Authors: Chris Salewicz
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Chris SalewiczÂ has been writing about music and pop culture for over 30 years. He was at the
in the late 1970s and early 1980s and has written forÂ
The Sunday Times
Â magazine. His critically acclaimed books include
Bob Marley: The Untold Story
Mick and Keith: Parallel Lines
Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
âNow he's gone and joined that stupid club: I told him not to join that stupid club.'
And so Wendy O'Connor, the mother of Kurt Cobain, reacted to the news of her son's self-inflicted death on 8 April 1994.
By âstupid club', O'Connor meant the phenomenon of musical stars who had passed away â as had her son â at the age of twenty-seven, as though they were unable to cross that bridge into full adulthood that lies ahead of all of us in our late twenties. Other members of Wendy O'Connor's âclub' included the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, the Doors' Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix â like Kurt Cobain, another left-handed guitar player from America's Pacific North-West, who also revolutionized the music scene while fronting a power-trio.
Kurt Cobain was not the first male member of his family to kill himself. So matter of course was suicide on both sides of his family that, as a young teenager, Kurt would joke of having âsuicide genes'.
When the future Nirvana singer was twelve years old, Burle Cobain, his great-uncle, brother to Kurt's grandfather Leland, took a pistol and shot himself, first in the stomach and then in the head, finally killing himself. A year previously, ignoring medical advice that he would face death if he did not give up alcohol, Ernest Cobain, Leland and Burle's brother, had fallen on the stairs in his house while drunk, dying from a brain aneurysm â some form of subconscious suicide, perhaps. (âAneurysm' would become the title of a 1991 Nirvana song, the B-side of âSmells Like Teen Spirit'; however, there seems little link to Ernest Cobain's tragic fate â Charles R. Cross, Cobain's biographer, asserts that Kurt wrote the lyrics to âAneurysm' about his ex-girlfriend, musician Tobi Vail.)
On his mother Wendy's side, Kurt's great-grandfather had stabbed himself in front of the entire family. Admitted to a mental hospital, he finally killed himself two months later by tearing apart his healing wounds.
It must have seemed almost an everyday occurrence, when, as an early teenager, Kurt and a pair of friends found the hanging body of a boy who had killed himself. So, you are inclined to muse, was Kurt's end inevitable?
Surviving members of families in which suicide has occurred are frequently haunted by the fear that it runs in the family, that one day they too might take their own lives. Mental health problems run in many families, and it is worth recalling that the third single off
was âLithium', a song that took the name of the drug that allegedly âtreated' manic-depressive â bi-polar, as it became termed â behaviour. This was an affliction from which Kurt certainly suffered, though it is not known whether he ever took lithium.
Yet tragedy in the family can act as a spur for other members. Was this the case with this highly sensitive and intelligent, innately artistic boy who would utterly change the course of 1990s music?
In 1991 Nirvana revealed themselves as the last Great American Rock Band, one which emerged seemingly from nowhere to sell over 30 million copies of
. Nirvana are as indelibly the sound of America's West Coast as the Beach Boys, but this is a different West Coast, marinaded in rain, mist and darkness. In the vanguard of what became known as the âgrunge' movement, the sludgy fusion of punk rock and heavy metal that emerged from the Pacific Northwest, Nirvana's seemingly sudden success overturned the American music business. Until then, âalternative' music had seemed marginal at best in its sales potential, but now it was evident that there was a critical mass of fans apparently waiting for just such an act to materialize. Nirvana shook the world with their music. Their explosive arrival opened the floodgates for acts previously marginalized as part of America's resolutely independent music scene. Several such bands became part of the most exciting movement since punk fifteen years previously, of which Nirvana were direct descendants. REM â already frontrunners â Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr., Rage Against the Machine, Screaming Trees, Jane's Addiction, and â for Kurt, the spiritual godfathers â Sonic Youth, now swept all before them.
Not only was Kurt Cobain the most successful musician of his generation, he was the rock 'n' roll god of his age: a rock star, a father, an anti-style icon, a junkie, a suicide. Yet his was also the story of what happens to a man when he gets what he wants.
Kurt took the universal pain of a child of divorce and expressed it (the parents of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl had also split up). His persistent feelings of utter isolation were so archetypal that he managed to truly connect with an enormous audience. Kurt seemed an almost professional loser, which was why he became such a huge star. Everyone identified with him and his struggle to be himself. Yet there was always an element of pose, and although Kurt Cobain seemed the personification of what would soon become known as Generation X âslacker' apathy, he was also a very good actor. He was largely content to go along with anything that could boost his success, perfectly prepared to sign with a major label, to ditch an inappropriate drummer, and to accept huge pay cheques for playing major festivals. Yet he was persistently conflicted over his role as a star, uncomfortable with the financial rewards it brought.
Nirvana were a punk act that drew on the spirit of the Sex Pistols'
Never Mind the Bollocks
, on the churning drive of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and on the melodic possibilities of the Beatles, with whose music Kurt had grown up. Many of his relatives loved the English group. âMy aunts would give me Beatles' records,' he told Jon Savage. âFor the most part it was just Beatles' records.' In fact, many of Kurt's influences were from the UK. Appropriately, at the end of 1991, when
was surging up the US charts, Nirvana were touring Britain and then Europe, largely unaware that their lives were about to be utterly transformed.
An anti-hero figurehead for his generation in his moth-holed thrift store woollen apparel, in January 1992 Kurt Cobain and Nirvana dislodged Michael Jackson's
album from its long stint at the top of the US album charts. As a cultural figure, Kurt represented a very specific moment when a unique sense of community â the global Nirvana community â emerged from popular culture. The early 1990s were a period of recession and war, both in the Gulf and the former Yugoslavia, and Kurt's hand-me-down garb was the antithesis of the designer-besotted late 1980s. His rebel music bespoke the soul of a difficult, dysfunctional individual, which was precisely the interior landscape of many of his fans.
As the Beatles had done with Liverpool, Bob Marley with Kingston, Jamaica, and Bruce Springsteen with New Jersey's Asbury Park, Nirvana put Seattle on the musical map. Seattle, which has a population of three million, has a long-standing liberal, progressive outlook, and is an affluent city. But it does not enjoy an easy climate: central to the sound of Nirvana is the mildly depressive, laconic feel of the American Pacific North-West, where rain clouds ceaselessly tumble inland from over the vast ocean and sit over the blustery city.
It was only later that it became known that Nirvana were not actually from Seattle at all. The biggest city in Washington state happened to be the one to which Kurt Cobain and bass player Krist Novoselic had eventually relocated from the logging town of Aberdeen, three hours drive to the south west. This is where they had grown up, a town with an 18,000 population that has an average rainfall of almost 100 inches. Grays Harbor County, in which the town is located, has one of the highest suicide rates in the United States. Later, Alice Wheeler, Kurt's photographer friend, would visit Kurt in Aberdeen. âIt would always be raining,' she said. âYou'd always witness some kind of domestic violence.'
Kurt Cobain had been born on 20 February 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington. (On that day Jimi Hendrix was in the studio in London, making one of his first recordings.) His father, Donald Cobain, was a 21-year-old car mechanic, and his mother, pretty Wendy Fradenburg, whom he had married when she became pregnant almost as soon as she graduated from high school, was only 18. Three years later, Kurt's sister Kim was born. From the age of two, Kurt showed an interest in music. This was hardly surprising, as everyone on his mother's side of the family played one musical instrument or another. Wendy's sister Mari was a guitar-playing country musician who had actually made a record. When he was five Kurt was learning to play the drums. By the time he was seven, Mari would play him Beatles and Monkees records, and was attempting to teach her nephew the guitar.
Already it was evident that the boy was a talented artist, a gift he was encouraged to explore and express. Birthday and Christmas presents would often be gifts of new pencils or paints. For a long time he wanted to complete his education at art school. âThe plan for my life, ever since I can remember, was to be a commercial artist,' he said.
âMy mother gave me a lot of support in being artistic. She was really complimentary of my drawings and paintings. So I was always building up to that. By the time I was in ninth grade, I was taking three commercial art classes and I was going to art school and my art teacher would enter my paintings and stuff for contests. I wasn't interested in that at all, really. It wasn't what I wanted to do. I knew that I wasn't as good as everyone else thought I was in that townÂ â¦ I'm a better artist than probably everyone else in that school, but that doesn't say anything if you compare it to a larger city. I knew my limitations. I really enjoy art, I like to paint still. I've always felt the same about writing as well. I know I'm not educated enough to really write something that I would like to read.'
Kurt was one of those kids who finds security in burying himself in books. âI went to the library a lot, and I skipped school a lot, especially during high school, and the only place to go during the day was the library. But I didn't know what to read, it was just whatever I found. During grade school I would read S.E. Hinton books [the most famous is
]. I really enjoyed those. I read a lot in class too, when I went to school. Just to stay away from people so I didn't have to talk to them. A lot of times I'd even just pretend to read, to stay away from people.'
As he grew older, Kurt had a group of very loyal, supportive friends in Aberdeen who held him in high regard, respecting the image of the consummate artist that he exuded. His semi-abstract paintings were strikingly interesting, sometimes fascinating, and he wrote witty, often extremely dark but very distinctive poetry, diligently logged away in sets of journals. (Later, seeking lyrics, he would often purloin them from his collection of poetry, noting those contrasting occasions when he wrote a set of lyrics specifically for the song in question.)
Kurt's entire life was overshadowed by the trauma of his parents' divorce, when he was eight. âI had a really good childhood until my parents divorced,' Kurt said in 1993. âI was ashamed of my parents. I couldn't face some of my friends at school. I desperately wanted to have a typical family. I wanted that security. All of a sudden my whole world changed and I became anti-social. I also started to understand the reality of my surroundings. Which didn't have a lot to offer.'
âHe changed completely,' Wendy, his mother, told Michael Azerrad, remembering the divorce. âI think he was ashamed. And he became very inward â he just held everything. He became real shy. He became real sullen, kind of mad and always frowning and ridiculing.'
Ignoring the friends and family members who appreciated his evident talent, Kurt began to believe he was increasingly friendless, an outsider. By the time he was coming into his teens, Kurt said, âI started to realize that I was more interested in drawing and listening to music, more so than the other kids. It just slowly grew on me and I started to realize that. So that by the time I was twelve I was fully withdrawn.'
Diagnosed as hyper-active, and allegedly suffering from attention deficit disorder â which, in Kurt's case, probably only meant a restlessly inquisitive mind â he was prescribed Ritalin. This amphetamine-like drug would prevent him sleeping at night, and consequently, he was also put on downers. Eventually, sugar and red dye no. 2 were removed from his diet, and Kurt was taken off the pharmaceuticals.
When Bev Cobain, Kurt's cousin, a registered nurse with a background in mental health, was later asked if Kurt had mental health problems other than general depression, her reply was illuminating: âKurt was diagnosed at a young age with attention deficit disorder [ADD], then later with bipolar disorder [also known as manic depression]. Bipolar illness has the same characteristics as major clinical depression, but with mood swings, which present as rage, euphoria, high energy, irritability, distractibility, overconfidence, and other symptoms. As Kurt undoubtedly knew, bipolar illness can be very difficult to manage, and the correct diagnosis is crucial. Unfortunately for Kurt, compliance with the appropriate treatment is also a critical factor.'
âKurt was an unstable person even before he got into the music business,' said his aunt Mary. âThere was a song he wrote when he was 17, called “Sea Suicide”.'
Unable to coexist with his mother's new boyfriend, who reportedly was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, Kurt went to live with his father, Don. Don had given up his job of car mechanic and become a logger, moving into a prefabricated home in tiny Montesano, a town with a population of under 4,000, twenty miles from Aberdeen. Soon he and Kurt moved into a proper house in Montesano. Also living with them were Don's new wife and her two children, an arrangement that caused Kurt further unhappiness. Hunting in the local forests was part of everyday life in Montesano, but when his father took him on a hunting expedition, Kurt refused to climb down from the truck to take part. âNow that I look back on it,' Kurt remembered, âI know I had the sense that killing animals is wrong, especially for sport. I didn't understand that at the time. I just knew that I didn't want to be there.'