Heavier Than Heaven - Part 3

In September 1972, Kurt began kindergarten at Robert Gray Elementary, three blocks north of his house. Wendy walked him to school the first day, but after that he was on his own; the neighborhood around First Street had become his turf. He was well-known to his teachers as a precocious, inquisitive pupil with a Snoopy lunchbox. On his report card that year his teacher wrote "real good student." He was not shy. When a bear cub was brought in for show-and-tell, Kurt was one of the only kids who posed with it for photos.

The subject he excelled in the most was art. At the age of five it was already clear he had exceptional artistic skills: He was creating paintings that looked realistic. Tony Hirschman met Kurt in kindergarten and was impressed by his classmate's ability: "He could draw anything. Once we were looking at pictures of werewolves, and he drew one that looked just like the photo." A series Kurt did that year depicted Aquaman, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto. Every holiday or birthday his family gave him supplies, and his room began to take on the appearance of an art studio.

Kurt was encouraged in art by his paternal grandmother, Iris Cobain. She was a collector of Norman Rockwell memorabilia in the form of Franklin Mint plates with Saturday Evening Post illustrations on them. She herself recreated many of Rockwell's images in needlepoint - and his most famous painting, "Freedom From Want," showing the quintessential American Thanksgiving dinner on the wall of her doublewide trailer in Montesano. Iris even convinced Kurt to join her in a favorite craft: using toothpicks to carve crude reproductions of Rockwell's images onto the top of freshly picked fungi. When these oversized mushrooms would dry, the toothpick scratching would remain, like backwoods scrimshaw.

Iris's husband and Kurt's grandfather, Leland Cobain, wasn't himself artistic - he had driven an asphalt roller, which had cost him much of his hearing - but he did teach Kurt woodworking. Leland was a gruff and crusty character, and when his grandson showed off a picture of Mickey Mouse that he'd drawn (Kurt loved Disney characters), Leland accused him of tracing it. "I did not," Kurt said. "You did, too," Leland responded. Leland gave Kurt a new piece of paper and a pencil and challenged him: "Here, you draw me another one and show me how you did it." The six-year-old sat down, and without a model drew a near-perfect illustration of Donald Duck and another of Goofy. He looked up from the paper with a huge grin, just as pleased at showing up his grandfather as in creating his beloved duck.

His creativity increasingly extended to music. Though he never took formal piano lessons, he could pound out a simple melody by ear. "Even when he was a little kid," remembered his sister Kim, "he could sit down and just play something he'd heard on the radio. He was able to artistically put whatever he thought onto paper or into music." To encourage him, Don and Wendy bought a Mickey Mouse drum set, which Kurt vigorously pounded every day after school. Though he loved the plastic drums, he liked the real drums at his Uncle Chuck's house better, since he could make more noise with them. He also enjoyed strapping on Aunt Mari's guitar, even though it was so heavy it made his knees buckle. He'd strum it while inventing songs. That year he bought his first record, a syrupy single by Terry Jacks called "Seasons in the Sun."

He also loved looking through his aunts' and uncles' albums. One time, when he was six, he visited Aunt Mari and was digging through her record collection, looking for a Beatles album - they were one of his favorites. Kurt suddenly cried out and ran toward his aunt in a panic. He was holding a copy of the Beatles' Yesterday and Today, with the infamous "Butcher cover," with artwork showing the band with pieces of meat on them. "It made me realize how impressionable he was at that age," Mari remembered.

He was also sensitive to the increasing strain he saw between his parents. For the first few years of Kurt's life, there wasn't much fighting in the home, but there also hadn't been evidence of a great love affair. Like many couples who married young, Don and Wendy were two people overwhelmed by circumstance. Their children became the center of their lives, and what little romance had existed in the short time they'd had prior to their kids was hard to rekindle. The financial pressures daunted Don; Wendy was consumed by caring for two children. They began to argue more and to yell at each other in front of the children. "You have no idea how hard I work," Don screamed at Wendy, who echoed her husband's complaint.

Still, for Kurt, there was much joy in his early childhood. In the summer they'd vacation at a Fradenburg family cabin at Washaway Beach on the Washington coast. In winter they'd go sledding. It rarely snowed in Aberdeen, so they would drive east into the small hills past the logging town of Porter, and to Fuzzy Top Mountain. Their sledding trips always followed a similar pattern: They'd park, pull out a toboggan for Don and Wendy, a silver saucer for Kim, and Kurt's Flexible Flyer, and prepare to slide down the hill. Kurt would grab his sled, get a running start, and hurl himself down the hill the way an athlete would commence the long jump. Once he reached the bottom he would wave at his parents, the signal he had survived the trip. The rest of the family would follow, and they would walk back up the hill together. They'd repeat the cycle again and again for hours, until darkness fell or Kurt dropped from exhaustion. As they headed toward the car Kurt would make them promise to return the next weekend. Later, Kurt would recall these times as the fondest memories of his youth.

When Kurt was six, the family went to a downtown photo studio and sat for a formal Christmas portrait. In the photo, Wendy sits in the center of the frame with a spotlight behind her head creating a halo; she rest on an oversized, wooden high-backed chair, wearing a long white-and-pink-striped Victorian dress with ruffled cuffs. Around her neck is a black choker, and her shoulder-length strawberry blond is parted in the middle, not a single strand out of place. With her perfect posture and the manner in which her wrists hang over the arms of the chair, she looks like a queen.

Three-year-old Kim sits on her mom's lap. Dressed in a long, white dress with black patent leather shoes, she appears as a miniature version of her mother. She is staring directly at the camera and has the appearance of a child who might start crying at any moment.

Don stands behind the chair, close enough to be in the picture but distracted. His shoulders are slightly stooped and he wears more of a bemused look than a legitimate smile. He is wearing a light purple long-sleeved shirt with a four-inch collar and a gray vest - it's an outfit that one could imagine Steve Martin or Dan Aykroyd donning for their "wild and crazy guys" skit on "Saturday Night Live." He has a far-off look in his eyes, as if he is wondering just why he has been dragged down to the photo studio when he could be playing ball.

Kurt stands off to the left, in front of his father, a foot or two away from the chair. He's wearing two-tone, striped blue pants with a matching vest and a fire-truck red long-sleeved shirt a bit too big for him, the sleeves partially covering his hands. As the true entertainer in the family, he is not only smiling, but he's laughing. He looks notably happy - a little boy having fun on a Saturday with his family.

It is a remarkably good-looking family, and the outward appearances suggest an all-American pedigree - clean hair, white teeth, and well-pressed clothes so stylized they could have been ripped out of an early seventies Sears catalog. Yet a closer look reveals a dynamic that even to the photographer must have been painfully obvious: It's a picture of a family, but not a picture of a marriage. Don and Wendy aren't touching, and there is no suggestion of affection between them; it is as if they're not even in the same frame. With Kurt standing in front of Don, and Kim sitting on Wendy's lap, one could easily take a pair of scissors and sever the photograph - and the family - down the middle. You'd be left with two separate families, each with one adult and one child, each gender specific - the Victorian dresses on one side, and the boys with wide collars on the other.

Part 4 coming soon!