Behind the Meaning of the Band Name: Nirvana

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Videos by American Songwriter

If Kurt Cobain were alive today, what would he think?

The co-founder of the iconic grunge band, Nirvana, might be appalled. His band is still famous? Almost as famous as ever? How could this be?

Well, it starts with great songs. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will last forever. But it also is about image, legacy and, yes, even a band’s name.

But what is the story behind Cobain’s band’s name? Nirvana? Let’s dig in.

Origins

Before we get into the band’s name, let’s get into the band.

Nirvana is an American rock band formed in Aberdeen, Washington, some two hours outside of Seattle. The group formed officially in 1987, founded by Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic.

Famously, Nirvana went through several drummers, from Chad Channing to several more, before landing on Dave Grohl in 1990. Grohl was from California but Cobain had seen him play at a show and knew he was the guy.

Nirvana was part of the Seattle grunge scene, one of many bands that included Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and more. The band released its debut LP, Bleach, on the Sub Pop record label in 1989, produced by “The Grungefather,” Jack Ending.

When the group released its album, Nevermind, in 1991, it became the before/after moment for the Emerald City and its grunge groups, most notably Nirvana. They were officially gods on Earth, never to live a normal life again.

The fame got to be so much that Cobain retreated into isolation and drug use. He came out of the haze for the group’s third LP, In Utero, in 1993, shortly before he died, officially by suicide in 1994. But before his death, Nirvana recorded a now-famous MTV Unplugged album, also in 1994, that remains perhaps the most famous from those mid-’90s sessions. The band’s MTV Unplugged album won Best Alternative Music Performance at the 1996 Grammy Awards.

The Name

Cobain and Novoselic met at Aberdeen High School. The pair became fast friends, with the slight Cobain looking up to the towering Novoselic. They practiced often, sometimes with Cobain staring straight into a wall, his nose practically touching it. There was ambition to play but not always to be famous.

In the early dates, Cobain, who long wanted to form a band, gave Novoselic a demo tape of his band, Fecal Matter. Three years after they met, Novoselic said he finally listened to the tape and they started a project.

Oddly enough, their first band, called, the Sellouts, was a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band. Novoselic on guitar and singing, Cobain played drums. Steve Newman played bass. That group fell apart soon, though, and more bands were to follow.

In 1987, Cobain and Novoselic brought in drummer Aaron Burckhard and together the trio worked on material from Fecal Matter. The group went through several names, including Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew and Ted Ed Fred.

Finally, though, they settled on Nirvana because, said Cobain, “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans.”

The word Nirvana, of course, is defined as “a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism.”

Later

Later, Novoselic and Cobain moved to Tacoma and then Olympia, respectively, and lost contact temporarily with Burckhard. They recruited drummer Dale Crover from local standout band, the Melvins, and recorded their first demos in January 1988.

More drummers followed.

So did fame and notoriety.

Then sadness.

Fallout

Cobain died in 1994. He was one of several Pacific Northwest music legends to die tragically, from Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, to later, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Others, who maybe weren’t as famous, like Andrew Wood passed away in the ‘90s, as well.

The city is still reeling from their loss.

But, unlike the physical form, names still live on. And none more so than Nirvana.

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