NIRVANA | It’s an interesting word. Merriam-Webster describes it as a noun (n); a place or state of oblivion to care, pain, or external reality. Luckily for us, it’s also the name of one of the greatest rock bands that ever existed. This band is responsible for turning pop culture on its head and catapulting alternative rock into the mainstream. They also brought a new genre into public consciousness.
This band was part of a music scene in Seattle called grunge, It’s a genre that originated from punk rock and heavy metal. As the legend goes, the music was created for people who had been overlooked, condescended, looked down and spat upon. The music spoke to them… those outsiders on the fringe of society.
At the heart of it all was Nirvana founder, singer | songwriter and lead guitarist, Kurt Cobain. The Aberdeen, Washington native has consistently been described as the voice of his generation, a sonic genius and an American icon.
To know how Kurt Cobain became the king of cool, we need to circle back to his humble beginnings. He was born on February 20, 1967 as Kurt Donald Cobain. He was the son of waitress, Wendy Elizabeth and auto mechanic, Donald Leland Cobain. As the legend goes, Kurt’s family had a musical background, so it came as no surprise that he had talent from the beginning. Talent that would bloom before their eyes.
Sadly, Cobain’s infamous journals reflected the lack of support from his parents and a less than ideal upbringing. Cobain was a gifted visual artist and even in his youth, he demonstrated extraordinary talents. He started off with innocent drawings or symbolic macabre paintings that closely connected to his troubled home life. This creativity would show up on the band’s album artwork. He also used that early imagery in their music videos.
Cobain earned praise and support from his teachers, but not at home. He vented about his parents’ failing marriage (complete with illustrations) in his journals. He also listed his favorite bands and his own ambitions to become famous and successful with a rock band.
Throughout his life he was plagued by depression, mental health issues and chronic stomach ailments. These elements caused him so much pain and darkness. The downward spiral took a longer path than most, but he gravitated to the darker side of his thoughts. He was a troubled artist, his demons never left his side. This eventually escalated to rampant, uncontrollable heroin use.
In those early days, before the trio had their name, the myth is that Cobain was always looking for the right fit for a band name. He wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans. Before becoming Nirvana, the band was known as Skid Row, Fecal Matter and Ted Ed Fred. These names ended up being nothing more than a post-script fact about the band.
By the early ‘90s, the shrill cathartic pleas and intimate confessions characteristic of Nirvana were a positive alternative to the stock rock bravado permeating the radio airwaves and a new visual medium. The evolution of society was complete by virtue of platforms like MTV and VH-1 that took root in the early 80s. There is some literal truth to the saying that video killed the radio star.
The messy feedback, impenetrable rhythms, trashed power chords, and snarled yelps were trademark features of the Nirvana sound. The earnest songwriting channeled Cobain’s angst and alienation of the time and still resonates with audiences today. Cobain didn’t want himself or the band to be pigeonholed and put in a box. He strove to defy easy categorizations. Despite other bands in the Seattle area having similar visions, it was Cobain who pushed the envelope and launched the genre.
For all their serious intent, the band liked to show their sense of humor, fun and spontaneity. Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, offered witty repertoire or a quick quip in interviews. They had an undeniable camaraderie and chemistry as a trio.
Circling back to 1987, Cobain formed a band with Aberdeen high school friend Krist Novoselic. They had many drummers, including Dale Clover from The Melvins (who Cobain was good friends with and a super fan of). But they brought on another guy to anchor the band…. Virginia-born drummer Dave Grohl. he joined the band in 1990 and became an integral part of the band; he stayed on until the very end.
Pre-Grohl History | The band began their surreal journey when they released their first album, Bleach, in 1989. It was recorded for $606 on Sub Pop Records, and produced by Jack Endino.
The album included songs like “About A Girl,” “Negative Creep,” “School,” “Floyd The Barber,” and “Love Buzz.” It would go on to be Sub Pop’s best-selling album. Bleach is described as rough-around-the-edges, but it introduced us all to the world of alternative rock.
The music gods smiled upon the guys in 1991. That’s when the floodgates broke. They signed with DGC Records and released their second album, Nevermind.
The album changed the landscape of music as we know it. It featured iconic songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It would go on to sell 30 million copies worldwide. The video is equally iconic as the band plays in auditorium with a throng of head-banging teenagers and “bad girl” cheerleaders.
Nirvana was now uber-popular and they became the face of alternative music. They changed the world of music forever.
The album was co-produced by Butch Vig (of Garbage). Nervermind became one of the best-selling albums of all time. Consequently, Cobain was being called the “spokesman of a generation.”
Considered one of the most famous album covers in popular music, Nevermind features a naked baby with a U.S. dollar on a fishhook just out of his reach.
The album has a dynamic mix of electric power chords, wild energy, and sonic nuance. It featured durable melodic strictures and a sing-along hard-rock sound. The album was a monster and turned the band into a juggernaut of the music industry.
Songs like “On a Plain,” “In Bloom,” “Lithium,” “Come As You Are,” and “Territorial Pissings” go from being subtle to a more dense, noisy rock sound. Whereas “Something In The Way” is enhanced with acoustic guitar and cello work which gives it an ethereal and dreamlike feel. While “Breed” and “Stay Away” are more punk-rocked frenzied tracks.
Following the success of Nevermind and extensive touring, Nirvana released the compilation INSECTICIDE and the EP, HORMOANMING.
Insecticide is considered a broad and rougher range of sounds, styles, and interests. Highlights include a cover of a Devo B side “Turnaround,” “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun” by The Vaselines. There are ragged early sessions of material including “Downer,” new wave-ish “Polly,” a disturbing song about rape “Dive,” and “Sliver.” Hormoaning includes cover songs recorded during a BBC Radio Peel session, plus two of the band’s own songs: “Aneurysm” and “Even In His Youth.”
Despite his demons, Cobain remained a determined person with a strong work ethic, completely dedicated to his craft and vision with Nirvana. Yet he did grow wary of the media toward the last few years of his life, particularly with the intrusions regarding his controversial relationship with wife and musician, Courtney Love.
For Cobain, lady luck was definitely still in his corner. Along with all the accolades and successes of the band, his biggest moment was about to take place. On August 18, 1992 wife Courtney gave birth to their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. It was a monumental moment in both their lives.
Truth is, not all was glitter and gold for Cobain and Love. Their was speculation and scandal surrounding Frances Bean’s birth. The duo’s past drug use, specifically heroine, surrounded that controversy…. but that’s another story for another day. For Kurt, his legacy was secure, not by his music, but by a bloodline that would forever be etched in stone.
Love was no shrinking violet. She was an infamous lightening rod for attention. She was definitely Kurt’s partner in crime so-to-speak. She had a budding acting career and fronted the band “Hole” at the time.
Hole was legit, the band set her on a path of stardom separate from being Kurt’s wife. Hole had a string of hits that was impressive. Love’s acting career eventually took off. She would later gravitate more towards that later in life. The relationship between Love and Cobain was tumultuous at best. There are stories that remain shrouded in secrecy and lore.
Despite the immediate high of Frances Bean’s birth, the writing was on the wall for those who knew Kurt best. Something just wasn’t quite right…. it was subtle, but the gradual decline into his own abyss was now on a cataclysmic path.
As insane as their life already was, it was about to go to the next level. Who knew the lyrics to Love’s Celebrity Skin would come to life, … “You better watch out, oh what you wish for…. it better be worth it… so much to die for!
In Utero was the band’s final studio album. It was produced by Steve Albini. The band wanted the album to be far different from the polished and refined production of Nevermind.
Cobain told Rolling Stone he wanted it to be raw on some songs and candy-pop on others. He emphasized it wouldn’t be as one dimensional as Nevermind. The song lyrics and album packaging used medical imagery that showed Cobain’s perspective on his over-publicized personal life and his band’s newfound fame. With tracks like, “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Dumb,” “All Apologies,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” “Serve The Servants,” and “Rape Me.”
In Utero showcases the band’s penchant for being brilliant, corrosive, engaged, and thoughtful.
By now, their music stood on its own, but their music videos took on another out of this world dimension of site and sound. Their music videos and daily play on MTV and VH-1 brought their sonic vision up to another level. It literally delivered their sound to Main Street USA.
Danny Goldberg, Cobain’s former manager, wrote “Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain.” Goldberg felt Cobain was in the top tier of musicians alongside Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles.
Nirvana had an appetite for pop and loved The Beatles, and their music blended that sensibility with plenty of catchy hooks. Cobain had a shrewd sense of himself as an artist, and he wanted to make music on his own terms. He did willingly court the media for the band, but never pandered or compromised his principles to get it. He did most of the interviews and never repeated himself in any way when he spoke to journalists.
Cobain also knew how to connect and resonate with audiences. According to Goldberg, he smartly reinvented Nirvana 24/7. He also believed in standing up for something without being boring, and to entertain without being shallow. Cobain stood up for artists outside the mainstream, like RuPaul, and used his fame as a platform to address important issues.
In 1992, the band held a “No on #9” concert in Portland, OR, which was against discrimination explicitly directed at the LGBTQ community. On the liner notes of Insecticide, Cobain wrote “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
He was definitely against toxic-male misogyny and archetypical stereotypes in rock music, and Nirvana gave a fresh and original kick in the hair band and pop asses of the ‘80s.
I never wanted to sing. I just wanted to play rhythm guitar… hide in the back and just play.
The following year, Nirvana gave a thoughtful and riveting performance on the MTV Unplugged in New York. During the acoustic-driven MTV performance, the band played lesser-known Nirvana material and covers like by David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold The World” and Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Other stand out songs included “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam” and “All Apologies.”
The stage for the performance was to be decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. Ominously, the producer of the show asked Cobain, ”You want it like a funeral?” Cobain replied, “Exactly. Like a funeral.” This unforgettable performance creates an epitaph of immortality.
The band gave their final concert on March 1, 1994 at Terminal Einz airplane hangar in Germany. Tragically, Cobain was found dead in his home on April 8, 1994 of a self-inflicted gun shot.
In took some time for the Cobain family to be able to talk about Kurt’s death. Grohl and Novelseic were also devastated. It took them some time as well to get their feet back on the ground. Fans were equally distraught over the loss of their sonic hero.
As for their music, MTV Unplugged In New York won a GRAMMY Award for Best Alternative Music Performance and included in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
After the dissolution of Nirvana, it took time but Krist Novoselic move don and experimented with politics and founded the alternative rock band, Giants In The Trees.
Whereas, Grohl started a band. As legend has it, Dave loves to read; he was very interest in the UFO phenomenon. Consequently, it made sense for him to name his band Foo Fighters. A term used by Allied fighter pilots to describe UFO’s during world War 2. Foo Fighters would go on to be one of the most commercially successful bands on the planet and one of biggest names in the world of music; yeah… Grohl did good.
Eventually our post Nirvana life moved on. A lawsuit later developed between Grohl / Novocelic vs Love. The case was eventually settled in October of 2002. The next month, the best-of Nirvana compilation was released. It featured the iconic photo of the trio and a previously unreleased track “You Know You’re Right.”
This was the last song the band recorded before Cobain’s death. Needless to say their legions of fans embraced this final song.
Just because we let something go, it doesn’t always mean it’s over. For the family, band mates and fans, Kurt was never far from their hearts, minds or souls. In 2014 their collective energies received some long awaited news. That year the band received the ultimate recognition and reverence for their work. The world got the news that Nirvana would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
At the ceremony, they were inducted by REM lead singer, and friend/musical collaborator, Michael Stipe.
In 2015, “Montage Of Heck,” a documentary about Kurt Cobain, was released. Produced by Brett Morgen, it was the first documentary about Cobain to be made with the cooperation of his family: widow Courtney Love, daughter Frances Bean Cobain (co-producer), and Wendy O’Connor, Kurt’s mother.
Morgen was given access to the entirety of Cobain’s personal and family archives. Interviews included Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Cobain’s father Donald, and Cobain’s first girlfriend Tracy Marander, who supported Cobain’s dreams pre-Nirvana fame. The documentary received criticism for fixating on Cobain’s mental health and drug use, rather than his music.
In the end, Nirvana accomplished so much in their short tenure as a musical force, and their impact continues to influence bands, artists, and fans years after its inception. Their music evolved and became the blueprint other bands and artists began to follow. Nirvana would go on to sell more than 75 million records worldwide.
Their music continues to touch the hearts and souls of their fans. That’s a legitimacy that money can’t buy, and perhaps that’s Cobain’s legacy.
The key to immortality is living a life worth remembering, after all…. it can be argued that sunbeams are made out of Nirvana.