KURT COBAIN: HIS HISTORY AND LEGACY
This Saturday (April 5th) marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Nirvana founder and frontman Kurt Cobain at the age of 27. Cobain, who killed himself with a shotgun in a room above the garage of his Seattle home, instantly joined the pantheon of rock legends who died too early, including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin,Jimi Hendrix, Bon Scott, and more. Yet while many of those artists lived the rock star lifestyle to the fullest, Cobain was branded as something that he, by all accounts, never wanted to be -- the spokesman for an entire generation. It's widely felt that Cobain's inability to reconcile his inner demons and fear of "compromise" with Nirvana's massive success drove him to depression, drugs, and ultimately, suicide.
Charles R. Cross, author of the Nirvana/Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven and the new Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact Of Kurt Cobain, says it's hard to believe that Cobain has been gone for 20 years: "Well, it certainly doesn't seem like 20 years. One, it doesn't feel like, you know, that much of my life has passed. But because Kurt died, you know, and it was so, in some ways a spectacularly public death, it's just hard to imagine that that much time has gone by."
Cobain did leave behind a small, yet incredibly significant, body of music. Nirvana was one of many bands -- including Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Mother Love Bone -- to emerge from the Pacific Northwest music scene, where a mix of influences ranging from punk to New Wave to metal fused into what became known as "grunge." The combination of this heavily distorted sound with Cobain's pop sensibilities, plus the emotional pull of his vocals and lyrics, catapulted Nirvana to the front of the pack, giving the world and the media a face to put to the entire alternative music genre that got pulled into the mainstream in Nirvana's wake.
Born in Aberdeen, Washington, on February 20th, 1967, Cobain lived with various relatives after his parents divorced. Cobain met bassist Krist Novoselic in 1985, forming Nirvana with him in the late Eighties. The fledgling group drifted through several drummers and kicked around Olympia, Washington, before finally settling into the Seattle rock scene.
Novoselic told us that it was the band's own belief in the power of music that attracted people to them right from the start. "Nirvana always listened to music or always wanted to connect with something, and the best music is music that you connect with in a way that you can't really put your -- you just emotionally connect with it. So if we were projecting anything like that, people caught onto it."
The group recorded demos with Seattle producer Jack Endino, who played the tapes for Sub Pop Records co-founder Jonathan Poneman. Poneman signed Nirvana to Sub Pop, and their first single, a cover of Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz," came out in December of 1988. The group's debut album, Bleach, recorded for just $600, arrived in 1989. It sold 35,000 copies, was a success at college radio, and brought major record labels sniffing around the band.
A six-song demo produced by Butch Vig led to a deal with DGC/Geffen Records, while Dave Grohl signed on as the band's permanent drummer. The band recorded their second album during the summer of 1991, and the disc, titled Nevermind, arrived in September of that year.
DGC expected to sell about 100,000 copies of the record. Instead, it became a colossal hit, bolstered by the single and video, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." An authentic rock anthem, the song captured the alienation, frustration, and apathy of young people worldwide. The song rocketed to the top of the radio charts asNevermind climbed the Billboard Top 200, finally perching at Number One by the beginning of 1992. The album went on to sell over 14 million copies.
Drummer Dave Grohl recalls playing at England's Reading Festival in 1992 as one of the biggest highlights of the band's initial success. "It was a huge show, and we were headlining, and we hadn't practiced for about three months, and we just stepped onstage and we expected it to suck really bad, and it turned out to be totally amazing."
In February of 1992, Cobain married Hole frontperson Courtney Love, and the couple had their first and only child, Frances Bean Cobain, in August of that year. Rumors began to circulate that the two were heavy heroin users, which led child care authorities to threaten the couple's custody of Frances. Although Cobain claimed to suffer from stomach troubles, several canceled tours fueled the perception that he was already on a self-destructive path.
With recording of a new album delayed, the band's label released a collection of rarities and B-sides in 1992 called Incesticide. Finally, in the spring of 1993, the band recorded their third album, In Utero. Almost immediately, more rumors surfaced, this time suggesting that DGC was unhappy with the record and threatening not to release it. Nirvana expressed disappointment themselves with the sound of Steve Albini's production and re-mastered it.
The album came out in the fall of 1993 and, while not quite the blockbuster that Nevermind was, sold strongly and garnered positive acclaim. Guitarist Pat Smear was added to the band for their fall U.S. tour, but the shadows of drug use and depression were growing. Cobain had reportedly overdosed several times during 1993, and on a post-tour vacation in Rome in early March of 1994, he tried to commit suicide with an overdose of the tranquilizer Rohypnol and champagne.
Things got worse when Cobain returned home. On March 18th, police had to come to the Seattle home he shared with Love and talk him out of the bathroom, where he had locked himself in and threatened suicide. An intervention by friends and business associates led to Cobain checking into the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles on March 28th, but he fled back to Seattle on March 30th, where he convinced friend Dylan Carlson to buy him a shotgun "for protection."
Cobain spoke with Love for the last time, by phone, on April 1st. On April 5th, he wrote a long farewell letter, took a mixture of heroin and Valium, and shot himself in the mouth. His body was discovered three days later, on the 8th, by an electrician, and cremated on April 14th. A public memorial service in Seattle on April 10th drew 7,000 fans.
In the 15 years since Cobain's death, an acoustic set called MTV Unplugged In New York and an electric live album called From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah initially surfaced, followed in 2002 by a greatest hits collection that featured the band's final recording, "You Know You're Right." Grohl recalled the sessions for that song: "We had some time off before a tour, and Kurt wanted to go in and demo some stuff, so I said, 'Hey, why don't we do it at this studio down the street from my house.' And we went down there, and we had three days booked. Kurt came in the last day and we were like, 'Okay, what do you wanna do?' And Kurt said, 'Well, why don't we do that song we've been doing at soundcheck?' And so we rehearsed it, I think, once, and then recorded it. Kurt did three or four vocal takes, and that was it."
A box set held up for several years due to legal battles between Grohl, Novoselic and Love was eventually released in 2004 under the name With The Lights Out. Despite Love hinting at the existence of numerous demo tapes and unreleased songs by Cobain, none of this material has yet surfaced. Grohl went on to form Foo Fighters, while Novoselic also dabbled in music, most notably with Sweet 75.
Novoselic says that he appreciates the interest fans continue to have in Nirvana. "I do. I love Nirvana fans. I love Kurt and I love Dave, and I feel great to have played music with them. In some ways I've been finding out that Nirvana represents an evolution of consciousness for people and I think that's something to be really proud of."
In recent years, plans have surfaced for a movie, documentary and even stage musical based on Kurt Cobain's life, although no official word on any of those projects is yet to emerge. But the one thing that is official is that Cobain, along with the rest of Nirvana, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next Thursday (April 10th) at a ceremony in Brookyn, New York along with Kiss, Linda Ronstadt, Hall & Oates, Cat Stevens and others. Nirvana got the nod with their first appearance on the ballot, 25 years after the release of Bleach.
Charles R.Cross explained why Kurt Cobain's music has had such a lasting impact on pop culture: "The music that Kurt and Nirvana created is still considered some of the greatest music we've had in modern rock 'n' roll. You know, the albums still continue to sell, and as an influence of other bands and the sound of things that we still hear on the radio, I think you still hear the influence of Nirvana and Kurt. There are a whole bunch of reasons for that: I mean, the most notable being the fact that he just wrote incredible songs that touched so many people."
Nirvana's music brought rebellion, raw emotion, and a punk attitude back to rock music at a time when it was sorely needed. And while Kurt Cobain was anointed as the spokesman -- even after his death -- for what came to be called "Generation X," his own tortured reluctance to accept that role mirrored the confusion felt by Nirvana fans over their identity, their gender, and their place in the world. In a declining music business now consumed by slick marketing, endless merchandising and corporate "product," he may have been the last of his kind.
TRIBUTES TO KURT COBAIN:
Korn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch recalled hearing Nirvana's music and sensing that Kurt Cobain was already in a lot of pain: "I just remember tripping and going, 'Wow, that guy must have been like really in a dark place,' you know. it just shows you, you know, like that life isn't all about fame and being a rock star and making it and money and all that stuff, you know. It's about finding like who you are and being happy inside and finding that place, because you can have the whole world and still want to kill yourself. You know, even 20 years later, it's like a reality check, you know. We should use this, his anniversary of his death, as a reality check."
Three Days Grace drummer Neil Sanderson recalled producer Howard Benson realizing that Nirvana was about to change the music scene in 1991: "Howard was, you know, working on this record which in his words was like the last hair band to be making a record kind of thing, and they kind of looked up and there was the video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' up. So they kind of just were mesmerized by it, kind of stopped what they were doing and turned the volume up and listened to it. And then, you know, Howard turned around to these guys with perms and said, 'We are so f***ed' (laughs). That explained how defining that moment was when 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' came out."
Hellyeah's Vinnie Paul said that while Nirvana's success did a lot of damage to the metal scene at the time, he still liked the band and was shocked by Cobain's death: "Nirvana was a huge band and I, like everybody else, I think -- I don't know anybody who ever said they weren't a fan of them -- thought they were great. And I was terribly shocked and kind of mortified as to what happened, you know. I never knew Kurt was that depressed and that kind of stuff, you know. Just didn't seem that way to me, you know. He was just big and larger than life."
A.F.I. guitarist Jade Puget is a little cynical about how rock music has turned out since the end of Nirvana. "You know, how long ago was that that Nevermind came out and it's still, Nirvana's still more viable than, you know, eighty percent of the bands that are currently playing music?"
Alice In Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell was coming up on the Seattle music scene at the same time as Nirvana and ran into Cobain occasionally. "I didn't really know Kurt that well, but there was a guy I always admired. We didn't spent much time together, but the few times we did spend together, you know, were times I'll always remember. You know, he was a really sweet guy, and a really genuine soul, you know, and an incredibly talented artist."
Judas Priest singer Rob Halford sums up what Kurt Cobain meant to rock music. "He was an absolute genius. In the legacy of rock and roll music, he'll be there with, like, Hendrix and Lennon and Joplin and Morrison. Incredibly evocative, inspiring, controversial, human musician. For me, there's been nothing great since Nirvana, in the way it shook up the world. There's been nothing great since that band."
WHAT DO YOU THINK??
- What are your thoughts on Kurt Cobain 20 years after his death?
- What do you think he'd be doing as an artist if he had lived?
- Do you think he was one of the most influential musicians of the past quarter-century?
- Do you have a memory of hearing Cobain and Nirvana for the first time?
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