Cobain, Kurt Donald

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Cobain, Kurt Donald

(b. 20 February 1967 in Hoquiam, Washington; d. 5 April 1994 in Seattle, Washington), singer and guitarist for the grunge rock group Nirvana, whose music of alienation and angst became wildly popular and helped define 1990s youth culture.

Cobain was born in the small logging community of Hoquiam, where Cobain’s father, Donald Leland Cobain, was a car mechanic; he had moved to Washington State after marrying Wendy Fradenburg. When Cobain was six months old the family moved to neighboring Aberdeen, another small and economically depressed logging and fishing community. Cobain had one sister.

By all accounts, Cobain’s childhood was a happy one until 1975, when his parents divorced. From the moment his parents separated Cobain became withdrawn, depressive, and sullen. His grades at Aberdeen Elementary suffered. He lived with his mother for a year before her remarriage sent him to live with his single father in the neighboring town of Montesano. However, his father also remarried and Cobain felt displaced again. Cobain eventually spent his preadolescence being moved among three sets of aunts and uncles and his paternal grandparents. For the rest of his education he shuffled between schools in Montesano and Aberdeen.

Cobain received a secondhand electric guitar and amplifier for his fourteenth birthday. He had been attracted to the melodic rock of the Beatles as a child, and as an adolescent his tastes moved to heavy rock from the late 1970s and 1980s by bands such as Kiss and AC/DC. In the summer before he entered high school, Cobain heard of the exploits of the British punk band the Sex Pistols. The rebellion of punk rock intrigued him; but the small record shops in Aberdeen did not carry the Sex Pistols album.

Cobain hated high school, but the people he met there moved him toward the music he was to create. At Montesano High he met Matt Lukin and Buzz Osbourne, two musicians who formed a band called the Melvins. Cobain attended their practice sessions and was astounded by their energy and the punk-inspired music they produced. Around this time Osbourne gave Cobain a tape with the first punk rock he had ever heard, by such bands as Black Flag and Flipper.

In 1984 Cobain moved back into his mother’s house in Aberdeen, where he attended Aberdeen High and met one of the future members of Nirvana. Krist Novoselic had a great deal in common with Cobain: they both felt trapped in provincial Aberdeen and sought refuge in music. The two decided to form a band with Cobain playing guitar and singing and Novoselic playing bass.

Cobain left his mother’s home after dropping out of high school in 1985, first living with friends and eventually renting a series of dilapidated houses. He was homeless for a period and slept under a bridge near the Wishka River. He worked as a janitor. Cobain and Novoselic hired a drummer by the name of Aaron Burckhard, and the group started to perform at small parties in the neighboring college town of Olympia. The band, which went under several different names, quickly developed a repertory of songs all written by Cobain. With titles such as “Hairspray Queen,” “Floyd the Barber,” and “Downer,” the band became known for high-energy performances often tinged with humor and anger at life in Aberdeen. However, Burckhard did not display the kind of dedication Cobain and Novoselic were putting into the music, and they searched for a replacement.

In 1987 Cobain met Tracy Marander and moved into her apartment in Olympia, thus escaping the claustrophobic world of Aberdeen. In 1988 Cobain and Novoselic, with the help of Dale Crover, the drummer for the Melvins, made a demo tape at the Seattle studio Reciprocal Recording. Reciprocal and its engineer, Jack Endino, were vital elements in the evolution of the “underground” music of the Pacific Northwest that would later be classified as grunge. The demo that Endino recorded of Cobain and his band—they had not yet settled on the name Nirvana—cost $152.44. Endino was very impressed with the music and passed on a copy of the tape to Jonathan Poneman, cofounder of Sub Pop, the independent record label responsible for issuing the first grunge recordings. Sub Pop immediately asked the band to record a single. After going through a succession of drummers, the band settled on Chad Channing and went back to Reciprocal to record its first single, “Love Buzz/Big Cheese.” By this time the band was called Nirvana and by the end of the year it was back in the studio recording its first album, Bleach. Made for $606.17, the album featured many of the songs Cobain had written earlier but also included new work such as the melodic, pop-influenced “About a Girl.” Bleach was released in 1989 and Nirvana did extensive touring to promote it. Nirvana’s members became infamous for smashing all of their instruments after successful performances.

Sub Pop asked for a follow-up to Bleach, but Cobain and Novoselic were unhappy with the promotion and distribution of Nirvana’s first album. They were also unhappy with Channing, whom they replaced in 1990 with Dave Grohl, an extremely hard-hitting drummer in the mold of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. With Grohl behind them, Cobain and Novoselic broke with Sub Pop and signed with a major commercial label, Geffen/DGC. They released their second album, Nevermind, at the end of 1991. It was a stunning progression from Bleach. They retained their driving, punk-influenced sound, but the music was more melodic and filled with catchy hooks. Songs such as “Polly” and “Something in the Way” displayed Cobain’s ability to juggle melody and frenzied guitar playing. The first song on the album, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” tapped into the zeitgeist; the song’s final words, “a denial,” seemed to speak for post-cold war youth culture. The astounding success of the album shocked the band and its record company. The music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a staple on MTV. By January of 1992, Nirvana had the best-selling album in the world.

Cobain was slight of stature and often wore layers of T-shirts on stage. His performances were often filled with energy and humor. On off nights he would be sullen and inattentive to his playing. Cobain’s drug use had primarily consisted of marijuana, but by the time of Nevermind ’s shocking success he had begun to use heroin regularly. He always claimed to have violent stomach pains, and heroin was one way of battling this discomfort. In 1992 Cobain married Courtney Love, who was involved with her own band, Hole; the two had a daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, the same year. The pressure of having a best-selling album started to weigh on Cobain; his private life was scrutinized in the press and the band’s constant touring to huge crowds all over the world started to wear him down. During her pregnancy, Love had given an interview in Vanity Fair that incorrectly intimated that Love had been using heroin during her pregnancy. This eventually caused the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services to attempt to take custody of their daughter away from the couple. After a costly legal battle Frances Bean remained with her parents, but the story was played up in the press and the pressure upon Cobain mounted. His problems with heroin escalated, and he tried several times to go through a detoxification program. To meet the demands for more Nirvana music, the band released a compilation of rare tracks and B-sides called Incesticide at the end of 1992.

The next two years of Cobain’s life were a downward spiral consisting of his fight against heroin and the rigors of fame. In spite of personal problems, the final years of Cobain’s life were filled with music. In 1993 he provided backing guitar for a recording with his literary hero, William S. Burroughs, on The “Priest” They Called Him. Nirvana also released its third album, In Utero. This last work was an attempt to return to the band’s punk origins but at the same time displayed some of Cobain’s most intense songwriting in “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.” The band also delivered a breathtaking performance on MTV Unplugged that was issued as a recording a year later.

In March of 1994 Cobain attempted suicide in Rome by overdosing on pills and alcohol. The event was reported as an accident in the press, but Cobain’s personal life began to spin out of control. Love coordinated a drug intervention for him and he agreed to go into a rehabilitation program. He spent two days in a rehab center in Los Angeles before escaping and secretly flying back to his Seattle home. His friends and family searched for him, but he had locked himself in a small room above his garage where he injected heroin for the last time and then killed himself with a shotgun.

Reaction to Cobain’s suicide was immediate, intense, and worldwide. His death at twenty-seven was a staggering blow to rock. The music critic David Fricke called Cobain the John Lennon of his generation. Cobain’s songs of pain and loss had a remarkable beauty that became a part of millions of lives at the same time they altered the history of popular music.

Michael Azerrad, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (1993), is an important chronicle of Cobain’s life and work. Rolling Stone’s coverage of the work of Cobain has been compiled in Cobain (1994); Dave Thompson, Never Fade Away: The Kurt Cobain Story (1994), focuses on Cobain’s death; and Christopher Sandford, Kurt Cobain (1996), is a full biography. The cultural importance of Cobain’s music is analyzed in John Rocco, ed., The Nirvana Companion (1998). Jim Berkenstadt and Charles Cross have discussed the creation of Nirvana’s most famous album in Nevermind (1998). Gina Arnold, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana (1993), concerns itself with the growth of the “underground” music that led to Nirvana. Clark Humphrey, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story (1995), also focuses on the music scene. An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Apr. 1994).

John Rocco