Kurt Cobain is among the rare pantheon of rock musicians who changed the musical landscape for a whole generation almost overnight. He stands alongside legends like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison who rose quickly and died young, his life’s arc the trajectory of a star that flares brightly through the sky before it fades away. To this day the music of Nirvana still encourages and influences young musicians.
Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, WA on February 20, 1967. A hyperactive child, he was prescribed medicine to help him focus at school and sleep at night. At age seven, his personality changed dramatically when his parents divorced. He became defiant and withdrawn, and at times he was sent to live with relatives. At school he was good at sports but an unwilling participant. Without many friends he became interested in art and would often draw during class. He wrote journals prolifically and they contained many sketches and drawings.
On his fourteenth birthday, he bought his first guitar and starting learning to play songs like “Louie Louie” and The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl.” He also began working on his own songs but seldom found anyone to play music with. Cobain found escape from high school in the punk scene in Seattle, a hundred miles from his home in Aberdeen. He frequently visited the practice space of his favorite band, the Melvins, and even helped carry their equipment to shows. He once tried to audition for the band but was so nervous he forgot all his parts. Realizing he didn’t have enough credits to graduate high school he dropped out a few weeks before graduation.
Hanging out with the Melvins he met bassist and fellow punk rock devotee Krist Novoselic. Cobain had a home demo of an earlier band he was in called Fecal Matter which he gave to Novoselic. After some time the pair formed a band and began recruiting drummers. They came up with the name Nirvana from the Buddhist concept, described by Cobain as “freedom from pain, suffering and the external world,” something not too dissimilar to punk. Cobain said the name was chosen because he wanted something “that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk rock name like the Angry Samoans”.
Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, was recorded between December 1988 and January 1989 for just over $600. The album sold 35,000 copies and the band toured the U.S. and played their first international shows in England. The album was popular on college radio and in the British music press, who may have mistakenly believed everyone from Seattle wore lumberjack shirts and patterned retro sweaters.
The band had many different drummers during their first years. Though they liked Chad Channing enough to have him record Bleach, Cobain grew dissatisfied with his playing and Channing left in 1990. By the end of that summer they chose Dave Grohl (who, as a member of the Washington, DC hardcore punk band, Scream, had impressed both Cobain and Novoselic at a show), as their permanent drummer. Nirvana signed with the major label Geffen Records for $287,000.
As well as playing guitar and singing, Cobain was Nirvana’s main songwriter. When writing he preferred to focus on the melodies of the song, coming up with the music first on an acoustic guitar and then finding a singing style. He’d reach into his poetry and personal life to compose lyrics, which he considered the least important part of the song. Sometimes he would only arrive at the lyrics minutes before recording the song. The rest of the band helped determine the songs length and how many parts it should have. In his journals Cobain referred to John Lennon as his idol and he admitted to writing the song “About a Girl” after listening to Meet the Beatles for three hours.
Prior to recording their second album Nevermind in 1991, the band had been experimenting with the dynamic of playing quiet verses and loud choruses, much in the style of the Pixies, one of Cobain’s biggest musical influences at that time. He was also listening to R.E.M. and the Smithereens and found himself inspired by these more melodic songs. Even though he was a “music first, lyrics second” type of songwriter, he wanted the melodies of his song to be strong and memorable.
Cobain’s rhythm guitar style relied on power chords played on a guitar often tuned down a half or whole step. The band was known to play their instruments so hard that it was nearly impossible to keep them in tune. Cobain also eschewed playing guitar solos and when he did they were often slightly out of tune single note lines that were variations on the songs melody. Music writer Jon Chappell described them as “almost an iconoclastic parody of the traditional instrumental break”. Guitar World magazine wrote that the Nirvana-sound “set the tone for Nineties rock music.”
Nevermind gave the band something most bands never get: critical and popular acclaim that drew huge legions of fans. The unexpected success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is often marked as the point where alternative rock entered the mainstream. It has been called the “Louie Louie” of the nineties. Almost embarrassed by its success, Nirvana would later exclude the song from their setlist. Their popularity exploded after appearances on Saturday Night Live and MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball. The songs “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come as You Are,” and “Lithium” were all hits that received heavy airplay on MTV. By the beginning of 1992 “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was in the American Top Ten and the album knocked Michael Jackson’s comeback album Dangerous from the top of the charts.
After Nevermind, nothing was ever quite the same again, for the band and for popular music. Now part of the mainstream, Nirvana were responsible for popularizing alternative rock and grunge. The success of Nevermind also drew wider audiences for other Seattle bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Cobain reluctantly found himself cast in the media’s role of spokesperson for Generation X. He tried to focus more on the band’s music and they returned with a third album, In Utero in 1993.
In the early nineties Cobain began doing heavy drugs such as morphine and heroin. With a shared interest in drugs, Cobain bonded with the lead singer of indie band Hole, Courtney Love. In 1992 the two were married in Hawaii and shortly thereafter Love gave birth to their daughter Frances Bean. For a short time the baby was taken from their custody owing to an article in Vanity Fair where Love admitted to using drugs during her pregnancy.
Cobain’s repeated drug use led to increasingly erratic behavior and the band was only able to tour sporadically. Cobain was hospitalised numerous times, once for a heroin overdose in 1993. The extent of his condition and drug use was generally unreported to the public and he and Love were frequently speculated about in the tabloids.
In November of 1993 Nirvana played an acoustic performance at Sony Music Studios in New York for an episode of MTV Unplugged. The stage was ominously decorated like a funeral with black candles and lilies. Breaking the mold established by previous unplugged shows, Cobain played his acoustic guitar through an amplifier and simple effects unit. The set consisted mainly of lesser known Nirvana songs and covers of artists as diverse as The Vaselines, Meat Puppets, David Bowie and Lead Belly. (Nirvana’s take on the traditional song Where Did You Sleep Last Night can be found on Guitar Noise.) Their performance demonstrated that Nirvana was able to transcend the grunge sound they were known for and indicated a possible future direction for their music.
In March of 1994 Cobain was hospitalized in Europe for a drug overdose. After spending five days in hospital Cobain was released and he returned to Seattle. On April 8, 1994, Cobain’s body was discovered by an electrician who arrived to install a security system at his home. A suicide note was found nearby and the coroner ruled that Cobain had taken his own life with a shotgun on April 5, 1994. Traces of Valium and heroin were found in his body.
Cobain had been listening to one of his favorite albums, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People before taking his life. R.E.M.’s lead singer Michael Stipe says that the next Nirvana album was going to have a lot more light and shade in it like Automatic for the People. The posthumously released CD, MTV Unplugged in New York, revealed that different side of Nirvana. And it earned Nirvana a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album the following year.
For all his success as a musician and cultural icon, Cobain was uncomfortable with people’s adoration. In his suicide note he explained: “The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.” Whether you like his music or not, he was an artist who created something for himself. There was something Cobain needed to say with his music, he just never expected anyone would listen.