When Nevermind topped the US charts on 11 January 1992 it signalled more than just the arrival of a new, commercially successful rock band.
People began talking about the music industry in terms of “pre-Nirvana” and “post-Nirvana”, and the notions of what constituted ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’ were destroyed forever.
Nirvana never came close again to the absolute perfection of Smells Like Teen Spirit – and the reason lies in the tension between the band’s realisation that they had made A Great Pop Moment and Kurt Cobain’s fear of what that may come to mean.
When the extended Nirvana family of Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, cellist Lori Goldston, and a couple of Meat Puppets walked into MTV‘s New York studios to make the album nobody thought a grunge band could – an acoustic album – it was impossible to predict quite how emotional the document they would leave behind would be.
Originally transmitted for MTV’s Unplugged show, the album hints more strongly than any of their previous three at the band Nirvana could have blossomed into. Only Come As You Are – with a riff lifted from a 1984 song by Killing Joke – was indebted to their heavier past. For the most part, it was the slower original tracks that saw the light of day – the likes of Dumb, Polly and Something In The Way.
When Cobain sighs in a moment of silence just before the album’s climactic closing section (on Leadbelly’s blues standard Where Did You Sleep Last Night), it seems the weight of the world is crushing him.
There had been clear warning signs about Cobain’s state of mind. On 4 March he was hospitalised in a coma in Rome, Italy, after overdosing on alcohol and prescription drugs.
On 18 March, Courtney Love called the police claiming Cobain was suicidal, and they removed guns and ammunition from the house.
On 1 April Kurt checked out of a rehab centre near Los Angeles and travelled back to Seattle, leaving Courtney in LA. She apparently asked friends to find him.
Cobain had been dead three days when, on 8 April, electrician Gary Smith called at his Seattle mansion to install a security system. When no one answered, he went around the back of the property and saw Cobain’s body on the floor of the guest room, a shotgun pointing at his chin.
Rumours of foul play would abound, but the gut-wrenching suicide note found by his body confirmed the depth of his unease with celebrity, referring to his envy of people like Freddie Mercury, who relished the “adoration of the crowd”.
Kurt wrote that he felt a fake, and though he thanked his fans, the note concluded that everyone – including his baby daughter – would be better off without him.
The cause of death was given as a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not”