kurt-cobain-picHunched over an acoustic guitar, Kurt Cobain delivers a haunting rendition of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” into a microphone inches from his face. Cameras surround him but the performer never looks directly at them or the audience. Instead, his gaze is always directed at some distant horizon. 

The song was one of six performed during the band’s “MTV Unplugged” set in November of 1993. The captivating performance would be one of the rock icon’s last. Just a few months later, he committed suicide.

With his death, Cobain followed the tragic path of rock stars who die young. But Cobain’s fame will also endure because of his music, which represented a shift in rock music at the time. Fans were moving away from the makeup and costumes of glam metal in the 1980s, towards the subdued, angst-filled grunge that would come to define the 1990s. “His suicide made him into a martyr figure,” says Michael Azerrad, author of “Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana.” “But in the end it comes down to the quality of the music he and Nirvana made.  If it wasn’t great music, nobody would still care.”

Famously from a working class background in Washington, Cobain was always passionate about music. He grew up listening to rock and carried around the guitar he received for his fourteenth birthday, music being a constant during his tumultuous childhood, which consisted of stints at the homes of various relatives. Yet at one point, the anti-establishment, independent-spirited singer wanted to be a star. “On the one hand, he grew up idolizing bands like Kiss and Queen and Cheap Trick — musicians who actively courted and reveled in fame and fortune,” says Azerrad. “When he was a kid, Kurt dreamed of being a rock star.”

Eventually, he became one, but it took some time. After spending a few years touring tiny Washington venues, Nirvana, then consisting of Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and a rotating cast of drummers, released their debut album “Bleach” in 1989 on the indie label Sub Pop. The album had modest success, and the band sought a larger record label, settling at DGC Records shortly after finding Dave Grohl, who would become their permanent drummer. Once at DGC, Nirvana began work on the album that launched them into stardom.

But by then, Cobain’s views on stardom had been influenced by his early experiences with the underground bands in Washington, who helped shape his now well-known views on anything commercial or corporate, according to Azerrad. “After that, Kurt was very ambivalent about being a multi-platinum celebrity,” he said.

In 1991, Cobain became a major celebrity with the release of Nirvana’s sophomore album  “Nevermind.” It rose in the Billboard charts, eventually replacing Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” as number one, and to date has sold over 30 million copies. Azerrad credits a combination of the music itself, good timing and relatable themes for the popularity of the band.

“Nirvana’s music not only rocked and had great melodies, but it also tapped into a lot of music that had come before, and made it palatable to the masses,” he said. “Also, Kurt expressed in powerfully poetic terms what it’s like to be a kid growing up in America.”

Beyond the music, Azerrad offers an additional explanation for Cobain’s own rise to fame. “People were drawn to Kurt because they could relate to him.  He wasn’t some big-haired spandex dude from L.A., he was someone you easily could have known in high school,” Azerrad said. “He stood out even among other musicians of the time because he was simply more gifted than any of them.”

As the band’s popularity grew in the wake of “Nevermind” and their hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Cobain gained a reputation as a talented but troubled musician and songwriter. He quickly overshadowed his fellow bandmates and never truly accepted the fame that was thrust upon him. Even when on the cover of Rolling Stone in February of 1992, the accompanying article to which was written by Azerrad, Cobain wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “corporate magazines still suck.”

Nirvana’s third album, “In Utero,” premiered at number one on the Billboard chart in September 1993. In the time between the two albums’ releases, Nirvana embarked on international tours while Cobain carried on a very public, chaotic relationship with musician Courtney Love, including a wedding and the birth of their daughter in 1992.

Just a few months after “In Utero” debuted, Cobain was in front of MTV’s cameras, wearing a thick, oversized brown sweater with a curtain of blonde hair around his face. By now there was no escaping the celebrity. Nirvana was huge and his personal life, from his drug use to his rocky marriage, was splashed across the pages of magazines.

In March of 1994, Love and several of Cobain’s friends held an intervention because of his increasing drug use. Initially, it seemed as if their efforts had worked as Cobain entered a rehab facility in California. On April 1, two days after checking in, Cobain climbed over a six-foot wall and fled the center. The rock star was missing for six days.

On April 8, his body was found in a room above his Seattle home’s garage.

Yet even after Cobain had died, Nirvana fans wanted more music. That August, the band’s MTV Unplugged set was released as an album that has sold almost 25 million copies, becoming one of the highest selling posthumous albums of all time.

With his death, Cobain remains fixed in time, at the peak of his career. “Kurt himself was fixated on the idea that it was better to burn out than to fade away, and his continuing fame perhaps confirms this,” says Joe Guse, a psychologist who wrote “Forever 27: A Psychological Profile of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, & Jimi Hendrix.” “The energy Kurt put into his music at that time couldn’t have survived decades of repetition.”

There are still active Nirvana fans today. Many of them convene at Nirvana Club, a fan website for the band that still receives thousands of visitors each day, and of various ages.

Nirvana lives on, but as individual performers. In December of 2012, the band reunited for the first time since Cobain’s death for a Hurricane Sandy relief concert and again for a performance on “Saturday Night Live.  Drummer Grohl, now the singer and lead guitarist of Foo Fighters, bassist Novoselic and guitarist Pat Smear, needed a singer to take Cobain’s place. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney joined them onstage.

However, the song they performed had never been heard before. For the occasion, rather than singing a Cobain-penned Nirvana song, the group wrote a new song, “Cut Me Some Slack.” Not even a Beatle makes a suitable fill-in for Kurt Cobain.