Kurt Cobain had always been a slight man, standing at 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds toward the end of his life, but the heroin he used to ease his stomach pains certainly didn’t help his gaunt appearance. “I sing right from my stomach,” he said. “Right from where my stomach pain is.”
This pain pushed him to create music that would change the industry and pop culture for decades to come as the frontman of Nirvana, moving droves of fans with songs like About A Girl, Come As You Are, Heart-Shaped Box, Lithium, All Apologies, Polly, and the iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit.
“Kurt’s piercing eyes, his moodiness, his chemical state, his fame and his almost palpable charisma were extremely intimidating,” Michael Azerrad wrote in Rolling Stone after Cobain’s death. “But he was actually a kind, sweet man and a sincere listener.”
The singer had been in physical pain for most of his life, from stomach trouble to scoliosis, along with crippling emotional pain caused by growing up without a stable home. After his parents’ divorce, he bounced around relatives’ homes, constantly being kicked out for acting up.
For a time, he slept in a cardboard refrigerator box on his friend’s porch, and even on a bedroll in the heated halls of Aberdeen apartment buildings. “He didn’t feel worthy, because he was rejected,” Cobain’s stepmother said in the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. “I don’t know how anyone deals with having your whole family reject you.”
Of course he would channel that rejection into some of the most influential music of the 20th century, bringing the “Seattle sound”— and grunge in general — to the mainstream consciousness.
In 1986, Cobain began playing music with bassist Krist Novoselic and another local drummer, who was later replaced. After deciding on the name Nirvana, recording their first single Love Buzz and gaining popularity in Seattle, they released their debut album Bleach on Sub Pop in 1989 to little acclaim.
The struggling band took a fateful turn in 1990, when Cobain met edgy rocker Courtney Love at a show in Portland and later that year found a new drummer, Dave Grohl. Despite their anti-establishment ethos, they signed to major label Geffen Records in 1991 and released their second album, Nevermind, which catapulted them into the spotlight as pioneers of a music revolution, fueled by raw punk and gritty metal, giving birth to the “grunge” genre.
The catalytic single Smells Like Teen Spirit shot them to the top of the charts, earning Cobain recognition as one of his generation’s best songwriters. However, the band’s rapid success was beyond what he could handle.
The general narrative, and the one he loved to propagate, was that his vision was too pure to give in to the demands of a major label. “I’m too stubborn to allow myself to ever compromise our music or turn us into big rock stars,” he said. “I just don’t feel like that.”
His wife, Courtney Love, would later say this wasn’t true, and that he created this image to cover up how eager he was: “He wanted it baaaad,” she said after his death. “He was desperate to be the biggest rock star in the world. Absolutely desperate. But he made it look like it was thrust upon him.”
It’s probably true that he liked the money that came with success — he’d yearned his whole life for a stable home life, and now was able to finally afford it — but the lack of privacy and the scrutiny from journalists quickly turned his life into a living hell.
As one limo driver put it after his death: “Nice Young Man. Very quiet. But I guess he had a lot of hurtin’.”
On April 5, 1994, in the guest house behind his Seattle home, Cobain committed suicide at age 27 with a shotgun to the head, leaving behind a lengthy note for his fans, wife and young daughter, Francis Bean. Despite the official ruling of his death as a suicide, controversy continues to surround his untimely passing.
In death, Cobain became a legend.
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