Town doesn't want to be Cobain nirvana

November 05, 2006|By New York Times News Service

ABERDEEN, Wash. -- Downtown, the theater is long-shuttered, and the streets are empty at midday. A few businesses - a thrift shop, a tattoo parlor, a place to take out payday loans - fill some space.

What seems to give Aberdeen a pulse are the shrines to the best-known product of this coastal town: the poet of despair, Kurt Cobain.

As the lead singer and songwriter for Nirvana, Cobain shook up the popular music world in a few years of chaotic creativity and then fatally shot himself at his Seattle home.

Dead for 12 years, Cobain has perhaps never been a greater cultural and economic force. Last month, Forbes magazine reported that his estate had generated more money in the previous year than that of any other deceased celebrity, about $50 million. In that sense, Cobain is bigger than Elvis.

But at the same time, Aberdeen - which has a population of about 16,000 - would like to be known for something else.

A day after the Forbes report appeared, people gathered at the muddy port at the edge of town for the groundbreaking of what they said would be the nation's largest biodiesel fuel plant.

Down for so long as the fortunes of its timber economy have fallen, this area 110 miles south of Seattle hopes to become a beachhead for the future of energy.

Creating fuel from farm crops, the plant is expected to turn out 100 million gallons a year - more than the entire biodiesel output of the United States last year, officials said.

"This is not just the foundation of a physical plant, but the foundation of an entire movement," said John Plaza, founder and president of the company behind the plant, Imperium Renewables.

By the middle of next year, Plaza said, the company hopes to begin selling throughout the country. There is a ready market for as much biodiesel as can be created here, he said.

But no matter how much of the clean-burning fuel is produced in Aberdeen, the ghost of Cobain is likely to remain front and center.

It has taken time for Aberdeen to come to terms with its best-known son.

Cobain was arrested for petty crimes.

He told interviewers that he had lived under a bridge for a time and spray-painted "God is gay" around town as an act of youthful provocation. He was also haunted by heroin.

On the Web site of a committee working for a Cobain memorial here, one of the most frequently asked questions is: "Is it true Aberdeen hated/hates Kurt?"

Still, people come from all over the world to stare into the inky expanse of the Wishkah River, to walk up the doorsteps of the ramshackle rental house where Cobain lived after high school.

"Barely a day goes by when there isn't someone outside with a camera, taking pictures of this sidewalk," said Les Blue, who has worked for 19 years at Rosevear's Music Center, where Cobain is said to have bought his first guitar.

The Cobain estate, controlled by his widow, Courtney Love, generated money through sales of Nirvana albums, rights for television and movie deals, and an interest in the band's song catalog.

Aberdeen does not see much of the Cobain income, town officials said. But they did finally acknowledge him, though indirectly. Last year, a big roadside sign went up at the edge of town - "Welcome to Aberdeen, Come as You Are." The second line is a reference to a Nirvana song.

As the Puget Sound area northeast of here has grown wealthy on technology, research and philanthropic organizations, the coastal towns to the west have had a more difficult time finding a place in the new-century economy.

The area around Aberdeen has long had a defeated look, its hillsides denuded of timber. It was old economy and old energy. Big trees were cut from the wet slopes and the raw material sent overseas. People here did the heavy work.

Now, raw materials like vegetable products and grain will come here and go out as refined fuel that emits far less of the kinds of gases that contribute to global warming, company officials say.

The biodiesel company founder, Plaza, said the company would produce a fuel that could be used in nearly any kind of engine that takes traditional diesel fuel and would not need government subsidies to be profitable.

The plant will employ nearly 300 people during construction and about 65 people full time once it is generating fuel by the middle of next year, according to Imperium Renewables.

"We are coming out of a depression, and we're on the cusp of doing something really great," said Jack Durney, the mayor of neighboring Hoquiam, which is Aberdeen's twin city.

Durney said he was still unsure about the Cobain draw.

"People come here looking for something that those of us over 50 don't really understand," he said.

"And now they say he is bigger than Elvis? How can that be?"

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, said the fuel plant would put the area on the map as an energy-revolution pioneer.

A Nirvana fan, Cantwell added that the plant and Cobain could co-exist as trademarks of this part of the coast.

"I think this area is big enough to have two heroes," she said.

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