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Kurt Donald Cobain was best known as the lead
singer and guitarist of the grunge band Nirvana.
Cobain formed Nirvana with Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington, in
1985 and established it as part of the Seattle music scene, having its
debut album Bleach released on the independent record label Sub Pop in
1989. After signing with major label DGC Records, the band found
breakthrough success with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from its second
album Nevermind (1991). Following the success of Nevermind, Nirvana was
labeled "the flagship band" of Generation X, and Cobain hailed as "the
spokesman of a generation". Cobain however was often uncomfortable and
frustrated, believing his message and artistic vision to have been
misinterpreted by the public, with his personal issues often subject to
media attention. He challenged Nirvana's audience with its final studio
album In Utero (1993).
During the last years of his life, Cobain struggled with heroin
addiction, illness and depression, his fame and public image, as well as
the professional and lifelong personal pressures surrounding himself and
his wife, musician Courtney Love. On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found
dead at his home in Seattle, the victim of what was officially ruled a
suicide by a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. The circumstances
of his death have become a topic of public fascination and debate. Since
their debut, Nirvana, with Cobain as a songwriter, has sold over 25
million albums in the US alone, and over 50 million worldwide.
Dave Grohl stated that Cobain believed "Music comes first, lyrics come
second". Cobain focused, foremost, on the melodies of
his songs. Cobain complained when fans and rock journalists attempted to
decipher his singing and extract meaning from his lyrics, writing "Why
in the hell do journalists insist on coming up with a second-rate
Freudian evaluation of my lyrics, when 90 percent of the time they've
transcribed them incorrectly?" While Cobain would insist of the
subjectivity and unimportance of his lyrics, he was known to labor and
procrastinate in writing them, often changing the content and order of
lyrics during performances. Cobain would describe his lyrics himself as
"a big pile of contradictions. They're split down the middle between
very sincere opinions that I have and sarcastic opinions and feelings
that I have and sarcastic and hopeful, humorous rebuttals toward cliché
bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years."
Cobain originally wanted Nevermind to be divided into two sides: a "Boy"
side, for the songs written about the experiences of his early life and
childhood, and a "Girl" side, for the songs written about his
dysfunctional relationship with Tobi Vail. Charles R. Cross would write
"In the four months following their break-up, Kurt would write a half
dozen of his most memorable songs, all of them about Tobi Vail". Though
"Lithium" had been written before Cobain knew Vail, the lyrics of the
song were changed to reference her. Cobain would say in an interview
with Musician that "some of my very personal experiences, like breaking
up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death
void that the person in the song is feeling. Very lonely, sick." While
Cobain would regard In Utero "for the most part very impersonal", on the
album he dealt with the childhood divorce of his parents, his newfound
fame and the public image and perception of himself and Courtney Love on
"Serve the Servants", with his enamored relationship with Love conveyed
through lyrical themes of pregnancy and the female anatomy on
"Heart-Shaped Box". Cobain wrote "Rape Me" not only as an objective
discussion of rape, but a metaphorical protest against his treatment by
the media. He wrote about fame, drug addiction and abortion on
"Pennyroyal Tea", as well as women's rights and the life of Seattle-born
Frances Farmer on "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle".
Cobain was affected enough to write the song "Polly" from Nevermind,
after reading a newspaper story of an incident in 1987, where a young
girl was kidnapped after attending a punk rock show, then raped and
tortured with a blowtorch. She managed to escape after gaining the trust
of her captor through flirting with him. After seeing Nirvana perform,
Bob Dylan would cite "Polly" as the best of Nirvana's songs, and was
quoted as saying about Cobain, "the kid has heart". Patrick Süskind,
whose novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer inspired Cobain to write
the song "Scentless Apprentice" from In Utero. The book is an historical
horror novel about a perfumer's apprentice born with no body odor of his
own but with a highly developed sense of smell, and who attempts to
create the "ultimate perfume" by killing virginal women and taking their
Cobain immersed himself in artistic projects throughout his life, as
much so as he did in songwriting. The sentiments of his art work
followed the same subjects of his lyrics, often expressed through a dark
and macabre sense of humor. Noted was his fascination with physiology,
his own rare medical conditions, and the human anatomy. Often unable to
afford artistic resources, Cobain would improvise with materials,
painting on board games and album sleeves, and painting with an array of
substances, including his own bodily fluids. The artwork seen in his
Journals would later draw acclaim as being of a high artistic standard.
Many of Cobain's paintings, collages, and sculptures would appear in the
artwork of Nirvana's albums. His artistic concepts would feature notably
in Nirvana's music videos; the production and direction of which were
acrimonious due to the artistic perfectionism of his visions.
Cobain would contribute backing guitar for a spoken word recording of
beat poet William S. Burroughs' entitled "the "Priest" they called him".
Cobain regarded Burroughs as a hero. During Nirvana's European tour
Cobain kept a copy of Burroughs' Naked Lunch, purchased in a London
bookstall. Ana Finel-Honigman, in her introduction to an interview with
the artist Stella Vine on the Saatchi Gallery website, described Vine's
art as bitterly honest in the same way Cobain's songs were; "acid
outrage over adult lies and injustice", Holden Caulfield's observations
about "a world filled with phonies", and Sylvia Plath's poetry an
"over-heated anger and bitterness at the world's betrayals".
Cobain has been remembered as one of the most iconic rock musicians in
the history of alternative music. He was ranked by Rolling Stone as the
12th greatest guitarist and 45th greatest singer of all time, and by MTV
as 7th in the "22 Greatest Voices in Music". In 2006, he was placed at
number twenty by Hit Parader on their list of the "100 Greatest Metal
Singers of All Time". Reflecting on Cobain's death over ten years later,
MSNBC's Eric Olsen wrote, "In the intervening decade, Cobain, a small,
frail but handsome man in life, has become an abstract Generation X
icon, viewed by many as the 'last real rock star' a messiah and martyr
whose every utterance has been plundered and parsed".
In 2005, a sign was put up in Aberdeen, Washington, that read "Welcome
to Aberdeen – Come As You Are" as a tribute to Cobain. The sign was paid
for and created by the Kurt Cobain Memorial Committee, a non-profit
organization created in May 2004 to honour Cobain. The Committee planned
to create a Kurt Cobain Memorial Park and a youth center in Aberdeen.
Because Cobain was cremated and his remains scattered into the Wishkah
River in Washington, many Nirvana fans visit Viretta Park, near Cobain's
former Lake Washington home, to pay tribute. On the anniversary of his
death, fans gather in the park to celebrate his life and memory.
In 2006, Cobain took the place of Elvis Presley as the top-earning
deceased celebrity, after the sale of the Nirvana song catalogue.
Presley reclaimed the spot in 2007.
Controversy erupted in July 2009 when a monument to Cobain in Aberdeen
along the Wishkah River included the quote "...Drugs are bad for you.
They will fuck you up." The city ultimately decided to sandblast the
monument to replace the expletive with "f---", but fans immediately drew
the letters back in. The monument and bridge have become popular places
for fans to leave tributes.
Gus Van Sant loosely based his 2005 movie Last Days on the events in the
final days of Cobain's life. In January 2007, Courtney Love began to
shop the biography Heavier Than Heaven to various movie studios in
Hollywood to turn the book into an A-list feature film about Cobain and
Nirvana. The video game Guitar Hero 5 features Cobain as a playable
character. However, the inclusion of Cobain incensed surviving
bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl and wife Courtney Love,
expressing their dismay at the ability to use Cobain with any song.