Nirvana's Kurt Cobain dies Seattle songwriter, 27, an apparent suicide

April 09, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Kurt Cobain, the leader of the rock group Nirvana hailed by critics as "the John Lennon of alternative rock" and "voice of our youth's future," was found dead in his Seattle home yesterday, an apparent suicide. He was 27.

Seattle police said Mr. Cobain had been dead at least a day. The singer had a gunshot wound to the head; a shotgun and a suicide note were found nearby.

Police did not disclose the contents of the note.

Mr. Cobain was the songwriter and voice behind such hits as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Lithium," "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies." His band was at the forefront of the Seattle-based grunge movement (though the singer thought of their music as being straight punk) and was widely credited with bringing alternative rock into the pop mainstream.

Ironically, there was a time, back when Nirvana was touring behind its breakthrough album, "Nevermind," that anyone who asked Mr. Cobain "How're you doing?" got the same stock answer: "I hate myself and want to die."

He meant it as a joke, of course. At the time, life couldn't have been better for him and his band.

After several years playing in scruffy clubs to tiny crowds, Nirvana had a chart-topping album and the attention of a generation.

Mr. Cobain and his bandmates even had an impact outside the music world, inspiring fashion designers to pay homage to their flannel shirts, torn jeans and unwashed hair by creating "grunge" fashion.

What was to hate in that?

But Mr. Cobain's words took on a chilling resonance when an electrician, who had gone to his residence to work on the wiring, found his body yesterday morning.

In March, the singer overdosed on alcohol and tranquilizers while vacationing in Rome and was rushed, comatose, to a hospital. And earlier this week, Nirvana pulled out of its commitment to headline the annual Lollapalooza Festival, a move that added fuel to rumors the band was breaking up.

Chaos -- particularly emotional disarray -- played a large part in Mr. Cobain's creative life.

"Basically," he told writer Michael Azerrad last year, "that's what all our songs are about -- confusion and I hate myself and I don't want to live."

Even so, there was an eloquence and spirit to Mr. Cobain's negativism that sparked an immediate empathy in his audience.

Nirvana's fans were, for the most part, young, unempowered and disaffected -- listeners who knew exactly what he meant when, in the hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he sang, "I'm worse at what I do best/ And for this gift I feel blessed."

Moreover, the band's sound, despite the "grunge" moniker, was little more that reconstituted punk rock, a raw and aggressive style that was only slightly cleaned up for the band's second and most successful album, "Nevermind."

Before "Nevermind" topped the charts, alternative rock was considered just another minority interest; after it reached No. 1, alternative was declared the future of rock and roll.

No wonder rock critic Gina Arnold described Nirvana's success in these terms: "It means we won."

And yet, Nirvana -- and particularly Mr. Cobain -- remained uneasy with that success. The band's attitude was avowedly anti-mainstream, and its members actively resented having to take part in the sort of promotional activities that usually accompany mass-market success.

Nor was the band especially happy with the mass audience it unexpectedly wound up with. Mr. Cobain frequently derided the metal-heads and jocks he saw in Nirvana's ever-increasing fanbase, telling some interviewers that these were the same kind of people who would beat him up in high school.

Later, in his liner notes to "Incesticide" (a compilation of his band's pre-"Nevermind" recordings), Mr. Cobain wrote that "a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and egg while they sang the lyrics to our song 'Polly.' I have a hard time carrying on knowing that there are plankton like that in our audience."

Mr. Cobain had a hard time, period. His self-destructive streak was no secret; in addition to the champagne and Roipnol cocktail he downed in Rome, both he and his wife, Courtney Love, were longtime heroin abusers.

Moreover, after he surrendered several weapons to Seattle police in the wake of a domestic dispute, it looked like he wasn't kidding when he sang "load up on guns" in "Teen Spirit."

By the time Nirvana's last album, "In Utero," was finished, Mr. Cobain was feuding with his producer (Steve Albini), his record company (Geffen) and the band he considered his arch-rival (Pearl Jam, which by all other accounts had no beef at all with Nirvana).

Mr. Cobain's life wasn't all misery, though. He clearly loved his wife, the combative and controversial Ms. Love, and claimed he was determined to see that their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, would not grow up to complain (as he does in "Serve the Servants"), "I tried hard to have a father/But instead I had a Dad."

Apparently, the love of his wife and child could not quench the pain and self-loathing that ate at his soul. We can only guess at his reasons until the contents of his suicide note are released, and even then, we may not know for sure.

But for now, "Teen Spirit" only has the smell of death.

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