Artist Profile: Kurt Cobain
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 His mother noted that his personality changed dramatically; Cobain became defiant and withdrawn.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”.
On his 14th birthday on February 20, 1981, Cobain’s uncle offered him either a bike or a used guitar. He chose the guitar. Soon, he was mastering Led Zeppelin’s power ballad “Stairway to Heaven”. Cobain began learning guitar with a few covers, including “Louie Louie”, The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl”, and soon began working on his own 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. Cobain and Novoselic would occasionally practice 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. After months of asking, Novoselic finally agreed to join Cobain, forming the beginnings of Nirvana.
Cobain was disenchanted after early touring, due to the band’s inability to draw substantial crowds and the apparent difficulty in 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, leading the band to find a new drummer, eventually settling on Dave Grohl. With Grohl, the band found their greatest success via their 1991 major-label debut, Nevermind.
With the lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana’s second album Nevermind (1991), Nirvana entered the mainstream, popularizing a subgenre of alternative rock called grunge. Since their debut, Nirvana, with Cobain as a songwriter, have sold over 25 million albums in the United States alone, and over 75 million worldwide.
The success of Nevermind provided numerous Seattle bands such as Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden access to wider audiences, and as a result, alternative rock became a dominant genre on radio and music television in the United States during the early-to-middle 1990s. Nirvana was considered the “flagship band of Generation X”, and frontman Cobain found himself reluctantly anointed by the media as the generation’s “spokesman.” Cobain’s discomfort with the media attention prompted him to focus on the band’s music and, believing their message and artistic vision to have been misinterpreted by the public, challenged the band’s audience with its third studio album In Utero (1993).
Cobain struggled to reconcile the massive success of Nirvana to his underground roots. He also felt persecuted by the media, comparing himself to Frances Farmer. He began to harbor resentments for 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, in opposition to Ballot Measure Nine, a ballot measure, that if passed, would have prohibited schools in the state from acknowledging or positively accepting LGBT rights and welfare.
Cobain was a vocal supporter of the pro-choice movement, and had been involved in Rock for Choice from the campaign inception by L7. He received death threats from a small number of anti-abortion activists for doing so, with one activist threatening Cobain that he would be shot as soon as he stepped on stage.
Courtney Love and Cobain met on January 12, 1990, in Portland’s Satyricon nightclub, when they both still led ardent underground rock bands. Love made advances, but Cobain was evasive. Early in their interactions, Cobain broke off dates and ignored Love’s advances because he was unsure if he wanted a relationship. Cobain noted, “I was determined to be a bachelor for a few months […] But I knew that I liked Courtney so much right away that it was a really hard struggle to stay away from her for so many months.” Courtney Love first saw Cobain perform in 1989 at a show in Portland, Oregon; they talked briefly after the show and Love developed a crush on him.
Cobain was already aware of Love through her role in the 1987 film Straight to Hell. According to journalist Everett True, the pair were formally introduced at an L7 and Butthole Surfers concert in Los Angeles in May 1991. In the weeks that followed, after learning from Dave Grohl that Cobain shared mutual interests with her, Love began pursuing Cobain. In late 1991 the two were often together and bonded through drug use.
Around the time of Nirvana’s 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, Love discovered that she was pregnant with Cobain’s child. On February 24, 1992, a few days after the conclusion of Nirvana’s Pacific Rim tour, Cobain and Love were married on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Love wore a satin and lace dress once owned by the actress Frances Farmer, and Cobain wore green pajamas, because he had been “too lazy to put on a tux”. In an interview with The Guardian, Love revealed the opposition to their marriage from various people: “Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] sits me down and says, ‘If you marry him your life is not going to happen, it will destroy your life.’ But I said, ‘Whatever! I love him, and I want to be with him!’… It wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t trying to do that.”
On August 18, 1992, the couple’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain was born.
In a 1992 article in Vanity Fair, Love admitted to using heroin, not knowing that she was pregnant. Love claimed that Vanity Fair had misquoted her, but the event created a media controversy for the couple. While Cobain and Love’s romance had always been a media attraction, they found themselves hounded by tabloid reporters after the article was published, many wanting to know if Frances was addicted to drugs at birth. The Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services took the Cobains to court, claiming that the couple’s drug usage made them unfit parents. Two-week-old Frances was ordered by the judge to be taken from their custody and placed with Courtney’s sister Jamie for several weeks, after which the couple obtained custody in an exchange agreement to submit to urine tests and regular visits from a social worker. After months of legal wrangling, the couple were eventually granted full custody of their daughter.
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, Courtney Love, on March 3, 1994. 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.
On March 18, 1994, Love phoned the Seattle police informing 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 regarding Cobain’s drug use on March 25, 1994. The ten people involved 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 and heaping scorn on its participants and eventually locking himself in the upstairs bedroom. However, by the end of the day, Cobain had agreed to undergo a detox program. Cobain arrived at the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles, California on March 30, 1994. 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, happily playing with his daughter Frances. These interactions were the last time Cobain saw his daughter. The following night, Cobain walked outside to have a cigarette, and climbed over a six-foot-high fence to leave the facility (which he had joked earlier in the day would be a stupid feat to attempt). He took a taxi to Los Angeles Airport and flew back to Seattle. On the flight, he sat next to Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses. Despite Cobain’s own personal animosity towards Guns N’ Roses and specifically Axl Rose, Cobain “seemed happy” to see McKagan. McKagan later stated he knew from “all of my instincts that something was wrong.” Most of his close friends and family were unaware of his whereabouts. On April 2 and 3, 1994, Cobain was spotted in numerous locations around Seattle. On April 3, 1994, Love contacted private investigator Tom Grant, and hired him to find Cobain. Cobain was not seen on April 4, 1994. On April 7, 1994, amid rumors of Nirvana breaking up, the band pulled out of that year’s Lollapalooza music festival.
On April 8, 1994, Cobain’s body was discovered at his Lake Washington Blvd home by an electrician named Gary Smith 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 note was found, addressed to Cobain’s childhood imaginary friend “Boddah”, that stated that Cobain had not “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 diazepam 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, 1994, at a park at Seattle Center drawing approximately seven thousand mourners. Prerecorded messages by Krist Novoselic and Courtney Love were played at the memorial. Love read portions of Cobain’s suicide note to the crowd, crying and chastising Cobain. Near the end of the vigil, Love arrived at the park and distributed some of Cobain’s clothing to those who still remained. Dave 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.’” He also believed that he knew 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.” Dave Reed, who for a short time was Cobain’s foster father, said that “he had the desperation, not the courage, to be himself. Once you do that, you can’t go wrong, because you can’t make any mistakes when people love you for being yourself. But for Kurt, it didn’t matter that other people loved him; he simply didn’t love himself enough.”
A final ceremony was arranged for Cobain, by his mother, on May 31, 1999, and was attended by both Love and Tracy Marander. As a Buddhist monk chanted, daughter Frances Bean scattered Cobain’s ashes into McLane Creek in Olympia, the city where he “had found his true artistic muse.”
Cobain’s artistic endeavors and struggles with heroin addiction, illness and depression, as well as the circumstances of his death have become a frequent topic of fascination, debate, and controversy throughout the world. According to a Seattle Police Department spokeswoman, the department receives at least one weekly request, mostly through Twitter, to reopen the investigation, resulting in the maintenance of the basic incident report on file. Cobain is one of the well known members of the 27 Club.
In March 2014, the Seattle police developed four rolls of film that had been left in an evidence vault—a reason was not provided for why the rolls were not developed earlier. According to the Seattle police, the 35mm film photographs show the scene of Cobain’s dead body more clearly than previous Polaroid images taken by the police. Detective Mike Ciesynski, a cold case investigator, was instructed to look at the film because “it is 20 years later and it’s a high media case.” Ciesynski stated that Cobain’s death remains a suicide and that the images will not be released publicly. The photos in question were later released, one by one, weeks before the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death. One photo shows Cobain’s arm, still wearing the hospital bracelet from the drug rehab facility he checked out of just a few days prior to returning to Seattle. Another photo shows Cobain’s foot resting next to a bag of shotgun shells, one of which was used in his death.
It’s a shame how it all ended but we will always miss you Kurt \m/