The last rock star

By Sergio Ariza

It is 25 years since the death of Kurt Cobain, the man who led Nirvana and became the last great rock star; something he hated deeply, having been a part of the alternative and 'underground' music of the 80s. Twenty-five years after his death his legacy remains alive, and is the main reference of 90s music. His career was short but practically without flaw, but as a lover of his music I would have preferred to hear his decline in exchange for three or four more bursts of inspiration.  

Kurt Donald Cobain was born on February 20, 1967 in Aberdeen, USA. From childhood he was interested in art: specifically music, with the Beatles being one of his favorite bands; and painting, which he did from an early age. He was a happy boy who saw his world crumble when his parents divorced in 1976. Shortly after both his parents had new partners and Cobain began to long for a normal family.

On the day he turned 14, his uncle Chuck told him to choose between an old bicycle or an even older guitar as a gift. For someone who was drawing rock stars in his notebook the choice was obvious; he never remembered if it was a Harmony or a Sears but he did sign up for guitar lessons just long enough to be taught to play AC/DC’s Back In Black.

And with those three chords he would make marvels in the future.   AC/DC was not the only rock band that interested Cobain and his first concert was that of Sammy Haggar. But his enlightenment came shortly after when he discovered punk rock, after seeing the Melvins he wrote in his diary: "they played faster than I ever imagined they could play and with more energy than my Iron Maiden records could provide; this is what I have been looking for." He underlined this last sentence twice. Displaced in high school, punk and alternative culture gave him a home in which he did not feel rejected. After leaving high school, his mother gave him an ultimatum: find a job or leave the house. Two weeks later his clothes were stacked in boxes in the street.  

So he survived in friends' houses and immersed himself more in alternative punk, going to Olympia and Seattle to see concerts by Minor Threat and Black Flag. At around this time he finally got his first electric guitar, a 70s Univox Hi-Flier Phase 3. It was a model that was a cheap copy of the Mosrite Ventures, something that fitted him like a glove, as his philosophy was to look for the cheapest and tackiest equipment possible. One of his first bands, Fecal Matter, led him to meet one of the most important figures of his life, Krist Novoselic, a student at Aberdeen High School who also shared his love for the Melvins and alternative punk. Together they formed Nirvana in 1987.

In 1988 they signed for Sub Pop and recorded their first single, Love Buzz, a Shocking Blue cover, and soon began to record their first album, Bleach. The alternative scene was divided by regions in the US, and Seattle was one of the places with a more active scene, with Sub Pop, an independent producer, giving shelter to some groups that would popularize a genre known as grunge, which included bands like Mudhoney or Soundgarden. So it is normal that Bleach is clearly anchored in this current, with Cobain’s swampy sound being produced via a lot of distortion through his beloved Univox Hi-Flier, a Boss DS-1 pedal and a borrowed 60s Fender Twin. But a song like About A Girl already left the prodigious talent of Cobain clear, because of its memorable melodies and its touches of R.E.M. and the Beatles. In fact Cobain wrote the song after spending three hours listening without interruption to Meet The Beatles. Apart from those flashes of inspiration, what stood out most on the album was his screaming voice full of rage.

The album sold well, for a marginal scene like theirs, and Cobain began to buy several Univox Hi-Fliers, as he was smashing then up in his concerts. Something was brewing in the air and characters from outside the alternative scene began to appear at Nirvana’s concerts. In April 1990 they started recording demos for their next album. The material was much more pop, with Cobain in a state of grace when it comes to melodies. In September of that year there was another fundamental change in the band. After various drummers, Cobain and Novoselic found their Ringo, and Dave Grohl became part of the band. According to the bass player, it only took them two minutes to know they had found the perfect drummer and everything was "in its place".

It was just at the right time, as the band had just signed for a multinational, DGC Records, and was going to start recording the album that was going to shake the foundations of the music industry, Nevermind. With the money he had earned Cobain made some changes to his equipment, the most important being the arrival of the Electro-Harmonix Small Clone, a pedal that would define the sound of songs like Come As You Are, but he could also afford to buy several models of guitars for lefties, including some Japanese Stratocaster. Nothing ostentatious, or expensive, his tastes were still spartan as evidenced by the fact that he recorded Polly and Something In The Way, the two acoustic songs on the record, with a 12-string Stella that had cost him 30 dollars.


The new songs were more pop and were based on a sound very like the Pixies, the group with which he was obsessed at that time: first they were "calm and slow", while in the chorus they became "hard and noisy". To focus more on that sound the band signed Butch Vig as producer. Together they began to record an album that the record company expected to sell "about 250,000 copies", a figure not inconsiderable for an "alternative" group. Currently it has sold more than 30 million copies. A lot of it had to do with the first single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, and its music video (in which his most remembered guitar, along with his Jaguar, was first seen, the 1969 Fender Competition Mustang), which MTV did not stop playing. Rock experienced a new revolution, as it had done before with Chuck Berry or the Clash, and it was dangerous and rowdy again.

In January 1992 there was a significant event that would mark the decade, Nevermind ousted Michael Jackson's Dangerous from number one in the US record charts. The 80s had died, and given way to the 90s. Today, beyond its tremendous historical significance, Nevermind is listened to with the same reverence as then. Kurt Cobain may have trouble understanding why he had triumphed and many of his favorite bands like The Vaselines or Meat Puppets did not, but the fact is that, in addition to being in the right place at the right time, his talent was much greater, at the height of John Lennon - one of the few idols he had that was a rock star. And Nevermind is one of those albums that seems like a greatest hits album, in which every song, from the singles to songs like Drain You or On A Plain, borders on perfection. Something that Cobain was fully aware of, saying "if I had been smart, I would have saved a lot of those songs to go out on other albums for 15 years, but I can‘t do that, all the albums that I liked are those that they deliver one great song after another like Rocks of Aerosmith, Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin II or Back in Black of AC/DC".

Soon after, on February 24, 1992, Kurt Cobain married Courtney Love after only four months of courtship. Love was pregnant but that was not what led Cobain to the altar, but his desire to finally have a family. The boy to whom the divorce of his parents had cost him the childhood, wanted to form one at the moment in which his band had just hit its highest point, taking all of alternative music with it. Instead of continuing to tour or record a new album, Cobain left everything for six months in which, according to Love, the only thing he did was "stay in his apartment, inject heroin, paint and play his guitar." The man who refused to be a rock star saw himself become a cliché totally associated with them, becoming a junkie.

In the summer of '92 concerts were resumed that would end with Nirvana’s mythical performance at the Reading festival on August 30, 12 days after the birth of Cobain’s daughter. In February 1993 Nirvana begin to record In Utero, an album that was a reaction to the success they had achieved, a kind of alternative argument to show that success has not corrupted their music. Willing to give no concession for its continuation they sought a much more raw and alternative sound, with many more edges. For this reason they replaced Butch Vig with Steve Albini on the mixing table and gave the world a raw and abrasive work in which Cobain invested all his rage, his insecurities and his anger. But this time it was not teenage angst, it was the rage of a rock star. The phrase with which the record opens could not be more forceful "Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I'm bored and old". In another moment he left another phrase that perfectly reflected his character, "I think I'm dumb, Or maybe just happy." The case is that In Utero contained the two faces of Nirvana, the abrasive and the melodic, but this time they were separate. Of course, In Utero’s twelve songs confirmed Cobain as the best composer of the decade, with Serve The Servants, Heart-Shaped Box, Rape me, Dumb, Pennyroyal Tea or All Apologies as examples.

On September 21 the album was released and went straight to number 1 in its first week, and two days later they began a tour with a new member, the guitarist Pat Smear. But if during the recording of In Utero Cobain had detoxed, he soon returned to heroin and his chronic stomach pains reappeared. The tour seemed to be going well but he was tired of grunge, of the formula that gave him success, of the dynamic of the Pixies of quiet / loud. In Utero represented the end of a stage and he wanted to look for other sounds, similar to those found on R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People. The opportunity came with the recording of MTV’s Unplugged, which took place on November 18. Armed with a Martin D-18E, on which he changed his DeArmond pickup for a Bartolini 3AV, Cobain strips his sound down and shows himself without the distortion wall that surrounded Nirvana. The result is of an absolute rawness and, at the same time, of a gloomy beauty. Can you count on the fingers of the hand records that have such an incredible moment as their version of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night?. The moment when, with a broken voice, he starts shouting 'shiveeeeer' then he calms and, like a bluesman, sings 'the whole', stops, looks up - and we see his whole life pass in front of him -, and then he ends with 'night through'; that is worth more than all the gurgles of all the Britain's or America's Got Talent in the world.

But the fact was that both his physical and mental health was getting worse on their European tour, leading to a first suicide attempt at a hotel in Rome. The rest is well known: on April 5, 1994 he ended his life by shooting himself in the head with a Remington. The world found out three days later when he was found in his house. The man who did not want to be a rock star had joined the 'stupidest club in the world' with Hendrix, Morrison or Joplin.

Now at the entrance to his hometown, Aberdeen, you can read: "Welcome to Aberdeen - Come as you are". Little or nothing would have mattered to a boy who, as someone said, "simply did not love himself enough". He never understood his success or why his group had triumphed and most of his favorite bands did not. Some time after his band’s biggest release he said he was "ashamed of 'Nevermind' because it was closer to Mötley Crüe than to punk rock." He was wrong, his music has passed the test of time. Twenty five years later it continues to achieve the same emotional impact on the listener, and has even surpassed it. Now we know that the boy who "smelled like teen spirit" was sincere in all he said. Cobain was perhaps the first rock star without a filter and, probably for that reason, also the last of his kind.