Years ago, on a foggy morning in Aberdeen, Washington, I stopped at a small bridge over the Wishkah River. I went with the expectation of some kind of cosmic misery-mojo, the kind that comes with a slowly dying old logging town, a place once known as the “port of missing men” for its reputation as a place where a sailor could safely be robbed and murdered without too many people coming and looking for him, on an especially gloomy stretch of the Northwest Coast (more than twice the annual rainfall of Seattle), home of the Melvins, whose brand of sludgy metal would become profoundly influential in '90s rock music, particularly thanks to a tow-headed kid whom they inspired, who used to cry under this bridge on the Wishkah.
And what I got, and this shouldn't have surprised me, and didn't especially surprise me, were the paraphernalia of more steadfast pilgrims, half-burnt cheap candles, Sharpie graffiti from California gutter punks – “You changed my life, Kurt” – and things of that nature.
I wasn't sure then, and I'm not sure now, how I feel about all of this overt sentiment. On one hand, it does come off as corny and cliché, but on the other hand, it is the very legitimate expression of emotional honesty, even if it is a rather silly and confessionalist and very adolescent format, and it's the sort of emotional honesty that comes with the experience of loving someone's art who died too soon. And regardless of whatever the public memory is, there is an ineffable personal memory, one that can't be reduced to the image that is intentionally projected in a mediated society.
Cobain died when I was seven years old. I barely knew who he himself was, but I'd certainly heard plenty of Nirvana songs around. And some of those are so intimately connected to such hyper-specific early memories, to beaded covers over vinyl seats in someone's shitty, beat-up Chevy Caprice Classic.
This notion of the divide between personal and public memory has been at the forefront of my mind lately as I've seen the media response to the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, which is the first celebrity death in years I've actually cared about – hell, for that matter, for which my first thought hasn't been “how can I make this into a tasteless pun?” From what I've seen, the media has been fairly restrained in its treatment, and I haven't seen anyone try to translate the “cynicism” which he was often said to have (one of the many flagrant misuses of the word, whereby it is used as a catch-all for snarkiness, dark humor, or pretty much any emotional response other than Anglo-American earnestness) into a reading of his death. Which is refreshing... after all, it was only a few days that countless media sources were using Kate Spade's suicide as a simplistic fairy tale about how “money can't buy happiness.”
I'm sure plenty of people have ways that Bourdain did change their lives. He inspired them to travel more, to eat better, hopefully to enjoy the works of those who inspired him -- whether Antonioni, Joan Didion, or the New York Dolls -- and I can probably attribute a fair amount of my own fawning over classical French cuisine to his writings. So I won't leave a candle, I won't scrawl anything in Sharpie. But I will pour myself a goddamn Negroni.