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I see the shirt from afar, like the midway full of people parted just for my sightline. BLEED THE FREAK, it says in big, blocky, bright red letters. I’m not sure what it means, but it doesn’t feel right. Something about the violence of the phrase, the awkward but hypnotic syntax. The words worm their way into my brain like a song, bleed the freak, bleed the freak, bleed the freak.

I’m 16 years old, at the Puyallup Fair with my church youth group. It is 1994. It’s before the deep-fried fair food explosion — before deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried Snickers, deep-fried Oreos, and before it occurred to food vendors at fairs large and small to experiment with dipping anything they can think of into batter and then deep-frying it. It’s before the Puyallup Fair becomes the Washington State Fair, before I grow up and move away from Washington, before going to state fairs becomes one of my favorite Midwest summer activities, and before I’ll care at all about seeing the animals, much less them becoming one of my favorite parts of a fair. Largely because seeing the animals — the horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, roosters, and rabbits — is one of my wife’s favorite parts of a fair and one of the side effects of marriage is often your partner’s favorite things become your favorite things. There are, however, plenty of the deep-fried staples, between corndogs, elephant ears, and funnel cake — but also the Puyallup Fair staple, fresh scones with raspberry jelly. Then there was a fair’s worth of girls for a 16-year-old to ogle and teasingly push your friends into. And lastly, a selection of rides like the carousel, Classic Coaster, Kamikaze, Scrambler, and the small, two-person squirrel wheels in which my best friend Brad would spin and rock us back-and-forth so fast and jerky it would make me feel like I just might throw-up, though I’d never say that to Brad, not wanting to give him the ammunition to make fun of me nor the encouragement to keep doing it. More… “Name Your God”

Aaron Burch is the Founding Editor of the literary journal Hobart and the author of Backswing, a story collection, and Stephen King’s The Body, a nonfiction book about the novella that Stand By Me was based on. He’s currently working on a book of essays about music and growing up and religion and other stuff, THIS WAS ALL BEFORE THE INTERNET. He is on Twitter @Aaron__Burch.

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Nearly 20 years after the suicide of Kurt Cobain, I found myself watching this performance once again, Nirvana’s rendition of Lead Belly’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” The television played this MTV Unplugged in New York performance on a loop as I sat on the floor at a friends’ apartment in the East Village the night Cobain was found dead at 27. They played “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” over and over again. The memory is so strong that I know it must be false.

 

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” was the last in the Unplugged set, the last song on what would be Nirvana’s final album. The fragile and surprising live performance of this song is Kurt Cobain’s defining moment. In a 1993 interview, not long before his death, Cobain told a reporter that he had been introduced to Lead Belly from reading William S. Burroughs…. More…