Cobain and Novoselic Bound by Punk
Three Seattle musicians who play what has become known as “grunge” rock seemed an unlikely bet for acceptance into the rock and roll establishment. Decidedly punkish in their musical style—albeit at a slower pace than was the hallmark of punk rock— strident in their lyrics, and unapologetic of their calcu-lated-to-offend offstage personalities, the group nonetheless went from the “underground” status of their initial release, Bleach, to mega-stardom with their first major-label effort, Nevermind, within the space of a few years. The latter, featuring Kurt Cobain on guitar and vocals, Chris Novoselic on bass, and David Grohl on drums, jumped to the Number One spot on the Billboard rock chart and was cited in many music critics’ Top Ten lists just months after its release.
Cobain and Novoselic grew up near Seattle, in Aberdeen, Washington, a secluded logging town 70 miles southwest of Seattle known largely for its overcast climate. Cobain’s youth was often chaotic—he lived in a trailer park with his cocktail waitress mother after the breakup of his parents’ marriage. Before his parents
For the Record…
Members include Kurt Cobain (grew up in Aberdeen, 11 WA; son of Wendy O’Connor [a cocktail waitress]; married Courtney Love [a singer], February 24, 1992; children: Frances Bean), guitar and vocals, Dave Grohl (from Washington, DC), drums, and Chris Novoselic (from Aberdeen; wife’s name, Shelli), bass. Cobain and Novoselic attended the Grays Harbor Institute of Northwest Crafts.
Group formed by Cobain and Novoselic, 1987; Grohl joined after succession of several drummers; played in clubs in Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle, WA; signed with Sub Pop Records, 1988, released Bleach, 1989; toured Europe as opening act, 1989; signed with DGC record company, 1990, released Nevermind, 1991; toured the U.S., 1991.
Awards: Triple platinum award, for Nevermind.
Addresses: Record company —DGC, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
split up, Cobain’s mother recounted in Rolling Stone, he “got up every day with such joy that there was another day to be had. When we’d go downtown to the stores, he would sing to people.” After the divorce, though, Cobain’s personality underwent a transformation. “I think he was ashamed,” his mother continued, “and he became very inward—he just held everything.”
Until the age of nine, Cobain listened mostly to the Beatles. Then his father introduced him to heavier fare—Led Zeppelin, Kiss, and Black Sabbath. He started playing drums and hanging around with an Aberdeen group called the Melvins. Melvins leader Buzz Osborne took Cobain to a Black Flag concert, where he got his first taste of hard-core punk. Cobain was awed; he began to experiment with the guitar and tried to form a band. “I learned one Cars song and AC/DCs ‘Back in Black, “1 he told Elle. “And after that I just started writing my own. I didn’t feel it was important to learn other songs because I knew I wanted to start a band.” After repeatedly failing to get a group together, Osborne suggested that Cobain hook up with Chris Novoselic, a tall, shy Aberdeen kid two years older than Cobain.
Cobain and Novoselic Bound by Punk
According to Nirvana’s record company press biography, Cobain and Novoselic had met at the Grays Harbor Institute of Northwest Crafts, where they were apparently “gluing seashells and driftwood on burlap” and making mobiles of macaroni. Like Cobain, Novoselic had moved around a lot as a kid—they felt they were both misfits in a way. They further shared an appreciation for the hard-core music that was generally shunned by their heavy metal-loving peers. A tape of the San Francisco punk band Flipper cemented their commitment to the genre. “It made me realize there was something more cerebral to listen to than stupid cock rock,” Novoselic told Elle. Exhibiting total rebellion against what they saw as the red-necked, macho establishment of their hometown, they spray painted the phrases “God is Gay,” “Abort Jesus,” and “Homosexual sex rules,” on cars and bank buildings. For one offense Cobain was arrested and fined.
Cobain’s mother kicked him out of the house after he quit high school. Homeless, he slept on friends’ couches and even briefly found lodging under a bridge. By 1987, however, he and Novoselic were beginning to gain a reputation as Nirvana and were a hit at parties at Evergreen State College in Olympia.
With the help of Melvins drummer Dale Crover, the trio began to record, finishing ten songs in one afternoon taping session. The resulting demo was submitted to Sub Pop, Seattle’s then-underground label, the directors of which signed them to a record contract right away. In 1988, after changing drummers, the band recorded Bleach in six days for $606.17. The album moved slowly at first, but eventually sold 35,000 copies between its debut and the release of the band’s second effort, which caused a surge of Bleach sales.
Caught in Bidding War
After Bleach, Nirvana began looking for yet another drummer, this time settling, in the fall of 1990, on Dave Grohl of the Washington, D.C., band Scream. This lineup returned to the studio to find that the Nirvana sound had improved significantly. When Sub Pop sought a distributor for the upcoming second album, a bidding war ensued among record labels interested in buying Nirvana out of their Sub Pop contract. The group eventually signed to DGC, home of giants Guns ‘n’ Roses and Cher, for $287,000. Rumors persisted, however, that the label had shelled out up to $750,000 to obtain the trio. Cobain commented in Spin that those reports were “journalism through hearsay,” adding that “the numbers kept getting bigger so that a lot of people believed that we were signed for a million dollars.”
The group had mixed feelings about signing to a major label; they feared they would be labeled “sellouts” for trading their underground status for the promise of big money. But the opportunity to get their music heard by a larger audience—and thus spread their message to the mainstream—mitigated these concerns. Nirvana released Nevermind in the spring of 1991; the record took three weeks to record and earned the trio $135,000. Producer Butch Vig instinctively felt that the unintelligible, but mesmerizing, cut “Smells like Teen Spirit” would be a hit, even before it was completed in the studio. “It was awesome sounding,” he told Rolling Stone. “I was pacing around the room, trying not to jump up and down in ecstasy.”
Nevermind a Phenomena
Vig’s prophecy came true: The Nevermind single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” soared to Number One after only a few months of airplay. The accompanying video, featuring a somewhat sinister high school pep rally—Cobain has said the song is about teenage apathy—complete with tattooed cheerleaders, a bald custodian, writhing fans, and pointedly unkempt band members, received heavy rotation on MTV. “Smells” earned perhaps the ultimate tribute when it was lampooned by rock parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose own video was entitled “Smells Like Nirvana.” And yet the most distinguishing aspect of Nevermind may have been that, as New York Times contributor Karen Schoemer pointed out, “Nirvana didn’t cater to the mainstream; it played the game on its own terms…. What’s unusual about [the album] is that it caters to neither a mainstream audience nor the indie rock fans who supported the group’s debut album….” Calling the release “one of the best alternative rock albums produced by an American band in recent years,” Schoemer continued, “Nevermind is accessible but not tame. It translates the energy and abandon of college rock in clear, certain terms.”
In performance, Nirvana pays homage to angry punks past—dating as far back as the mid-1960s guitar destruction of then-“mod” Pete Townshend, leader of Britain’s the Who—by smashing their equipment onstage; Cobain has estimated that he’s probably destroyed around 300 guitars. This behavior seems to please Nirvana’s legions of fans, who throng to their shows in anticipation of such antics.
Despite Nirvana’s rapid climb to the top, Cobain and company have tried to keep a balanced attitude. They rejected a limousine ride to their Saturday Night Live performance because they didn’t want to be treated like stars. Cobain has of late refrained from drugs and the standard rock-star revelry, partially in deference to a recurring and painful stomach ailment. When questioned about the band’s success, Cobain revealed in Elle “Well, it’s a fine thing and a flattering thing, but it doesn’t matter. We could be dropped in two years and go back to putting out records ourselves and it wouldn’t matter to us, because success is not what we were looking for…. We just want people to be able to get the records.”
Blew (EP), Sub Pop, 1989.
Bleach, Sub Pop, 1989.
Nevermind, DGC, 1991.
Elle, April 1992.
Guitar Player, February 1992.
Newsweek, January 27, 1992.
New York Times, January 8, 1992; January 13, 1992; January 26, 1992.
People, December 23, 1991.
Pulse!, March 1992.
Rolling Stone, November 28, 1991; February 20, 1992.
Spin, January 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a David Geffen Company press biography, 1991.
In the fifth century BCE a thirty-year old Indian prince called Siddartha (c. 566–486 BCE) abandoned royal status, family life, and all the comforts of civilization. For six years he wandered through the forests of what is today northern India, living as a celibate ascetic and seeking a solution to the problem of human suffering, which he framed within the endless round of being born, growing old, and dying, only to be reborn once again. This cycle is known in Sanskrit as samsāra (transmigration). Prince Siddartha wanted to know if there was a way out—nirvāna (“extinction”)—of samsāra (for an extensive discussion of nirvāna and its synonyms, see Collins 1998, pp. 191–233). He sought a solution by studying with various ascetic teachers, none of whom could fully satisfy his questions, and by meditating and practicing severe asceticism, such as eating only one sesame seed, one grain of rice, and one juniper berry a day. His determination attracted five male disciples who looked after him.
The world of the forest recluse was predominantly male. A significant part of what Prince Siddartha had rejected in leaving city life was contact with women. Gender has been a contested issue since the earliest days of Buddhism, with many denying that women can achieve nirvāna, asserting they must first reincarnate as men. Ironically, as Siddartha sat meditating and wasting away, a woman, his dead mother, Queen Māyā, appeared and reminded him of the prediction at the time of his birth that he would achieve nirvāna, which was in jeopardy because of his continued austerities. He reassured her that he would attain his goal, and she returned to heaven. It is at this point that Prince Siddartha began to change his regimen, began to turn back toward the world and, indeed, began his reconciliation with women.
Realizing that his body was too weak to achieve nirvāna, he decided to eat solid food. His five male disciples, believing he had abandoned asceticism, deserted him. But some young village women came and offered him a dish of rice and milk, which he accepted. Several other women, human and divine, also helped to restore his strength so that he could take his seat under the Bo tree where he would achieve nirvāna (Young 2004, pp. 1–19).
He then proceeded through a series of ever-deepening states of meditation throughout the night. It has long been debated exactly what he experienced on that night (Collins 1998, pp. xiii–xiv; Spiro 1982, pp. 56–59; Welbon 1968, passim), but its outcome, his achievement of nirvāna, is a defining principle of Buddhism that changed the religious face of much of Asia. After this experience he was given the title of Buddha, the “awakened” or “enlightened one.”
Two points need to be made: First, when the Buddha achieved nirvāna he became an enlightened being, and second, when he died he achieved parinirvāna, meaning he would never be reborn. This understanding postulates that samsāra and nirvāna are two different kinds of existence, one ruled by desire and the other a realm where desire is extinguished. This is the general view of Theravāda Buddhism. A later tradition, Mahāyanā Buddhism, postulates instead that these are radically different states of mind. Whatever the metaphysical nature of nirvāna, its social reality was and remains structured by a celibate, male hierarchy that seeks nirvāna while being supported by a lay community for whom they perform various religious and educational tasks.
Theravāda Buddhism has received the most anthropological attention, beginning with Melford Spiro in 1970 dividing it into Nibbanic (nirvanic) and Kammatic (karmatic) Buddhism. Nibbanic Buddhism is practiced by some monks—in Max Weber’s terms the “religious virtuosi”—who renounce the world in order to seek nirvāna, and Kammatic Buddhism is practiced by most monks and members of the laity who follow Buddhist precepts and practices in order to improve their karma and be reborn in a better situation for pursuing nirvāna. A third category, apotropaic Buddhism, offers protective practices against adversity and promotes well-being (Spiro  1982, pp. 9–12). All three types are of necessity interrelated. Richard Gombrich in 1971 published similar findings for Buddhist Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) (pp. 16–17 and 214–224). Both Spiro and Gombrich were interested in how pivotal religious ideas, such as nirvāna, are maintained and yet also reinterpreted by those unable to live up to them. Spiro contrasted what the canonical text contained with actual practices. Gombrich contrasted what people said they did with what they actually did.
The main point, though, is that most Buddhists are pursuing nirvāna in their various ways, and a significant number of them are living celibate lives either permanently or as temporary monks. Steven Collins has drawn out the economic advantages of an agrarian society that delays or limits marriage and thus the population, thereby creating surplus food production (Collins 1998, pp. 92–93). In his analysis the ideology of nirvāna created an imaginaire that produced a hope for salvation that shaped social and economic realities. In other words, Collins repositioned nirvāna as central to all forms of Buddhist practice (Collins 1998, pp. 116–117).
The achievement of nirvāna is believed to be accompanied by omniscience and magical powers, and it raises an individual’s esteem as well as that of his religious followers and his religious community. Powerful and famous people come to visit an enlightened monk, seeking his advice and blessing as well as to establish themselves publicly as devout Buddhists, especially around election time. Stanley Tambiah’s study of the cult of amulets among Thai Buddhists reveals that the most esteemed amulets were those blessed by enlightened forest saints, monks who had withdrawn from village life to pursue nirvāna (Tambiah 1984, pp. 3, 135–136). Similarly, in Maháyaná Buddhism those monks believed to be enlightened attract more followers and receive far greater contributions than other monks. Consequently, many of those believed to have achieved nirvāna wield wealth and influence.
Collins, Steven. 1998. Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pali Imaginaire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Gombrich, Richard F. 1971. Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spiro, Melford E.  1982. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1984. The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Welbon, Guy R. 1968. The Buddhist Nirvana and Its Western Interpreters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Young, Serinity. 2004. Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconography, and Ritual. New York: Routledge.
Formed: 1987, Aberdeen, Washington
Members: Kurt Cobain, vocals and guitar (born Hoquiam, Washington, 20 February 1967; died Seattle, Washington, 5 April 1994); Krist (Chris) Novoselic, bass (born Compton, California, 10 May 1965); Dave Grohl, drums (born Warren, Ohio, 14 January 1969).
Best-selling album since 1990: Nevermind (1991)
Hit songs since 1990: "Smells like Teen Spirit," "Come As You Are," "All Apologies"
In fewer than three years, Nirvana became the centerpiece of a major revolution in popular musical taste, the effects of which can be felt to this day. The guitarist/composer Kurt Cobain led this dynamic trio toward mainstreaming the punk rock style that became known as grunge. With Nirvana's success in the early 1990s, alternative rock moved into the hearts and minds of a whole generation. Like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, and too many musical innovators before him, Kurt Cobain did not live to see the full effects of Nirvana's musical legacy, which still lives on.
Cobain's Childhood and Teenage Trials
Kurt Cobain was born into a working-class family in an economically depressed community in the state of Washington. An apparently happy child who showed considerable artistic ability, he saw his family fall apart by the time he was eight years old. His parents' separation and divorce were traumatic events for the young Kurt. Thereafter he lived at times with both parents, then with other relatives and friends. During his teens he endured periods of homelessness, sleeping wherever he could. By the ninth grade he was into alcohol and marijuana, soon followed by harder drugs.
As he passed through adolescence into young manhood, his personal relations were strained. Eventually all that seemed to matter was composing music and playing it on the guitar, skills in which he was largely self-taught. A high school dropout who never held any job for very long, Cobain eventually found a musical soul mate in the bassist Krist Novoselic. In 1987, the drummer Aaron Burckhard (Dave Grohl became Nirvana's drummer later), Cobain, and Novoselic formed the trio that eventually altered the direction of the music world.
Forging a Style
The musical roots of Nirvana lay in the soil of punk rock, though their style came to be known as grunge. Among other things, it shared with punk rock a tendency toward alternating slow and fast, soft and loud passages. By comparison with popular groups of the 1980s—even harder-edged ones like Guns N' Roses—Nirvana's music was dissonant and frenetic, with a guttural bass underlining, liberal distortion effects, and a heavy drum line. At the same time, however, Cobain's compositions had a quieter, more lyrical side. Such work provided respite from more intense tracks in the two major studio albums
Nirvana cut. In one of his published journals, Cobain provided the best description of the Nirvana style: "Nirvana try to fuse punk energy with hard rock riffs, all within a pop sensibility."
The Sub Pop label in Seattle had become important to all alternative musicians in the artistically fertile northwest region of the country. Signing with them marked Nirvana's first serious recognition by the business side of the music industry, giving them the opportunity to become better known. Although the label lacked the resources to promote its records widely, Nirvana had already attracted considerable attention through their concerts and other performance dates in the region. Their first effort was a single featuring "Love Buzz" on side A and "Big Cheese" on B, both of which would reappear in Bleach. "Love Buzz"—originally recorded by the Dutch group Shocking Blue—became a signature song for Nirvana in their early concert dates. In subject matter and style these numbers and the others cut for the album come remarkably close to the Nirvana that debuted on the national scene a few years later.
Bleach, the first Nirvana album, came out in vinyl in 1989 from Sub Pop. The album title comes from an advertisement recommending drug users to "bleach" their needles before reusing them in order to ward off the HIV virus. Like many of the verbal elements in Nirvana's albums, it was chosen almost at random by Cobain when he had to come up with a title. The songs on Bleach range from the lightweight, mildly outrageous "Floyd the Barber," inspired by a character on the television series The Andy Griffith Show, to the dark and angry "Scoff," a punkish retort to someone in authority. Though a few tracks seem too slight to merit inclusion, the album has surprises like the romantic, Beatles-like "About a Girl," inspired by Cobain's girlfriend of the time. Generally, however, the music on Bleach shares many of the characteristics of alternative rock associated with the Sub Pop label. I. It is a mix of punk rock and heavy metal with lyrics expressing the concerns and outlook of what became known as Generation X. Cobain gave a voice to those who felt cheated by what their parents and society had told them they had to believe in. As a result, they grew angry over their failed search for something to replace those false values.
Nirvana Tops the Charts
Bleach, for all its promise, did not fully realize the group's ensemble power or Cobain's talents as a composer/musician. That promise was realized in 1991 with the release of Nevermind. In their combination of punkish fury, garage-band rock, heavy-metal riffs, and melodic inventiveness, these tracks set the tone of the 1990s. It was a jolt of originality unrivaled until the flowering of hip-hop and rap later in the decade.
For this album Nirvana signed with David Geffen's label, with a large advance payment and a guarantee of widespread publicity. The original pressing of Nevermind was 50,000 copies; by the end of the year it was selling 400,000 copies a week, and by January 1992 it had reached the number one spot on the Billboard chart. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the lead track, became one of the most frequently played songs on college and alternative radio. The music video, featured on MTV, drew a record number of requests. A member of the popular 1980s heavy-metal band Mötley Crüe, in Los Angeles for a recording session, heard it one day as he headed home on the freeway. He was quoted later as saying he knew then that rock in the style of the Crüe was over. Something new had begun. It was another of those events in the history of popular music, like the emergence of Elvis and the Beatles, that seemed inevitable.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" begins quietly enough, with a restless motif in the bass behind the melody line. The lyric pattern is verse-chorus-verse, with the instrumental volume increasing at the point of each chorus. During the chorus, Cobain's vocalism, subdued in the verse sections, becomes an angry shout. By the end of the track, the chorus has reached maximum intensity, with certain lines repeated over and over. Internally, the lyric lacks the kind of logic that shows in its structure. Some of it clearly seems aimed at the pressures felt in performance, as in the refrain line: "Here we are now, entertain us." Some lines seem to be there solely for the sake of the rime, as later in the chorus, where a series of randomly chosen words ends with "My libido / Yay, a denial." Whatever individual parts suggest, overall it is the music that carries the song, not the lyric. To put it another way, the lyric seems absolutely right in spite of its inconsistencies when it is heard in its musical context. In general, this characterizes most of the tracks in Nevermind and the other albums Nirvana released after they became internationally famous in the early 1990s.
With every new development in rock comes a new look. Eighties groups had glammed in much-permed long hair, spandex shorts, and high tops. After the transcendent success of "Teen Spirit" and Nevermind, Kurt Cobain appeared unwashed and ungroomed on Saturday Night Live in a T-shirt advertising an unknown band, jeans with holes at the knees, Converse shoes, and crudely dyed hair. His appearance epitomized not only the grunge look, replicated by countless numbers of teens throughout the country, but also the grunge attitude. This was an "in your face," response that spoke volumes about a whole generation.
Nevermind gives this attitude musical expression, and defines it with various permutations. "In Bloom," the second track on the album, hits the fan who does not have a clue what Nirvana is up to, the one who merely wants to be entertained by "all the pretty songs." By contrast, "Come as You Are" is a low-key invitation to participate in the musical experience "as a friend, as an old enemy." "Breed" kicks the tempo up a notch, with a characteristic repetition of music and lyric that becomes truly obsessive by the next track, "Lithium," with its chilling chorus ending in the phrase, "I'm not gonna crack." "Polly"—a song Cobain reworked from an earlier version—deals with a celebrated kidnap and rape case and is written from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. "Territorial Pissings" spins off (in the voice of Krist Novoselic) a 1960s song, "Get Together," popularized by the Youngbloods, with Cobain voicing the perspective of an alien. "Drain You" describes parasitic relationships; "Lounge Act" and "Stay Away" parody musical trends Cobain found inimical to his artistic values. "On a Plain" returns to more personal themes and the difficulty of giving them expression in words; finally, in a quiet, codalike ending, "Something in the Way" takes the listener to the world of the homeless living beneath a bridge. An additional hidden track, purely instrumental, with feedback from the guitars, comes a full nine minutes after the last labeled track on the CD. It provides a fitting end to Nirvana's most important album.
The album Incesticide followed toward the end of 1992. After more than a year of ceaseless public attention and booming sales, Nirvana issued a collection documenting its recorded presence in early demos, compilations, and covers—in short, a history of the band from its earliest recorded beginnings to the point at which it became a major musical force. Part of the impetus for the album was Cobain's increasing doubts about the very success Nirvana was experiencing. The essential attitude of the alternative rocker was to remain outside the mainstream of music and society. Groups like Guns N' Roses or Mötley Crüe were supposed to be at the center of the stage, while indie musicians played in cellars and garages. Now all that had changed, and Cobain never felt completely comfortable with it. As happens so frequently in American popular culture, the outsider had moved inside by becoming a commodity. Cobain had to think that, in the words of his journal, "We can pose as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system." Otherwise, they would be selling out. That was what he came to believe he had done.
With the musical success he continued to doubt, Cobain's personal life changed. During the recording sessions for Nevermind, he met Courtney Love of the group Hole. They married early in 1992 and had a child in August of that year. Although Cobain had found in Courtney someone he truly loved, and in their child, Frances Bean, a sense of personal redemption, he continued to have serious problems with drug addiction. He was by then a habitual heroin user. He also suffered from suicidal tendencies that had shown up a number of times in his family. During the next two years, the many sides of his conflicted personality caused distress and pain to those who cared for him, and uneasiness in those who managed his career. He frequently overdosed on drugs, often just short of death. More than once during this time he had to be resuscitated. Cobain's problems notwithstanding, Nirvana remained the band of the moment. Its concerts sold out worldwide. This fanatic following of the group repelled Cobain. He tired of the constant performing and lack of privacy. In a pattern set early in his life, he wanted to withdraw from everything, but, because of his career, he could not. Drugs seemed to give him one way out of his dilemma.
As a way of reasserting its essential punkishness, the band created its controversial third album, In Utero, released in September 1993. It moved instantly to the top of the charts. As in previous efforts, a number of the songs address Cobain's feelings about being a rock star, while others deal with longstanding differences with his family. The violent imagery of "Aneurysm" and the controversial "Rape Me" are matched by the snarling dissonances of this music, which peak in the wildly frenetic "Pennyroyal Tea." The gentler, more lyrical side of Cobain surfaces in the Courtney-inspired "Heart Shaped Box." The last line of the last track, "All Apologies," encapsulates Cobain's emotional state at that time: "All alone is all we are." In Utero was the last Nirvana album to be released in Cobain's lifetime.
The Sudden End
While on tour in 1994, Cobain overdosed in Rome on a combination of the drug Rohypnol and champagne. Back in California later in the month, he entered a rehab center in Los Angeles. On April 1 he climbed a wall to escape, and four days later, at his home near Seattle, he isolated himself in the green house. After a strong hit of heroin, he committed suicide with a blast from a shotgun. He was twenty-seven years old. Among the last words on his suicide note was the phrase, "Better to burn out than fade away."
Two albums were issued posthumously. Unplugged in New York, recorded during Nirvana's live performance on the MTV show in the fall of 1993, is a frequently touching compilation of covers and selected Cobain songs delivered with an acoustic sound only occasionally captured elsewhere in their recorded work. From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (a Seattle-area river), issued two years later, is yet another compilation, this time of previously unreleased live performances. Along with some stray tracks, pirates, and a recently released single left out of the In Utero sessions (over which a legal battle developed), these albums completed the recorded legacy of the most important group of the early 1990s.
Spot Light: Punk Revival
With Nevermind (1991), their first release from a major label, Nirvana put the punk rock sound at the center of the musical stage. In the 1970s the British group the Sex Pistols had begun the first wave of punk sensibility, a deliberately outrageous mixture of offensive lyrics backed by repetitive sounds. American groups like the Talking Heads and the Ramones, centered at the New York club CBGB's, furthered the punk esthetic; as good as they were, however, it was the garage bands in the Seattle area who finally realized the movement's full potential. Nirvana's raw energy and walloping riffs carried it to the core of a generation. When Nirvana came along, teens caught the spirit in the same way that earlier generations had followed the sound of the Beatles or Bob Dylan in the 1960s.
Bleach (Sub Pop, 1989); Nevermind (DGC, 1991); Incesticide (DGC, 1992); In Utero (DGC, 1993); Unplugged in New York (DGC, 1994); From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (DGC, 1996).
C. Crisafulli, Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song (New York, 1996); M. Azerrad, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana (New York, 2001); C. R. Cross, Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain (New York, 2001); K. Cobain, Journals (New York, 2002).
The term "Nirvana," first suggested by Barbara Low and acknowledged and used by Freud, is intimately connected with the development of the concepts of the pleasure/unpleasure principle. The concept has a long history, and contributed to Freud's understanding of the infantile wish-fulfilling character of dreams.
In Chapter Seven of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), in which Freud conceptualized the mental apparatus, he suggested that, to begin with, the apparatus is directed towards keeping itself as free from stimuli as possible in accordance with the "Principle of Constancy." This principle was already a basic assumption, and had appeared as such in many of Freud's earlier writings—for example in a letter to Josef Breuer (June 29,  1960a) and in various sections of Part One of the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c ), through in quasi-neurological terms. But as Freud indicated in a footnote added in 1914 to the dream book, the concept is explored more fully in his paper on "The Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911b).
The Lust/Unlust-pleasure/pain principle is described there as the governing purpose of the primary process. There is a continued striving towards gaining pleasure, and a retreat from anything that might arouse unpleasurable affect. It is precisely the latter that dreams seek to avoid: when the state of rest is disturbed by internal needs, an attempt is made to achieve satisfaction in a hallucinatory manner.
With the emergence of the secondary process, reality is at least recognized, even when disagreeable; and the individual now must seek pleasure in accordance with what is possible in the circumstances in which they find themselves. To put the matter in energic terms: unpleasure was associated with a rise in excitation; pleasure with its reduction and discharge, and, with the acquisition of the reality principle, this discharge of excitation, once sought as a peremptory demand under the influence of the pleasure principle, now has to wait until reality presents the necessary conditions or until those conditions can be brought about. (Pleasure can, of course, always be expressed in fantasy and day dreams, whatever the circumstances.) The search for pleasure, it will be observed, is related to, but not identical with, the "Principle of Constancy" referred to above.
Already, especially in the paper Instincts and their Vicissitudes (1915c), Freud had stated that the relation existing between pleasure and unpleasure on the one hand, and the rise and the "fluctuations of the amounts of stimuli affecting mental life," on the other, was no simple matter, and that the relations were many, various, and in need of elucidation.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) Freud reformulated his two classes of instincts and opposed the one, Eros or the Life Instinct, with the destructive or Death Instinct. The aim of the Death Instinct was to get rid of life through the running down of the organism, and therefore of the tensions within it. This "dominating tendency of mental life"—"to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tensions due to stimuli"—was called the "Nirvana principle," a term suggested by Barbara Low and here adopted by Freud.
The difficulties and anomalies inherent in these formulations were reconsidered by Freud in The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924c). Re-affirming his adoption of the Nirvana principle, he pointed out that, if the pleasure principle were identical with it, that principle would be "in the service of the death instincts" and would act as a warning against the demands of the life instincts that threatened to disturb the intended course of life. But that view, said Freud, could not be correct. Furthermore, in the series of tensions and their increase and decrease, there were pleasurable tensions (for example, sexual excitation) and unpleasurable relaxations of tensions. Pleasure and unpleasure could not depend on some quantitative factor alone, but on some qualitative characteristics. It might be "the rhythm, the temporal sequence of changes, rises and falls in the quantity of stimulus." Freud added: "We do not know." Whatever the truth of the matter, the Nirvana principle had undergone a modification in living organisms through which it had become the pleasure principle. "Henceforward," he continued, "we shall avoid regarding the two principles as one." And he concluded by saying that the Nirvana principle expressed the trend of the death instinct; the pleasure principle represented the demands of the libido; and the modification of the latter principle, the reality principle, represented the influence of the external world.
It may be worth adding that an optimum level of tension normally gives life its sense of vividness and alertness. Reduction of tension to zero, unless transient, is often pathological, and found, for example, in states of depression, some kinds of depersonalization, and in the anergic forms of schizophrenia.
See also: Death instinct (Thanatos); Desexualization; Discharge; Ego and the Id, The ; Erotogenic masochism; Excitation; Low, Barbara; Mythology and psychoanalysis; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Principle; Principle of constancy; Principle of (neuronal) inertia; Protective shield, breaking through the; Quantitative/qualitative.
Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part II. SE, 5: 339-625.
——. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.
——. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.
——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
——. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.
——. (1950c ). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.
——. (1960a [1873-1939]). Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1873-1939 (Ernst L. Freud, Ed.; Tania and James Stern, Trans.). London: Hogarth, 1970.
Nirvana, first grunge-rock band to achieve international popularity. membership:Kurt Cobain, gtr., voc. (b. Hoquiam, Wash., Feb. 20, 1967; d. Seattle, Wash., April 5, 1994); Krist Novoselic, bs. (b. Los Angeles, May 16, 1965); David Grohl, drm. (b. Warren, Ohio, Jan. 14, 1969). hole: membership: Courtney Love (Harrison), gtr., voc. (b. San Francisco, July 9, 1964); Eric Erlandson, gtr. (b. Los Angeles, Jan. 9, 1963); Melissa Auf der Maur, bs. (b. Montreal, Canada, March 17, 1972); Patty Schemel, drm. (b. Seattle, Wash., April 24, 1967). Bassist Kristen Pfaff (b. ca. 1968; d. Seattle, Wash, June 16, 1994) joined in 1993; after Pfaff’s death, Auf der Maur returned to the band.
Nirvana produced a surprisingly melodic yet deafeningly loud, guitar-based sound behind stark and unsettling lyrics that reflected a deep-seated sense of anger, alienation, and hopelessness regarding contemporary life and culture. Their success, along with that of rivals Pearl Jam, brought attention to Seattle as one of the most vital musical centers in the country, opening the door for similar acts such as Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and Alice in Chains. The popularity of Nirvana inspired a fashion craze, favoring dirty, baggy jeans, flannel shirts, and combat boots.
Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic grew up in Aberdeen, Wash., where Cobain took up drums and fraternized with the local group the Melvins. Kicked out of his mother’s house after quitting high school, Cobain experimented with guitar and formed Nirvana with Novoselic in 1987. They played club engagements in Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle, and with Melvins’ drummer Dale Crover recorded a 10-song demonstration tape that they submitted to Seattle’s underground label, Sub Pop. Signed to the label, the two recorded Bleach with drummer Chad Charming and guitarist Jason Everman. The album featured their debut single, “Love Buzz” and “Negative Creep,” and gained Nirvana their first underground following. They toured Europe as an opening act in 1989 and signed with DGC Records in 1990. With the departures of Everman and Charming, Nirvana recruited David Grohl as their drummer for Nevermind. An angry, raw, yet melodic work, the album yielded the band’s barely intelligible theme song and first (smash) hit, the anthemic “Smells like Teen Spirit”; Nevermind became an instant best-seller. It also produced the moderate hit “Come as You Are” and the minor hit “Lithium.”
The underground reputation won by Nirvana led to a major-label recording contract with DGC Records. The abrasive yet compelling album In Utero was banned by several major chain stores but nonetheless sold quite well, although not to the level of Nevermind. It featured the disconcerting “Rape Me,” “Serve the Servants,” “Dumb,” and the surprisingly tender “All Apologies.” In 1992 Cobain wed Courtney Love, singer-songwriter for the band Hole, and the two became tabloid darlings during their brief, stormy marriage.
During 1993 Nirvana performed a benefit in San Francisco for rape victims of the ongoing war in Bosnia and appeared on the MTV cable series Unplugged. By this time the band was one of rock’s major attractions, an achievement that left Cobain feeling conflicted, at best. He fell into a coma in Rome after ingesting champagne and sedatives in March 1994, but he recovered. In less than a month he was found dead in his Seattle home, having shot himself in the head with a shotgun on April 5. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl called it quits as Nirvana and subsequently assembled Nirvana’s recordings from Unplugged for 1995 release. Switching to lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Grohl formed Foo Fighters, recording much of the band’s debut album by himself.
Courtney Love grew up in Eugene, Ore., and moved to San Francisco in 1983, where she formed Sugar Baby Doll with Kathy Bjelland (now with Babes in Toyland) and Jennifer Finch (now with L7), and briefly sang with the band Faith No More. Subsequently moving to Los Angeles, she appeared in two Alex Cox movies, Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell, but decided to concentrate on a career in rock music. She learned guitar and moved to Minneapolis, N.Y., and Seattle before returning to Los Angeles, where she formed Hole with Eric Erlandson, Melissa Auf der Maur, and Patty Schemel in 1989. Their debut album, Pretty on the Inside, on Caroline Records, won Love a reputation as an adamant, outspoken, and independent young woman vocalist and songwriter, and one of the first so-called riot grrrls. She became Kurt Cobain’s companion in late 1991 and married him on Feb. 24, 1992, giving birth to their child Frances Bean on Aug. 18, 1992. She put her career on hold, eventually returning to touring in late 1993. With new bassist Kristen Pfaff, Hole recorded Live Through This, which featured “Miss World,” “Doll Parts,” “Asking for It,” and “I Think that I Would Die.” However, on June 16, 1994, Pfaff was found dead in Seattle of an apparent drug overdose at age 26. Melissa Auf der Maur subsequently rejoined Hole. Courtney Love served as executive music coordinator of the soundtrack to the 1995 cult movie Tank Girl, which featured performances by Hole, L7, Veruca Salt, Ice-T, and Joan Jett with Paul Westerberg. Later that year Hole toured as part of the Lollapalooza tour with Sonic Youth and Beck.
nirvana:Bleach (1989); Nevermind (1991); Insecticide (1993); In Utero (1993); Unplugged in New York (1994). kurt cobain and william s. burroughs:The “Priest” They called Him (1995). hole:Pretty on the Inside (1991); Live Through This (1994); Ask for It. foo fighters:Foo Fighters (1995).
Gina Arnold, Route 666: On the Road to N.(N.Y., 1993).
Rarely does a single album make a massive impact on music and popular culture, but Nirvana's Nevermind —released in the fall of 1991—did just that. Nirvana essentially brought the sound and fury of Punk Rock to the mainstream of America about 15 years after it initially broke, and temporarily changed the course of American popular music in the process. Fusing Punk's speed and energy with 1970s Metal heaviness, Nirvana popularized what would later be labeled "Grunge," making loud and abrasive guitar rock one of the biggest money making genres of the 1990s. Within one year of Nevermind's success, MTV (Music Television) went from being dominated by lightweight dance-pop and "hair" metal acts to being monopolized by guitar-wielding, long-haired quasi-punk rockers. Furthermore, in the early 1990s "Grunge" fashion became the next big thing, with the flannel thrift-store shirts and ripped jeans worn by Nirvana being imitated by upscale Madison Avenue fashion stores. The group's two-and-half-year reign over popular music ended tragically when Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain took his life with a shotgun blast to the head on April 4, 1994.
For those who did not have their ear to the American underground music scene of the 1980s, Nirvana's sound may have come as a shock. Nirvana was, however, more representative of a musical tradition than an aberration. Formed in 1987, core members Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) and Chris Novoselic (1965—) were directly inspired by American underground music played by bands such as the Minutemen, Big Black, Black Flag, the Melvins, and Sonic Youth. This Aberdeen, Washington, band soon was signed to the ultra-hip Seattle label, Sub Pop, which specialized in the type of heavy Punk-meets-1970s Metal music that Nirvana played at the time. After an initial single, the band recorded their first album, Bleach, for $600, which went on to be a moderate underground success—picking up a considerable amount of critical acclaim along the way. Still, in 1990, the band was considered to be nothing more than just another pretty good band on an independent label.
After the band resurfaced in 1991 on a major label, DGC, the group had both a new drummer (Dave Grohl, 1969—) and considerably improved songs—creating catchier, albeit no less loud music. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was perhaps their most likable song, and when it was released in the fall of 1991 it steadily climbed the charts and its video quickly became a staple on MTV. With little push from Nirvana's record company, by early 1992 Nevermind went to the top of the Billboard album charts, unseating such superstars as U2, Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson, and MC Hammer. Even though there was a precedent for what Nirvana was doing, mainstream America reacted to it as being the newest, biggest thing in music. Major record labels began signing relatively unknown bands (Stone Temple Pilots, L7, Pearl Jam, Helmet) who fit the newly-dubbed "Alternative" genre, as well as older artists like Circle Jerks, Jesus Lizard, and the Butthole Surfers.
Always a Punk idealist, Kurt Cobain often did his best to alienate many of the new members of his audience, whom he referred to as the ones "who used to beat me up in school." The desire to drive away this segment of his audience began with Cobain planting an open-mouthed kiss on Novoselic on Saturday Night Live and culminated in the recording of In Utero (1993). Feeling like Nevermind was too slick, the band hired veteran underground engineer Steve Albini to produce an extremely abrasive follow-up to their multi-platinum major label debut. But Cobain's plan backfired, and In Utero went to the top of the Billboard album charts again, primarily because Cobain had not buried his songwriting gifts and, further, the landscape of popular music had changed dramatically since Nevermind was released. In two years, mainstream listeners' ears had been hardened by endless streams of Nirvana-clone bands, making even the extremely dissonant sounds of In Utero's "Scentless Apprentice" and "Very Ape" palatable.
Growing increasingly discontent with his role as a big rock star, Cobain became more depressed—a feeling that was fueled by his heroin use. Cobain and Courtney Love's drug-related problems fell under mounting scrutiny by the mainstream press, and Nirvana repeatedly took criticism from the underground music community for "selling out" (after buying a new Lexus, for instance, Cobain took so much flack from his peers that he returned the car to the dealership and took back his old Volvo from the pre-Nevermind days). For reasons that will never be fully known, Kurt Cobain took his own life with a shotgun blast to the head on April 4, 1994 in the room above his Seattle home's garage. When his body was found on April 8, it was a major media event, and thousands publicly mourned, including Courtney Love, who recorded an infamous eulogy/rant in which she read parts of her husband's suicide note—punctuated by her own grief-stricken asides.
Courtney Love's group, Hole, recorded Live Through This, coincidentally released the Tuesday after Cobain's suicide. It went on to become a critical and commercial success. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl formed the extremely popular Foo Fighters, while bassist Chris Novoselic concentrated on forming Political Action Committees that lobbied against anti-censorship laws. In early 1998, Novoselic's band, Sweet 75, released its poorly-selling debut, which had not even surpassed Bleach's sales of 35,000 months after its release.
Arnold, Gina. Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1993.
Azerrad, Michael. Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. New York, Doubleday, 1994.
In Hinduism, nirvāna is the extinguishing of worldly desires and attachments, so that the union with God or the Absolute is possible. In Bhagavad-gītā, it seems to be contrasted deliberately with the Buddhist understanding, because it is described as the attainment of Brahman, and the yogin is described, not (as in Buddhism) as a candle blown out, but as ‘a candle flame away from a draught which does not flicker’ (6. 19). The attainment of nirvāna is thus mokṣa.
In Buddhism there is no Self or soul to attain any state or union after death. Nirvāna (Pāli, nibbāna) therefore represents the realization that that is so. It is the condition of absolute cessation of entanglement or attachment, in which there is, so to speak, that state of cessation, but no interaction or involvement. Thus nibbuta (past participle) is ‘he who is cooled’, i.e. from the fever of clinging and thirst (tanhā). It does not mean ‘extinction’, a view which the Buddha repudiated (nihilism). That is why nirvāna can receive both negative (what it is not) and positive (what it is like) descriptions. The so-called ‘Nirvāna School’ of early (5th-cent.) Chinese Buddhism, stressed the positive aspects of nirvāna, and regarded it as an eternal and blissful condition. The final attainment of the state of nirvāna, with no residues remaining (of involvement in the appearance of this world) is pari (complete) nirvāna.
Nirvana was one of the most popular and influential rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) bands of the 1990s. Pioneers of the "grunge" (see entry under 1990s—Music in volume 5) style, the Seattle, Washington–based trio helped bring about a mini-revolution in music and fashion, before the tragic suicide of frontman Kurt Cobain (1967–1994) in 1994 brought an abrupt end to the band's career.
Formed in 1987, Nirvana consisted of Cobain on lead guitar and vocals, Chris Novoselic (1965–) on bass guitar, and Dave Grohl (1969–) on drums. Their 1989 debut album Bleach attracted the attention of rock critics, but it was the 1991 follow-up Nevermind that made them into superstars. The single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a smash hit. The group's heavy sound and ragged flannel shirts quickly caught fire with teenagers worldwide. After a 1993 album, In Utero, drug use and depression finally caught up with the sensitive Cobain. He shot himself to death on April 4, 1994, leaving behind his widow, Courtney Love (1964–), a baby daughter, and millions of grieving fans.
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
For More Information
Azerrad, Michael. Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Cross, Charles R. Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. New York: Hyperion, 2001.
The Internet Nirvana Fan Club.http://www.nirvanaclub.com/ (accessed April 8, 2002).
Wall, Mick. Nirvana: The Legacy. London: Omnibus Press, 1996.
nir·va·na / nərˈvänə; nir-/ • n. Buddhism a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and samsara. It represents the final goal of Buddhism. ∎ Hinduism liberation of the soul from the effects of karma and from bodily existence. ∎ a state of perfect happiness; an ideal or idyllic place: Hollywood's dearest dream of small-town nirvana.