nodded approvingly and said, “I hate it when punk kids pretend they never liked Nirvana.”
Jennifer Pan writes about work, politics, and other things in New York. She’s @jenpan on Tumblr and Ello.