KURT COBAIN was a great success. He wrote, he sang, he played lead guitar for the new band of the ’90s. He made millions of dollars overnight and retained the integrity of his music.
Despite the uproar of scandalous publicity around his marriage, it’s both true and appropriate to say that he was a loved and loving husband and father.
But now, everyone who regarded his life with a degree of interest, whether impassioned or merely curious, knows that what he had wasn’t enough or wasn’t right. His suicide asserted that all these sources of pleasure and pride were outweighed by pain.
Of course, it wasn’t inevitable that he would one day commit suicide, but nor was it beyond the scope of what was publicly known about him.
Darkly, some say it was in the water or in the blood. Aberdeen, the lumber town near Seattle where he spent his first 20 years, is described as rotten with unemployment, racked by alcoholism, drugs and suicide. Courtney Love has recalled that three of Cobain’s uncles killed themselves; she wondered whether it somehow ran in the family.
There were no such premonitions when Kurt was a child. Far from it. In Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are, the excellent band biography of Nirvana, Cobain’s mother portrays a blissful boyhood. “He got up every day with such joy that there was another day to be had,” she says. There’s a fond memory of him strutting round the neighbourhood pounding a big bass drum strapped to his chest, singing ‘Hey Jude’ at the top of his voice.
However, the picture changed completely the moment his parents split up in 1975. There are no half-measures in his mother’s account of the boy’s reaction: “It just completely destroyed his life. I think he was ashamed. And he became very inward – he just held everything in. I think he’s still suffering.”
He was eight. The joyful child was suddenly transformed into a surly character recognisable from Bleach or In Utero. He fell into vicious moodiness; he was destructive, out of control. He was moved on to his father, who had no patience and belted him a good deal. Then, through his early teens, he passed successively to several aunts and his grandparents.
It seems he gave his mother endless grief, yet always wanted her there to look after him. She says she took him back into her home after Cobain had been “months on the phone crying” about it. This was in 1984 when he was already 17 and starting to hang out with Aberdeen’s proto-grunge hard cases; he’d smoked pot, popped Percodans and had his first one-off shot of heroin.
Two years later, after his spell of romantic vagrancy sleeping under the Wishkah River bridge (as per ‘Something In The Way’), his mother was still paying his rent for him and when he badly burnt his hand with chip fat, she nursed him.
It may have been no coincidence that when, at 20, he finally moved out of Aberdeen and into the boho art and music scene in Olympia, the Washington state capital, for the first time he began to suffer the excruciating stomach pain which was never fully explained nor cured.
Even if it was entirely psychosomatic – a physical manifestation of emotional upheaval – it hurt like hell. Chronic pain gradually drains the spirit. Its effect on Cobain is easy to underestimate. He later went so far as to say that it had “dominated ‘ his life. In 1992, when doctors said he was suffering from narcolepsy (a rare condition causing sudden and uncontrollable episodes of deep sleep), Cobain said it was because the same old agony was tormenting him: “I’d sleep just to get away from the pain. While I was asleep, my stomach wouldn’t hurt. Then I’d wake up, and curse myself that I was still alive.”
This was the pain he referred to in his suicide note.
That was the Kurt Cobain, who come the winter of 1991, would have to deal with fame and fortune coming at him like an express down a dark tunnel.
When he got into his first real band, briefly called Fecal Matter, he suddenly found himself feeling commitment, hope, maybe even ambition. “I wanted to put out a record, play some shows,” he recollected. “I didn’t want it to fall apart like everything else.”
A few name and line-up changes on. Nirvana made their first album, Bleach, for $600 and were excited to sell several thousand and become a cult. Their second, Nevermind, knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the American album charts in December, 1991. It went on to a worldwide gross of well over $100 million. Nirvana were the gods of grunge.
Nobody ever went on stage who wasn’t seeking attention and for all Cobain’s complaints about playing to “jocks” and other undesirables dragged in by the mass appeal of Nevermind, he could handle the problems that arose from their music, live or in the studio.
For instance, abetted by Steve Albini’s radical-primitive production techniques, Cobain did “weed out” Nirvana’s audience with In Utero. To him, it was “the sound I wanted, the sound I have been carrying in my head since the beginning of this band”; to the critics, it was brave and challenging; to the hardcore fans, it was just the job; and it achieved the effect he desired of handsome yet appreciably more “selective” sales.
What he couldn’t control or accept, however, was the way fame impinged on his personal life. For one thing, Nirvana’s publicity was out of hand almost as soon as they got famous.
The crux was that, emotionally, he had invested so much in his marriage to Courtney Love (the wedding was on February 24, 1992) and in their baby daughter, Frances Bean (born that August 18). In cheerier moments, he would speak touchingly of the changes his new family had wrought in him: “I was an extremely negative person, but my attitudes and opinions have only got better. I’ve become more optimistic. Having a child and being in love with someone is something that everyone wants. It’s the only thing I feel I’ve been blessed with. I could give up everything for that…”
Then, though, the paeans would turn to tirades as he denounced the journalists who, he was convinced, were bent on “destroying” them. Notoriously, British writers Britt Collins and Victoria Clarke’s research for a book on Nirvana led to Cobain leaving lengthy messages on Clarke’s answerphone featuring such forthright remarks as, “If anything comes out in this book which hurts my wife, I’ll fucking kill you.”
But Lynn Hirshberg, the Vanity Fair interviewer, proved a more practically damaging antagonist. Her article, quoting a (since adamantly denied) admission by Love that she had taken heroin during pregnancy, led to the Los Angeles County Department Of Children’s Affairs placing Frances Bean in the custody of Love’s sister, Janie, for a month. After that, Love and Cobain were ordered to submit urine samples for a drugs check and accept regular visits by social workers until March, 1993. Thus was Cobain’s “blessing” tarnished.
But their problems could hardly be blamed on journalism alone. On the road in Europe, in late ’91, accompanied by Love and with Nevermind about to go exponential, Cobain decided to become a heroin addict. She followed his lead. “I was determined to get a habit. I wanted to. It was my choice,” he said. He offered no explanation beyond the need to anaesthetise his stomach pain (heroin is, after all, a derivative of morphine), only emphasising that it was his responsibility rather than his much-maligned wife’s.
In the spirit that Azerrad perceived as “I’ll hurt myself before you can”, he soon built up a “$400-a-day habit”. Yet by the time they married, he was already trying to break the addiction so purposefully acquired by using a prescribed substitute called Physeptone. It was the first of many failed attempts. His supply ran out on their wedding day and he bought heroin off a local Hawaiian dealer to get him through the ceremony.
The drug continued to pollute his life with its contrary power to produce analgesia, bliss-out and, in its absence, the humiliating enslavement to a craving which reached a sorry nadir when Cobain, in detox at the hospital where his wife was in labour, attended the birth semi-conscious and vomiting throughout because of withdrawal symptoms.
Meanwhile, both the heroin and Courtney Love were messing up his relationship with the (then) other two members of Nirvana, especially his old friend from Aberdeen days, Krist Novoselic. He was very worried about the damage Cobain might be doing himself and the band, frustrated by the user’s typically egocentric ways, and undoubtedly afflicted by buddy jealousy of his best pal’s new girl – a situation that was exacerbated by Love’s in-your-face approach to everything.
In a farcically bitter tiff, Love had said she didn’t want Novoselic’s wife, Shelli, at the wedding, so Krist refused to go. It’s said that the following month, March, 1992, there was a huge row over publishing royalties, which some blamed on Love. Suddenly, Cobain, who’d gone for an equal three-way split of everything until then, demanded 75 per cent of the songwriting. The others were taken aback, but reluctantly agreed, acknowledging his greater contribution. But then he insisted on backdating the deal to Nevermind and forced it through no matter what their feelings (last summer he told Q he’d threatened to break the band up “maybe 30 times” in the past year).
As Novoselic pithily put it, “I felt like he left me.” Cobain was undermining their friendship, the bottom line of Nirvana. More than that, it was one of the few relationships that he had ever been able to trust and depend on absolutely. He certainly didn’t want it to fall apart like everything else. Nor did Novoselic. In late March this year they were still trying to patch it up.
Everyone knows unhappiness, but it’s clear that Kurt Cobain knew despair. Even in wedded optimism, he admitted that he was “back in that state of mind every few months”. Overall, he took a poor view of humanity and often had a hard job convincing himself that his own participation was worth the candle. While in the strenuous optimism of his family-man days he tried to work up a constructive attitude to his fellows, he was fighting against an instinctive, almost allergic aversion to people at large.
Back in Olympia, during a rare stint of nine-to-five manual labour, he’d argued with his fellow workers all the time and concluded: “I just cannot get along with average people. They get on my nerves so bad. I have to confront them and tell them I hate their guts.”
Discussing the In Utero song ‘Scentless Apprentice’, he said that it was inspired by Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume, but also informed by his own feelings of “quite a few years ago” when “I was so disgusted by human beings that I felt, How do I get away from everybody?”
A lot of his lyrics show he was rarely enamoured of himself either. “I’m a stain,” he howls (‘Stain’ from Incesticide), or “I’m so ugly” (‘Lithium’, Nevermind). The working title of In Utero was I Hate Myself And I Want To Die.
While there’s certainly some black humour in this, and in the way he’d sometimes harangue bleaked-out Nirvana audiences with an incongruously jolly, “Hey everybody, why so glum?”, at times it was hard not to see him as a grunge Brando from Apocalypse Now (curiously playing a character called Kurtz) sequestered in a darkened chamber intoning, “The horror, the horror”, and feeling it, heart and soul.
Yet he obviously longed to accentuate the positive. He was looking for ideas to promote, something reliable he could nail to the mast of Nirvana.
Although party politics didn’t engage him, sexual politics did. In interviews and song lyrics, he espoused feminism and opposed homophobia. He donned dresses and nail varnish to honour both causes. Undoubtedly, he was sincere. But, plainly, it didn’t sustain him fully; he couldn’t see it as a vocation to engross his intellect, fire his campaigning spirit and distract him from all the negatives he could never eliminate.
The ultimate purgative could have been his music. He thought of it that way. When he recorded his vocals, he’d go into the studio on his own, turn all the lights out, “close my eyes and scream“. And when he wrote ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ for In Utero (“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally”) he was referring, with twisted irony, to a herbal potion used in “natural” abortions. “I’m trying to get all my bad evil spirits out of me, and drinking pennyroyal tea would cleanse that away,” he explained.
Probably, millions took to Nirvana’s music because it could express, in sound and word, some of the inner conflicts that give most people hard times. But for Cobain, evidently, music wasn’t the sort of creative outlet it is for many artists: releasing tensions, easing frustrations, healing wounds. At least, not to a sufficient degree.
Sadly, Kurt Cobain had the wrong cast of temperament to be adequately soothed by anything that was available to him.
© Phil Sutcliffe, Q, June 1994