Kurt Cobain at 40

He would have hit one of life's milestones this week. But, 13 years after his death, what is his true legacy?

In the space of two years, Kurt Cobain soared to global stardom then plummeted into a pit of drugs and despair so deep he ended his life in the most violent manner. After a hit of heroin he blasted his brains out with a shotgun.

Yet as what would have been his 40th birthday approaches on Tuesday, his name lives on. More importantly, his legacy generates huge sales. Despite releasing only three proper albums with his band Nirvana in his lifetime, almost 13 years after his death the Kurt industry is stronger than ever.

To hammer home the point, last year he became the first to eclipse Elvis as the biggest earning dead celebrity, generating in excess of £26m according to Forbes magazine. Though most of that money came from his widow Courtney Love's sale of just a quarter stake in his back catalogue, it illustrates the worth of his material: thrashy, wild, angry but lucrative. Even the rights to his diaries, published four years ago, earned a £2m advance.

His musical legacy and social significance are perhaps even more profound. Pundits suggest Cobain, and Nirvana, changed the music business for ever.

"I think he single-handedly changed the way major record labels and TV companies thought about how rock music is sold to a mainstream audience," said Paul Rees, editor of Q magazine. "This was angry punk rock, not something that had been put together by a committee of marketing people. Here was a guy who was so scruffy he wore a cardigan his grandad might have worn, who sang about rage and anger yet sold millions. He changed what was acceptable. His influence is everywhere. Any band who picks up a guitar, from the Arctic Monkeys to My Chemical Romance, is aware of what Kurt Cobain did."

Devotees will mark Tuesday's anniversary by gathering at his unofficial shrine, a graffiti-strewn spot under the Young Street bridge in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, where he claimed to have slept rough as a homeless teenager. The town is just 100 miles from Seattle, famous for only two things - Microsoft and being the birthplace of grunge, of which Cobain was king.

Few predicted Nirvana would make it big, certainly on the strength of their first album Bleach - championed by DJ John Peel but loved only by the cognoscenti. The major label Geffen released second album, Nevermind, pressing no more than 50,000 copies. But the slacker generation adopted the single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as its anthem, chanting en masse Cobain's anguished scream: "Here we are now, entertain us." Within a month of its release in late 1991, Nevermind had sold half a million; global sales now stand at 24 million.

The success gave a massive boost to rock music. Every record company wanted its own Nirvana, and every band wanted to sound like them. But success was no comfort to Cobain. A troubled childhood of divorced parents and alienation left him deeply depressed. Crippling, undiagnosed stomach pains led to self-medication with heroin - a drug he despised - and an uneasy marriage to fellow junkie Courtney Love worsened his mental state. After one failed suicide attempt in a Rome hotel room in March 1994, he succeeded a month later. Quitting the Exodus Recovery Center rehab clinic in Los Angeles, he flew back to Seattle and lay low for a week before heading to his Lake Washington home and blasting himself in the head with a shotgun.

The Radio 2 DJ Mark Radcliffe, who frequently played the band's songs, said: "Here is this guy who was clinically depressed for most of his adolescence and adult life and the only thing that got him through that was his dream of making it in a rock'n'roll band: that idea that all the problems will melt away if I become incredibly successful.

"And when he makes it, everything is the same. So when he gets there he is staring into the abyss. His dreams have come true, but the mists haven't cleared. So where do you go from there?"

Since Cobain's death, there has been a slew of Nirvana releases. Within months there were two live albums and more recently there have been a box-set of out-takes and a best-of collection. His life and death have inspired numerous films, including Nick Broomfield's documentary Kurt and Courtney and Gus Van Sant's Last Days.

Paul Smith, the singer with the Mercury Prize-nominated group Maximo Park, was only in his early teens when Nirvana were at the peak of their powers but said Cobain's music had a lasting influence. "The whole of the band has gone and bought the reissues of their vinyl," he said. "At the time I was a bit sceptical about the noisier stuff, but now we've come to appreciate it with that bit of distance."

The Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe added: "To me he was an amazing songwriter who was both blessed and cursed with this voice that cut through. I've read the books, like everybody else, but analysing his life and death has never really taken me any further than the music. Those albums are the real testament."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own