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Kurt Cobain

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"Cobain" redirects here. For the surname, see Cobain (surname). For the 2018 Dutch film, see Cobain (film).

Kurt Cobain

Cobain in 1991
Born Kurt Donald Cobain


February 20, 1967

Aberdeen, Washington, U.S.

Died April 5, 1994 (aged 27)

Seattle, Washington, U.S.

Cause of death Suicide by gunshot
Nationality American
Occupation
  • Singer
  • songwriter
  • musician
  • visual artist
Spouse(s) Courtney Love (m. 1992)
Children Frances Bean Cobain
Musical career
Genres
  • Grunge
  • alternative rock
Instruments
  • Vocals
  • guitar
  • drums
Years active 1982–1994
Labels
  • Sub Pop
  • DGC
  • Geffen
Associated acts
  • Nirvana
  • Fecal Matter
  • Earth
  • The Jury
Signature

Kurt Donald Cobain (February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994) was an American singer, songwriter, and musician, best known as the guitarist and frontman of the rock band Nirvana. Regarded as a Generation X icon, he is considered to be one of the most iconic and influential rock musicians in the history of alternative music.[1]

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain formed the band Nirvana with Krist Novoselicand Aaron Burckhard in 1987 and established it as part of the Seattle music scenewhich later became known as grunge. After signing with major label DGC Records, Nirvana found global success with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from their critically acclaimed second album Nevermind (1991). Following the success of Nevermind, Nirvana was labelled "the flagship band" of Generation X, and Cobain was hailed as "the spokesman of a generation";[2] however, Cobain resented this, believing his message and artistic vision had been misinterpreted by the public, with his personal problems often subject to media attention.[3]

During the last years of his life, Cobain struggled with heroin addiction and chronic health problems such as depression. He also struggled with the personal and professional pressures of fame, and his marriage to musician Courtney Love.[4] On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle at the age of 27; police concluded he had died on April 5 from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to his head.[5]

Cobain was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Nirvana bandmates Dave Grohl and Novoselic, in their first year of eligibility in 2014. In 2003, David Fricke of Rolling Stone ranked him the 12th greatest guitarist of all time.[6] He was ranked 7th by MTV in the "22 Greatest Voices in Music".[7] In 2006, he was placed 20th by Hit Parader on their list of the "100 Greatest Metal Singers of All Time".[8]

Contents

  • 1Early life
  • 2Career
    • 2.1Early musical projects
    • 2.2Nirvana
    • 2.3Collaboration with other artists
  • 3Musical influences
  • 4Artistry
  • 5Personal life
    • 5.1Relationships and family
      • 5.1.1Sexuality
    • 5.2Health
  • 6Death
  • 7Legacy and influence
    • 7.1Books and films on Cobain
  • 8Discography
    • 8.1Posthumous albums
    • 8.2Posthumous singles
    • 8.3Posthumous videos
    • 8.4Collaborations
  • 9References
  • 10Bibliography
  • 11External links

Early life

Grays Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen, where Cobain was born

Cobain was born at Grays Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington on February 20, 1967,[9] the son of waitress Wendy Elizabeth (née Fradenburg; born 1948)[10] 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.[11]:13[12][13]:7 His Irish ancestors emigrated from Carrickmore, County Tyrone in 1875.[13]: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.[14] Cobain himself believed his family came from County Cork.[15] His younger sister, Kimberly, was born on April 24, 1970.[10][12]

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.[9][13]:11 This enthusiasm was encouraged by his grandmother, Iris Cobain, who was a professional artist.[16]

Cobain began developing an interest in music at a young age. 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[17] and Electric Light Orchestra (ELO),[18] 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.[13]:9

When Cobain was nine years old, his parents divorced.[13]: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.[11]:17 In a 1993 interview, he elaborated:

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.[13]: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.[13]:25 In January 1979, Westeby gave birth to a boy, Chad Cobain.[13]: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.[13]: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.[13]:25,26 Wendy steadfastly refused to press charges, remaining completely committed to the relationship.[13]:26

Cobain behaved insolently toward adults during this period of his youth, and began bullying another boy at school. Such misconduct eventually caused his father and Westeby to take him to a therapist, who concluded that he would benefit from a single family environment.[13]: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.[13]: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 was described as "anti-God" rants. The song "Lithium" is about his experience while living with the Reed family. Religion remained an important part of his personal life and beliefs.[11]:22[13]:196[13]: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.[11]:20–25 Cobain befriended a gay student at school and suffered bullying from peers 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 remained 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.[13]:68 One of his personal journals states, "I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes."[20]

Cobain playing drums at an assembly at Montesano High School

Cobain often drew during school classes. 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".[13]: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.[9][13]:44 Cobain, however, claimed that the first concert he attended was the Melvins, and he wrote prolifically in his journals of the experience.[13]: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.

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.[11]:35Feeling banished from his own mother's home, Cobain stayed with friends, occasionally sneaking back into his mother's basement.[11]:37 Cobain also claimed that, during periods of homelessness, he lived under a bridge over the Wishkah River,[11]:37an 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".[21]

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.[11]:43 During this period, he was traveling frequently to Olympia, Washington, to go to rock concerts.[11]: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 Cobain wrote "About a Girl" about her until years after his death.[13]:88–93[13]:116–117[13]:122[13]:134–136[13]:143[13]: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 inspired the lyric "love you so much it makes me sick," which appears in the song "Aneurysm".[13]:152 While Cobain regarded Vail as his female counterpart, his relationship with her waned; he desired the maternal comfort of a traditional relationship, which Vail regarded as sexist within a countercultural punk rock community. Vail's lovers were described by her friend Alice Wheeler as "fashion accessories."[13]: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:

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."[23] Cobain's relationship with Vail inspired the lyrics 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."[24]

Career

Early musical projects

On his 14th birthday on February 20, 1981, Cobain's uncle offered him either a bike or a used guitar—Kurt chose the guitar. Soon, he was trying to play Led Zeppelin's power ballad, "Stairway to Heaven". He also learned how to play "Louie Louie," Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust", and the Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl", before he began working on his own songs. Cobain played left-handed, despite being forced to write right-handed.[11]:22

In early 1985, Cobain formed Fecal Matter after he had dropped out of Aberdeen High School.[25] One of "several joke bands" that arose from the circle of friends associated with the Melvins,[25] it initially featured Cobain singing and playing guitar, Melvins drummer Dale Crover playing bass, and Greg Hokanson playing drums.[26] They spent several months rehearsing original material and covers, including songs by The Ramones, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix.[25][27] Fecal Matter disbanded in 1986, while the Melvins supported their debut EP, Six Songs.

During high school, Cobain rarely found anyone with whom he could play music. While hanging out at the Melvins' practice space, he met Krist Novoselic, a fellow devotee of punk rock. Novoselic's mother owned a hair salon, and the pair occasionally practiced 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.[11]

Nirvana

Cobain and Novoselic playing at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards

Main article: Nirvana (band)

After months of asking, Novoselic finally agreed to join Cobain, forming the beginnings of Nirvana.[11]:45 Religion appeared to remain a significant muse to Cobain during this time, as he often used Christian related imagery in his work, and developed a budding 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 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 and subsequently fired him which made the band in need of a new drummer. They eventually hired Dave Grohl who helped the band record their 1991 major-label debut, Nevermind. With Nevermind's lead single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana quickly 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 80 million worldwide.[28][29] 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 Cobain found himself reluctantly anointed by the media as the generation's "spokesman."[2]

Cobain struggled to reconcile the massive success of Nirvana with his underground roots and vision. 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.[30] The show was held in opposition to Ballot Measure Nine, a ballot measure, that if passed, would have directed schools to teach that homosexuality was "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse”.[31] Cobain was a vocal supporter of the pro-choicemovement and Nirvana was involved in L7's Rock for Choice campaign.[32] 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.[13]:253

Collaboration with other artists

In 1989, members of Nirvana and fellow American alternative rock band Screaming Trees formed a side project known as the Jury. The band featured Cobain on vocals and guitar, Mark Lanegan on vocals, Krist Novoselic on bass and Mark Pickerel on drums. Over two days of recording sessions, on August 20 and 28, 1989, the band recorded four songs also performed by Lead Belly; "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", an instrumental version of "Grey Goose", "Ain't It a Shame" and "They Hung Him on a Cross"; the latter of which featured Cobain performing solo.[33] Cobain was inspired to record the songs after receiving a copy of Lead Belly's Last Sessions from friend Slim Moon; after hearing it he "felt a connection to Leadbelly's almost physical expressions of longing and desire."[34]

In 1992, Cobain contacted William S. Burroughs about a possible collaboration. Burroughs responded by sending him a recording of "The Junky's Christmas"[35] (which he recorded in his studio in Lawrence, Kansas).[36] Two months later at a studio in Seattle, Cobain added guitar backing based on "Silent Night" and "To Anacreon in Heaven". The two would meet shortly later in Lawrence, Kansas and produce "The "Priest" They Called Him", a spoken word version of "The Junky's Christmas".[35][36]

Musical influences

The Beatles were an early and lasting influence on Cobain; his aunt Mari remembers him singing "Hey Jude" at the age of two.[13]: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."[19] Cobain expressed a particular fondness for John Lennon, whom he called his "idol" in his posthumously released journals,[20] and he admitted that he wrote the song "About a Girl", from Nirvana's 1989 debut album Bleach, after spending three hours listening to Meet the Beatles!.[13]: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. Recollecting touring with his band, Cobain stated, “I used to take a nap in the van and listen to Queen. Over and over again and drain the battery on the van. We’d be stuck with a dead battery because I’d listened to Queen too much”.[37]

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,[13]: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.[20] 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.[38] 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,[20] 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.[39] 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".[40]

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,[11]: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".[40]

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."[41]

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,[42] and in 1993, Cobain predicted that the next Nirvana album would be "pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.'s last album".[40]

"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.[43]

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