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Music

An unwilling star: 20 years since Kurt Cobain's death

On April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain killed himself with a shotgun. The singer of rock band Nirvana lived to age 27 - placing him in what's been dubbed the "27 club" of young musicians who died at the height of their careers.

"F**k you all; this is the last song of the evening," Kurt Cobain said into the microphone. It was November 18, 1993, and Nirvana's legendary MTV Unplugged gig was being recorded. He was sitting on stage in a thick cardigan and with stringy blond hair. The singer looked weary, and he was coping with torturous stomach pains that even hard drugs didn't alleviate.

Ahead of the MTV concert, he had threatened to prevent its recording from going forward, and he'd picked a fight with fellow bandmate Dave Grohl, saying the drummer's playing was too loud. In short, the dress rehearsal was a catastrophe. A few hours later, the audience wouldn't have suspected a thing. The band harmonized and fooled around a bit between songs. Cobain lolled about on his swivel stool, making sarcastic jokes here and there.

But when he sang, he was unmistakably engrossed in the music. The concert went down in pop music history.

Kurt Cobain on stage during the MTV Unplugged concert, guitar in hand

Cobain's wry humor was on display during the MTV Unplugged gig

'I don't have a gun'

Five months later, Kurt Cobain was found dead after shooting himself with a shotgun. When his body was discovered two days after his suicide, drug paraphernalia were lying next to the corpse.

Just weeks ago, police investigators released new photos of the scene. Mike Ciesynski, a detective specializing in unsolved crimes, hoped the photos would help put an end to the various conspiracy and murder theories that have mounted in the two decades since Cobain's death. "It's a suicide. This is a closed case," Ciesynski told members of the press. In 1994, investigators came to the conclusion that Kurt Cobain took a large dose of heroin before he shot himself.

A point of bitter irony for many fans: One of Nirvana's greatest hits, "Come As You Are," includes repetitions of the line, "And I swear that I don't have a gun."

Various objects, including a wallet, hat and a cigar box, found next to Cobain's corpse

Newly-released photos show what was found by the singer's corpse

Music for Gen X

In some ways, Kurt Cobain's suicide spelled not just the end of Nirvana, but the end of grunge - the genre from Seattle that conquered the world of pop music and with which the maladjusted struck back at the garish commercialism of the 90s. Generation X found its idol in the highly emotional, despairing, fragile, and unruly Kurt Cobain. Nirvana's music was hard, wild and burned out - the perfect soundtrack to long hair, ripped jeans and lumberjack flannel. It issued a clear rejection of the "love everyone" spirit of 90s techno and rave culture, embodied in Germany by Berlin's Love Parade festival.

The band's lyrics didn't delve into politics. Instead, grunge bands with loud guitars, heavy-hitting drums and raw vocals conjured up problems of the everyday in a world that had just been freed from nuclear fears and the Cold War. It was a world in which there suddenly appeared to be much less to demonstrate against.

Cobain developed his own form of protest, though: bitter sarcasm, particularly directed at his primary backers - a recording industry that he dismissed as capitalist pigs. He also didn't shy away from harsh words for his fans, even though they'd made him what he wanted to be from early on: a rock star.

The three members of Nirvana pictured together

Cobain's bandmates had a better idea than fans of the singer's personal demons

Enduring anthem

In many ways, though, Kurt Cobain was not the revolutionary with an extended middle finger, as he is so often portrayed. It's an image even he seemed to be fond of. But his journals, published as a book in 2002, paint a different picture. Sketches, letters, shopping lists and other checklists can be found within the pages, but there's little to lead readers to believe they are getting a glimpse into one of the most important rock idols of the 90s.

His drug addiction was no secret among his friends and associates. He was hardly the only one in the grunge scene who had developed a heroin habit. But almost no one could get inside his head.

Fellow band members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl knew what was going on, however. Bored one day, Grohl wrote a song about the group's lead singer called "A Friend of a Friend," in which the lyrics go, "He needs a quiet room / With a lock to keep him in … He's never been in love / But he knows just what love is / He says never mind / And no one speaks / He thinks he drinks too much / 'Cause when he tells his two best friends / 'I think I drink too much' / No one speaks."

Months later, in September 1991, came the Nirvana album "Nevermind," which changed the world of rock music profoundly. The first track, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," remains an anthem into the present. "Rolling Stone" named it one of the best songs of all time - on what the magazine has hailed as one of the best albums in pop music history.

The cover of Nirvana album Nevermind

Nirvana's "Nevermind" has been hailed as a milestone in pop music history

Point of no return

Cobain found himself swamped with prizes, massive tours, TV appearances, publications, the follow-up hit album "In Utero," and, ultimately, the MTV Unplugged gig - a kind of accolade for creative greats in the music industry. The more success Nirvana found, the worse things got for Cobain. Between his rise to fame, the drugs and his stomach problems, it all proved too much. In February 1994, Nirvana went on tour in Europe, with their last concert slated for April 8 in Dublin. But on March 1, the band broke things off. They had their last show on stage together in Munich, where the 3,000 fans in attendance had no idea what things were like for the ailing frontman. Days later, he tried to take his own life with sleeping pills. His wife, Courtney Love, found him and he was revived at the hospital.

But by then, Cobain had already shut himself off from everything. Neither Nirvana's success, nor his friends in the band, nor his wife and young daughter had a real chance of stopping his suicide. In his last letter to Courtney Love, he wrote, "You know I love you, I love Frances, I'm so sorry.… I don't know where I'm going, I just can't be here anymore."

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