Nirvana wasn't the first Indie band to graduate to the major-label big leagues, nor was it the first Punk-influenced act to enter the Rock mainstream. But with the multi-platinum success of their 1991 album Nevermind and its indelible hit anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the Seattle trio singlehandedly brought the Punk and D.I.Y. ethos to millions of teenagers across America and around the world, while putting “Grunge” – the Pacific Northwestern sub-genre incorporating elements of Punk, Hardcore, Indie Rock, and Heavy Metal – on the mainstream radar.
Nirvana married Punk's primal energy with infectious Pop songcraft to make music that embodied the era's contradictions. The angst and anxiety of their generation were reflected in Kurt Cobain's alienated lyrics and anguished vocal wail, and in the trio's grinding yet catchy sound. Cobain was an apt icon for his era — charismatic and dynamic, yet ambivalent about his own success and tortured by anger, hurt, and self-doubt.
Cobain grew up in the logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, an artistic, alienated child of a working-class broken home. He was introduced to Punk Rock via his teenage acquaintance with local trio the Melvins, through whom he also met future bandmate Chris (born Krist) Novoselic.
After dropping out of school, Cobain went through an extended period during which he was directionless and frequently homeless. He found a sense of purpose in music, forming a combo he dubbed Fecal Matter. In early 1987, Cobain and Novoselic launched a more serious outfit, playing local gigs with a series of drummers under various names. By this point, Seattle had emerged as the epicenter of the Grunge scene, spearheaded by a wave of loud, longhaired combos whose attitude was informed by Punk but whose music was equally influenced by Heavy Metal.
Nirvana signed with the Seattle label Sub Pop in late 1988, releasing their debut, Bleach, the following June. Thanks in part to the band's grueling touring efforts, the record generated enough buzz to win Nirvana a deal with Geffen Records' DSG subsidiary. By the time they began recording Nevermind with producer Butch Vig, they'd been joined by new drummer Dave Grohl, a Hardcore-scene veteran who gave Nirvana new levels of energy and versatility.
Nevermind featured a more melodic, emotionally expansive direction than the aggressive and relatively derivative Bleach. It married nasty, distorted guitars and Cobain’s choked, screaming vocals with a modern production sheen that couldn't dilute the songs' insistent infectiousness or the trio's formidable instrumental chemistry. Released with moderate fanfare in September, 1991, the album soon took off commercially, cracking the Billboard Top 10 in November. Three months later, it was certified triple-platinum for U.S. sales of three million.
As Nevermind continued to soar, Cobain's personal life became subjected to increasing scrutiny. Fans and journalists speculated about his drug use, his emotional stability, and his marriage to the volatile, sharp-tongued Courtney Love, the leader of Hole, whom Cobain impregnated and then married in February 2004. The internal dramas helped keep the band from mounting a high-profile U.S. tour, and delayed the recording of a followup album.
When they got down to business, Nirvana decided to avoid Nevermind's production polish and make their next effort, In Utero, a raw, unadorned Punk album. They chose to work with iconoclastic Indie producer Steve Albini, with whom they recorded and mixed the album in two weeks. The resulting record largely downplayed Nevermind's anthemic choruses in favor of melodic subtlety, with emotionally naked lyrics well served by the pared-down musical setting.
The album's troubled, turbulent vibe seemed to reflect the mood within the band. In the months that followed there were several Cobain overdoses, threats of suicide, hospitalizations, canceled shows, an admission to rehab, and a subsequent dissapearance. Finally, on the morning of April 8, 1994, the 27-year-old's body was discovered above the garage of his house in Seattle, dead of a gunshot wound that authorities called self-inflicted. Medical examiners found heroin and Valium in his bloodstream.
The news of Cobain's death was accompanied by a level of public mourning that the music world had not witnessed since the murder of John Lennon 14 years earlier. In the years since, Nirvana's posthumous stature and influence has continued to grow.