Eighteen years after his death, many of us are scarcely less fascinated by Cobain than we ever were. And, thanks largely to a slew of posthumous biographies of Kurt and/or Nirvana, there's been an extra level of intrigue about Cobain's younger years, and how the happy towhead seen in childhood pictures became such a raging, self-immolating cynic… not to mention the greatest rock star of the post-1980s era.
Kurt's youth is like a before-and-after picture with a very clear point of division. "I had a really good childhood, up until I was 9," he told Spin magazine a couple of years before his death.
It was at that age that his parents divorced. And his is such a textbook case of what can go wrong with a family after an unexpected split that Cobain's life story ought to be be required reading for divorcing couples before they sign the final paperwork.
When you look at Cobain's kiddy photos, he so resembles his older self that you look at him grinning from ear to ear and wonder if, even then, there was some sarcasm peeking out from the exaggerated smile. But no—from all accounts, he really was that blissful a kid.
"I can't even put into words the joy and the life that Kurt brought into our family," his aunt Mari told biographer Charles R. Cross in Heavier Than Heaven. "He was this little human being who was so bubbly. He had charisma even as a baby. He was funny, and he was bright."
Cobain had dark hair when he was born in Aberdeen, Washington in 1967, but within a few months it'd turned blonde, and that, in combination with his striking azure eyes, helped make him the center of attention as a child. As a toddler, he was making up his own lyrics as well as singing his own renditions of "Hey Jude," the "Monkees" theme, and Arlo Guthrie's "Motorcycle Song."
When he was barely old enough to walk, his parents gave him a "tin drum set with paper heads out of the back of a Sears catalog," which he would bang on in the yard, according to the visual memoir Cobain Unseen. He remembering strapping on the bass drum from that crude toy set, along with "an Elmer Fudd hat and my dad's tennis shoes, and walk(ing) around the neighborhood singing Beatles songs."
If the Beatles were a comfort to young Kurt, they could also spook him, too. In Heavier Than Heaven, his aunt Mari recalled the day that he yelped and ran to her in distress after going into her LP collection to look for a Beatles album. He'd come across a copy she owned of Yesterday & Today with the rare, recalled "butcher cover," in which the Fab Four posed somewhat creepily among pieces of raw meat. "It made me realize how impressionable he was at that age," she said.
His early gifts as a visual artist seemed to far outstrip even his budding musical talent. He got so many markers and other art supplies every birthday or holiday occasion, "his room began to take on the appearance of an art studio," Cross wrote. He drew greeting cards for family members that eventually came to look professional-grade. His specialties included werewolves and the Creature from the Black Lagoon early on, and rock stars later. At age 6, his grandfather accused him of having traced a drawing of Mickey Mouse, and an aggrieved Kurt delighted in not only re-drawing Mickey but a host of other Disney characters on the spot.
Later, he was sarcastic about this nascent skill, saying, "My mother encouraged me to be artistic. It was written in a contract at an early age that I would be an artist."
An even more ardent artistic encourager at that age was his beloved grandmother Iris, with whom he would recreate famous Normal Rockwell paintings. The fixation on Rockwell's idealized Americana may or may not have been a giveaway, but Iris was said to have had a touch of the melancholia that later became the measure of Kurt's personality.
The Cobain family wasn't quite living the Rockwell dream there in Washington, but they seemed close enough for a while. When Kurt was born, they were living in a delipidated shack behind a real house, not in Aberdeen but even tinier nearby Hoquiam. Father Don was working as a Chevron mechanic and mother Wendy as a waitress, with a combined annual salary said to have been around $6,000. Even after they moved into a real house in the "felony flats" section of town, it was no Brady Bunch lifestyle. Cobain described it as "white trash posing as middle class."
But plenty of love and attention was lavished on Kurt and his three-years-younger sister, Kim, with summer vacations on the nearby coast and regular winter trips into the higher elevations for sledding that—shades of Citizen Kane—Kurt described as his most pleasurable memories.
Then his sense of security came to an end when Wendy told Don she wanted a divorce and took off in the car, leaving her quiet-type husband to explain to the kids what was happening. Don remained in denial about the reality of the split for months or even years to come, which helped keep Kurt stuck in the same position. Apparently no one in the family except Wendy had seen it coming, even though there'd been increasing fights over money problems. Maybe the biggest problem: Don and Wendy had never been passionate about one another, and eloped in Idaho when she was just months out of high school because she'd become pregnant with Kurt.
Cross describes this moment in Kurt's life as an all-defining "emotional holocaust."
Before long Wendy became romantically entangled with a longshoreman with a violent temper who eventually broke her arm. Don dated and married a woman who lavished attention on Kurt, but the boy always wondered if he was secondary to the kids she brought to their home, and he felt like he was betraying his mother by accepting this new woman's affection. The only times Kurt saw his now bitterly opposed parents together, they were arguing over visitation agreements.
He wrote on his bedroom wall: "I hate Mom, I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom, Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you want to be so sad."
The energy that once had made Kurt so magnetic sometimes now seemed to be a bit much. Sister Kim remembered as "hyperactive" and "bouncing off the walls." A doctor put him on Ritalin, but only for three months.
But his extroversion and good looks made him popular and a junior ladies' man, even as, on the inside, he struggled with feelings of worth and anger—setting up a watch me/no, don't watch me dualism that continued on into his conflicted career as a guiltiy indie-minded rock mega-star.
He disassociated himself emotionally from family members even as he was still young and enthusiastic enough to not want the weekly board-game nights to end at his father's and stepmother's house. He killed a neighbor's cat by trapping it in a chimney. Even though he was small, he bullied one schoolmate mercilessly. He developed an interest in making Super-8 films, some of which were harmless sci-fi—but one of which, called "Kurt Commits Bloody Suicide," had him faking cutting his wrists.
He wasn't anti-authoritarian across the board. While he joined and quit the football team in a space of two weeks, he managed to stick with track for a full season. But he chafed against the idea that anyone might think sports were a sign of him being healthy and all-American.
In Michael Azzerad's Nirvana biography Come As You Are, published before his death, Cobain remembered a critical wrestling championship attended by his dad—which he threw, just for spite. "I waited for the whistle to blow, just staring straight into (his dad's) face, and then I instantly clammed up—I put my arms together, and let the guy pin me."
Eventually he was being bounced not between his parents' homes but between his aunts' and uncles' homes, becoming the quintessential latchkey kid. There were even occasional bouts of homelessness, though it's hard to tell where the myth and reality diverged when Cobain claimed he lived under a bridge along the muddy Wishkah River.
But there was salvation—of a sort, and for a time—waiting in the guitar lessons he took, where he intently studied songs like "Stairway to Heaven" and "Back in Black." (His tastes weren't always that heavy: a student newspaper entry said his favorite song was ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down.")
Did rock & roll save him? Or just enable him? Psychologists might disagree on that, but it's clear that others in his circumstances and state of mind in high school might have become outright sociopaths, while Kurt was able to recapture the ambition, expression, and even just sense of fun with wordplay he'd had growing up.
For all his grumpiness about "corporate rock" and any other cause he had to rail about or against, for the first few years of Nirvana's existence, at least, he was back to being that super-bright kid again. If only his relationship with his own success hadn't soured… just as he'd learned, at age 9, that all relationships would.
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