The rocker died 18 years ago, unable to escape troubles that started around age 9.
April 5 is to many contemporary rock fans what November 22 is to older baby boomers: the day you can almost certainly remember where you were or what you were doing when you heard that ___ died. That’s not to say that Kurt Cobain’s suicide represented a loss of national innocence in the same way that JFK’s assassination did. For one thing, Cobain’s whole life and career already symbolized lost innocence, long before he died.
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.