Nirvana was a popular rock band founded in 1987 in Aberdeen, Washington. Their music was an offshoot of punk and alternative rock and was labeled grunge rock by the mainstream press and media of the time. The group disbanded in 1994 upon the death of its leader, Kurt Cobain. Many critics and historians hail Nirvana as the "flagship band" of "Generation X".
Cobain and Krist Novoselic met in 1985. Both were fans of The Melvins, and both were interested in forming a band. They worked with a series of drummers (Aaron Burckhard, Dan Peters and Dale Crover of The Melvins, who played on their first demos), before settling on Chad Channing. Channing played on their first album, Bleach, released by Sub Pop records. Bleach was highly influenced by Cobain's then-favorite band, The Melvins, as well as the heavy dirge-rock of Mudhoney.
Though he did not actually play on the album, Jason Everman was credited as playing guitar on Bleach because he put up the money for the recording sessions. After the album's completion, Everman had a brief and contentious tenure with the band as a second guitar player, but was ousted following their first US tour. Not long after, he briefly played bass with Soundgarden, and later formed the band Mind Funk.
In early 1990, the band began working with producer Butch Vig on recordings for the follow-up to Bleach. During the sessions, Kurt and Krist realized that Chad wasn't quite the drummer the band needed, and he was let go after the sessions were complete. After a few weeks with Dale Crover of The Melvins filling in, they drafted Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters, with whom they recorded the song "Sliver". In 1990, Dave Osbourne of The Melvins later hooked them up with Dave Grohl, who drummed with D.C. Hardcore punks Scream. Nirvana continued touring aftwards, including a stint with Sonic Youth chronicled in the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke.
Following repeated recommendation by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, David Geffen signed Nirvana to DGC Records in 1990 and the band began recording their first major label album. The result, Nevermind, is now regarded as a classic. The album was produced by Butch Vig, who had previously worked with Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins.
After recording, Vig initially started off to mix the album as well but both Vig and Nirvana were not satisfied with their results so they decided to call in someone else to mix the album. DGC sent them a list with possible options. Cobain did not want to use mixers that had worked with other bands he liked because he did not want to sound like them, so he decided to call in the guy at the bottom of the list after whose name it read 'Slayer': Andy Wallace. Later Cobain would complain in the press that Wallace had made Nevermind sound too slick, although Wallace had been his own choice and the bandmembers themselves had been involved in the mixing process.1 Wallace, however, had tempered the band's indie rock leanings, and had created a mainstream-ready rock sound that others would attempt to duplicate for the next decade.
Nevermind was a massive, unexpected success, selling millions of copies. The highly infectious single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" received heavy airplay on MTV, inspiring a slew of imitators, bringing the grunge sound, as well as so-called alternative rock and alternative culture, into the mainstream. The popularity of "alternative" rock — as well as the sidelining of hair metal — is often credited to Nevermind. Citing exhaustion, the band decided not to undertake another US tour in support of Nevermind, instead opting to make a handful of performances later that year.
In February of 1992, following an Australian tour, Cobain married Courtney Love in Hawaii. Courtney gave birth to a daughter, Frances Bean, in August. Just days after Frances Bean's birth, Nirvana put on a memorable performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. MTV had wanted the band to play "Teen Spirit", but the band wanted to play a new song called "Rape Me". MTV was appalled at the idea of a song called "Rape Me", and eventually agreed that the band could play "Lithium" instead. When the band began their performance, Kurt strummed the first few bars of "Rape Me", giving the MTV execs a solid shock before jumping into "Lithium". Just weeks later, Nirvana performed one of its most popular concerts, headlining at the Reading Festival. Cobain entered the stage in a wheelchair as a practical joke, then proceeded to get up and join the rest of the band in tearing through an assortment of old and new material.
Nirvana released Incesticide, a collection of B-sides and rarities, in December of 1992. It is believed that they did so to circumvent bootleggers. The album contained such fan favorites as "Sliver" and "Aneurysm" as well as covers of songs by The Vaselines, a band that became more popular as a result of Nirvana's covers.
For 1993's In Utero, the band brought in producer Steve Albini, perhaps best known for his work on the highly influential Pixies album Surfer Rosa. The sessions with Albini were productive and notably quick: the initial version of the album was recorded and mixed in two weeks, a far cry from the months spent recording and mixing Nevermind.
Some saw bringing in Albini as a deliberate move on Nirvana's part to give the album a rawer, more unpolished sound: that the band wanted to alienate or distance some of their new "mainstream" audience who'd paid little or no attention to the alternative, obscure, or experimental bands Nirvana saw as their forebearers. One song on In Utero featuring long periods of shrill feedback noise was titled, ironically, "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter". (In the industry, a "radio-friendly unit shifter" describes an "ideal" album: one capable of heavy radio play and ultimately selling many copies, or "units".) However, Cobain insisted that Albini's sound was simply the one he'd always wanted Nirvana to have: a "natural" recording without layers and layers of studio trickery.
While popular perception after the fact was that the band wanted this distorted masterpiece, they were actually unhappy with certain aspects of Albini's mixes. Specifically, they thought the bass levels were too low, and Cobain felt that "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" didn't sound "perfect". Longtime R.E.M. producer Scott Litt was called in to help remix those two songs, with Cobain adding additional instrumentation and backing vocals. Litt also remixed "Pennyroyal Tea", but Albini's version was used on the album.
With In Utero, the band also faced corporate censorship. Giant store chain Wal-Mart refused to carry the album, citing song titles like "Rape Me" and Kurt's plastic-fetus collage on the album's artwork as too controversial for the "family-oriented" chain. The band decided to abide by the request, and compiled a version of the album with "clean" artwork and "Rape Me" retitled "Waif Me". Other than the inclusion of Litt's mix of "Pennyroyal Tea", however, the music on the album was identical to the wider release. When asked about the edited version, Kurt noted that he could relate to the small-town residents that had no other local music stores and were forced to buy their music at Wal-Mart.
While "Heart-Shaped Box" was received warmly by alternative radio, and In Utero debuted at number one on the Billboard Album chart, the album didn't enjoy the same success as Nevermind. When the band embarked on the US In Utero tour (with Pat Smear of the punk rock band The Germs as second guitarist), its first major tour of the States since the success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", it regularly played to half-filled arenas, stymied by the lack of tour support for Nevermind and the challenging new release.
In November of 1993, the band decided to change direction, and sat down for an appearance on MTV Unplugged. The sessions revealed the depth of Cobain's songwriting, which had often been buried under the sonic fury of the band's sound. The song selection also demonstrated Cobain's broad musical interests through his choice of cover songs. It became a hallmark moment of Nirvana's history, if not amplified by the tragedy soon to follow.
In early 1994, the band embarked on a European tour. While the tour started off well, the performances gradually declined, with Kurt looking bored and distracted during the shows. Following a tour stop at Terminal Einz in Munich, Germany, on March 1st, Cobain was diagnosed with bronchitis and severe laryngitis. The next night's show at the same venue was canceled. On the morning of March 4th, Cobain was found unconscious by Courtney Love and rushed to the hospital. The doctor told a press conference that the singer had reacted to a combination of prescription Rohypnol and alcohol. The rest of the tour was canceled, including a planned leg in the UK.
In the ensuing weeks, Cobain's heroin addiction resurfaced. An intervention was organized, and Cobain was convinced to check into rehab. After less than a week in rehab, Cobain climbed over the wall of the facility and flew back to Seattle. A week later, on Friday, April 8, 1994, Cobain's body was discovered at his Seattle home, dead of an apparent suicide, effectively dissolving Nirvana. (Some have disputed the suicide verdict; see below.)
Several Nirvana albums have been released since Cobain's death. The first came in November of 1994 with the release of the band's subdued and eerily morbid performance for MTV Unplugged, Unplugged in New York. This album included guest appearances by members of the Meat Puppets and cover versions of Meat Puppets, Leadbelly, and David Bowie material.
Two weeks after the release of Unplugged in New York, a video compilation of Nirvana performances, titled Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, was released. Cobain himself had compiled a good portion of the video, which documented much of the Nevermind tour. Memorable footage from the video included an infamous incident with a bouncer at a Texas club in October of 1991, as well as the band's performance of "Aneurysm" donned in dresses at Rock in Rio in Brazil in January of 1993.
The original intention was to release the MTV Unplugged set in a double-disc package, with a second disc of live electric material to balance the acoustic set. However, for the two surviving band members, Grohl (now a member of the band Foo Fighters) and Novoselic (who went on to form Sweet 75 and later Eyes Adrift), sorting through the treasure trove of Nirvana recordings so soon after Kurt's passing became too emotionally overwhelming. The live disc, a compilation of Nirvana concert recordings, finally saw release in October of 1996, titled From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah.
In 1997, word spread that Grohl and Novoselic were organizing a box set of Nirvana rarities. Four years later, it was announced that the box set was complete, and would see release in September to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the release of Nevermind. However, shortly before the release date, Courtney Love filed an injunction to stop the box set's release and sued Grohl and Novoselic, claiming that Cobain's former bandmates were hijacking Nirvana's legacy for their own personal interests. What followed was a protracted legal battle over the ownership of Nirvana's music that lasted for more than a year.
Much of the legal wrangling centered on a single unreleased song, "You Know You're Right", the band's final studio recording. Grohl and Novoselic wanted to include the song on the box set, essentially releasing all of the rarities at one time. Love, however, argued that the song was more important than just a generic "rarity", and should be included on a single-disc greatest hits compilation. After more than a year of often public and sometimes bizarre legal maneuvering, the parties settled, agreeing on the immediate release of the greatest hits package including "You Know You're Right", titled simply Nirvana. In turn, Love agreed to donate cassette demos recorded by Cobain for use on the box set.
Nirvana fans' first taste of "You Know You're Right" came in early 1995 when Courtney Love played a version of the song with her band Hole on MTV Unplugged under the title "You've Got No Right". A live rough draft version of the song performed by Nirvana at their October 23, 1993 concert at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago surfaced in Nirvana tape-trading circles a few months later. In the years that followed, rumors of the existence of a studio version of the song perpetuated through Nirvana's fanbase, and it grew to almost mythic proportions. For fans, the first real confirmation of its existence came in 2001 when fragments of the studio recording leaked on the Internet, sending anticipation into a fever pitch. As the court case neared completion in September of 2002, the entire song unexpectedly leaked, days before the announcement of the release of Nirvana. Even though the studio version turned out itself to be a rough draft with unfinished lyrics, fans and non-fans alike adored the song, leading it to become one of the most-played songs on Alternative radio in both 2002 and 2003.
Nirvana was released on October 29, 2002. On top of "You Know You're Right", the album contained hit singles from their three studio albums as well as several alternate mixes and recordings of familiar Nirvana songs. Following its release, many long-time fans complained about the song selection, noting that the alternate version of "Been a Son" (from the Blew EP) was not the band's preferred version, and that the disc lacked songs such as "Sappy" (released as "Verse Chorus Verse") that had received significant radio airplay following Kurt's death.
It was revealed in the liner notes of the Nirvana album that Cobain was concerned that he had not been able to write anything substantial during their last tour and had little material with which to go into the studio. He had always made a point of working on new material during the tour and playing it differently every night so that by the time the tour ended they would have the songs worked out, ready to be recorded. For example, a 1989 performance of the song "Breed" (then titled "Immodium") was included on Wishkah, recorded a full two years before the song's release on Nevermind. Some have used Cobain's feeling of being "written-out" as one possible explanation for his suicide.
November of 2004 finally saw the release of the Nirvana box set, titled With the Lights Out. The box set contained a vast array of early Cobain demos, rough rehearsal recordings, and live tracks recorded throughout the band's history. Of note to serious Nirvana fans were unfinished studio recordings of "Old Age" and "Verse Chorus Verse" (different from "Sappy") recorded during the Nevermind sessions. But, for many, the most exciting track on the entire box was a solo demo of a song called "Do Re Mi", recorded by Cobain just a few short weeks before his death. It showed that even in the turmoil of his final days, Kurt still had the gift for melody that he had demonstrated so many years earlier in songs like "About a Girl".
According to some, notably public access host Richard Lee of Seattle, Kurt Cobain was murdered. His ongoing documentary has been running since the week after Cobain's demise.
In addition, Tom Grant, a private investigator once employed by Love, adamantly believes that Cobain's death was homicide. Grant was hired by Courtney to find Kurt after his disappearance from rehab, and was still under her employ when Kurt's body was found. Grant cites the official toxicology report, which claims that Kurt's heroin level was three times the lethal dosage at the time of his death, as the key piece of evidence of murder, arguing that Kurt could not have injected himself with such a dose and still be able to pull the trigger. Many, however, see Grant as an opportunist, capitalizing on Kurt's death by selling "kits" about the conspiracy via his website. (see website link below)
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield decided to investigate the story for himself, and took a film crew to visit a number of people associated with Kurt and Courtney, including Courtney's father, Kurt's aunt, and one of the couple's former nannies. Most notably, Broomfield spoke to a man named El Duce, who claimed that Courtney had offered him $50,000 to kill Cobain, and passed a polygraph. Broomfield inadvertantly captured El Duce's last interview, as he died under mysterious circumstances days later. Broomfield titled the finished documentary Kurt & Courtney, and it was released in 1998. In the end, however, Broomfield felt he hadn't uncovered enough evidence to conclude the existence of a conspiracy.
Journalists Ian Halperin and Max Wallace took a similar path and attempted to investigate the conspiracy for themselves. Their inital work, the 1999 book Who Killed Kurt Cobain? drew a similar conclusion to Broomfield's film: while there wasn't enough evidence to prove a conspiracy, there was more than enough to demand that the case be reopened. A notable element of the book included their discussions with Tom Grant, who had taped nearly every conversation that he had undertaken while he was under Courtney Love's employ. On their insistence, Grant played some the tapes for the journalists to prove his claims. Over the next couple of years, Halperin and Wallace collaborated with Grant to write a second book, 2004's Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain, where they claim to conclusively prove that Cobain was murdered.
However, while the murder theories remain popular among a core group of hardcore Nirvana fans, the official verdict of death by self-inflicted gunshot wound is still generally accepted by the public. Most cite Cobain's persistent drug addiction, clinical depression, and handwritten suicide note as conclusive proof. Many also point out that Grohl and Novoselic have remained silent in the matter, and that they would certainly have spoken out had they believed that Kurt was murdered.
Cobain wrote in a journal often, leaving 22 notebooks filled with his writing when he died. In November 2002, a sampling of these writings was published as Journals. The book is 280 pages with a simple black cover; the pages are arranged somewhat chronologically (although Cobain generally did not date them). The journal pages are reproduced in color, and there is a section added at the back that has explanations and transcripts of some of the less legible pages. The writings begin in the late 1980s, around the time the band started, and end in 1994. A paperback version of the book, released in 2003, included a handful of writings that were not offered in the initial release.