Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana, spent only three years in the public eye, and they released only three studio albums. But what he accomplished before committing suicide 10 years ago Monday at age 27 – deciding it was “better to burn out than fade away,” as he quoted Neil Young in his suicide note – was remarkable.
Beneath this bridge above the muddy banks of the Wishkah River, a troubled young Cobain would come to escape his unhappy home and the persistent gray drizzle of the Washington coast.
Among the cracking concrete supports, he would smoke pot and drink and plot his stardom, bragging to friends of his “suicide genes” and that he would die a young rock star.
It’s here that many of his fans have come to pay their respects since he fulfilled that prophesy with a needle and a shotgun.
“Peace, love, empathy,” reads one message scrawled in graffiti under the bridge.
“Kurt,” says another, “Your spirit will bounce on happily.”
Critics describe 1991’s “Nevermind,” which has sold more than 10 million copies, as one of the decade’s most important albums. Its biggest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” remains a seminal expression of teen angst. Cobain brought the dark, driven sound of grunge rock to the nation, helped save the world from hair metal, and with a single line – “Here we are now, entertain us” – captured and captivated a generation that had grown bored and cynical about popular music.
Andrew Harms, a 24-year-old disc jockey on a Seattle radio station, still remembers his first exposure to Nirvana, which remains his favorite band: seeing the video for “Teen Spirit” on MTV.
“It filled me with an energy that music had not done for me before,” Harms says. “The guy had an amazing creative mind, and he took all the emotions within him and expressed it through music. It was music of substance, music that seemed real to me.”
Cobain biographer Charles Cross says that when Nirvana went to record “Nevermind,” they followed Warrant into the studio – a band known for big hair, open shirts and their “Cherry Pie” video.
“Music at that point was so prefabricated, so fake, so hairspray that Nirvana was really a breath of fresh air,” Cross says. “It was more organic than anything we’d seen in music in years.”
Much of the screaming desperation in Cobain’s songs can be traced to his life in this timber town on the Washington coast, and in Montesano, just inland, where his grandparents and father lived. Cobain’s parents divorced when he was 9, an event that scarred him deeply, and much of his adolescence was spent bouncing among the homes – and garages and vans – of his parents, grandparents, relatives and friends.
As Cross writes in “Heavier Than Heaven,” a family history of alcohol abuse and suicide weighed on him, but several relatives on both sides were artistically talented. Many friends recall Cobain saying he would one day join the “27 Club” – a reference to the age Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were when they died.
Cobain found an outlet for these emotions in guitar, punk rock and painting, through which he would express himself for the rest of his life. He spoke frequently during the last two years of his life of giving up music for painting.
Shortly before he dropped out of Aberdeen’s Weatherwax High School, Cobain began playing with classmate Krist Novoselic. They formed Nirvana after moving to Olympia in the late 1980s, and drummer Dave Grohl – now of the Foo Fighters – joined the band in 1990, the year Cobain began taking heroin, and the year Nirvana’s first album, “Bleach,” helped it win a major label deal with DGC, part of Geffen Records.
Over the next year, Nirvana – and grunge – exploded onto the national stage, with Seattle becoming the locus, thanks to Nirvana and other local bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. In September 1991, when “Nevermind” went on sale, Cobain had just been evicted from his Olympia apartment and was sleeping in his car. Geffen initially expected to sell only 50,000 copies of “Nevermind.” By year’s end, it sold 2 million.
Shortly before Cobain brought his dyed locks and emaciated frame onto “Saturday Night Live,” he learned “Nevermind” had knocked Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” out of the No. 1 spot on the charts.
As his fame soared, though, so did his heroin use, in part as a self-treatment for his chronic stomach pain. Encouraged by his wife, Courtney Love, who had her own drug problems, Cobain checked into detox several times over the next 2 1/2 years. But he always returned to heroin, even around the time his daughter was born in the summer of 1992.
Nevertheless, his songwriting remained impressive and became more polished with Love’s collaboration, especially on “Heart-shaped Box” and other songs for Nirvana’s third album, “In Utero.”
In January 1994, as Cobain’s despondency spiraled, he recorded his last great song, “You Know You’re Right.” It would not be released until 2002, following a long legal battle between Love and the surviving Nirvana members, but the song’s ironic couplet “Things have never been so swell/ and I have never been so well” lent a serious insight into Cobain’s mind at the time.
While in Rome a month after recording it, he tried to kill himself by taking 60 tranquilizers. The overdose left him in a coma.
He survived, but in early April he jumped a wall at a detox center in Los Angeles and flew back to Seattle.
On April 5, 1994 – give or take 24 hours – Cobain wrote a suicide note, in which he said he couldn’t stand to think of his daughter becoming “the miserable self-destructive, death rocker that I’ve become.” He went into the greenhouse of his mansion, injected himself with a massive dose of heroin, put a 20-gauge shotgun against the roof of his mouth, and fired.
An electrician found his body the morning of April 8.
Thousands of people attended a vigil for him at Seattle Center back then. There is no such widespread event planned for the 10th anniversary of his death, though some fans communicating on the Internet have suggested meeting at Seattle Center. Others will come here, beneath the Young Street Bridge, or to the benches at Viretta Park, next to Cobain’s house in Seattle, where some of his ashes are scattered.
Radio stations around the country plan to devote airplay to Nirvana’s music Monday, and the Aberdeen Museum of History plans to open an exhibit and walking tour of Cobain-related sites this summer.
“You can’t get around the drug use, but we’re not going to dwell on it a lot,” curator Dann Sears says. “What’s important is his legacy, his music… and he revolutionized music.”