Introverted, sensitive, shy and polite… not generally words you would associate with a rock star, yet this is just how people described Kurt Cobain after meeting him. Growing up in Aberdeen, a suburb of Seattle in the US, the son of Wendy and Donald Cobain, Kurt was a happy-go-lucky and loving child with an artistic streak. His creative talents extended from drawing his favourite Disney cartoon characters to playing musical instruments. From the age of just two he was playing the piano and singing songs to entertain his family.
In 1987, Kurt started a band with his school friend Krist Novoselic and after experimenting with a series of names, the band settled on Nirvana, which Kurt said was “… a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans.” Following a succession of drummers, Nirvana’s line-up was completed with the arrival of Dave Grohl in 1990. They played relatively local gigs on the west coast of America, and quickly established themselves on Seattle’s radical grunge scene.
In 1991, Nirvana arrived in Ireland supporting New York band, Sonic Youth for two gigs. The first gig took place on Tuesday August 20th, in Sir Henry’s, Cork. They were booked by local promoter Des Blair who knew little about Nirvana but upon hearing they could be booked for a fee of £100 they were the obvious choice. Having recorded the video for their earthshattering single Smells Like Teen Spiritthe previous weekend in California, Nirvana met up with Sonic Youth in London and travelled to Ireland by car ferry from Wales. They arrived early Tuesday morning and stayed at the Grand Parade Hotel – which adjoined Sir Henry’s – broke and hungry. Blair gave them an allowance of £10 per head for a meal that night but later discovered, much to his amusement, that they had ordered just a plate of nachos and spent the rest on wine!
As Nirvana took to the stage that balmy Tuesday night the venue was less than half full but almost reached its 750 capacity before their set was finished. The twelve-song set list included five songs from their soon to be released seminal second album Nevermind. The gig was the first time they performed Smells Like Teen Spirit outside of America. Played in the middle of the set it drew cheers from the crowd to which Kurt replied, “Thank you, you’re very gracious and kind.”
Kurt had always liked playing smaller venues, where he was able to see people’s faces. As their fame grew and they were playing in larger venues to bigger crowds, he was less comfortable. He was much more at home in Sir Henry’s and was happy leaving the venue that night as they made their way to The Top Hat in Dun Laoghaire for their second Irish show of the tour.
The two Irish gigs marked the end of an era for Nirvana. Nevermind was released on September 24th, 1991 and Kurt found himself being hailed as a musical saviour – another weight on his already slight shoulders. Life became more complicated, especially for Kurt who struggled with the pressures of fame.
Kurt loved Ireland and referred to his time here when speaking to The Observer in 1993. While it has been reported that his ancestors came from Tyrone, Kurt believed them to be from Cork: “They came from County Cork, which is a really weird coincidence, because when we toured Ireland we played in Cork and the entire day I walked around in a daze. I’d never felt more spiritual in my life. It was the weirdest feeling and I have a friend who was with me who could testify to this. I was almost in tears the whole day. Since that tour, which was about two years ago, I’ve had a sense that I was from Ireland.”
Even if he didn’t know it, Kurt was a visionary – an artistic genius who inspired so many and, on the surface, he was the quintessential rock star. Watching videos of Nirvana’s live performances or interviews, it’s easy to forget that behind the rock star was a sensitive, shy and polite man.
‘Growing Up Kurt Cobain’ will open on July 17th 2018 at the Museum of Style Icons in County Kildare. The exhibition will feature a personal collection of never-before-seen intimate items.