On April 8, 1994 the body of rock star Kurt Cobain was discovered in a room above the garage of
his oceanside mansion in Seattle. He had shot himself with a 20-gauge shotgun, leaving behind a suicide note that, misquoting a Neil Young lyric, proclaimed it better to “burn out than fade away”. If you are old enough to remember the dim and distant spring of 25 years ago you will no doubt recall exactly where, and in whose company, you were when you heard the news.
Cobain’s final days and weeks have been exhaustively dissected and documented in the intervening two-and-a-half decades. There have been conspiracy theories. The tawdry Nick Broomfield documentary Kurt and Courtney, for
instance, explored claims Cobain was bumped off by a contract killer. And a convenient villain has emerged, with Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, scapegoated as a bad influence on the fragile singer.
“Courtney and Kurt are the 90s, much more talented version of Sid and Nancy,” an anonymous record label executive had told Vanity Fair’s Lynn Hirschberg in 1992, a reference to Sid
Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, whom
Vicious stabbed to death.
“[Courtney’s] going to be famous and [Kurt] already is, but unless something happens, they’re going to self-destruct. I know they’re both going to be big stars. I just don’t want to be a part of it.”
His suicide at age 27 certainly didn’t drop from the clear blue sky. As has been chronicled at length, Cobain struggled with fame. His unease in the spotlight was exacerbated by an on/off heroin addiction.
“He was a walking time bomb, and nobody could do anything about it,” Nirvana’s manager, Danny Goldberg told Rolling Stone shortly after his death.
The most ominous
foreshadowing of Cobain’s tragic end occurred in March 1994. Having cut short Nirvana’s European tour (due to conclude at the RDS in Dublin) Cobain, strung out on heroin withdrawal, flew to Rome. There he overdosed on champagne and Rohypnol. His wife was sleeping beside him; their infant daughter, Frances, was with the nanny in an
Love woke at around 5.30am to find Cobain on the floor. She couldn’t rouse him. Rushed to hospital, he slipped into a temporary coma as doctors pumped his stomach. His record label claimed Cobain, self-medicating for back pain,
accidentally overdosed. It is now generally accepted that he had made an attempt on his life.
Back in America, Cobain continued to spiral. On March 18, Love called police to their home in Seattle, saying her husband had locked himself in a room and was threatening suicide.
The following week, after an intervention by Love and his Nirvana bandmates, Cobain went to Los Angeles and checked into the exclusive rehab clinic The Exodus. He stayed two days before absconding by climbing a six-foot wall. Soon he was back in Seattle, the centre of a desperate manhunt by friends and family.
“Kurt hadn’t called me,” Cobain’s fellow Seattle musician Mark Lanegan would tell Rolling Stone. “He hadn’t called some other people. He hadn’t called his family. He hadn’t called anybody.” Lanegan added that he had been “looking for [Kurt] for about a week before he was found. . . . I had a feeling that
something real bad had happened.”
Six days later, an electrical contractor called to
Cobain and Love’s home at Lake Washington Boulevard to install a security camera. In a living area over the garage he found Cobain. He had barricaded himself into the room by propping a stool against the door. A shot gun lay across his chest. He had been dead for some time.
Twenty five years on,
Cobain and Nirvana are hugely influential but not necessarily in the way we might have expected. Rock stars, it’s true, have been dying young since the dawn of popular music. And they would continue to do so after Cobain — see Amy Winehouse or, just this year, Prodigy’s Keith Flint.
But Cobain’s death felt different — seismic. And as time passes, its shadow grows lengthier. Nobody would claim, for example, that the tragic passing of Amy Winehouse in 2011 has impacted on millennials as Cobain did on Gen Xers before them. By 2011 music simply didn’t count for all that much.
And yet, from another perspective, Cobain and his band have never been less relevant. In 1994 rock was at the centre of youth culture. In 2019 it is unthinkable that a mere band could have the impact Nirvana had with their 1991 single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and the
accompanying album Nevermind. Music is no longer the primary means by which the young express themselves. It has long ceased to be a conduit for
Not that this has diminished the aura around Nirvana. Partly that’s because the singer’s significance extended far beyond rock ’n roll. In fashion, particularly, Cobain’s impact was huge, argue Cobain biographer Charles R Cross in Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain.
Cobain wasn’t a stylised rock star. His frizzy haircut came from not having enough money for shampoo (he washed his hair with soap instead). Those rips in his jeans weren’t an affectation — when Nirvana had started, he simply couldn’t afford new pants. Nothing about the way he presented himself was contrived.
Perhaps that is why fashion took him to its heart so instantly.
“Of all the aspects of Kurt Cobain’s legacy, Kurt himself would be most surprised by his impact on fashion,” writes Cross. “We know that to be true because by 1992, two years before his death, Kurt was already a fashion icon, and he expressed amazement to friends that a style of dress he had adopted out of practicality had become the stuff of runway shows.
“It surprised Kurt, but then everything the year after Nevermind was head-shaking. Many rock stars have an impact on fashion, but Kurt’s influence has truly been a bizarre
outgrowth of his fame, and one that will last.”
Cobain’s progressive politics were also striking. In the early 90s a rock star might vocalise their opposition to world hunger or nuclear war. Yet few went as far as Nirvana’s leader in identifying as a feminist and warning homophobes to steer clear of their concerts.
“If any of you, in any way, hate homosexuals, people of different colour, or women, please do this one favour for us — leave us ... alone,” he wrote in the liner-notes to the 1992 b-side compilation ‘Insecticide’. “Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
Decades before #MeToo he also took a stand against rock’s objectification of women.
“Although I listened to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, and I really did enjoy some of the melodies they’d written, it took me so many years to realise that a lot of it had to do with sexism,” he would say. “The way that they just wrote about their dicks and having sex. “
Nirvana weren’t the first band to
explicitly reject machismo. The Smiths had previously done so — and far more theatrically. But the Smiths weren’t playing arenas or sitting astride the American album charts.
Cobain’s advanced thinking on gender and race has, it is true, been eclipsed by the tragedy of his suicide. It would be an overstatement to say that he helped shape present day progressive politics. But perhaps, in a little way, he did.
There’s an Irish component to his story too. The classic Nirvana line-up of Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl toured for the first time in Ireland, with gigs in August 1991 at the Top Hat in Dun Laoghaire and Sir Henry’s in Cork (supporting Sonic Youth).
Cobain, who had distant Irish roots, was particularly affected by his time in Cork. He spent the afternoon of the concert mooching around the city and seemed to have had an emotional moment.
“The entire day I walked around in a daze,” he would reminisce. “ I never felt more spiritual in my life. I was almost in tears, it was the weirdest thing. “
And it was to Ireland that Dave Grohl fled after Cobain took his life.
He wanted to get away from the music industry, from the media, from the memories of what happened. He later recalled driving down a boreen in deepest Kerry and coming upon a hitchhiker.
Grohl stopped to roll down the window — and then noted the kid was wearing a Nirvana t-shirt. He was in the process of learning that, no matter where he went or what he did, he could never escape Nirvana. He will no doubt be reminded all over again of what happened in 1994 when he brings his band Foo Fighters to Dublin this summer. The band play the RDS — the venue where Nirvana were due to close that doomed final tour.
“You have to understand for me, Nirvana is more than it is for you,” Grohl told me in 2011.
“It was a really personal experience. I was a kid. Our lives were lifted and then turned upside down. And then our hearts were broken when Kurt died.
“The whole thing is much more personal than the logo or the t-shirt or the iconic image.”