Juliana Hatfield Battles with Herself over Whether or Not to Sell a Personal Note from Kurt Cobain

The prolific musician is considering parting with a piece of rock — and personal — history to pay her bills. Spoiler alert: she probably won’t.

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I live in one of the most expensive cities in the United States: Cambridge, Massachusetts. I sometimes have to scramble to stay on top of the rent, the student loans, the car payments, car insurance, health insurance, dog insurance, phone, Internet, utilities, union dues, the storage space where I had to put all the furniture that wouldn’t fit in my new apartment (which is half as big as my old place and costs three hundred dollars more per month), etc.

When the money starts to run out, sometimes I sell stuff. In recent years I’ve sold most of my guitars and I’m down to just two small amps. I sold a ring given to me by an ex-boyfriend who didn’t treat me right. I sold three signed Salvador Dali prints at auction, prints I’d inherited from my father when he died. (I’m not a Dali fan, so I had no qualms about getting rid of them.)

I’m not a collector. Of anything. I generally scoff at the idea of rock memorabilia. I have a gold record in a closet, I think. Or maybe it’s in the storage space. But there are a few choice items that I have consciously saved, things I like to take out and look at sometimes. One of them is a letter given to me by Kurt Cobain in 1993. For twenty-three years it has lived in a shoebox along with a bunch of Polaroids.

I recently contemplated selling this letter. I would make a copy for myself, of course, so I could still read the words, see the sloppy handwriting and the smiley face. After all, it wasn’t the fading paper or the ink or any traces of Kurt’s DNA that mattered — it was the intangible content. The meaning, the memory, the sentiment — all that would remain, even if I just kept a scanned copy.

I talked to a reputable auction house (the one that had sold my Dali prints for me) about it. I had done some “research” (looking on the Internet for five minutes) and come to the conclusion that a handwritten letter on notepaper from Kurt Cobain should be worth about $20,000. I landed on this number when I saw that one of Lady Gaga’s pianos had just been auctioned for around $200,000 and that a copy of the Replacements’ long-out-of-print quasi-unofficial live bootleg The Shit Hits the Fans — a rarity and a must-have for Replacements’ completists — had an active bid at $100 on eBay. My calculations (or, er, guesswork) put an original letter from Kurt Cobain somewhere in between Lady Gaga’s piano and a hard-to-find limited edition Replacements cassette. The fact that the letter was addressed to Juliana (“Julianna”) Hatfield was a negligible factor in my calculations.

Twenty thousand dollars-ish just seemed like a good, not-totally-unreasonable number. In my mind, I envisioned the bidding starting at maybe $10,000 and then going up to $20,000 or maybe even more than that if I got lucky and people got caught up in a bidding frenzy, which can happen.

When I heard back from the expert at the auction house, his words were: “I’d place a conservative auction estimate of $1,500 to $2,500 on the letter.”

The high ceiling of that estimate wouldn’t even cover one month of my living expenses. I told the auction guy that I was going to hold on to the letter. I couldn’t let it go for so little. That would be sad. Because the truth was that the letter meant, and still means, a lot to me. More than money.

Here is the letter:


And here is the backstory:

I went to see Nirvana play at the Roseland Ballroom in New York in 1993 during the In Utero tour. After the show I was introduced to Kurt by Scott Litt, who had produced my recent album Become What You Are, and who was about to produce Nirvana’s Unplugged concert and album (which would be taped mere days later). It was the one and only time that I met Kurt. As Kurt says, and apologizes for, in the letter, there were a lot of people backstage, all wanting a little of Kurt’s attention — wanting to shake his hand, say hello — and the basement dressing room was very small. It was a cramped, noisy scene. There wasn’t really much time or space to focus on having a conversation. But Kurt was very gracious and respectful to me in those brief few minutes, and I was glad to have finally met him.

I had written a song, “Nirvana,” about my big love for Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, specifically for the song “Negative Creep,” which had inspired me so much. Also, we knew a lot of the same people, including Danny Goldberg, who had signed me to Atlantic Records and who worked with Nirvana in management. After Kurt died, I gave a copy of the letter to Danny, who had it framed and hung it on his office wall.

A couple of days after the Nirvana show, my band and I met up to fly to the U.K. to start our own tour, and my drummer gave me the note. He had been hanging out in private with Kurt in New York in the days after the Roseland show and Kurt had then given the note to him to pass on to me.

I’m glad I held on to it. The letter is a record of a moment in my life and career — and in the life and career of an American rock & roll phenom who didn’t live to play many more shows or to write many more letters. But, more important, it is a record of Kurt Cobain’s thoughtfulness, sensitivity, generosity, humility and humor, as well as his embarrassment and conflict about his popularity.

The historical and personal detail in the letter makes it valuable as an artifact. So, regardless of whether or not I will be remembered by rock history, I still believe there must be someone out there — some rich, rabid Nirvana fanatic — willing to pony up for this rare, one-of-a-kind, touched-by-Kurt document.

And if you are interested in buying the letter, I will consider any offer of at least $20,000. Because I have rent to pay. But I won’t give it up for any less than that. And even then, I still might decide, at the last minute, to keep it.

Juliana Hatfield is a singer, songwriter and guitar player. She began her music career in the late 1980s in Boston with the Blake Babies. Since then she has released approximately fifteen solo albums and been involved with numerous other groups including the Lemonheads, Some Girls (with Freda Love Smith) and MInor Alps (with Matthew Caws from Nada Surf). Her latest project is a collaboration with Paul Westerberg called the I Don’t Cares. Their debut album, Wild Stab, came out in early 2016. Hatfield’s new album, Pussycat, will be released on April 28, 2017.

(Photo credit: Brad Walsh)