Kurt Donald Cobain (February 20, 1967 – c. April 5, 1994) was an American musician and artist.
He was best known as the lead singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter of the grunge band Nirvana. Cobain formed Nirvana with Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1985 and established it as part of the Seattle music scene, having its debut album Bleach released on the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989.
After signing with major label DGC Records, the band found breakthrough success with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from its second album Nevermind (1991). Following the success of Nevermind, Nirvana was labeled “the flagship band” of Generation X, and Cobain hailed as “the spokesman of a generation”. Cobain, however, was often uncomfortable and frustrated, believing his message and artistic vision to have been misinterpreted by the public, with his personal issues often subject to media attention. He challenged Nirvana’s audience with its final studio album In Utero (1993). It did not match the sales figures of Nevermind but was still a critical and commercial success.
During the last years of his life, Cobain struggled with heroin addiction, illness and depression. He also had difficulty coping with his fame and public image, and the professional and lifelong personal pressures surrounding himself and his wife, musician Courtney Love. On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle, the victim of what was officially ruled a suicide by a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. The circumstances of his death at age 27 have become a topic of public fascination and debate. Since their debut, Nirvana, with Cobain as a songwriter, has sold over 25 million albums in the US, and over 75 million worldwide. Cobain was inducted – along with fellow Nirvana members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl – into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the first year in which they were eligible.
Kurt Donald Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, at Grays Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington, to a waitress, Wendy Elizabeth (née Fradenburg) (born 1948), and an automotive mechanic, Donald Leland Cobain (born 1946). His parents were married on July 31, 1965 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. His ancestry included Irish, English, Scottish, and German. Cobain’s Irish ancestors migrated from Carrickmore, County Tyrone in the north of Ireland in 1875. Researchers have found them to have been shoemakers, originally named Cobane, who came from Inishatieve, a townland within Carrickmore parish, settling in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, and then in Washington. Cobain himself believed his family came from County Cork in southern Ireland. Cobain had one younger sister named Kimberly, born on April 24, 1970.
Cobain’s family had a musical background. His maternal uncle Chuck Fradenburg starred 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. Cobain was described as being a happy and excitable, while sensitive and caring child. His talent as an artist was evident from an early age. His bedroom was described as having taken on the appearance of an art studio, where he would accurately draw his favorite characters from films and cartoons such as Aquaman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Disney characters like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto.
This enthusiasm was encouraged by his grandmother Iris Cobain, who was a professional artist herself. Cobain began developing an interest in music early in his life. According to his Aunt Mari, he began singing at two years old. At age four, Cobain started playing the piano and singing, writing a song about their trip to a local park. He listened to artists like the Ramones and Electric Light Orchestra and 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 Monkees television show at a young age.
When Cobain was seven years old, his parents divorced. Later in his life, he said the divorce had a profound effect on his life. His mother noted that his personality changed dramatically; Cobain became defiant and withdrawn. In a 1993 interview, he elaborated:
“I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason. I was ashamed of my parents. I couldn’t face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.”
Cobain’s parents both found new partners after the divorce. His father had promised not to remarry; however, after meeting Jenny Westeby, he did, to Kurt’s dismay. Kurt, his father, Westeby, and her two children Mindy and James, moved into a new household together. Cobain liked Westeby at first, who gave him the maternal attention he desired. In January 1979, Westeby gave birth to a boy, Chad Cobain. 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; he soon began to express resentment toward his stepmother. Kurt’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. Wendy steadfastly refused to press charges, remaining completely committed to the relationship.
Kurt behaved insolently toward adults. He began bullying another boy at school. These behaviors eventually caused his father and Westeby to take him to a therapist, who concluded that Kurt would benefit in a single family environment. 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 of Kurt to his father.
Cobain’s teenage rebellion quickly became overwhelming for his father, who placed Kurt in the care of family and friends. While living with the born-again Christian family of his friend Jesse Reed, Cobain became a devout Christian and regularly attended church services. Cobain later renounced Christianity, engaging in what would be described as “anti-God” rants. The song “Lithium” is about his experience while living with the Reed family. Religion would remain an important part of Cobain’s personal life and beliefs, as he often used Christian imagery in his work and maintained a constant 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,” which paralleled with the punk rock ethic and ideology. Cobain would regard himself as both a Buddhist and a Jain during different points of his life, educating himself about the philosophies through various sources, including through watching late night television documentaries on both subjects.
Although not interested in sports, Kurt was enrolled in a junior high school wrestling team at the insistence of his father. Kurt was a skilled wrestler, yet 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 on the team.
Cobain befriended a homosexual student at school, and suffered bullying from heterosexual students who concluded that Cobain was gay. In an interview he said that he liked having the identity of being gay because he did not like people and when they thought he was gay they left him alone. Kurt 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 Kurt backed away and told his friend he was not gay but would still be 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. Aberdeen police records show that Cobain was arrested for spray painting the phrase “Ain’t got no how watchamacallit” on other vehicles. One of his personal journals states, “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.”
Cobain enjoyed creating works of art. He would often draw during school classes, including objects associated with human anatomy. When given a caricature assignment for an art course, Cobain drew a posing Michael Jackson. When his art teacher told him the caricature would be inappropriate to be displayed in a school hallway, Cobain drew an unflattering sketch of then-President Ronald Reagan.
As attested to by several of Cobain’s classmates and family members, the first concert he attended was Sammy Hagar and Quarterflash at the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1983. Cobain, however, claimed that the first concert he attended was the Melvins; he wrote prolifically in his Journals of the experience. As a teenager living in Montesano, Cobain eventually found escape through the thriving Pacific Northwest punk scene, going to punk rock shows in Seattle. Cobain soon began frequenting the practice space of fellow Montesano musicians the Melvins.
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 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. Feeling banished from his own mother’s home, Cobain stayed with friends, occasionally sneaking back into his mother’s basement. Cobain also claimed during periods of homelessness to have lived under a bridge over the Wishkah River, an experience that inspired the Nevermind track “Something in the Way”. However, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic 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.”
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. During this period, he was traveling frequently to Olympia, Washington to go to rock concerts. 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. Cobain spent most of his time sleeping into the late evening, watching television and concentrating on art projects. Marander’s 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. Marander was not aware that “About a Girl” was written about her until years after Cobain’s death.
Soon after Marander separated from him, Cobain began dating Tobi Vail, an influential DIY punk zinester of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. After meeting Vail, Cobain vomited as he was so completely overwhelmed with anxiety regarding his infatuation with her. This event would inspire the lyric: “Love you so much it makes me sick,” which would appear in the song “Aneurysm”. While Cobain would regard Vail as his female counterpart, his relationship with her waned. Cobain desired the maternal comfort of a traditional relationship, which Vail regarded as sexist within a countercultural punk rock community. Those who dated Vail would be described by her friend Alice Wheeler as “fashion accessories.” Kurt and Tobi 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 both Vail and Cobain sang, 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 “(Kurt) would play the songs he was writing, I would play the songs I was writing and we’d record them on my dad’s four-track.
Sometimes I’d sing on the songs he was writing and play drums on them….. He was really into the fact that I was creative and into music. I don’t think he’d ever played music with a girl before. He was super-inspiring and fun to play with.” 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.” Cobain’s relationship with Vail would inspire the lyrical content of many of the songs on Nevermind. Once, while discussing anarchism and punk rock with friend Kathleen Hanna, Hanna spray-painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Kurt’s apartment wall. Teen Spirit was the name of a deodorant Vail wore; Hanna joked that Cobain smelled like it. Cobain, unaware of this, initially interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning. The slogan inspired the title to the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.