On this day in 1994, grunge icon Kurt Donald Cobain of the band Nirvana dies of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Seattle. In March of the same year he was hospitalized in Rome after overdosing and slipping into a coma in what was later characterized as a failed suicide attempt. One month later he snuck out of a Los Angeles-area drug rehab, returned to Seattle and took his life.
Cobain is said to have had a generally happy childhood until his parents divorced when he was nine years old. After that breakup, he was frequently troubled and angry, and his emotional pain became a subject of, and catalyst for, much of his later music. As a teenager, he moved between various relatives’ houses, stayed with friends’ parents, and occasionally slept under bridges while he began to use drugs and take part in petty vandalism as forms of teenage rebellion.
Cobain was musically inclined from an early age, and in the mid-1980’s began to play with members of the local “sludge rock” band the Melvins. In 1985 he created a homemade tape of some songs with the drummer of the Melvins that later caught the attention of local bassist Krist Novoselic. Cobain and Novoselic formed Nirvana in 1987, and thereafter recruited a series of drummers to record demo tapes with them and play small shows throughout the Northwest.
One of the group’s demo tapes found its way to Jonathan Poneman of the Seattle independent record label Sub Pop, which signed the band to produce its first single, “Love Buzz,” in 1988 and its first album, Bleach, in 1989. The album had a unique signature sound that mixed the rawness of punk rock with pop hooks, and the group soon became a target of major record labels. In 1990 with new drummer Dave Grohl, Nirvana released its major-label debut, Nevermind, which featured the hit single “Smells like Teen Spirit”; it became the first alternative-rock album to achieve widespread popularity with a mainstream audience. Nevermind catapulted Nirvana to worldwide fame, and Cobain came to be hailed as the voice of his generation, a title which caused further angst and discomfort.
In 1992 Cobain married flamboyant, attention-seeking Courtney Love, then the leader of the band Hole, and the couple had a daughter, Frances Bean, that same year. The following year Nirvana released its final studio album, In Utero, in which Cobain railed against his fame. Cobain had long suffered from depression and chronic stomach pain, for which he self-medicated; Cobain was a frequent user of heroin in the years after Nirvana’s breakthrough, and he took a variety of painkillers in an attempt to numb his constant stomach agony. By 1994, it appeared the personal pain and professional pressure were exacting an inevitable and fatal toll.
Cobain’s death marked the end of the brief grunge movement and was a signature event for many music fans of Generation X. To date, the band has sold 75 million units world-wide, with over 25 million RIAA-certified records; they were tearfully inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.