The house in Aberdeen, Washington where Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain lived between 1968 (when he was aged just one) to 1984 has been added to the state’s Heritage Register, meaning it is now classed as an “historically significant” property.
Lee Bacon, co-owner of the property, is almost finished with a renovation programme that will return it to how it looked when Cobain lived there, but which specific period in that 16-year stretch it will be modelled around is not clear. It will be opened to the public for private tours early next year. Bacon already has a tourism empire in mind as he has also acquired another building in downtown Aberdeen that will house assorted Cobain-related memorabilia.
The interest in the assorted paraphernalia around Cobain has been gathering pace in recent years, becoming a side industry in its own right. Last July, the acoustic guitar Cobain played during Nirvana’s legendary MTV Unplugged In New York show in late 1993 was sold at auction for a record-breaking $6.01 million. In 2019, the cardigan he wore at the same MTV performance sold for $334,000, “making it the most expensive sweater to go under the hammer” according to The Guardian.
The plans to turn his childhood home into a visitor attraction is not something that is approved by the Cobain estate or even something it will directly benefit from financially. It joins a growing list of pop star homes that have been opened to the public, only some of which have the direct involvement of their estate or family.
There is Handel & Hendrix In London, which recreates the small flat Jimi Hendrix lived in between 1968 and 1969 which was, with incredible serendipity, next door to the house where George Frideric Handel lived and worked two centuries earlier.
Or there’s Bob Marley’s old home in Jamaica.
How about Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs residence?
Perhaps Nina Simone’s childhood home which now has permanent protection status?
Possibly Judy Garland’s house in Minnesota?
The blockbusters in this world are Paisley Park in Minneapolis, where Prince lived and worked from 1987 until his death in 2016, and Graceland in Tennessee, home to Elvis Presley from 1957 until his death in 1977. The latter was opened to the public in 1982 and its success was pivotal in preventing the Elvis estate from tipping into bankruptcy. It now claims to be the second most-visited house in the US (after The White House).
In the UK, a number of pop star homes are owned and operated by English Heritage. You can, for example, visit the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney in Liverpool. Even Paul McCartney visited his own childhood home as part of The Late Late Show With James Corden in 2018. The National Trust is also reported to have bought up former homes of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie.
It is understandable why all these houses should be acquired and often seek to get official protected status as they are sites of great cultural and historical importance.
In the past, cities have not always been diligent in protecting the locations that helped build their musical heritage.
The original Cavern in Liverpool, for example, was bulldozed in the 1970s but a semi-replica eventually replaced it. CBGBs in Manhattan’s Bowery is now a John Varvatos clothes shop. And the Haçienda in Manchester, previously a yacht builder’s warehouse (yes, really) has been turned into luxury apartments.
When a pop star dies, it is only natural for fans to want to congregate at a place of great significance, and often this is where the pop star lived. Trees, railings and fences near or around the properties become temporary altars, but choosing to open the doors to the public and let them nose around is a whole different game both economically and psychologically.
Opening such houses to the public makes them part shrine, part time machine and part ghoulish funfair.
It is all an ethical minefield.
Yes, the fans need somewhere to congregate and it is important to preserve them from the wrecking ball or greedy developer.
But equally there is an argument that these were places where, pre-fame, future pop stars livd in innocent anonymity or, when they became celebrities, offered them sanctuary from the screams of fans. In opening the doors and adding a cash register, this could be read as a final indignity: making public in death the only things pop stars ever managed to truly keep private in life.