He’s dead, but he would have had one today.
Here’s a look back at his career.
Kurt Donald Cobain (February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994) was an American singer-songwriter, musician and artist, best known as the lead singer and guitarist of the grunge band Nirvana. Cobain formed Nirvana with Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington in 1985 and established it as part of the Seattle music scene, having its debut album Bleach released on the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989. After signing with major label DGC Records, the band found breakthrough success with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from its second album Nevermind (1991). Following the success of Nevermind, Nirvana was labeled “the flagship band” of Generation X, and Cobain hailed as “the spokesman of a generation”.
Cobain however was often uncomfortable and frustrated, believing his message and artistic vision to have been misinterpreted by the public, with his personal issues often subject to media attention. He challenged Nirvana’s audience with its final studio album In Utero (1993). During the last years of his life, Cobain struggled with heroin addiction, illness and depression. He also had difficulty coping with his fame and public image, and the professional and lifelong personal pressures surrounding himself and his wife, musician Courtney Love. On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle, the victim of what was officially ruled a suicide by a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. The circumstances of his death have become a topic of public fascination and debate. Since their debut, Nirvana, with Cobain as a songwriter, has sold over 25 million albums in the US alone, and over 50 million worldwide.
Kurt Donald Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, at Grays Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington, to a waitress, Wendy Elizabeth (née Fradenburg), and an automotive mechanic, Donald Leland Cobain. His father is of Irish ancestry and his maternal grandfather is of German descent. Cobain’s Irish ancestors migrated from County Tyrone of Northern Ireland in 1875. Researchers have found them to have been shoemakers, originally named Cobane, who came from the village of Inishatieve near Pomeroy, settling in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, and then in Washington. Cobain had one younger sister named Kimberly, born in 1970.
Cobain’s family had a musical background. His maternal uncle Chuck Fradenburg starred in a band called The Beachcombers, his Aunt Mari Earle played guitar and performed in bands throughout Grays Harbor County, and his great-uncle Delbert had a career as an Irish tenor; making an appearance in the 1930 film King of Jazz. Cobain was described as being a happy and excitable, while sensitive and caring child. His talent as an artist was evident from an early age. His bedroom was described as having taken on the appearance of an art studio, where he would accurately draw his favorite characters from films and cartoons such as Aquaman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Disney characters like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Pluto. This enthusiasm was encouraged by his grandmother Iris Cobain, who was a professional artist herself. Cobain began developing an interest in music early in his life. According to his Aunt Mari, he began singing at two years old. At age four, Cobain started playing the piano and singing, writing a song about their trip to a local park. He listened to artists like the Ramones and would sing songs like Arlo Guthrie‘s “Motorcycle Song,” The Beatles‘ “Hey Jude“, Terry Jacks‘ “Seasons in the Sun” and the theme song to The Monkees television show at a young age.
When Cobain was seven years old, his parents divorced. Later in his life, he said the divorce had a profound effect on his life. His mother noted that his personality changed dramatically; Cobain became defiant and withdrawn. In a 1993 interview, he elaborated:
“I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason. I was ashamed of my parents. I couldn’t face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.”
Cobain’s parents both found new partners after the divorce. His father had promised not to remarry; however, after meeting Jenny Westeby, he did, to Kurt’s dismay. Kurt, his father, Westeby, and her two children Mindy and James, moved into a new household together. Cobain liked Westeby at first, who gave him the maternal attention he desired. In January 1979, Westeby gave birth to a boy, Chad Cobain. This new family, which Cobain insisted was not his real one, was in stark contrast to the attention Cobain was used to receiving as an only boy; he soon began to express resentment toward his stepmother. Kurt’s mother began dating a man who was abusive. Cobain witnessed the domestic violence inflicted upon her, with one incident resulting in her being hospitalized with a broken arm. Wendy steadfastly refused to press charges, remaining completely committed to the relationship.
Kurt behaved insolently toward adults. He began bullying another boy at school. These behaviours eventually caused his father and Westeby to take him to a therapist, who concluded that Kurt would benefit in a single family environment. Both sides of the family attempted to bring his parents back together, but to no avail. On June 28, 1979, Cobain’s mother granted full custody of Kurt to his father.
Cobain’s teenage rebellion quickly became overwhelming for his father, who placed Kurt in the care of family and friends. While living with the born-again Christian family of his friend Jesse Reed, Cobain became a devout Christian and regularly attended church services. Cobain later renounced Christianity, engaging in what would be described as “anti-God” rants. The song “Lithium” is about his experience while living with the Reed family. Religion would remain an important part in Cobain’s personal life and beliefs, as he often used Christian imagery in his work and maintained a constant interest in Jainism and Buddhist philosophy. The band name Nirvana was taken from the Buddhist concept, which Cobain described as “freedom from pain, suffering and the external world,” which paralleled with the punk rock ethic and ideology. Cobain would regard himself as both a Buddhist and a Jain during different points of his life, educating himself about the philosophies through various sources, including through watching late night television documentaries on both subjects.
Although not interested in sports, Kurt was enrolled in a junior high school wrestling team at the insistence of his father. Kurt was a skilled wrestler, yet despised the experience. Because of the ridicule he endured from his teammates and coach, he allowed himself to be pinned, in an attempt to sadden his father. Later, his father enlisted him in a little league baseball team, where Cobain would intentionally strike out to avoid playing on the team.
Cobain befriended a homosexual student at school, and suffered bullying from heterosexual students who concluded that Cobain was gay. In an interview he said that he liked having the identity of being gay because he didn’t like people and when they thought he was gay they left him alone. Kurt stated, “I started being really proud of the fact that I was gay even though I wasn’t”. His friend tried to kiss him and Kurt backed away and told his friend he was not gay but would still be friends with him. In a 1993 interview with The Advocate, Cobain claimed that he was “gay in spirit” and “probably could be bisexual.” He also stated that he used to spray paint “God Is Gay” on pickup trucks in the Aberdeen area. However, Aberdeen police records show that the phrase for which he was arrested was actually “Ain’t got no how watchamacallit”. One of his personal journals states, “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.”
Cobain enjoyed creating works of art. He would often draw during school classes, including objects associated with human anatomy. When given a caricature assignment for an art course, Cobain drew a posing Michael Jackson. When his art teacher told him the caricature would be inappropriate to be displayed in a school hallway, Cobain drew an unflattering sketch of then-President Ronald Reagan.
As attested to by numerous of Cobain’s classmates and family members, the first concert he attended was Sammy Hagar and Quarterflash at the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1983. Cobain, however, claimed that the first concert he attended was the Melvins; he wrote prolifically in his Journals of the experience. As a teenager living in Montesano, Cobain eventually found escape through the thriving Pacific Northwest punk scene, going to punk rock shows in Seattle. Cobain soon began frequenting the practice space of fellow Montesano musicians the Melvins.
During his sophomore year in high school, Cobain began living with his mother in Aberdeen. Two weeks prior to graduation, he dropped out of Aberdeen High School upon realizing he did not have enough credits to graduate. His mother gave him a choice: find employment or leave. After one week, Cobain found his clothes and other belongings packed away in boxes. Feeling banished from his own mother’s home, Cobain stayed with friends, occasionally sneaking back into his mother’s basement. Cobain also claimed during periods of homelessness to have lived under a bridge over the Wishkah River, an experience that inspired the Nevermind track “Something in the Way“. However, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic said, “He hung out there, but you couldn’t live on those muddy banks, with the tides coming up and down. That was his own revisionism.”
In late 1986 Cobain moved into an apartment, paying his rent by working at a Polynesian coastal resort approximately 20 miles (32 km) north of Aberdeen. During this period, he was traveling frequently to Olympia, Washington to go to rock concerts. During his visits to Olympia, Cobain formed a relationship with Tracy Marander. The couple had a close relationship, but one that was often strained with financial difficulties and Cobain’s absence when touring. Marander supported the couple by working at the cafeteria of the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, often stealing food. Cobain spent most his time sleeping into the late evening, watching television and concentrating on art projects. Marander’s insistence that he get a job caused arguments that influenced Cobain to write “About a Girl“, which was featured on the Nirvana album Bleach. Marander is credited with having taken the cover photo for the album. Marander was not aware that “About a Girl” was written about her until years after Cobain’s death.
Soon after Marander separated from him, Cobain began dating Tobi Vail, an influential DIY punk zinester of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. After meeting Vail, Cobain vomited as he was so completely overwhelmed with anxiety regarding his infatuation with her. This event would inspire the lyric: “Love you so much it makes me sick,” which would appear in the song “Aneurysm“. While Cobain would regard Vail as his female counterpart, his relationship with her waned. Cobain desired the maternal comfort of a traditional relationship, which Vail regarded as sexist within a countercultural punk rock community. Those who dated Vail would be described by her friend Alice Wheeler as “fashion accessories.” Kurt and Tobi spent most of their time together as a couple discussing political and philosophical issues. Cobain’s relationship with Vail would inspire the lyrical content of many of the songs on Nevermind. Once, while discussing anarchism and punk rock with friend Kathleen Hanna, Hanna spray-painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Kurt’s apartment wall. Teen Spirit was the name of a deodorant Vail wore; Hanna joked that Cobain smelled like it. Cobain, unaware of this, initially interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning. The slogan inspired the title to the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit“
The Beatles were an early and lasting influence on Cobain; his aunt Mari remembers him singing “Hey Jude” at the age of two. “My aunts would give me Beatles records,” Cobain told Jon Savage in 1993, “so for the most part [I listened to] the Beatles [as a child], and if I was lucky, I’d be able to buy a single.” Cobain expressed a particular fondness for John Lennon, whom he called his “idol” in his posthumously-released journals, and he admitted that he wrote the song “About a Girl,” from Nirvana 1989 debut album Bleach, after spending three hours listening to Meet The Beatles!.
Cobain was also a fan of classic rock bands from the 1970s, including Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Queen, and Kiss. Nirvana occasionally played cover songs by these bands, including Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song“, “Dazed and Confused” and “Heartbreaker“, Black Sabbath’s “Hand of Doom,” and Kiss’ “Do You Love Me?”, and wrote the Incesticide song “Aero Zeppelin” as a tribute to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.
Punk rock proved to be a profound influence on a teenaged Cobain’s attitude and artistic style. His first punk rock album was Sandinista! by The Clash, but he became a bigger fan of a fellow 1970s British punk band the Sex Pistols, describing them as “one million times more important than the Clash” in his journals. He was introduced to 1980s American hardcore bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Millions of Dead Cops and Flipper by Buzz Osbourne, lead singer and guitarist of the Melvins and fellow Aberdeen, Washington native. The Melvins themselves were an important early musical influence on Cobain, with their heavy, grungy sound mimicked by Nirvana on many songs from Bleach.
Cobain was also a fan of protopunk acts like the Stooges, whose 1973 album Raw Power he listed as his favorite of all time in his journals, and The Velvet Underground, whose 1968 song “Here She Comes Now” the band covered both live and in the studio.
The 1980s American alternative rock band Pixies were instrumental in helping an adult Cobain develop his own songwriting style. In a 1992 interview with Melody Maker, Cobain said that hearing their 1988 debut album, Surfer Rosa, “convinced him to abandon his more Black Flag-influenced songwriting in favor of the Iggy Pop/Aerosmith–type songwriting that appeared on Nevermind. In a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone, he said that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his attempt at “trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
Cobain’s appreciation of early alternative rock bands also extended to Sonic Youth and R.E.M., both of which the members of Nirvana befriended and looked up to for advice. It was under recommendation from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon that Nirvana signed to DGC in 1990, and both bands did a two week tour of Europe in the summer of 1991, as documented in the 1992 documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. In 1993, Cobain said of R.E.M.: “If I could write just a couple of songs as good as what they’ve written … I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”
After attaining mainstream success, Cobain became a devoted champion of lesser known indie bands, covering songs by the Vaselines, Meat Puppets, Wipers and Fang onstage and/ or in the studio, wearing Daniel Johnston T-shirts during photo shoots, having the K Records logo tattooed on his forearm, and enlisting bands like The Butthole Surfers, Shonen Knife, Chokebore and Half Japanese along for the In Utero tour in late 1993 and early 1994. Cobain even invited his favorite musicians to perform with him: ex-Germs guitarist Pat Smear joined the band in 1993, and the Meat Puppets appeared onstage during Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance, to perform three songs from their second album, Meat Puppets II.
Nirvana’s Unplugged set also included renditions of “The Man Who Sold the World,” by British rock musician David Bowie, and the American folk song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” as adapted by the American folk musician, Lead Belly. Cobain introduced the latter by calling Lead Belly his favorite performer, and in a 1993 interview revealed he had been introduced to him from reading the American author, William S. Burroughs. “I remember [Burroughs] saying in an interview, “These new rock’n’roll kids should just throw away their guitars and listen to something with real soul, like Leadbelly,'” Cobain said. “I’d never heard about Leadbelly before so I bought a couple of records, and now he turns out to be my absolute favorite of all time in music. I absolutely love it more than any rock’n’roll I ever heard.”
Nirvana’s acoustic Unplugged set, which was released posthumously as an album in 1994, may have provided a hint of Cobain’s future musical direction. The record has drawn comparisons to R.E.M.’s 1992 release, Automatic for the People, and in 1993, Cobain himself predicted that the next Nirvana album would be “pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.’s last album.”
“Yeah, he talked a lot about what direction he was heading in,” Cobain’s friend, R.E.M.’s lead singer Michael Stipe, told Newsweek in 1994. “I mean, I know what the next Nirvana recording was going to sound like. It was going to be very quiet and acoustic, with lots of stringed instruments. It was going to be an amazing fucking record, and I’m a little bit angry at him for killing himself. He and I were going to record a trial run of the album, a demo tape. It was all set up. He had a plane ticket. He had a car picking him up. And at the last minute he called and said, ‘I can’t come.'”