Kurt Donald Cobain (February 20, 1967 – c. April 5, 1994), was an American musician, best known for his roles as lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the Seattle-based rock band Nirvana.
Cobain formed Nirvana in 1987 with Krist Novoselic. Within two years, the band became a fixture of the burgeoning Seattle grunge scene. In 1991, the arrival of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” marked the beginning of a dramatic shift of popular rock music away from the dominant genres of the 1980s (glam metal, arena rock, and dance-pop) and toward grunge and alternative rock. The music media eventually awarded the song “anthem-of-a-generation” status, and, with it, Cobain was labeled a “spokesman” for Generation X.
During the last years of his life, Cobain struggled with drug addiction and the media pressures surrounding him and his wife, Courtney Love. On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead in his home in Seattle, the victim of what was officially ruled a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. In ensuing years, the circumstances of his death became a topic of fascination and debate.
Life and career
Kurt Cobain was born to Donald and Wendy Cobain on February 20, 1967 in Aberdeen, Washington and spent his first six months living in the village of Hoquiam, Washington before the family moved to Aberdeen. He began developing an interest in music early in his life. According to his Aunt Mari, “He was singing from the time he was two. He would sing Beatles songs like ‘Hey Jude’. He had a lot of charisma from a very young age.”
Cobain’s life changed at the age of seven when his parents divorced in 1975, an event which he later cited as having a profound impact on his life. His mother noted that his personality changed dramatically, with Cobain becoming more withdrawn. In a 1993 interview, Cobain said, “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.” After a year spent living with his mother following the divorce, Cobain moved to Montesano, Washington to live with his father, but after a few years his youthful rebellion became too overwhelming and he found himself being shuffled between friends and family.
At school, Cobain took little interest in sports. At his father’s insistence, Cobain joined the junior high wrestling team. While he was good at it, he despised it. Later, his father signed him up for a local baseball league, where Cobain would intentionally strike out to avoid having to play. Instead, Cobain focused on his art courses. He often drew during classes, including objects associated with human anatomy. Cobain was friends with a gay student at his school, sometimes suffering bullying at the hands of homophobic students. That friendship led some to believe that he himself was gay. In one of his personal journals, Cobain wrote, “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.” In a 1993 interview with The Advocate, Cobain claimed that he used to spray paint “God is Gay” on pickup trucks around Aberdeen. Cobain also claimed he was arrested in 1985 for spray-painting “HOMO SEX RULES” on a bank. However, Aberdeen police records show that the phrase for which he was arrested was actually “Ain’t got no how watchamacallit”. As a teenager growing up in small-town Washington, Cobain eventually found escape through the thriving Pacific Northwest punk scene, going to punk rock shows in Seattle. Eventually, Cobain began frequenting the practice space of fellow Montesano musicians the Melvins.
In the middle of tenth grade, Cobain moved back to live with his mother in Aberdeen. Two weeks before his graduation, Cobain dropped out of high school after realizing that he did not have enough credits to graduate. His mother gave him a choice: either get a job or leave. After a week or so, Cobain found his clothes and other belongings packed away in boxes. Forced out of his mother’s home, Cobain often stayed at friends’ houses and sneaked into his mother’s basement occasionally. Cobain later claimed that when he could not find anywhere else to stay, he lived under a bridge over the Wishkah River, an experience that inspired the Nevermind track “Something in the Way”. However, Krist Novoselic claimed that Cobain never really lived there, saying, “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 the first house he lived in alone and paid his rent by working at a coastal resort twenty miles from Aberdeen. At the same time, Cobain was traveling more frequently to Olympia, Washington to check out rock shows. During his visits to Olympia, Cobain started a relationship with Tracy Marander.
For his 14th birthday, Cobain’s uncle gave him the option of a guitar or a bicycle as a gift; Cobain chose the guitar. He started learning a few covers, including AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl”, and soon began working on his own songs.
In high school, Cobain rarely found anyone to jam with. While hanging out at the Melvins practice space, he met Krist Novoselic, a fellow devotee of punk rock. Novoselic’s mother owned a hair salon and Cobain and Novoselic would occasionally practice in the upstairs room. A few years later, Cobain tried to convince Novoselic to form a band with him by lending him a copy of a home demo recorded by Cobain’s earlier band, Fecal Matter. After months of asking, Novoselic finally agreed to join Cobain, forming the beginnings of Nirvana.
During their first few years playing together, Novoselic and Cobain were hosts to a rotating list of drummers. Eventually, the band settled on Chad Channing, with whom Nirvana recorded the album Bleach, released on Sub Pop Records in 1989. Cobain, however, became dissatisfied with Channing’s style, leading the band to seek out a replacement, eventually settling on Dave Grohl. With Grohl, the band found their greatest success via their 1991 major-label debut, Nevermind.
Cobain struggled to reconcile the massive success of Nirvana with his underground roots. He also felt persecuted by the media, comparing himself to Frances Farmer, and harbored resentment for people who claimed to be fans of the band but who completely missed the point of the band’s message. One incident particularly distressing to Cobain involved two men who raped a woman while singing the Nirvana song “Polly”. Cobain condemned the episode in the liner notes of the US release of the album Incesticide: “Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly’. I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience. Sorry to be so anally P.C. but that’s the way I feel.”
Courtney Love first saw Cobain perform in 1989 at a show in Portland, Oregon; the pair talked briefly after the show and Love developed a crush on him. According to journalist Everett True, the pair were formally introduced at an L7/Butthole Surfers concert in Los Angeles in May 1991. In the weeks that followed, after learning from Grohl that she and Cobain shared mutual crushes, Love began pursuing Cobain. After a few weeks of on-again, off-again courtship in the fall of 1991, the two found themselves together on a regular basis, often bonding through drug use.
Around the time of Nirvana’s 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, Love discovered that she was pregnant with Cobain’s child. A few days after the conclusion of Nirvana’s Pacific Rim tour, on Monday, February 24, 1992, Cobain married Love on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. “In the last couple months I’ve gotten engaged and my attitude has changed drastically,” Cobain said in an interview with Sassy magazine. “I can’t believe how much happier I am. At times I even forget that I’m in a band, I’m so blinded by love. I know that sounds embarrassing, but it’s true. I could give up the band right now. It doesn’t matter, but I’m under contract.” On August 18, the couple’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, was born. The unusual middle name was given to her because Cobain thought she looked like a kidney bean on the first sonogram he saw of her. Her namesake is Frances McKee of British band The Vaselines and not Frances Farmer as is sometimes reported.
Love was somewhat unpopular with Nirvana fans; her harshest critics said she was merely using him as a vehicle to make herself famous. Critics who compared Cobain to John Lennon were also fond of comparing Love to Yoko Ono. Rumors persist that Cobain wrote most of the songs on the breakthrough album Live Through This of Love’s band Hole, partially fueled by the 1996 appearance of a rough mix of “Asking for It” with Cobain singing backing vocals. However, there is no specific evidence to support the assertion.
At the same time, one song by Hole was discovered to be a song originally written by Nirvana. The song “Old Age” appeared as a B-side on the 1993 single for Beautiful Son, credited to Hole. Initially, there was no reason to believe it was anything other than a Hole-penned song. However, in 1998, a boombox recording of the song performed by Nirvana (with significantly different lyrics) was surfaced by Seattle newspaper The Stranger. In the article that accompanied the clip, Novoselic confirmed that the recording was made in 1991 and that “Old Age” was a Nirvana song, leading to more speculation about Cobain’s involvement in Hole’s catalog. Nirvana had even attempted to record “Old Age” during the sessions for Nevermind, but it was left incomplete as Cobain had yet to finish the lyrics and the band had run out of studio time. (The incomplete recording appeared on the 2004 compilation With the Lights Out, credited to Cobain.) As for Hole’s version, guitarist Eric Erlandson noted that he believed Cobain wrote the music for the song, but that Love had written the lyrics for their version.
In a 1992 article in Vanity Fair, Love admitted to using heroin while (unknowingly) pregnant. Love claimed that Vanity Fair had misquoted her, but her admission created controversy for the couple. While Cobain and Love’s romance had always been something of a media attraction, the couple found themselves hounded by tabloid reporters after the article was published, many wanting to know if Frances was addicted to drugs at birth. The Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services took the Cobains to court, claiming that the couple’s drug usage made them unfit parents. Two-week-old Frances Bean Cobain was ordered by the judge to be taken from their custody and placed with Courtney’s sister Jamie for several weeks, after which the couple obtained custody, but had to submit to urine tests and a regular visit from a social worker. After months of legal wrangling, the couple were eventually granted full custody of their daughter.
Throughout most of his life, Cobain battled chronic bronchitis and intense physical pain due to an undiagnosed chronic stomach condition. This last condition was especially debilitating to his emotional welfare, and he spent years trying to find its source. However, none of the doctors he consulted were able to pinpoint the specific cause, guessing that it was either a result of Cobain’s childhood scoliosis or related to the stresses of performing.
His first drug experience was with marijuana in 1980 at age 14. Cobain’s first experience with heroin occurred sometime in 1986, administered to him by a local drug dealer in Tacoma, Washington, who had previously been supplying him with Percodan. Cobain used heroin sporadically for several years, but, by the end of 1990, his use had developed into a full-fledged addiction. Cobain claimed that he was “determined to get a habit” as a way to self-medicate his stomach condition. Related Cobain, “It started with three days in a row of doing heroin and I don’t have a stomach pain. That was such a relief.”
His heroin use eventually began affecting the band’s support of Nevermind, with Cobain passing out during photo shoots. One memorable example came the day of the band’s 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, where Nirvana had a shoot with photographer Michael Levine. Having shot up beforehand, Cobain nodded off several times during the shoot. Regarding the shoot, Cobain related to biographer Michael Azerrad, “I mean, what are they supposed to do? They’re not going to be able to tell me to stop. So I really didn’t care. Obviously to them it was like practicing witchcraft or something. They didn’t know anything about it so they thought that any second, I was going to die.” Cobain also overdosed on the same night, after performing on Saturday Night Live.
Cobain’s heroin addiction worsened as the years progressed. Cobain made his first attempt at rehab in early 1992, not long after he and Love discovered they were going to become parents. Immediately after leaving rehab, Nirvana embarked on their Australian tour, with Cobain appearing pale and gaunt while suffering through withdrawals. Not long after returning home, Cobain’s heroin use resurfaced.
Prior to a performance at the New Music Seminar in New York City in July 1993, Cobain suffered a heroin overdose. Rather than calling for an ambulance, Love injected Cobain with illegally acquired Narcan to bring him out of his unconscious state. Cobain proceeded to perform with Nirvana, giving the public no indication that anything out of the ordinary had taken place.
Cobain’s final weeks and death
Following a tour stop at Terminal Eins in Munich, Germany, on March 1, 1994, Cobain was diagnosed with bronchitis and severe laryngitis. He flew to Rome the next day for medical treatment, and was joined there by his wife on March 3. The next morning, Love awoke to find that Cobain had overdosed on a combination of champagne and Rohypnol (Love had a prescription for Rohypnol filled after arriving in Rome). Cobain was immediately rushed to the hospital, and spent the rest of the day unconscious. After five days in the hospital, Cobain was released and returned to Seattle. Love later stated that the incident was Cobain’s first suicide attempt.
On March 18, Love phoned police to inform them that Cobain was suicidal and had locked himself in a room with a gun. Police arrived and confiscated several guns and a bottle of pills from Cobain, who insisted that he was not suicidal and had locked himself in the room to hide from Love. When questioned by police, Love admitted that Cobain had never mentioned that he was suicidal and that she had not seen him with a gun.
Love arranged an intervention concerning Cobain’s drug use that took place on March 25. The ten people involved included musician friends, record company executives, and one of Cobain’s closest friends, Dylan Carlson. Former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg described Cobain as being “extremely reluctant” and that he “denied that he was doing anything self-destructive.” However, by the end of the day, Cobain had agreed to undergo a detox program. Cobain arrived at the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles, California, on March 30. The following night, Cobain walked outside to have a cigarette, then climbed over a six-foot-high fence to leave the facility. He took a taxi to Los Angeles Airport and flew back to Seattle. Over the course of April 2 and April 3, Cobain was spotted in various locations around Seattle, but most of his friends and family were unaware of his whereabouts. On April 3, Love contacted a private investigator, Tom Grant, and hired him to find Cobain. The next day, a person claiming to be Cobain’s mother filed a missing person report. The report stated that Cobain “may be suicidal” and had purchased a shotgun.
On April 8, 1994, Cobain was discovered in the spare room above the garage at his Lake Washington home by Veca Electric employee Gary Smith. Smith arrived at the house that morning to install security lighting and saw him lying inside. Apart from a minor amount of blood coming out of Cobain’s ear, Smith reported seeing no visible signs of trauma, and initially believed that Cobain was asleep. Smith found what he thought might be a suicide note with a pen stuck through it beneath an overturned flowerpot. A shotgun, purchased for Cobain by Dylan Carlson, was found at Cobain’s side. Cobain’s death certificate concluded Cobain’s death was a result of a “self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.” The report estimates Cobain to have died on April 5, 1994.
On April 10, a public vigil was held for Cobain at a park at Seattle Center which drew approximately seven thousand mourners. Prerecorded messages by Krist Novoselic and Courtney Love were played at the memorial. Love read portions of Cobain’s suicide note to the crowd and broke down, crying and chastizing Cobain. Near the end of the vigil Love arrived at the park and distributed some of Cobain’s clothing to those who still remained. Cobain’s body was cremated.
Cobain was a devoted champion of early alternative rock acts. His interest in the underground started when Buzz Osborne of the Melvins let him borrow a tape with songs by punk bands such as Black Flag, Flipper, and Millions of Dead Cops. He would often make reference to his favorite bands in interviews, often placing a greater importance on the bands that influenced him than on his own music. Interviews with Cobain were often littered with references to obscure performers like The Vaselines, The Melvins, Daniel Johnston, The Meat Puppets, Young Marble Giants, The Wipers, Flipper, and The Raincoats. Cobain was eventually able to convince record companies to reissue albums by The Raincoats (Geffen) and The Vaselines (Sub Pop). Cobain also noted the influence of the Pixies, and commented that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” bore some similarities to their sound. Cobain told Melody Maker in 1992 that hearing Surfer Rosa for the first time convinced him to abandon his more Black Flag-influenced songwriting in favor of the “Iggy Pop / Aerosmith” type songwriting that appeared on Nevermind.
The Beatles were an early and important musical influence on Cobain. Cobain expressed a particular fondness for John Lennon, whom he called his “idol” in his journals. Cobain once related that he wrote “About a Girl” after spending three hours listening to Meet the Beatles!. He was heavily influenced by punk rock and hardcore punk, and often credited bands such as Black Flag and the Sex Pistols for his artistic style and attitude.
Even with all of Cobain’s indie influences, Nirvana’s early style was influenced by the major rock bands of the ’70s, including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Kiss, and Neil Young. In its early days, Nirvana made a habit of regularly playing cover songs by those bands, including Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, “Dazed and Confused”, “Heartbreaker”, and made a studio recording of Kiss’ “Do You Love Me?”. Cobain also talked about the influence of bands like The Knack, Boston, and The Bay City Rollers.
There were also earlier influences: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged concert ended with a version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, a song popularized by blues artist Lead Belly, whom Cobain called one of his favorite performers. Critic Greil Marcus suggested that Cobain’s “Polly” was a descendant of “Pretty Polly”, a murder ballad that might have been a century old when Dock Boggs recorded it in 1927.
Cobain also made efforts to include his favorite performers in his musical endeavors. At the 1991 Reading Festival, Eugene Kelly of the Vaselines joined Nirvana onstage for a duet of “Molly’s Lips”, which Cobain would later proclaim to be one of the greatest moments of his life. In 1993, when he decided that he wanted a second guitarist to help him on stage, he recruited Pat Smear of the legendary L.A. punk band The Germs. When rehearsals of three Meat Puppets covers for Nirvana’s 1993 performance for MTV Unplugged went awry, Cobain placed a call to the two lead members of the band, Curt and Cris Kirkwood, who ended up joining the band on stage to perform the songs. Cobain also contributed backing guitar for a spoken word William S. Burroughs recording entitled “the “Priest” they called him”.
Where Sonic Youth had served to help Nirvana gain wider success, Nirvana attempted to help other indie acts attain success. The band submitted the song “Oh, the Guilt” to a split single with Chicago’s The Jesus Lizard, helping Nirvana’s indie credibility while opening The Jesus Lizard to a wider audience.
In 2005, a sign was put up in Aberdeen, Washington that read “Welcome to Aberdeen – Come As You Are” as a tribute to Cobain. The sign was paid for and created by the Kurt Cobain Memorial Committee, a non-profit organization created in May 2004 to honor Cobain. The Committee also planned to create a Kurt Cobain Memorial Park and a youth center in Aberdeen.
As Cobain has no gravesite, many Nirvana fans visit Viretta Park, near Cobain’s former Lake Washington home, to pay tribute. On the anniversary of his death, fans gather in the park to celebrate his life and memory. In the years following his death, Cobain is now often remembered as one of the most iconic rock musicians in the history of alternative music.
Gus Van Sant based his 2005 movie Last Days on what might have happened in the final hours of Cobain’s life. In January 2007, Courtney Love began to shop the biography Heavier Than Heaven to various movie studios in Hollywood to turn the book into an A-list feature film about Cobain and Nirvana.
Books and films on Cobain
Prior to Cobain’s death, writer Michael Azerrad published Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, a book that chronicled Nirvana’s career from its beginning, as well as the personal histories of the band members. The book explored Cobain’s drug addiction, as well as the countless controversies surrounding the band. After Cobain’s death, Azerrad re-published the book to include a final chapter discussing the last year of Cobain’s life. The book is notable for its involvement of the band members themselves, who gave interviews and personal information to Azerrad specifically for the book. In 2006, Azerrad’s taped conversations with Cobain were transformed into a documentary about Cobain, titled Kurt Cobain About a Son.
In the 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney, filmmaker Nick Broomfield investigated Tom Grant’s claim that Cobain was actually murdered, and took a film crew to visit a number of people associated with Cobain and Love, including Love’s father, Cobain’s aunt, and one of the couple’s former nannies. Broomfield also spoke to Mentors bandleader Eldon “El Duce” Hoke, who claimed that Love had offered him $50,000 to kill Cobain. Though Hoke claimed that he knew who killed Cobain, he failed to mention a name, and offered no evidence to support his assertion. Broomfield inadvertently captured Hoke’s last interview, as he died days later, reportedly hit by a train while drunk. In the end, however, Broomfield felt he hadn’t uncovered enough evidence to conclude the existence of a conspiracy. In a 1998 interview, Broomfield summed it up by saying, “I think that he committed suicide. I don’t think that there’s a smoking gun. And I think there’s only one way you can explain a lot of things around his death. Not that he was murdered, but that there was just a lack of caring for him. I just think that Courtney had moved on, and he was expendable.”
Journalists Ian Halperin and Max Wallace took a similar path and attempted to investigate the conspiracy for themselves. Their initial work, the 1999 book Who Killed Kurt Cobain? argued that, 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 Grant, who had taped nearly every conversation that he had undertaken while he was in Love’s employ. In particular, Halperin and Wallace insisted that Grant play them the tapes of his conversations with Carroll so that they could confirm his story. Over the next several years, Halperin and Wallace collaborated with Grant to write a second book, 2004’s Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain.
In 2001, writer Charles R. Cross published a biography of Cobain titled Heavier Than Heaven. For the book, Cross conducted over 400 interviews, and was given access by Courtney Love to Cobain’s journals, lyrics, and diaries. However, neither Dave Grohl nor Cobain’s mother contributed to the book.
In 2002, a sampling of Cobain’s 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. In the journals, Cobain talked about the ups and downs of life on the road, made lists of what music he was enjoying, and often scribbled down lyric ideas for future reference. Upon its release, reviewers and fans were conflicted about the collection. Many were elated to be able to learn more about Cobain and read his inner thoughts in his own words, but were disturbed by what was viewed as an invasion of his privacy.
▪ Azerrad, Michael. Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Doubleday, 1994. ISBN 0-385-47199-8.
▪ Cross, Charles. Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. Hyperion, 2001. ISBN 0-7868-8402-9.
▪ Summers, Kim. “Kurt Cobain”. All Music Guide. Accessed on May 9, 2005.
▪ Kitts, Jeff, et al. Guitar World Presents Nirvana and the Grunge Revolution. Hal Leonard, 1998. ISBN 0-79-35900-6X.
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