Punk rock wasn't ever supposed to go mainstream. Born and bred of rebellion, hidden deep within the recesses of the underground scene, punk was anti-establishment and anti-mainstream. Well, it was, until Nirvana. Nirvana almost had to happen. > Read more
Crammed between the massive generations of the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, Generation X would have been a forgotten generation. Small, ill-defined, and bathed in the culture and mindset that belonged to their parents' generation, Generation X needed a voice. Nirvana became that voice. Like its founders, "Nirvana" is a bit ironic. The name, which belongs to the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of self-realization, safety, and perfect happiness, never seemed to bring its promised happiness to reluctant frontman, Kurt Cobain.
The band Nirvana was born as the economic roller coaster and rock 'n roll heyday of the 1980's drew to a close. Guitarist and vocalist Cobain, looking for someone with whom to enjoy his punk music, joined up with bass player Krist Novoselic. After the duo formed a couple of ill-fated bands (one of which was a CCR cover band), they met drummer Aaron Burckhard, who was soon replaced by Dale Crover. Dave Grohl (now of the Foo Fighters) joined up on 1990. The final incarnation of this mish-mash became Nirvana.
Though officially a band for only seven years, Nirvana managed to revolutionize punk rock, taking it from the dark recesses of underground clubs and the back corners of record stores, to a lucrative mainstream music format. Nirvana's music wasn't as easily defined as the punk bands of the 1970's and 80's. They made Grunge the official anthem of the 90's and Seattle the unofficial Mecca of grunge music.
Nirvana's playing style ranged from sickly sweet pop to hardcore punk and noise rock, often within the same songs, mainly due to Cobain's schizophrenic writing style. He was known for assembling his lyrics at the very last minute, cramming multiple concepts and trains of thought into the same song. In their repertoire, you'll find hints of blues, acid rock, alternative, and pop, as well a grunge and "noise" rock, so named for its heavy dependence on distortion. They were the sound of the Generation X "slackers".
Their first album, Bleach, was released under an independent label and did little to help solidify Nirvana as a mainstream band, or even a lasting one. It was their second album, Nevermind, most particularly their hit single from that album, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," that catapulted them to stardom. The success was sudden, unexpected, and placed Cobain in the spotlight, a place he never really learned to embrace, or even accept. That album alone garnered them 30 million record sales. The song scored them more than 8 million sales, ranking as one of the best-selling singles in history.
Nirvana's Musical Contributions
All told, Nirvana produced just 3 full-length studio albums and 3 live albums, but managed to break into the ranks of the all-time best selling bands with more than 75 million record sales worldwide. Nirvana lays claim to more than 25 million RIAA-certified sold units, and is the 80th best-selling band in the U.S., with four of their albums reaching the tippy top of the Billboard charts. In total, they produced 1 Diamond, 3 multi-Platinum, 7 Platinum, and 2 Gold records in the U.S. and a Silver in the UK. These successes scored them an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the first year they were eligible. Unfortunately, former drummer Chris Channing wasn't included in the induction. Only Cobain (posthumously), Novoselic and Grohl received the induction.
Two of their singles ("Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "All Apologies") ranked on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll" list, and the album Nevermind stands at #10 on their list of "The Definitive 200 Albums of All Time" issued in 2007. Three of Nirvana's albums made Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Times" list, issued in 2012, as well as their "100 Best Albums of the Nineties" list.
Nirvana Didn't Break Up; They Passed Away
Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll isn't just a cliché, and definitely played more than a supporting role in the life of Nirvana frontman, Cobain. He met the "sex" element when he began dating, and eventually married, former stripper, sex symbol, and fellow musician, Courtney Love. They bonded over the drug element, which in Cobain's case included pot, heroine, LSD, and (according to former girlfriend, Tracy Marander), "any kind of drug." The couple soon married, with a little one already on the way.
Love reportedly remarked during a magazine interview that she'd used heroine during her pregnancy with their daughter, striking a media frenzy about their baby, Francis Bean Cobain, being born addicted to drugs, and eventually landing the couple in court with Children's Services of Los Angeles County. Cobain and Love did temporarily lose custody of their daughter, but eventually won their court battle and were allowed to raise her, along with the help of a few nannies. The younger Cobain is now grown and has dabbled in both modeling and art.
Speculation over why Cobain took his own life in 1994, via a single gunshot to the chin, swirls to this day. The event took place after at least two other suicide attempts, according to Love, an intervention by friends and family, and a brief hospitalization meant to detox him from the various substances he was abusing at the time, particularly alcohol and heroin. Cobain ran away from the rehab facility, took a brief plane ride alongside fellow musician and former rival, Duff McKagan (the guitarist for Guns N' Roses), and disappeared for days until he was found by an electrician who'd come to install a security system.
Was there some undiagnosed mental illness? It certainly ran in the family. Was it unresolved issues in his marriage? He told police there'd been problems and that he hid to escape. Maybe it was the drugs? Was he truly sick with some undiagnosed stomach illness, or was that just a cover story to excuse his massive drug use? His suicide note indicates his daughter, Frances, would be so much better without him. She likely disagrees. We don't have the answers, but that merely fuels the intense intrigue the public has over the entire phenomenon of Cobain and Nirvana.
But what about that baby? You know, the little guy famously pictured on the cover of Nevermind? Spencer Elden, the infant pictured swimming for that dollar bill in the pool on the cover of Nirvana's ticket to stardom, is now 26. He was only 8 months old when his dad allowed a photographer to briefly submerge his son for the shooting, which took just seconds to complete. At the time, Nirvana wasn't a household name and there was no reason to suspect the album cover and the photo that graced it would become literal American icons.
According to his dad, Elden has done "thousands" of interviews about the event, of which he has no recollection whatsoever. He recreated the shot at age 17, and again at age 25 (for the band's 25th anniversary), though during these later shoots he had the advantage of wearing swim trunks. Reportedly, he offered to do the shots sans shorts. The photographers declined.