"It's Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away"-- the Kurt Cobain Story
"I had a really good childhood up until I was nine, then a classic case of divorce really affected me."
Kurt Donald Cobain was born to Donald and Wendy Cobain (nee Fradenburg) at Grays Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington on February 20, 1967. His sister, Kimberly, came along in April of 1970. His mother admits to being overbearing and protective of her son saying “I was totaled out on him.” He had a fairly normal childhood until his parents divorced when he was nine years old. He then began a transient life, being shuttled between his parents’ homes. Young Cobain developed a resentment towards his father that would persist through life until shortly before his death a mere eighteen years later.
He was diagnosed ADHD and put on Ritalin. Many now believe Cobain was actually bi-polar, and that the prescribed Ritalin actually exacerbated this condition and may have been a factor in his famously excessive drug use. He also suffered from terrible chronic stomach pains and often would inject heroin directly into his stomach in search of relief.
As a child, he developed an imaginary friend, Boddah, to whom his suicide note would be addressed, as a way to cope with his illnesses.
Cobain hated Aberdeen, a logging town in west central Washington and, in later life referred to its residents as “rednecks”, his schoolmates as “f*cking jocks” and the town itself as “Twin Peaks without the excitement.” In adulthood, he would escape to Seattle and travel the world. He would confide mournfully to those few that he trusted that Aberdeen never totally left him.
Some of Cobain's Art
"I've always had a problem with the average macho man - they've always been a threat to me. "
At age eleven, he discovered British punk rock, most notably, the Sex Pistols. He began to develop an almost obsessive love for music. He connected with the counter-cultural, rebellious and self-destructive lyrical content and lifestyles of these artists. He also had an affinity and aptitude for art and, while much of it was more traditionally and culturally acceptable, he would often earn beatings from the “jocks” in the area by spray painting “QUEER” on their pickup trucks.
He set out initially to learn the drums and neighbors recount stories of Kurt as a child walking up and down his street wearing a bass drum over his shoulders and pounding on it, singing at the top of his lungs. As a teenager he developed an interest in the guitar, and began taking private lessons. His initial goal was to learn to play AC/DC’s Back in Black . Accomplishing this quickly, he then moved to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and then songs by the Who and Jimi Hendrix before delving into punk rock, blues and blue grass—three genres that he would enjoy for the rest of his life.
Contrary to popular belief, Kurt Cobain was naturally right handed. However, a love of Jimi Hendrix and a desire to stand out from the crowd lead to him learning to play the instrument left handed, which was no small feat and a testament to his underrated prowess on the guitar.
He tried out for the Melvins as a drummer , but did not get the job and began to play guitar and sing in his own bands in and around Aberdeen. He met bassist Krist Novolselic (At well over six feet tall and dark featured, he provided a sharp contrast to the short and pale Cobain.) in 1985 and formed that band that would eventually become Nirvana.
"Oh, our last and final name is Nirvana"
The band went through several name changes before settling on Nirvana in the late 80's. They toured and played frequently and began to gain a large following, They caught the attention of Seattle indie label SubPop and recorded Bleach .
The record received fairly good critical reviews, but failed to chart in the US until it's 1992 re-release and is SubPop's best selling record to date. Largely regarded as negative and bleak, Cobain felt pressured by the label to record an album that sounded grunge. Most of the lyrics were written the day before recording by a "pissed off" Cobain and he never held them in high regard. Cobain famously always appreciated lyrics more for the sound and melody of the words, rather than the any meaning behind them.
The album did well in Europe, particularly in the UK and lead to the band touring Europe. Cobain and the band witnessed the falling of the Berlin wall in 1989.
Early on, Nirvana had a famously revolving door of drummers (Bleach actually credits two drummers, Dale Crover and Chad Channing) but finally settled on David Grohl in 1990. This lineup of Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic would be the last and most famous lineup of the band, and remained intact until Cobain's death in 1994.
In January of 1990, Cobain met future spouse Courtney Love at Portland, Oregon's infamous punk rock club, Satyricon. Cobain, who was notoriously introverted and shy-- especially around women-- rebuffed Courtney's advances and cancelled many of their planned outings together. By the end of 1991, however, the pair were seen together constantly and bonded over drug use.
Growing frustrated with the resources of a small indie label, Cobain began to shop the band to major labels. At the urging of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, the group settled on Geffen records, which bought out their contract from SubPop. In early 1991, the band recorded Nevermind which featured their breakout single and anthem for a generation, Smells Like Teen Spirit . The album was released in September of 1991 and went on to sell thirty million copies and launched the trio into the stratosphere. Nirvana was everywhere and the fame and constant spotlight, along with accusations from the band's earliest fans of Nirvana "selling out", had a detrimental effect on the shy and reserved Cobain. his drug use began to escalate.
By this time, Cobain was injecting heroin directly into his stomach and is rumored to have had a $1000 a day habit. By the end of 1991, Kurt Cobain was a 24 year old multi-millionaire, rock star and hardcore junkie.
"Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are."
In early 1992 Nirvana performed on Saturday Night Live . The producers of the show wanted the band to perform Teen Spirit . The band agreed but, ala the Doors and the famous lyric debacle on the Ed Sullivan Show, when the show went live, Teen Spirit was absent from the set list. Cobain grew to hate the song would often tease fans at Nirvana shows by playing the opening riff the song before jumping into something else. Their song, Rape Me , off of their 1993 release In Utero, which talks about media intrusion into his personal life, also begins with the opening riff of Teen Spirit, perhaps symbolizing how that song lead to the raping of Cobain’s private life.
Around the time of the SNL performance, Cobain learned that Love was pregnant and on February 24th, 1992, Love and Cobain were married on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. For the ceremony, Love wore a satin dress once worn by the actress Frances Farmer (who would be their daughters’ namesake) and Cobain wore green pajamas because he was “too lazy to buy a tux.”
Rumors began to circulate around the couple regarding their use of drugs during Love's pregnancy. Love later admitted to using heroin before she knew she was pregnant but claimed to have stopped once she found out. Rumors about Cobain’s health also circulated, fueled by his increasingly gaunt appearance and skinnier than usual frame. The tabloids were filled with stories of rock star overindulgences and these are likely what prompted Cobain to write Rape Me .
Also in 1992, the band released Incesticide , which was a collection of rarities and b-sides. The fact that the album was composed of previously recorded material and not new recordings perpetuated the rumors of Cobain’s failing health and began rumors that the band would soon break up.
Frances Bean Cobain was born on August 18th, 1992 in Los Angeles. Her unfortunate middle name was a gift from her father who thought she “looked like a bean”. Upon her birth, the Los County Child Services took the child away, claiming the Cobain’s drug use made them unfit parents.
The court initially awarded custody to Love’s sister Jamie, but, after several months of legal wrangling, the couple granted full custody of their daughter.
On August 30th, Nirvana played the Reading Festival in Reading, England. Poking fun at the frequent rumors of his imminent demise, Cobain played the set dressed in a hospital smock. To begin the set he was wheeled out in a wheelchair and wearing a wig. He approached the microphone, slowly and gingerly stood up, screamed something unintelligible into the microphone, then fell back and lay still for an uncomfortable thirty seconds before beginning the set, which he dedicated to his “wife and twelve day old daughter.” Throughout the set, he lambasted the media for invading his privacy.
This time, the band performed Smells Like Teen Spirit .
Kurt Cobain Major life events
Where Kurt Cobain was born
the state capital
where Kurt Cobain spent his adulthood
Where Kurt Cobain met future wife Courtney Love
Where Cobain married Courtney Love
Where the rehab facility Cobain escaped from,a few days prior to his death, was located.
Where Kurt Cobain's body was found, at his home, on April 8th, 1994
Cobain's Suicide Note
My poetry collection
"Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self-esteem. They're no good at all."
The final two years of Cobain's life were a blur of concerts, tours, heavy drug use and pressure. In 1993, the band released In Utero (the cover art consisted of a collage Cobain had created) which took on a much more polished edge than the much rawer Nevermind and the cries of "sellout" became stronger.
Kurt's musical tastes began to change and he became less and less enamored with the rock n roll lifestyle and with the types of records he was putting out. He claimed that life had grown boring and he was disinterested in it. In November of 1993-- just six months before his death, Nirvana did a performance for MTV's Unplugged series. In hindsight, the concert was a glorious and prophetic swan song. The set list featured many covers and lesser known Nirvana songs and a strong theme of death permeated the lyrics and the stage was decorated with lilies an orchids, common funeral flowers.
The concert is considered a masterpiece by most and Cobain is seen smiling throughout the performance and offering playful banter with the intimate crowd. He appeared to be in good health and not as tired and gaunt looking as he had been in recent appearances. Rumors of his imminent demise began to subside.
In March of 1994, while touring Europe, Cobain was rushed to the hospital, suffering from an overdose. He remained in a coma for several days. Many in the press inquired as to whether or not the overdose was a suicide attempt but Nirvana's publicist insisted it was accidental.
An intervention was posed on Cobain's behalf shortly after this and it was decided that he would go to rehab in Los Angeles. The day after he checked in, after a visit with his daughter, he went out for a cigarette and never returned. He hopped a cab and took a flight back to Seattle. A missing persons report was filed on April 3rd and the mansion he and Courtney shared on Lake Washington Boulevard was searched by a private investigator, Tom Grant, whom Love hired. There was no sign of Cobain.
On the morning of April 8th, 1994, an electrician peered into the window of a room above the garage and observed what he thought was a mannequin lying on the floor. On closer inspection, he saw the mannequin had a shotgun across it's chest and a pool of blood behind it. Kurt Cobain was dead of an apparent self inflicted gun shot wound at the age of 27. The coroner estimated he had been dead 2-4 days.
Murder theories persist.
Love and Cobain had been talking about divorce and Cobain was in line to keep most of his vast fortune. At the time of his death, however, his will stipulated that Love would be the sole beneficiary of his wealth and future royalties. Many of the details regarding the time line of his death and the amount of heroin in his system when he died call the official version of suicide into question. As with many conspiracies, the major players in the case have either died or changed their stories and it's likely the truth will never be known.
Courtney Love's band Hole released the ironically titled "Live Through This " on April 12th, 1994. At Cobain's memorial, Love read Cobain's suicide note out loud over a loudspeaker. The reading was dramatic with bouts of anger and sadness spattered though out. To many, the note read more like a retirement note then a suicide note, further fueling the murder theories.
Cobain's legacy lives on and, while the investigation into his death is officially closed, many, including journalist Ian Halperin, continue to insist that he was murdered by Love and are lobbying for her to be investigated and brought to justice.
Gus Van Sant's film, Last Days, is a fictionalized account of Cobain's final days. It follows the official version, concluding with the protagonists suicide.
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My reaction to Cobain's death
- My JFK Moment
April 5th, 1994. they Day Kurt Cobain died. A day that lives in infamy, for me.
More Cobain articles
- A Tribute To Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain Appreciation
hear Love's dramatic reading here (contains lots of profanity)
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