On 25 March 1994, Nirvana’s former manager Danny Goldberg joined nine other people at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard in Seattle to beg for Kurt Cobain’s life. They had all been invited by Cobain’s wife Courtney Love as part of an intervention over Cobain’s spiralling depression and drug abuse, but each would have known how high the stakes were. Three weeks earlier, he had overdosed on champagne and Rohypnol in Rome, which Love would claim to be his first suicide attempt. The previous week police had been called to the Seattle house, where Cobain had locked himself in a room with several guns and a bottle of pills. As each of the friends, industry associates, counsellors and bandmates present – Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic was there, alongside live guitarist Pat Smear – urged Cobain to get clean, get help and get on with living his charmed-yet-cursed life, they knew they were running out of chances.
Glassy-eyed, increasingly angry and feeling – in Love’s words – “ganged up on”, Cobain wouldn’t crack. He insisted he needed a therapist rather than rehab, and began flicking through the Yellow Pages to find one. At one point he fled to an upstairs bathroom when management associate Janet Billig began flushing his prescription drugs, fearing a second overdose. When Goldberg – who had been one of Nirvana’s managers throughout their peak years and was now a trusted confidante and adviser – told him to quit heroin for good, Cobain complained about feeling trapped by the constant attention of being one of the most famous rockstars in the world, and argued that, if William Burroughs could live a long and creative life as a junkie, why couldn’t he?
“He was in a bad way,” says Goldberg, fresh from reliving the experience in his new book on managing Nirvana, Serving the Servant. “The main memory I have is feeling so shitty about how hard it was for me to get through to him and how deeply depressed he seemed to be. It was not a great situation in terms of connecting with him personally because there were so many other people there and I’m sure he felt under siege in his own house. But Courtney was scared. She’d witnessed that he was going through a very tough time and thought maybe other people talking to him would get him to get some help.
“I spoke to him on the phone when I got home and talked to him one last time. I couldn’t shake him out of being depressed, I couldn’t cheer him up or get him to feel there was hope. I was just hoping that if the drugs got out of his system then he could think more clearly and that would be a good time to have better conversations with him. Of course I never was able to have such conversations.”
In fact, the intervention did have the desired effect, albeit briefly. On 30 March, Cobain checked into the Exodus Recovery Centre in LA, where he discussed his personal and drug problems with counsellors, seemed positive to visiting friends and spent time with his daughter Frances Bean for the last time in his life. Then, the day after checking in, he jumped over the perimeter fence, flew back to Seattle and went missing – despite several sightings, a concerned Love hired a private detective to track him down, focusing on staking out his drug dealer’s apartment. Neither he nor Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson – whom Love had asked to check the house for Cobain – thought to look for him in the greenhouse above the garage. His body was discovered there on 8 April by an electrician arriving at the Lake Washington Boulevard house to install a security system, lying beside a shotgun he’d bought from his friend Dylan Carlson before leaving for LA. It’s believed he took his life on 5 April, 25 years ago today.
Like those that took JFK, Martin Luther King Jr and John Lennon, it was a shot that echoed around the world. As Serving the Servant rightly assesses, Cobain was more than just a musical phenomenon, the king of grunge and the man who sent the underground US punk scene stratospheric – Nirvana’s second album Nevermind has sold more than 30 million copies and its lead track “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is among rock music’s most celebrated anthems, declared the best single ever by NME in 2014. He wasn’t just the guy who mashed accessible melody with gnarled guitar filth and struck jackpot. He was also the ultimate icon for tormented outsiders everywhere; the empathetic, kohl-eyed brother in hurt all the damaged indie rock punks never had, staring directly into their souls.
“It’s that combination of darkness, idealism, humour, compassion, cynicism,” Goldberg argues. “The totality of it connected so intimately with fans they felt that they weren’t the only crazy people, somehow there were these [musicians] that were popular that understood them. That was his gift.”
Serving the Servant paints Cobain as a deeply conflicted character. He could be kind and sullen, confident and despairing, funny and argumentative, generous and deceptive, sarcastic and romantic, charismatic and deeply ordinary. When Goldberg first met him, at a meeting six months before the recording of Nevermind – he’d been encouraged to manage Nirvana by John Silva, his partner at Gold Mountain Entertainment, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore – he found Cobain something of a shrinking violet, but assertive when it came to his career.
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Cobain was determined to leave the independent Seattle label Sub Pop, which had released their debut album Bleach in 1989, and record their second album on a major, opting for Geffen, home of their scene mentors Sonic Youth. As a fan of both Big Black and The Beatles, Cobain didn’t share the hardcore punk underground’s rankled disgust at the idea of overground success, and his determination to adapt punk’s DIY ethics and intensity – where the artist conceives and controls the image, artwork and videos every bit as much as the music – for mainstream adoption was what Goldberg considers his driving characteristic.
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“He had this borderline obsessive focus on his art,” he says. “He was completely focused on his career in every way, he cared about every detail of it and was intent on accomplishing the best of what he could do. He had a lot of other things going on in his mind, he had personal demons and personal sweetness, but he was first and foremost an artist.”
Inside a year of taking the band on, Goldberg had a phenomenon on his hands. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” snowballed across global rock radio; the riff that launched a million moshes. Here was a song that took the abrasive attitude and sludgy guitars of the Sub Pop scene, applied the quiet/loud jumpscare pop jolt that had been perfected by Boston’s noir rock subversives Pixies and repackaged it with an instant melody and gravelled vocal that the Guns N’ Roses fans could understand. Lyrically, it was surreal and ungraspable – “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido, okaaaay” – but when its parent album Nevermind arrived two weeks later, Nirvana’s unique aesthetic cohered. Where much of the Eighties punk underground raged against the machine and Pixies ranted about Biblical violence, college culture and incest, Nirvana found their anger in a desolate, self-destructive ennui familiar to millions of broken slacker teens. The grunge generation was born.
There’s an impression from the book that, though Cobain always planned to be a major rock icon, he struggled with it happening so fast. “Once ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was on the radio it was like a rocket ship launching. There was no precedent for it, coming from the punk rock culture that had incubated his personality as an artist. It was a powerful experience and one with mixed blessings in terms of how it affected everyone involved personally, and Kurt being the songwriter and lead singer got a disproportionate amount of the intensity of that. It’s disorientating for anybody, the visibility and the suddenly widened set of tools you have. And also the fact that you’ve spent many, many years wanting something and now you have it and it didn’t solve every single inner problem.”
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Did he change after Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson off the US No 1 spot? “No, he was the same guy. He was intellectually very prepared to be a public figure, it wasn’t like an overnight thing. But there was no question that within a few months heroin made an appearance.”
Goldberg’s book is sympathetic towards the splashdown of Love in Cobain’s upended world (“he fell in love… this wasn’t a transient rock’n’roll fling but a deep connection”), but recognises that the sudden presence of a “strong-minded, enormously talented artist in her own right and an enormously complicated person” in the Nirvana camp at such a pivotal time shifted the dynamic. After several years of flirting from afar, Love’s pursuit of Cobain becomes a full-blown relationship late in 1991. There are moments of intense, insular romance, disruptive tiffs and drug buddyism. Although Goldberg is careful not to blame Love for Cobain’s drug-taking, what begins as bonding over cough syrup turns into a revival of his previous dabblings in heroin.
He’d heard reports, but Goldberg first noticed Cobain withdrawn and barely able to stay conscious after an appearance on Saturday Night Live in January 1992. The next day he set about organising an intervention involving label associates, doctors and drug counsellors in LA to press both Love and Cobain to undergo detox, particularly since Love had just learnt she was pregnant. “There were seven or eight of us that confronted them at Cedars Sinai hospital. It was pretty much ‘please, don’t do this to yourselves, this is not good for you’. It was quite a clear emotional plea from everybody, forcing them to realise that it was not an invisible problem … The short-term results were within a month or two they both seemed clean and in a good frame of mind. But Kurt continued to struggle with drugs for the rest of his life, on and off. There was no silver bullet for him.”
Cobain’s sporadic addictions were a tangled psychological web. “There was part of him that hated himself for doing heroin,” Goldberg believes. “He felt guilty about it and also felt particularly bad that it was publicly known, it was a bad example to his fans, and there was part of him that just was in so much pain and that was apparently one of the things that could address it, both the emotional and physical pain. It was a constant struggle. But he wasn’t stoned all of the time, he was clean a lot of the time, he was very creative a lot of the time, he was a very kind person a lot of the time. He was complicated.”
Danny separates three stages of Cobain into “before Nevermind”, “the immediate aftermath” and “the dark side”. The final two years of his life were notoriously turbulent. A 1992 Vanity Fair article by Lynn Hirschberg suggested that Love was using heroin during her pregnancy, causing the newlywed couple to fight for custody of Frances Bean and instilling in Cobain a distrust of the press that would verge on paranoia: “A lot of artists will hear 99 compliments and one criticism and obsess on the criticism,” Goldberg says. “Kurt had a little bit of that tendency in him.” Yet there are reports of boisterous backstage food fights and the band setting fire to dressing room sofas, and Cobain parodied his reported issues at Nirvana’s legendary Reading Festival headline set that year.
“He took the anguish he was feeling and the unresolved issues about custody of his daughter and the embarrassment of the way he and Courtney had been depicted and turned it into this performance art,” Goldberg remembers. “Being pushed onstage in a wheelchair and hospital gown, then leaping up like James Brown and, with intense blazing energy playing an incredible set and asking everyone in the audience to say, ‘I love you Courtney’. He was not depressed all the time, he was creative, he was funny, he was warm, he was all of these things – it depended on which day or which hour of the day or which period of time which Kurt you were gonna get. Humour was a big part of it – they were simultaneously the hardest rocking band around and able to make fun of the idea of being the hardest rocking band, both manifesting rock’n’roll and deconstructing it at the same time. It was always part of the essence of Nirvana, It wasn’t unrelentingly dark, it was a combination of dark and light.”
Indeed, at the same time that the band were humorously baiting one-time fan turned arch nemesis Axl Rose into an abusive tantrum at the 1992 VMA Awards, they were also taking a serious and uncompromising approach to third album In Utero. Inspired by his work with Pixies and The Breeders, Cobain chose celebrated punk maverick Steve Albini to produce the record in just 14 days, creating a bleak, scabrous slab of hardcore noise rock that many consider their real masterpiece.
“The sheer success of [Nevermind] made it by definition ‘commercial’,” Goldberg argues. “Kurt was conscious of the attitudes of a lot of people in the punk rock community so he wanted to do something different... Albini had a technique of recording that created more of an intimate feeling, as if the band was in the room with you as the listener.”
When Cobain asked Scott Litt to remix the album’s singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” to bring his buried vocals to the fore, Albini attacked Nirvana’s team in the press as manipulative and parasitic: “Every single other person involved in that band’s career was a piece of shit,” he said. “There are people who were in Nirvana’s camp who will think ‘he can’t be talking about me’. I’m talking about them. Those people lied to my face, lied to the band’s face, took advantage of the band’s naivety and got them hoodwinked into signing ridiculous deals, embezzled money from them, made them pay for absurd bullshit.” Was he talking about Danny?
“He’s a good self-promoter,” Goldberg retorts. “I admire some of his records. I’ve never met him to this day. Everyone’s entitled to make a living. Kurt controlled every aspect of that record as he controlled every aspect of the previous record and every detail of Nirvana’s career, so the idea that there were other people influencing or controlling what Kurt did as an artist is not true. Kurt had 100 per cent creative control legally and also morally. No one was gonna argue after Nevermind with any decision he made. He was the boss, he was the visionary… he made the record he wanted to make.”
Despite its clear intention to see off the brainless jock element of Nirvana’s audience, the sort of guys that would’ve been beating the band up in high school, In Utero sold in its millions in 1993. Yet Goldberg took a step back at this second peak, taking a role as a record company exec en route to becoming president of several US major labels. “I loved Kurt and was so proud of what Nirvana accomplished, and I liked the other guys too, but I was nervous about its fragility, especially after understanding that there were drugs around.”
He watched Cobain’s final downward spiral as a close associate, friend and adviser. His repeated unsuccessful attempts at rehab, his phoned threats to potential biographers he was suspicious of (Danny was “horrified” that Cobain would do such a thing), his drug meltdown backstage at the recording of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York performance in November 1993, his overdose in Rome. All of it made Goldberg, when the end finally came, wearily dismissive of the “conspiracy theories” that claim Cobain was murdered.
“It’s ridiculous,” he asserts. “He killed himself. I saw him the week beforehand, he was depressed. He tried to kill himself six weeks earlier, he’d talked and written about suicide a lot, he was on drugs, he got a gun. Why do people speculate about it? The tragedy of the loss is so great people look for other explanations. I don’t think there’s any truth at all to it.”
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Shortly before his death, Goldberg confesses, Cobain had asked him if he might be able to launch a career outside of Nirvana. He’d even arranged to record with REM’s Michael Stipe and bought the plane ticket, but never showed up. Had he lived, Goldberg surmises, he might have been his generation’s Neil Young, always burning out and never fading away. “I think he would’ve found different ways of expressing himself, sometimes with the band and sometimes not.”
It’s all too easy to fantasise about the music that a major rock star didn’t live to make, but Cobain’s legend is rooted in far more than simply dying young. In his few short years at the helm of 20th-century rock music he upended the machismo, cockiness and lurid lasciviousness of the genre and ushered empathy, sensitivity and emotional depth to the fore, saving rock from the grunts and the jocks. It’s him we have to thank for every inclusive, compassionate rock band from Paramore to Idles – and for making Motley Crue irrelevant, we are forever in his debt.
Goldberg, too, sees Cobain alongside the true legends of music. “He’s one of the greats. He’s somebody that touched people very deeply and very widely, which is a handful of people. Bob Marley’s on that list, John Lennon, Dylan, Edith Piaf, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday. He’s on that list of the greats.”
His fondest memory? Goldberg doesn’t even pause.
“I keep coming back to thinking about his smile,” he says. “There was something about the look in his eyes at certain times that was so beautiful, both amused and loving at the same time, that’s what I come back to.”
On or about April 5, 1994, Kurt went up to an attic over his garage, took a lot of heroin, and then killed himself with a shotgun. He left a note. Its closing words were “peace, love, empathy.”What was Kurt Cobain's last song? ›
Heart-Shaped Box, song number 23 on Nirvana's Munich set-list, and the lead single from their acclaimed third studio album, In Utero, would be the final song Kurt Cobain ever played onstage.Who was nirvanas manager? ›
During an appearance on Cobas & Fire, Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg discussed his relationship with Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Dave Grohl, and more.Who is Rosemary Carroll Kurt Cobain? ›
One of those people was Rosemary Carroll - the couple's lawyer, and Goldberg's ex-wife. In the film, there are tapes of a recorded conversation between Carroll and Grant, in which Carroll tells him she found what appeared to be handwriting template of Cobain's penmanship in Love's purse.Why did Nirvana wear dresses? ›
“I like to wear dresses because they're comfortable,” Kurt Cobain told Melody Maker in December 1992. “There's nothing more comfortable than that cozy flower pattern… It just feels comfortable, sexy and free wearing a dress.Was Kurt Cobain a good musician? ›
Cobain was not a bad guitarist — he made music that was perfect for Nirvana. With his unique anti-hero persona, Cobain became one of the most influential guitarists and songwriters of all time.Did Kurt Cobain use a pick? ›
The guitar picks he used the most frequently were Dunlop Tortex Standard . 60mm picks, in orange.Why is Nirvana Unplugged so popular? ›
Because as music, it's incredible. The band run through a tense and brilliant 14-song set in one scintillating take, something unusual at the time for the popular MTV series, and the result is one of the greatest live albums ever—an unforgettable document of raw tension and artistic genius.Who owns Kurt Cobain's music? ›
When Nirvana singer and lead songwriter Kurt Cobain died in 1994, his widow, rocker Courtney Love, became the primary beneficiary of his estate, which includes more than ninety-eight percent of the band's publishing rights.Does Courtney Love own the rights to Nirvana? ›
Courtney Love is worth an estimated $150 million, thanks in part to the ownership stake in Nirvana that she inherited when husband Kurt Cobain died. After Cobain committed suicide in 1994, Love inherited his writing and publishing rights which were valued at $130 and $115 million, respectively.
To begin: Kurt Cobain was a fantastic musician. He wrote several of the most beautiful and tortured songs in the modern rock songbook. He was clearly the seminal figure in the grunge movement of the early-'90s. He composed and performed with great authenticity, which is why so many of his tunes have become touchstones.Was Courtney Love happy with Kurt? ›
“Kurt Cobain picked Courtney Love, and Courtney Love picked Kurt Cobain,” said Cross. “No matter how flawed they were at times as individuals, they were two people that loved each other.” And when they took those vows, they meant them — and made no apologies to the doubters who predicted a rocky future for the couple.What does Frances Bean Cobain think about Kurt? ›
Frances Bean Talks About Life Without Her Dad Kurt CobainDid Kurt Cobain draw? ›
Although known mostly for his musical accomplishments, Cobain was also a gifted visual artist. Many of his art works were created during a tender childhood consisting of innocent drawings and symbolic macabre paintings that were closely connected to his later troubled home life.Is Nirvana overrated? ›
Kurt Cobain was Nirvana, and is in no way overrated, but Nirvana without him is the most overrated band to ever exist.Who owns Kurt Cobain's guitar? ›
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay already has an impressive collection of music memorabilia, and it just got stronger this weekend. Irsay had the winning bid on a guitar that was previously owned by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.Who was Kurt Cobain's favorite guitarist? ›
John Lennon (The Beatles)
Cobain's knack for catchy melodies undoubtedly comes from listening to The Beatles, and in terms of the band, John Lennon was his favourite.
Is The COBAIN CHORD a Real Thing? - YouTubeDid Kurt Cobain use piano strings? ›
On the subject of strings – there has been a rumor regarding the strings that he used that originated from an interview from the Musician magazine, in 1992. In the said interview Kurt mentioned that he's using actual piano strings for low E and A. I use piano wire for guitar strings, 'cause it's a lot thicker.Where is Kurt Cobain's guitar? ›
The Kurt Cobain “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Fender Mustang guitar is now part of “The Jim Irsay Collection.” Of all his electric guitars, Kurt considered this Mustang his favorite. You're invited to our very first public exhibition June 3rd at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City.
In 1990, after the recording of 'Bleach', Kurt Cobain got the pedal that supplied some of the most memorable moments in his career - the Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus.Where is Kurt Cobain sweater? ›
The Nirvana rocker's iconic Unplugged sweater will be included in Julien's Auctions' "Icons & Idols: Rock 'N' Roll" Oct. 25 and 26 at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York. Also up for bid is one of Cobain's Fender guitars.What brand was Kurt Cobain's cardigan? ›
Undoubtedly, the cardigan cause célèbre was also helped by Kurt Cobain, whose stained and crusy mohair olive green sweater by the defunct Perry Ellis-owned knitwear brand Manhattan Industries sold for a record $334,000 in late October, making it the most expensive sweater ever sold at auction.Does Dave Grohl have rights to Nirvana? ›
The lawsuits were eventually settled in April 2006, and the same deal remained for Dave Grohl, to receive 12.5% each for the royalties of Nirvana.How much did Courtney Love inherit from Kurt? ›
Upon his death from suicide, Courtney inherited both Kurt's writing and publishing rights, which were valued at $130 and $115 million respectively.Did Dave Grohl write any Nirvana songs? ›
In an interview on CBS show Sunday Morning, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl has revealed why he never wrote music or sang in Nirvana, and only started writing his own material after Kurt Cobain's death in 1994. Turns out the musical legend wasn't as confident then as he is now.Who owns Kurt Cobain's image? ›
The ongoing saga of the family Cobain just got another wrinkle when The Fix revealed that 19-year old Frances Bean Cobain—the only child of Kurt and Courtney—has actually been in control of her father's name, likeness, and appearance rights since 2010.How are Nirvana royalties split? ›
According to court records, the royalties from sales and use of songs (records, videos, radio, etc) was split with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic each getting 12.5% of royalties from only eleven songs and Cobain getting the rest.How much money was Kurt Cobain worth? ›
The brand of Kurt Cobain—his estate was recently valued at $450 million—is clearly big business, and could grow as Nirvana is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 10.Is Kurt Cobain a nihilist? ›
Grunge musicians, such as the late Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana, exemplified a nihilistic lifestyle and glorified self-worthlessness.
Kurt CobainDid Courtney Love write any songs about Kurt? ›
The song was actually written in 1991, specifically about Kurt Cobain. But the track is about unrequited love, right? Well, in actual fact, Love has said she wrote the song because she thought he didn't like her. Detailing further, she said: “I had to write most of the lyrics on my arm in Sharpie as I ran out of paper.What happened between Kurt and Courtney? ›
They were both addicted to drugs, Courtney was climbing the ladder of fame while Kurt was already at the top and was struggling to keep himself together. Even though there are thousands who claim that Courtney didn't help him enough to get clean, it was actually her who called him out.Why is Frances Cobain's middle name Bean? ›
According to reports, she was named 'Frances' after Frances McKee from 'The Vaselines', and it was later decided that she would carry the middle name 'Bean' because her father Kurt thought she looked like a kidney bean on the ultrasound.Who is Kurt Cobain son? ›
In January 1979, Westeby gave birth to a boy, Chad Cobain. This new family, which Cobain insisted was not his real one, was in stark contrast to the attention Cobain was used to receiving as an only boy, and he became resentful of his stepmother.Why was Frances Bean taken away? ›
Courtney Love lost custody of Frances Bean in 2009
In 2003, Love was “arrested and accused in an attempted break-in at an ex-boyfriend's home, overdosed on painkillers and made a suicide threat.” At this time, Frances was placed into the temporary care of Cobain's mother — Wendy O'Connor.
Kurt Cobain's exact age would be 55 years 5 months old if alive. Total 20,239 days.Is it better to burn out than to fade away? ›
Neil Young once wrote, “Rock and roll is here to stay/it's better to burn out than to fade away.” Kurt Cobain quoted that line in his suicide note in 1994.What would Kurt Cobain think of the Foo Fighters? ›
The rock legend recently at down with NME in an interview that saw him reveal that he never thinks about what late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain would think of Foo Fighters music.How did Kurt Cobain learn to sing? ›
In an interview with BBC Music from this past November, former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl said he's pretty sure Cobain never had any formal musical training. But Cobain went to a vocal coach at least one time that he knows of.
Kurt CobainWho owns Kurt Cobain's image? ›
The ongoing saga of the family Cobain just got another wrinkle when The Fix revealed that 19-year old Frances Bean Cobain—the only child of Kurt and Courtney—has actually been in control of her father's name, likeness, and appearance rights since 2010.Why is Frances Cobain's middle name Bean? ›
According to reports, she was named 'Frances' after Frances McKee from 'The Vaselines', and it was later decided that she would carry the middle name 'Bean' because her father Kurt thought she looked like a kidney bean on the ultrasound.Who controls Kurt Cobain's estate? ›
When Nirvana singer and lead songwriter Kurt Cobain died in 1994, his widow, rocker Courtney Love, became the primary beneficiary of his estate, which includes more than ninety-eight percent of the band's publishing rights.Who originally sang out of the blue into the black? ›
The line "It's better to burn out than it is to rust" is often credited to Young's friend Jeff Blackburn of The Ducks.Who said the quote it's better to burn out than to fade away? ›
It's better to burn out than to fade away. Neil Young, My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue) on the album Rust Never Sleeps (1979). Quoted by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note.