Leland Cobain has his famous grandson’s sky-blue eyes and wry smile. His salt-and-pepper hair is cropped short and his sturdy frame gives way to a round Buddha belly. At 86, the patriarch of the Cobain family is less ambulatory than he’d like, and his hearing is nearly shot. He spends his days inside a cluttered double-wide trailer in the small community of Montesano, roughly 10 miles east of Aberdeen, where Kurt grew up.
The trailer, which Leland shares with a son and a yappy little dog, is a mini-Graceland of Kurt Cobain memorabilia. Photos of his grandson as a smiling preteen and later as a surly 15-year-old are pinned to a cork board, sharing space with a few portraits of Kurt —some good, some considerably less good—sent to Leland by obsessive Nirvana fans. A plastic Kurt action figure rocks out beneath a gold-plated Nirvana album that Kurt gave Leland when the band finally made it big.
Leland is not famous in any tangible sense. He hasn’t done anything (save for successfully procreating) that should garner him much recognition outside his immediate family. Yet the man gets a lot of fan mail these days, and even at his age he responds to every letter with a handwritten note and a few photocopied pictures of Kurt.
The letters come from places as far away as Australia and Italy and as close as Seattle, but the sentiments are nearly identical. Each writer explains their deep, personal connection to Kurt and the music he made. They’re sometimes obsessive and needy, asking Leland to send something Kurt once owned. But mostly they just want information: What was Kurt like as a kid? What does it feel like to have Kurt’s blood pumping through your veins? Can I come visit you? The answer to the last question is always yes.
Becky Reed, a 31-year-old Nirvana fanatic from rural Pennsylvania, found Leland’s address online, and has spent the past couple of years trading letters with the elder Cobain. Like most people who contact Leland, Reed has an insatiable appetite for all things Nirvana, which began in 1993 when Reed first put her brother’s copy of In Utero in the CD player. Something just clicked. Kurt’s anguished yowl shot through the speakers and filled the 14-year-old with something that defies description. Something almost religious. She said it felt as if Kurt was singing to her alone, his voice touching her soul.
Reed’s initial motivation for writing was simply to profess her love for Kurt’s music, but as time went by the letters drifted from the topic of Nirvana and began to resemble something more akin to the correspondence of a girl and her elderly grandpa. Instead of gushing about the importance of “Heart-Shaped Box” or asking for stories about Kurt as a teen, Reed’s recent letters are more likely to ask if Leland is eating right and getting enough sleep.
“I see it in his eyes. His eyes are hauntingly like Kurt’s,” Reed said via e-mail. “It was more of a fan thing at first, but now that we’ve talked and met, it’s more like he’s part of my family.” Her last two trips out west included pit stops in Montesano, where Reed and her boyfriend spent hours with Leland at his trailer. The unlikely duo chatted a bit about Kurt and Nirvana, but mostly they just hung out and made small talk. She can’t explain why she feels the need to be a part of Leland’s life, but through the years she’s developed a strong bond with the old guy and now considers him part of her family.
“I think he likes having people come out there because it makes him feel needed and like he has a purpose in his life,” she said.
It’s been more than 16 years since Kurt Cobain abruptly ended his life, but his spirit is alive and well in the Pacific Northwest. As you read this, a Nirvana fan is most likely peering over a tall wooden fence in Seattle’s posh Denny Blaine neighborhood to steal a glimpse of the home where Kurt spent his final days. Another kid mopes around under Aberdeen’s Young Street Bridge, listening to “Something in the Way” on his iPod and writing shitty poetry.
Every year hundreds of devotees travel from around the world simply to breathe the air and touch the soil that Kurt once inhabited. They show up outside the house where he died to smoke pot, cry, and hold mini-vigils for their fallen hero. They wander aimlessly around Aberdeen, eating where Kurt ate, buying flannels where Kurt did. And they show up at Leland’s doorstep, hoping to capture something, anything, that will make them feel closer to their idol.
Reed, for example, has MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube accounts devoted to her favorite band, and she’s made the 2,700-mile trip to Seattle four times. She’s seen Kurt’s childhood home, his final home, and that oh-so-famous bridge he never lived under.
Leland is the only surviving member of the Cobain clan who’s even remotely open to hearing from Nirvana fans, which makes him a hot commodity for those looking to make a pilgrimage. Kurt’s dad, Don Cobain, lives in a small town in northern Washington and refuses to speak about his famous son, even to Leland. The same goes for Kurt’s mom and sister, who Leland says now live in Los Angeles, where Kurt and Courtney Love’s daughter, Frances Bean—who turns 18 today, August 18—also lives.
Except for Don, Leland doesn’t have much of a relationship with anyone else connected to Kurt. He hasn’t seen Frances since she was a toddler, and he and Wendy, Kurt’s mom, were never especially friendly. He’s also on Courtney’s shit list for publicly raising questions about Kurt’s death. He was quoted in an April 2004 issue of People saying he thought Kurt was murdered.
It wasn’t always this way. Leland didn’t always welcome the attention and the autograph hounds and the impromptu drop-ins. It was only after his wife died in 1997 that he began to embrace the idea of being the public ambassador into Kurt’s world. He started accepting interview requests, and struck up pen-pal relationships with a handful of die-hard fans. His number is also listed in the phone book, so it doesn’t take much sleuthing to track the man down.
Leland says most of the people who contact him are as caring and respectful as Reed, but he’s also had more than a few kooks stop by. The worst was an Australian woman who called from Olympia, about 45 minutes northwest of Montesano, asking if Leland could pick her up. For whatever reason, he obliged her, and according to Leland she turned out to be mentally disturbed, claiming to know who killed his grandson.
Another woman, from England, was so obsessed with Kurt that she abandoned a successful career as a court stenographer and moved to Montesano for three months to be closer to Kurt’s spirit.
“Some of them go overboard on the whole thing,” Leland said. “A woman from Sweden sent me some paintings. She’s actually in love with Kurt. She talks to him every day. Boy, she’s really got it. Now she’s started an art gallery, and all she does is draw pictures of Kurt.”
Despite having to deal with the occasional off-color fan, Leland wouldn’t trade his “fame” for the world. He relishes the attention and loves the company of strangers. He’ll answer your questions about Kurt, but he’d just as soon talk about fishing or art or his new van. And while there’s no doubt he loves his grandson, he often seems uninterested in the subject, giving rote responses that can be found on any number of Nirvana fan sites or in books. He’s just lonely, and he wants you to sit with him. He’s said all there is to say about Kurt Cobain, yet he’ll gladly repeat himself if it means a few hours of company.