In Memoriam: Remembering Kurt Cobain
“Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want. Nirvana means freedom from pain and suffering in the external world and that’s close to my definition of punk rock,” Kurt Cobain wrote in a journal entry.
Nirvana, who were honored this month with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2023 Grammy Awards, was one moving piece that spurred the grunge movement of the 1990s to explode into a global, cultural phenomenon. Grunge still has distinctive styles of clothing, hair, and attitude birthed from ’80s goth and 70s British punk, and before then, 60s beatnik music and spoken word.
Long before “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic founded Nirvana with drummer Aaron Burckhard in 1987. This occurred in Aberdeen, Washington, about a hundred miles from Seattle. The city is considered the birthplace of grunge, the “Seattle sound.”
The band shifted drummers over the years until Dave Grohl, who would later lead Foo Fighters, joined Nirvana in No. 133 in the world on Spotify’s listening charts.
In “Serving the Servant,” author Danny Goldberg, who managed Nirvana, Hole and other acts, writes that “many who knew Kurt emphasize those aspects of his life that reinforce their particular notion of who they think he was,” and he admits to the same. In the field of communication, interpretive theory suggests the nature of human perspective may prevent an entirely objective view of any given topic.
In so many words, we’re only human.
Goldberg was personally Cobain’s friend and professionally Nirvana’s co-manager, a relationship that he described as completely in service of the band’s wishes.
The success that Nirvana achieved was “all the more remarkable because they had emerged from the insular world of punk rock, which up until that moment had faced indifference from most American rock fans,” he wrote.
They shifted the face of punk rock and grunge subculture, cementing recognition by mainstream culture and creating the musical reality that exists today.
The particular success of various anti-establishment movements like punk rock could be attributed to the fact that music was their art form.
Goldberg wrote that “musicians have more individual cultural power than other artists.”
Explaining further, he wrote that “even the biggest movie stars, novelists, and painters can’t meet their audience in adoring groups of thousands on a nightly basis or get into their fans’ heads every day the way a hit song does. Hence the power of the phrase ‘rock star.’ Because he was that rare rock star who stood for something more than sex appeal or entertainment, Kurt was viewed by many journalists and fans as a savant,” Goldberg wrote.
In his last interview, a journalist asked Cobain where the term ‘grunge’ came from.
“Some of the rumors are that Jonathan Poneman said it one time sarcastically, and it just caught on,” he said. In this way, Poneman is credited with putting a label on the grunge phenomenon.
“They wouldn’t set out to market this music as that,” Cobain continued, “just, you know, that’s what happens when the main media catches on. They have to call it something. I like it as much as new wave, I would have been proud to be a new-waver, you know, 15 years ago,” Cobain said in his last interview.
Poneman founded indie record label Sub Pop, which signed Nirvana to their first record deal for $600 in 1989. The band fulfilled this contract with the album “Bleach.”
In another journal entry, Cobain wrote that “Nirvana try to fuse punk energy with hard rock riffs, all within a pop sensibility.”
Cobain’s musical influences included alternative bands Mudhoney and Eugenius, who were two of his favorites.
In his journal, he mentions growing up on The Beatles and music like Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” but liked some of this exposure more than others.
“My parents owned a compact stereo component system molded in simulated wood grain casing and a record box set featuring AM radio’s contemporary hits of the early seventies called ‘Good Vibrations’ by Ronco,” he wrote.
After recounting how his sister poked holes in his first drum set – tin with paper heads – he wrote about his first guitar.
“My Aunt gave me a blue Hawaiian slide guitar and amp for my seventh birthday, she also during those first precious years had given me the first three Beatles albums for which I am forever grateful knowing that my musical development would have probably come to a HALT if I had to soak up one more year of the Carpenters and Olivia Newton-John,” Cobain wrote.
Love and Cobain:
The story of Cobain’s love life typically picks up with his girlfriend Trudy Marander, who supported them while he wrote songs and slept. While she wanted him to get a job, he felt weighed down. He wrote “About a Girl” about her during this time.
After they broke up, he dated Tobi Vail, drummer of Bikini Kill.
In “Heavier Than Heaven,” author Charles Cross wrote that while many Nirvana songs are about Vail, the pairing didn’t work because Vail regarded Cobain’s desired relationship structure as sexist and unaligned with radical punk values.
Finally, Cobain met Courtney Love.
There are multiple accounts of how this romance began. One story begins on Jan. 12 1990 at the Portland nightclub Satyricon. No matter how they met or who introduced them, Love quickly began her advances.
Cobain, however, said that he wanted to remain a bachelor just a little longer. This was expressed by him ignoring her calls and dodging some but not all of her advances in the beginning.
Soon, however, they bonded over music, art, and drug use.
Love’s band Hole released the album “Pretty on the Inside” one week before “Nevermind” catapulted Nirvana to the top of the charts in September 1991.
They were married in Honolulu in 1992 with eight close friends bearing witness. Cobain wore green and white plaid pajamas, while Love wore a gauzy white satin-and-lace dress.
On their anniversary in 2020, Love posted a tribute to Cobain on Instagram.
“28 years ago I recall feeling, deeply, delighted, dizzy, so in love, and knowing how lucky I was,” she wrote, calling the man her “angel.”
Six months after marrying, they welcomed their daughter Frances Bean Cobain into the world, who is now a visual artist and model. She is on Instagram as @thatspacewitch.
There is no way to erase the pain of the end of this story, but it can be said with certainty that his legacy continues his story to this day.
Cobain and Love’s connection included a shared addiction to heroin. In connection with the addiction but with other factors at play, Cobain died by suicide on April 5, 1994 at the age of 27.
The wound is still raw for many that he knew in his life, Goldberg wrote.
In his last note, Cobain wrote “Frances and Courtney, I’ll be at your altar.”
Crisis Textline is free, live, and trained support available 24/7 for any reason from volunteer crisis counselors and can be reached at https://www.crisistextline.org/ or by texting HOME to 741741.
Goldberg ends his biography with these words.
“For all that Kurt inspired and for all that he gave, I believe there was a significant part of him that was a mystery even to those who were closest to him. I am so glad to have had a few glimpses and so glad that so much of his legacy still inspires so many people.
Notwithstanding Kurt’s dark side, I keep returning to the last chorus of “All Apologies,” where Kurt sang, ‘In the sun I feel as one / All in all is all we are,’ and to these lines from his journals: ‘No True Talent is fully organic, yet the obviously superior talented have, not only control of study, but that extra special little gift at birth, fueled by passion. A built in totally unexplainable, New Age, f–king cosmic energy bursting love.”