The Unsung Melodies of Kurt Cobain

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The last Nirvana song ever recorded was “You Know You’re Right,” and it’s as prototypical as the band got: A quiet, throbbing intro leads into slowly escalating guitars and a massive explosion in the chorus, all driven by Cobain’s weathered yawp—an instrument that had the potential for much more than stadium screaming. “Kurt had a really special voice with a lot of character,” Grohl told me during a conversation about the making of Nevermind. “You can see a lot of it on Unplugged, where his voice will break. He’ll go from having a smooth, pretty voice, and then he’ll pull it into his throat and make it break up.” Cobain was known for being a tinkerer, too. “I remember Kurt played In Utero for me on a boom box in his kitchen while I was taking photos of the collage for the back of the album,” says Peterson. “I thought it was pretty huge, but he was really worried. He kept asking if I liked it. I don’t think he was ever happy with the mixes on that record.”

Cobain had interests outside music, particularly photography, but it’s almost certain he would not have been able to walk away from songwriting completely. “I think music was pretty much the only thing working for him to give him comfort,” says Peterson. “If he could have gotten his act together, he may have dropped out of the music industry and given that pressure the heave-ho and gone off and played with his buddies in a garage with his funds from the first few records.” Says Cross: “The drive to create music is totally separate from the drive to release it. He wrote music long before he had any hope of ­success, and I believe he would have kept doing so.”

Putting out music independently has never been easier than it is now, and stepping away from the machinations of the industry as it was in the ’90s might have held more appeal for Cobain. “In this era, once you have a brand established, you don’t need a label,” notes Pavitt. But with that ease comes the rest of Internet culture, and it’s uncertain how he might have handled himself. “Could Kurt Cobain and his fragile ego have lived in a world with Yelp reviews and Facebook likes and Twitter? I don’t think so,” says Cross. “He was not a man for these times.”

Instead, his path probably would have been closer to the one chosen by Novoselic, who has led a relatively quiet life outside the mainstream and has focused mainly on local politics. He has released a handful of musical projects, including the bluesy Sweet 75 and a Crazy Horse-esque album as Eyes Adrift with Curt Kirkwood, but none of those seem like they would fit Cobain’s profile. In talking to Novoselic, however, it’s clear how strong his instincts were to foster his former bandmate’s creative path. “I had this habit that I kept up even after Nirvana ended where I would walk by a pawnshop and always look for a left-handed guitar,” Novoselic told me. “Kurt was left-handed and needed them, so we would just buy whatever ones we saw.”

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