It’s hard to know where to put Nirvana in the pantheon of music greats. They didn’t have the body of work (or the longevity) of bands like Queen or Bon Jovi but what they did have was impact, and what an impact they had.
Despite only releasing three studio albums, Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991) and In Utero (1993), their Seattle-based grunge sound instantly rocked the music world to it’s very core and provided a much welcome antidote to the poodle-permed ‘candyfloss’ metal rockers Def Leppard, Poison and the like.
Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, a 6’7” Croat grew up in Aberdeen, Washington and formed a band. They settled on Nirvana after rejecting Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, Bliss and Ted Ed Fred as names and the first demos were recorded in early 1988. The drummer position was proving hard to fill until they met Chad Channing and Nirvana was born.
Their first album Bleach was famously recorded for $606.17 and after sales of 35,000 (the album was a favourite on college campuses around the Pacific Northwest and its popularity, and that of the band, was on the up), they embarked on a national tour and started working on a follow-up record.
In 1990, Chad Channing was replaced by Dave Grohl, formerly of Washington DC hardcore punk band Scream. Principally opposed to the perceived commercialism and capitalism of so-called ‘big labels’, it appeared it was the only way their music was going to reach a wider audience.
After a bidding war, DGC offered the band a $287,000 advance and with Nevermind, Nirvana produced music of such brilliance that despite low expectations (by the band and the label), it started to sell. And sell some more. And some more. To date it’s sold 30m copies and is frequently dubbed ‘the album of the 90s’. It wrote, or re-wrote the rock rulebook and catapulted the reluctant superstars into the musical stratosphere.
Smells Like Teen Spirit’s rioting cheerleaders and smashed up instruments seduced MTV and then gravitated towards its natural habitat, the bored ‘why always me’ teenager. The release date of September 10th 1991 was the day grunge and alternative rock entered the mainstream, opening the door for bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, Hole and Mudhoney and closing the door, finally, on the dregs of 80s glam rock.
While Nevermind and the global hit singles it spawned, Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come as You Are coming on the back of little more than street-buzz, Cobain started to bemoan the group’s rise to fame. He was concerned that their legions of fans were missing the point of their anti-establishment missives. Cobain was a new breed of rock star. He voiced support for feminist issues and homosexuality but his hedonistic lifestyle was started to show signs of cracking.
His love affair with Hole singer Courtney Love was fractured and turbulent. Their relationship reached levels of media scrutiny previously reserved for John & Yoko, Sid & Nancy and Elvis & Priscilla and both of them being addicted to heroin didn’t help the headlines. They had a daughter, Frances Bean (who they were allowed to keep after a battle with social services surrounding their parental fitness) and during this chaotic time, the band released Incesticide, a collection of outtakes and early single releases.
By early 1993, Cobain’s personal life, and by definition that of the band, was starting to unravel quickly. He overdosed on heroin, was charged with domestic assault and overdosed for a second time before a gig in New York.
Their third and final album, In Utero reflected quite specifically what was happening to Cobain at this time. It was the sound of a band, and more specifically a man, in death throes. The Guinness Rockopedia described In Utero as ‘disease-obsessed gore, self-loathing, cracked screams, tortured feedback, funereal acoustic interludes – the sound of a tight band in chaos’. None more so than with the single Rape Me.
There then followed months of drug overdoses, death threats, suicide notes and rehab until April 1994 when he was found dead at home from a.20-gauge shotgun wound to the head. He’d had enough. The voice of a generation who spoke most clearly to a disaffected youth was quiet at 27. Where Lennon died for his art, Cobain died because of it.
Seattle was awash with candlelit vigils mourning the boy from Aberdeen and sales soared again. In November 1994, an acoustic set (MTV Unplugged in New York) recorded a year earlier was released and sold five million copies.
After Nevermind, the music landscape changed forever. Counterculture was acceptable (to a limit) and highly respected music journalist Stephen Thomas Erlewine stated that their breakthrough ‘didn’t eliminate the underground, it just gave it more exposure’.
It has been suggested that Kurt Cobain was the last in a generation of ‘real’ rock stars. He helped to validate Generation X and a perceived ‘slacker’ culture (think Beavis & Butthead) but yet he was an exquisitely creative, frail, beautiful man and a poet in the Dylan mould who has become an unwitting martyr, with everything he ever said picked apart for meaning and reference.
Nirvana will forever be known as the band that allowed us our teen spirit. Nothing before or since has come close to the effect of their instant success on a generation of wasters and now we have to endure manufactured Simon Cowell cash-cows with nothing more than bleached teeth, perma-tans and the lifespan of a mayfly.
We miss you Kurt. Rest in peace.
Kurt’s original idea for the cover of Nevermind was a woman giving birth underwater. The baby they eventually used was Spencer Elden and as of December 2013, he’s a 22-year old fine arts student in California!
According to Kurt, the name Nirvana was chosen because ‘I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk rock name like the Angry Samoans.’
REM wrote Let Me In about Kurt. He and Michael Stipe were close friends and Kurt had their album Automatic for the People in his stereo when he died.
Nirvana are actually from Aberdeen and not Seattle in Washington State. The sign welcoming drivers into the city says ‘Welcome to Aberdeen, Come As You Are’.
Quentin Tarantino asked Kurt to play Eric Stoltz’s heroin dealer part in Pulp Fiction but he refused on the basis that it was a little too close to home.
Kurt and Courtney Love used to check into hotels under the pseudonym Mr & Mrs Simon Ritchie – Sid Vicious’ real name!
Nirvana – Where Are They Now?
Kurt Cobain – Hailed as the ‘spokesperson of a generation’, he was uncomfortable with that pressure and constant media attention and he struggled with addiction, illness and depression in the last years of his life. He committed suicide with a shotgun at his home in Seattle on 8th April 1994. He was 27.
Dave Grohl – After Nirvana, Grohl has achieved worldwide success with the awesome and Grammy award-winning Foo Fighters. He has worked with the biggest names in the world of music across all genres and he is a committed anti-drugs and gay rights advocate. He is literally, the nicest man in the music business.
Krist Novoselic – He formed Sweet 75 and Eyes Adrift after Nirvana ended but he has effectively removed himself from the music scene. He is active politically, especially with the Joint Artists and Musicians Political Action Committee (JAMPAC) and he has been board chair of the electoral reform organisation FairVote since 2008.