Nirvana: Cast a Giant Shadow
Kurt Cobain— rock visionary, Godfather of Grunge, voice of the disaff- ected—was also a powerful and influential guitarist. Alan di Perna discusses his impact on American music—and why a man who had everything came to the terrible conclusion that he had nothing.
As the leader of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain set the tone for rock music in the Nineties, and beyond. He was the premier icon of grunge, the raw, guitar-heavy, blunt-spoken style that will stand for all time as a signifier of the era, much as glam does for Seventies and psychedelia for the Sixties.
As a human being, Cobain personified the anxieties, frustrations and despair of his generation—kids from broken homes, young men and women facing a future of reduced economic expectations. A misfit within the institution called rock and roll, Kurt’s punk values put him at odds with the rock stardom that the world was so eager to thrust upon him. As he declared in the sardonic “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” (In Utero), “I do not want what I have got.” Kurt Cobain’s death—at age 27, of a self-inflicted wound to the head with a 12-gauge shotgun— denied a voice to a generation most in need of a champion, comforter and friend.
Born on February 20, 1967, Cobain was just eight when his parents divorced. Although almost universally associated with Seattle, he was actually from Aberdeen, Washington, a small, economically depressed logging town more than 100 miles from Seattle. “White trash posing as middle class,” is how Cobain described his background to biographer Michael Azerrad in the latter’s Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. By all accounts, Kurt was deeply and permanently hurt by his parents’ divorce. After the split, he never really had a stable childhood home. At school he was diagnosed as hyperactive and given the drug Ritalin. He dropped out in the 12th grade. Cobain didn’t fit in with the macho stereotype imposed on young males in Aberdeen. He had no use for hunting, sports or other “manly” pursuits, although he did enjoy getting high with the local stoners. He was harassed at high school for befriending a gay student. In later life, he would speak out vehemently against homophobia, sexism and racism.
Cobain demonstrated artistic ability at an early age, and his collages, sculptures and other artworks adorn Nirvana’s records. Had he not become a musician, he might well have pursued a career in the visual arts. But when he was 14, his fate took another course: his father bought him his first electric guitar, which Kurt soon discovered he was most comfortable playing left-handed. Cobain’s musical tastes developed along much the same lines as many musicians of his generation. His mother introduced him to the Beatles, the Monkees and other Sixties pop music when he was very young, but he moved on to bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC while still in his preteens. When punk rock finally made its way out to Aberdeen, sometime in the early Eighties, Cobain embraced it eagerly. Years later, he would be embarrassed when relatives or childhood friends recalled him jamming to Iron Maiden records or drawing the Led Zeppelin logo on his bedroom wall. But it is precisely that combination of heavy metal and early Eighties punk (Black Flag, Flipper, etc.) that would later become known as grunge and have an extraordinarily powerful effect on the masses.