The definitive Generation X icon and foremost purveyor of Seattle grunge rock, Kurt Cobain struggled with personal demons including substance abuse and mental illness his entire life. Alongside bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, Cobain scored as the frontman and main songwriter for the 1990s defining rock act, Nirvana, who conquered the world with 1991's iconic album Nevermind and their 1993 follow-up In Utero. On the strength of such powerfully dark songs as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Lithium," "Come as You Are," "Rape Me" and "All Apologies," Nirvana revolutionized the music industry and earned near-universal commercial and critical success. His tumultuous marriage to rocker Courtney Love, which produced daughter Frances Bean, increased his profile as the couple was viewed by fans and critics as a kind of grunge version of John and Yoko. Struggling with the pressures of fame, his fear of selling out, and his escalating drug use, Cobain was not afforded the opportunity to fully enjoy his success, and after a suicide attempt and several failed rehab attempts, he committed suicide with a self-inflicted shotgun blast, with his body being discovered at his Seattle home on April 8, 1994. The posthumous release of the MTV Unplugged in New York album, considered by many to be the band's creative high point and an indicator of just how impressively rich Cobain's talent was, proved a huge success and won the band a Grammy. Despite his young death at 27, Cobain's memory endured, with speculation persisting about the mysterious nature of his death. Although his early death marked a glorious but brief run for his band, Kurt Cobain left behind a legacy that not only helped define a generation but literally changed the world.
Born Feb. 20, 1967 in Aberdeen, WA, Kurt Donald Cobain came from a musically gifted but splintered family. Demonstrating considerable artistic talent and sensitivity as a child, with the help of his extended family he learned guitar and piano and began singing. However, his parents' divorce when he was nine years old shattered his self-image, bringing out his worst self-destructive and negative behaviors. Resenting his mother for staying with her abusive boyfriend and his father for remarrying, Cobain began rebelling and acting out so aggressively that he became essentially homeless, moving in with extended family and friends for short stints. Identifying with minority and oppressed factions, Cobain seemed to relish challenging social norms and authority figures and often found himself in varying degrees of trouble at school, home and with the law. After he moved back in with his mother, Cobain ended up dropping out of high school two weeks before graduation and was summarily kicked out of the house. Although he would later self-mythologize this experience and describe living under a bridge over the Wishkah River, Cobain in fact balanced stints of homelessness with staying with friends.
Although his musical taste was wide-ranging and the first concert he attended was Sammy Hagar and Quarterflash, Cobain was most drawn to punk and the musical fringes rather than mainstream pop. As an adult, he would perform a bit of revisionist history on his own tastes to suit his image, reflecting his need to maintain control over his own story. While working at a resort and making frequent forays into Olympia to attend concerts, Cobain began dating Tracy Marander, an airport cafeteria worker who assumed an almost maternal role in his life, supporting them both financially so that Cobain could focus on his growing interest in his burgeoning music career. Marander not only kept Cobain fed, housed and reassured, but she also helped coordinate his band work as well as attending his shows and assisting with the promotional artwork. Music became Cobain's all-consuming passion, and he had never lost touch with fellow punk rock fan and good friend Krist Novoselic. After briefly leading the band Fecal Matter, Cobain finally convinced Novoselic to join him for a new lineup: Nirvana.
Although he was making progress musically, Cobain was already struggling with drug addiction, including LSD, heroin, alcohol, solvents and marijuana. Many would later theorize that he turned to these substances to escape the emotional and physical pain of his existence, an idea given credence by Cobain's chronic bronchitis and stomach problems. The latter especially plagued him, and was exacerbated by his poor diet and body image issues, which dovetailed into his own mental health issues, which family members would later claim included ADHD and bipolar disorder as well as the effects of a family history of suicide, mental illness and drug abuse. Obviously grappling with his own demons, Cobain had already begun to cut his professional teeth on the hardscrabble touring circuit and had a handful of rough demos. His work with Nirvana proved to be a breakthrough. The band eventually hired drummer Chad Channing and released their debut album Bleach in 1989 on the indie label Sub Pop. The set exemplified the new grunge sound while also reinventing it, and received excellent critical reviews. Featuring such seminal songs as "About a Girl," "Blew" and a cover of "Love Buzz," Bleach became an underground sensation and showcased Cobain's talent for writing mysterious lyrics that seemed simultaneously simple, yet dense with hidden meanings.
The band's visual style and Cobain's unmistakable vocals helped put the group on the radar of major labels and mainstream fans. In 1990, the group replaced drummer Channing with Dave Grohl of the newly defunct group Scream, and Cobain himself began a new relationship with Tobi Vail of riot grrrl icons Bikini Kill. Incredibly supportive of feminist and other humanist concerns, Cobain's social conscience found inspiration in the highly principled Vail, who lived and created by a furiously feminist and activist philosophy. Fellow Bikini Kill band member Kathleen Hanna would also impact Cobain in many ways, especially when she jokingly spray-painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his apartment wall, referencing a brand of deodorant worn by Vail. Although Vail regarded traditional relationships as sexist paradigms and therefore refused to "settle down" with Cobain, she left a huge impression on him, fueling many of the songs he would write for the band's follow-up.
The new lineup of Nirvana made their major label debut with 1991's Nevermind. A successful beyond anyone's wildest dreams, the set spearheaded the grunge movement and wowed critics and fans alike, who saw the band - and especially Cobain - as the definitive voice of disaffected, alienated Generation X, with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as their new anthem. While solidifying the power of the "Seattle sound" and the rise of alternative rock radio, the band ushered in literal and metaphoric sea change when they knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous off the top of the charts. The entire set would become iconic, with Cobain-penned standouts like "In Bloom," "Come as You Are," "Polly" and "Lithium" searing the nation's ears with a new sound that was equal parts pain and poetry. Cobain's tumultuous romantic relationship with Hole frontwoman Courtney Love earned them countless headlines and a unique glamour as the hard-edged king and queen for a certain generation and genre, and the two fell in love, bonded by their tragic childhoods, personal demons and various addictions. Around the time of Nirvana's memorable first appearance on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Love became pregnant with Cobain's child. The two married on Feb. 24, 1992 in Hawaii.
Seemingly showered with good fortune, Cobain's darker side threatened to self-destruct as his drug use increased exponentially. A rerelease of Bleach turned that album into a hit as well, and the band notched high-profile performances around the world, enjoying near universal adulation both critically and commercially. Cobain's drug use and erratic behavior, however, contributed to rumors that Nirvana was breaking up, even as they released a compilation, 1992's Insecticide, and Love gave birth to a daughter, Frances Bean Cobain on Aug. 18, 1992. Detoxing at the hospital at the same time his wife was giving birth, Cobain managed to pull it together to perform only days later with his band at England's Reading Music Festival - a performance that would go down in legend. But controversy followed Cobain overseas after a Vanity Fair profile on his wife was published in which Love admitted to using heroin while pregnant. Although Love claimed she was misquoted, the damage was done and tabloid attention to the family went into overdrive, with Child Protective Services ordering the baby removed from their custody upon its birth until a series of drug tests and social worker visits were put into place. Against this traumatic backdrop, the band's next album, 1993's In Utero was released.
Fully aware that it would be impossible to have lightning struck twice, the roll-out for the album was muted but the set's quality spoke for itself, garnering high sales and critical acclaim once more, as well as including such iconic songs as "Heart-Shaped Box," "Pennyroyal Tea," "Rape Me" and "All Apologies." Perhaps the zenith of the singer-songwriter's work came with their December 1993 appearance on "MTV Unplugged" (MTV, 1989- ) that revealed just how deeply talented a musician and writer Cobain was. Without electrical accompaniment, Cobain's voice could be heard more clearly than ever before, particularly as it seared through such songs as David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" and Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" The heart and soul of the band, Cobain had grown too powerful for anyone to stop his out-of-control drug use and he weathered attempts at rehab and overdoses, leaving his bandmates and wife to pray he would pull it together against all odds. Despite their best efforts, Cobain's torment seemed to increase with his success, and he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt while on tour in March 1994 via overdose of champagne and Rohypnol. With his wife at his side, Cobain was immediately rushed to a Rome hospital in a coma, leaving many fans around the world to believe him dead. After five days in the hospital, Cobain was released and returned to the States.
The situation continued to escalate until Love arranged an intervention on March 25, 1994, which eventually convinced Cobain to enter rehab in Los Angeles. Although he spent a day seemingly compliant with the program, on the second day he climbed a fence, hailed a taxi and flew back to Seattle without telling anyone. A reportedly frantic Love hired a private investigator to track down her husband. On April 8, 1994, an electrician discovered Cobain's body at his Lake Washington home. Dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound, Cobain left a suicide note as well as high concentrations of heroin and Valium in his bloodstream. The coroner would later estimate that he died on April 5th. A public vigil for Cobain drew approximately 7,000 mourners, with Love reading parts of his suicide note over the loudspeakers for bereaved fans. Over the years, Cobain - both solo and as part of Nirvana - would retain a place in the heart of countless fans and critics as well as inspiring a slew of tributes, including 2001's noted Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, Gus Van Sant's film homage "Last Days" (2005) and the publication of Cobain's own journals and papers in 2002. So powerful was the rocker's hold over popular culture that elaborate conspiracy theories sprang up as to the "true" nature of his death, and the ever-controversial Love remained a polarizing lightning rod for this type of speculation, such as in the heavily slanted Nick Bromfield documentary "Kurt & Courtney" (1998). Very few entertainers could claim the generation-defining impact of the troubled yet talented Cobain. Even more powerful was the music he and his bandmates created, which remained as vital as the day it was recorded.
By Jonathan Riggs