’90s Icons Don’t Get More Iconic Than Nirvana Frontman Kurt Cobain
The 1990’s was a great decade to grow up in. Everything was having little renaissance’s – Saturday morning cartoons were really coming into their own, cars were breaking 200mph (321kph) regularly, computers and the Internet were rapidly becoming mainstream. Music was a huge pivot point for society, with the 80s punk movement morphing into grunge. Grunge became the voice for the ’90s young people, bringing socially conscious issues into popular culture and focusing on the authenticity of oneself. One of the biggest bands of the era was Nirvana. Internationally and constantly regarded as one of the best bands of the grunge movement, frontman Kurt Cobain was the brainchild behind the band.
Kurt Cobain was what many would call a tortured soul. He was unusually negatively affected by his fame and popularity as lead guitarist and vocalist of Nirvana. Often hailed as “the spokesman of a generation”, and Nirvana the “flagship band” of Generation X, Cobain was uncomfortable with the label as he believed his message and vision was misinterpreted.
Nirvana released their first album, Bleach, in 1989 but it wasn’t until 1991’s Nevermind that real success found the band. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the lead single and drove both Nirvana and the grunge subgenre into the mainstream. Since, Nirvana has sold over 25 million albums in the US alone, and over 75 million globally. However, this massive success had profound effects on Cobain, who struggled to reconcile it with his underground roots. The frontman developed a resentment toward people who claimed to be fans of the band and yet misinterpreted, or refused to acknowledge, the core social and political views of Nirvana.
Nirvana played at a gay rights benefit in Oregon in 1992, something that Cobain was very proud of. He was openly against any form of sexism, racism and homophobia, and the benefit he played for was in opposition to Ballot Measure Nine, a measure that, if passed, would have prohibited schools in the state from acknowledging or positively accepting LGBT rights and welfare. Cobain also very much supported the pro-choice movement, even receiving death threats from anti-abortion activists for joining L7’s Rock for Choice campaign. One even threatened to shoot him as soon as he stepped on stage.
With the grunge music came the grunge look. Kurt would often be seen on stage in ragged jeans, an unbuttoned jacket with a thrift-shop-esque T-shirt underneath and of course a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors All Stars. It was this look that defined the look of the grunge generation and was the perfect antidote to 80’s glam rock.
Shoulder length blond hair, crafted stubble and eyes that often belied more than his words rounded off the ’90s icon.
But of course, it was the tragic end to the artist’s life that has resonated more and had a bigger impact than anyone else of the era. Throughout his adult life, Cobain danced with addictions of all sorts. His first attempt at suicide came on March 3, 1994 when he overdosed on a combination of champagne and Rohypnol. He entered rehab on March 30 at the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles, where the staff were unaware of Cobain’s previous history of depression and suicide attempts. When friends visited, there was no indication to them that he was in any negative or suicidal state of mind. That same day, Cobain talked to counselors about his drug abuse and personal problems, and played happily with his daughter, Francis. This was the last time Cobain saw his daughter.
The next night, Cobain went outside to have a cigarette and ended up climbing a six-foot fence to leave the facility. He then caught a taxi to the airport, where he flew back to Seattle. He was seated next to Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses, who Cobain “seemed happy” to see. McKagan later remarked that “all of [his] instincts said something was wrong.” Most of Cobain’s close friend and family didn’t know of his whereabouts. On April 3, wife Courtney Love contracted private investigator Tom Grant to find Cobain, who was not seen the next day. On April 7, Nirvana pulled out of the 1994 Lollapalooza festival. The next day, Cobain’s body was found at his Lake Washington Boulevard home.
Kurt Cobain was found by electrician Gary Smith, who was there to install a security system. Apart from a minor amount of blood from Cobain’s ear, Smith reported no signs of visible trauma. It wasn’t until he saw the shotgun pointed at Cobain’s chin when he realised what had happened. A note was found addressed to Cobain’s childhood friend “Boddah”, saying that he had not “felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing… for too many years now”
A public vigil held on April 10, 1994 drew some seven thousand mourners. Cobain was cremated, and his ashes divided. Some are kept in a teddy bear owned by Courtney Love, others in an urn. Others still were taken to the Namgyal Buddhist Monastery, in Ithaca, New York, where they were ceremonially blessed by Buddhist monks, mixed with clay and made into memorial sculptures. A final ceremony was arranged by Cobain’s mother on May 31, 1999, that was attended by both Love and Tracy Marander. A Buddhist monk chanted while his daughter Frances scattered his ashes into McLane Creek, in Olympia, Washington, the city Cobain had “found his true artistic muse.
Now, Nirvana and Kurt live on as true iconic trendsetters, and are a huge part of the movement of popular culture. Their brief but bright light affected and altered the lives of millions, and no doubt, the course of history itself.