Something in the Way?: Visiting Viretta Park, Seattle

In this blog post, I'd like to give an overview of an exercise that I recently undertook in what is discussed academically as 'cult geography'. To do

Recently I visited Seattle for the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference. Seattle has, for many years, been a place that I’d been fascinated by due to its links to the US Alternative Rock scene – especially the explosion of Nirvana and the Grunge scene in the early 1990s. Attending the conference provided me with the opportunity to (finally) pursue these interests whilst, at the same time, thinking through some aspects of our ‘Fans on Foot’ project in an applied manner. To do this I visited Viretta Park – an ‘unofficial’ fan location that remains popular amongst Nirvana fans as it sits next to the house where Kurt Cobain committed suicide twenty years ago.

At this point, I should probably come clean and admit that, prior to the trip, I’d never beenthatbig a fan of Nirvana. Growing up, I played in numerous bands where Nirvana covers had been the constant but, whilst knowledgeable about their back catalogue, I favoured a more radio-friendly artist; basically, I was, and continue to be, an R.E.M. fan. Nevertheless, I’d maintained a passing interest in Nirvana by proxy as R.E.M frontman Michael Stipe has talked about his friendship with Cobain on many occasions in interviews and the track ‘Let Me In’ from the (in my opinion massively underrated)Monster(1994) album was written in reaction to Cobain’s death. For these reasons, I thought it appropriate to go and pay my respects to Kurt.

The morning I travelled to Viretta Park was strange. The helicopter of one of the local TV news stations had tragically crashed after taking off from its HQ and this was receiving blanket coverage on television. I skipped breakfast but, on the way to catch the Metro to the east side of the city, I stopped in one of the numerous Starbucks (Downtown Seattle must have one on every street corner) to get a cup of tea – a foolish endeavour if you’re used to what ‘tea’ is in the UK. I boarded the Metro along with other Seattle residents going to work or attending the University but, as I sat their drinking this ‘tea’, I looked at it and suddenly felt feelings of disgust towards what I had in my hands. Yes, the quality of the beverage was dubious, but, more than this, I couldn’t help but think ‘isn’t this everything that Nirvana became disillusioned with?’. The first track on their final album,In Utero(1993), opens with the heavily ironic lines ‘Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old’ as a comment on the commercial trappings of fame and how they’d become the darlings of MTV (and other media) as a result of the success of their previous record,Nevermind(1991). Starbucks seemed, in this context, to epitomise such concerns. So, as the Metro began to empty and I counted the stops before I had to get off, I couldn’t shake my unease with what I had in my hand. As soon as I left the vehicle, I threw it in the bin. Previous academic studies of fans visiting locations linked to their chosen object often highlight the desire to obtain an ‘authentic’ experience of the place and so the Starbucks had to be discarded. It just felt inauthentic.

Viretta Park was easy to find. However, on arriving, two things immediately struck me. Firstly, the size of the ‘park’ – a small, steep piece of grassy ground linking two roads – was startling. ‘It’s amazing what counts as public space in the US’, I thought. On reflection, perhaps I was expecting something more expansive and conducive towards encouraging reflection. Instead, Viretta Park’s innocuous nature and the continuous passing of traffic provided the kind of distance between myself and the experience hoped for that other scholars of cult geography have recognised in their work. Secondly, I was suddenly struck by the weather. Seattle in March is, in fact, much like Cardiff: the sun can be out but there’s still a chill in the air and it can suddenly start raining at any minute. However, the lingering morning dew – more prevalent than in the Downtown area where I was staying – became highly noticeable and helped set a sombre tone. I reached for my iPod and, in a somewhat clichéd manner, started listening toNevermindas I descended down the steps into the park.

In total, I was at Viretta Park for about forty-five minutes (which, strangely, is roughly the running time of the aforementioned record). It was a fascinating experience. I surveyed each of the communal benches and all of these were covered with engravings and personal dedications to Cobain. Some were statements of personal thanks, some were quotes of favourite Nirvana lyrics. The recurrence of the line ‘Love myself better than you’ from ‘On a Plain’ made me smile. The enduring and returning nature of other Nirvana fans to this location was highly noticeable as it was clear that, on occasions, the local council had repainted the benches, attempting to erase the location’s rather morbid associations, but people nevertheless continued to come and feel ‘close’ to Cobain and Nirvana. Similar to fans ‘violating’ official meanings of Viretta Park by graffiti-ing its benches, I was amused by how the rows of shrubs planted by the walls that mark the boundary between Kurt’s former residence and the park itself had been trampled down. As I investigated this further, it was apparent that previous visitors had walked through these to obtain the best shot of the house’s conservatory (the place where Cobain took his life). I trod a couple of these paths, camera in hand, and quickly took pictures over the wall aware that I was, technically, photographing private property. On returning to the benches, I read and photographed as many dedications as I could but, in terms of the project, I couldn’t help but think about how great it could be if a piece of technology could provide you with access to an archive of other fans photos. Could these be somehow accessed at, or projected onto, the benches? Could technology help to enhance feelings of connectivity to the fan community by offering an on-site link to previous visitors? Wouldn’t it be great if I could have some kind of memento of this humbling experience? All of these concerns would give me things to think about later in the day.

Interestingly, whilst I was at Viretta Park, I was joined by a group of three late teenagers/early twenty-somethings. They looked at me. I smiled. They smiled back at me with a knowingness about why we were all there. This was a momentary experience of connectivity with other members of the Nirvana fan community that, again, raised the question of how technology might be able to enhance this fleeting sense of communitas between us as fans and us and the fan object. The visiting party were only their momentarily – probably five minutes maximum – but, interestingly, one of them came prepared with their own dedication to Cobain: a hand-written poem/lyric sheet which they cellotaped to the bench. After they departed, I photographed this as a memento and was again struck by the temporary nature of some of the dedications and how this would be pretty much destroyed in the inevitable next downpour. How many similar examples to this have there been? Wouldn’t it be good to be able to archive these and so provide on-line links between similar fan practices?

Visiting Viretta Park was a sombre experience, one that reminds of you of your own mortality, but also quite an uplifting one. As I turned to leave, ‘Something in the Way’ (which has a special place amongst Nirvana fans due to its associations with Cobain’s troubled childhood) came onto my iPod and this seemed highly appropriate. The track’s mournful tone, complete with its haunting cello, seemed to underscore and complement what I’d experienced. A portable mp3 player helped enhance the sense of being connected to the place, and to ‘Nirvana’, and so could whatever we’ll produce with this project build upon this? I left with a new appreciation of Nirvana and a reaffirmed sense of enthusiasm for what we’re doing.