Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rock & Roll Heaven: Kurt Cobain

The tragic, untimely loss of young superstar talent in the rock-n-roll world has often been associated with the hippie-era, flower child period of the late 1960's and early 1970'2.

But the passing years have shown that it is not times that are to blame, but the choices these individuals made within a culture and lifestyle that often encourages those choices.

The perfect case in point came over three decades after the deaths of Janis and Jimi, with the death of garage band, grunge-rock legend Kurt Cobain. On April 5th, 1994, Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the popular band 'Nirvana', killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head at his home in Seattle.

Cobain had chronic suicidal tendencies that manifested themselves many times over the years, and increasingly in the months leading to his death. These incidents, and indeed his final demise, likely grew out of a bout with classic, severe depression made worse by the abuse of alcohol and drugs, particularly heroin.

He was just 27 years old. Sound familiar? The more things change in the rock world, the more they stay the same.


Kurt Cobain was born and raised in Washington state, and had an intense interest in music as well as 'a lot of charisma' from a young age. His parents divorced when he was just 8 years old, an event which he later said had profound impact on his personality.

He became much more withdrawn after this, and spent time living with first his mom and then his dad, who tried hard to direct the young boy into sports activities. Cobain's heart was more in the artistic, however, and he eventually became so unruly that he was allowed to move in with friends.

As a teenager he found refuge and the beginnings of a purpose in the developing Seattle punk-rock scene. At age 14 his uncle gave him his first guitar, and he first learned a few covers and then began to even create his own music. He also met and began to hang out and occasionally jam with Krist Novoselic, who would remain a key influence in his life until the very end.

Kurt moved back in with his mom during his last couple of years in high school, but never did graduate. When he dropped out of high school, his mom told him he either had to get a job or move out. When Kurt didn't respond with action, she packed his things in boxes and tossed him out, and he wandered between friends houses.


At age 20 Kurt got a job with a resort on the coast which paid enough to allow him to rent his first house, and which also funded his interest in attending rock concerts in Olympia. Cobain and Novoselic decided to form a band, and eventually joined up with drummer Chad Channing to form the early 'Nirvana'. The band often performed covers of songs by some of their major influences including Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Queen, and Black Sabbath before finally recording their first album in 1989.

It was also during this year of recording and performing that Kurt briefly met a girl after a concert who would be another key influence in his life. Courtney Love met him backstage, and she developed a crush on him after seeing the band perform in Portland. Cobain quickly realized that he didn't like Chad Channing's style, and the drummer was replaced by a new bandmate, Dave Grohl.

In 1991, the new Nirvana released their first major label recording titled "Nevermind", and the album rose to #1 on the Billboard charts thanks largely to the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which became the anthem for a generation and cemented both Cobain's and Nirvana's legend. In May of '91, Cobain and Love were formally introduced, and when Grohl let on to each that the other was attracted the two began to hook up more frequently. By the end of the year they were officially together, as much due to mutually-shared drug usage as their physical and emotional connection.

It wasn't long before Courtney turned up pregnant, and the pair married in Hawaii in February of 1992. Their daughter and only child, Frances Bean Cobain, was born in August. Over the next couple of years Cobain frequently helped Love as she developed her own band 'Hole', and some Nirvana fans took a dislike to her, negatively comparing her influence to that of Yoko Ono on John Lennon a generation earlier.

In a magazine article Love admitted to using heroin while pregnant with their baby, though she later claimed that it happened only before she realized the pregnancy. In any event, the courts stepped in and briefly took the child from their custody, placing her with Love's sister before ultimately returning Frances to her parents. Drugs were a consuming part of the parents life. Cobain had begun using marijuana at age 13, abused painkillers throught his teen years, and moved on to heroin by age 19. He tried rehab in 1992 with the baby coming, but quickly reverted back to abusing the heroin, and he suffered his first major overdose in the summer of 1993 just before a concert. However, Love injected him with Narcan to counter it's effects, and Cobain revived enough to take the stage. In rock-n-roll, the show must go on.

While on a European tour in March of 1994, Cobain came down with laryngitis and went to Rome for treatment. It was there on March 4th that he likely committed his first suicide attempt. Love woke up to find him having overdosed on champagne and some of her own prescription sedatives. He was rushed to the hospital where he remained for almost a week, and then the couple flew back to Seattle where at the end of the month Love organized a formal 'intervention' for Cobain. Novoselic didn't like the idea, and tipped off Cobain before it happened, but in the end Kurt agreed to detox in L.A.

The detox stay didn't last long. On his first night at the facility, he told staff that he wanted to go out to have a cigarette. Instead he jumped a fence, hailed a taxi cab to the airport, and flew back to Seattle on April Fool's Day. Over the next couple of days he was spotted in various Seattle-area locales, but wasn't in contact with any friends or family. On April 3rd, Love hired a private investigator to look for him, and on the 7th, with Cobain missing, Nirvana pulled out of that year's Lollapalooza tour.

The next day an electrician went to Cobain's home on a previously arranged appointment to install a security system. He found Cobain with blood coming from his ear, a shotgun placed against his chin, and a suicide note nearby. Toxology tests showed that Kurt had consumed about twice a lethal amount of heroin. On April 10th, Love attended a public memorial service and handed out items of Kurt's clothing to the fans. His body was cremated.

In the years since his death there have been a number of highly speculative, inflammatory, accusatory, and controversial theories on Cobain's death that involve foul play. This seems to be a recurring theme in the death of these rock stars who are actually simply a victim of their own excess. Some fans would rather believe that their heroes were murdered, rather than admit that they were killed by the very drugs and booze that those same fans are often abusing. Or, as in Kurt's case, by their own hands when they could not handle the constant depression which these substances only make worse.

Kurt Cobain was left depressed as a young child by his familial situation, and during his life had to deal with a continual stomach ailment that went mostly undiagnosed and untreated. In other words, when asking whether Kurt Cobain is fronting a band in some 'Rock & Roll Heaven', singing a duet with Janis while Jimi plays guitar, he may have more of an argument to get in than they did. But in the end, the fact remains that like those 60's icons, this voice of a new generation was silenced by his own hand thanks largely to a severe abuse of drugs and alcohol.

NOTE: this continues the 'Rock and Roll Heaven' series, all entries of which can be read by clicking the below label link

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