Cashing in on a rock icon: Bigger than Elvis, the lucrative legacy of Kurt Cobain

The adoring fans of the famously troubled Nirvana frontman are furious after learning that he topped a rich list of dead celebrities. Andrew Gumbel reports on the $50m deal that put him there

"Famous," Kurt Cobain once said, "is the last thing I wanted to be." Fame certainly didn't help the angst-ridden grunge rocker come to terms with the demons of his childhood, his string of debilitating ailments, his ever more destructive descent into drug addiction hell, his tempestuous relationship with his wife, Courtney Love, his self-loathing, or the depression that finally led him - we presume - to take his own life by blowing his brains out at the age of 27.

That, as any hardcore Nirvana fan will tell you, was 12 years ago. Cobain, and the shotgun that inflicted the fatal wound, was found in a room above the garage of his mansion overlooking Lake Washington, in Seattle - the city with which he became synonymous. It was a horribly lonely death: nobody knew where Cobain was for days, and his body was eventually discovered not by a family member but by an electrician.

Fame may not have done any favours to Cobain's legacy since then, and it has certainly left his fans ambivalent, if not downright angry at the continuing exploitation of his name and the doomed-rocker myth that he spawned in the popular consciousness. What it has done, though, is guarantee a steady stream of income to the beneficiaries of his estate.

In the words of the Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith: "Fame don't take away the pain - it just pays the bills."

This week, we found out that Cobain was Forbes magazine's top-earning dead celebrity of 2006 - beating Elvis, John Lennon and a whole host of other notables. It would be consoling to think this was a mark of the enduring cultural legacy left by Cobain and his rebellious grunge-rock classics including "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Come As You Are". But really it was all about blunt economics and a willingness to pander to the very commercial values that Cobain spurned in his lifetime.

Here's what happened. Love, Cobain's volatile, litigious rocker-actress widow with her own sordid history of drug busts, addiction and rehab, suddenly discovered she was broke. In Love's own account, she was down to her last $4,000. Her acting career had long since dried up, and her punk band, Hole, hasn't had a hit in years. So she took the biggest asset she still has, the back-catalogue of Nirvana's songs which she inherited on her husband's death, and sold 25 per cent of it to a former general manager of Virgin Records called Larry Mestel.

Mr Mestel and his brand-new music publishing company Primary Wave are reported to have paid $50m - hence Cobain's standing at the top of that Forbes list - for the right to sell Nirvana's songs for use in movies, television shows and commercials. Already, we are told, a handful of Nirvana songs will be featured in an episode of the hit crime investigation show CSI: Miami, just in time for the November "sweeps" week when advertisers gauge audience sizes to set their rates for the coming six months.

With the number of entertainment outlets exploding, music licensing is seen as a huge growth industry at the moment. "There are so many opportunities to aggressively market iconic songs - in tasteful ways of course," Mr Mestel told Business Week recently.

Nirvana fans, who have always hated the commercialisation of their idol and have always been suspicious of Love and her motives - as have Cobain's former band members - couldn't be more appalled. Until now, the understanding was that Nirvana should be fiercely protected from this kind of exploitation.

"To me," an independent music-licensing specialist and Nirvana fan called Lyle Hysen told Business Week, "even though Kurt was signed to a major label, this goes against every grain of whatever integrity the guy had. It's just ... you're gonna cry."

Not that this kind of thing hasn't been going on for some time. Nirvana albums featuring rare cuts and unpublished material have been hitting the marketplace with dull regularity for the past few years. In 2002, a subsidiary of Penguin Putnam, Riverhead Books, paid a staggering $4m to publish Cobain's scrapbook diaries, which left all but the hardest of hardcore fans cold. Earlier this year, a New Jersey company even issued a series of Cobain action figures, some with him holding his blue left-handed Fender guitar, another with him playing "unplugged" on an acoustic.

"Let's find the rest of his body and clone him," a disillusioned blog contributor to the most popular Nirvana fan site suggested a few years ago. "Or call a burger after him."

All that makes the assurances about tastefulness, from Mr Mestel and Love herself, look a little dubious. Will "Smells Like Teen Spirit" end up being used in the kind of deodorant advert the song openly mocks?

"It's going to get a lot uglier," Hysen said.

Of course, the very thing that makes Cobain so commercially attractive, more than a decade after his demise, is precisely the pain and anguish that he projected while he was alive, along with all the dark rumours concerning his death. He didn't just die young, like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. His was the most spectacular act of suicide in the history of rock'n'roll. He didn't just fall for a woman who sparked the jealousy of his bandmates, John Lennon and Yoko Ono style. Cobain, in other words, was the perfect icon of rock rebellion and destruction for the tabloid era of O J Simpson and Monica Lewinsky. He himself may have been painfully shy, but everything about his story has turned excessive and lurid - bright, shocking-pink lurid. Everyone in this story seems to hate just about everyone else. The drug consumption was never less than spectacular. Love once memorably said that she and Cobain had, "bonded pharmaceutically over drugs ... like battery acid and Evian water".

Just a few years before Nirvana's breakthrough album, Nevermind, Cobain was so destitute he was sleeping under a bridge in his home town of Aberdeen, Washington. At the height of his fame, he reguarly shot himself up with heroin before going on stage. For one live performance on the television comedy show Saturday Night Live, he performed high and overdosed as soon as it was over.

Cobain was troubled from early in his childhood. He was devastated when his parents divorced, was prescribed Ritalin for attention deficit disorder atthe age of seven, endured teasing at school for his slight frame and his aversion to playing sports and eventually took refuge in marijuana and painkillers and the works of William Burroughs, the author of The Naked Lunch and other drug-crazed literary classics. By the time he was 18, he claimed he had tried every drug available except PCP.

He was given his first guitar at the age of 14, and he threw the best of his energy into playing and looking for band members - no easy task in the eastern Olympic Peninsula, which is several hours' drive away from Seattle, the nearest big city. From the start his musical tastes took a punk-grunge turn - one early combo was called Fecal Matter. After a while, he hooked up with Krist Novoselic, whose mother owned a hair salon in Aberdeen, and together they formed the heart of what was to become Nirvana.

It wasn't a straightforward path to stardom. Cobain dropped out of high school two weeks before the end of his final year because he realised he hadn't collected enough credits to graduate. His mother told him to get a job or get out of the house - which is why he ended up on the streets.

Cobain eventually moved to Seattle and found his place in a thriving new grunge scene - Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were also Seattle bands. Even when his records started selling in vast quantities, however, he felt misunderstood and persecuted by the media. No episode caused him and Love more pain than a 1992 piece in Vanity Fair, in which Love was quoted as saying that she had shot herself up with heroin while she was pregnant. When the baby, named Frances Bean Cobain, was born, she was taken away by child protective services, leading to a legal battle lasting several months before the parents could take custody of her again.

Love once joked she'd like to bludgeon the Vanity Fair writer, Lynn Hirschberg, to death with an Oscar statuette. Nirvana later recorded a bootleg entitled "Bring Me The Head of Lynn Hirschberg".

Cobain's final weeks were one long howl of pain, starting with an episode in Rome when he overdosed on champagne and the sedative Rohypnol. Love began to worry that her husband was suicidal, calling the police at one point and arranging an intervention with Cobain's friends and music-business colleagues. Cobain reluctantly checked into a rehab clinic in Los Angeles, but within 48 hours he had hopped over a wall and taken a plane back to Seattle. None of his family or friends knew where he was.

The coroner's report into his death left no doubt that he had committed suicide. But Tom Grant, a private investigator originally hired by Love to track down her husband, was not so sure - arguing that the quantity of heroin found in Cobain's body would have made him incapable of pulling the shotgun trigger and suggesting that the drugs were deliberately administered by an assailant or assailants to knock him out. The murder theory has never been convincingly substantiated - despite efforts by many people, including the British documentary maker Nick Broomfield - to do so. But it has undoubtedly helped to burnish Cobain's mythical status.

So, too, has a line from Neil Young that he wrote in his suicide note - or "alleged" suicide note, as the conspiracy theorists would have it. "It's better to burn out than to fade away," he said. Twelve years later, the flame he ignited is still burning.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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 General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor