Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

USA's Pacific North West: Rock 'n' roll rite of passage

Russell Baillie follows the path of Kurt Cobain's career on a road trip from Seattle, the home of grunge, to San Francisco.

Seattle claims Jimi Hendrix as its own.
Seattle claims Jimi Hendrix as its own.

You could spend days delving into Seattle rock history. After all, it is the birthplace of James Marshall Hendrix. Though he didn't spend much of his career there. Still, the city claims him as its own.

It is the city of grunge and where Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix's fellow member of rock's gone-before-their-time "27 Club", ended his days in 1994.

The grunge era is still in evidence. Sub Pop, the scene's defining label, has a store at Sea-Tac Airport. Near the runway is a warehouse which is Pearl Jam's headquarters, the veteran band having lost their downtown digs a few years back.

Some of the grunge era venues still exist, such as The Crocodile, previously co-owned by Peter Buck of R.E.M. and where a left-field who's who — even Chris Knox — has played over the years. So too is vintage tavern The Central Saloon, the venue for Nirvana's first Seattle show.

For a lateral-minded grunge pilgrimage, there is A Sound Garden, a public art installation of metal pipes — yeah, wind chimes, only big — in Warren G. Magnuson Park after which Chris Cornell named his band.

If feeling morbid, you can join the thousands visiting Hendrix's resting place at Greenwood Memorial Park or the Hendrix stone memorial at Woodland Park Zoo. There's a statue of him in full about-to-commit-guitar-arson pose on the footpath of Broadway. If you pucker up with him for a selfie and caption it "Scuse me while I kiss this guy" you won't be the first.

Nirvana with the late Kurt Cobain.
Nirvana with the late Kurt Cobain.

The nearest you'll get to a Nirvana Graceland is Viretta Park, near the house where Cobain killed himself. Many fans leave graffiti tributes on park benches.

Many hotels in Seattle had Cobain and wife Courtney Love as guests before they bought their lavish home. Not many advertise the fact, though the boutique Hotel Max has a floor of rooms featuring turntables and Sub Pop records.

Talking of needles, there's cheaper, less salubrious accommodation options at the Marco Polo motel, a spot Cobain reportedly used to score during his final days of heroin addiction.

But Hendrix and Cobain's legacies are celebrated best at EMP (Experience Music Project) museum at the Seattle Center.

Opened by Microsoft bigwig and Hendrix fanatic and collector Paul Allen, the Frank O. Gehry building features evolving exhibits on Hendrix and Nirvana among its collection of music, sci-fi, fantasy and pop culture.

The Hendrix exhibit Wild Blue Angel: Hendrix Abroad looks at the guitarist's itinerant life and career while Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses examines the short spectacular history of the band and the scene it sprang from.

Once you've purchased your Jimi bobblehead from the museum shop it's off to Olympia and Aberdeen. It's a two-hour drive from Washington State's biggest city to its capital, Olympia, then another hour west to Aberdeen. The route reverses the path of Cobain's career.

Olympia was immortalised by Courtney Love on the Hole song of the same name. Before that it was ground zero for the Riot grrrl movement of the early 90s, a wave of feminist punk bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Bratmobile.

Courtney Love performing at the Big Day Out in 1995.
Courtney Love performing at the Big Day Out in 1995.

These days the bohemian university town — many of the Riot grrrl bands sprang from Evergreen State College — still boasts a vibrant bar, live music, record store and zine scene.

It's where Nirvana's Cobain and Krist Novoselic shifted from their hometown, Aberdeen, and where Cobain wrote most of the breakthrough Nevermind album, including the Smells Like Teen Spirit title, which was inspired by friend Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill.

Aberdeen, which has "Come as You Are" on its welcome sign, is Cobain's birthplace. He's celebrated at the Aberdeen Museum of History with an unfortunate statue (the Cobain action figures are a better likeness). There's a walking tour of Kurt Cobain's Aberdeen — the houses he grew up in, the schools he attended, the walls he graffitied and the places he and Novoselic practised in the band's early days.

Aberdeen's biggest memorial to its favourite son is Kurt Cobain Landing, a small park, complete with guitar sculpture and a headstone. It's next to the Young Street Bridge, a one-time hangout for the sometimes homeless teenager which inspired his song Something in the Way.

Heading back inland will get you over the Washington-Oregon border and on to Portland in two to three hours. Or you can take the scenic route via the coastal town, Astoria — the setting for 80s kids classic The Goonies — then hug the Columbia River inland.

Hipster capital Portland continues to attract musicians from all over the US and — in the case of former Mint Chick Ruban Nielson now of Unknown Mortal Orchestra — all over the world.

It has more live music venues than you can point an organically brewed American pale ale at. But so far as rock history goes, Portland's most significant location is 411 SW 13th Avenue. There, on what was the site of Northwestern Studios, you will you find a plaque commemorating the 1963 recording of Louie Louie by local band the Kingsmen.

The song is one of the strangest, most enduring, lyrically indecipherable garage rock hits to ever become a number one record.

Lots of other covers, originally a regional hit for its writer, Richard Berry, in 1957, would follow. Even Motorhead did it.


After the Kingsmen, Portland migrants Paul Revere and the Raiders recorded the song at the same studio a few weeks later and the two versions competed for airplay.

But it was one-hit wonders the Kingsmen which put Portland, rock city, on the map.

There's not much on the map in the 10-hour drive to the Californian state capital of Sacramento. There's not much rock history when you get there either. But 20 minutes east is Folsom State Prison, the place which inspired Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues of 1955 and where he recorded his classic live album At Folsom Prison in 1968. There is a prison museum with Cash memorabilia including some very cool pictures of the Man in Black at the jail.

Johnny Cash. File photo / NZ Herald
Johnny Cash. File photo / NZ Herald

Heading towards San Francisco, the potential for rock history hotspots rises exponentially.

Need more Cash? Head northwest across the Richmond San Rafael Bridge to San Quentin Prison where Cash recorded his second live album At San Quentin in 1969 and famously gave the warden the finger.

Head to West Berkeley where at 924 Gilman St you'll find the Alternative Music Foundation, the long-running venue from which spring many of the bands of the late 1980s and 1990s Californian punk revival, including punk-pop veterans Green Day.

Or if you're a fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival — and even Cobain started out playing the songs of John Fogerty and co — you could head into El Cerrito.

Yes, the band which sang about being born on the bayou sprang from the suburbs of the East Bay Area. If you head to El Cerrito High School you'll see the place where the group started out and where, in 1983, the three original members played a final show at the Class of 1963's 20th reunion.

You could spend a lot of time in San Francisco on a rock 'n' roll pilgrimage to the Summer of Love. Especially as Haight-Ashbury has long catered to a tourist market after some vintage tie-dye, patchouli oil and a Grateful Dead iPhone case.

Or you could go see where the Beatles played their final public show. Or where punk era Sex Pistols played their final one. But both venues — Candlestick Park and the Winterland — are gone now.

So to avoid the hippie hordes, drive or ferry across to gentile Sausalito. Otis Redding started whistling his famous Dock of the Bay at Waldo Point Harbour in Sausalito where he stayed on a houseboat while playing shows across the other side of Golden Gate Bridge in 1967. Or you could head to The Record Plant, a legendary resort studio which delivered albums by Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and little-known local band Metallica before it went under in the late noughties.

Fleetwood Mac.
Fleetwood Mac.

The building is still there. But now, where Sly and the Family Stone once recorded in a specially-sunken room called The Pit, you can do yoga and Pilates. It's a wellness centre and social club called Harmonia.

As Johnny Rotten told his San Francisco audience in his famous last-gig kiss off: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"


To book your USA road trip: See House of Travel. Its nine-day 'Pacific Coast Explorer Road Trip' package starts from $1445pp, twin share.

Further information: See


Take the quiz, find your roadie and be in to win $10,000 towards your ultimate USA roadie!

- NZ Herald

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