Nirvana

 Nirvana

 Kurt Cobain – circa 1993

“Here we are now / Entertain us / I feel stupid / And contagious” – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (Kurt Cobain / Dave Grohl / Krist Novoselic)

It is what he wants most – and it is what he least wants to happen.  It is January 1992 and ‘Nevermind’, the second album by grunge rock band Nirvana, is at the top of the sales charts.  To say that Kurt Cobain, the leader of this U.S. group, feels conflicted is an understatement.  In a way, the triumph of this album vindicates the ‘quietly ambitious’ trio.  Yet, equally, Kurt Cobain ‘struggles to reconcile the massive success of Nirvana to his underground [music] roots.’  It is the push-and-pull between these two forces that both defines and dooms Nirvana.

Kurt Donald Cobain (20 February 1967 – 5 April 1994) is born at Grays Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington, U.S.A.  Aberdeen is a small logging town one hundred miles southwest of Washington’s capital city, Seattle.  The general population of Aberdeen is described as ‘macho rednecks.’

Kurt’s father, Don Cobain, is an automobile mechanic.  Kurt’s mother, Wendy Cobain (nee Fradenburg), is a waitress.  Kurt is their first child.  Their second, a daughter named Kimberley, is born 24 April 1970.

Two markers of Kurt Cobain’s future are present in his family background.  Three members of his family had careers in music:  His great-uncle Delbert was an Irish tenor who appeared in the film ‘King of Jazz’ (1930); his aunt Mari Earle played guitar and performed with local bands in Grays Harbor County; and his maternal uncle, Chuck Fradenburg, was in a band called The Beachcombers.  Less positively, the Cobain family has a history of alcoholism, mental illness and suicide with two uncles having used guns to take their own lives.

Kurt Cobain’s own childhood is also rather divided.  Described as ‘happy…excitable…sensitive and caring’, the boy displays early promise as an artist, sings at age 2, and by the time he is 4 is playing piano and writing very simple songs.  “My aunts would give me Beatles records,” Kurt reminisces.  Speaking of the British hit-makers of the 1960s, he continues, “For the most part [I listened to] The Beatles [as a child] and, if I was lucky, I’d be able to buy a single.”  On the other hand, young Kurt is diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, suffers from chronic bronchitis, and ‘an undiagnosed chronic stomach condition.’  Although the latter goes mysteriously unrecognised and without real medical treatment, it appears to be a condition similar to either Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome.  It Is certainly serious and leaves Kurt rather pale and frail.  As an adult, he claims that, due to his stomach problems, “I wanted to kill myself everyday.”

Things become considerably worse when Kurt Cobain is 8 years old and his parents divorce.  “I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason,” Kurt later recalls.  “I was ashamed of my parents.  I couldn’t face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family.  Mother, father.  I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.”

Don Cobain remarries.  His second wife, Jenny Westeby, comes with two children, Mindy and James, from a previous relationship.  Don and Jenny have a new son, Chad, born in January 1979.  Although at first Kurt likes his stepmother, he comes to resent her.  Things are no better with his mother, Wendy, who has a new man in her life.  This partner is prone to domestic abuse, leaving her with a broken arm on one occasion.

Kurt Cobain becomes ‘defiant and withdrawn’, ‘insolent towards adults’ and begins ‘bullying another boy at school.’  A therapist recommends a single family environment for him, so Wendy grants full custody of Kurt to his father on 28 June 1979.  The rebellious youngster quickly proves too much for his father.  Kurt is sent off to live with the family of his friend, Jesse Reed.  They are born-again Christians and, for a time, Kurt adopts the family’s devout practices.  He soon tires of this and renounces Christianity.

Kurt Cobain lives at the home of ‘various relatives.’  For his 14th birthday in 1981, Kurt’s uncle offers him either a bicycle or a used guitar.  Kurt chooses the guitar.  He develops an interest in heavy metal acts like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Sammy Hagar.  This leads him to punk rock of both the British (Sex Pistols, Clash) and American (The Stooges, Black Flag) varieties.  Washington and the general Pacific northwest area is home to a latter day punk scene and Kurt Cobain fastens his attention on local acts, particularly The Melvins.

While attending Aberdeen High, Kurt Cobain meets fellow student Krist Novoselic in 1985.  Krist Novoselic (born 16 May 1965) was originally from Compton, California.  Compared to Kurt Cobain, he comes from ‘a relatively stable background.’  At high school, Krist meets Shelli Dilley, a girl who will become important later in his life.  Although Kurt and Krist meet at high school, according to Kurt, ‘they never connected’ at that time.

Kurt Cobain winds up living with his mother again.  Two weeks shy of graduation, he realises he is not going to pass.  Kurt drops out of high school.  His mother gives him an ultimatum: get a job or get out of her house.  Perhaps not taking her seriously, Kurt is surprised to come home one day and find his belongings packed up.  He stays with friends and, occasionally, sneaks back into his mother’s basement.  In a bit of legend building, Kurt Cobain later claims that, during this period, he lived under a bridge.  Krist Novoselic refutes this: “He hung out there, but you couldn’t live on those muddy banks [of the Wishkah River], with the tides coming up or down.  That was his own revisionism.”

In late 1986 Kurt Cobain moves into an apartment.  He gets a job at a Polynesian coastal resort twenty miles north of Aberdeen.  It’s not a very well paid or dependable form of employment.  Cobain often travels to Olympia, Washington, to attend rock concerts.  One of his favourite bands, The Melvins, are based in Olympia.  While visiting this city, Kurt Cobain forms his first serious relationship.  Tracy Marander often supports both of them on her wages from working in the cafeteria at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  Kurt Cobain and Tracy Marander get into arguments due to financial stress and Kurt’s patchy efforts at working.

Part of the reason for Kurt Cobain’s indifferent attitude to employment is his ambition to have his own band.  With The Melvins’ Dale Crover, Kurt has a project called Fecal Matter.  They make a demo tape of songs.  Melvins’ leader Buzz Osborne suggests Kurt get to know another youth who is hanging around The Melvins’ rehearsals.  This is Krist Novoselic.  Kurt remembers Krist and is keen to form a band with him.  Krist is less enthusiastic.  Kurt gives him a copy of the Fecal Matter demo tape.  After putting it off for some time, Krist Novoselic finally listens to the songs and is surprised to find he likes what he hears.  He contacts Kurt Cobain and the wheels are set in motion.

With Kurt Cobain on drums, Krist Novoselic on guitar and a ‘rotating cast of guitarists and vocalists’, The Stiff Woodies are formed.  While everybody else in the area is into hard rock bands like AC/DC, The Stiff Woodies play cover versions of songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival, a country rock outfit popular around the turn of the 1970s.  When the bass player of The Stiff Woodies cuts his finger off in a logging accident, the group disbands.

In winter 1987 Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic try again.  This time they play original material with Kurt on vocals and guitar and Krist on bass.  “I never wanted to sing,” Kurt claims.  “I just wanted to play rhythm guitar – hide in the back and just play.”  That’s not the way things work out though.  Aaron Burckhard is added as drummer in 1987.  This trio goes through a few names as they play local gigs, trying to work their way to Seattle.  Starting as Skid Row, they become Pen Cap Chew, then Bliss, and then Ted Ed Fred.  Eventually, they settle on the name Nirvana.  This is the designation of the Buddhist conception of heaven, a place of perfect balance and harmony.  “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name,” Cobain explains.

Nirvana find it difficult to keep a regular drummer.  Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic lose touch with Aaron Burckhard, so Dale Crover of The Melvins sits in on drums as Nirvana cut their first demo in January 1988.  Crover is moving to San Francisco so he recommends Dave Foster as a replacement.  Foster lasts ‘only a few months’, winding up with a short prison sentence.  Aaron Burckhard returns but doesn’t last long after he begs off practicing, confessing to Cobain he feels too hungover.  An ad in Seattle music newspaper ‘The Rocket’ draws Chad Channing who debuts as Nirvana’s drummer in May 1988.

Kurt Cobain’s relationship with Tracy Marander ends in 1988.  In the same year, he moves on to Tobi Vail.  She publishes a home-made punk fanzine and plays in her own band, Bikini Kill.

The demo Nirvana recorded in January 1988 comes to the attention of record producer Jack Endino.  A ‘patron saint’ of the Seattle rock scene, Endino brings their work to Jonathon Poneman who signs Nirvana to his independent company, Sub-Pop.  One of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands, Soundgarden, is on Sub-Pop, so this is ‘a dream come true.’

Nirvana release their first single in November 1988.  ‘Love Buzz’ is a cover version of a song originally recorded by Dutch rock group Shocking Blue in 1969.  Nirvana’s take on the song doesn’t chart.

Nirvana’s debut album, ‘Bleach’ (1989) (US no. 89, UK no. 33, AUS no. 34), is released in June.  It is produced by Jack Endino.  The highlight of the album is ‘About A Girl’, a song whose chords and structure testify to Kurt Cobain’s early interest in The Beatles.  The song is said to have been inspired by his ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander.  “I can see you every night / For free,” Kurt sings, perhaps in reference to their financial woes.  He also sings, “You hate me I can tell.”  The recording of the album costs six hundred and six dollars and seventeen cents.  This money is put up by Jason Everman.  Although he doesn’t play on the album, Everman joins Nirvana as second guitarist on the tour supporting ‘Bleach’.  He is credited as second guitarist on the album to recognise his contribution.  Jason Everman’s stint with Nirvana is very brief.  He is gone by the end of 1989 and later works with Seattle band Soundgarden.

In December 1989 Nirvana issues the EP ‘Blew’, produced by Steve Fisk.  Although it doesn’t chart, the disc is home to the spin-cycle guitar work of ‘Been A Son’.  “She shoulda died when she was born,” Kurt Cobain snarls, later adding, “She shoulda…been a son.”

In December 1989 Krist Novoselic marries Shelli Dilley, whom he has known since high school.

On 12 January 1990 Kurt Cobain meets Courtney Love for the first time.  She is the leader of her own band, Hole.  They meet at the Satyricon nightclub in Portland, Oregon.  Kurt’s relationship with Tobi Vail is, by this time, winding down, if not fully over.  “I was determined to be a bachelor for a few months,” he recalls.  So, although Courtney Love makes ‘advances’ towards him, Kurt Cobain is ‘evasive’.  “I knew that I liked Courtney so much right away that it was a really hard struggle to stay away from her,” he admits.

Things are not good with Nirvana drummer Chad Channing.  Frustration brews both for Channing and his bandmates and he opts out of the group.  Dan Peters, from Seattle group Mudhoney, plays drums on the session for Nirvana’s single ‘Sliver’ (UK no. 90), released in July 1990.  The anguish of childhood is sharply recalled in this portrait of the past.  Left with his grandparents for an evening, “I kicked and screamed,” claims Kurt Cobain’s narrator.  After howling through the song, Kurt concludes, “After dinner I had ice cream / I fell asleep and watched TV / I woke up in my mother’s arms.”  Jack Endino produces this single.

Dale Crover from The Melvins plays drums with Nirvana during a west coast U.S.A. tour in August 1990.  Buzz Osborne from The Melvins, who brought Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic together, again comes to the rescue by introducing them in September 1990 to the person who will become their regular drummer.  Dave Grohl (born 14 January 1969) is originally from Warren, Ohio.  He is available since the band with whom he was playing, Scream – a pack of hardcore punks from Washington, D.C. – have split up.  “We knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer,” declares Novoselic.  The final piece falls into place.

The music of Nirvana is usually labelled ‘grunge’.  This is a style that ‘eschews high-gloss…production in favour of fuzzed-up guitars and loud/soft dynamics.’  Grunge originates in the Pacific northwest States of the U.S.A.  The term ‘grunge’ is said to have been first used by Mark Arm, the leader of Mudhoney (the group whose drummer, Dan Peters, played on Nirvana’s single ‘Sliver’).  Nirvana may not be the first grunge act, but they become the most famous.  While rap and dance music has been dominant for some time, grunge swings the pendulum of popular music back towards rock.  Grunge fuses aspects of both heavy metal and alternative rock.  The loud chainsaw guitars and raucous sound are familiar to heavy metal fans.  Alternative rock is a label applied to what has been known since the early 1980s as college rock or indie rock.  These are bands that refuse to conform to the mainstream, but believe they can maintain their integrity by aiming at educated and loyal fans rather than a widespread audience.  This attitude can be confining but, by co-opting the noise of heavy metal, grunge effectively doubles the fanbase of alternative rock.

The ‘loud/soft dynamics’ is an important part of grunge in general and Nirvana in particular.  Typically, a Nirvana song will have soft verses and a loud chorus.  This allows them to demonstrate both intelligence and sensitivity (soft – alternative rock) and bludgeoning power (loud – heavy metal) in the space of a single song.  “I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies,” admits Kurt Cobain, referring to the U.S. alternative rock act of the late 1980s who howled through their weirdness.  “We used their sense of dynamics being soft and quiet then loud and hard.”

Grunge also adopts a kind of anti-fashion.  Flannelette lumberjack shirts, jeans with holes in the knees, ragged sweaters and long, unkempt hair all become badges of identification.

Elements of Kurt Cobain’s mental health problems also colour his work.  It’s a sad testimony that, by the 1990s, depression and anxiety are rife.  Kurt Cobain embodies these characteristics for fans struggling with alienation and angst, making him the ‘spokesman of a generation.’  As an adult, Kurt Cobain is diagnosed with a bipolar mental disorder.

As vocalist, left-handed guitarist, and songwriter, Kurt Cobain is largely responsible for the direction of Nirvana.  Talking about relations within the band, he notes, “I ask their opinions about things.  But ultimately, it’s my decision.”  He has little patience for explaining his songwriting.  “When I write a song the lyrics are the least important subject.  I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all.”  The loud/soft dynamic fits well with his own bipolar problems:  “I’m such a nihilistic jerk half the time and other times I’m so vulnerable and sincere […the songs are] like a mixture of both of them.”  Cobain acknowledges his lyrics are, “a big pile of contradictions.”

By the end of 1990 Kurt Cobain has a heroin addiction.  He first tried the drug in 1986.  However it is not until this time that he is “determined to get a habit.”  The stomach ailment that plagues him is some motivation for his drug use.  “It started with three days in a row of doing heroin and I don’t have a stomach pain.  That was such a relief,” he says.  Yet in characteristic contradiction, Cobain is also quoted as warning that, “Drugs are bad for you.  They will f*** you up.”

Nirvana looks for a way out of their contact with Sub-Pop.  Why would they do this when it was ‘a dream come true’ to be on the label?  Sub-Pop ‘did not promote ‘Bleach’ as much as other releases’ and ‘Cobain was upset by the label’s lack of promotion and distribution for the album.’  It is also possible that ambition has something to do with the disenchantment in the Nirvana camp.  Sub-Pop are doubtlessly ‘cool’ and appeal to the band’s rebellious indie side, but ‘punk and grunge were very small words for the pop in Kurt’s head.’  On the recommendation of Kim Gordon from alternative rockers Sonic Youth, DGC Records signs Nirvana in 1990.  DGC is a subsidiary of Geffen Records, the label belonging to David Geffen, the man who started Asylum in the 1970s, the home of country rock acts like The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.  A major label is needed to have the resources to buy out Nirvana’s contract with Sub-Pop.

DGC’s investment in Nirvana quickly pays off with ‘Nevermind’ (1991) (US no. 1, UK no. 5, AUS no. 1), released in September.  The album is produced by Butch Vig (later to become a member of Garbage).  The cover shows ‘a baby being lured to swim by the almighty dollar’, which may represent Nirvana’s own ambivalence about the move to DGC.  The infant in the picture is Spencer Eldon and his family make two hundred dollars for his participation.  Kurt Cobain got the idea for the picture after watching a documentary on underwater births.  The album opens with Nirvana’s best song, the group composition ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (US no. 6, UK no. 7, AUS no. 5).  Originally, the plan was to divide the disc into a ‘boy’ side, about Kurt’s childhood and early life, and a ‘girl’ side about his break-up with Tobi Vail.  ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ seems to belong to the latter group.  Tobi’s friend, Alice Wheeler, once spray-painted on Kurt’s apartment wall ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit.’  Kurt seems unaware that ‘Teen Spirit’ is an actual brand of deodorant, one that Tobi wore, and so – due to their contact – Kurt smelled like Tobi’s deodorant.  In any case, the graffiti is the source of this song’s title.  This is the classic example of Nirvana’s ‘loud/soft dynamic’, but the guitar riff is undeniably catchy in any case.  In his half-mangled vocals, Cobain sings, “A mulatto / An albino / A mosquito / My libido.”  Of course there is no connection between someone of mixed black and white ancestry; a pale individual with pink eyes; an annoying insect; and Kurt’s sex drive…aside from all of them ending with the letter ‘o’.  Lyrics from this track also give the album its title: “I found it hard / It’s hard to find / Oh well, whatever / Nevermind.”  When ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘a blistering four-chord rocker’, becomes a hit single, Cobain grumbles, “Once it got into the mainstream it was over.”  ‘In Bloom’ (UK no. 28, AUS no. 73) derives its title from the lines, “Nature is a whore / Bruises on the fruit / Tender age in bloom.”  However, the chorus runs, “He’s the one / Who likes all our pretty songs / And he likes to sing along / And he likes to shoot his gun / But he knows not what it means.”  The searing grind of the chorus gives way to a burbling bass and stepping drum pattern in the verses.  ‘Come As You Are’ (US no. 32, UK no. 9, AUS no. 25) boasts a rubbery guitar figure and a shaggy riff.  Kurt Cobain bids, “Come / As you are / As you were / As I want you to be / As a friend / As a friend / As an old enemy.”  Disturbingly, the image of firearms crops up again: “And I swear that I don’t have a gun.”  In an interview, Cobain admits, “I like guns.  I just enjoy shooting them.”  The troubled ‘Lithium’ (US no. 64, UK no. 11, AUS no. 54) is named for the medication used to treat bipolar disorder.  “Sunday morning / Is every day / For all I care / And I’m not scared / Now my candles / In a daze / ‘Cos I found God.”  Allegedly, this song is about the singer’s teenage experience of living with the born-again Christian family, the Reeds.  “Sometimes you find God [while] sitting in a hotel room reading a book,” Kurt Cobain tells an interviewer.  “It’s just an attitude, I guess.  Nobody knows what happens to you when you die.”  ‘Something In The Way’ is the song that refers to Kurt’s (apparently exaggerated) tale of living under a bridge as a youth.  ‘Breed’ showcases a balance between ‘restraint and assault’ and ‘Polly’ is inspired by the story of a sexually assaulted girl.  ‘Nevermind’ is ‘a smash hit’ and the definitive Nirvana album.

The success is unexpected and proves difficult for Kurt Cobain to accept.  “It was so fast and explosive, I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he mourns.  “If there was a Rock Star 101 course, I would have liked to take it.  It might have helped me.”  As it is, he feels like a sell-out, as though he has betrayed his indie roots by being commercially successful.  He complains that the sound on ‘Nevermind’ ‘had too much sheen.’

By the end of 1991 Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love are firmly a couple.  They ‘bond through drug use.’  Courtney Love soon finds she is pregnant with Kurt’s child.  The pair marries on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii on 24 February 1992.  Only ‘a nondenominational female Minister and a roadie’ are present for the ceremony.  Krist Novoselic and his wife, Shelli, avoid the proceedings because ‘they think Kurt is using heroin again, and that Courtney is a bad influence on him.’

A 1992 interview with the magazine ‘Vanity Fair’ reports that Courtney Love used heroin, not knowing she was pregnant.  She argues she was misquoted, but the damage is done.  When Kurt and Courtney’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, is born on 18 August 1992, the Los Angeles County Department of Child Services obtains a court order to remove the child from the couple on the basis that their drug usage makes them unfit parents.  Frances is placed with Courtney’s sister, Jamie.  After substantial legal wrangles, the parents obtain full custody ‘before Christmas 1992.’

All this drama delays Nirvana’s attempts to prepare a follow-up to ‘Nevermind’.  DGC, working with Sub-Pop, issues an ‘odds-and-ends’ compilation of ‘B sides and rarities’ as ‘Insecticide’ (1992) (US no. 39, UK no. 14, AUS no. 22) in December.

In February 1993 Nirvana begin recording sessions for their third full-length album of new material.  It has a difficult gestation.  Steve Albini is selected as producer.  Having worked with The Pixies, arguably the originators of Nirvana’s ‘loud/soft dynamic’, he has credibility amongst the alternative rock community.  Working at an isolated studio in Minnesota, the sessions are completed in a mere two weeks.  However, there are reports that DGC considers the album ‘unreleasable’ and Scott Litt, noted for his association with the more commercially successful indie act R.E.M., is brought in to remix some tracks.  Sensitive to criticism about their credibility, Nirvana take out ads in the press to confirm that changes to the album are not being imposed on them by DGC, but are at their own request.

In the background to all this, Kurt Cobain’s mental health grows increasingly precarious.  He suffers a heroin overdose on 2 May 1993, but this is hidden from the media.  Two months later in July there is another covered-up heroin overdose.  In this instance, Courtney Love injects him with Narcan to rouse Kurt from unconsciousness.

‘In Utero’ (1993) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2), literally ‘in the womb’, is released in September.  In the bruised and brooding ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 21), Kurt Cobain murmurs, “She eyes me like a Pisces / When I’m weak / I’ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks.”  From the strange “I wish I could eat your cancer / When you turn black” of this song, he breaks into ‘the sharp sudden shout’ of “Hey! / Wait! / I’ve got a real complaint.”  ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ is named for a herbal abortive – though it’s not reputed to be very effective for that purpose.  Over a strumming guitar and nail-driving drums, Cobain offers the invitation, “Sit and drink pennyroyal tea / Distill the life that’s inside of me.”  This track still leaves the author dissatisfied.  “’Pennyroyal Tea’ – that was not recorded right,” Cobain claims.  “I know that’s a strong song, a hit single.”  With this album, Cobain feels he has worn out the ‘soft/loud dynamic.’  So a song like ‘Dumb’ offers a softer approach with a cello for counterpoint: “I think I’m dumb / Maybe just happy.”  The thin and straining ‘All Apologies’ (US no. 46, UK no. 52, AUS no. 58) is similarly hushed.  When this is released as a single, the flipside is the controversial ‘Rape Me’, a song of ‘inner pain’.  This album is also home to the ‘white noise ruckus’ of ‘Serve The Servants’ and ‘Scentless Apprentice’.  ‘In Utero’ is a ‘more raw and rage-filled record than its predecessor.’

When Nirvana tours the United States in October 1993 they are augmented by an additional guitarist, Pat Smear, formerly of The Germs.  Additionally, their sets close with a bracket of five acoustic songs on which they are joined by a female cellist.  On 18 November 1993 Nirvana deliver an acoustic performance at Sony Studios in New York for broadcast on the program ‘MTV Unplugged’ aired on the cable television music channel.  The stage is festooned with garlands of flowers.  This performance is light on their own hits, including instead a number of cover versions.  There is a serpentine rendition of David Bowie’s 1970 song ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and a hollow and haunting take on ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’.  Also known as ‘Black Girl’ and ‘In the Pines’, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ is most identified with Leadbelly, who cut half a dozen versions of it from 1944 to 1948 but it is actually a traditional folk song that dates back to the 1870s.  Cris and Kurt Kirkwood of indie punks The Meat Puppets join in for some covers of their songs.  Guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston are also present for this broadcast.

On 30 January 1994 Nirvana enter Robert Lang Studios in Northern Seattle.  This is meant to be the start of their next album.  With Adam Kasper acting as producer they commit ‘You Know You’re Right’ to posterity.  An almost country chuckling sound commences the song, but it soon gives way to the trio’s characteristic dry surge.  “Things have never been so swell / And I have never been so well,” Kurt Cobain sings with what can only be assumed to be ironic intent.  Nothing else is recorded beyond this song.  Around the same time Cobain says in an interview, “It’s impossible for me to look into the future and say I’m going to be able to play Nirvana songs in ten years.”  He also warns, “I have this chronic stomach pain.  I may die on tour.”

Nirvana undertakes a European tour early in 1994.  A show in Munich, Germany, on 1 March 1994 is fated to be their last.  Kurt Cobain is joined in Rome, Italy, by his wife, Courtney Love, and their daughter, Frances.  On 4 March Cobain attempts suicide with an overdose of the tranquiliser Rohypnol mixed with champagne.  He is in a coma for twenty hours.  The rest of the tour is cancelled and the whole band and entourage return to the U.S.A.

On 18 March 1994 the police are summoned by Courtney Love to the home she shares with Kurt Cobain in Seattle.  She claims her husband is locked away and threatening suicide.  After investigation, the police write it off as a false alarm.

On 25 March 1994 ten of Kurt Cobain’s friends – including Courtney Love and the rest of Nirvana – stage an intervention and convince him to begin a detox program.  On 30 March he checks into the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles.  His wife and child visit him there.  On 1 April Cobain escapes and returns to Seattle.  Still in Los Angeles, Courtney Love refuses to accept his phone calls.

On 8 April 1994 Gary Smith arrives at Kurt Cobain’s Lake Washington home to install a security system.  He finds the singer’s dead body.  Kurt Cobain has used a shotgun to end his own life.  A suicide note written in red ink is found stuck in a mound of dirt tipped out of a pot plant.  In this note he tells his wife he loves her and urges, “Please keep going Courtney for Frances for her life will be so much happier without me.”  The coroner finds a high concentration of heroin and traces of diazepam in the body and concludes that Kurt Cobain died on 5 April 1994.  He was 27.

In August 1994 DGC announces that a double album, ‘Verse Chorus Verse’, will be released consisting of one disc of live material recorded through various shows of Nirvana’s career and one disc of the ‘MTV Unplugged’ show.  As it turns out, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl find it too painful wading through the archives and ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) is issued as a single disc in November.

An electric live album, ‘From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah’ (1996) (US no. 1, UK no. 4, AUS no. 1), follows two years later.  ‘You Know You’re Right’ (US no. 45) surfaces on the greatest hits set, ‘Nirvana’ (2002) (US no. 3, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1).  ‘Live At Reading’ (2009) (US no. 37, UK no. 32) is a recording of Nirvana’s 1992 performance at England’s Reading Festival.

Krist Novoselic and Shelli Dilley divorce late in 1999.  He marries his second wife, artist Darbury Stenderu, in early 2004.

Dave Grohl founds a new band, The Foo Fighters, in 1995.  Pat Smear, Nirvana’s auxiliary guitarist, is involved in The Foo Fighters, though he is not present for all their albums.  Dave Grohl marries Jordyn Blum on 2 August 2003.  They have two daughters, Violet (born 15 August 2006) and Harper (born 17 April 2009).

Following the death of Kurt Cobain, ‘the phrase “grunge” drops from the vernacular [of music journalists] almost overnight…as if [it is] too painful to bear.’

The story of Nirvana is the tale of an underground band that conquered the world of music.  In doing so, they achieved more than anyone could have imagined.  Yet their commercial success confounded their leader, Kurt Cobain, who struggled with his own distrust of all that was now in his reach.  “We’re just a bar band.  That’s all we are,” he asserted.  There were other factors (depression, illness, drug use) that led to Kurt Cobain’s death, but his own ambivalence about Nirvana’s fame would not have helped his mental state.  “It’s easy to remember him being sad,” says Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, “but the things that I like to think about are his happiness…He really, really loved creating music.”  Nirvana ‘fought their stardom while courting it, becoming some of the most notorious anti-rock stars in history.’  ‘…Kurt Cobain was the embodiment of grunge’s antagonistic attitude towards the mainstream.’

Sources:

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  7. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine – Kurt Cobain interview conducted by David Fricke (27 January 1994) (reproduced on rollingstone.com)
  8. whosdatedwho.com as at 25 September 2013
  9. ‘Nirvana’ – Sleeve notes by David Fricke (Geffen Records, 2002) p. 6, 8, 9, 10, 11
  10. lyricsfreak.com as at 23 September 2013
  11. webmd.com/bipolar-disorder as at 27 September 2013
  12. ‘Melody Maker’ (U.K. rock music newspaper) – Kurt Cobain interview conducted by Ann Scanlon (14 September 1991) (reproduced on nirvanaclub.com)
  13. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 38, 71

Song lyrics copyright The End of Music / EMI–Virgin Songs, Inc. (BMI) with the exception of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (The End of Music, M.J. – Twelve Music, and Murky Slough Music (all EMI-Virgin Songs, Inc. (all BMI)))

Last revised 19 November 2013

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