Within the slew of alternative bands that burst onto the scene in the early 90s, there was something special about Nirvana. In particular, there was something really special about the band's frontman, Kurt Cobain. His piercing blue eyes, gut-wrenching songwriting, and tragic end may be what people remember—but there’s so much more to Cobain’s story than that.
Kurt Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington to parents Wendy Elizabeth Cobain and Donald Leland Cobain. While he began as a happy, if somewhat sensitive, child, trouble soon began to brew. When he was still a toddler, an elderly neighbor complained that Cobain had tried to bite his ear off. Another reported that he’d harmed a local woman’s cat.
It was clear that Cobain had issues with authority—and they were only going to get worse.
People in Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen may have seen him as dangerous and unpredictable, but his mother Wendy doted on him, and home was where he showed his sensitive and melancholy side. When Wendy gave birth to her second child, a daughter, his reaction was brutal. Kurt ran away, and a neighbor later found him hiding under a bridge, weeping.
This battle between Cobain’s rebellious and somber sides would play itself out throughout his life, even after he got famous.
School didn’t provide enough of a distraction from whatever Kurt Cobain was going through on the inside. He ended up with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder—and the requisite prescriptions for uppers and downers that came with it. Not that it helped much, as doctors had misdiagnosed him. All that the pills did was create a dependence that would haunt Cobain later in life.
Cobain’s parents divorced when he was nine. When they split, Cobain’s father Don promised him that he wouldn’t get married again—a vow he broke soon after. Cobain’s relationship with his stepmother eventually warmed, but when she gave birth to his half-brother, he was no longer the only young boy in the family, and he grew to resent his father and stepmother once again.
Things weren’t much better on the other side of the family.
While Don went on to find love again, Kurt’s mother Wendy wound up in an utter nightmare. Her next partner was violent with her and even once broke her arm. Despite the physical abuse, some of which Kurt witnessed firsthand, she refused to leave him. Between his ADD misdiagnosis and his horrible home life, things began to take their toll on young Kurt.
There was something that altered Kurt’s life far more than his family problems or artistic inclinations—and while it seemed innocuous, it took a devastating toll on him. Cobain suffered from chronic pain due to a stomach condition that went undiagnosed for most of his life. As with many who suffer from chronic pain, it dramatically affected and deeply traumatized Cobain.
Kurt Cobain bounced between his father’s, mother’s, and other relatives’ homes in his teenaged years. When he discovered he didn’t have enough credits to graduate high school, he dropped out. His frustrated mother offered an ultimatum. He had to get a job or move out. Furious, Cobain packed up his things and left, staying on friend’s couches and, as he put it, sleeping under bridges by the local river.
Later, bandmate Krist Novoselic would claim that was a lie—one of many that Cobain made up about his early life.
Prior to forming Nirvana, Kurt Cobain auditioned for the influential rock band the Melvins, who were actually friends of his—but they rejected him. He also claimed that the Melvins was his first concert, but his classmates and family argued that they remembered him going to a Sammy Hagar show before that—guess the Red Rocker didn't have enough indie cred for Cobain.
Against the odds, given his fraught history with family, his periods of homelessness, and his lack of a high school diploma, Kurt Cobain began getting his life together as he approached the big 2-0. He got an apartment, a girlfriend in nearby Olympia, and started to play music with Krist Novoselic.
Though anger remained a fixture in his life, ambition began to slowly displace it.
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With its college town music scene and DIY record labels, Cobain saw a better life in Olympia than the one he had in Aberdeen. He ran band practices like a drill sergeant, recorded demos, and played a handful of local shows. Unfortunately, these pursuits didn’t pay the bills, and his girlfriend had to beg him to get a job to contribute to the rent. And that wasn’t the only problem they faced.
Kurt Cobain took on music with a clear-headed determination—but there was a brutal dark side to his single-mindedness. Cobain and his girlfriend treated their home like a hovel, and he antagonized his neighbors. He also began to use drugs regularly—mostly acid and weed. For now, it seemed like youthful experimentation…but before long, it would spiral wildly out of control.
Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic settled on the name Nirvana for their band. They soon recorded a single, and then a debut album for Seattle indie label Sub Pop. Sub Pop had a plan to pull focus on Seattle’s local rock scene and turn it into a national sensation—and Nirvana was the perfect band to make the flagship of it all.
Their debut album Bleach was a hit on the college charts—but for Cobain, it wasn’t enough.
Both the Sub Pop deal and the drudgery in Olympia were no longer doing it for Cobain. He left his girlfriend and began dating musician Tobi Vail from Bikini Kill. Soon after, Vail’s bandmate Kathleen Hanna began dating Nirvana’s new drummer Dave Grohl. It was during this era that Hanna scrolled the words "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit" on the wall in Cobain's bedroom, referring to Vail's brand of deodorant—and inspiring the title for Nirvana's breakout hit.
The graffiti wasn’t the only inspiration for Kurt. Though he admired girlfriend Tobi Vail’s talent and independence, she didn’t want to take care of him the way his ex had. As his relationship with Vail hit one rough patch after another, he wrote a number of songs about their romance and eventual break-up. These came to make up a significant chunk of songs for Nirvana’s next album.
An article written about Nirvana before the release of their debut album Bleach misspelled Kurt Cobain’s name as “Kurdt” Cobain. From that point on, Cobain often spelled his name Kurdt, and it was believed that he used the name to represent his alter-ego when he wasn’t feeling like himself. But he also had another, more disturbing side.
Cobain also talked about an imaginary friend he called Boddah, whom he described as the evil part of his psyche. Cobain continued to reference Boddah for the rest of his life—and, as we’ll see, in the last thing he ever wrote.
Courtney Love wasn’t famous, but she’d definitely made a name for herself in the indie scene. It was enough to impress Cobain—as was the fact that she doggedly pursued him after they first met. Still, he wasn’t sure about being in a relationship, so he avoided her and canceled dates. But, despite his best efforts, there was one thing that he couldn’t deny: He had feelings for her.
Luckily for Kurt, he had a pretty pressing distraction brewing.
Sub Pop had done a lot for Nirvana, but it wasn’t enough for Kurt Cobain. He wanted out—but there was a major problem. Someone would have to buy their contract out, but no indie label had enough money to do so. After getting advice from friends in bigger bands, they found a deal at DGC Records—but they had no idea what they were getting into.
No doubt Nirvana was in the mood to party when their album Nevermind was released. At a party celebrating the album’s release, the band arrived completely inebriated. Cobain and his bandmates caused such a ruckus that they even began a food fight and ended up getting kicked out of their own party. At least they were enjoying their freedom while it lasted.
Shortly after he finished recording Nevermind with the rest of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain went home and made a disturbing discovery. He had been evicted! He spent the next several weeks living in his car, even as the album became a hit beyond his wildest expectations. Cobain was finally getting the recognition he wanted—but as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
In the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you can see a dancing janitor. Nirvana deliberately did this as an inside joke at Cobain’s expense. When he lived with his ex-girlfriend, one of the many odd jobs that he’d taken to pay rent was the role of janitor. Well, considering how well the single and album were doing, his days of pushing brooms were definitely over.
The album Nevermind came out in September of 1991, and by the end of the year, it was selling 300,000 to 400,000 copies a week. It eventually sold over 7 million copies in the US and 30 million worldwide. Nirvana were, nearly instantly, the hottest rock band in the world. Everyone wanted a piece of them. Well…maybe not everyone.
Kurt Cobain always had an uneasy time with Nirvana's fame. After the band got big, Cobain offered to play at the International Pop Underground festival in Olympia, but was turned down by the event coordinators. Cobain was hurt by their rejection and felt alienated from a scene he’d once really cared about. Things had changed overnight for Nirvana—but in other ways, Cobain and his bandmates had stayed exactly the same.
One trait that Nirvana had was destroying their equipment at the end of their live performances—and it began like before the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. According to Krist Novoselic, he and Cobain had started doing that out of frustration with a previous drummer, Chad Channing. Channing would often get songs wrong. Later, Novoselic and Kurt Cobain would continue the schtick “in order to get off stage sooner”.
That's one way to do it—but it often got them in trouble.
Nirvana’s tour had been booked before they became a breakout success—which often meant that venues weren’t prepared for the fans, or for Nirvana themselves. At one show, Cobain leaped into the crowd, only to be pulled back by an overenthusiastic bouncer. Cobain hit him with his guitar, sending the bouncer to the hospital. But then he came back for revenge.
The bouncer rushed back to the venue afterward and tried to attack Cobain, even punching out the window of the car he was in. The band narrowly escaped—but incidents like this didn’t stop them from causing trouble.
In early 1992, Nirvana made their first appearance on Saturday Night Live—and managed to squeeze a scandal into the closing credits of the show. Bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl began making out while they were standing around on the stage, only to be joined in their kissing session by Kurt Cobain.
After the initial broadcast, SNL producer Lorne Michaels cut the footage of the kissing out of every re-broadcast. Safe to say, the 90s were a really different time.
In 1992, Nirvana was set to perform at a big stadium in Buenos Aires, but they were infuriated when they saw their opening act, an all-girl band named Calamity Jane, pelted with mud and bottles from the disrespectful audience. Cobain was all for leaving without playing, but bassist Krist Novoselic had a better idea: They took to the stage and teased the audiences with opening riffs of their popular work...before switching to all their least-known songs.
The audience was predictably outraged, but Cobain later reflected on that concert as “one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had”.
By the end of 1991, Cobain and Courtney Love were spending every waking moment together. Then, on February 24, 1992, the pair tied the knot in Hawaii. The bride wore a dress once owned by notorious star Frances Farmer and the groom wore pajamas. Despite some warnings, from friends, Cobain and Love were devoted to each. After all, they had so much in common…namely, music and substance misuse.
Nirvana’s overnight star status led to wildly entertaining and destructive shows and some seriously funny TV antics. But behind the scenes, Cobain was hiding a dark secret—and it was about to come out. Within a day of the band’s infamous SNL performance, Cobain overdosed after injecting himself with smack. It was something he’d been using regularly for a long time—but now that he had the financial means to do whatever he wanted, it was beginning to get out of control.
Kurt Cobain had a lot more on his plate than just his problem with addiction. Around the same time, the couple found out that Courtney was pregnant—and had been for a while. This meant that she’d probably inadvertently used while pregnant. The two made a vow to each other: to kick the habit for the sake of their baby. Sadly, this wouldn’t be an easy task.
Cobain kept his substance misuse a closely-guarded secret from fans—many of whom were young and idolized him. Those close to him, however, knew the truth, and both the addiction and his relationship with Love began to ruffle feathers in the band. For Grohl, the most frustrating part was this Cobain’s addiction got in the way of the music.
They’d go months without touring or recording—and all he could do was hope the Cobain would eventually get it together.
As a songwriter, Cobain began to push for a more significant share of the profits from Nirvana’s songs. Novoselic believed this was Love’s influence. The animosity went both ways. When she tied the knot with Cobain, Love disinvited Novoselic’s wife from the wedding, which meant that he was absent that day too.
In 1992, just before Love was due to give birth, Vanity Fair ran a profile of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love by author Lynn Hirschberg. In the article, Hirschberg wrote about the couple’s experience with pregnancy, and allegedly misquoted Love on the subject of her drug use before she was pregnant. The consequences were devastating.
As a result of the article, the couple became the target of both tabloid attention and the Los Angeles Department of Children's Services, who took the Cobains to court. The investigation was brutal—and it took a huge psychological toll on Cobain and Love.
On August 18, 1992, Love and Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean was born. Though the occasion was a happy one, their familial bliss didn’t last for long. Despite the fact that Frances had been born perfectly healthy, the scrutiny on the couple was relentless—and then their worst nightmare happened. The authorities temporarily took her from their custody, and they weren’t allowed to be alone with her.
Cobain and Love fought for their daughter, and the courts eventually granted them full custody—but the damage was done. Cobain had always been weary of fame and popularity, and the incident had meant that all his worst fears were right. But it was too late for him to really do anything about it—the train had left the station.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, it was all too easy for Cobain to return to old habits to cope with it all.
After the release of Nevermind and the EP Hormoaning, their label, DGC Records, was approached by Sub Pop, Nirvana’s former record label, with a proposition. They had a number of unreleased Nirvana recordings that they wanted to release. The original plan had been to release it under Sub Pop. The band was so in demand that everyone connected to them was desperate for any material—and the ever-cynical Cobain had the perfect comeback.
In response to Sub Pop’s attempt to profit off them, Cobain sarcastically suggested that the album title should be Cash Cow. Ultimately, these unreleased recordings were sold by Sub Pop to DGC for a new album to be released in December 1992. This became the compilation album Incesticide. Still, the pressure was on for another album—and Kurt’s plan for the name said it all.
Kurt Cobain’s original title for Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero was I Hate Myself and I Want to Die. At the time, Cobain had used this phrase as a sarcastic response to anyone asking him how he was doing. Cobain also wanted to use the phrase as a title to work against Nirvana’s fans “taking this band so seriously”. Ultimately, bassist Krist Novoselic convinced him to shelve that title, fearing the band might be sued over a title like that.
They took the phrase “In Utero” from a poem that Courtney Love had written. The response to the album was about as polarizing as their relationship.
Kurt Cobain was a supporter of social equality. He had no tolerance for homophobia, and in an interview, he emphatically stated that if someone was racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, they could refrain from buying his albums or attending his concerts because he didn’t want their money or anything to do with them.
Cobain may not have been able to enjoy his success—but he did attempt to use the attention for good.
Cobain’s plan to get clean during his wife’s pregnancy had, at some point, derailed. But by mid-1993, things had taken an even darker turn. One night after a party, Love found Cobain shaking and delirious. The authorities came and an ambulance took him to the hospital. Within a month, they were back after a domestic incident between the couple after they’d gotten into an argument over the subject of guns.
The story made its way out to the press, but Cobain and Love denied everything. Soon, they wouldn’t be able to hide it anymore.
The band’s grueling tour schedule put them in Europe in early 1994. Love flew to join Cobain about a month into the tour. That’s when things started to go terribly wrong. On her first morning there, she woke up to find Cobain in a coma. He’d overdosed again—but this time, he was holding a suicide note in his hand.
Paramedics rushed Cobain to the hospital, where he made a full recovery. But the story had made its way to the press—and one outlet even ran a story claiming Cobain hadn’t made it. It was a chilling omen for what was to come. Love had to call friends and family stateside, including Kurt’s mother, to tell them he was still alive.
The band immediately canceled the tour and returned home, but Cobain was spiraling wildly out of control. There were other incidents that resulted in calls to the authorities, but Cobain kept claiming he wasn’t suicidal. Finally, Love and Cobain’s bandmates staged an intervention and presented him with ultimatums.
They worked about as well his mother’s threats had when Kurt was a teenager and he’d gone homeless instead of getting a job.
Cobain wasn’t the only one struggling. When he rejected the efforts at an intervention, Courtney Love left him in Seattle to fly to Los Angeles and check herself into rehab. He spent a few days by himself before he finally agreed to try it as well. Cobain checked into a facility in Los Angeles on March 30, 1994. For a moment in time, his loved one felt a glimmer of hope—but sadly, it didn’t last long.
Just six days after entering the detox program, Cobain hopped the fence at the facility and took off. He booked a flight back home to Seattle. Coincidentally, he ended up sitting next to Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses on the plane. Though there had long been bad blood between the two bands, the musicians chatted.
Kagan later revealed that he felt like something was off with the Nirvana frontman. He didn’t know how right he was.
On April 1, Cobain called Love at the rehab facility and told her: “Just remember, no matter what, I love you”. It was the last time that they ever spoke. People spotted Cobain around Seattle through the next few days, but Love still worried. She hired a private investigator to track Kurt down. Someone filed a missing persons report, which alerted the press about the issue.
Soon, Kurt’s face was on every TV screen—but he was nowhere to be found.
While Love’s private investigator had searched the couple’s home, there was one area—the room above the garage—that he’d neglected to check. As a result, an electrician who was there to install a security system was the first one to notice something amiss about the room. At first, he thought what he saw in there was a mannequin.
When the electrician entered the room in Cobain and Love’s home, he made a chilling discovery. Cobain’s body was in there, alongside some drug paraphernalia, a shotgun, and a note. He’d taken his own life. He was just 27 years old. The electrician called for help—but the way it came was bizarre.
When the electrician radioed his office to tell them what he’d found, someone there not only called the authorities—but also, a local radio station. They called the authorities as well and began to announce what they knew: That someone had found a body at Cobain’s home. From there, the Associated Press picked up the story. Sadly, it all backfired horribly.
Cobain’s sister Kim ended up calling the station and begging them for news about her brother. They instantly regretted what they’d done.
Soon after, someone informed Courtney Love about what had happened, and she and Frances Bean returned to their home in Seattle. On April 10, 1994, roughly five days after it happened, a public vigil was held in Cobain’s honor at a park in Seattle Center. Nearly 7,000 people attended, and Courtney Love read Cobain's note to the crowd.
For many years, Cobain had done his best to hide his substance misuse issues from his fans—many of whom were young and idolized him. He often publicly denied having used. But now, the truth was out, and the effects were devastating. A brief wave of copycat suicides followed in the wake of Cobain’s passing. Cobain may not have thought about what kind of aftermath it would all have—but he did take one last chance to tell his fans how he felt.
In the note, addressed to his fans, Cobain reference one of Neil Young’s lyrics, writing: "Thank you all from the pit of my burning, nauseous stomach for your letters of concern over the past years. I don't have the passion anymore and so remember, it's better to burn out than fade away”. The phrase "It's better to burn out than to fade away" comes from the Young song "My My, Hey Hey”.
As a child, Kurt Cobain had an imaginary friend Boddah, whom he described as the evil part of his psyche. It was to Boddah whom he addressed his note. Although many fans know about the famous note, many don't know that some investigators believe that the end of the note was doctored and it actually read differently.
It was only a very small part of the note—the last four lines that refer to his relationship with his family, specifically Courtney and their daughter Frances.
At Cobain's memorial, Courtney Love shared that part of his note with the crowd, which contained heartbreaking words for the love of his life and his daughter. In the very last lines of the letter, Cobain wrote, "Please keep going Courtney. For Frances. For her life which will be so much happier without me. I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU”.
Love was utterly devastated by Cobain's passing. When he took his own life, she had been in rehab—but after it happened, she took a major backslide. She withdrew from the public for months, and when she did go out she was erratic and violent. She held a series of macabre, chaotic shows where she even got in fist fights with the crowd.
Even worse, she once punched Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, at a show while wracked with grief. Love says she barely remembers this period of her life.
Nirvana didn’t try to replace Kurt Cobain with another frontman, breaking up in the aftermath of his passing. Bassist Krist Novoselic focused on becoming a political activist while Dave Grohl helped found the Foo Fighters. They also set up an organization with Cobain’s former partner Courtney Love to manage any products related to Nirvana—though this would lead to a lot of bickering and lawsuits.
One popular theory about what had driven Cobain to both drug use and to take his own life was his terrible chronic stomach pain. However, Buzz Osborne of the Melvins, who was close friends with Cobain, refuted Cobain's claims about suffering from chronic pain as a result of his stomach issues.
Osborne claimed that the stomach illness was simply an excuse that Cobain made to justify his substance use.
Due to the high-profile nature of the case and the rampant conspiracy theories perpetuated by fans, the Seattle authorities decided to revisit the case of Kurt Cobain’s passing in 2014. Detectives claimed an undeveloped roll of film with photographs of the scene that had sat in an evidence locker for years.
These photos provided a clearer image of Cobain’s final moments than the Polaroids that had been previously used.
Upon re-evaluation of the scene, the detective only confirmed the finding that Cobain had taken his own life, but they initially refused to release these new photos to the public, saying “What are people going to gain from seeing pictures [his body]?... How’s that going to benefit anybody”? However, they later made some of the photos publicly available.
This included one tragically showing the hospital bracelet he still had on his arm from the detox program that he had escaped from just days before his death.
Years after Cobain took his own life, his friend and former bandmate Dave Grohl revealed in an interview with BBC that he had always known that Cobain was going to die young, saying, "There are some people that you meet in life that you just know that they are not going to live to be a 100 years old... In some ways, you kind of prepare yourself emotionally for that to be a reality”.
However, aside from this sad resignation, he was still shocked when the tragic day finally came: "It 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, ‘OK, so I get to wake up today and have another day and he doesn’t'".
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