childhood Kurt Cobain’s sister recalls their
Kurt Cobain’s sister Kim recalls her childhood with the boy who would go on to front one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Her hope, she tells Esther McCarthy, is that a new exhibition of his personal artefacts will reveal the real man behind the he
When Kurt Cobain’s neighbour and friend gave him a rubber monkey the little boy had fallen in love with, he couldn’t have known it would one day appear on one of the most iconic albums of all time.
The modest toy, nicknamed ‘Chim Chim’ by the toddler Cobain, would feature on the back sleeve of Nevermind, the album that sealed Nirvana’s place as one of the biggest groups in rock. The star never lost his affection for Chim Chim and would even carry it around as an adult, smiles his sister, Kim.
“That rubber monkey actually came from our neighbour that we grew up with.
“He had this rubber monkey and he gave it to Kurt.
“It might have been a trade or a partial trade but then Kurt ended up keeping it.
“Later when he moved to Olympia (in Washington State) and started his band and was doing all this stuff, I don’t know how he attached it but he used to carry it around on the shoulder of his leather jacket when he was with his old girlfriend, Tracy.
“The monkey has been around a long time!
“It was something for himself to see what people would say, I think. ‘What the hell is that on his shoulder?’”
It’s an anecdote that shows the wackier, comedic side of the grunge rocker who ruled music, only to struggle with addiction and other issues before tragically taking his own life at the age of 27, at the height of his fame, in 1994.
Cobain and his music are often characterised as melancholy and dark and though he certainly struggled with his demons, those who knew him best are hopeful that a new exhibition will step beyond the mythology and give a sense of who he was.
Kim, their mother Wendy and Kurt’s daughter with Courtney Love, Frances Bean, all travelled to Ireland this week for the opening of Growing Up: Kurt Cobain exhibition. The Musuem of Style Icons at Newbridge Silverware will house the exhibition, featuring Kurt’s drawings and sketches along with clothing, awards, sunglasses, trainers and the only known car Kurt owned during his life, a powder blue 1965 Dodge Dart. They include well-known items such as the sweater he wore in the Smells Like Teen Spirit video.
It was in part due to the family’s Irish heritage that the family brought the exhibition to Newbridge, Kim tells me.
The family have roots in Co Tyrone, though when Kurt was alive he believed they had connections to Co Cork.
Going through Kurt’s belongings to pick possessions to exhibit has been emotional, says his sister, but the timing felt right.
“Everybody’s heard and written about and put their own presumptions onto who he was.
“I’m trying to show the progression into his real childhood, how
his art progressed, how he got to where he is, but minus going into the dark parts.
“There was much more happiness in our childhood than there was sadness.
“Not one person has had the perfect childhood where everything is happy and great. We’ve all had some outside influences that put dampeners on your life.
“But we’re trying to bring him back to his Irish roots.
“That’s another reason why we came to Ireland first, it’s very much who we are.”
Cobain was born into a family that was very creative, musical and artistic, says Kim, though it was obvious from an early age that her big brother had something special. “I’m three years younger, so he was already established as the first-born grandchild on both sides of the family.
“By the time he was three, four
years old, he was showing that he could draw. Later, he could start to hear a song on the radio or a record and start to play it on the piano. He could play things by ear and he could pick up almost any instrument and just start playing it.
“I always felt as a kid that I couldn’t do art, I couldn’t play music, because he was so good at it!
“He just had natural talent.” Nirvana were already making an impression in Washington State before their music wowed the world. Kim would regularly cheer on her sibling at local gigs, but could never have prepared herself for hearing him on the radio for the first time.
“When he first got signed with DGC, I’d been watching him, seeing the band play all over the place in Seattle and the north west, so it wasn’t that big of a
shock that they got big, to me, because I kind of almost expected it. But then it was kind of a weird thing to hear your brother’s voice on the radio while you’re driving down the street.
“He worked for it, and I don’t think he expected to be as famous as he got, worldwide, internationally.
“Everywhere I go and they see my last name, people go: ‘Any relation?’
“I think he was hoping and expecting to only get as famous as Sonic Youth. Only Sonic Youth!” she laughs.
“That was about as far as he ever thought it was gonna go. Or Mudhoney, the bands that he really loved.”
Mum Wendy, speaking at the launch of the exhibition, admitted that she felt excited but also anxious for her shy, easy-going son when she first heard Smells
Like Teen Spirit — and knew instinctively it would make the band huge. “They first time I heard it, when it had been recorded, he was sitting next to me on the sofa.
“He’d been home three days. It came on, it was Teen Spirit, and I was… in my household my children play loud and raucous music 24/7... and when it came on I was just freaking out on him, like a fan. I said to him: ‘I know music, I know I’m your mom, but this is going to blow up so big, and I’m scared for you.’ But I was so impressed also with it.
“We always had music and art in our family. It was always around us. “He loved to play guitar. He loved to play drums. He loved the drama, to get all of this expression out.”
Wendy and Kim were closely involved in collating the exhibition, and Kurt’s daughter Frances Bean is proud of what they’ve achieved.
“It was their creative output which is why I wanted to come and support it,” she says.
“This is the first time they’ve extended themselves in that they’ve curated it and created it. And formed their idea of Kurt and who they knew him to be. That to me is the purest form of him.
“Everything we’ve seen and heard is this saturated version. It’s part of mythology, we love to think of him as this mysterious, dark, poet, and he was, but he was also funny and warm and a brother and a son.
“And I think this is more reflective of that.
“I think it’s important to the narrative to recognise that these were as important aspects to his personality as the darker mysterious poet laureate that we know him to be.”
When you lose a family member so young it leads to a lifetime of milestones missed, and Kim agrees that working on the exhibition, and revisiting so many fond memories of her brother, has been comforting and cathartic.
“Absolutely. It’s a healing thing for all of us.
“My mom saved everything for all of us. But with Kurt’s stuff, we know the value if someone was to break in and steal it.
“Over the last six, seven years at least, we’ve had most of this exhibition in a protected storage facility. I think the walls are like ten feet thick. So taking it out and being able to see it again is really remarkable.
“To see that progression of his childhood through his art. What he was drawing was pretty important as well.
“A young child drawing all the cartoons he has seen, all the Disney characters and superheroes. And when he became a pre-teen: ‘I’m going to get a little bit more mischievous’, drawing Jaws and Batman, and the Nightstalker.
“That’s how he felt about it too, he needed to present his art. He needed to get that out.
“When you’re a creative person, you have to get it out. It’s therapy, it’s part of their being.
“It’s creating, and they need to create at all times.”
Above: The rubber monkey that belonged to Kurt Cobain appeared on the back cover of the album ‘Nevermind’; Cobain’s Dodge Dart car; and his Converse trainers. He apparently wrote “Fuhgawz” on his left shoe to make fun of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder....
Kurt Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor (left) daughter Frances Bean Cobain (centre) and sister Kim Cobain stand alongside his t-shirt worn in the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video, during the opening of the ‘Growing Up Kurt’ exhibition on the life of the...