Battle of the Birds: Kurt Cobain’s Girlfriends

An immediate apology for flippantly using the term ‘birds’ just to come up with a slightly more catchy title to what is a relatively flippant bit of data-play. As a proviso it’s safe to say that this post isn’t entirely serious — it’s merely a tumescent growth that arose from the work done this week on Kurt Cobain and the subject of his living arrangements. There’s a risk in the title, of course, of suggesting that one or another individual could be held ‘responsible’ for whatever peak or fall occurred in Kurt’s creativity — as I’ve made clear before (see the “” post) I genuinely don’t believe anyone other Kurt Cobain was responsible for these trends.

Having looked at the matter of where Kurt was when he wrote the majority of his songs, I wanted to examine who was his key, official, partner during these periods of time. As a second disclaimer, I’m doing this because I’m feeling playful; as an exercise it’s a perfect example of how any data can be compared to any other data whatsoever without leading to enlightenment or meaning — why do it then? Sheer curiosity. Not everything has to lead somewhere or mean something to be worth taking a crack at.

Discounting Mary Lou Lord who apparently backed up Kurt’s statements that they had never been romantically involved, Kurt Cobain was attached to three individuals between early 1987 and his death; Tracy Marander, Tobi Vail and Courtney Love. In each case, the relationships have been reduced in the retelling — to dependence, one-way head-over-heels, to mutually destructive passion — which probably has nullified any sense of the enjoyment and pleasure taken from all three. That’s not uncommon, question most people about their ex-partners or judge the relationship in the rear-view mirror and they end up being judged by the outcome not the time-specific experience, which is a shame.

Tracy was Kurt’s first real girlfriend and lasted from around January 1987 until May 1990 — 41 months. Tobi was the whirlwind in the middle making it less than six months from May to November 1990. Courtney arrived as a permanent fixture in October 1991 — 30 months:

KC_Girlfriends_Time Spent

Now…What did Kurt Cobain do during those periods of time?

KC_Girlfriends_Songs Written

A solid victory for the time spent in Olympia with Tracy Marander but, as usual, fun to look at the percentages also:

KC_Girlfriends_Songs Per Month

Told you it was fun to look. Suddenly it seems that the periods of domestic stability didn’t come close to the rough n’ tumble of Tobi and her loss. So, if I felt like being cynical I’d say “guys, if you want to make things happen in life — ditch the comfy woman!” But I’m only teasing. The coincidence of Kurt Cobain’s freedom, solitude, non-drug addiction, favourite drummer, major label shot and so forth all made late 1990-early 1991 a massive time for Kurt Cobain. What we’re looking at is a flaw in the data; it’s unclear how many of the songs I’ve placed in the second half of 1990 were in fact created prior to Kurt being dumped by Tobi, just as it’s unclear how many of the songs written in the first half of 1991 were finalised before Courtney’s arrival.

Sighhhhh…All this work just to conclude that not everything gives a meaningful correlation and that statistics are indeed the playthings of the data devil. Oh, because my friend asked (thank you Josephine! This one’s for you!), here’s the full record of Kurt Cobain’s known dalliances with the female of the species, as noted in the book Heavier Than Heaven, just for her. And yes, it feels voyeuristic and intrusive listing all this but for the sake of completism:

KC_All Girlfriends and Female Encounters_Table

Addendum: Cheers to Selena for raising this. The summer 1983 incident is controversial. Buzz Osborne has suggested its completely untrue – meanwhile it’s been cited twice including a full audio recording of Cobain seen in Montage Of Heck. Unfortunately, despite the ‘story telling format’ of the audio recording, despite Buzz’s reservations regarding whether public shaming in school happened at all, it’s impossible to say to what extent it was just a bizarre fantasy by Cobain – or, alternately, based on some personal experience. There’s no evidence determining that Buzz’s word should be credited over and above Cobain’s voice. Either way it’s one heck of story and pretty disturbing if it’s an invented tale of sexual discomfort, manipulation, inability to perform, shame, etc.

Anyways, context: this was a throwaway post written in December 2013. It’s neither scientific nor particularly interesting. The core of this blog is about the music of Nirvana and that’s where the heart is.


27 thoughts on “Battle of the Birds: Kurt Cobain’s Girlfriends”

  1. (the girl he had sex with for the first time, the night he got interrupted with Jackie, that is)

  2. @Andrea Dalziel: I like Tracy Marander quite a bit; given that she toiled away at a minimum wage job at a Sea-Tac Airport cafeteria in order to support Kurt Cobain 3 years, I’d be thrilled if she were the muse for _Nevermind_. Alas, history support’s this blog’s conclusion that while Kurt recorded _Bleach_ while he was with Tracy and tapped her as a muse for the “About A Girl” track on that album, it was Tobi Vail who shaped much of the work on _Nevermind_, helping him to refine its songs in practice sessions and serving as indirect inspiration for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (via her bandmate Kathleen Hanna’s infamous graffito). Even tracks that were considered for the album but later cut — e.g. “Aneurysm” — were directly inspired by experiences with Vail (e.g. “I love you so much it makes me sick” about his vomitous reaction to his first meeting with Tobi) and not Marander. Just sayin’.

  3. @Andrea Dalziel: You know what? Please disregard what I wrote in my original reply to you: upon reflection, it occurs to me that I was totally wrong. That is to say, yes, Cobain’s time with Vail helped him with the arrangements, keys, etc. of many songs on _Nevermind_ — per Azzarad’s great book — but aside from tracks like “In Bloom” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that are decidedly post-_Bleach_, many of the tracks on _Nevermind_ date back to Cobain’s 3 years with Marander. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Marander years and the “sabbatical” that she effectively provided for him that Cobain had time to polish older lyrics and earnest, as well as to process both current events (e.g. the 1987 media coverage of the attack on the 14 year-old girl that inspired “Polly”) and things that had happened to him when he was in junior high and high school (e.g. the short-lived “born-again Christian” experience that inspired “Lithium,” or the bridge at the end of his mother’s street that inspired “Something In the Way”). Thus, you were absolutely right to note that much of _Nevermind_ was written and/or revised during Cobain’s time with Marander. That the same is also true of several of the songs on _In Utero_ — per Cobain’s own liner notes thanking Marander — certainly supports your contention that her years of support were the gift that kept on giving as far as Cobain’s songwriting productivity were concerned, helping him to craft enough material to intersperse with newer songs on two albums — or three if you count the compilation/rarities album _Incesticide_ (which I inadvertently did in my original reply post, as I mentioned “Aneurism,” the Vail-inspired track that appears on _Incesticide_ but not on _Nevermind_, contrary to what I indicated in error).

    Mea maxima culpa for not thinking things through more completely before posting my original reply. Ms. Marander deserves her due; thanks for giving it to her and reminding others to do the same!

    1. I’m not sure about your doubt. Well, the point is: there is a difference between melody and lyric. Some melodies are from Tracy’s time. And some lyrics were changed to Nevermind.

  4. Kurt never said tobi dumped him. Only one of them ever discussed the break up in detail and it was tobi. She tells it that kurt broke up with her. Its a pretty important detail and it’s one that is constantly over looked. But tobi says it was kurt that broke up with her.

      1. That’s in Everett True. Not to just flatly deny what she says based on a feeling, but the way she says it is “And you know what? Kurt broke up with me!” (paraphrase), in the context of being annoyed that she is still blamed for breaking his heart, 15 years after the fact. She is trying to dispel the idea that she made any contribution to his lack of well being. Maybe the solid truth, but the context is there.

        Speaking of the True book, some women who knew him (such as Kelly Canary from Dickless) profess that they had huge crushes on him; but he never made a move. So what were they going to do? Apparently he didn’t have the confidence to do so. Someone even had to tell him that Tracy was into him. I think it was Slim Moon who notes that at a Nirvana show in Portland there was a really pretty girl giving him “fuck me” eyes throughout the show, and he just didn’t notice. Seems like he had very little idea how to tell if he had a chance with a woman, and not much ability to make the transaction. Furthermore, some of the women who talk about how cute he was also talk about how lost-puppylike he was, which doesn’t sound terribly sexually attractive. For example, he brought Carrie Montogomery with Courtney to Aberdeen to meet his mom, as a buffer. Carrie says Wendy took her aside and was like “Why don’t you and Kurt get together?” – she really liked Carrie. Carrie makes it clear that she only saw Kurt as a friend. Not that she is an avatar for all women who got to know Kurt, but it does seem like the way she related to him was more the norm. Finally, he seems to have mostly practiced monogamy, and therefore most of his adult life he had one partner.

    1. Hi Selena, the story – oddly enough – hasn’t been debunked. Cobain told the story himself and tells it again in that audio recording. What’s happened is doubt has been cast on the tale by someone outside of the situation (though for fair reasons). Cobain’s set up of the tale as an audio work which is provably true in parts (i.e., his use of marijuana, etc.) and likely untrue in others (i.e., public shaming at school) makes it impossible to categorically prove based on current data (which is basically Cobain material versus Buzz material) which is most accurate. Summarily deciding myself doesn’t seem particularly appropriate given I don’t have an opinion or an interest either way and that basing this off of opinions not demonstrable fact would seem wrong.

      Ultimately, most people reading the blog are aware of background, have a deeper interest in Nirvana – so they can use whichever data they wish and disregard the parts they desire. I’ll add an addendum mentioning it though! Frankly, I’ve been getting on with new things rather than reviewing three year old posts…

      1. It has been debunked. Do you really think that could have happened without news spreading around the entire town? Jesus, that would have haunted him all his life. It definitely would have reached the press after he became famous. Think of how much media scrutiny was surrounding him in the final years of his life.

      2. I respect your opinion while still saying they’re your personal deductions not confirmed and absolute fact. As I said, I don’t have skin in the game either way

      3. And yes, through personal experience I have slept with people on numerous occasions with knowledge of it only existing between myself and the other party. In the end, sexual contact between human beings just isn’t that important and a lot of it happens without much note of it being made. I certainly don’t believe the ‘Aberdeen’ recording is god’s honest truth, it’s a great lil’ story, but neither do I credit Buzz Osborne with omnipotent awareness of Cobain’s life either. I’ll amend the entry when actual evidence rather than hearsay and people’s opinions intervene

      4. These people you slept with, did any of their fathers run down to your high school and raise a big fuss and try to file criminal charges against you? Because a guarantee word would have spread quickly then.

      5. Again, you’re looking at one part of the story to try to claim all of it isn’t true. That’s the problem – the truth or untruth of one part of the ‘Aberdeen’ story has no bearing on the truth or untruth of another bit of it. For example, the fact that Cobain’s marijuana habit is true and well-attested to doesn’t automatically mean the ‘police to school’ bit is true (I sincerely doubt the police visit and public shaming too). They’re discreet components and, unfortunately, there’s no testimony to the core element of the tale.

    2. Actually, the story is based on truth. The girl was not disabled though. Kurt claimed this because when the girl was born they believed she might have had down syndrome. She didn’t and was a happy healthy baby. I have proof of it…and of knowing Kurt. I was that girl and was with him all those years. The other girls were not with him in any form.

  5. Thjats a painfully short list for a guy who was talented and hot as he was..
    Kurt was ridiculously handsome guy and don’t think he ever realised it. Which think even Courtney said.

    1. Wow. I gotta be honest here. You’re a bit annoying. You act like you are the God of all that is, was, and ever will be about Kurt Cobain. It’s an amazing thing really that those of us who actually knew him and actually grew up with him never, EVER talk in the faux “all-fact-knowing” tone that you do.

      Why do you think that is?

  6. The developmentally disabled one was not true, almost certainly. Montage of heck was totally dishonest and literally cut the word “fat” out in the sentence in which he’s describing himself to make it sound like it’s actually about him. That would’ve basically been rape and would have been really selfish in general. No one should be about that but he definitely was the antithesis if someone who would do that.

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