There are few characters in fact or fiction whose lives have been mythologised, rehashed, decried or lauded to the extent of Kurt Cobain. As the frontman of grunge pioneers Nirvana, he brought poetry and fragility to the drug-laced world of early 90s rock’n’roll, creating an anthem for a generation in 1991’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, and cultivating a devoted fan following whose reaction to his suicide in April 1994 was utter devastation. Twenty years on, this shows no sign of abating, so, around the anniversary of his death, we look back on this fascinating man, and consider some of the more unusual facets of his life.
1) Growing up, Cobain had an imaginary friend called Boddah. He referenced his old companion in the opening lines of Lithium: “I’m so happy. Cause today I found my friends. They’re in my head,” and his suicide note was addressed to him.
2) When he was a young boy, Cobain was convinced he was an alien. Looking back, he said, “I always used to think that I was adopted by my mother because she found me after a spaceship left me from a different time or a different planet. Every night I used to talk to my real parents in the skies. I knew that there were thousands of other alien babies dropped off who were all over the place and I’d met quite a few of them. It’s just something I’d always like to toy with in my mind…it was really fun to pretend that there’s some special reason for me to be here.”
3) Cobain was arrested twice in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington; first for scrawling “Ain’t got no how watchamacallit” on the side of a building in 1985, and then, a year later, for trespassing onto the roof of an abandoned warehouse.
4) Cobain suffered from severe body issues. He had a slim frame and struggled to put on weight, so he started wearing layers to add bulk – developing his trademark uniform of ripped jeans, t-shirts and baggy cardigans. His bandmate Krist Novoselic remembers, “he talked about how ugly he thought he was all of the time. I remember one day he looked in a mirror and almost shed a few tears because he was so uncomfortable in his own skin. This photo was one of the only ones he’s ever liked of himself. He told me he liked it because he thought he looked good. Kurt rarely looked at a photo of himself and felt he was attractive. he kept that photo in his wallet for a while, I think. He was proud of it.”
5) Having befriended a gay student at school, Cobain suffered bullying for being gay, which he professed not to mind, claiming that he used to spray paint the phrase, “God is Gay” onto cars in Aberdeen. In 1992, after their performance on Saturday Night Live, the three members of Nirvana decided to French kiss during the end credits, much to the fury of the show runners who cut their antics from the reruns. In his personal journal, Cobain wrote, “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.”
6) The title for Nirvana’s most famous song came from a piece of graffiti and a misunderstanding. During a discussion about punk rock with Kathleen Hanna and Cobain’s girlfriend Tobi Vail, Hanna spray-painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” onto the wall. Unaware that Teen Spirit was actually the name of Vail’s deodorant, Cobain first interpreted the line as a revolutionary statement.
7) Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love first met in January, 1990, at a nightclub in Portland. Love was interested from the get-go, but Cobain was reluctant to get into a serious relationship, so they didn’t get together until late 1991. Love discovered she was pregnant in 1992, and in February the pair got married on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. The bride wore a satin and lace dress once owned by actress Frances Farmer, the groom wore pyjamas. Asked about his relationship with Love, Cobain replied with a signature blend of the poetic and profane: “It’s like Evian water and battery acid. And when you mix the two? You get love.”
8) In a 1993 interview in Seattle, Cobain cited Perfume by Patrick Suskind as his favourite book. "I've read [it] about ten times in my life and I can't stop reading it. It's like something that's just stationary in my pocket all the time, it just doesn't leave me, so if I'm ever bored, or on an airplane or whatever, I just read it again and again and again. Because I'm a hypochondriac and it just affects me. It makes me want to cut my nose off."
9) While being deservedly renowned for much extravagant rule breaking, Cobain was notoriously risk averse behind the wheel. On Nirvana’s first tour in bassist Krist Novoselic’s van, there was a driving roster that included everyone except Cobain, who was banned because he drove – according to his then-girlfriend Tracy Marander – “like a little old lady”.
10) Much controversy surrounds Cobain’s relationships with cats. There are a number of amazing photographs of him curled up with the creatures, including this amazing shot featuring the frontman, a kitten and his infant daughter Frances Bean, yet the most famous feline tale to be found swirling around the internet reports that he killed a cat in 1981 by trapping it up his parents' chimney. There is no proof for this, and the later images imply that he had got over any early grievance by the 90s.
Text by Tish Wrigley