Some kids don't stand a chance.
Born in a gloomy dead-end town (Aberdeen, WA)
Raised by a single mom in an Aberdeen trailer park
A social misfit/outcast
Usually when someone famous dies young - especially when it is by their own hand - many speculate that the late-great couldn't handle fame and all its demands. Forget that. They couldn't handle life much less being a celebrity. That merely exacerbated the problem.
It seemed only a matter of time before Kurt Donald Cobain (born 2/20/67 in Hoquiam, WA) would either wind up dead or in prison. By that point he'd just be a stat.
In the meantime, he spent his life living on the fringe - crashing on friend's couches or under a bridge that crossed the muddy Wishkah River. And that might have been where the story ended if not for music.
Hauling gear for a local group called the Melvins opened doors for Cobain. Starting as a drummer, the Melvins Dale Crover, a drummer himself, moved Cobain to guitar and Krist Novoselic, initially a guitarist, to bass for Ed Ted & Fred And Fecal Matter.
Next Cobain and Novoselic formed Nirvana and began recording for Seattle's legendary Sub-Pop. The single "Love Buzz," a Shocking Blue cover and debut album "Bleach" were the initial results.
A succession of drummers rolled through before heavy hitter David Grohl arrived. That sealed the deal. Nirvana moved to a major label and in '91 unleashed their epic masterpiece "Nevermind."
With vacant deep blue eyes and that haunting look (heroin will do that to you), Cobain was the poster boy of the Grunge sound. "Bleach" was re-issued and a compilation of odds and ends (outtakes, early material and live tracks) "Incesticide" was released to satiate public demand.
Cobain married ex-stripper and Hole frontwoman Courtney Love in '92 with daughter Francis Bacon born six months later (and not prematurely though Love suggested that she took heroin while pregnant). There was a smashing '93 appearance on Saturday Night Live and a highly acclaimed MTV Unplugged session. "In Utero," the follow-up to "Nevermind," made its debut at #1 on the U.S. album chart.
All this success just didn't cut it. Cobain's life, which had never been that pleasant, went right down the shitter. First, a '93 drug overdose led to a stint in rehab - didn't take. A violent argument with Love over his gun collection landed him in jail. Then Cobain overdosed in New York. Nirvana was to play the New Music Seminar.
While in Rome on a '94 European tour a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol (champagne) put Cobain into a coma. Love discovered her husband was unconscious and he was rushed to the hospital where his stomach was pumped. There were murmurs that this was a failed suicide attempt.
After both Grohl and Novoselic threatened to disband Nirvana if Cobain didn't deal with his drug problem, he once again entered rehab. He was there less than a week before walking away.
Cobain's mother filed a missing person's report. The very next day, April 5th, '94, Cobain shot himself in the head with a Remington 20-gauge shotgun in the garage apartment of his Lake Washington (Seattle) mansion. His body was discovered three days later.
What happened in those final days has been wildly speculated on and deeply disputed. Heroin stories, murder rumors and the like. All framed by a suicide note that lifted a line from Neil Young's "My, My, Hey, Hey (Out Of The Blue)." "It's better to burn out than fade away."
Of course, that's not the end of the Nirvana story. "Bleach" went platinum. "In Utero" went quadruple platinum (still, that was approximately half the sales "Nevermind" logged). The MTV set was released as "Unplugged In New York." It sold millions. That was followed by the live "From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah" which went straight to #1. The upshot was Nirvana received all sorts of posthumous awards including a Grammy in both '95 (Best Alternative Video) and '96 (Best Alternative Music).
Years later ('91), Charles Cross published a Cobain bio, Heavier Than Heaven.
And what of Cobain? His remains were cremated and Love famously kept a portion of his ashes with her for several years. Sadly, the whole story just reads like another twisted Hollywood gothic tale.
Coda: Images last forever - just ask Jim Morrison (The Doors). Cobain became a playable character in the Guitar Hero 5 video game. His avatar performed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a previously unreleased live version of "Lithium."
What often got lost in the swirl that surrounded Cobain was that he, a former drummer, was an incredible guitarist. Here's the proof:
Exhibit A: Smells Like Teen Spirit
Sure, it was Nirvana's biggest and most recognizable song but it
contains all the things that made Cobain great. The song opens with a chord progression that sounds like the work of some '60s garage band. Then the chord progression explodes into a wall of distorted sound.
As quickly as it started it's over and there's a simple two-note riff during the verse. Just two notes. Perfect. Add to that a brilliantly awesome slide guitar solo. There are albums that don't have as much as that song.
Exhibit B: Come As You Are
In the late '50s and early '60s guitar instrumentals were extremely popular (and it extended beyond the surf genre). Link Wray and Duane Eddy played the E, A, D strings - not just the higher G, B and E. They produced a guttural sound. The first notes of "Come As You Are" are like a throw back to that era with the low strings echoing from the full on reverb. It sounds like it came from the bottom of Eddy's gene pool. Of course, the song shifts into the Cobain guitar thrash in the chorus. Being able to start in one place and end in another was a definite Cobain trait.
Exhibit C: Aneurysm (Live)
This was one of the greatest Rockers ever recorded. Period. The machine gun opening gives way to a rising series of notes that fall off the peak into the verse. Stunning. Spectacular. Cobain's vocals combine power and desperation.
Cobain had a way with riffs and chord progressions. While not necessarily a speed merchant, like guitar warriors of the '60s and '70s, his work was far more unique and interesting - at times even delicate. That's why Nirvana recordings, whether it's "Bleach," "Nevermind," "In Utero," Unplugged" or the live "From The Banks of the Muddy Wishkah" will be played long after even David Grohl has retired.
Nirvana wasn't around all that long but they sure made an impact. After an indie EP "Blew" they sign with another indie label, Seattle's Sub-Pop. Nirvana's "Bleach," arriving in '89 gives every indication this is a group to be reckoned with. "Incesticide" has some great songs, and some not so great songs. Then came the landmark "Nevermind." "In Utero" is the group's last studio effort.
Following the death of a major Rock star there is usually a mad dash to cash-in on unreleased material. There's a reason the material is unreleased; it's second or third rate. Nirvana is the exception to the rule.
The highlights from "Unplugged In New York" include "About A Girl" and the cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World." "From The Banks of the Muddy Wishkah" there's the blasting "Aneurysm." This is Nirvana live and loud. It just doesn't get any better.