The Short Life and Career of Kurt Cobain (1967 – 1994)

by Hazel Butler

Kurt Donald Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington.
Early on, Cobain showed an interest in art and music. He excelled at drawing, so much so that his talents were even apparent in kindergarten. He soon learned to play piano by ear and enjoyed a kiddie drum kit his parents had given him. At his father’s urging, Cobain also played little league baseball, but focused on his art courses instead. Cobain immersed himself in artistic projects throughout his life. His work was often influenced by his interest in medicine and rare medical conditions, his public image, personal life and health, often expressed through his own dark humour. Numerous of Cobain’s paintings, collages and sculptures would appear in the artwork of many of Nirvana’s Albums.

After his parents divorced when he was nine, Cobain became withdrawn. He went to live with his father. When his father remarried, Cobain resented his stepmother Jenny and her two children, who he believed his father always took favor in. One of the bright spots of this difficult time was a present he received from his uncle Chuck—a guitar. The instrument was fairly beat up, but inspired Cobain to learn to play and it offered him a respite from his unhappiness at home. Alienated and angry, Cobain began experimenting with drugs, and he pushed himself farther away from his father. In 1982, Cobain left his father’s place  before finally moving in with his Mother.

Attending high school in Aberdeen, he impressed teachers and students with his artistic talents. Cobain seemed to have odd tastes in subject matter. Cobain’s life changed when he started listening punk rock. Discovering a local punk band, the Melvins, he befriended Buzz Osbourne, a member of the group. Osbourne introduced him to some other punk bands, such as the Sex Pistols. The Melvins often practiced in a space near drummer Dale Crover’s house and a lot of fans, including Cobain, came to these sessions and hung out. As high school progressed, he was doing more drinking and drugging. Cobain also got into fights with his mother who was also drinking a lot, and he could not stand his stepfather.

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Cobain spent much of 1984 and 1985 living in various places, sleeping in apartment building hallways and a hospital waiting room when he did not have any other place to crash. In July 1985, Cobain was arrested for spray painting buildings in town with some of his friends. He later received a fine and a suspended sentence for his actions. Several months later, Cobain started his first band. They recorded a few songs together, but they never played any gigs.

The next year Cobain was in trouble with the law again after being found wandering around drunk at night. As a result, he ended up spending several days in jail. Cobain started playing music with bassist Krist Novoselic who was two years older than him. A local drummer named Aaron Burckhard soon joined in. Their first gig was a house party in 1987. This same year, Cobain started going out with Tracy Marander, his first serious girlfriend. The two eventually were living together in Olympia. Although they struggled financially, the couple seemed to enjoy the rock and roll lifestyle. Cobain spent a lot of his time exploring different creative outlets—writing, painting, drawing, and making collages.

In 1988, Cobain was able to make some of his rock ambitions come true. He finally settled on the name Nirvana for the group. They made their first single, “Love Buzz,” which was released by the small independent label Sub Pop Records. By this time, Burckhard was out and Chad Channing had taken over drumming duties. Nirvana’s popularity in the Seattle music scene was growing, and they released their debut album, Bleach, in 1989. While it failed to make much of a splash, the recording showed signs of Cobain’s emerging talent as a songwriter, especially the ballad “About a Girl”. Cobain felt mistreated by Sub Pop, believing that the company devoted more resources toward promoting other acts. While his band was struggling to make it, Cobain made a fateful connection in his personal life. In 1990, Cobain met his match in an edgy rocker named Courtney Love. The two met at a show in Portland. While they were interested in each other, their relationship did not begin until much later.

That same year, Kurt toured with some of his rock and roll heroes including Sonic Youth. Nirvana was going through some internal changes at the time. Their friend Dale Crover initially filled in on drums, they finally found a replacement in Dave Grohl.

Despite their antiestablishment and punk tendencies, Nirvana made the leap to a major label in 1991 when they signed with Geffen Records. That same year, they released Nevermind, which spearheaded a music revolution. The single “Smells Like Teen Spirit proved to be the group’s biggest single and helped take the entire album to the top of the charts.

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Soon, Cobain was being called one of the best songwriters of his generation. This along with the rapid rise of the group put pressure on the talented and sensitive 24-year-old. Cobain began to worry about how his music was being received and how to regain control of a seemingly uncontrollable future. He had started using heroin in the early 1990s. The drug provided an escape as well as some relief for his chronic stomach problems.

Before Nevermind’s release, Cobain met up again with Courtney Love, now the lead singer and guitarist with Hole, at an L7 concert in Los Angeles. She was friends with Jennifer Finch, a member of the band who was also dating Dave Grohl at the time. Later that year, Cobain and Love started a whirlwind relationship that included letters, faxes, and numerous phone calls as the two were traveling with their respective bands. In February 1992, they got married and welcomed their daughter Frances Bean Cobain in August of that year. Both Cobain and Love were into drugs and often used together. They found themselves being investigated by social services after Love told Vanity Fair that she had taken heroin while pregnant. After a costly legal battle, Cobain and Love were able keep custody of their daughter.

Always volatile, Cobain’s relationship with Love was becoming more strained. The Seattle police came to their house after the two had been in a physical altercation over Cobain having guns in the house in 1993. As a result, he was arrested for assault. The police also took guns from the home.
While his personal life was in turmoil, Cobain had continued success professionally. Nirvana’s highly acclaimed album In Utero was released in September 1993 and went to the top of the album charts. Full of highly personal lyrics by Cobain about his many life struggles, the recording featured a fair amount of hostility toward people and situations that Cobain reviled. He took on the recording industry with “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.”  It also had some more tender moments with “Heart-Shaped Box,” which is supposed to be about his marriage to Love.

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While the band earned raves for the new album, Cobain had become more distant from the other members. But he continued to press on, playing a gig with Nirvana in New York City in November 1993 for MTV’s Unplugged series and touring Europe that winter. Cobain and Love often fought about his drug use. On a break during the tour, Cobain spent some time in Europe with his family.
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 on March 3. The next morning, Love awoke to find that Cobain had overdosed on a combination of champagne and Rohypnol. Cobain was immediately rushed to the 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.

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On March 18, Love phoned police to inform 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. When questioned by police, Love said that Cobain had never mentioned that he was suicidal and that she had not seen him with a gun.

Love arranged an intervention concerning Cobain’s drug use that took place on March 25. The people who attended 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 participants and eventually locking himself in the upstairs bedroom. However, by the end of the day, Cobain had agreed to attend a detox program. Cobain arrived at the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles, California on March 30. 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, and happily played with his visiting daughter Frances, the last she would ever see of her father. The following night, Cobain walked outside to have a cigarette, then climbed over a six-foot-high fence to leave the facility. He took a taxi to Los Angeles Airport and flew back to Seattle, on a flight where he sat next to Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses. Even after the prior animosity from Nirvana to Guns N’ Roses, and Cobain’s own personal animosity to Axl Rose, Cobain “seemed happy” to see McKagan. McKagan would later say that he knew from “all of my instincts that something was wrong.

Over the course of April 2 and April 3, Cobain was spotted in various locations around Seattle, but most of his friends and family were unaware of his whereabouts.  On April 3, Love hired a private investigator, Tom Grant, to find Cobain. On April 7, amid rumors Nirvana was going to break up, the band pulled out of that year’s Lollapalooza music festival.

On April 9, 1994, Cobain’s body was discovered at his Lake Washington home by an electrician 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 suicide note was found, In it he stated that “I haven’t 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 Valium 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 at a park at Seattle Center which drew approximately 7000 mourners. Prerecorded messages by Novoselic and Love were played at the memorial. Love read portions of Cobain’s suicide note to the crowd and broke down. 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.'” While also believing that he knew that 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.

A final ceremony was arranged for Cobain by his mother on May 31, 1999, that was attended by both Love and Tracey Marander. As a Buddhist monk chanted, his daughter Frances Bean scattered his ashes into McLane Creek in Olympia, the city where he “had found his true artistic muse.”

Two years later, a collection of their songs entitled From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah was released, and again the group scored a huge hit, reaching the number three spot on the album chart. Despite the official ruling of his death as a suicide, some have wondered whether it was murder and whether Love had been involved in his death. Even after death, Cobain continued to intrigue and inspire fans. The group released Unplugged in New York shortly after Cobain’s death and it went to the top of the charts. Cobain took the place of Elvis Presley as the top-earning deceased celebrity, after the sale of the Nirvana song catalogue. Presley reclaimed the spot in 2007.
In the years following his death, Cobain has been remembered as one of the most iconic rock musicians in the history of alternative music. He was ranked by Rolling Stone as the 12th greatest guitarist and 45th greatest singer of all time, and by MTV as 7th 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”.