Today is the 49th birthday of Kurt Cobain. I drive by his old house on my way home and even 20 years after his death, there are still people lighting candles and leaving flowers on the bench in the park it is next to. He was the reluctant crown-prince of my generation. Had he lived, he would an Indie Rock God Legend or a bloated cliche or a recluse. There is no way to predict something that will never be. We will always remember him as beautiful, and sad. My family settled in Aberdeen when they came to The United States. The rain was heavy and constant. There is a beautiful old mausoleum in the cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried and when I am there, I wonder if Kurt liked it there. If I were a kid growing up in Aberdeen, I would have made it one of my haunts, it is very quiet and empty and full of the forgotten founders of a town whose prime has passed. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: A talented yet troubled grunge performer, Kurt Cobain became a rock legend in the 1990s with his band, Nirvana. He committed suicide at his Seattle home in 1994.
Singer, songwriter. Born Kurt Donald Cobain on February 20, 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington. A talented, troubled performer, Kurt Cobain became a rock legend with his band Nirvana in the 1990s. Growing up in a small logging town, Cobain showed an interest in art and music. He excelled at drawing, so much so that his talents were even apparent in kindergarten. He also learned to play piano by ear and enjoyed a kiddie drum kit his parents had given him. At his father’s urging, Cobain also played little league baseball. He sometimes spent time with his little sister Kim who was born in 1971, but both Cobain children had to deal with their parents yelling and fighting as their marriage became increasingly stormy.
After his parents divorced when he was nine, Cobain became withdrawn. He went to live with his father after the divorce. On the weekends, he would visit his mother and his sister. When his father remarried, Cobain resented his stepmother Jenny and her two children. One of the bright spots of this difficult time was a present he received from his uncle Chuck—a guitar. Although the instrument was fairly beat up, it inspired Cobain to learn to play and it offered him a respite from his unhappiness at home. Alienated and angry, he believed that his father always took his stepmother’s side and favored her children and his half-brother Chad who had been born in 1979. Cobain began experimenting with drugs in his mid-teens, and he pushed himself farther away from his father.
In 1982, Cobain left his father’s place and bounced around from relative to relative for several months. He then went to live with his mother who was with her boyfriend Pat O’Connor at the time. (They later married.) Attending high school in Aberdeen, he impressed teachers and students with his artistic talents. Cobain seemed to have odd tastes in subject matter, drawing a sperm transforming into an embryo for one project, according to Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross.
Cobain’s life changed when he started listening punk rock. Discovering a local punk band, the Melvins, he befriended Buzz Osbourne, a member of the group. Osbourne introduced him to some other punk bands, such as the Sex Pistols. The Melvins often practiced in a space near drummer Dale Crover‘s house and a lot of fans, including Cobain, came to these sessions and hung out. As high school progressed, he was doing more drinking and drugging. Cobain also got into fights with his mother who was also drinking a lot, and he could not stand his stepfather.
Cobain spent much of 1984 and 1985 living in various places. He spent time living with friends when he could and sleeping in apartment building hallways and a hospital waiting room when he did not have any other place to crash. In July 1985, Cobain was arrested for spray painting buildings in town with some of his friends. His friends got away, but Cobain was caught and taken to the police station. He later received a fine and a suspended sentence for his actions. Several months later, Cobain started his first band, Fecal Matter. They recorded a few songs together at his aunt Mari’s house, but they never played any gigs.
The next year Cobain was in trouble with the law again after being found wandering around an abandoned building drunk at night. As a result, he ended up spending several days in jail. Cobain started playing music with bassist Krist Novoselic who was two years older than him. They knew each other from Novoselic’s younger brother Robert and from hanging around The Melvins. A local drummer named Aaron Burckhard soon joined in. Their first gig was a house party in 1987. This same year, Cobain started going out with Tracy Marander, his first serious girlfriend. The two eventually were living together in Olympia. Although they struggled financially, the couple seemed to enjoy the rock and roll lifestyle. Cobain spent a lot of his time exploring different creative outlets—writing, painting, drawing, and making collages.
In 1988, Cobain was able to make some of his rock ambitions come true. He finally settled on the name Nirvana for the group. They made their first single, “Love Buzz,” which was released by the small independent label Sub Pop Records. By this time, Burckhard was out and Chad Channing had taken over drumming duties. Nirvana’s popularity in the Seattle music scene was growing, and they released their debut album, Bleach, in 1989. While it failed to make much of a splash, the recording showed signs of Cobain’s emerging talent as a songwriter, especially the ballad “About a Girl.” Their signature sound, which included elements of punk and heavy metal, was also apparent on the album. Cobain felt mistreated by Sub Pop, believing that the company devoted more resources toward promoting other acts such as Soundgarden and Mudhoney.
While his band was struggling to make it, Cobain made a fateful connection in his personal life. In 1990, Cobain met his match in an edgy rocker named Courtney Love. The two met at a show at the Portland, Oregon nightclub Satyricon. While they were interested in each other, their relationship did not get off the ground until much later.
That same year, he got a chance to know some of his rock and roll heroes when the band toured with Sonic Youth. Nirvana was going through some internal changes at the time. Their friend Dale Crover filled in on drums as Cobain and Novoselic had kicked out Channing. After the tour, they finally found a replacement in Dave Grohl who had played with Washington, D.C., hardcore band Scream.
Despite their antiestablishment and punk tendencies, Nirvana made the leap to a major label in 1991 when they signed with Geffen Records. That same year, they released Nevermind, which spearheaded a music revolution. With the raw edges of punk and the blistering guitars of metal, their sound was labeled “grunge” for its murky and rough qualities.
The single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—like many Nirvana tracks—modulated between the soft and the thrashing. And Cobain was equally convincing as he sang the song’s mellow chorus and as he screamed its final lines. It proved to be the group’s biggest single and helped take the entire album to the top of the charts. Soon, Cobain was being called one of the best songwriters of his generation. This along with the rapid rise of the group put pressure on the talented and sensitive 24-year-old. Cobain began to worry about how his music was being received and how to regain control of a seemingly uncontrollable future. He had started using heroin in the early 1990s. The drug provided an escape as well as some relief for his chronic stomach problems.
Before Nevermind’s release, Cobain met up again with Courtney Love, now the lead singer and guitarist with Hole, at an L7 concert in Los Angeles. She was friends with Jennifer Finch, a member of the band who was also dating Dave Grohl at the time. Later that year, Cobain and Love started a whirlwind relationship that included letters, faxes, and numerous phone calls as the two were traveling with their respective bands. In February 1992, they got married and welcomed their daughter Frances Bean Cobain in August of that year. Both Cobain and Love were into drugs and often used together. They found themselves being investigated by social services after Love told Vanity Fair that she had taken heroin while pregnant. After a costly legal battle, Cobain and Love were able keep custody of their daughter.
Always volatile, Cobain’s relationship with Love was becoming more strained. The Seattle police came to their house after the two had been in a physical altercation over Cobain having guns in the house in 1993. As a result, he was arrested for assault. The police also took the guns from the home.
While his personal life was in turmoil, Cobain had continued success professionally. Nirvana’s highly acclaimed album In Utero was released in September 1993 and went to the top of the album charts. Full of highly personal lyrics by Cobain about his many life struggles, the recording featured a fair amount of hostility toward people and situations that Cobain reviled. He took on the recording industry with “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” It also had some more tender moments with “Heart-Shaped Box,” which is supposed to be about his marriage to Love. Guitar Player magazine described the album as having “a startling level of anger, energy, and jaded intelligence.”
While the band earned raves for the new album, Cobain had become more distant from the other members.
But he continued to press on, playing a gig with Nirvana in New York City in November 1993 for MTV’s Unplugged series and touring Europe that winter. Cobain and Love often fought about his drug use.
On a break during the tour, Cobain spent some time in Europe with his family. On March 4, 1994, while in his hotel room in Rome, Italy, he attempted suicide by taking an overdose of drugs. Love woke up and discovered that Cobain was in trouble. He was rushed to the hospital in a coma. While official reports said that it was accidentally overdose, Cobain had clearly meant to kill himself, having left a suicide note.
Returning to the United States, Cobain became a hermit, spending much of his time alone and high. Love called the police on March 18 to report that Cobain was suicidal. He had locked himself inside a closet with some guns and some medication, according to the police report. After interviewing Love and Cobain, it was determined that he had not threatened to kill himself, but Love called the authorities because he had locked himself in and would not open the door. She knew that he had access to guns. For their safety, the police took the guns and the medications.
A few days later, Love had an intervention for Cobain, trying to convince him to get off drugs. She herself traveled to Los Angeles after the event to try to get clean. Cobain eventually checked into a chemical dependency clinic in Los Angeles, but left after only a few days.
On April 5, 1994, in the guest house behind his Seattle home, a 27-year-old Cobain committed suicide. He placed a shotgun into his mouth and fired, killing himself instantly. He left a lengthy suicide note in which he addressed his many fans as well as his wife and young daughter. Despite the official ruling of his death as a suicide, some have wondered whether it was murder and whether Love had been involved in his death.
Even after death, Cobain continued to intrigue and inspire fans. The group released Unplugged in New York shortly after Cobain’s death and it went to the top of the charts. Two years later, a collection of their songs entitled From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah was released, and again the group scored a huge hit, reaching the number three spot on the album charts.
With Cobain gone, there has been a struggle about what to do with what he left behind. Grohl and Novoselic fought with Love for years over Nirvana’s music. In September 2002, Love announced that they had finally resolved their long legal battle over unreleased material. An anthology of their songs, Nirvana, was released that year, including the previously unreleased track “You Know You’re Right.” Two collections that included other previously unreleased material followed with 2004’s With the Lights Out and 2005’s Sliver: The Best of the Box.