Kurt Cobain, among the most famous musicians to emerge from the Pacific Northwest, established himself as the iconic rock 'n' roll anti-hero of his time. Born in Aberdeen, Grays Harbor County, Cobain was an artistic kid from a broken home who loved rock music, played guitar from a young age, and in 1987 formed a band. In 1988 Nirvana made its Seattle debut and Sub Pop began marketing the group as part of the Northwest's flannel-clad Grunge Rock uprising. Nevermind, the group's 1991 album on the DGC label, was an instant commercial success and genuine cultural phenomenon, with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" becoming a Gen-X anthem. Cobain's angst-ridden songwriting exhibited a snarly punk musicality leavened with a keen pop genius that won over MTV, Rolling Stone, and the global radio industry. Nirvana's meteoric rise was soon recognized as part of an authentic "alternative rock" revolution. More records and tours followed, but in April 1994 the tremendously talented yet troubled musician died by his own hand at his Seattle mansion.
Even in His Youth
Kurt Donald Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, at Aberdeen's Grays Harbor Community Hospital, the only son of Donald and Wendy Fradenburg Cobain. Don worked as a Chevron gas-station mechanic near their rental home at 2830½ Aberdeen Avenue in Hoquiam. In August the young family moved to 1210 E 1st Street in Aberdeen. By age 2 young Kurt was singing along to Beatles and Monkees records, and before long toying with his aunt Mari Earl's acoustic guitar. At 3 he wrote his first song. His grandfather later recalled how Kurt loved to beat on pots and pans while visiting doting grandparents Leland (d. 2013) and Iris (d. 1997) Cobain -- and their grandson's favorite toys included a harmonica and a tin drum. In time Kurt got a small drum set and Earl gave him an old electric Hawaiian steel guitar and amp.
When he was 7, diagnosed as hyperactive, Kurt was prescribed the controversial drug Ritalin. In 1976 his parents divorced. A heartbroken Kurt and his sister Kimberly (b. 1970) remained with their mother. After Wendy's new boyfriend moved in, Kurt left to live with Don at 413 Fleet Street S in nearby Montesano. Don remarried in February 1978, his new wife and her kids moved in, and Kurt became unhappy again. Music and art were his refuge. He played drums in elementary and junior-high-school bands, and continued drawing and painting.
In 1981, Cobain received a used Japanese electric guitar, a 14th-birthday present from his uncle Chuck Fradenburg. A drummer, Fradenburg had played in Aberdeen's top 1960s band, the Beachcombers, and now worked with a local bar band, Fat Chance. That band's guitarist, Warren Mason, recalled Cobain saying he knew how to play "Louie Louie," the Pacific Northwest's signature rock 'n' roll song. But when Cobain did so incorrectly, Mason showed the kid how to play the three-chord tune. Fradenburg then arranged to have Mason give Cobain his first guitar lessons and helped the kid get a better-quality Gibson Explorer knockoff guitar. In 1983 Cobain attended his first rock concert: Sammy Hagar at the Seattle Coliseum.
As Cobain became obsessed with practicing his guitar and ignored his homework, Don halted the lessons. Frustrated, Cobain moved out and stayed with his grandparents, then with his mother -- transferring from Montesano High to Aberdeen for his sophomore year -- before returning to his father. Finally, Cobain began seeking shelter at the homes of various friends, including Jesse Reed, whose family's house in North River contained musical gear that Kurt was allowed to play. Reed's father Dave had been the saxophonist/vocalist with the Beachcombers, and Kurt and Jesse enjoyed spinning that band's old 45s.
Poetry and Graffiti
After Cobain dropped out of school the Reeds asked him to move out. He and Jesse Reed rented an apartment together and Cobain got a janitorial job at his old high school. Sensitive and artistic, Cobain didn't fit in with his schools' jock culture or stoner crowd. As a New York reporter later noted, "Cobain's fondness for poetry and painting did not go over big with the crowd in Aberdeen, Washington, a tough coastal logging town where young boys were expected to play sports and work the docks" (Sutton). In October 1992 Cobain reflected back on Aberdeen: "[I]t's a coastal town about 100 miles away from Seattle. It's a really small place. A very small community with a lot of people who have very small minds. Basically if you're not prepared to join the logging industry, you're going to be beaten up or run out of town" (Crotty).
One of Cobain's early friends was gay, and as a natural rebel he took pride in their friendship, which cost him some beatings by local toughs but also helped spark his life-long antipathy to bigotry and his enduring sympathy for oppressed underdogs. Cobain came to despise the redneck culture of his dying-timber-industry-dependent hometown, and took joy in spray-painting provocative graffiti gems -- including the inspired phrase "God Is Gay" -- on several local lugheads' macho pickups. A similar minor act of vandalism got him arrested on July 23, 1985, for tagging a downtown bank with the playfully nonsensical message "Ain'T goT no how whaTchamacalliT." A year later he was arrested again for drunkenly trespassing in an abandoned building.
Cobain's high-school art teacher recalled that the kid also had a keen distaste for the area's Top-40 radio station. The music that Cobain did like ranged from the Beatles to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Led Zep. And then punk happened. Cobain fell in with a circle of local teens who knew the area's top post-punk band, the Melvins from Montesano: Roger "Buzz" Osborne (guitar/vocals), Matt Lukin (bass), and Dale Crover (drums). Founded in 1983, the Melvins were already forging their signature slow, sludgy, and unforgivingly heavy sound -- one that would eventually see them recognized as pioneers of the Pacific Northwest "grunge-rock" movement.
Awed by Osborne's guitar skills, Cobain was also impressed that the Melvins were scoring gigs in bigger towns like Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle. He started hanging out at Crover's parents' house, where the band rehearsed, and even began assisting the band. In his very first media interview Cobain bragged, "I've seen hundreds of Melvins practices. I drove their van on tour" (Anderson, "It May Be ..."). Although inspired by their brutal aural aesthetic, Cobain failed his big audition with the Melvins when he froze.
Around 1984 Cobain got a job at the Lamplighter Restaurant in the coastal town of Grayland, and in June 1985 rented an apartment at 404 N Michigan Street in Aberdeen. Soon he took a maintenance job at the Polynesian Inn Resort at Ocean Shores, began sharing a shabby rental house with Matt Lukin -- and also began crossing paths with another young Aberdeen musician, Krist Novoselic (b. 1965) at Melvins rehearsals and shows. Cobain approached Novoselic, a bassist, with a demo cassette tape of original songs that he'd recorded around March 30, 1986, on his Aunt Mari's tape recorder in her Burien home with the help of Dale Crover on bass and drums. Impressed, Novoselic agreed to partner up and the duo began auditioning drummers at Novoselic's mother's hair salon at 107 M Street.
By late 1986 Cobain and Novoselic had formed a band with Aaron Burckhard. On March 7, 1987, they made their live debut at a beer bash at a rural house at 17 Nussbaum Road in nearby Raymond. The still-unnamed band performed a set of eight originals -- including "Downer" and "Hairspray Queen" -- to a largely distracted crowd of a couple dozen strangers. Trying to please, the guys also gamely accepted a request to perform Led Zep's classic "Heartbreaker" before scramming.
As Cobain scoured for a proper band name, the trio gigged under various monikers. On April 18, 1987, they performed at Tacoma's Community World Theatre as Skid Row, the name they used on May 6 for a live broadcast on Evergreen State College radio station KAOS. By June they gigged in Tacoma as Pen Cap Chew, returning in August as Bliss.
Excited by the scene in Seattle and Tacoma -- with rising bands like Soundgarden and Green River -- that The Rocket magazine was documenting, Cobain moved to an apartment in Olympia (114 Pear Street) and took a job with Lemon's Janitorial Service, while Novoselic moved to Tacoma. With Burckhard still in Aberdeen, rehearsing became impractical, and the two began seeking a new drummer. In October 1987 Cobain and Novoselic placed their first ad in The Rocket seeking a drummer -- an effort that failed.
"The Dale Tape"
Cobain and Novoselic, anxious to record their originals, recruited Dale Crover to help out on drums. They booked a few hours at Seattle's Reciprocal Studio (4230 Leary Way NW) with Jack Endino, the producer/engineer behind Soundgarden's and Green River's first recordings. Ten tunes were cut on January 23, 1988, and that same evening the band also performed a gig -- as Ted Ed Fred -- at the Community World Theatre.
Endino was impressed by the session, which produced such tunes as "Floyd the Barber," "If You Must," "Downer," and "Paper Cuts." Although the band was still a bit green, Cobain's compositional skills were notable. Endino ran the recordings by his girlfriend, Dawn Anderson, publisher/editor of Seattle rock 'n' roll magazine Backlash, as she recalled years later: "My first exposure to [the band] was the day after they recorded their first demo with Jack. He brought me the tape to listen to. I was completely blown away; I thought the songs were just amazing, crushingly heavy, but inventive as well" (Anderson, email).
Meanwhile, Cobain -- who was beginning to experience serious stomach pains, and foolishly began dabbling with heroin to combat the mysterious illness -- had finally conjured the perfect band name. Nirvana -- intended to stand out from so many aggressive or angry-sounding punk bands -- was first used on March 19 at the Community World Theatre. Cobain also began passing around cassette copies of the Endino recordings, which, out of appreciation for the Melvins' drummer's help, he called "The Dale Tape." After Crover moved to San Francisco, Cobain and Novoselic brought Burckhard back, but by March they ran a second ad in The Rocket. Again, no luck.
Endino passed the demo tape to a pair influential DJs at KCMU 90.3-FM (the Seattle public radio station that later became KEXP), Bruce Pavitt and Jon Poneman, who were also partners in the Sub Pop record label. Poneman was instantly intrigued and another KCMU DJ, Shirley Carlson, quickly fell under Nirvana's spell and began airing "Floyd the Barber." Though still dubious, Pavitt joined Poneman in checking the band out at its first Seattle gig on April 10, 1988, at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square. Poorly attended, this show has often been overlooked in published histories. And for good reason: Pavitt later told interviewers "No one else remembers it" (Seminara) and "there were three people present: Jon, me and the bartender ... And their songs were bad. ... None of their original material was outstanding in the least" (True, 77).
Nirvana's rendition of "Love Buzz" by the 1960s Dutch band Shocking Blue, however, did make a positive impression. Enough so that the Sub Pop execs booked Nirvana for one of their "Sub Pop Sunday" events at Seattle punk/dance club the Vogue (2018 First Avenue), which had hosted early shows by soon-to-be-famous grunge bands including Alice in Chains and Mudhoney. Dawn Anderson met the band members at that April 24 show and conducted their first-ever media interview. She described the Vogue show in a September 1988 piece:
"They weren't ready. 'We were uptight,' recalls [Kurt]. 'It just didn't seem like a real show. We felt like we were being judged; it was like everyone should've had scorecards. ... 'We already had songs on the radio,' adds [Krist] (KCMU has been playing 'Paper Cuts'). 'Everyone was already talking about us. There was a lot of pressure' ...
"Unfortunately, [Kurt's] nervousness was apparent on stage that night, but I've seen them twice since and they've gotten tighter each time. ... My only complaint is that [Kurt] still can't seem to work up as much vocal finesse as he does on tape, since he's gotta play lead guitar and scream at the same time. But he'll work it out. In the meantime, look for the band's upcoming Sub Pop single ..." (Anderson, "It May Be ...").
Indeed, that same night the Sub Pop guys had offered Nirvana a recording deal.
In May Nirvana ran a third and final Rocket ad. But, still no luck finding the right guy ... until a friend introduced Cobain and Novoselic to a drummer from Bainbridge Island, Chad Channing. Within weeks they were gigging together.
"Better than the Melvins!"
Dawn Anderson -- an early fan of the Melvins -- instantly bonded with Nirvana over their shared regard for that band. In Backlash she gushed:
"The group's already way ahead of most mortals in the songwriting department and, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, I honestly believe that with enough practice, Nirvana could become ... better than the Melvins! 'Our biggest fear at the beginning was that people might think we were a Melvins rip-off,' [Kurt] admits. Yet the association has probably also worked to the band's advantage. Nirvana recorded an ear-splitting demo tape which immediately had every noise addict in town flapping his lips over the next great white hope of grunge" (Anderson, "It May Be ...").
Cobain's guitar work was effective if non-flashy -- it was his vocals, with an intensely raspy screaming quality, that captured attention. Then there were the band's irresistibly hook-laden tunes, typically providing plenty of punky energy, magically tempered with a dash of pop accessibility. Cobain's lyrics and song titles -- alternately playful, caustic, and/or incomprehensible -- were always interesting, often mocking things that offended him: the insular Seattle rock scene ("School"), the Olympia scene ("Mr. Mustache"), Jon Poneman ("Big Cheese"), the record industry ("Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"), Nirvana's own clueless fans ("In Bloom"), Christians ("Lithium"), parents ("Scoff"), and various other worthy targets.
Pushing the marketing concept of "grunge rock," Jon Poneman and Bruce Pavitt put Seattle on the 1980s rock 'n' roll map. Sub Pop scored with great records by bands like Green River, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and TAD -- and then in November 1988 came Nirvana's "Love Buzz"/"Big Cheese" single. The Sub Pop 200 compilation album included Nirvana's "Spank Thru," and on December 28 the band played the compilation's release party at the Underground (4518 University Way NE). After gigs at an Evergreen dorm party, the University of Washington HUB building, and Green River Community College, Nirvana played Sub Pop's sold-out Lame Fest at Seattle's Moore Theater along with TAD and Mudhoney.
Sub Pop then offered the band an extended contract, and more studio time with Endino, which led to the June 15, 1989, release of Nirvana's debut album, Bleach. That same month the band embarked on six months of shows across America. The "grunge rock" label had begun taking hold in the public's consciousness, and Bleach proceeded to sell a remarkable 40,000 units based largely on word-of-mouth raves within the punk underground.
Kind of Blew
In September 1989 Nirvana tried recording with a different producer and studio, working at the Music Source (615 E Pike Street, Seattle) with Steve Fisk, a veteran of the Olympia/Evergreen scene and the first producer and engineer for Ellensburg's Screaming Trees. These sessions resulted in songs including "Been a Son," "Stain," and "Even in His Youth," released on the Blew EP. In October Nirvana headed off to tour England and Europe for six weeks with TAD and Mudhoney.
January 6, 1990, saw Nirvana's homecoming with two concerts at UW's HUB. Shows followed in Portland, Olympia, and Tacoma, and in California, Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Canada, Mexico, and more. In April 1990, the band began recording again, this time at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, with Butch Vig producing. Tensions arose, however, and Channing split. In August Nirvana was invited to tour with New York art-rockers Sonic Youth and recruited Dale Crover for those gigs.
Then, in September 1990, Cobain and Novoselic learned that Dave Grohl from the Washington, D.C., hardcore punk group Scream was looking for a new gig. A phenomenal drummer, Grohl easily passed an audition and made his debut at Nirvana's October 11 gig in Olympia at the North Shore Surf Club (116 E 5th Avenue).
Sonic Youth, which recorded for DGC, had tipped off the label to Nirvana. DGC signed the band and Nirvana recorded its first major-label album by reconnecting with Vig at California's fabled Sound City Studios during the spring of 1991. Among the many stunning songs cut was "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The tune, whose "Louie Louie"-like pulse has been duly noted, had debuted live on April 17 at the OK Hotel, an all-ages club at 212 Alaskan Way S in Seattle's Pioneer Square. By late August, rumors about the band's upcoming album, Nevermind, were circulating. On September 13 there was an album-listening party at Seattle dance club Re-bar (1114 Howell Street), from which the band was infamously 86'd due to rowdy liquor-fueled antics.
Nevermind was released on September 24 and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became an instant international sensation. Pushed by MTV and radio stations far and wide -- and heralded by Rolling Stone and every other rock magazine in the world -- the song became a generational anthem. Sales of Nevermind skyrocketed, with the song "Come as You Are" exploding as a second major radio hit, and Nirvana embarked on another European tour. In 1992 a film (1991: The Year Punk Broke) was released and the exciting performance footage of Nirvana helped stir further interest in the band. In time Rolling Stone would salute the band's music for blurring "the lines between punk's most subterranean muck and pop's highest reaches" ("No Apologies ...").
Meanwhile, true to the punk ethos, Nirvana began taking action to support various political causes. In late 1991 the group performed in Olympia at an anti-Iraq-invasion "No More Wars" benefit. The next year the group played in Portland at a "No on 9" gig opposing an Oregon anti-gay-rights measure, and also performed in support of the new Washington Music Industry Coalition's battle against proposed legislation billed as the "Erotic Music Law." In 1993 Nirvana played a concert whose proceeds were donated to rape-relief efforts in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. Then, following the murder of Seattle rock singer Mia Zapata (1965-1993), the anti-violence organization Home Alive formed and Nirvana contributed a song to its fund-raising CD The Art of Self Defense.
The Final Year
In February 1993 Nirvana began working with noted punk producer Steve Albini, cutting two future hits, "All Apologies" and "Heart-Shaped Box." When the In Utero LP was issued on September 21 it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
On November 18 Nirvana performed mellow versions of various tunes in a concert at New York's Sony Music Studios for the MTV Unplugged show that aired December 18 on the cable channel. (The recording was later released as the MTV Unplugged in New York album, winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album). On December 13, 1993, Nirvana played a special homecoming concert at Pier 48 on Seattle's Elliott Bay waterfront, which was also broadcast by MTV. Then on March 1, 1994, in Munich, Germany, Nirvana performed what would be the group's final gig.
Throughout all this Kurt Cobain struggled with being at the center of a whirlwind of media attention. Every aspect of his life was probed and publicized: his 1992 marriage to Courtney Love (b. 1964); the birth of their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain (b. 1992); their accumulating wealth; their purchase of an historic mansion at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard in Seattle's lakefront Denny-Blaine neighborhood; his ongoing health issues; his increased reluctance to go out in public; and various drug overdoses -- including one on March 3, 1994, in Rome that led to cancelation of Nirvana's European tour.
It was 9:40 a.m. on Friday, April 8, 1994, that Seattle's KXRX 96.5-FM radio announced that a yet-unnamed "local rock star" had been found dead in his home. With that news, shivers ran through the local rock community. Fears that it could be Cobain were soon confirmed by reports that an electrical contractor had discovered his body in the garage behind the mansion, and that he'd committed suicide via shotgun a few days earlier.
So great was shock over Cobain's death that numerous radio stations, MTV, and many other media outlets went into an "All-Nirvana-all-the-time" mode. The Seattle music community took the loss hard and its spirit would never feel quite the same. On April 10 a private service was held for family, friends, and label staffers at Unity Church of Truth (200 8th Avenue N). Hours later a public memorial came together at the nearby Seattle Center Flag Pavilion, where 5,000 Nirvana fans gathered to console each other and remember their musical hero. But alongside this heartfelt grieving there also emerged an ugly strain of rumormongering about the circumstances of Cobain's death. A shameless cottage industry arose pushing the unfounded theory that he had been murdered.
In time, health professionals began exploring an area that did merit examination: that, as Bev Cobain -- Kurt's cousin and a registered nurse -- noted, "Kurt was diagnosed at a young age with Attention Deficit Disorder [ADD], then later with bipolar disorder" ("Kurt Cobain and Manic Depression"). Indeed, the greater Cobain family had long a history of suicide and suicide attempts, generally involving weaponry. Back in March 1913, Cobain's great-great-aunt, then-17-year-old Florence Cobain (1895-1990) shot herself in the chest with a rifle after her father, John James Cobain (1863-1928), refused to allow her to attend a movie in their hometown of Ellensburg. When Wendy Cobain's mother Peggy was 10, her father committed suicide by knife. In 1979, when Kurt was 12, his great-uncle Burle Cobain (1913-1979) died by self-inflicted gunshots, and another, Kenneth Cobain (1915-1984), killed himself five years later.
In the years following Cobain's death his contributions to music and culture have not been forgotten. Numerous albums and box-sets, including From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996), Nirvana (2002), With the Lights Out (2004), Live at Reading (2004), Icon (2010), and countless bootlegs, help keep the flame of his memory burning.
Back in January 1996 Doug Pray's hit grunge documentary Hype! made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. A major highlight was footage he unearthed of the 1991 OK Hotel debut of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Many other films followed, in addition to several Nirvana concert DVDs.
Along the way, Nirvana was paid perhaps the ultimate pop-culture compliment of being the subject of various comic books. Cobain even became a popular action-figure toy when the National Entertainment Collectibles Association (NECA) produced a Kurt Cobain plastic toy based on how he looked in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, and later issued a second toy based on his look in Unplugged in New York.
In 1995 Cobain's hometown of Aberdeen adopted "Come as You Are" as its new tourism-welcoming motto. In 2011 some local fans created an unofficial park dubbed Kurt Cobain Landing, where a statue of Cobain was installed in 2014. The next year, Aberdeen formalized the spot as Kurt Cobain Memorial Park. Meanwhile his birthday, February 20, was declared "Kurt Cobain Day" by the mayor, and April 10, 2014 -- the day Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- was declared "Nirvana Day" in Hoquiam. While Kurt Cobain was never too fond of his hometown area, fans understandably seek ways to mark his time there, where the upbringing in a rough-and-tumble area helped build the character that saw him emerge as an artistic soul the world came to love.