I have been a fan of Nirvana since I first heard them over 30 years ago. My appreciation for lead singer Kurt Cobain’s artistry and intelligence has only increased over the decades. I had an opportunity to see Nirvana and the Melvins in the fall of 1991, but I had a college project due, so I skipped it to finish my work. At the time, it seemed like both bands would remain underground and tour the smaller clubs for the foreseeable future. As it turns out, Nirvana would soon sell millions of albums and dramatically change the musical landscape. I liked Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, but when I bought follow-up Nevermind, I realized that Nirvana had made a landmark album. Album opener “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song with a more muscular version of the Pixies’ quiet/loud dynamics plus great structure, melody, and anthemic but unusual lyrics. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made me want to jump around, sing, ponder the vigor of youthful rebellion, and I was sure it would conjure similar feelings in my “indie” friend group. What I did not realize is that the song would soon dominate pop radio, creating many debates about the term “sell-out.” Some of my so-called “indie” friends, who originally loved Nirvana, chose to distance themselves from the band after they became popular. I decided to be happy for the band’s success and see their breakthrough as a triumph for good music. I like all of Nirvana’s albums, but the one I find astounding and surprising, especially considering the turmoil Kurt and the band were experiencing at the time, is the MTV Unplugged Live in New York because the performance is so intimate and soulful, but powerful. Seeing and hearing Nirvana stripped-down magnifies what great musicians and what a great band they were.
Kurt Cobain produced several tracks on the Melvins’ Houdini album and helped the band get signed to Atlantic Records. I saw the Melvins four times on their Houdini tour, including a show in Amherst, Massachusettes, the day of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It was a very shocking and tough day, and I thought the Melvins would cancel, but they played the best show of theirs I’ve ever seen. I like to think they played from their hearts to honor Kurt.
I’d always wanted to make a Kurt Cobain tribute portrait, but I did not want to use one of the many well-known photographs as the reference for my illustration. Fortunately, I ran into Chris Petersen whose late sister Naomi was a photographer for SST Records and shot some great Nirvana photos in 1990. In one photo, I was immediately drawn to Kurt’s gaze directly at the viewer, which I then tried to amplify in my illustration. I hope that my portrait of Kurt is a reminder that his artistry and humanity endure despite his struggles and tragic early death.
Kurt Cobain – Endless Nameless. 18 x 24 inches. Screen print on thick cream Speckletone paper. Original photo by Naomi Petersen. Signed by Shepard Fairey. Numbered edition of 650. $85. Available on Tuesday, April 6th @ 10 AM PDT at https://store.obeygiant.com/collections/prints. Max order: 1 per customer/household. International customers are responsible for import fees due upon delivery. ALL SALES FINAL.
Photo by Naomi Petersen / Chris Petersen Images / Punk Life Naomi