Kurt Cobain's suicide: the day grunge died

Although Kurt Cobain took his own life on April 5, 1994, it was not until three days later that his body was found by police in his home outside Seattle.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
03 April 2024 Wednesday 10:23
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Kurt Cobain's suicide: the day grunge died

Although Kurt Cobain took his own life on April 5, 1994, it was not until three days later that his body was found by police in his home outside Seattle. Soon the news spread like wildfire, thousands of journalists traveled to the northwest of the United States, and even President Bill Clinton considered sending a message to the country as a result of the event. The death of the Nirvana leader, whose 30th anniversary this Friday, marked the definitive end of grunge, the marginal Seattle movement that conquered the charts with the help of multinationals only to dissolve while many of those who rose up fashion turned their backs on the movement that saw the birth of Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and, of course, Nirvana.

“We were dragged dizzily towards the heights, higher and higher, like the shuttle Challenger, and then it exploded,” Krist Novoselic, Nirvana bassist, commented years later. “Dave [Grohl, drums] and I managed to land, okay? But not Kurt,” he passed away at age 27, as did Jimi Hendrix, the musician who put Seattle on the map. The American dream played a trick on that handful of misunderstood people clad in their flannel shirts and Dr. Marten's boots, who enjoyed the dream of succeeding in music with the calm that comes from being convinced that it would never happen.

The journey to the heights began a few years before in a rainy city where concert tours did not reach because it was too far from San Francisco and Los Angeles. A Seattle today known for Microsoft, Starbucks or Amazon that in the mid-80s lived off the lumber industry and had its most international firm in Boeing aeronautics. A region with an inhospitable climate where the best fun for young people was locking themselves in their garages to play with amateur bands without any hope of making the leap to the big circuits. This is how U-men, Melvins, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, Green River and Soundgarden were born, the six groups that the small record label CZ Records brought together in 1986 as part of the Deep Six album, a reflection of the style that was created in Seattle somewhere between punk with corrosive lyrics and accelerated rhythms and the more serious sound of heavy metal.

At the concerts of these bands it was common for the musicians to appear on stage dressed up, drunk or both at the same time in front of not too large audiences where there were many white university students and everyone knew each other. It was in this environment where Cobain made his first steps with a band with a poetic name like Fecal Matter shortly after Duff McKagan, future bassist of Guns'n'Roses, left the band 10 minutes warning and left for Los Angeles fleeing from heroin, whose consumption had expanded throughout the city.

The fuse that sparked the explosion of grunge was Sub Pop, a record company founded in 1986 by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, two indie music fans responsible for the fanzine Subterranean Pop who set out to make the music known throughout the United States. was brewing in Seattle. To achieve this, they spread the paradigmatic archetype of grunge, with its flannel shirt, Dr. Martens boots, disheveled hair and marginal origins, although many of them came from university. “Sub Pop changed the rules of the game a little: we are weird, we are failures, we are pathetic,” is how Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth, described it in the book Everybody Loves Our City (Es Pop editions). Some characters that did not fit the image of “pretty punk-rock kids, they were nerdy, skinny and picked their noses.” To promote itself, Sub Pop printed T-shirts with its logo and the word “Loser” while advertising itself with the slogan “We're ripping you off big time!”

Among the strategies that the record label used to attract attention was the invitation to Seattle of journalist Everett True, from the British magazine Melody Maker, to prepare a report on local Seattle bands. Published in 1989, it included names like Mudhoney, TAD, Screaming Trees and Nirvana, which True defined as “the most real thing, without a rockstar attitude, without intellectual perspectives”, just some twenty-somethings from the periphery who “if they didn't play music they would work in a supermarket, they would chop firewood or fix cars in a workshop.” The report put the Seattle sound on the board in both the UK and the US, and is considered responsible for labeling this music as “grunge”, an adjective that literally means “grime” and that had already been used. previously used to refer to other bands elsewhere, although this time it became an official label.

That same year Nirvana published Bleach with the Sub Pop label, which sold 50,000 copies, an astronomical figure for the record company, but scarce for Kurt Cobain, who saw how Soundgarden became the first band to make the leap after being nominated for the Grammy Awards for his first album Ultramega OK, and signing with the multinational A

The signing of contracts indicated the incipient interest of the big industry in the state of Washington, a trend that definitively exploded when Nirvana (which in 1990 left Sub Pop for Geffen) published Nevermind in September 1991. The broadcast on loop on the Smells like teen spirit's MTV channel made grunge fashionable at levels that none of its protagonists had imagined, and in a few weeks the album dethroned Dangerous, by Michael Jackson, as the best-selling album in the country. Something unheard of, the first time that an alternative band with a punk appearance and behavior reached such heights.

Dozens of journalists and record label scouts descended on Seattle while the big festivals raffled off their bands. Flannel shirts, a cheap and effective fabric to protect against the cold, were featured in Vogue magazine and went on to sell for $82 in stores across the country while Marc Jacobs presented a “grunge” fashion line for Perry Ellis that, by the way, it led to his dismissal from the firm. At the same time, the New York Times published a report about an alleged “grunge” language that was uncovered as the joke of a former Sub Pop employee, Megan Jasper, who laughed in this way at the madness that invaded the city.

Weeks before Nevermind, Pearl Jam released its first album, Ten, and shortly after, in October, Soundgarden presented Badmotorfinger, while Alice in Chains had released Facelift the year before. Each with their own style but united by the “grunge” label, these albums dominated the sales charts while the bands of the “Seattle sound” embarked on large tours, with performances before tens of thousands of people in 1992, at the festivals. from Reading (Nirvana, Screaming Trees, The Melvins and Mudhoney) and Roskilde ano (Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Screaming trees).

That bunch of freaks who sang about how misunderstood they felt in high school had become the soundtrack for the people they said they hated: the handsome ones, the successful ones, the ones who only turned to music as a way of life. empty entertainment. Criticism from their first fans intensified, Pearl Jam declined to make more video clips after the success achieved with Jeremy's, heroin began to roam around the dressing rooms, Nirvana turned In utero into a vindication of their underground soul and Courtney Love, the couple of Cobain got into a fight with the entire press after she was accused of taking drugs while she was pregnant with her son.

Bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox grew up at the mercy of the Seattle sound, which gave birth to new albums by Alice in Chains (Dirt), Pearl Jam, who with Vs reached one million copies sold and Nirvana, who released their last album. seven months before Cobain took his own life by shooting himself in the head. It was the high point of grunge, which from then on began to decline in the media, leaving bands like Mudhoney or Screaming Trees forgotten. Nirvana disappeared in 1994, Soundgarden did the same in 1997 while Layne Stailey, singer of Alice in Chains, died of an overdose in 2002, although the band published its last work in 1995. A gradual decline that Cobain avoided in the worst possible way. by fulfilling the words he left written in his farewell note: “Better to burn completely than to slowly go out.”