Kurt Cobain / Nirvana / Grunge / Death & Life / Stories / Photo / Punks Not Dead
The day, 20 years ago on Tuesday, that Kurt Cobain’s body was found in his home in Seattle, his band Nirvana were supposed to have been playing the RDS, in Dublin. The singer had been dead for three days; his death occurred precisely two decades ago today. The “Prince of Generation X”, the scrawny musical prodigy from the lumber town of Aberdeen, in the backwoods of Washington state, who grew up to become the anti-martyr of the grunge movement, had killed himself after a heroin binge. In Dublin, distressed fans marched to the Phoenix Park carrying album sleeves and candles. Some were dressed in red-and-black jumpers, Cobain’s trademark, others in the grunge uniform of plaid shirt and ripped jeans.Around the Wellington Monument they sat, disconsolate, as Smells Like Teen Spirit blasted out on cassette recorders: “I’m worse at what I do best / And for this gift I feel blessed / Our little group has always been / And always will until the end.” It was a John Lennon moment for those people, who are now in middle age. Cobain was the loser kid of divorced parents, beaten down by self-loathing and peer rejection, who had picked up a guitar and screamed his fury all the way to superstardom. His family were “white trash posing as middle class”, he once said. When he was nine, and his parents were on the brink of divorce, Kurt wrote on his bedroom wall: “I hate Mom. I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom, Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you want to be so sad.” As a teenager he found common cause with the local punk-rock music scene. With two friends he formed Nirvana; and with their second album,Nevermind , they caught a wave: it replaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the top of the chart and went on to sell 30 million copies.
“This was music by, for and about a whole new group of people who have been overlooked, ignored or condescended to,” according to Michael Azerrad, a Nirvana biographer.Baby boomers’ dominance of music was over; younger bands, and younger fans, had seized control. But, as Cobain was to find out, there’s no failure like success. He came to loathe the “yuppie scum in BMWs” who took to his band. On the liner notes of a Nirvana compilation album he wrote: “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different colour, or women, please do this one favour for us – leave us the f**k alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
His wealth and stardom alienated him from the scene that spawned him. On a band T-shirt he referred to Nirvana as “flower sniffin’, kitty pettin’, baby kissin’, corporate rock whores”.
His wealth allowed him to self-medicate, with heroin, a lifelong stomach complaint characterised by crippling pains. He became a rich, famous junkie: the sort of person he used to mock.
A stormy marriage to Courtney Love didn’t exactly bring stability, and he was distraught when they had to surrender custody of their baby daughter, Frances Bean, because of concern about their drug use.
There were overdoses, interventions and spells in rehab. With his band on top of the world and due to play in Dublin, he signed himself out of a clinic, travelled back to his Seattle mansion, injected himself with heroin and shot himself. He was 27. Shortly before Cobain died he talked about the trauma of his daughter being removed from his care: “I’m being used as an example because I stand for everything that goes against the grain of conformist American entertainment.
Not the White Album. Not Gimme Shelter. Not Are You Experienced. Not even The Fabulous Little Richard. Those albums are all canonical, and surely there are other very important records in the history of rock 'n' roll that are contenders. But none of them are Nevermind, the breakout album of a previously little-known trio from the working-class logging town of Aberdeen, Washington.
Other albums might have influenced the sound of music in certain ways, might have been important to rock’s trajectory. But none of them changed the culture at large so vastly, so roughly and so immediately. Even the hippies of the ‘60s counterculture weren’t influenced and changed so distinctly as those of us living in a post-Nirvana world. In a way, the strange epoch we’re stuck with now is both a reflection and a result of the way Nevermind affected us; we are living the chaotic meaninglessness the album prophesied, even more than the shitshow that was the 1990s. If Nevermind was an existential statement, we’ve been blasted into the apocalypse.
Nevermind was released 20 years ago next week, on Sept. 24, 1991, the result of two separate recording sessions conducted in Van Nuys and North Hollywood, California. Its nice-weather locale defied its intent: scuzzed with the desolate, dispirited lyrics of Kurt Cobain, not yet addicted to the heroin that would lead to his suicide, the album was all grit and dark days. We have lived for so long with the sound and aesthetic of “grunge” that it’s hard to imagine life without it, but back then it was not even invented. All anyone knew was that Nirvana was bucking the rock trend toward hair metal, which was about objectifying women and cocaine and gross excess. Nirvana wore Washington-typical flannel shirts, more necessary for the damp weather of Cascadia than fashion statement. Long before Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain had dated Tobi Vail, a drummer in the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill who spent her free time making feminist fanzines. Their whole existence would soon be a revolution.
Any time a great artist dies young and unexpectedly, as fans we often spend our own remaining years wondering what would’ve been, had they just stayed with us longer. Previous generations mourned rockers like Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and John Lennon, while those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s had our own fallen heroes – from metal gods like Ozzy Osbourne virtuoso Randy Rhoads and Metallica‘s Cliff Burton to Sublime‘s Bradley Nowell, Blind Melon‘s Shannon Hoon and of course, Kurt Cobain. The Nirvana frontman and grunge icon would’ve turned 49 today had he not allegedly committed suicide in 1994, and his legacy continues to burn brightly more than two decades after his passing.
But, if Cobain were still alive today, where would he be now? It’s an interesting question. Perhaps even more so than the others from Cobain’s era who’ve since shaken the mortal coil, Cobain would probably be crafting something very different now. As someone who helped (accidentally or otherwise) create an entire genre and cultural shift, Cobain invented the rules; he was never defined or confined by them.
He certainly wouldn’t still be playing grunge, that’s for sure. Nirvana’s groundbreaking 1994 live album MTV Unplugged in New York showed the world that Cobain was capable of a lot more than just screaming and smashing his guitar; the overall folk-country vibe of the album and the band’s unforgettable re-workings of pre-existing material like David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” and the folk traditional “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (aka “In The Pines”) pushed the boundaries of expectation for the band. It turned out that the more we could actually hear Cobain sing, the better his voice sounded.
In an interview originally intended for French television, Cobain said, “It might be nice to start playing acoustic guitar and be thought of as a singer and a songwriter, rather than a grunge rocker. I could sit down on a chair and play acoustic guitar like Johnny Cash or something, and it won’t be a big joke.” Unplugged went a long way toward planting that seed in the public’s mind, but Cobain was already dead by the time of its release in November 1994. It likely would’ve only been the beginning of Kurt’s exploration of a wider range of tones.
This April marks twenty years since the death of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, one of the most iconic cultural figures of the late 20th century. In recognition of that anniversary, a host of retrospectives will recognize both the raw potency of Cobain's songwriting and the tragedy of his heroin use and suicide. Echoing the tired, sexist tropes of "John and Yoko" and "Sid and Nancy," many will also associate Cobain's downfall with his wife, Courtney Love. These tabloid narratives will overshadow Nirvana's political and cultural significance. They will hide that Nirvana was a band of rebels.
A year before his death in 1994, Kurt Cobain expressed hope that his generation could reject the "Reaganite bullshit" that was forced upon them during their childhoods. Indeed, from the growing popularity of countercultural music (both "alternative" rock and hip-hop) to the rise of the global justice movement, the 1990s seemed to offer a youth-led counterbalance to the racism, sexism, and homophobia that swept Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush into office a decade earlier. Twenty years later, however, America's culture wars remain very much alive, and boastful opposition to so-called "political correctness" is used to justify intolerance and oppression in many forms.
In 2012, just a year after the CDC's findings that 1 in 5 American women had been raped, several Republican candidates used their campaigns to share their views on the subject -ranging from Richard Mourdock's claim that rape reflected the will of God to attempts by Congressmen Todd Akin and Ron Paul to clarify which instances of sexual violence they believed constituted "legitimate" and "honest" rape. The same year, high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio raped an unconscious 16-year old girl at a party and used social media to share images of the assault. One of the perpetrators' friends commented online that "the song of the night" was Nirvana's "Rape Me."
This past August, Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson and conservative pundit Michelle Malkin described transgender rights as pandering to "political correctness" and "social engineering run amuck." A week later, 21-year-old transgendered woman Islan Nettles was beaten to death on a New York City street.
Just as popular anti-feminists like Phyllis Schalfly and Jerry Falwell gave legitimacy to sexist and homophobic political positions in the 1970s and `80s, conservative American voices today provide a wide cover for bullying, hate crimes, and other oppressive behaviors. This bigotry and its apologists were precisely what Kurt Cobain stood against.
As a band, Nirvana was less openly political than punk predecessors like the Dead Kennedys or the Clash, and they were decidedly less focused on activism than their friends in Bikini Kill. Even so, in August 1992, Nirvana performed at a benefit concert to fight against Oregon's anti-gay ballot initiative Measure 9. The following spring, bassist Krist Novoselic coordinated a benefit for Bosnian rape survivors, a concert that also featured L7 and the Breeders.
Sexual assault was a common theme in Nirvana songs, and the topic was apparently close to Cobain's heart. While promoting the band's breakthrough album Nevermind in 1991, Cobain called rape "one of the most terrible crimes on Earth," and lamented that it occurred "every few minutes." The actual statistic is that a woman is raped every two minutes - in the United States alone. The global figure is much higher (and thus more frequent).
Cobain also criticized the inherent hypocrisy of solutions rooted in women's self-defense, offering instead, "What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there." Nirvana later performed at a fundraising concert for the investigation into the rape and murder of Mia Zapata, singer of the Seattle band the Gits. After Cobain's death, a Nirvana track also appeared on a benefit album for Home Alive, a women's self-defense center established to honor Zapata.
At their core, Nirvana's politics were largely humanitarian, and for Cobain, they were rooted in a childhood of ostracism and bullying in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington. Frequently beat up and labeled a "faggot," the small-framed Cobain's revenge came through a can of spray paint, which he reportedly used to tag "HOMOSEX RULES" and "GOD IS GAY" on the pick-up trucks of locals. As Cobain told the LGBT-focused magazine the Advocate in 1992, his close friendships with women and frequent clashes with "redneck jocks" had led him, at times, to question his own sexuality.
But while the trucks of Aberdeen provided a somewhat limited canvas, Nirvana's success gave Cobain a broader platform for expressing his indignation. In the liner notes to the platinum-selling Incesticide record, a distraught Cobain relays the story of two rapists who sang the band's song "Polly" while committing their crime. He then pleads with Nirvana's fans that if they "in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please...leave us the fuck alone! don't come to our shows and don't buy our records." Cobain again emphasized this point in a 1992 SPIN cover story, telling the magazine, "I would like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists, and racists in our audience. I know they're out there, and it really bothers me."
Nirvana's penchant for wearing women's clothing (in concerts, photo shoots, and the video for "In Bloom"), as well as the kisses they exchanged on Saturday Night Live, further distanced the band from patriarchal gender and sexuality norms - and from its arena rock contemporaries. Nirvana's distaste for machismo, racism, and misogyny also led to a public feud with notoriously intolerant hair rockers Guns N' Roses, who repeatedly threatened to beat them up.
Nirvana was a punk rock band. Their three-pronged stance against bigotry (racism, sexism, and homophobia) had been well established in the 1980s punk underground by publications like MaximumRocknRoll, bands like Fugazi and MDC, and venues such as 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, California. But though they dutifully delivered this message to a popular audience, many of Nirvana's biggest critics were from a punk movement that never forgave them for working with the corporate music industry.
In their few brief years of stardom, Nirvana navigated a difficult terrain, with a hostile punk community on one side, and on the other, an endless series of concert promoters, music journalists, and industry insiders, who hoped to use the band as a means to their next paycheck. While never completely regretting the decision to sign with a major label, Cobain clearly struggled with the isolation that it created. He resented accusations of "selling out" and pleaded that beyond fame and fortune, signing with DGC Records also ensured that Nirvana albums would be available to young people who had not already found an inroad to punk. As Cobain explained, "In some small towns, Kmart is the only place that kids can buy records."
Cobain, Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl were reluctant rock stars, and in the tradition of early punks the Sex Pistols, they continually stuck their fingers in the entertainment industry's collective eye. On multiple occasions, the band agreed to play their popular hits on national television broadcasts, only to switch to their most abrasive songs at the last minute. Cobain also famously arrived for a Rolling Stone photo shoot wearing a homemade T-shirt that playfully read, "Corporate Magazines Still Suck." To his surprise, the band still made the magazine's cover.
Nirvana, and Cobain in particular, also attempted to use the band's fame to focus attention on lesser-known artists like the Vaselines, Daniel Johnston, the Meat Puppets, Flipper, and Jawbreaker by covering their songs, mentioning them in interviews, wearing their T-shirts, and inviting them to join the band on tour. In 1992, the band released a split single with legendary Chicago indie rockers the Jesus Lizard, and before Cobain's death, the band had been in negotiations to join the national Lollapalooza tour and shape its lineup to their liking. Despite being shunned by the punk underground, Nirvana in many ways served as a welcoming committee, ushering a generation of young outcasts into the rebel community that had been their own refuge years earlier.
In the twenty years since Kurt Cobain's suicide, Dave Grohl has become a rock star in his own right, as the frontman for the Foo Fighters and a sometime member of Queens of the Stone Age. Krist Novoselic has played in a number of musical ensembles, written a book about electoral politics, and directed a film about the band L7. Nirvana as a whole, however, remains frozen in time.
Nirvana was a part of a broad cultural reaction to the conservatism of the 1980s - a moment that included the punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement as well as anthems against police brutality by N.W.A., Ice T, and Public Enemy - but the band's legacy has been largely limited to the narrow confines of Cobain's personal life. Even before Cobain's death, "Kurt and Courtney" was already just another iteration of the sexist narrative about well-loved bands whose helpless male members were corrupted by evil women. And while Courtney Love plays an effective villain, Cobain took great offense to attempts to portray him as a victim. He proudly insisted that their relationship was a 50-50 partnership.
Much of the focus on Kurt Cobain's contribution to American culture has centered on fetishizing the fact that he shared his final age, 27, with many other prominent artists. A more important lens through which to remember Cobain and his band is a story relayed by his uncle at a public memorial service. As happened often, a neighborhood bully was beating up a young Cobain, knocking him to the ground over and over again. But rather than punching the bully back or cowering in fear, Cobain instead, after each knock down, simply extended his middle finger in defiance.
Kurt Cobain was an entertainer, not an activist, and he took pains to make that distinction clear. His politics were nonetheless straight-forward. Like Catcher in the Rye protagonist Holden Caulfield, Cobain's frustration and fury were fueled by human empathy. He would have been repulsed by Rush Limbaugh's "slut-shaming" comments about Sandra Fluke. He would have denounced transphobic attempts to ridicule Private Chelsea Manning. He would have been devastated by the murders of young Islan Nettles and Trayvon Martin, and his heart would have broken over the tormented suicides of Lizzy Seeberg and Tyler Clementi.
In an early draft of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Kurt Cobain asked, "Who Will be the King and Queen of the Outcast Teens?" For a brief moment, he himself was the answer. Cobain did not view himself as larger than life, and he openly mocked the suggestion that he might be a spokesperson for his generation. Nirvana nonetheless set a standard for human decency that very few pop stars have lived up to.
Nirvana was a champion for misfits, and Kurt Cobain was the king of the outcasts.
[Dawson Barrett completed his PhD in History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2013. His dissertation explores the impacts of neoliberal policies on American activism since the 1960s. His article "DIY Democracy: The Direct Action Politics of US Punk Collectives" appears in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal American Studies.
Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain would have been 47 years old Thursday, and for the first time his hometown of Aberdeen is officially celebrating its most famous resident with the first-annual Kurt Cobain Day.
As you drive into town, the sign says “Come as You Are” in honor of one of Nirvana’s biggest hits. But the welcome sign wasn’t added until 2005, 11 years after Kurt took his own life. It’s taken another nine years for the town to finally give Kurt Cobain the official recognition mayor Bill Simpson says should have come much sooner.
“One of the things that I stress is that we are not celebrating his drugs or the facts that he may have killed himself, [but] the fact of what he did for music.”
Simpson says he’s taken plenty of heat from people who criticize Cobain, given his troubled history and the fact he often derided his hometown.
“I keep saying over and over again we’re celebrating his music, not the fact that he was a druggie,” says Simpson.
Twenty years after his death, Cobain continues to draw fans from all over the world to Aberdeen, searching for any connection.
Simpson says he’s counted visitors from 28 different countries and 32 states looking to see notorious sites and memorabilia from Cobain and Nirvana. “In fact, I just left the museum today and there was a couple from El Salvador who came here to see the Kurt Cobain [memorabilia],” says Simpson.
Festivities for the commemoration include the unveiling of a new Cobain statue by local artist Randi Hubbard, a tribute concert and continuing display of Nirvana-related memorabilia at the local library.
The mayor says he’s spent the last few months getting to know a lot more about Cobain the artist and musician, and has come away impressed.
“I think he’s a very deep thinker, a very artistic individual and that’s what makes me happy to see that he is notarized for that and not the facts of the other things that went on in his life.”
And if he has his way, Aberdeen will be doing a lot more to continue to embrace its most famous son.
Kurt Cobain famously said, "My story is exactly the same as 90 percent of everyone my age." With all due respect, he was wrong. Yes, many people his age came from unhappy homes and brimmed with impotent unrest. But how many of them could turn their discontent into trenchant lyrics and sing like a chain-smoking angel? How many became the face of grunge and fronted Nirvana, a band that defined the 1990s and is widely considered one of the greatest ever?
Something in the way Cobain expressed himself transcended words, which is why when he took his own life at the age of 27, the world knew it had lost a great artist. That's also why his story has been passionately examined and debated over the years, and why it's being revisited here. Obviously, we can't cover everything. In fact, it's unclear what "everything" is. As Kurt Cobain's longtime friend Buzz Osborne remarked, "It matters very little what the facts are; what matters is what people believe. And when it comes to Cobain, most of what they believe is fabricated nonsense." So we'll do our best to honestly portray the man and the misery behind one of rock's most mythologized tragedies.
When Kurt Cobain was in junior high, he joined his school's wrestling team, not because he wanted to but because his father Don pressured him to. According to People, Cobain hated sports. He also hated hunting, school, his life, and his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, which he said was "full of bigoted rednecks." During an important wrestling match, he decided to push back. While his father sat in the audience, Cobain simply let himself get pinned.
For years Cobain had been fiercely uncooperative. Deemed hyperactive as a child, he received Ritalin at age 7 to help him concentrate and took sedatives to fight the insomnia caused by the Ritalin. Cobain's surlier side emerged when he was 8. That's when his parents divorced. Before his folks split, Cobain was an upbeat kid who sang Beatles tunes and drew pictures. Afterward, he still drew pictures, but he captioned them "Mom Sucks" and "Dad Sucks."
School also sucked. A friend later said Cobain "stood out like a turd in a punch bowl." He dyed his hair "wild colors" and sometimes spat at "jock types" who sometimes beat him up. Per the Independent, Cobain recalled that many of his peers thought he was gay because he hung out with girls and gay people and had a hard time finding male friends. Cobain wasn't gay, but he wished he was "just to piss off homophobes."
Growing up, Cobain got ping-ponged between his parents and lived with various other relatives because nobody knew quite how to handle him. His deep-seated hurt drove him to lash out, smoke pot, and ultimately quit school, though, as NME pointed out, even if he had stayed in school, he would have failed to graduate. He also failed to find a job, so his mom kicked him out.
Cast adrift, Cobain got by (and probably high) with a little help from his friends. He slept on their couches and in the backs of vans. He landed and lost jobs intermittently, even working part-time at a janitor at his high school. Legend has it that Cobain also slept under a bridge, though his buddy Buzz Osborne called that story a load of fecal matter. Coincidentally, Fecal Matter was also the name of a punk band Cobain formed in 1985 and which Osborne later joined.
Fecal Matter marked an improvement in Cobain's circumstances. He formed the group after moving in with an aunt whose home doubled as a music studio, and his band served as an emotional outlet and an opportunity for 18-year-old Cobain to hone his songwriting abilities. He would form and dissolve other bands, but Fecal Matter was what made future Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic interested in working with Cobain.
Many people view Cobain as a fragile-hearted poet who shattered under the pressure of undesired fame. It's a compelling narrative, but Time argued there's more to the story. Nirvana's ex-manager Danny Goldberg said Cobain "definitely wanted to be famous" and "worked assiduously" to build Nirvana's popularity. Moreover, Cobain's emotional fissures started showing years before Nirvana rocketed to superstardom with its 1991 album Nevermind.
In 1989 Cobain had a nervous breakdown while performing in Rome. As detailed by Rolling Stone, Nirvana was promoting its first album, Bleach, when Cobain suddenly smashed his guitar, ascended a dangerously high stack of amps, and threatened to jump. He was dissuaded from doing so but seemed intent on splitting up the band.
The documentary Montage of Heck has suggested that the singer attempted suicide as a teenager by lying across train tracks, which Cobain described in an audiotape he made in 1988. Multiple people who knew the musician, including Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, Cobain's wife Courtney Love, and former schoolmate Buzz Osborne have expressed doubts that it actually occurred, and documentary creator Brett Morgan acknowledged that his goal was to present "an emotional truth." However, the facts suggest that Cobain struggled with suicidal ideation long before his spotlight turned incandescent.
Heavier Than Heaven, one of rock's most beloved men "first locked eyes" with one of rock's most hated women at a nightclub in Oregon in 1990, "and within 30 seconds they were tussling on the floor." Nirvana was booked to play and Courtney Love had a friend with personal ties to the opening act. Love took a playful jab at Cobain's appearance, and he retaliated with flirtatious wrestling (literally).
For Cobain, it was lust at first sight. Love became infatuated after listening to Nirvana's music and taking the time to notice "how cute Kurt was." They met again in 1991 and discovered they both enjoyed guzzling cough syrup. Love would later say they "bonded over pharmaceuticals." Before long, they bonded physically, and in February 1992, they got married on a cliff in Waikiki. Several months later, Love gave birth to their daughter. The rest is hearsay.
Cobain characterized his relationship with Love as a union of opposites, "like Evian water and battery acid." Many call it a case of fly meets spider, with Love as the conniving arachnid. However, Michael Azerrad, who wrote the Nirvana biography Come As You Are, cast doubt on that assessment: "Kurt had a very strong will and was not easily pushed around. Unless you can do a Vulcan mind meld with Courtney, I would think twice about second-guessing her motives."
Nirvana's third and final studio album In Utero contains a track referencing 1930s actress Frances Farmer. Per NME, Cobain likened himself to Farmer, partly because of the negative press they both received. Perhaps he also compared the actress to Courtney Love, who married Cobain while wearing a dress once owned by Farmer and who received so much unflattering coverage that Cobain threatened to end Nirvana.
As the LA Times described, in 1992 rumors emerged that Cobain was at Death's door after overdosing on drugs. The singer mocked the gossip during a U.K. music festival by wearing a wig and a hospital gown (shown above) and feigning collapse. When addressing claims made about his wife, he was far less flippant, telling the audience, "There have been some pretty extreme things written about us and especially my wife. She thinks everybody hates her now."
On September 1, two days after the festival, Vanity Fair published an article insinuating that Love got her husband hooked on heroin and heavily implying that she used the drug while pregnant with their daughter, Frances. As a result, Frances was briefly taken from the couple. (Love eventually admitted to taking heroin before realizing she was pregnant.) Horrified, Cobain wrote a letter to boss David Geffen in which he decried the Vanity Fair piece as "a crucifixion" and voiced his desire to exit the sour limelight. As Cobain emphatically put it, "f*ck Nirvana."