Music

Want to learn more about Kurt Cobain? Here’s what to read, listen, and watch

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana performed in April 1993 in Daly City, Calif.
Associated Press/File
Kurt Cobain and Nirvana performed in April 1993 in Daly City, Calif.

Twenty-five years ago, on April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain died at the age of 27, a victim of suicide. He left behind the epochal rock music he made as the singer and guitarist for Nirvana, piles of journals and artwork, and a final note that didn’t clear up the contradictions of his short life. Which was probably how he wanted it: The previous year, he had painted on the wall of his rented Seattle home, in large red block letters, “None of You Will Ever Know My Intentions.”

Many Nirvana biographies rehash the basics of Cobain’s story or peddle conspiracy theories that he was murdered, but there are plenty of ways to go deeper. Here’s what to read, listen to, watch and explore:

Books

‘Journals’ (Riverhead)

With nearly 300 pages of photo replicas of Cobain’s personal journals and letters (and doodles, sketches and song lists), this 2002 book is funny, painful and shockingly intimate: a guided tour of the singer’s own churning psyche. “Its hard to decipher the difference between a sincere entertainer and an honest swindler,” Cobain wrote.

‘Come as You Are’ (Three Rivers)

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This deeply reported 1993 biography by Michael Azerrad, first published while Cobain was alive, was the original bible for Nirvana fans. Its strongest passages evoke the life of young Cobain in Aberdeen, Wash., a child of divorce who would sometimes spend the weekend killing time at a local logging company where his father worked: “He would get into his dad’s van and listen to Queen’s ‘News of the World’ over and over again on the eight-track. Sometimes he’d listen so long that he’d drain the battery and they’d have to find someone to jump-start the engine.”

‘Heavier Than Heaven’ (Hachette)

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Charles R. Cross, formerly the editor of the Seattle music paper The Rocket, covered the Nirvana story from early on — and conducted more than 400 interviews for this thorough, definitive 2001 biography. Cobain’s widow, musician Courtney Love, granted Cross extensive interviews and access to Cobain’s archives, including arcana such as a visual assignment he completed during his final stay in rehab: “For ‘surrender,’ he drew a man with a bright light emanating from him. For ‘depressed,’ he showed an umbrella surrounded by ties.”

Articles

‘Takeoff: The Oral History of Nirvana’s Crossover Moment’ (Cuepoint)

When Nirvana’s “Nevermind” hit No. 1 soon after its 1991 release, it shocked the band members and their grunge cohort, who had assumed that at best, the group would be underground heroes. Its multiplatinum success also opened the doors for many Nirvana-bes. This oral history by Nick Soulsby tells that story from the viewpoint of Nirvana’s college-rock peers, such as Gary Floyd of the opening act Sister Double Happiness remembering Nirvana’s “road manager telling everyone backstage one night the CD had hit 1 million sales that day. They seemed almost embarrassed.”

‘The Dark Side of Kurt Cobain’ (The Advocate)

Cobain loudly and frequently declared himself as an ally of gay people (and women, and people of color), so it was fitting that he gave one of his best interviews in this 1993 cover story with The Advocate, telling Kevin Allman, “I’ve always been a really sickly, feminine person anyhow, so I thought I was gay for a while because I didn’t find any of the girls in my high school attractive at all.”

‘Kurt Cobain, The Rolling Stone Interview: Success Doesn’t Suck’ (Rolling Stone)

In Cobain’s last major interview, he informed David Fricke that he had wanted to call Nirvana’s “In Utero” album “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,” “but I knew the majority of the people wouldn’t understand.” He insisted that the suicidal sentiment was only a joke: “I’m a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am.”

‘Never More’ (The Village Voice)

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After Cobain’s death, Ann Powers filed a raw dispatch from Seattle, reporting how the tragedy affected his friends and the neighbors who had never met him. “The kids I found who did mourn Cobain, hovering behind police lines at the house where he’d died or building shrines from candles and Raisin Bran boxes at the Sunday night vigil organized by three local radio stations, seemed to think of him more as a lost friend than as a candidate for that dreaded assignment, role model.”

Live videos

‘Nirvana — The Moon, New Haven 1991’

On Sept. 26, 1991, just two days after the release of “Nevermind,” Nirvana played a great, sweaty show at a tiny club in New Haven — and miraculously, it was captured on this remarkably high-quality amateur video. The set featured just a few songs from the unfamiliar “Nevermind,” leaning heavily on the band’s 1989 debut, “Bleach.” Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl all performed with joy and abandon, looking more at home in a filthy black room with a low ceiling than they ever did in arenas.

‘Nirvana — Munich, Germany’

Nirvana’s last concert, on March 1, 1994, at a cavernous airport terminal that had been converted into a club, was an ordeal for a burned-out Cobain: He wanted to end the band, he wanted to divorce Love, he wanted to score drugs at the Munich train station. But the show (rendered here with just the first 10 minutes of video but a full 80 minutes of audio) was one final scream of pain, ending with “Heart-Shaped Box.” “Hey, wait, I got a new complaint,” Cobain sang, never meaning it more.

‘MTV Unplugged in New York’

Playing acoustically for 44 minutes, Nirvana paid tribute to influences ranging from David Bowie to the Meat Puppets, and showed the delicate beauty behind its distorted guitars. And with the final song, a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Cobain gave one of his greatest vocal performances; it felt powerful enough to bring the curtain down on all of human existence.

Documentary footage

‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (Amazon)

Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, served as executive producer on this authorized documentary feature directed by Brett Morgen. Mike Hale wrote in his Times review in 2015, “Mr. Morgen was given access to Cobain’s archives — ‘art, music, journals, Super 8 films and audio montages’ — and his exhilarating, exhausting, two-hour-plus film, both an artful mosaic and a hammering barrage, reflects years of rummaging through that trove.”

‘One of Kurt Cobain’s Final Interviews’

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In this 26-minute WatchMojo interview from 1993, filmed with the Seattle waterfront as a backdrop, Cobain was bearded and scabby, smoking one cigarette after another. He was also relaxed and thoughtful, laughing at questions about his rock-star status that on a different day would have made him bristle. He explained, “Either I’ve accepted it or I’ve gone beyond insane.”

Fiction

‘About a Boy’ (Penguin)

The death of Cobain haunts Nick Hornby’s second novel, shattering some of its characters and binding some of them together. The 12-year-old Marcus tries to make sense of the news he sees plastered all over the front pages of the evening papers: “He wondered if his mum was OK, even though he knew there was no connection between his mum and Kurt Cobain because his mum was a real person and Kurt Cobain wasn’t; and then he felt confused, because the newspaper headline had turned Kurt Cobain into a real person somehow.”

‘Skip to the End’ (Insight)

This evocative 2018 science-fiction graphic novel by writer Jeremy Holt and artist Alex Diotto tells the story of a grunge band called Samsara (clearly inspired by Nirvana) and a guitar that functions as a time-travel device. The metaphor works not only because of the urge Nirvana fans have to create an alternate timeline where Cobain survived, but because recorded music is itself a time-travel device, teleporting people both to the moment when it was made and the moment when it first touched a listener’s soul.

‘Last Days’ (Streaming Services)

Filmmaker Gus Van Sant was a kindred spirit to Cobain: an independent artist from the Pacific Northwest who somehow wandered into the cultural mainstream. So it seemed natural in 2005 when he made a movie about (a thinly fictionalized version of) Cobain, played by Michael Pitt. In her Times review, Manohla Dargis called the movie a “mesmerizing dream” and said “Mr. Van Sant’s refusal to root around in Cobain’s consciousness, to try to explain why and how he created, suffered and died, is a radical gesture, both in aesthetic and in moral terms.”