Kurt Donald Cobain (February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994) was the lead singer and guitarist of the American grunge band Nirvana. He served not only as the band's frontman, but as its "leader and spiritual center". With the band's success, Cobain became a major national celebrity, an uncomfortable position for someone who claimed to be "ill at ease with fame and ill-equipped to handle the responsibility that accompanies success".
Cobain and Nirvana were highly influential, popularizing what came to be known as grunge music. The arrival of Cobain's best known song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", marked the beginning of a dramatic shift of popular music away from the perceived superficiality of 1980s glam-metal and dance-pop that placed visual style over musical substance. The music media eventually awarded "Smells Like Teen Spirit" "anthem-of-a-generation" status, and, with it, Cobain ascendance as the "spokesman" for Generation X.
Among other well known Cobain songs are "Lithium", "About a Girl", "Polly", "In Bloom", "Come As You Are", "Heart-Shaped Box", "All Apologies", and the controversial "Rape Me".
Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington and spent his early years in Hoquiam, Washington. By most accounts, Cobain's earliest years were happy, and he lived as a part of the typical American family. Cobain's first interest in music came early in his life, possibly a result of his family's general interest in music.
At around age seven, Cobain began to idolize stuntman Evel Knievel. Hoping to one day become a stuntman, Kurt was often seen diving from the roof top onto a bed of pillows and blankets. During this time, he was prescribed Ritalin for hyperactivity. Years later, wife Courtney Love blamed Ritalin for Cobain's addiction to heroin.
Cobain's life was turned upside down at the age of eight with the divorce of his parents. Cobain later cited his parents' divorce as having a profound impact on his life. His mother noted that his personality changed dramatically, with Cobain becoming more withdrawn. After a year of living with his mother following the divorce, Cobain moved to Montesano, Washington to live with his father. After a few years with his father, Cobain's rebellious tendencies became too overwhelming, and Cobain found himself being shuffled between friends and family.
At school Cobain didn't take much interest in academics or sports, mostly focusing on his art courses. He was an outspoken supporter of gay students at his school, sometimes suffering physically at the hands of homophobic students for his beliefs. Although he once claimed in an interview with The Advocate that he was arrested for spray-painting a pro-gay slogan on a bank, Aberdeen police records show that the phrase he was arrested for in 1986 was actually "Ain't got no how watchamacallit".
In a February 1992 interview with The Advocate, Cobain admitted that he thought he was gay while in high school and stated, "I could be bisexual. If I wouldn't have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle." In his journals, he wrote that he was heterosexual, but wished he was gay just "to piss off homophobes". When Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live in January of 1992, Cobain and Novoselic jokingly "kissed" during the cast and crew farewells as the credits rolled. (Cobain and Novoselic bobbed their heads back and forth wildly as if in rapture; Novoselic and Grohl subsequently repeated the gesture.) The segment was cut from the show on further airings, replaced by the closing credits from the rehearsal taping, and never aired again.
As a teenager with a chaotic home life growing up in small town Washington, Cobain eventually found escape through the thriving Pacific Northwest punk scene, going to punk rock shows in Seattle. Cobain formed a lifelong friendship with fellow Montesano musicians The Melvins, whose music later heavily influenced Nirvana's sound. Cobain had a small "K" inside a shield tattooed on his forearm, the insignia of Olympia, Washington, label K Records, largely chosen for the coincidental ellipsis of his name.
In his youth, Cobain spent a lot of time reading in the local library, discovering such literary figures as William S. Burroughs, whose cut-up technique Cobain occasionally utilised to write lyrics for some of Nirvana's songs. Cobain eventually had the opportunity to record with Burroughs a spoken word with guitar improvisation piece called The Priest They Called Him, whose words were originally one of Burroughs' short stories out of The Exterminator. Other literary works which impacted Cobain's philosophy included Perfume by Patrick Süskind and the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas.
Two weeks before his graduation, Cobain dropped out of high school after realizing that he had too many credits to complete. His mother gave him an ultimatum: either get a job or leave. After a week or so, Cobain found his clothes and other belongings packed away in boxes. Forced out of his mother's home, Cobain often stayed at friends' houses and snuck into his mother's basement every now and then. When Cobain could not find anywhere else to stay, he lived under a bridge over the Wishkah River, a period later chronicled in the Nevermind track "Something in the Way".
Cobain received his first guitar from his uncle at age fourteen. He was given the choice of a guitar or a bicycle, and chose the guitar. From there, he tried to form bands with friends, generally noodling on songs by AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. When he moved back in with his mother in high school, he found himself without anyone to jam with, as none of his friends had any musical talent.
Later in high school, Cobain met Krist Novoselic, a fellow devotee of punk rock. A few years later, Cobain tried to convince Novoselic to form a band with him by lending him a copy of a home demo recorded by Cobain's earlier band, Fecal Matter. After months of prodding, Novoselic finally agreed to join Cobain, forming the beginnings of Nirvana.
For the first few years of Nirvana, Novoselic and Cobain found themselves host to a rotating list of drummers. Eventually, the band settled on Chad Channing, with whom the band recorded the album Bleach, released on Sub Pop Records in 1989. Cobain, however, became dissatisfied with Channing's style, eventually leading the band to Dave Grohl. With Grohl, the band found their greatest success via their 1991 major-label debut, Nevermind.
Cobain struggled to reconcile the massive success of Nirvana with his underground roots. He also felt persecuted by the media, comparing himself to Frances Farmer, and harbored resentment for people who claimed to be fans of the band but who completely missed the point of the band's message. One particularly distressing incident to Cobain involved two men who raped a woman while singing the Nirvana song "Polly". Cobain condemned the episode in the liner notes of the album Incesticide: "Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song 'Polly.' I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience. Sorry to be so anally P.C. but that's the way I feel."
Kurt Cobain first encountered Courtney Love at a concert in 1989. More than a year later, after learning from Dave Grohl that she and Kurt shared mutual crushes, Courtney began pursuing Cobain. After a few weeks of on-again, off-again courtship, the two found themselves together on a regular basis, often bonding through drug use.
Around the time of Nirvana's 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, Love discovered that she was pregnant with Cobain's child. A few days after the conclusion of Nirvana's Australian tour, on Monday, February 24, 1992, Cobain married Love on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. On August 18, the couple's daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, was born . The unusual middle name was given to her because Cobain thought she looked like a bean on the first sonogram he saw of her. Her namesake is Frances McKee of The Vaselines, of whom Cobain was a big fan.
Love was somewhat unpopular with Nirvana fans. Her harshest critics cited Cobain's total devotion to her, combined with what they saw as her domineering personality and inferior musical talent, as evidence that she was merely using him as a vehicle to make herself famous. Critics who compared Cobain to John Lennon were also fond of comparing Love to Yoko Ono. Rumors persist to this day that Cobain wrote most of the songs on Hole's breakthrough album Live Through This. However, except for a rough mix of "Asking for It" that contains Cobain singing backing vocals, there is no evidence to prove the assertion. It is worth noting that, until Nirvana's stratospheric success with Nevermind, both bands had virtually the same commercial stature. In fact, Hole was the more popular band on the club circuit in the months prior to Nevermind's release.
In a 1992 article in Vanity Fair, Love admitted to using heroin while (unknowingly) pregnant, an admission that seriously damaged her public standing. While Cobain and Love's romance had been something of a media attraction before the article was published, they found themselves constantly hounded by tabloid reporters, many wanting to know if Frances was addicted to drugs at birth. The notoriety of the article even resulted in Child Welfare Services launching an investigation into the couple's fitness as parents. The investigation was eventually dismissed, but not without a significant amount of legal wrangling. Love, along with Cobain, claimed that Vanity Fair took her words out of context.
Cobain was a devoted champion of early alternative rock acts. He would often make reference to his favourite bands in interviews, more often than not placing a greater importance on the bands that influenced him than on his own music. Interviews with Cobain were often littered with references to obscure performers like The Vaselines, Daniel Johnston, The Meat Puppets, the Pixies, Young Marble Giants, The Wipers, and The Raincoats. Nirvana even made a habit of covering songs by those bands, including two songs each by the Wipers and the Vaselines. Cobain was eventually able to convince Nirvana's record company Geffen Records to reissue albums by The Raincoats and The Vaselines.
Cobain also made efforts to include his favorite performers in his musical endeavors. In 1993, when Kurt decided that he wanted a second guitarist to help him on stage, he recruited Pat Smear of the legendary L.A. punk band The Germs. When rehearsals of three Meat Puppets covers for Nirvana's 1993 performance for MTV Unplugged went awry, Cobain placed a call to the two lead members of the band, Curt and Cris Kirkwood, who ended up joining the band on stage to perform the songs.
Where Sonic Youth had served to help Nirvana gain wider success, Nirvana attempted to help other indie acts attain success. The band submitted the song "Oh, the Guilt" to a split single with Chicago's The Jesus Lizard, helping Nirvana's indie credibility while opening The Jesus Lizard to a wider audience.
One of Cobain's earliest and most important musical influences was none other than The Beatles. Cobain expressed a particular fondness for John Lennon, whom he called his "idol" in his journals. Cobain even admitted that his song "About A Girl" was essentially an attempt to write a Beatles song. Cobain also found himself heavily influenced by punk rock, as he often credited Black Flag and the Sex Pistols for his artistic style and attitude.
"All the hype the Sex Pistols had was totally deserved. They deserved everything they got. Johnny Rotten was the one I identified with--he was the sensitive one. Never Mind The Bollocks has the best production of any rock record I have ever heard. It’s totally in-your-face and compressed." -- Kurt Cobain, Nirvana (Vox Magazine September 1992)
Even with all of Cobain's indie influences, Nirvana's early style was clearly influenced by the major rock bands of the 70s, including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Kiss. In its early days, Nirvana made regular habit of playing cover songs by those bands, including Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and "Dazed and Confused", and a studio recording of Kiss' "Do You Love Me".
Addiction and death
Throughout most of his life, Cobain battled depression, chronic bronchitis, and intense physical pain due to a chronic stomach condition. Cobain spent years seeking the cause for his stomach pain. However, none of the doctors he consulted were able to pinpoint the specific cause, guessing that it was either a result of Cobain's childhood scoliosis or related to the stresses of performing. Feeling that he had been let down by medical science, Cobain opted to self-medicate with heroin.
Cobain's first taste of heroin came sometime late in 1990, not long after Dave Grohl joined Nirvana. For months, Cobain used the drug casually, but it did not take long for his use to devolve into full-fledged addiction. Towards the end of 1991, his use began affecting the band's support of Nevermind, with Cobain conking out during photo shoots as a result of the drug. On the band's 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, Cobain's eyes appeared to be sunken into his head, a clear sign that he had shot up earlier in the evening.
Cobain's heroin addiction increased further as the years progressed. Cobain's first attempt at rehab came in early 1992, not long after he and Courtney discovered they were going to become parents. Immediately after leaving rehab, Nirvana embarked on their Australian tour, with Cobain appearing pale and gaunt while suffering through withdrawals. Not long after returning home, Cobain's addiction resurfaced.
Prior to a performance at the New Music Seminar in New York City in July of 1993, Cobain suffered a heroin overdose. Rather than calling for an ambulance, wife Courtney Love injected Cobain with an illegal drug to bring him out of his unconscious state. Cobain proceeded to perform with Nirvana on what later was recognized as one of their more memorable performances. The public was given no hint that anything out of the ordinary had taken place.
While embarking on a European tour in support of In Utero, Kurt suffered another bout of bronchitis, and was given a prescription for Rohypnol. On March 6, 1994, in Rome, Kurt overdosed on a combination of champagne and Rohypnol, which Love later insisted publicly was Cobain's first suicide attempt. (The doctor who treated Cobain's overdose noted in a press conference that the combination appeared accidental.) Cobain returned home, and soon faced his friends and family at an intervention over his continuing heroin addiction. Given everything that had happened, Cobain agreed to check into rehab.
A few days after arriving at rehab in California, Cobain told the nurses that he was going out for a smoke. After finishing it, he jumped over the facility's six-foot wall, caught the next flight back to Seattle, and dropped off the radar. In the ensuing days, he hung out occasionally with longtime friend Dylan Carlson, and once bumped into friend and famed Seattle photographer Charles Peterson. However, most of his friends and family were unaware of his whereabouts, eventually pushing his wife and mother to file a missing persons report and hire a private investigator to find him.
On April 8, 1994, Cobain's body was discovered in the spare room above the garage (referred to as "the greenhouse") at his Lake Washington home by Veca Electric employee Gary Smith. Smith arrived at the house that morning to install security lighting and saw the body lying inside. Apart from a minor amount of blood coming out of Cobain's ear, Smith reported seeing no visible signs of trauma, and initially believed that Cobain was asleep. Smith found what he thought might be a suicide note with a pen stuck through it beneath an overturned flowerpot. A shotgun, purchased for Cobain by Dylan Carlson, was found at Cobain's side. An autopsy report later concluded Cobain's death as a result of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. The report estimates Cobain to have died on April 5, 1994.
In the alleged suicide note, ostensibly written to Cobain's imaginary childhood friend "Boddah", Cobain quoted a lyric from Neil Young's song "Hey, Hey, My, My": "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Cobain's use of the lyric had a profound impact on Young, who recorded portions of his 1994 album Sleeps With Angels in Cobain's memory.
Cobain was cremated, with one third of his ashes scattered in a Buddhist temple in New York, another third in the Wishkah River, and the rest left in Love's possession.