Kurt Cobain: From Homeless Rebel to Grunge Icon
How Many Songs Did Kurt Cobain Make?
Cobain penned a staggering number of songs, from the comedic to the autobiographical. He also had an uncanny ability to catch the attention of listeners with his raspy, guttural singing style.
Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain grew up homeless and frequently took part in petty vandalism as teenage rebellion. He came to despise the redneck culture of his dying timber industry hometown and found a home spray-painting provocative slogans on local lugheads’ macho pickup trucks.
Bleach is the defining moment of Nirvana’s rise from Seattle grunge upstarts to megastar status. It’s the record that rewrote the rulebook on how to make a proper rock album and introduced the world to Kurt Cobain’s distinctive, growling voice, lyrical poignancy and stage presence.
This super-sludgy slog was originally recorded as part of the Fecal Matter demos with Melvins drummer Dale Crover and is clearly prescient of Nirvana’s eventual sound. It was cut from the final Bleach album, but Cobain later used it in a live version of ‘Opinion’, a rant against sensationalist media.
One of the earliest examples of Kurt’s highly observational early lyrics, ‘Pen Cap Chew’ describes a couple who spend their Sundays at the swap meet (“they sell art and crafts with seashells driftwood and burlap”). Over chunky metal riffs and light ’n’ loose drumming, it’s a song full of disillusionment and bitterness. ‘Pen Cap Chew’ also proves that Kurt was a versatile singer, able to go from a rumbling roar to a softer acoustic ballad.
When Nevermind landed on September 24, 1991, DGC Records could scarcely have imagined the tidal wave that was about to engulf it. It catapulted Nirvana and its sonic tapestry of punk, metal and pop into suburban American homes and spawned an entire grunge subgenre while doing so.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, with its music video depicting a high school pep rally gone awry, was a huge hit and propelled the band into the spotlight. Cobain’s lyrics delved into themes of alienation, angst and societal disillusionment, resonating with a young audience.
Originally conceived back in the Bleach days as ‘Floyd The Barber’, Kurt takes what is essentially a wholesome sitcom about a barber shop and retells its real-life local story of kidnapping, murder and torture. ‘Polly’ is one of the most thematically harrowing cuts on the album and showcases Kurt Cobain’s vocal power at its most raw. Jonathan Poneman, founder of the Sub Pop label on which Nirvana first recorded, considers this to be among Cobain’s finest vocal performances.
While it’s a hard album to compare to Nevermind (the band were still recovering from the shock of that record’s success), In Utero’s lyrical slugfests still leave jaws hanging open. The adolescent-bombast of ’Rape Me’ is a direct dig at the patriarchy and sexism, while ’Francis Farmer Will Get Her Revenge On Seattle’ and ‘Been A Son’ both hammer home Kurt’s obsession with mortality.
It’s the songs that stray further from pop-macho boundaries that make this Nirvana’s most poignant work. Initially demoed back in the Bleach era, ’Polly’ is a harrowing piece of anthemising sexism that tells the story of a girl abducted after a punk show by serial rapist/kidnapper Gerald Friend, then tortured in his Seattle house for telling him she wanted to wear a dress. The song is a harrowing, poetic lament that also demonstrates Cobain’s ferocious intelligence and focused musical smarts. Bass lank Krist Novoselic and drummer Grohl are on top form too, delivering riff-heavy wall of sound with the utmost ease.
The Downward Spiral
Kurt’s last Nirvana album – and perhaps his most intense lyrically – was a terrifying and incomprehensible concept record about falling into a pit of nihilistic despair. Trent Reznor’s flawless production splashes exhilarating strokes of brilliance across the bleak canvas, while careful attention to composition prevents it from capitulating into true industrial metal.
For instance, the narrator on ‘March of the Pigs’ alternates purest torment (the anguish of swine before the slaughter) with piano hooks saccharine enough for pre-sweetened children’s cereal. In a song that he himself called ‘disturbingly nihilistic’, Cobain describes the emptiness of his life and the loss of his tether to reality.
Similarly, ‘Polly’ retells the true local story of 14-year-old girl who was raped and kidnapped after a punk show by serial rapist Gerald Friend. Over a chugging riff and a distorted bass line that echoes a stop-motion film of contaminated ocean waves, Cobain confronts the savage side of masculinity with a disturbing frankness.