Kurt Cobain’s death occurred on April 5, 1994, at the height of Nirvana’s popularity as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His suicide was such a tragedy for an entire generation that identified with him, that many of them had felt that they had lost a friend or relative.
Despite the level of fame, wealth and success he had achieved, Cobain could not escape his inner demons of drugs, depression, bi-polar disorder, or his turbulent marriage to Hole singer Courtney Love, according to New York Daily News. The last line of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note read, “It’s better to burn out than fade away,” which are lyrics from Neil Young’s song “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black).”
Nirvana fans also cling to another lyric from that same song which says, “The king is gone but he’s not forgotten.”
Last month, the Seattle police department released new images of the gun that Kurt Cobain used to commit suicide at his Seattle home in 1994. The photos are so stark and ordinary that they feel jarring. How can these sterile images represent one of the most highly publicized, scrutinized, and memorialized deaths in modern cultural memory? But they do, because Kurt was human. He shot himself and he died.
This week, 22 years after Kurt Cobain’s death, it’s clearer than ever that his posthumous myth remains potent. The images emerged after CBS News filed a public records request to gain and publish them in order to dispel persistent, unfounded conspiracy claims that Seattle police destroyed the gun to conceal evidence of a murder, not a suicide.
Claims like this, and nastier ones implicating Kurt’s widow, Courtney Love, have been perpetuated nearly as long as he’s been dead. Nick Broomfield’s dubious 1998 documentary, Kurt & Courtney, provided plenty of fuel for conspiracy fires. But releasing the photos to help quell one aspect of a bizarre theory is futile - conspiracy theorists will always find their way to more “truths.” The larger problem is that the images only push our martyr-obsessed culture further toward a morbid extreme.
Kurt Cobain became a legendary grunge musician and a household name before his suicide in 1994. His rise to fame happened after Nirvana crashed into the limelight with the album Nevermind in the early ’90s. But mainstream success was the exact opposite of what Cobain wanted. He was a generally reserved, private person, and he felt this kind of success was a betrayal of his grunge roots, as well as a personal violation.
Ultimately, though, he used his position in pop culture as an opportunity to speak about the issues he felt were most important. Today we often praise celebrities for identifying as feminists or standing up in the name of social justice - but in the 1990s, speaking out wasn’t necessarily common practice. It was a time dominated by boy bands and teen pop idols, when mainstream music with substance was an anomaly.