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.

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