Behind the life of one of punk-rock’s most reluctant superstars

By Stephanie M. Kim

Kurt Cobain never meant to become an icon. His rise to stardom was a fluke combination of the right timing and good music. When he was younger he made plans to be famous, to reach the top writing punk songs with pop hooks. But as his dreams of success began to manifest themselves, he started to change his mind. Before he knew it, his band became the biggest act of the 90’s, and he became known as “the voice of his generation.”

More than 15 years after his mysterious suicide, Cobain is still one of the most beloved and recognizable figures in popular culture. As the front man of the world’s first triple platinum punk-rock band, Nirvana, Cobain distinguished himself as a different type of public figure.

“He wasn’t a ‘celebrity’—people could relate to him,” author of “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” Michael Azerrad, said in an interview. “He had obviously gone through all the adolescent crises we all had gone through. That struck me the second I met him. He was a very special normal person.”

Growing up in the small town of Aberdeen, Wash., Cobain experienced feelings of alienation in high school until he discovered punk rock in 1984, Azerrad wrote.

Soon after Cobain’s discovery, he and high school friend, Chris Novoselic, formed the first incarnations of what would later become Nirvana. Songs written for their first gig at a house party in Raymond, Wash., were included on the band’s first album, “Bleach,” Charles R. Cross wrote in his biography, “Heavier than Heaven.”

“Bleach” was released in 1989 under the independent label Sub Pop Records, and gave Nirvana some exposure in Seattle’s signature punk-rock scene. But it was not until they signed a deal under media mogul, David Geffen’s, DGC Records in 1990 that Nirvana started heading towards worldwide acclaim.

“Becoming a punk-rocker fed into my low self esteem because it helped me realize that I don’t need to become a rock star—I don’t want to become a rock star,” Cobain told Azerrad in his book. Although Cobain said he did not want to be a rock star, he also told Azerrad that he still felt the need to succeed commercially and prove himself as a musician. Cobain’s desire to straddle the line between mainstream pop and punk- rock underground set the stage for his conflicting attitude towards fame.

Between late 1991 and early 1992, “Nirvanamania” struck the airwaves with the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the band’s first major label single. “It was just a time of frustration and lethargy—nothing much was happening in the lives of Gen Xers at that moment,” said author of “X Saves the World,” Jeff Gordinier. “[Teen Spirit] just seemed to tap into all the frustration out there. It seemed to have these really basic power chords that just worked upon the human brain.”

“Generation X” was suffering from cutbacks and hiring freezes as a result of the stock market crash of 1987. The term “slacker” became a cliché, and kids were filling coffee houses, trying to write screenplays. The music scene from the eighties had been filled with “disingenuous,” glossy pop songs by Michael Jackson, Color Me Badd and Mariah Carey. Gen Xers were hungry for music with more “rawness and authenticity,” Gordinier said.

Soon “Smells like Teen Spirit” was being hailed as the anthem for a lost generation and shot to No. 6 on the “Billboard Hot 100” chart. Eventually helping the band’s second album, “Nevermind,” dethrone Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” as the No. 1 album in the country. The band also gained unprecedented national exposure by becoming the first punk-rock band ever to headline “Saturday Night Live.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2001, Nirvana’s former drummer and current Foo Fighters front man, Dave Grohl, reflected on Cobain’s struggle with the band’s immense commercial success: “There was that punk-rock guilt. Kurt felt, in some way, guilty that he had done something that so many people had latched onto. The bigger the shows got, the farther we got from our ideal.” Unfortunately for Cobain, the guilt never subsided, as Nirvana shows only got bigger.

As his notoriety developed, so did Cobain’s romance with Courtney Love, the lead singer of the all-female grunge band, Hole. Love and Cobain both shared an affinity for heroin. “By New York it was clear it was Kurt who was on a self-destructive course, and that he had all the hallmarks of an active addict,” Cross wrote.

Despite their mutually destructive behavior, Cobain and Love were married in February of 1992. In the mist of his hit record and international tour, Cobain’s relationships with both drugs and Love only heightened his exposure to the media spotlight.

A turning point came in September of 1992, when an unflattering profile of Love in “Vanity Fair,” almost cost the couple custody of their daughter, Francis Bean Cobain.

“Towards the end of his life he was talking about walking away from it all,” Cross said of Cobain in an interview. By the time Nirvana released their third album, “In Utero,” in 1993, Cobain had become obsessed with images of birth, death and his own self-hatred. He had been suffering from depression, Azerrad said. He was also quoted by the press as repeating the expression, “I hate myself, and I want to die.”

On April 8, 1994, Cobain, 27, made his new mantra a reality. According to his New York Times obituary, the “hesitant poet of grudge rock” was found dead in his Seattle home from a self-inflicted shot to the head with a handgun.

In the eyes of the public Cobain’s gruesome death, shrouded in rumors of conspiracy, cemented the myth of his rock stardom instead of helping him escape from it.

Today, Googling the name “Kurt Cobain” results in over 3 million website hits. Type the same name in Facebook, and the first listing is a fan page with over 52,000 dedicated members who still sign on to commemorate their fallen hero.

“I live in the suburbs now and I still see 13-year-old kids wearing Kurt Cobain t-shirts,” Gordinier said. “He must mean something to them. I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling I know what it is—it’s the same reason I had a Ramones t-shirt when I was a kid.”