There are moments in time that will forever be immortalized in popular culture, and many of those moments have been brought to us courtesy of the music industry. Elvis shaking his hips before a screaming crowd. The day Dylan released ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Jimi Hendrix playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock. Iggy Pop fronts The Stooges. Queen releases ‘God Save the Queen,’ and it goes to number one. The Thriller album. Purple Rain. NWA. Eminem vs George W. Bush. Page after page of history played out before a captive audience, and right in the middle of all that emerges the song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ It was a song that birthed an entire genre into the mainstream world, defined a generation, and blazed a trail that would be walked by bands for decades. The song would also rocket the members of Nirvana to the position of rock and roll royalty, most notably the front man, Kurt Cobain.
Kurt Donald Cobain was born on February 20, 1967 in Aberdeen Washington to a waitress and an automotive mechanic. He was the couple’s first child, and was known as being happy, sensitive to others, and artistic. As a young child, Cobain would spend hours in his room drawing characters from film and television, regularly singing as he did so. A bit of a musical prodigy, Kurt Cobain began playing the piano at the age of four, and even wrote a song about taking a trip to the local park. The young Kurt Cobain loved listening to The Ramones, ELO, The Beatles, and The Monkees, and could frequently be heard singing their songs wherever he went.
At the age of seven, Kurt Cobain’s parents filed for a divorce. It was the first real turning point in what was to become a tumultuous upbringing, diving his time between living with a father who remarried, fathered more children, and attempted to begin his life again, and a mother who was in a spiraling relationship with an abusive man. Kurt Cobain began to act out in school, bullying other students and rebelling against adult authority. The reacting peaked after a counselor decided that it would be in Kurt Cobain’s best interest to experience a single-family situation, resulting in his mother agreeing to grant Kurt Cobain’s father full custody. The behavior did not improve though, and Kurt was sent from one home to the next, living with family and friends when his father could no longer control him.
The next major turning point occurred on Kurt Cobain’s fourteenth birthday when his uncle offered him either a new bike or a used guitar for his birthday.
Cobain didn’t give the choice a second thought.
Born out of need to create and express himself, Kurt Cobain began playing and writing songs, setting the foundation for what would be Nirvana. He met bassist Krist Novoselic at the Melvins’ rehearsal space and the two occasionally practiced together. Eventually the two would agree to join to form their own group, cycling through three drummers before finally settling on Chad Channing, who would play on the band’s first record, ‘Bleach,’ with Sub Pop Records. Kurt Cobain would eventually become dissatisfied with Channing as well, and his replacement would be Dave Grohl. The new lineup would last for the remainder of Nirvana’s career.
The music industry in the early nineties was fighting for a voice. Hair metal was consuming rock and roll, and in the opinion of many experts it was leading to the end of an era, leaving fans of rock music without a voice. Nirvana had been playing and touring for years without a lot of mainstream attention, much to the disappointment of Kurt Cobain.
In 1990, Nirvana left Sub Pop and signed a deal with DGC Records, with whom the band recorded their second album, ‘Nevermind.’ Released in 1991 and fronted by the single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ the album was an immediate hit, filling the airwaves with Grohl’s exuberant drumming, Novoselic’s crawling basslines, and Kurt Cobain’s almost self-destructive energy.
The lyrics on the album would be a vocalization for the angst of an entire generation, putting into words the frustrations, disillusionment, and cynicism felt by waves of teens and college students all over the US. Almost overnight, Nirvana was now the most popular rock band in the country, with SLTS becoming an almost constant presence on radio stations worldwide. By the end of 1991, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week, topping charts in multiple countries and paving the way for a host of other alternative bands growing in what was called the grunge movement.
Through it all, Nirvana managed to maintain their gritty, often harsh musical style. It was recognized that Nirvana was an anomaly in the musical world, where instead of the band taking their music to the world, the world came to them. The result was a sound that was raw, powerful, unfiltered, and at times a bit shocking. Kurt Cobain’s constant struggle with the media and addiction added to the mystique of the world’s most famous garage band. Three more releases, ‘In Utero,’ ‘MTV Unplugged in New York,’ and ‘From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah,’ would all debut at the top of the Billboard charts.
After only two years in the spotlight, Nirvana was by all appearances on top of the world.
Kurt Cobain Suicide
Kurt Cobain was elevated to the position of being a voice for the unheard and miserable, an appointment he never felt comfortable occupying. The art of making music was quickly being replaced by commercial controversy and tabloid-quality mudslinging. Reporters eagerly wrote stories about the troubled frontman’s difficulties in his marriage, his struggles with heroin, and his reluctance to be a willing public figure. The songwriter began to lament that his life was no longer an expression of genuine music, and that the joy creating had worn off.
In March of 1994, while touring in Rome, Kurt Cobain was found unconscious in his hotel room from an overdose of Rohypnol and alcohol. The remainder of the tour was canceled and he returned to the US to recover. Receiving pressure from his friends and family, on March 30 Kurt Cobain admitted himself into a California rehabilitation clinic for his heroin use. Days later, Cobain would abandon treatment and make his way back to his Seattle home. He made no contact with friends or family and at the time, though he was spotted in the area around his home on both April 2 and 3.
On April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain died of an apparent suicide from a gunshot wound to the head. His body would be discovered April 8 by an electrician who was scheduled to install an alarm system. A suicide note was found in a planter box with a pen jammed through the center, as well as a gun, ammunition, and a variety of drug paraphernalia. “I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now,” Cobain wrote in his final letter. “Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage.”
Heroin and diazepam (an anxiety treatment) were found in Kurt Cobain’s blood, leading the media to paint a picture of a jilted rocker who got high and took his life. For those who knew Kurt Cobain, the quiet, nervous, sometimes dark young man, the answer seemed more complex. “Sometimes you just can’t save someone from themselves,” Grohl would confess in a later interview, talking about the potential for Kurt Cobain to take his own life. “In some ways, you kind of prepare yourself emotionally for that to be a reality.”
Kurt Cobain changed music. That statement is not the exaggeration of a fan who remembers when MTV first played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirt’ or the day he learned that Cobain was dead only three years after reaching mainstream success. That statement is an acknowledgement of the lasting influence of a band that only released three studio albums, but has sold over 75 million albums worldwide. Two generations after their debut and Nirvana is still growing in popularity, earning fans and influencing musicians to a degree that most bands only dream of. In 2014, their legacy continued as the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The ceremony included Novoselic and Grohl performing four Nirvana songs with four different female music icons leading on vocals, including Joan Jett, Lorde, Kim Gordon, and St. Vincent.
2016 will mark the 25th anniversary of ‘Nevermind’ and by all accounts, the impact of this defiantly breakthrough album has not diminished. Neither, for that matter, has the influence of its primary writer. Kurt Cobain has been forever established as a rock and roll icon, and his legacy is a testament to true musicianship and uncompromising raw energy
“The worst crime is faking it.” – Kurt Cobain
Various pictures of Kurt Cobain