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Kurt Donald Cobain (February 20, 1967 – ca. April 5, 1994) was the lead singer and guitarist of the American rock band, Nirvana. He served not only as the band's frontman, but as its "leader and spiritual center" . With the band's success, Cobain became a major national and international celebrity, an uncomfortable position for someone who claimed to be "ill at ease with fame and ill-equipped to handle the responsibility that accompanies success" .
Cobain and Nirvana were highly influential, popularizing what came to be known as "grunge music." The arrival of Cobain's best known song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", marked the beginning of a dramatic shift of popular music away from the perceived superficiality of 1980s glam-metal and dance-pop that placed visual style over musical substance. The music media eventually awarded "Smells Like Teen Spirit" "anthem-of-a-generation" status , and, with it, Cobain ascendance as the reluctant "spokesman" for Generation X.
Among other well known Cobain songs are "Lithium", "About a Girl", "Polly", "In Bloom", "Come As You Are", "Heart-Shaped Box", "All Apologies", and the controversial "Rape Me".
Kurt was born to Don and Wendy Cobain in the Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington, and spent his early years living in Hoquiam, Washington. By most accounts, his early life was happy, and he lived as a part of the typical American family. His interest in music came early on, possibly a result of his family's general interest in music.
Around the age of seven, he began to idolize stuntman Evel Knievel. Hoping to someday become a stuntman himself, a young Cobain could often be seen diving from the rooftop of his house onto a bed of pillows and blankets below. During this time, he was prescribed Ritalin for hyperactivity; years later, his wife Courtney Love blamed Ritalin for his addiction to heroin.
Cobain's life was turned upside down at the age of eight with the divorce of his parents, 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 His mother noted that his personality changed dramatically, with Cobain becoming more withdrawn. 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 rebellious tendencies became too overwhelming, and Cobain found himself being shuffled between friends and family.
At school, Cobain took little interest in sports or most academics, focusing only on his art courses. He was an outspoken supporter of gay students at his school, sometimes suffering physically at the hands of homophobic students for his beliefs, and for his small size, which led some to believe that he himself was gay. Although he once claimed in an interview with The Advocate that he was arrested for spray-painting a pro-gay slogan on a bank, Aberdeen police records show that the phrase he was arrested for in 1986 was actually "Ain't got no how watchamacallit."
In a February 1992 interview with The Advocate, Cobain admitted that he thought he was gay while in high school and stated, "I could be bisexual. If I wouldn't have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle." In his journals, he wrote that he was heterosexual, but wished he was gay just "to piss off homophobes" . When Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live in January of 1992, Cobain and Novoselic jokingly "kissed" during the cast and crew farewells as the credits rolled. (Cobain and Novoselic bobbed their heads back and forth wildly as if in rapture; Novoselic and Grohl subsequently repeated the gesture.) The segment was cut from the show on further airings, replaced by the closing credits from the rehearsal taping, and never aired again.
As a teenager with a chaotic home life growing up in small town Washington, Cobain eventually found escape through the thriving Pacific Northwest punk scene, going to punk rock shows in Seattle. Cobain formed a lifelong friendship with fellow Montesano musicians The Melvins, whose music later heavily influenced Nirvana's sound. Cobain had a small "K" inside a shield tattooed on his forearm, the insignia of Olympia, Washington, label K Records, largely chosen for the coincidental ellipsis of his name.
In his youth, Cobain spent much time reading in the local library, discovering such literary figures as S.E. Hinton and William S. Burroughs, whose cut-up technique Cobain occasionally utilised to write lyrics for some of Nirvana's songs. Cobain eventually had the opportunity to record with Burroughs a spoken word with guitar improvisation piece called The Priest They Called Him, whose words were originally one of Burroughs' short stories from The Exterminator. Other literary works which impacted Cobain's philosophy included the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and Perfume by Patrick Süskind, as well as works by Samuel Beckett, Charles Bukowski, Jon Savage and Camille Paglia.
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 an ultimatum: 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 snuck into his mother's basement every now and then. Cobain later claimed that when he could not find anywhere else to stay, he lived under a bridge over the Wishkah River (at Young Street), an experience that inspired the Nevermind track "Something In The Way". (In the June 2005 issue of Guitar World Magazine, bandmate Krist Novoselic claimed that Kurt 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.")
Cobain received his first guitar from his uncle at age fourteen. He was given the choice of a guitar or a bicycle, and chose the guitar. From there, he tried to form bands with friends, generally noodling on songs by AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. When he moved back in with his mother in high school, he found himself without anyone to jam with, as none of his friends had any musical talent.
Later in high school, Cobain met Krist Novoselic, a fellow devotee of punk rock. 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 prodding, Novoselic finally agreed to join Cobain, forming the beginnings of Nirvana.
For the first few years of Nirvana, Novoselic and Cobain found themselves host to a rotating list of drummers. Eventually, the band settled on Chad Channing, with whom the band recorded the album Bleach, released on Sub Pop Records in 1989. Cobain, however, became dissatisfied with Channing's style, eventually leading the band to 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 particularly distressing incident 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."
Kurt Cobain first encountered Courtney Love at a concert in 1989. More than a year later, after learning from Dave Grohl that she and Kurt shared mutual crushes, Courtney began pursuing Cobain. After a few weeks of on-again, off-again courtship, 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 (Frances Bean Cobain). A few days after the conclusion of Nirvana's Australian tour, on Monday, February 24, 1992, Cobain married Love on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. 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 bean on the first sonogram he saw of her. Her namesake is Frances McKee of The Vaselines, of whom Cobain was a big fan.
Love was somewhat unpopular with Nirvana fans. Her harshest critics cited Cobain's total devotion to her, combined with what they saw as her domineering personality and inferior musical talent, as evidence that 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 to this day that Cobain wrote most of the songs on Hole's breakthrough album Live Through This. However, except for a rough mix of "Asking for It" that contains Cobain singing backing vocals, there is no evidence to prove the assertion. It is worth noting that, until Nirvana's stratospheric success with Nevermind, both bands had virtually the same commercial stature. In fact, Hole was the more popular band on the club circuit in the months prior to Nevermind's release.
In a 1992 article in Vanity Fair, Love admitted to using heroin while (unknowingly) pregnant, an admission that seriously damaged her public standing. While Cobain and Love's romance had been something of a media attraction before the article was published, they found themselves constantly hounded by tabloid reporters, many wanting to know if Frances was addicted to drugs at birth. The notoriety of the article even resulted in Child Welfare Services launching an investigation into the couple's fitness as parents. The investigation was eventually dismissed, but not without a significant amount of legal wrangling. Love, along with Cobain, claimed that Vanity Fair took her words out of context.
|"Come As You Are"
|"Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Cobain was a devoted champion of early alternative rock acts. 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, the Pixies, Young Marble Giants, The Wipers, and The Raincoats. Nirvana even covered songs by those bands. Cobain was eventually able to convince Nirvana's record company Geffen Records to reissue albums by The Raincoats and The Vaselines.
Cobain also made efforts to include his favorite performers in his musical endeavors. In 1993, when Kurt 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.
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.
One of Cobain's earliest and most important musical influences was none other than The Beatles; Cobain expressed a particular fondness for John Lennon, whom he called his "idol" in his journals, and even admitted that the song "About a Girl" was essentially his attempt at writing a Beatles song. He also found himself heavily influenced by punk rock, and often credited bands such as Black Flag and The Sex Pistols for his artistic style and attitude.
"All the hype the Sex Pistols had was totally deserved. They deserved everything they got. Johnny Rotten was the one I identified with--he was the sensitive one. Never Mind The Bollocks has the best production of any rock record I have ever heard. It’s totally in-your-face and compressed." -- Kurt Cobain, Nirvana (Vox Magazine September 1992)
Even with all of Cobain's indie influences, Nirvana's early style was clearly influenced by the major rock bands of the 70s, including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Kiss. In its early days, Nirvana made regular habit of playing cover songs by those bands, including Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and "Dazed and Confused", and a studio recording of Kiss' "Do You Love Me?".
There were also earlier influnces: Nirvana's MTV Unplugged concert ended with a haunting version of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"; while critic Greil Marcus suggested that Cobain's "Polly" was a descendent of "Pretty Polly", a murder ballad that might have been a century old when Dock Boggs recorded it in 1927.
Addiction and death
Throughout most of his life, Cobain battled depression, chronic bronchitis, and intense physical pain due to a chronic stomach condition. Cobain spent years seeking the cause for his stomach pain. 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. Feeling that he had been let down by medical science, Cobain opted to self-medicate with heroin.
Cobain's first taste of heroin came sometime late in 1990. For months, Cobain used the drug casually, but it did not take long for his use to become a full-fledged addiction. Toward the end of 1991, his use began affecting the band's support of Nevermind, with Cobain passing out during photo shoots as a result of the drug. On the band's 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, Cobain's eyes appeared to be sunken into his head, a possible sign that he had shot up earlier in the evening.
Cobain's heroin addiction increased further as the years progressed. Cobain's first attempt at rehab came in early 1992, not long after he and Courtney 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 addiction resurfaced.
Prior to a performance at the New Music Seminar in New York City in July of 1993, Cobain suffered a heroin overdose. Rather than calling for an ambulance, wife Courtney Love injected Cobain with an illegal drug to bring him out of his unconscious state. Cobain proceeded to perform with Nirvana on what later was recognized as one of their more memorable performances. The public was given no hint that anything out of the ordinary had taken place.
On March 6, 1994, in Rome, Kurt overdosed on a combination of champagne and Rohypnol, which Love later insisted publicly was Cobain's first suicide attempt. Cobain returned home, and soon faced his friends and family at an intervention over his continuing heroin addiction. Given everything that had happened, Cobain agreed to check into rehab.
A few days after arriving at rehab in California, Cobain told the nurses that he was going out for a smoke. After finishing it, he jumped over the facility's six-foot wall (although the patients in the rehab could leave freely at any time), caught the next flight back to Seattle, and dropped off the radar. In the ensuing days, he hung out occasionally with longtime friend Dylan Carlson, and once bumped into friend and famed Seattle photographer Charles Peterson. However, most of his friends and family were unaware of his whereabouts, eventually pushing his wife to fill a missing persons report, under the name of Wendy Cobain, without the permission of Kurt's mother. She added in the file that Kurt Cobain was suicidal and was in possession of a shotgun. The next day, she hired a private investigator, Tom Grant, to find him.
On April 8, 1994, Cobain's body was discovered in the spare room above the garage (referred to as "the greenhouse") at his Lake Washington home by Veca Electric employee Gary Smith. Smith arrived at the house that morning to install security lighting and saw the body 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. An autopsy report later concluded Cobain's death as a result of a "self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head." The report estimates Cobain to have died on April 5, 1994.
In the alleged suicide note, ostensibly written to Cobain's imaginary childhood friend "Boddah", Cobain quoted a lyric from Neil Young's song "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)": "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Cobain's use of the lyric had a profound impact on Young, who recorded portions of his 1994 album Sleeps With Angels in Cobain's memory.
Cobain was cremated, with one third of his ashes scattered in a Buddhist temple in New York, another third in the Wishkah River, and the rest left in Love's possession.
Cobain is legally recognized to have committed suicide. However, unanswered questions within the Seattle Police Department's report have led to a perception that Cobain may have been murdered.
The first to publicly object to the report of suicide was Seattle public access host Richard Lee. The day that Cobain's body was discovered, Lee climbed a tree outside Cobain's garage with a camcorder and filmed the area around Cobain's body. A week later, Lee aired the first episode of an ongoing documentary covering Cobain's death, insisting that Cobain was murdered. The series continued for several years.
In addition, Tom Grant, the private investigator employed by Love after Cobain's disappearance from rehab, adamantly believes that Cobain's death was a homicide. Grant was hired by Love to find Cobain after his disappearance from rehab, and was still under her employ when Cobain's body was found. Grant cites the official toxicology report, which claims that Cobain's heroin level was three times the lethal dosage at the time of his death, as the key piece of evidence for murder. Grant argues that Cobain could not have injected himself, rolled down his sleeves, put his needle and spoon away, and still have been able to pull the trigger with such a dose. Grant also believes that the apparent suicide note was actually a letter announcing his intent to leave Courtney Love, Seattle, and the music business. Grant and a number of handwriting experts point out that the final lines of the note that most sound like a suicide note are written in a style that is jarringly different from the rest of the letter. In addition, Grant suggests that if the shotgun that Cobain used were positioned to match the findings of the autopsy report, his arm would have been too short for him to reach the trigger. Cobain would have had to fire the weapon with his toe, yet he was found with both shoes still in place. Many, however, see Grant as an opportunist, noting that he capitalized on Kurt's death by selling "kits" about the conspiracy via his website.
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield decided to investigate the story for himself, 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. Most notably, Broomfield spoke to Mentors bandleader El Duce, who claimed that Courtney had offered him $50,000 to kill Cobain, and passed a polygraph administered by well-regarded polygraph expert Dr. Edward Gelb. Broomfield inadvertently captured El Duce's last interview, as he died days later. Broomfield titled the finished documentary Kurt & Courtney, and it was released in 1998. In the end, however, Broomfield felt he hadn't uncovered enough evidence to conclude the existence of a conspiracy.
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? drew a similar conclusion to Broomfield's film: 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 Tom Grant, who had taped nearly every conversation that he had undertaken while he was in Courtney Love's employ. On their insistence, Grant played some the tapes for the journalists to prove his claims. Over the next couple of years, Halperin and Wallace collaborated with Grant to write a second book, 2004's Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain, in which they claim to prove conclusively that Cobain was murdered.
Further questions are raised by Cobain's initial "suicide attempt" in Rome which involved an overdose of Rohypnol and champagne. On March 5th, 1994, the day before his overdose, Courtney Love discussed her recreational use of Rohypnol in an interview with Select Magazine's Andrew Harrison: "I know [Rohypnol] is a controlled substance. I got it from my doctor. It’s like Valium. You know, fuck that Prozac stuff. I’m not a depressive, I tried it for like five or six days, and by the sixth day I started seeing tracers,” a statement prompted by Andrew Harrison's observation of a box of Rohypnol on Love's nightstand. In a two page article on Kurt's overdose in Melody Maker's March 12th, 1994 edition, music journalist Everett True reported that in an interview with Courtney she had given just prior to her flying to Rome to meet Kurt, she had said: "...I take those dihydrocodeines I get over here in London, with Rohypnol and champagne." While circumstantial, some advocating the murder theory have concluded from Rohypnol's easy concealability (it's tasteless when dissolved in an alcoholic beverage, making it a choice date rape drug) and Love's past abuse of the drug that Cobain's overdose was the result of a deliberate drugging by Love rather than a failed suicide attempt.
Advocates of the official verdict of death by self-inflicted gunshot wound cite Cobain's persistent drug addiction, clinical depression, and handwritten suicide note as conclusive proof. It is also notable that Grohl and Novoselic have remained silent in the matter, and that they would certainly have spoken out had they believed that Kurt was murdered.
More recently, being interviewed for her role on Gus Van Sant's Last Days (a film inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain), Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon was interviewed by Uncut magazine regarding the circumstances surrounding Cobain's death: The interviewer asked, "The film doesn't explain why Kurt killed himself. Can you?" Gordon answered, "I don't even know that he killed himself. There are people close to him who don't think that he did..." Uncut then followed by asking, "Do you believe the theory that Kurt was killed by someone else?" Gordon answered, "I do, yes." This makes Gordon one of few, if not the only, musician to have had a friendship with Cobain to declare, on the record, the belief that Cobain was murdered (Uncut, August 2005).
After Cobain's death
Writer Charles R. Cross published a biography of Cobain titled Heavier Than Heaven in 2001. In it, Cross attempted to contact as many of Cobain's friends and family as possible, and received a significant amount of input from widow Courtney Love. The book is probably the most detailed account of Cobain's life on record, and is arguably the "definitive" Cobain biography.
However, many criticized Cross for including anything and everything related to Cobain, including details that, unbeknownst to him, were factually inaccurate. For example, Cross cited "On the Mountain" conclusively as the first working title for "You Know You're Right". In reality, "On the Mountain" was the result of an effort by fans in 1995 to decipher Dave Grohl's introduction to the song on a 1993 live recording. (When a clearer version of the recording surfaced some months later, it became clear that Grohl introduced the song as "All Apologies", since "You Know You're Right" wasn't on the written setlist that night.) Cross was also heavily criticized for including an "artist's rendering" of Kurt's final days. Cross claimed in interviews that he felt he had learned enough about Cobain to reasonably guess Cobain's state of mind in the last week of his life. Many felt that the inclusion of fiction in what was supposed to be a non-fiction book was an insult to Cobain's memory.
Cobain wrote in a journal often, leaving 22 notebooks filled with his writing when he died. In November 2002, a sampling of these 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 scribbed down lyric ideas for future reference. Upon its release, fans were conflicted about the collection. They were elated to be able to learn more about the man and read his inner thoughts in his own words, but were disturbed by what seemed to some to be an invasion of his privacy.
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.
The mythic nature of Cobain's life even captured the eyes of Hollywood. Gus Van Sant based his 2005 movie Last Days on what might have happened in the final hours of Cobain's life.
Years after his passing, Cobain continues to intrigue and inspire fans. A full eight years after his death, Nirvana's final studio recording, "You Know You're Right", topped playlists worldwide, bringing a new generation of Nirvana fans. Nevermind remains a watershed in alternative music, and consistently tops "best album" lists throughout the world. Many feel that Cobain's contributions to music history have permanently changed the landscape of popular music, marking him as one of the most influential songwriters in music history — even if that was never his intention.
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