This Is Nirvana Part 4: The Kurt Factor | Fanboys Anonymous

This Is Nirvana Part 4: The Kurt Factor

Posted by Eddie Siqueira Friday, April 4, 2014
So it ends. The four-part series I birthed strikes its final chord. And what a major chord it is: Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana. More often than not, Nirvana is associated with Kurt Cobain, and vice-versa. Don't forget that it was not a one man solo show, but primarily a trio featuring bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (replacing first drummer Chad Channing), who we all know and love. Like most rock champions, all of the immediate attention was regurgitated onto the band's frontman. It's only natural that, as we near the anniversary of Cobain's passing and Nirvana's induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame on April 10th (which I plan to comment on as an epilogue to this mini-series), I give you my personal view of the whole ensemble.

Nirvana band members Kurt Cobain Dave Grohl Krist Novoselic

It might be strange for younger people to relate to this band as just another band. The myth surrounding Nirvana and their lightning-fast career ascension makes them sound like the last coming of rock 'n' roll Jesus. Maybe it was just that; there hasn't been another larger-than-life martyr in rock history since. Bear with me as we journey past the events.

Nirvana Kurt Cobain Krist Novoselic live 1989 Bleach Seattle grunge
Early concert during the Bleach era
Perhaps you would like to know more about the human, thus fragile aspect of Nirvana. Kurt's grandfather, Leland Cobain, would gladly share childhood pictures and some of Kurt's memorabilia with visitors passing by Aberdeen, Washington up until his death in May of 2013. Or maybe that's not your cup of tea, and you'd rather know about the Fender Jag-Stang guitar Kurt designed and played for just a few dates, and the rig he used in live shows. Whatever the case, the personal story of the band's voice is tightly woven with Nirvana's history of paucity turned to excess.

Glancing at their fetal years, Nirvana seemed like the most unremarkable garage band in the world until 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' hit the airwaves in late 1991. In 1987, two friends formed a band together in Aberdeen, WA out of their love for rock, punk, and other styles that countered the close-minded, redneck attitude of logger-country Northwest USA. There wasn't much going on in Aberdeen at that point however, so Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain (guitar, vocals) moved to Seattle where they met their first permanent drummer, Chad Channing, around 1988.

Nirvana Kurt Cobain Krist Novoselic Jason Everman Chad Channing 1989 Seattle GrungeNirvana were late bloomers in the Seattle scene. In fact, they were the little brothers of that soundscape and no one took them seriously. In an environment for the alienated, drop outs, and cynical scoffers, Nirvana were considered to be absolutely bland next to the bigger stars. This can't be said for their music. With each composition, they matured significantly, as did the band's chemistry. Even though the trio's punk style was quite different from the other Seattle bands' gimmicks of 70's influenced sludge and aggression, they rehearsed with the same professional appeal. By the time they recorded their first album, Bleach, for a reported cost of $606.17 with producer Jack Endino merely hitting 'record,' their underground 'cred' had increased substantially. They toured in support of Bleach and gathered some good reviews, but were still a broke band from Seattle.

Nirvana Kurt Cobain Krist Novoselic Chad Channing 1989 Bleach
Nirvana's first solid lineup with drummer Chad Channing
Along with all of this, Kurt was trapped in his world of soft-core depression and loneliness. His childhood had been very happy until his parents divorced when he was about seven; according to his own testimony, the world became a dark, gruesome place. As alienated as he was in his teen years until his death, there was a childlike attitude that would surface when he wasn't grasping onto his introversion, and he was actually quite polite and even friendly. Kurt Cobain, the aggressor, pissed off, kill-all-they-who-wronged-you? That remains unheard of. He seemed to be a frail pessimist who believed in the good fight, but didn't consider himself worthy enough to pull it off in any other way apart from being in the most kick-ass band he possibly could - and he did just that.

Nirvana Kurt Cobain Krist Novoselic Jason Everman Chad Channing 1989 live Seattle GrungeThis came across clearly in interviews. Once the wave of fame hit Nirvana in the face, Kurt became one of the most awkward celebrities in history. This doesn't mean that he was a mumbling, shoe gazing, knee-clutching kid. In fact, some of the more in-depth, open-book phrases of those media years all came from Kurt, when he wasn't backed by the comical Krist and Dave, monkeying around and taking a piss out of their supposed fame. There was no rock cliché the critics could really grasp onto. They were feminist-friendly, easy going, and an antonym for spectacular, offstage. The only given was Kurt and drugs; that reality had already installed itself into the Seattle scene (among others) long ago, and was a dark truth of the times (if they have changed at all).

Krist Novoselic break bass 1989 1990 Bleach live
Breaking instruments was the crowning of a good show
For a band, or any other entity to be great and make history, they have to be the first. The Beatles were great because they were "the first" of the supermassive pop rock phenomenon we take for granted nowadays. The world isn't in awe of lightning fast shredders of heavy metal, or any hard rock slinger out there: Jimi Hendrix was the first to make the guitar scream bloody-murder (although one can dispute Rory Gallagher was the greatest, but let's not digress). Firsts, in the context of a culture, set a standard for all to follow, that much is understood.

Nirvana were the first. The first band to break through the hymen of sincerity that was hidden deep, deep in the vulnerability of collective consciousness. The first band to accidentally carry a voice of truth - they wore no masks. Most people didn't get it - they either thought it was just cool music or that Kurt and the gang were geniuses. For those that got it, you remember the time when, perhaps for the first time in a long time, fight for survival wasn't the number one priority of a person's day. It was about what to do now that the world was becoming standardized in its primordial versions of globalization, cable TV, divorces, ever-complex and equal rights, the end of Apartheid, compact discs, personal computers, cellular phones, and even something called the World Wide Web on the horizon. A big part of Generation X was left adrift. Nirvana became a band because they had absolutely nothing in their lives worth being excited about in regards to the future.

Kurt Cobain grunge mosh pit
Nothing said "grunge" like moshing on fans while playing guitar

Around 1993, MTV was already a few years into its apogee. There was little distinction between it and top radio stations. Of course, back then, there was nothing but music on that channel. Some odd shows on Liquid Television made it alternative and teen-friendly, but the channel was essentially music videos, talk shows with artists, and news about music; Nirvana were plastered all over it, as they went on to larger media vehicles.

Nirvana Kurt Cobain Dave Grohl Krist NovoselicSo, why were they so great and out-of-this-world? The answer is simpler than the thousands of pages of analysis one can find on Kurt Cobain: he gave us a very unique, instantly recognizable voice, with a full-on natural distortion rasp, and a vocal melodic style that, with all due respect, hadn't been heard since The Beatles. Why this blasphemy you ask? Think about it. The '91 album Nevemind, admitted by the band itself, was a collection os simple, heavy but pop-esque songs, almost "like children's songs," according to Krist Novoselic in the Classic Albums Series episode on that very album. It was a deliberate, artistic attempt to do the opposite of what was known to be great. Imagine someone making punk rock covers of nursery rhymes. That's one way to put it, however loose.

The whole thing spells genius from track 1 through 12. Unless you bought the tape, in which case it was orgasmic from side A to B. For the untrained ear, it's a great rocking album, maybe more so to those that hold some sentimental attachment to it. Professionally speaking, hats off to producer Butch Vig, who milked the full potential of those crazy-great punk songs Nirvana just so happened to be writing in 1990/1991. The album wouldn't have topped Billboard 200 if it weren't for his vision of the sound.
Nirvana Unplugged in New York Kurt Cobain Krist Novoselic acoustic 1993 1994 live
One of the most legendary performances ever on MTV

An element that people tend to overlook as well was Kurt's approach. A song, to the average person, is music and lyrics. Not to Kurt. Lyrics were the last thing on his mind. His diction was awkward on certain points of his songs, and the meanings were, more often than not, jibber-jabber. Sometimes, the lyrics just sounded cool.

Flea Michael Balzary Kurt Cobain Joe Perry Red Hot Chili Peppers Aerosmith Nirvana
Kurt among peers: Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and
Joe Perry (Aerosmith)
He was honest about the messages in his songs, and how they were just nonsense at times. Some of them were deliberate and quite powerful. Polly, a song about a girl who was kidnapped, contains some of his most notorious and intentionally written lyrics. This balance of melodic punk, eerie folk ballads, and strange Generation X poetry was an entirely new equation for the monotone media to solve. Also, he was a self-proclaimed mediocre guitar player. Kurt stated that he didn't know the difference between a minor chord and a major chord (well, he might have been exaggerating), and openly spoke of his music illiteracy and claimed it was good for creativity.

Circumstances didn't really change when In Utero came out in 1993. This album is vicious, very raw, and considerably darker than Nevermind. The producer this time was Steve Albini, a notorious mainstream-recluse of the music world, albeit very respected. There is some controversy as to whether Albini was putting ideas into Kurt's head during the recording sessions, telling him Big Brother was watching, the media was out to get him, and that's when our hero's downward spiral began. Regardless, Kurt was deep into his relationship with Courtney Love at that time, and she had just given birth to the couple's daughter, Frances Bean. This period, on Kurt's own account, was a happy time for him. He was getting along fine with events and being mostly positive. Nirvana was piling up awards and critical praise as well as an ever growing number of fans, even though the band explicitly spoke out against a part of their fan-demographics; homophobes, jocks, and the likes were unwanted by the musicians in their shows, but this never became more than a complaint from the band. Everyone loved Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain Courtney Love Frances Bean Cobain daughter MTV Awards
The Cobains, at MTV VMA's 1993
Cobain's health, however, dwindled. His heroin use became more than just a rumor. In fact, allegations floated about that Courtney had also been using heroin during her pregnancy and the couple were alluded to as the new Sid and Nancy in a Vanity Fair article which sparked the couple's ire for kickstarting the baby-heroin rumor. At this time, Kurt's relationship with his band also began to sour, as he was more and more medicated, largely due to his stomach pains, which were excruciating. Any psychologist will tell you that stomach issues are related to nervousness and trouble with self-esteem. Kurt was a textbook case, and you don't have to roam very far into the "interwebs" to see proof of it in his interviews. He was a total dweeb, a nice guy, sincerity incarnate, completely unaware of the burdens of rock monarchy, as were Krist and Dave. Only Kurt was a frail butterfly, and the touring hurricane was taking its toll. Not only that, but the constant attention he was receiving made him tired of his own shit, as he did not consider himself a role model, or rockstar material.

Nirvana Kurt Cobain Dave Grohl Krist Novoselic 1991 1992

Let's not hastily run into his martyr status; truth be told, every step of the way from the release of Nevermind into Kurt's final days, Nirvana said yes to the opportunities. Festival headlines, television appearances, interviews, music videos, record deals - it was all laid out with a "fog-of-war" in which they could barely see ahead, but faced everything head-on. It was a tremendous challenge. In the period since Nirvana first began touring in 1989, until the final stadium shows in 1994, they went from a broke-ass joke band to most important band on Earth. What could possibly have happened to Kurt other than his demise?

Nirvana MTV Live and Loud Seattle 1993 Kurt Cobain Dave Grohl
Nirvana's Live And Loud performance in Dec. 1993

Nirvana 1993 promo shoot Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear, Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain, Melora CregerKurt was troubled by many things around him, mostly things that were unnecessarily aggressive, unjust, or vulgar. He was quite the gentleman, more so when one considered that he came from the rugged working class Americana culture. With all of his ghosts haunting him, he willingly raced into the arms of music, which threw him onto the clutches of fame. It was his last shot at some sort of happiness, and he took it as far as he could. There is only so much one can blame the press. Kurt wanted the wide world of rock's fame and fortune and a killer discography with his band's name on it; but he also wanted to be left alone. This caused him to go into a vicious cycle of self loathing and dark psychological fits; a hipster that was tired of himself for being too mainstream.

Something must be said for Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl at this point. Although 90% of the songs were written by Kurt Cobain, Krist and Dave were two killer musicians with their own (and other) instruments. Anyone in a band knows that the bass and drums go hand in hand to form a cohesive force. Kurt may have been the driving force, but if you replaced one of the two supports, the band wouldn't have been the musical delight it was. Maybe this is one of the more important sides of the band; Kurt was purely instinctive while the others were absolutely down to earth, keeping the music grounded.

Anthony Kiedis Flea Dave Grohl Red Hot Chili Peppers Nirvana
Dave was the more outgoing of the Nirvana trio
(as we can see from the fooling around)
Their relationship was friendly and professional. They shared the same opinions, jokes, and political views (in fact, Krist Novoselic, who later became actively involved in politics stated that Nirvana was not as politically vocal as they would have liked to have been). Sometimes it seemed like the trio were brothers in arms, with absolutely nothing to fight against.

Despite their friendliness, this was not enough to keep Kurt from relapsing. His drug habit returned by early 1994, to the point where some friends and family staged an intervention to send him to rehab, which he agreed to, with a subliminal intention of rejecting it completely. In parallel, Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, was shipped off to another rehab facility, also in Los Angeles. Kurt bailed on the rehab clinic and was not officially seen again.

Kurt Cobain ceased to live on April 5th, 1994 according to the Seattle P.D.'s report. His body was found in the greenhouse of his Lake Washington Blvd. residence in Seattle on Friday, April 8th by an electrician who had work to do at the house. Shotgun on the body, severe head injury, drug "toys" scattered about, and a note, with a pen driven through it rested on a sill nearby.

Kurt Cobain Lake Washington residence, April 8th 1994, Seattle Police Department
Cobain's body being investigated

As the official version goes, the scene where his body was found provided evidence of suicide. There was little to question, after all, he had battled depression, stomach pains, psychological burdens, and a family history where suicide did occur twice, at least. Oh, and the note, of course. It makes no sense, however, that the toxicology report showed that his blood contained three times the lethal dose of heroin. He would have been absolutely incapacitated, collapsed and passed out before eventually overdosing; picking up a gun and shooting oneself is, according to many sources, impossible in that state.

I don't pretend to know anything about heroin dosages or the complexities of shooting a gun (I'm more of a 'fist-on-face' guy), but according to Anthony Kiedis's autobiography Scar Tissue (2004), the Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman had a motorcycle accident and mangled his hand. In the hospital, he had to be shot with seven times the normal dose of morphine given to patients because of his excessive drug abuse for it to take any effect. So it might not be absolutely impossible for Kurt to have injected that much heroin and still taken the implied course of action; I think it should be put out there.

Kurt Cobain Frances Bean baby daughterStill, the suicide thing doesn't make sense. Kurt had a daughter, a cool band (putting it mildly), genuine friends who cared for him, and was respected in the scene he sought approval from. There was a very strange near-death in Rome, Italy about a month before his death, where he overdosed on Rohypnol and was rushed to the hospital. Sources claim the doctors swore it was not a suicide attempt.

There is a dark rainbow of conspiracy theories claiming Kurt Cobain was killed by Courtney Love, who hired someone to do it. Although there is a series of bizarre incidents surrounding Cobain's death, it also makes no sense that Courtney killed him. Even though it was rumored that Kurt was going to divorce her, was that enough motive? Plenty of documentaries exist showcasing this theory, Kurt & Courtney (1998) probably being the most notorious one.

Or perhaps it was the music industry itself. Kurt was tired of the fame and wanted to become a recluse, possibly permanently, from the spotlight and record low-key albums or obscure songs. By killing him, the music industry created an icon they could sell to generations, maintaining the mystique and wonder of Nirvana's market value for decades to come.

It's all speculation and none of us will ever truly know the precise answer. None of the theories make sense except for, if we must choose one, the suicide thesis. The fans need to hope that someday, some truth will be revealed, and the world, in its turn, needs for the tragically romantic fin that turned Kurt Cobain into someone on par with Jim Morrison, John Lennon, and Jesus. It's a bittersweet tale of life itself, and very few people can deny that it's moving.

Courtney Love Kurt Cobain 1992 1993
The Sid & Nancy of the '90s
On April 10th, Courtney Love's pre-recorded reading of Kurt Cobain's suicide note was played back at the Seattle Center Flag Pavilion before a large crowd of fans and sympathizers. That was the closure, and there was one last public appearance from Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl (alongside live guitarist Pat Smear), who accepted Nirvana's MTV award for best alternative video of 1994. Dave went up to the mic, spoke solemnly and closed his brief speech with "Thanks for paying attention to our band." His tone was almost childlike and hurt as he forced the words. This was the end of Nirvana.
Nirvana Kurt Cobain suicide note Courtney Love Francis Bean April 5th 1994

Well, at least the touring and recording artist, Nirvana, was over. The band had its catalogue increased with live releases, remasters and DVDs. Also, let's not deny the influence on artists that came later. Heavy guitar was much easier to put on the radio, and bands like Linkin Park, Nickelback, and Creed owed most of it to Nirvana and grunge.

What about the Foo Fighters? Dave Grohl became a fantastic frontman, charismatic to the last. He showed as much skill as a singer/guitarist as he did on the drums, which he still played on occasion with Queens Of The Stone Age and during many sessions with a wide variety of artists. A point of reference in the music world.

Krist Novoselic remained a bit more hidden, though not incognito. He had two bands, Sweet 75 and Eyes Adrift (the latter which is really cool, by the way), then went onto politics and is currently an elected State Committeeman in Washington. He still plays the bass when duty calls.

The legacy of Kurt Cobain lives on through Frances Bean Cobain, his daughter who also inherited some of her father's estate and controls Kurt's image rights. Frances's relationship with her mother Courtney Love is difficult, as the two have faced many challenges in the celebrity spotlight and gossip columns.

Kurt Cobain Frances Bean
Like father, like daughter: Frances has taken an interest in art, above other things

As far as I'm concerned, the music is what counts, and that belongs to the world, to everyone and anyone who so desires to crank up some food for the soul in the form of three chords and a visceral, melodic pop song. April 5th 2014 is almost here, twenty years after his death. I can only cynically smirk at the sudden attention and the newly released photos from the Seattle P.D., as I recall the day of April 5th 2004, when my rock band and I just rocked out some Nirvana tunes and saw a show of local bands covering Nirvana songs later in the week.

How do you guys feel about Nirvana? To me, it seemed like a pretty big band that had a lot going on at the time, but I only became a devotee after Kurt's passing when I heard Heart-Shaped Box for the first time. In fact, I was pissed off that MTV kept reporting on Kurt Cobain and Beavis and Butt-head took a while to start. After I bought In Utero, I was hooked. Did the band lose its appeal to younger generations? Does it fall into the classic rock gumbo, or is it eternally young and vicious punk? Comment as you are.

Kurt Cobain grunge Seattle Nirvana

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