The frontman of Nirvana had a life that even non-rockers are at least somewhat aware of. However, in spite of the massive publicity, outsiders that looked into Nirvana from the mainstream media’s perspective are likely to have a skewed perception of Kurt Cobain as little more than a participant in the tragic ending narrative that many encountered within the music scene.
Although the nature of his death on April 5th, 1994 (at the age of 27) was indeed a tragedy that is sorely felt across many generations, it overshadows the life lessons he left behind, consciously or otherwise.
These are just some of the lessons we can take from Kurt’s art, music, interviews, journals and career path.
1. Words go deeper than the surface level
According to Albert Mehrabian (a researcher of body language), words makeup only 7% of face to face communication, with the rest being 38% vocal and 55% nonverbal.
When people first heard Nirvana’s song Heart Shaped Box there were very few that would dare say they understood exactly what Kurt was communicating in the lyrics – yet it was a hit.
In addition to this, in Kurt Cobain’s last recorded interview, he claimed most of his lyrics were garble and last second because [he is] really lazy. Further to that, we know from his journals that he also indulged in subconscious writing techniques where even he himself was not aware of the definitive meaning behind the sequencing of specific words.
Nirvana’s album Nevermind was awarded platinum certification within 9 weeks of its release and their most popular track Smells Like Teen Spirit has over 1.5 billion views and counting on YouTube.
These facts make it very apparent that the personal selection of words, conscious or otherwise, act as a gateway into meaning that creeps beyond text-book definitions and general understandings.
If we notice that we become aggravated in response to a co-worker or employee saying ‘I don’t try anymore’, it is in our interest to convert our aggravation into curiosity.
What do they mean? It could be that they are adept or content enough with their job that they may still work hard, but it comes to them naturally in a way it does not – to them – feel like ‘trying’.
Or, perhaps they have given up because the opposite is true and they have lost the meaning and purpose that had previously driven them.
By looking at Kurt’s success as a singer/songwriter, we know the significance of the energy that drives words into being. If they make this announcement to us with a flaccid physicality and a reluctant monotony in their tone, the latter interpretation is the more likely reality and we’ve had prompts into a more sensible direction to proceed with.
2. Don’t make things more complicated than they need to be
Kurt would often deprecate himself by denouncing the notion of being a musician. He would prefer to be recognised as a ‘singer/songwriter’.
Nirvana’s staple style of songs were 3-chord grunge tracks which would allow him to express the energies that consumed him and to channel it consistently into hit songs.
The band’s success was a testament to the shared yearning to express the accumulating angst that many individuals had in the 90s. This may not have been possible if the band hadn’t stuck to and refined the “simple” selection of rock n’ roll elements their sound was rooted in.
Quite often, we are ready to move on from something before we have laid down the foundation. Sometimes you may feel a need to overcomplicate a workout because you don’t get the results we want.
The reason you’re not progressing however, could be due to underestimating your current strength level and therefore not lifting a heavy enough load to create more of those mass-gaining micro-tears in the activated muscles. Thus, there may not be a reason to ditch those fundamental exercises, such as the ‘Big 5’ Compound movements, yet. Work with them more thoroughly!
Life’s complicated enough, so although you should by no means avoid all complexity and experimentation, avoiding unnecessary complications and giving yourself room to build stronger foundations, will help your life resemble a stress free one and you will be in a more stable position to deal with any stress you do encounter.
3. Confront your demons without being controlled by them
The perceived dangers don’t lie exclusively when honesty is applied in social interactions, but also when we are alone.
Acknowledging and accepting thoughts that are even reminiscent of tragedy, especially depicting or causing it, is a challenge. It can feel like a dangerous game to play: if we feed the beast with too much of our attention it shall grow and consume us.
On the other hand, psychology seems to have a uniform understanding of repression: it’s like whacking a wall with a fizzy drink-filled bottle. In prolonging the release of gas, we amplify the inescapable event of the carbonated beverage bursting from its bottled surroundings.
A conclusion far more destructive and messy than if we had taken off the lid as early as possible. Life will whack us against the wall and shake us around because it is a bumpy ride.
A renowned psychologist Carl Jung pointed out that we have a shadow and when we fail to confront it, it consumes us. In his words:
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is
The disturbing atmosphere of Kurt’s poetry and artwork (which can be viewed online and in his journals) is that of a person who is in touch with his shadow and the honest exploration and investigation he had with himself would translate into his musical ability’s potential to connect with the darker parts of people’s psyche: rage, depression, anxiety, mistrust. Gases that need to be released as safely as possible.
When you allow your shadow to reveal itself in journaling rather than in an argument with a loved one, we can be one step ahead in safely integrating our ‘demons’ into our passions – like Kurt did with his music.
Of course, if these shadows are not integrated with enough awareness and compassionate support, we are presented with a means to destroy ourselves; playing with our shadows without confronting and working with them, is akin to playing with fire – someone, probably you, will get burnt.
4. People will accept you when you stay true to yourself
Even if he was being sarcastic in interviews, Kurt Cobain would do so without trying to hide it. He would openly toy with those that tried to censor him.
MTV requested the band play their biggest selling single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from Nevermind, but Nirvana offered to play Rape Me. Due to its challenging themes, it was vetoed.
This didn’t stop the band rehearsing the song and scaring the producers of the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992 with the beginning of the song and its titular lyrics, before quickly transitioning into Lithium to ensure the broadcast wouldn’t be struck off the air.
Another example would be when Top of the Pops asked Nirvana to play to a backing track. This inspired them to butcher ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as a middle finger to manipulative authority.
This rebellious spirit spoke volumes to the people. Nirvana didn’t care to compromise with music moguls and populist demands, but they had to play by the rules just enough to succeed in an industry dominated by these types of people and organisations, especially as far as money is concerned.
In Kurt’s diary, he talked about disguising oneself as part of the empire in order to infiltrate it. People loved this anti-corporate attitude in part because the band refused to have their identities completely compromised and lost in the distortion.
If you feel as if you’re doing what you think you should do as opposed to what you want to do and life doesn’t seem to be granting you fulfilling moments on a regular basis, it could be time to start exposing your true self.
You’re more likely to have people and things which hold abundant value stick around if they’re acquired by or at least familiar with who you are instead of the person you think you should be.
5. You need to evolve, even if it means some people won’t stick around
Nirvana’s debut album Bleach was a heavier listen than their following works. As part of the basement punk rock scene and with the drummer Chad Channing instead of his now-famous successor Dave Grohl, Kurt worked some ‘hastily’ written lyrics into an energy resembling nails in a washing machine with its door being open and closed abruptly – that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The album left the band unfulfilled. Their second album Nevermind containing hits like Smells Like Teen Spirit and In Bloom had a much cleaner sound which left them looking back at their work with dissatisfaction again.
Finally came In Utero, an album recorded to sound like the band were playing live, with songs such as Rape Me and the hit single Heart Shaped Box. The band believed they were boldly risking a reduction in their fanbase because of this new sound that they were finally happy with.
Evolution is a fundamental part of life. Our cosmic reality is in a constant state of mutability; people are subject to this eternal state of change. If artists are to continually produce authentic artwork, they need to reflect the change in themselves and the world.
By not denying and choosing to embrace these evolving patterns, we become better at sustaining ourselves. People will unavoidably contend with the progression, but a life lived in accordance with our own evolving nature will bear more fruits than living in accordance with the changing nature of other people, especially when everyone’s specific nature overwhelmingly varies.
Stability is incredibly important and it can be too easy to dismiss people because of differences that seem to separate you. It’s still worth considering if we are stunting ourselves with an assumption that we need to work the same job, have the exact same friends or wear the same clothes for the rest of our lives.
We may be able to then stop preventing ourselves from progressing in ways that don’t leave trails of regret and the mournful “what ifs”.
6. Some things are worth compromising
In a couple of interviews with band mates and towards the end of his journals, Kurt revealed that he was performing odd sounds in ascending, then descending order without a sense of irony.
This was because he had finally accepted that his relentless screaming and smoking were damaging his voice. After blowing it out one time too many, he decided to compromise in order to preserve the iconic vocals that were the core to Nirvana’s sound.
Although there is a fulfilling freedom in denying to tread paths that most follow, if it comes at the cost of burdening that which sustains your freedom (like his vocal ability to express freely), then a calculated move towards standard procedures and practices may have to be sought over pride.
There’s no shame in following the mainstream sometimes and neither is there in asking for help whilst you’re at it.
So, a final note.
Despite his substance use, unforgiving stomach ulcer and relentless rings of reprimand, Kurt Cobain was able to leave enough life lessons to cover a lifetime of learning.
Since the open sourced nature of internet investigations, a man previously portrayed as resentful has been realised to be a man who was loved by many and capable of loving many.
The authenticity felt across his work and personal artefacts continue to unite thousands upon thousands of people regardless of when they were born.
With an almost perverse amount of access into the history and life of Nirvana’s front man available, there is a lot of must-have material to delve into if you can bypass the feeling of being intrusive… the choice is yours.
- Examples of Kurt Cobain’s paintings, drawings and spoken word and much more
- Cobain: Montage of Heck
- Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings
- Kurt Cobain: Journals
- A wonderfully made YouTube documentary that explores Kurt’s artistic pursuits alongside his musical career
- MUCH’s Last interview with Kurt Cobain
- YouTube playlist of all Nirvana interviews between 1989-1994 in chronological order
Subscribe to The Renaissaint’s Youtube channel here: