I'm going to be a superstar musician, kill myself and go out in a flame of glory
- Kurt Cobain, to a school friend
Kurt Donald Cobain was the lead singer and songwriter for the band Nirvana. His songs made him and the band a success, as absolutely everyone could find something that resonated with them, from his music to the lyrics. For Anton Brookes, Nirvana's former UK press officer, Cobain was many things: "It's not Kurt the voice of a generation, it's Kurt the friend, Kurt the father, Kurt the band member. He was down-to-earth and a really nice guy. He was really warm and caring, and he was very vulnerable." However, it was the essence of his songs that made him such a huge success - his frustration and confusion with the world which ultimately led to his downfall.
I remember feeling ashamed all the time. I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family
- Kurt Cobain
Cobain was born on 20 February, 1967, in Aberdeen near Seattle, Washington, USA. His environmental conditioning made him destined for life in the logging industry, and he was meant to grow up to be what was perceived to be 'a man'. However, he lost faith in humans from an early age, having seen his parents, Don and Wendy Cobain, split up when he was nine. He then had to live with different relatives and, according to a song he later wrote, even slept rough under a bridge.
He was also prescribed methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin), as he was hyperactive. As a result, Cobain was a troubled child who ended up fighting against the very conventions that people set up in life.
I do not want to have a long career if I have to put up with the same stuff that I'm putting up with. I'm trying it one last time, and if it's more of a pleasant year for us, then fine, we'll have a career. But I'm not going to subject myself to being stuck in an apartment building for the next ten years and being afraid to go outside of my house. It's not worth it.
- Kurt Cobain
Cobain eventually dropped out of school, and alongside fellow band member Krist Novoselic, began forming the band Nirvana. The band officially came together in 1987, with Cobain on vocals and lead guitar, Novoselic on bass and Dale Crover1 on drums.
Of course, even then the band members could not entirely escape the societal strings that held them; the clothes they wore, thrift-shop plaid shirts and torn jeans, held tight to the logging background they had come from. Even when it became fashionable to wear these pieces and designer manufacturers were releasing their own take on them, there was no denying where the idea had first started.
Nirvana's first album, Bleach, released in 1989 under Sub Pop Records, is a prime example of rebellion against the mainstream music industry. Among the tracks on this album is a ballad entitled About a Girl which was written with Tracy Marander, Cobain's ex-girlfriend, in mind. Cobain was said to be unsure about putting this track on the album. He also listened to Meet the Beatles numerous times before putting pen to paper. The album cost $606 to make and over 30,000 copies were sold. Although this is certainly small for a band, it made way for tours that would showcase their talents and rebellious streak in breaking up their equipment at the end of shows.
By the 1990s, Nirvana had made it into the mainstream music industry and were no longer seen as rebelling against it, but buying into it instead - something the band never set out to do. They toured Europe, where the company Geffen bought out the contract to the band and released the album Nevermind in 1991. This sold more than 10 million copies globally, knocking Michael Jackson off the top spot.
One song in particular, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', was responsible for the rise in popularity of the band. Cobain saw the phrase spray-painted on one of his apartment walls and took it to be a catchphrase supporting teen rebelliousness. The content of the song came about after his reading of the Thomas Pynchon novel Gravity's Rainbow. The song became Nirvana's greatest hit, so popular that Cobain grew to dislike it and began to avoid playing it at gigs. In fact, 'Teen Spirit' was the name of a women's deodorant. The graffiti had been put there by Katherine Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill - the same band that Cobain's ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail was in. Hanna was merely complaining about excessive use of the deodorant!
As a way of coping both with the success of the band, which brought up deep rooted anxieties in him, and the physical pain he suffered from stomach ulcers, Cobain began mixing heroin with alcohol in the 1990s.
In 1991, he met fellow singer Courtney Love at a gig and a year later married her in Hawaii. A few of Cobain's fans were wary of his relationship with Love, but Carolyn Rue, who was in the band 'Hole' with Love, said he "worked out some of his aggression through her".
That same year, Nirvana released Incesticide and Cobain became father to Frances Bean2. Cobain's drug habit, issues with royalties, and a custody battle with child welfare officials over who had the rights to bring up his child - after Love told the magazine Vanity Fair she had taken drugs well into her pregnancy - nearly destroyed the band.
Their third album, In Utero, released in 1993, was considered darker than its predecessors. The album features songs such as 'All Apologies' and 'Heart Shaped Box', and includes lyrics such as 'I do not want what I have got' and 'What's wrong with me?'; references to suicide can clearly be seen. If Cobain was attempting to lose his fans, he succeeded. The album sold only 4 million copies, compared to the 10 million sales of the previous album.
Death of a Legend
In March 1994, Cobain took an overdose that led to a 20-minute coma. His PR people claimed the incident was 'an accident', but after fleeing a drugs detox programme in April of the same year, the singer entered a granny flat behind his Seattle home and ended his life. Cobain's body was discovered 34 hours later when Gary Smith, an electrician, was visiting the property to carry out maintenance work. When police arrived on the scene, they found Cobain with a shotgun still pointed at his chin and a suicide note. The note reveals his struggle with being famous and the success that came with it. It stated that: "Since the age of seven, I've become hateful towards all humans in general", and points out that he couldn't cope with success in the way that Freddie Mercury of Queen did. He wrote that Queen appeared to "relish in the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy".
As a mark of respect to the singer and songwriter, many of his fans marked his departure from this world by holding rallies and vigils in his honour. Ten years later they did so again and a music store, Virgin Megastore in London, invited people to pay their respects to the legend.
According to Forbes.com, Cobain is said to be the richest dead celebrity, with Elvis Presley and John Lennon not doing as well. This is mainly due to a good deal that Love did with music company Primary Wave.
What People Have Said
As a songwriter, Kurt was really one of the greatest talents of pop music. His songs were so emotional and so full of personal pain. The sad thing is what we've lost on the music scene. Regretfully, his body of work is small. He could have done so much more.
- Charles Cross, editor of the Rocket, a Seattle music magazine
He sort of had a depressive streak but he basically seemed optimistic and had ideas for the future. But I think he was pretty overwhelmed in general by his fame.
- Lori Goldston, a cellist who once toured with Nirvana
He was also in a fair amount of psychic pain. He was a very sensitive person, sweet and bright, which are not the best qualities to have if you are a rock star.
- Michael Azerrad, author of Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana
More information on the life and death of Kurt Cobain can be found in the following books.
- Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain
- Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana