Kurt Donald Cobain (February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994) was an American musician, artist, songwriter, guitarist and poet. Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain formed the band Nirvana with Krist Novoselic in 1987 and established it as part of the Seattle music scene and grunge genre. Nirvana's debut album Bleach was released on the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989.
After signing with major label DGC Records, the band found breakthrough success with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from their second album Nevermind (1991). Following the success of Nevermind, Nirvana was labeled "the flagship band" of Generation X, and Cobain hailed as "the spokesman of a generation". Cobain, however, was often uncomfortable and frustrated with that label, believing his message and artistic vision to have been misinterpreted by the public, with his personal issues often subject to media attention.
During the last years of his life, Cobain struggled with heroin addiction, chronic health problems and depression. He also had difficulty coping with his fame and public image, and the professional and personal pressures surrounding himself and his wife, musician Courtney Love. On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle, the victim of what was officially ruled a suicide by a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. The circumstances of his death at age 27 have become a topic of public fascination and debate. Since their debut, Nirvana, with Cobain as a songwriter, has sold over 25 million albums in the U.S., and over 75 million worldwide. Cobain was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, along with Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, in their first year of eligibility.
Cobain was born at Grays Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington, the son of waitress Wendy Elizabeth (née Fradenburg; born 1948) and automotive mechanic Donald Leland Cobain (born 1946). His parents were married on July 31, 1965 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. His ancestry included Dutch, English, French, German, Irish, and Scottish.:13:7 His Irish ancestors emigrated from Carrickmore, County Tyrone in 1875.:7 Researchers found that they were shoemakers, originally named "Cobane", who came from Inishatieve, a townland within Carrickmore. They first settled in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, and then in Washington. Cobain himself believed his family came from County Cork. His younger sister, Kimberly, was born on April 24, 1970.
Cobain's family had a musical background. His maternal uncle, Chuck Fradenburg, played in a band called The Beachcombers; his aunt, Mari Earle, played guitar and performed in bands throughout Grays Harbor County; and his great-uncle, Delbert, had a career as an Irish tenor, making an appearance in the 1930 film King of Jazz. Kurt was described as being a happy and excitable child, who also exhibited sensitivity and care. His talent as an artist was evident from an early age, as he would draw his favorite characters from films and cartoons, such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Donald Duck, in his bedroom.:11 This enthusiasm was encouraged by his grandmother, Iris Cobain, who was a professional artist.
Cobain began developing an interest in music early in life. According to his aunt Mari, he began singing at the age of two. At age four, he started playing the piano and singing, writing a song about a trip to a local park. He listened to artists like the Ramones and Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), and, from a young age, would sing songs like Arlo Guthrie's "Motorcycle Song", The Beatles' "Hey Jude", Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun", and the theme song to the television show of the band The Monkees.:9
When Cobain was nine years old, his parents divorced.:20 He later said that the divorce had a profound effect on his life, while his mother noted that his personality changed dramatically; Cobain became defiant and withdrawn.:17 In a 1993 interview, he elaborated:
I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason. I was ashamed of my parents. I couldn't face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.
Cobain's parents both found new partners after the divorce. Although his father had promised not to remarry, after meeting Jenny Westeby, he did, to Kurt's dismay.:24 Cobain, his father, Westeby, and her two children, Mindy and James, moved into a new household together. Cobain liked Westeby at first, as she gave him the maternal attention he desired.:25 In January 1979, Westeby gave birth to a boy, Chad Cobain.:24 This new family, which Cobain insisted was not his real one, was in stark contrast to the attention Cobain was used to receiving as an only boy, and he soon began to express resentment toward his stepmother.:24,25 Cobain's mother began dating a man who was abusive. Cobain witnessed the domestic violence inflicted upon her, with one incident resulting in her being hospitalized with a broken arm.:25,26 Wendy steadfastly refused to press charges, remaining completely committed to the relationship.:26
Cobain behaved insolently toward adults during this period of his youth, and began bullying another boy at school. These behaviors eventually caused his father and Westeby to take him to a therapist, who concluded that he would benefit from a single family environment.:26 Both sides of the family attempted to bring his parents back together, but to no avail. On June 28, 1979, Cobain's mother granted full custody to his father.:27 Cobain's teenage rebellion quickly became overwhelming for his father, who placed his son in the care of family and friends. While living with the born-again Christian family of his friend Jesse Reed, he became a devout Christian and regularly attended church services. He later renounced Christianity, engaging in what would be described as "anti-God" rants. The song "Lithium" is about his experience while living with the Reed family. Religion would remain an important part of his personal life and beliefs.:22:196:69
Although uninterested in sports, Cobain was enrolled in a junior high school wrestling team at the insistence of his father. He was a skilled wrestler, but despised the experience. Because of the ridicule he endured from his teammates and coach, he allowed himself to be pinned in an attempt to sadden his father. Later, his father enlisted him in a Little League Baseball team, where Cobain would intentionally strike out to avoid playing.:20–25 Cobain befriended a homosexual student at school and suffered bullying from heterosexual students who concluded that he was gay. In an interview, he said that he liked being associated with a gay identity because he did not like people, and when they thought he was gay they left him alone. He stated, "I started being really proud of the fact that I was gay even though I wasn't." His friend tried to kiss him and Cobain backed away, explaining to his friend that he was not gay, but would remain friends with him. In a 1993 interview with The Advocate, Cobain claimed that he was "gay in spirit" and "probably could be bisexual". He also stated that he used to spray paint "God Is Gay" on pickup trucks in the Aberdeen area. Police records show that Cobain was arrested for spray painting the phrase "ain't got no how watchamacallit" on other vehicles.:68 One of his personal journals states, "I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes."
Cobain would often draw during school classes as part of his enjoyment of creating visual art. He would draw objects, including those associated with the human anatomy. When given a caricature assignment for an art course, Cobain drew Michael Jackson, but was told by the teacher that the image was inappropriate for a school hallway. He then drew an image of then-President Ronald Reagan that was seen as "unflattering".:41 As attested to by several of Cobain's classmates and family members, the first concert he attended was Sammy Hagar and Quarterflash, held at the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1983.:44 Cobain, however, claimed that the first concert he attended was the Melvins, and he wrote prolifically in his journals of the experience.:45 As a teenager living in Montesano, Washington, Cobain eventually found escape through the thriving Pacific Northwest punk scene, going to punk rock shows in Seattle. He soon began frequenting the practice space of fellow Montesano musicians, the Melvins.
During his second year in high school, Cobain began living with his mother in Aberdeen. Two weeks prior to graduation, he dropped out of Aberdeen High School, upon realizing that he did not have enough credits to graduate. His mother gave him a choice: find employment or leave. After one week, Cobain found his clothes and other belongings packed away in boxes.:35 Feeling banished from his own mother's home, Cobain stayed with friends, occasionally sneaking back into his mother's basement.:37 Cobain also claimed that, during periods of homelessness, he lived under a bridge over the Wishkah River,:37 an experience that inspired the song "Something in the Way". However, Nirvana bassist Novoselic later said, "He hung out there, but you couldn't live on those muddy banks, with the tides coming up and down. That was his own revisionism."
In late 1986, Cobain moved into an apartment, paying his rent by working at The Polynesian Resort, a Polynesian coastal resort approximately 20 miles (32 km) north of Aberdeen.:43 During this period, he was traveling frequently to Olympia, Washington, to go to rock concerts.:46 During his visits to Olympia, Cobain formed a relationship with Tracy Marander. The couple had a close relationship, but one that was often strained with financial difficulties and Cobain's absence when touring. Marander supported the couple by working at the cafeteria of the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, often stealing food. During his time with Marander, Cobain spent most of his time sleeping into the late evening, watching television, and concentrating on art projects. Her insistence that he get a job caused arguments that influenced Cobain to write "About a Girl", which was featured on the Nirvana album Bleach. Marander is credited with having taken the cover photo for the album. She did not become aware that "About a Girl" was written about her until years after Cobain's death.:88–93:116–117:122:134–136:143:153
Soon after his separation from Marander, Cobain began dating Tobi Vail, an influential punk zinester of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill who embraced the DIY ethos. After meeting Vail, Cobain vomited, as he was so completely overwhelmed with anxiety caused by his infatuation with her. This event would inspire the lyric "love you so much it makes me sick", which appears in the song "Aneurysm".:152 While Cobain would regard Vail as his female counterpart, his relationship with her eventually waned. Cobain desired the maternal comfort of a traditional relationship, which Vail regarded as sexist within a countercultural punk rock community. Those who dated Vail would be described by her friend Alice Wheeler as "fashion accessories".:153 Cobain and Vail spent most of their time together as a couple discussing political and philosophical issues. In 1990, they collaborated on a musical project called Bathtub is Real, in which they both sang and played guitar and drums. They recorded their songs on a four-track tape machine that belonged to Vail's father. In Everett True's 2009 book Nirvana: The Biography, Vail is quoted as saying:
[Kurt] would play the songs he was writing, I would play the songs I was writing and we'd record them on my dad's four-track. Sometimes I'd sing on the songs he was writing and play drums on them ... He was really into the fact that I was creative and into music. I don't think he'd ever played music with a girl before. He was super-inspiring and fun to play with.
Slim Moon described their sound as "like the minimal quiet pop songs that Olympia is known for. Both of them sang; it was really good". Cobain's relationship with Vail would inspire the lyrical content of many of the songs on Nevermind. Once, while he was discussing anarchism and punk rock with friend Kathleen Hanna, another member of Bikini Kill, Hanna spray-painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Cobain's apartment wall. Teen Spirit was the name of a deodorant Vail wore. Cobain, unaware of the deodorant's existence, interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning, and it inspired the title of the Nirvana song "Smells Like Teen Spirit".
On his 14th birthday on February 20, 1981, Cobain's uncle offered him either a bike or a used guitar—he chose the guitar. Soon, he was trying to copy Led Zeppelin's power ballad, "Stairway to Heaven". "Louie Louie", Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and The Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl" were cover versions learnt by Cobain before he began working on his own songs.:22
During high school, Cobain rarely found anyone with whom he could play music. While hanging out at the Melvins' practice space, he met Novoselic, a fellow devotee of punk rock. Novoselic's mother owned a hair salon, and the pair would occasionally practice in the upstairs room of the salon. A few years later, Cobain tried to convince Novoselic to form a band with him by lending him a copy of a home demo recorded by Cobain's earlier band, Fecal Matter. After months of asking, Novoselic finally agreed to join Cobain, forming the beginnings of Nirvana.:45
Religion appeared to remain significant to Cobain during this time, as he often used Christian imagery in his work, and maintained a constant interest in Jainism and Buddhist philosophy. The band name "Nirvana" was taken from the Buddhist concept, which Cobain described as "freedom from pain, suffering and the external world", a concept that he aligned with the punk rock ethos and ideology. Cobain would regard himself as both a Buddhist and a Jain during different points of his life.
Cobain was disenchanted after early touring, due to the band's inability to draw substantial crowds and the difficulty of sustaining themselves. During their first few years playing together, Novoselic and Cobain were hosts to a rotating list of drummers. Eventually, the band settled on Chad Channing, with whom Nirvana recorded the album Bleach, released on Sub Pop Records in 1989. Cobain, however, became dissatisfied with Channing's style, leading the band to find a new drummer, and they eventually settled on Grohl. With Grohl, the band found their greatest success through their 1991 major-label debut, Nevermind.
With Nevermind's lead single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Nirvana entered the mainstream, popularizing a subgenre of alternative rock called "grunge". Since their debut, Nirvana has sold over 25 million albums in the United States (U.S.) alone, and over 75 million worldwide.
The success of Nevermind provided numerous Seattle bands, such as Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, access to wider audiences. As a result, alternative rock became a dominant genre on radio and music television in the U.S. during the early-to-middle 1990s. Nirvana was considered the "flagship band of Generation X", and frontman Cobain found himself reluctantly anointed by the media as the generation's "spokesman".
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. He began to harbor resentment against people who claimed to be fans of the band, yet refused to acknowledge, or misinterpreted, the band's social and political views. A vocal opponent of sexism, racism and homophobia, he was publicly proud that Nirvana had played at a gay rights benefit, supporting No-on-Nine, in Oregon in 1992. The show was held in opposition to Ballot Measure Nine, a ballot measure, that if passed, would have prohibited schools in the state from acknowledging or positively accepting LGBT rights and welfare.
Cobain was a vocal supporter of the pro-choice movement and Nirvana was involved in L7's Rock for Choice campaign. He received death threats from a small number of anti-abortion activists for participating in the pro-choice campaign, with one activist threatening to shoot Cobain as soon as he stepped on a stage.:253
The Beatles were an early and lasting influence on Cobain; his aunt Mari remembers him singing "Hey Jude" at the age of two.:9 "My aunts would give me Beatles records", Cobain told Jon Savage in 1993, "so for the most part [I listened to] the Beatles [as a child], and if I was lucky, I'd be able to buy a single". Cobain expressed a particular fondness for John Lennon, whom he called his "idol" in his posthumously-released journals, and he admitted that he wrote the song "About a Girl", from Nirvana 1989 debut album Bleach, after spending three hours listening to Meet the Beatles!.:121
Cobain was also a fan of 1970s hard rock and heavy metal bands, including Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Queen, and Kiss. Nirvana occasionally played cover songs by these bands, including Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker", "Moby Dick" and "Immigrant Song", Black Sabbath's "Hand of Doom", and Kiss' "Do You Love Me?", and wrote the Incesticide song "Aero Zeppelin" as a tribute to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.
Punk rock proved to be a profound influence on a teenaged Cobain's attitude and artistic style. His first punk rock album was Sandinista! by The Clash,:169 but he became a bigger fan of a fellow 1970s British punk band the Sex Pistols, describing them as "one million times more important than the Clash" in his journals. He was introduced to 1980s American hardcore bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Millions of Dead Cops and Flipper by Buzz Osborne, lead singer and guitarist of the Melvins and fellow Aberdeen native. Osborne taught Cobain about Punk by loaning him records and old copies of the Detroit-based magazine Creem. The Melvins themselves were an important early musical influence on Cobain, with their heavy, grungey sound mimicked by Nirvana on many songs from Bleach.
Cobain was also a fan of protopunk acts like the Stooges, whose 1973 album Raw Power he listed as his favorite of all time in his journals, and The Velvet Underground, whose 1968 song "Here She Comes Now" the band covered both live and in the studio.
The 1980s American alternative rock band Pixies were instrumental in helping an adult Cobain develop his own songwriting style. In a 1992 interview with Melody Maker, Cobain said that hearing their 1988 debut album, Surfer Rosa, "convinced him to abandon his more Black Flag-influenced songwriting in favor of the Iggy Pop/Aerosmith–type songwriting that appeared on Nevermind. In a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone, he said that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was his attempt at "trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard".
Cobain's appreciation of early alternative rock bands also extended to Sonic Youth and R.E.M., both of which the members of Nirvana befriended and looked up to for advice. It was under recommendation from Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon that Nirvana signed to DGC in 1990,:162 and both bands did a two-week tour of Europe in the summer of 1991, as documented in the 1992 documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. In 1993, Cobain said of R.E.M.: "If I could write just a couple of songs as good as what they've written... I don't know how that band does what they do. God, they're the greatest. They've dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music".
After attaining mainstream success, Cobain became a devoted champion of lesser known indie bands, covering songs by The Vaselines, Meat Puppets, Wipers and Fang onstage and/ or in the studio, wearing Daniel Johnston T-shirts during photo shoots, having the K Records logo tattooed on his forearm, and enlisting bands like Butthole Surfers, Shonen Knife, Chokebore and Half Japanese along for the In Utero tour in late 1993 and early 1994. Cobain even invited his favorite musicians to perform with him: ex-Germs guitarist Pat Smear joined the band in 1993, and the Meat Puppets appeared onstage during Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance to perform three songs from their second album, Meat Puppets II.
Nirvana's Unplugged set also included renditions of "The Man Who Sold the World", by British rock musician David Bowie, and the American folk song, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", as adapted by the American folk musician Lead Belly. Cobain introduced the latter by calling Lead Belly his favorite performer, and in a 1993 interview revealed he had been introduced to him from reading the American author William S. Burroughs. "I remember [Burroughs] saying in an interview, 'These new rock'n'roll kids should just throw away their guitars and listen to something with real soul, like Leadbelly'", Cobain said. "I'd never heard about Leadbelly before so I bought a couple of records, and now he turns out to be my absolute favorite of all time in music. I absolutely love it more than any rock'n'roll I ever heard".
Nirvana's acoustic Unplugged set, which was released posthumously as an album in 1994, may have provided a hint of Cobain's future musical direction. The record has drawn comparisons to R.E.M.'s 1992 release, Automatic for the People, and in 1993, Cobain himself predicted that the next Nirvana album would be "pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.'s last album".
"Yeah, he talked a lot about what direction he was heading in", Cobain's friend, R.E.M.'s lead singer Michael Stipe, told Newsweek in 1994. "I mean, I know what the next Nirvana recording was going to sound like. It was going to be very quiet and acoustic, with lots of stringed instruments. It was going to be an amazing fucking record, and I'm a little bit angry at him for killing himself. He and I were going to record a trial run of the album, a demo tape. It was all set up. He had a plane ticket. He had a car picking him up. And at the last minute he called and said, 'I can't come'". Stipe was chosen as the godfather of Cobain and Courtney Love's daughter, Frances Bean Cobain.
Grohl stated that Cobain believed that music comes first and lyrics second. Cobain focused, foremost, on the melodies of his songs. Cobain complained when fans and rock journalists attempted to decipher his singing and extract meaning from his lyrics, writing: "Why in the hell do journalists insist on coming up with a second-rate Freudian evaluation of my lyrics, when 90 percent of the time they've transcribed them incorrectly?".:182 While Cobain would insist on the subjectivity and unimportance of his lyrics, he was known to labor and procrastinate in writing them, often changing the content and order of lyrics during performances.:177 Cobain would describe his lyrics himself as "a big pile of contradictions. They're split down the middle between very sincere opinions that I have and sarcastic opinions and feelings that I have and sarcastic and hopeful, humorous rebuttals toward cliché bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years".
Cobain originally wanted Nevermind to be divided into two sides: a "Boy" side, for the songs written about the experiences of his early life and childhood, and a "Girl" side, for the songs written about his dysfunctional relationship with Vail.:177 Charles R. Cross would write: "In the four months following their break-up, Kurt would write a half dozen of his most memorable songs, all of them about Tobi Vail". Though "Lithium" had been written before Cobain knew Vail, the lyrics of the song were changed to reference her.:168–169 Cobain would say in an interview with Musician that "some of my very personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling. Very lonely, sick". While Cobain would regard In Utero "for the most part very impersonal", on the album he dealt with his parents' divorce, his newfound fame and the public image and perception of himself and Courtney Love on "Serve the Servants", with his enamored relationship with Love conveyed through lyrical themes of pregnancy and the female anatomy on "Heart-Shaped Box". Cobain wrote "Rape Me" not only as an objective discussion of rape, but a metaphorical protest against his treatment by the media. He wrote about fame, drug addiction and abortion on "Pennyroyal Tea", as well as women's rights and the life of Seattle-born Farmer on "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle".
Cobain was affected enough to write the song "Polly" from Nevermind, after reading a newspaper story of an incident in 1987, where a 14-year-old girl was kidnapped after attending a punk rock show then raped and tortured with a blowtorch. She managed to escape after gaining the trust of her captor, Gerald Friend through flirting with him.:136 After seeing Nirvana perform, Bob Dylan would cite "Polly" as the best of Nirvana's songs, and was quoted as saying about Cobain, "the kid has heart".:137 Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer inspired Cobain to write the song "Scentless Apprentice" from In Utero. The book is a historical horror novel about a perfumer's apprentice born with no body odor of his own but with a highly developed sense of smell, and who attempts to create the "ultimate perfume" by killing virginal women and taking their scent.
Cobain immersed himself in artistic projects throughout his life, as much so as he did in songwriting. The sentiments of his art work followed the same subjects of his lyrics, often expressed through a dark and macabre sense of humor. Noted was his fascination with physiology, his own rare medical conditions, and the human anatomy. Often unable to afford artistic resources, Cobain would improvise with materials, painting on board games and album sleeves, and painting with an array of substances, including his own bodily fluids. The artwork seen in his Journals would later draw acclaim as being of a high artistic standard. Many of Cobain's paintings, collages, and sculptures would appear in the artwork of Nirvana's albums, such as the covers of Incesticide and In Utero. His artistic concepts would feature notably in Nirvana's music videos; the production and direction of which were acrimonious due to the artistic perfectionism of his visions.
Cobain would contribute backing guitar for a spoken word recording of beat poet William S. Burroughs' entitled "The "Priest" They Called Him".:301 Cobain regarded Burroughs as a hero. During Nirvana's European tour Cobain kept a copy of Burroughs' Naked Lunch, purchased from a London bookstall.:189–190 Cobain met with Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas in October 1993. Burroughs expressed no surprise at Cobain's death: "It wasn't an act of will for Kurt to kill himself. As far as I was concerned, he was dead already."
Love and Cobain met on January 12, 1990, in Portland's Satyricon nightclub,:201 when they both still led ardent underground rock bands. Love made advances, but Cobain was evasive. Early in their interactions, Cobain broke off dates and ignored Love's advances because he was unsure if he wanted a relationship. Cobain noted, "I was determined to be a bachelor for a few months [...] But I knew that I liked Courtney so much right away that it was a really hard struggle to stay away from her for so many months".:172–173 Love first saw Cobain perform in 1989 at a show in Portland, Oregon. They talked briefly after the show and Love developed a crush on him.:169
Cobain was already aware of Love through her role in the 1987 film Straight to Hell. According to True, the pair were formally introduced at an L7 and Butthole Surfers concert in Los Angeles, U.S., in May 1991. In the weeks that followed, after learning from Grohl that Cobain shared mutual interests with her, Love began pursuing Cobain. In late 1991, the two were often together and bonded through drug use.:172
On February 24, 1992, a few days after the conclusion of Nirvana's "Pacific Rim" tour, Cobain and Love were married on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Love wore a satin and lace dress once owned by Farmer, and Cobain donned a Guatemalan purse and wore green pajamas, because he had been "too lazy to put on a tux". Eight people were in attendance at the ceremony, including Grohl.
In an interview with The Guardian, Love revealed the opposition to their marriage from various people:
Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] sits me down and says, "If you marry him your life is not going to happen, it will destroy your life". But I said, "Whatever! I love him, and I want to be with him!" ... It wasn't his fault. He wasn't trying to do that.
Love was already pregnant, and the couple's daughter Frances Bean Cobain was born August 18, 1992. A sonogram of the couple's as-yet-unborn baby was included in the artwork for Nirvana's single, "Lithium".
In a 1992 article in Vanity Fair, Love admitted to using heroin, not knowing that she was pregnant; however, Love claimed that Vanity Fair had misquoted her, :266 but the event created a media controversy for the couple. While Cobain and Love's romance had always been a media attraction, they found themselves hounded by tabloid reporters after the article was published, many wanting to know if Frances was addicted to drugs at birth. The Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services took the Cobains to court, claiming that the couple's drug usage made them unfit parents.:270
Due to the claims made in the Vanity Fair article, Seattle child-welfare agents removed the couple's baby daughter for around four weeks. The couple eventually obtained custody in an exchange for agreeing to provide urine tests and receive regular visits from a social worker. After months of legal negotiations, the couple were eventually granted full custody of their daughter. Love later claimed to have ceased heroin use upon learning of her pregnancy.
Throughout most of his life, Cobain suffered from chronic bronchitis and intense physical pain due to an undiagnosed chronic stomach condition.:66 His first drug experience was with marijuana in 1980, at age 13. He regularly used the drug during adulthood.:76 Cobain also had a period of consuming "notable" amounts of LSD, as observed by Marander,:75 and was "really into getting fucked up: drugs, acid, any kind of drug", observed Krist Novoselic; Cobain was also prone to alcoholism and solvent abuse.:76 According to The Telegraph, Cobain had depression. His cousin brought attention to the family history of suicide, mental illness and alcoholism, noting two of her uncles who had committed suicide with guns.
Cobain's first experience with heroin occurred sometime in 1986, administered to him by a local drug dealer in Tacoma, Washington who had previously supplied him with oxycodone/aspirin.:41 He used heroin sporadically for several years, but, by the end of 1990, his use developed into a full-fledged addiction. Cobain claimed that he was "determined to get a habit" as a way to self-medicate his stomach condition. "It started with three days in a row of doing heroin and I don't have a stomach pain. That was such a relief", he related.:236 However, longtime friend Buzz Osborne disputes this, saying that his stomach pain was more likely caused by his heroin use, saying "He made it up for sympathy and so he could use it as an excuse to stay loaded. Of course he was vomiting — that's what people on heroin do, they vomit. It's called "vomiting with a smile on your face".
His heroin use began to affect the band's Nevermind supporting tour. One such example came the day of the band's 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, where Nirvana had a photographic session with Michael Levine. Having taken heroin beforehand, Cobain fell asleep several times during the shoot. Cobain divulged to biographer Michael Azerrad, "I mean, what are they supposed to do? They're not going to be able to tell me to stop. So I really didn't care. Obviously to them it was like practicing witchcraft or something. They didn't know anything about it so they thought that any second, I was going to die".:241
Slowly, Cobain's heroin addiction worsened. His first attempt at rehab was made in early 1992, not long after he and Love discovered they were going to become parents. Immediately after leaving rehab, Nirvana embarked on their Australian tour, with Cobain appearing pale and gaunt while suffering withdrawal. Not long after returning home, Cobain's heroin use resumed.
Prior to a performance at the New Music Seminar in New York City in July 1993, Cobain suffered a heroin overdose. Rather than calling for an ambulance, Love injected Cobain with naloxone to bring him out of his unconscious state. Cobain proceeded to perform with Nirvana, giving the public no indication that anything out of the ordinary had taken place.:296–297
Following a tour stop at Terminal Eins in Munich, Germany, on March 1, 1994, Cobain was diagnosed with bronchitis and severe laryngitis. He flew to Rome the next day for medical treatment, and was joined there by his wife, Courtney Love, on March 3, 1994. The next morning, Love awoke to find that Cobain had overdosed on a combination of champagne and Rohypnol. Cobain was immediately rushed to hospital, and spent the rest of the day unconscious. After five days in the hospital, Cobain was released and returned to Seattle. Love later stated that the incident was Cobain's first suicide attempt.
On March 18, 1994, Love phoned the Seattle police informing them that Cobain was suicidal and had locked himself in a room with a gun. Police arrived and confiscated several guns and a bottle of pills from Cobain, who insisted that he was not suicidal and had locked himself in the room to hide from Love.
Love arranged an intervention regarding Cobain's drug use on March 25, 1994. The ten people involved included musician friends, record company executives, and one of Cobain's closest friends, Dylan Carlson. The intervention was initially unsuccessful, with an angry Cobain insulting and heaping scorn on its participants and eventually locking himself in the upstairs bedroom. However, by the end of the day, Cobain had agreed to undergo a detox program. Cobain arrived at the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles on March 30, 1994. The staff at the facility were unaware of Cobain's history of depression and prior attempts at suicide. When visited by friends, there was no indication to them that Cobain was in any negative or suicidal state of mind. He spent the day talking to counselors about his drug abuse and personal problems, happily playing with his daughter Frances. These interactions were the last time Cobain saw his daughter.
The following night, Cobain walked outside to have a cigarette, and climbed over a six-foot-high fence to leave the facility (which he had joked earlier in the day would be a stupid feat to attempt). He took a taxi to Los Angeles Airport and flew back to Seattle. On the flight, he sat next to Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses. Despite Cobain's own personal animosity towards Guns N' Roses, and specifically Axl Rose, Cobain "seemed happy" to see McKagan. McKagan later stated he knew from "all of my instincts that something was wrong".:331 Most of his close friends and family were unaware of his whereabouts. On April 2 and 3, Cobain was spotted in numerous locations around Seattle. On April 3, Love contacted private investigator Tom Grant, and hired him to find Cobain. Cobain was not seen the next day. On April 7, amid rumors of Nirvana breaking up, the band pulled out of the 1994 Lollapalooza music festival.
On April 8, Cobain's body was discovered at his Lake Washington Boulevard home by electrician Gary Smith who had arrived to install a security system. Apart from a minor amount of blood coming out of Cobain's ear, the electrician reported seeing no visible signs of trauma, and initially believed that Cobain was asleep until he saw the shotgun pointing at his chin. A note was found, addressed to Cobain's childhood imaginary friend Boddah, that stated that Cobain had not "felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing [...] for too many years now". A high concentration of heroin and traces of diazepam were also found in his body. Cobain's body had been lying there for days; the coroner's report estimated Cobain to have died on April 5, 1994.
A public vigil was held for Cobain on April 10, 1994, at a park at Seattle Center drawing approximately seven thousand mourners.:346 Prerecorded messages by Novoselic and Love were played at the memorial. Love read portions of Cobain's suicide note to the crowd, crying and chastising Cobain. Near the end of the vigil, Love arrived at the park and distributed some of Cobain's clothing to those who still remained.:350 Grohl would say that the news of Cobain's death was:
... probably the worst thing that has happened to me in my life. I remember the day after that I woke up and I was heartbroken that he was gone. I just felt like, "Okay, so I get to wake up today and have another day and he doesn't."
He also believed that he knew Cobain would die at an early age, saying that "sometimes you just can't save someone from themselves", and "in some ways, you kind of prepare yourself emotionally for that to be a reality". Dave Reed, who for a short time was Cobain's foster father, said that "he had the desperation, not the courage, to be himself. Once you do that, you can't go wrong, because you can't make any mistakes when people love you for being yourself. But for Kurt, it didn't matter that other people loved him; he simply didn't love himself enough".:351
A final ceremony was arranged for Cobain, by his mother, on May 31, 1999, and was attended by both Love and Tracy Marander. As a Buddhist monk chanted, daughter Frances Bean scattered Cobain's ashes into McLane Creek in Olympia, the city where he "had found his true artistic muse".:351
Cobain's artistic endeavors and struggles with heroin addiction, illness and depression, as well as the circumstances of his death have become a frequent topic of fascination, debate, and controversy throughout the world. According to a spokesperson for the Seattle Police Department, the department receives at least one weekly request, mostly through Twitter, to reopen the investigation, resulting in the maintenance of the basic incident report on file. Cobain is one of the well known members of the 27 Club.
In March 2014, the Seattle police developed four rolls of film that had been left in an evidence vault—a reason was not provided for why the rolls were not developed earlier. According to the Seattle police, the 35mm film photographs show the scene of Cobain's dead body more clearly than previous Polaroid images taken by the police. Detective Mike Ciesynski, a cold case investigator, was instructed to look at the film because "it is 20 years later and it's a high media case". Ciesynski stated that Cobain's death remains a suicide and that the images would not have been released publicly. The photos in question were later released, one by one, weeks before the 20th anniversary of Cobain's death. One photo shows Cobain's arm, still wearing the hospital bracelet from the drug rehab facility he checked out of just a few days prior to returning to Seattle. Another photo shows Cobain's foot resting next to a bag of shotgun shells, one of which was used in his death.
Cobain has been remembered as one of the most iconic rock musicians in the history of alternative music. In 2003, David Fricke of Rolling Stone ranked him the 12th greatest guitarist of all time. He was later ranked the 73rd greatest guitarist and 45th greatest singer of all time by the same magazine, and by MTV as seventh in the "22 Greatest Voices in Music". In 2006, he was placed at number twenty by Hit Parader on their list of the "100 Greatest Metal Singers of All Time".
Reflecting on Cobain's death over 10 years later, MSNBC's Eric Olsen wrote:
In the intervening decade, Cobain, a small, frail but handsome man in life, has become an abstract Generation X icon, viewed by many as the "last real rock star" [..] a messiah and martyr whose every utterance has been plundered and parsed.
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 planned to create a Kurt Cobain Memorial Park and a youth center in Aberdeen. Because Cobain was cremated and his remains scattered into the Wishkah River in Washington, many Nirvana fans visit Viretta Park, near Cobain's former Lake Washington home, to pay tribute. On the anniversary of his death, fans gather in the park to celebrate his life and memory.
Controversy erupted in July 2009 when a monument to Cobain in Aberdeen along the Wishkah River included the quote "... Drugs are bad for you. They will fuck you up". The city ultimately decided to sandblast the monument to replace the expletive with "f---", but fans immediately drew the letters back in.
Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins referred to Cobain as "the Michael Jordan of our generation". He also stated that Cobain opened the door for everyone in the 1990s alternative rock scene. Corgan later referred to Cobain as one of the three principal voices of their generation, the other two being Layne Staley and Scott Weiland.
Lars Ulrich of Metallica reflected on Cobain's influence stating that "in 1991 there was a kind of shift in rock music in America — it was shifting away from all the hair bands in L.A. And with Kurt Cobain you felt you were connecting to the real person, not to a perception of who he was — you were not connecting to an image or a manufactured cut-out. You felt that between you and him there was nothing — it was heart-to-heart. There are very few people who have that ability".
Prior to Cobain's death, Azerrad published Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, a book chronicling Nirvana's career from its beginning, as well as the personal histories of the band members. The book explored Cobain's drug addiction, as well as the countless controversies surrounding the band. After Cobain's death, Azerrad republished the book to include a final chapter discussing the last year of Cobain's life. The book is notable, as it involved the band members themselves, who provided interviews and personal information to Azerrad specifically for the book. In 2006, Azerrad's taped conversations with Cobain were transformed into a documentary about Cobain, titled Kurt Cobain: About a Son. Though this film does not feature any music by Nirvana, it has songs by the artists that inspired Cobain.
In the 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney, filmmaker Nick Broomfield investigated Tom Grant's claim that Cobain was actually murdered. He took a film crew to visit a number of people associated with Cobain and Love; Love's father, Cobain's aunt, and one of the couple's former nannies. Broomfield also spoke to Mentors bandleader Eldon "El Duce" Hoke, who claimed Love offered him $50,000 to kill Cobain. Although Hoke claimed he knew who killed Cobain, he failed to mention a name, and offered no evidence to support his assertion. Broomfield inadvertently captured Hoke's last interview, as he died days later, reportedly hit by a train. However, Broomfield felt he had not uncovered enough evidence to conclude the existence of a conspiracy. In a 1998 interview, Broomfield summed it up by saying:
I think that he committed suicide. I don't think there's a smoking gun. And I think there's only one way you can explain a lot of things around his death. Not that he was murdered, but that there was just a lack of caring for him. I just think that Courtney had moved on, and he was expendable.
Journalists Ian Halperin and Max Wallace took a similar path and attempted to investigate any possible conspiracy for themselves. Their initial work, the 1999 book, Who Killed Kurt Cobain?, argued that, while there was not enough evidence to prove a conspiracy, there was more than enough to demand that the case be reopened. A notable element of the book included their discussions with Grant, who had taped nearly every conversation that he had undertaken while he was in Love's employ. Over the next several years, Halperin and Wallace collaborated with Grant to write a second book, 2004's Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain.
In 2001, writer Charles R. Cross published a biography of Cobain, titled Heavier Than Heaven. For the book, Cross conducted over 400 interviews, and was given access by Courtney Love to Cobain's journals, lyrics, and diaries. Cross' biography was met with criticism, including allegations of Cross accepting secondhand (and incorrect) information as fact. Friend Everett True, who derided the book as being inaccurate, omissive, and highly biased; he said Heavier than Heaven was "the Courtney-sanctioned version of history" or, alternatively, Cross's "Oh, I think I need to find the new Bruce Springsteen now" Kurt Cobain book. However, beyond the criticism, the book contained many details about Cobain and Nirvana's career that would have otherwise been unnoted. Additionally, in 2008, Cross published Cobain Unseen: Mosaic of an Artist, a compilation of annotated photographs and creations and writings by Cobain throughout his life and career.
In 2002, a sampling of Cobain's writings was published as Journals. The book fills 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 with explanations and transcripts of some of the less legible pages. The writings begin in the late 1980s and were continued until his death. A paperback version of the book, released in 2003, included a handful of writings that were not offered in the initial release. In the journals, Cobain talked about the ups and downs of life on the road, made lists of what music he was enjoying, and often scribbled down lyric ideas for future reference. Upon its release, reviewers and fans were conflicted about the collection. Many were elated to be able to learn more about Cobain and read his inner thoughts in his own words, but were disturbed by what was viewed as an invasion of his privacy.
Gus Van Sant loosely based his 2005 movie Last Days on the events in the final days of Cobain's life, starring Michael Pitt as Cobain. In January 2007, Love began to shop the biography Heavier Than Heaven to various movie studios in Hollywood to turn the book into an A-list feature film about Cobain and Nirvana.
The inclusion of Cobain as a playable character in the 2009 video game, Guitar Hero 5, upset Novoselic and Grohl, who expressed their dismay at the ability of players to use Cobain with any song, including those sung by female vocalists.
Also in 2009, ECW Press released a book titled Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music. Written by Greg Prato, the book explored the history of grunge in detail, touching upon Nirvana and Cobain's life and death via interviews with former bandmates, friends, and various grunge-era contemporaries. A picture of Cobain from the Bleach era is used for the book's front cover, and its title comes from a shirt that Cobain was once photographed wearing.
In December 2012, during an Art Basel exhibition in Miami, artist Adarsha Benjamin presented her experimental short film, Kurt. On April 10, 2014, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Grohl and Love accepted the accolade at the ceremony.
A Brett Morgen film, entitled Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, followed by small-screen and cinema releases. Morgen said that documentary "will be this generation's The Wall".
Soaked in Bleach is a 2015 American docudrama directed by Benjamin Statler. The film details the events leading up to the death of Kurt Cobain, as seen through the perspective of Tom Grant, the private detective who was hired by Courtney Love to find Cobain, her husband, shortly before his death in 1994. It also explores the premise that Cobain's death was not a suicide. The film stars Tyler Bryan as Cobain and Daniel Roebuck as Grant, with Sarah Scott portraying Courtney Love and August Emerson as Dylan Carlson.
Soon band member Roger "Buzz" Osborne started Cobain's schooling, loaning him records and old copies of the '70s rock magazine Creem".
Kurt used to say that music comes first and lyrics comes second, and I think Kurt's main focus was melody
she told them...he was going to kill himself. Cobain told them that he hadn't actually been planning to take his own life.
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