Remembering Kurt Cobain As He Was and What He Became

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Featured image via Natalia Hidalgo Galvis

It only took Nirvana two months and $65,000 to record Nevermind. At the time, no one believed that the album would create much of an impact upon its release. The record company, DGC Records, had initially only pressed 46,251 copies of the album and couldn’t generate much interest for Nevermind’s single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from radio stations in the months leading up the release. DJ’s would tell DGC reps “We can’t play this. I can’t understand what the guy is saying.” The stations that did play the single slated it for late nights, deeming it “too aggressive” to be aired during the day. Nevermind didn’t even enter Billboard’s Top 200 two weeks later, charting at #144. Four weeks later, however, Nirvana’s sophomore record had miraculously surged into the Top 40 selling out record stores across the country due to DGC’s low initial production. “Teen Spirit” had become the hit of the year, shows on the band’s ensuing European tour were instantly sold out, and TV crews could be found clamoring to get the exclusive scoop on Rock’s latest phenomenon.

Album art Via DGC Records

Album art via DGC Records

Yet Nirvana’s members, particularly its aloof frontman Kurt Cobain, seemed flippantly indifferent to their success. Regardless, Kurt and Nirvana had become cultural icons, pioneers of Generation X who single-handedly delivered punk culture into the mainstream for the first time. This effectively killed the self-indulgent, polished Hair Metal music of the ’80s and established a whole new sound that the rest of the world would soon adopt as the new standard for Rock music. The wave of change sparked by the success of Nevermind was simply tidal – one that Kurt, initially, was able to ride until it ultimately crushed him. Kurt Cobain’s legacy has evolved in the years since his death, but it has come to mean something different to fans, critics, and bandmates alike.

As a Millennial Nirvana fan, I couldn’t honestly tell you when the first time I heard Nirvana was; they simply existed as an ever-present force of influence and praise. Their name would constantly be mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles or Led Zeppelin delivered with an underlying sense of melancholy and tragedy. Kurt Cobain was held in the pantheon of Rock Icons as an artist who refused to conform or sell out his punk influenced identity for the sake of commercial appeal, famously appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone with a shirt reading “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” This deliberate irreverence to the spotlight was softened by his obvious compassion and empathy to the pain of others, once stating that people who, “in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do us this one favor… Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” Nirvana’s only real concern appeared to be creating music that was meaningful to themselves as artists, not trying desperately to sell their music.

They were wild, unhinged young men who reveled in the shock they were able to incite from the media. Perhaps it was because they rose to the level of superstars without the conventional means  artists of their caliber had that allowed them to continue that punk rock persona unfettered. They owed their success to nobody except their fans. Want to know how they celebrated the night of Nevermind’s release? Two Words: Crisco Twister.

It was this rebellious sincerity that endeared Kurt, bassist Krist Novoselic (the cisco-slathered goon seen above), and drummer Dave Grohl to the hearts of many angsty teens and young adults. As their fame and popularity grew, however, so did the scrutiny from the press and the public. Within months of Nevermind’s release, many were already labeling Kurt Cobain as a junkie on the verge burning out.

Nirvana responded with their trademark mockery of the media’ speculation. When they headlined the 1992 Reading Music Festival, Krist came out to a roaring crowd assuring that “With the support of his friends and family, he’s gonna make it!” while stagehands pushed a hospital gown-clad Kurt out in a wheelchair. This show went down as their victory lap, chosen as “Nirvana’s #1 Greatest Moment” by an NME poll. Their place as the number one rock band in the world seemed indisputable. 

Unfortunately, as we all know, Nirvana’s success only reveals a mere glimpse into Kurt Cobain’s story. Part of what gravitated fans to Nirvana’s music was the darkness and rage that was conveyed through Kurt’s iconic strained howl and songwriting. This part of Kurt’s identity appealed to my own morbid, adolescent curiosity; that naïve fixation with human pain and suffering we’re filled with after we’ve been messed up by reading high school holocaust literature. I perceived the drastic divide between Kurt Cobain the Icon versus Kurt Cobain the Man, a divide that I craved to learn more about. 

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2 Comments

  1. Eric Serota

    February 21, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    I can remember the first time I ever heard them. it was just after my 9th birthday, when i was hanging around in the arcade around the corner from my house. the year was 1990, I was obsessed with the TMNT game, as well as the BTTF pinball, and Roadblasters. Most of what i listened to at the time was Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The RollingStones, Bowie, and Queen. This guy with dreds was lounging around with a walkman on, i asked what he was listening to. The tape had no cover, just a blank cassette with handwriting. It was Nirvana’s Bleach album. The first song he let me listen to was “Negative Creep” and i loved it! He told me that he had seen them in Philly the year before, but there was nothing else on them at the time. I didn’t get a copy of the album but never forgot it. Once Nevermind came out, Teen Spirit was all over the radio, and MTV, I recognized the name and the voice. Finally I saw a broadcast on both MTV, and SNL in Jan 1992. Those performances convinced me to be more than just a guitarist hoping to join a rock cover band, it convinced me to write my own music, do my own thing, and discover more of what the underground had to offer. Though I was forbidden by my parents from going to see them when they came around to The Drexel Armory, for InUtero, shortly after my birthday in 1993, I did manage to get a hold of a VHS copy of them Live at JC Dobbs 7/12/89, on a trip to Ocean City, MD during the summer of 1998 (when i finally started my own band). Low and behold, in the front of the audience during “Negative Creep” and “Blew” the guy from the arcade appeared. I never met, or saw him again, but i’ll never forget it. Nirvana’s success, (though it took a personal toll on the band), definitely changed everything for the better, the 1980s through most of my memories was a time a macho idiots, and womanizers playing horrible power ballads that i didn’t relate to at all, thus kept me stuck on listening to my mom’s music, and putting up with my dad’s classical obsession. Nothing was completely mine, until Nirvana came on the scene, and introduced me to the rock n roll underground, that i still listen to, and cherish today. Everyone from Husker DU, to Bikini Kill, L7, Babes in Toyland, 7 Year Bitch, The Gits, Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur JR, The Melvins, Heavens To Betsy, Bratmobile, etc.. it can also be heard in alot of my band’s music, as well as views on life in general.

    • Billy Cook

      February 21, 2016 at 4:24 pm

      Wow, Eric. Thanks for sharing! Knowing a Nirvana fan of your caliber read the article means a lot!

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