Kurt Cobain was the most important artist of the Nineties even though he lived for less than half of the decade. When the Nirvana rocketed into popular consciousness in 1991 with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Cobain became the face and enduring icon of alternative rock. He was a musical genius who (briefly) brought punk rock into the mainstream and a pop craftsman with a gift for setting simple melodies to noisy feedback and distortion. His coarse and grainy wail was the prototype for later alt-rock singers, and his tangled leads and hurricane-like power chords influenced countless subsequent rock guitarists. In his lyrics, Cobain dealt with the thorny discomfort of growing up and railed about his inner demons. Like Bob Dylan, he hated the notion of being dubbed “the voice of a generation” – in Cobain’s case, Generation X – but got it anyway.
Kurt Donald Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, in Hoquiam, Washington, and grew up in the working-class logging town of Aberdeen. His father, Donald, was an auto mechanic and his mother, Wendy, a housewife. He came from a musical family: an uncle played in a band and a great uncle was an Irish tenor who appeared in the 1930 film King of Jazz. At four, Cobain began singing and playing piano, and gravitated to the music of bands ranging from the Beatles to the Ramones. When he was eight, his parents divorced and Cobain was shuttled among various family members, developing a rebellious attitude he would later express in his music.
At fourteen he got his first guitar and learned to play rudimentary rock & roll songs like “Louie Louie” and the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl.” But he was bullied at school for choosing art and music over sports, and by his senior year of high school decided to drop out. Around that time he began hanging out at rehearsals of local band the Melvins, where he met and befriended bass player Krist Novoselic. The two formed Nirvana and by 1987 the band was playing shows at Evergreen State College in nearby Olympia.
In 1989, with drummer Chad Channing, Nirvana released its first album, Bleach, on the Seattle independent label Sub Pop. Replacing Channing with Dave Grohl, the band signed with the major label DGC and began recording Nevermind (Number One, 1991). When that album became a surprise hit, Cobain was thrust into a mainstream pop spotlight he never was completely comfortable with.
He used his fame to advocate for the rights of women, gays and other minorities and teen misfits like himself while pouring his personal anger and frustration into Nirvana’s lyrics and album liner notes. Apart from Nirvana, Cobain collaborated with artists ranging from Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan and Beat writer William S. Burroughs, for whom Cobain provided guitar backing on a spoken-word recording of a short story entitled “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him.” Before his death, Cobain had been in discussions with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. about a possible collaboration.
In the late 1980s, Cobain developed a heroin habit that intensified once he began a romantic relationship in 1991 with fellow alternative rocker Courtney Love of Hole. After Nirvana’s massive success, the couple’s exploits were closely followed by entertainment journalists, and when she became pregnant, stories of their drug use were the fodder for gossip columnists and tabloid newspapers. Cobain and Love married on February 24, 1992; their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, was born almost six months later on August 18.
Cobain’s downfall was swift. Nirvana continued touring and recording and in 1993 released In Utero (Number One). But the Collins’ admission of their drug use in a magazine article led to a children’s services battle over the custody of their daughter. That year police were summoned to the couple’s home on numerous occasions for incidents involving drugs and weapons, and Cobain was charged at one point with domestic abuse.
In March 1994, while Nirvana was on tour in Europe, Cobain overdosed and lay in a coma for 20 hours. He underwent a series of detoxes and interventions, and by March 30 had checked into Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles. But Cobain left the facility the next day and went missing for a week in early April. He had returned to Seattle, where his body was found on April 8 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. Cobain was mourned in the days after his suicide by fans, fellow musicians, and his wife, and his ashes were scattered into Washington’s Wishkah River. He had left behind a powerful musical legacy and some of the era’s most enduring songs including “Lithium,” “In Bloom,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Pennyroyal Tea” and “About a Girl.”
In the years since his death, Cobain’s demise has been the topic of much speculation, and numerous books and films on the singer have appeared including writer Charles R. Cross’s 2001 biography Heavier Than Heaven, Gus Van Sant’s 2005 movie Last Days and scandal documentary maker Nick Broomfield’s 1998 film Kurt & Courtney. In 2002, Cobain’s own writings were published as Journals.
Love has continued to make headlines as much for her erratic behavior as for her music. She sanctioned the use of Cobain’s likeness for the 2009 video game Guitar Hero 5 but later complained, along with Novoselic and Grohl, when it was revealed that the singer’s image also could be used in songs other than his own. In December 2009, co-guardianship of Cobain’s daughter, who like her father had been shuttled among relatives throughout her life, was appointed to Cobain’s mother and sister. That same month, a judge issued a restraining order against Love, prohibiting her from any contact with the couple’s daughter.
• Was devastated, at the age of 9, by his parents’ divorce; Cobain subsequently lived with several different relatives.
• Received his first guitar, a birthday present from his uncle, at the age of 14.
• Dropped out of high school shortly before graduation.
• Discovered punk music through local proto-grunge band the Melvins, for whom Cobain served as a roadie during regional touring.
• Pre-Nirvana band was called Fecal Matter; the group recorded a handful of songs but never played any shows.
• With bassist Krist Novoselic, formed Nirvana in 1986; Sub Pop Records released the band’s debut album, Bleach, in 1989.
• Multiplatinum follow-up Nevermind (1991), which featured the smash single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” helped bring grunge and the Seattle music scene to national prominence.
• Entered rehab several times in the early ’90s, trying unsuccessfully to break an addiction to heroin, which Cobain used in part to treat chronic stomach pain.
• Death on April 5, 1994, was followed by several posthumous Nirvana releases, including the live albums MTV Unplugged in New York (1994) and From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996).
• 1995, Grammy — Best Alternative Music Performance: Winner
• Don Cobain — Father
• Frances Bean Cobain — Daughter
• Kim — Sister
• Jenny Westby — Stepmother
• Brianne — Half Sister
• Wendy O’Connor — Mother
• Tracy Marander — Ex-significant Other
• Pat O’Connor — Stepfather
• Leland Cobain — Grandfather
• Courtney Love — Wife
• Chad Cobain — Half Brother
1 “If my eyes could show my soul, everyone would cry when they saw me smile.”
2 “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are.”
3 “No one is afraid of heights, they’re afraid of falling down. No one is afraid of saying I love you, they’re afraid of the answer.”
4 “There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life.”
5 “I use bits and pieces of others personalities to form my own.”
6 “The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.”
7 “We have no right to express an opinion until we know all of the answers.”
8 “We’re so trendy we can’t even escape ourselves.”
9 “A friend is nothing but a known enemy.”
10 “Thank you for the tragedy. I need it for my art.”