Kurt Cobain: Something Short of Nirvana
Interviewer Jim Crotty once asked the mastermind behind Nirvana what the title of his autobiography might be some day. With a mixture of dry wit and veiled truth, the rock legend replied, “I Was Not Thinking’ by Kurt Cobain.” Remarkably, this observation proves to be one of the most succinct and insightful snapshots into the psyche of a brilliant but troubled soul. It was obviously a self-aware statement, poking fun at his notorious insecurities with fame. Yet it was such a precise allusion to how this alienated rock star had walked blindly into becoming the gloomy guru for a nation of alienation.
Pinpointing the roots of his uneasiness is not a hard task to unmask. Stir together a huge dollop of sensitivity and a mature empathy for others, then suddenly drop in a broken home, and you’ll easily find a thousand kids who might wind up with a self-esteem problem. For Kurt, that pivotal moment occurred when he was 8-years old in the mid-70s. Divorce shot up the scales tenfold during this period of time. It wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. There was hardly any representation in the media or entertainment of families with single parents. A whole boatload of children more than likely had no point of reference to handle their feelings of self worth and isolation. Kurt’s fragile emotional state was frazzled when his mechanic dad Don and waitress mom Wendy suddenly put an end to their marriage. Kurt’s mom later told Newsweek magazine that the divorce “just destroyed his life. He changed completely. I think he was ashamed. And he became very inward – he just held everything (in).”
The town where Kurt was raised didn’t seem to harbor any shelter for his emotional woes. Aberdeen, Washington is a rural coastal town about 100 miles south of Seattle that has a commonplace small city fondness for pickup trucks and the simple life. Lumber mills are pretty much sacred institutions within the town’s limits. “Basically if you’re not prepared to join the logging industry,” Kurt once explained to Monk magazine, “you’re going to be beaten up or run out of town.” Over the next years of his adolescence, Kurt faced both scenarios.
His creative spirit manifested itself with a fondness for singing as a toddler. He was interested in art, making collages and toying with claymation. Oftentimes, young Kurt would appear at one of his musician aunt’s local performances and strum on her band’s guitar while they were setting up. But the hurt he suffered inside from his parents’ parting probably molded his inclinations to look within for inspiration instead of from outside influence. He basically took shelter in himself. He did not want to become anything that Aberdeen had to offer. He grew to despise the limited viewpoints and macho swagger that the town’s numerous so-called rednecks seemed to cherish. Kurt chose to be the antithesis of a testosterone-fueled, beer-swilling male. “I used to pretend I was gay just to f*** with people,” he told The Advocate magazine. “I’ve had the reputation of being a homosexual ever since I was 14.”
By his late teens, Kurt was becoming more disenchanted with his environs. He was sent to stay with different relatives over the years. He dropped out of high school (yet he spent much of his time reading many books in the local library). Soon thereafter, he was kicked out of the trailer home he shared with his mom, applied for food stamps, and lived under an Aberdeen bridge with some homeless men. Around this time, he discovered The Melvins.
In essence, The Melvins were the founding forefathers of the Seattle grunge movement. While punk rock had seethed mostly from the shores of England in the mid-to-late 70’s, America’s angry punk spirit only seemed to filter out of clubs like New York’s CBGB and from LA bands like X. The laid-back Northwest was known more for its folk music than it was for its metal sound. That all changed with the Melvins. Melodic sludge-rock churned from the power trio’s amps, and their dispirited attitude seemed to capture the imagination of Cobain. Soon, he was hauling their road gear. One day, the group’s Buzz Osbourne introduced Kurt to a young kid named Chris Novoselic.
Novoselic, who would later be known by his Croatian name Krist, was raised in Los Angeles, but he’d moved to the Aberdeen area when he was 14. Kurt told interviewer Gina Arnold, “I wanted to start a band really bad, and I got an electric guitar and I was really into it, but I couldn’t find anyone in Aberdeen to be in a band with. I was lucky to find Chris at the time.” The two began hanging out and sharing musical interests. They also pulled pranks. In 1985, the boys were arrested for spray painting the words “Homo Sex Rules” on the side of a bank.
Krist told Radio Triple J Australia, “Kurt did a tape with Dale Crover, (the drummer) from The Melvins, and one of the songs on it was ‘Spank Thru,’ and he turned me on to it, and I kinda liked it, it got me excited, so I go, ‘Hey man, let’s start a band!’ We scrounged up a drummer, and we started practicing; took it very seriously too.” Around this time, Kurt’s outward dissatisfaction with Aberdeen reached a pinnacle. “I decided to take some acid one evening and spray paint ‘queer’ on the sides of 4 x 4 trucks, the local rednecks’ trucks” he related to Monk magazine. “And so one of them saw me from his window and started chasing me and started screaming, ‘There’s the queer vandal!’ I’d been doing it for awhile. But that night I decided to really go for it and do a lot, a lot of vandalism. So they caught me and chased me around.” They pretty much chased him out of town.
Kurt settled in the nearby college burg of Olympia. He spent part of his time as a janitor with Lemons Janitorial Service. The rest of his waking hours, he played in a band with Krist along with an assortment of drummers. Their band names morphed from Fecal Matter to Skid Row to Ed Ted & Fred to Bliss to Throat Oyster to Pen Cap Chew, and finally to Nirvana. After Jonathan Poneman of local indie label Sub Pop heard one of their demos, he signed them up and sent them out on tour. Kurt remembered what their first gig was like to Backlash magazine. “We were uptight. It just didn’t seem like a real show. We felt like we were being judged, it was like everyone should’ve had score cards. Plus, I was sick. I puked that day. That’s a good excuse.” These comments reflect early signs of his feeling a lack of worthiness before an audience and perhaps a hint of stomach problems to come.
Modeling their early songs after the punk spirit of The Melvins, the tunes Kurt and company laid down for their Sub Pop debut album, “Bleach,” consisted of grinding guitars and lots of wailed lyrics, with only half the craft that would later accentuate their output. “Bleach’ is seen to be really one-dimensional,” Kurt later observed to Radio Triple J Australia. “It has the same format, all the songs are slow, and grungey, and they’re tuned down to really low notes, and I screamed a lot.” Recorded in 3 days for a mere $606.17, the album did garner the band lots of college radio airplay. The band settled into a series of tours throughout the rest of 1989 and 1990, honing their abilities. By the spring of 1990, Nirvana felt confident enough to record again.
Butch Vig was a producer in Madison, Wisconsin who had recently recorded a band named the Smashing Pumpkins. Cobain and Novoselic, along with drummer Chad Channing, stopped into his Smart Studio, and laid down some early versions of songs like “Lithium” and “Polly” that would soon show up on their future landmark album. “When I heard some of the demos for “Nevermind,” I was blown away,” Vig remarked, “because they were so poppy, even though the band was totally onslaught rockin’ when they played – it had a very hooky pop sense to it.” Channing soon left the band, and Kurt and Krist decided to hold off on letting Sub Pop release the songs on an album until they found another drummer. Dave Grohl of the Washington D.C. punk outfit Scream was soon recruited.
Major labels began to get wind of the talented trio, and after a huge bidding war, David Geffen’s DGC label signed the band. In May 1991, the band temporarily relocated to the Los Angeles area and laid down tracks at Van Nuys’ Sound City studio. Gone were the raw, undisciplined punk attitudes they had infused in their earlier work. The hard rock was still there, but the band had a polished assault, while the lyrics were incisive and kinetic. Kurt had truly searched within his soul to wrench the feelings of disconnection into the microphone. These were songs from the depths of his despairing heart. One of his lyrics went like so: “And I forget just why I taste/Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile/I found it hard, it was hard to find/Oh well, whatever, never mind.” They were contained within a vibrant, screeching anthem of a tune called “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song would thrust the band, and particularly Cobain, into the media spotlight overnight.
Kurt told Radio Triple J Australia about the origins of the smash hit. “This friend of mine and I were goofing around my house one night, and we were kinda drunk, and we were writing graffiti all over the walls of my house, and she wrote, ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit.’ And earlier on, we were kinda having this discussion on revolution, and teen revolution and stuff like that, and I took that as a compliment. I thought that she was saying that I was a person who, who could inspire…And it turns out she just meant that I smelt like the deodorant. I didn’t even know that deodorant existed until after the song was written.”
The album “Nevermind” was released in September 1991. Its mix of heavy metal and punk helped singe the definition of ‘grunge’ into America’s consciousness. Where Nirvana busted open the door, Seattle-area bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains followed through with the same kind of formula. Filming an anarchic high school pep rally for their music video to “Teen Spirit,” the band drop-kicked their fame straight to the top when MTV began airing the clip incessantly over the next few months. After 14 weeks on the chart, “Nevermind” smacked Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” out of America’s top position on January 11, 1992. Soon, millions of teenagers would be loping about the streets with meticulously torn jeans and natty flannel shirts. And the instant media attention seemed to overwhelm Kurt from the start.
He told journalist Michael Deeds shortly after “Nevermind”’s release, “I’m constantly feeling guilty in ways. Our music, especially on this album, is so slick-sounding. A few years ago, I would’ve hated our band, to tell you the truth.” By January 1992, the album would go platinum. DGC had only expected to sell about 200,000 copies. “Nevermind” would eventually tally over 13 million copies worldwide, 7 million of that in the United States. Kurt could confide his insecurities with Chris and Dave, but another person was foremost in his life at the time. And unlike Kurt, she definitely didn’t mind the spotlight.
Towards the end of 1991, Courtney Love was pregnant with Kurt’s child. A bleach-blond singer who had weathered some very harsh realities in her own life, Courtney seemed to pride herself on displaying her emotional battle scars to the world. She related a smidgen of her upbringing to Spin magazine. “I was moved around a lot. I have a really dysfunctional family. My mother is really detached. My real father is insane. The only good person in my family is my stepfather. He wasn’t in my life that much, though, and I was in institutions. I was in juvenile hall for four years (after stealing a KISS T-shirt from a Woolworths), boarding school for three years (in New Zealand). You know, I tried to be a stoner because they were bad.” Courtney’s dad, reportedly a manager for the Grateful Dead in the 1960s, turned her onto acid when she was three years old. He subsequently wasn’t allowed to see her until she was an adult. Courtney had gone to Japan as a stripper at age 15. To say the least, she was probably more of a walking wounded soul than her reclusive beau.
Having seen Kurt in concert in 1988, she set about to snare her man. “I really pursued him, not too aggressive, but aggressive enough that some girls would have been embarrassed by it,” she told Sassy magazine. “I’m direct. That can scare a lot of boys…Kurt was scared of me. He said he didn’t have time to deal with me. But I knew it was inevitable.” During the band’s 1992 European tour, Kurt and Courtney took time off to get married in Waikiki, Hawaii on February 24, 1992. Marital bliss was met in the media by fixation on another byproduct of their union. That of the couple’s fondness for heroin.
The nagging stomach problems that had chronically plagued Kurt sporadically in pre-“Nevermind” days seemed to manifest themselves in a more accelerated manner. On June 22, 1992, an ailing Cobain was rushed to a Northern Ireland hospital after a performance at the King’s Hall in Belfast. He tried to explain his symptoms and the media’s misread on them to the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve had this terrible stomach problem for years and that has made touring difficult. People would see me sitting in the corner by myself looking sick and gloomy. The reason is that I was trying to fight against the stomach pain, trying to hold my food down. People looked at me and assumed I was some kind of addict…We have a lot of young fans and I don’t want to have anything to do with inciting drug use. People who promote drug use are (expletive). I chose to do drugs. I don’t feel sorry for myself at all, but have nothing good to say about them. They are a total waste of time.” Meanwhile, he was feeling completely inadequate with the tremendous adulation he was receiving for his work. “I guess I must have quit the band about 10 different times in the last year…” he revealed. “The music is usually what brings me back.”
When Vanity Fair magazine reported that Courtney had been using heroin during her first month of pregnancy, she didn’t deny it. But after their baby, Frances Bean, was born on August 18, 1992, and Los Angeles social workers tried to place their child with Courtney’s sister, Love had a lot to say about the validity of Vanity Fair’s claims. They soon got custody of their child back, but the duo didn’t stay out of the news for long. A fracas with reigning headbanger extraordinaire, Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, backstage at the MTV Music Video Awards made headlines around the world.
“They’re really talentless people,” Kurt offered in his assessment of Guns N’ Roses to The Advocate magazine. “And they write crap music, and they’re the most popular rock band on the earth right now. I can’t believe it.” As for the incident, he said, “They actually tried to beat us up. Courtney and I were just with the baby in the eating area backstage, and Axl walked by. So Courtney yelled, ‘Axl! Axl, come over here!’ We just wanted to say hi to him – we think he’s a joke, but we just wanted to say something to him. So I said, ‘Will you be the godfather of our child?’ I don’t know what had happened before that to piss him off, but he took his aggressions out on us and began screaming bloody murder. These were his words, ‘You shut your bitch up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement.’ Everyone around us just burst out into tears of laughter. She wasn’t even saying anything mean, you know? So I turned to Courtney and said, ‘Shut up, bitch!’ And everyone laughed and he left. So I guess I did what he wanted me to do – be a man.”
Kurt’s mood swings over his life and his career continued to show warning signs of coming apart in his statements to the media throughout 1992. He said to Melody Maker magazine, “I’ve had days where I’ve considered this to be a job, and I never thought that would happen. It makes me question the point of it all. I’m gonna bitch about it for another year and, if I can’t handle it after that, we’re gonna have to make some drastic changes.” He was already figuring on a way to stop the perpetual motion machine he’d help create. “People think I’m a moody person, and I think it’s lame that there are only two kinds of male lead singer,” he continued defensively. “You can either be a moody visionary like Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), or a mindless heavy metal party guy like Sammy Hagar.” Cobain clearly tended to lump the latter performer in with the memories of the yahoos he once despised in Aberdeen.
Sometimes those yahoos crossed the boundaries into Nirvana’s world, and it upset them deeply. “I’m neurotic about credibility,” Courtney Love commented to Vanity Fair. “And Kurt is neurotic about it, too. He’s dealing with people who like his band who he despises. For instance, a girl was raped in Reno. When they were raping her, they were singing ‘Polly,’ a Nirvana song. These are the people who listen to him.” This incident so incensed Cobain that he wrote a message to his fans in the liner notes of Nirvana’s next release, January 1993’s “Incesticide” (a collection of B-sides, demos, live recordings, and outtakes). His fury read, “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the f*** alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
The sensitive kid from Aberdeen still wished to act against the injustices of an intolerant society, but the multitudes of despondent fans who wanted his leadership in their lives began to wear heavily on Cobain’s psyche. He did not want that responsibility. Nevertheless, by May 1993, the band was in Minnesota, at a remote studio, recording their next album for 12 days with underground producer Steve Albini. Cobain wanted to return to a less-polished sound. The band played together live on most of the tunes without much time spent on overdubbing or multiple tracks. They later brought in producer Scott Litt of R.E.M. fame to tweak a few songs like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.” One song they had recorded was favored by Kurt to also be the title of the album. It was called “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.”
The song was actually meant to be a jokey take on the continually-morose portrayal of the band. They removed the song from the album, however. “We knew people wouldn’t get it,” Kurt told Rolling Stone magazine. “They’d take it too seriously. It was totally satirical, making fun of ourselves. I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. ‘He isn’t satisfied with anything.’ And I thought it was a funny title.” The band’s label, DGC, decided to place the song in a more overtly humorous package, as the lead song on 1993’s “Beavis and Butt-Head Experience” CD.
While it was refreshing to see the jovial side of Kurt Cobain in this instance, he clearly was struggling to get a handhold on his substance abuse. A few months earlier, in February, he had told The Advocate, “Everyone thinks we’re on drugs again, even people we work with. I guess I’ll have to get used to that for the rest of my life.” He certainly didn’t give the media any evidence to suggest otherwise during the summer of 1993. On May 2nd, he was taken to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center after police found that, with the help of Courtney, he had injected himself with massive amounts of heroin and the drug buprenorphine at a party. Kurt wound up spending much of the rest of May at a rehab clinic. But on June 4th, police were again summoned into his life, when they broke up a dispute at the couple’s Washington home and confiscated several weapons. By July 23rd, when he overdosed in a New York hotel before performing at the New Music Seminar, it was evident that Cobain was spiraling out of orbit.
His easygoing lifestyle was also being bombarded at home with the musical aspirations of his wife. Courtney had been in bands since 1988, but it was the formation of Hole in 1990 that soon brought her notoriety amongst fans and record label representatives. According to her interview with Barbara Walters, the band name was derived from something her neglectful mother once told her: ‘Now Courtney, you know you can’t walk around with a hole in yourself just because you had a bad childhood.” By the end of 1992, her husband’s label, DGC, had signed Hole for a major album release. She was eager to attain the same success as he had.
Nirvana’s fourth album, “In Utero,” was released on September 21, 1993, and it entered the U.S. chart at #1 on October 9th, displacing Garth Brook’s “In Pieces.” Artwork featuring fetuses that Cobain had designed was displayed on the album’s back cover. Both K-Mart and Walmart chains refused to stock the CD, citing offensive content. A subdued design was later released, and the song “Rape Me,” (an anti-rape song!), clearly printed on the back, was altered to read, “Waif Me.”
One of the band’s finest moments occurred on November 18, 1993, when they taped an “Unplugged” episode for MTV at New York’s Sony Studios. Kurt’s voice was at top form, with eloquent emotion, as the group worked through several of their tunes along with many cover songs. The recording would be released a year later and hit number one on the U.S. chart on November 19, 1994.
The year 1994 began with the band heading out on the road to Europe for a two month-long tour. It would be their last. In February, Fender Frontline magazine caught up with Kurt and enquired as to the future of the group. “I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished together,” he offered. “Having said that however, I don’t know how long we can continue as Nirvana without a radical shift in direction. I have lots of ideas and ambitions that have nothing to do with the mass conception of ‘grunge’ that has been force-fed to the record buying public for the last few years. Whether I will be able to do everything I want to do as part of Nirvana remains to be seen. To be fair, I also know that both Krist and Dave have musical ideas that may not work in the context of Nirvana. We’re all tired of being labeled. You can’t imagine how stifling it is.”
It seemed like Kurt wouldn’t mind if he just stepped down from the racehorse for awhile. No implications of suicidal tendencies, but instead just an attempt to regroup in his head, turn inward once again. He passed up the offer to headline the 1994 Lollapalooza concert tour in the summer, a venture that would have yielded the band millions of dollars. To Kurt, he already had more than enough. He wanted some of his old life back. On March 1st, after a show in Munich, Germany, he opted to end the European tour, delaying the succeeding dates for a future time to be scheduled. He hopped a plane for Rome and checked into the posh Excelsior Hotel. Courtney and Frances Bean flew in a day later to be with him. At 5:30am on the morning of March 3rd, she awoke to find Kurt in a coma. He was rushed to Umberto 1 Polyclinic Hospital, where he had champagne, and close to 50 prescription pills, pumped from his stomach.
When he came out of his coma, Kurt asked for a milkshake. Official press reports blamed the incident on his own elation over being reunited with Courtney after a month’s separation. However, the fact that there were so many pills in his system tended to spread the rumor that it had been a failed suicide attempt. Nevertheless, Kurt was discharged a few days later on March 8th, and doctors seemed to think his condition was stable. Dr. Osvaldo Galletta at the Italian hospital told Newsweek magazine, “The last image I have of him, which in light of the tragedy now seems pathetic, is of a young man playing with the little girl. He did not seem like a young man who wanted to end it. I had hope for him.”
Back in the States, life never seemed to get back on even keel for the troubled musician. Seattle police were called to the Cobain home on the evening of March 18th, responding to a report that Kurt had locked himself in a room with guns and was threatening to kill himself. The authorities managed to coax him from the room, whereupon Kurt insisted he had not tried to commit suicide, but rather was trying to get away from Courtney. The cops confiscated 4 guns, 25 boxes of ammunition, and a bottle of assorted pills. A week later, on March 25th, Courtney allegedly staged an ‘intervention,’ with Kurt’s friends and managers in attendance, coercing Kurt to go into an LA rehab. He agreed to admit himself, but later wouldn’t board the plane. Courtney went on to Los Angeles, hoping he would soon follow. She later told Barbara Walters that Kurt “was ganged-up upon. I don’t think that intervention works on certain people of a certain age…I shouldn’t have called for an intervention. I just panicked.”
While Courtney holed up in the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, Kurt had his best friend, Dylan Carlson, take him to Stan Baker Sports shop in Seattle to purchase a gun on March 30th. With the confiscation of his weapons, Kurt didn’t think he could buy one after the recent police incident. “We used to go shooting together,” Carlson later told the Seattle Post Intelligencer. “He said he wanted the gun for protection.” Carlson purchased a Remington M-11-20 gauge shotgun for Cobain that day. Kurt took the weapon home, and then boarded a flight for Los Angeles that night. He checked himself into the Exodus rehabilitation clinic in Marina Del Rey.
While he was at the center, Courtney reportedly contacted him by phone. She later related a particular phone call to Barbara Walters. “I told him he dropped the baby. And I was mean about it. I wasn’t really mean, but I wasn’t nice about it. You know, we were really polite to each other, generally. And I told him on the phone, I’m like, ‘You know you dropped the baby…the other day, you dropped the baby.’ He was like, ‘What?’ I’m like, ‘You dropped the baby, you dropped Francies on her head.’ She was wearing a big hooded coat. He did not hurt her, and I did not need to tell him that.” Courtney conveyed that this was a major trigger in Kurt’s subsequent actions. “I do, I think that’s a major reason. Also, he felt like a waste of space, and a sellout, and he had made everything too huge, and it was his fault that everything was too huge, know what I mean? I mean it came like a Mack truck.”
Whatever fallout the conversation between the two had rendered, one thing’s for sure: on Friday night, April 1st, Kurt climbed the walls of the facility and left. He arrived in Seattle on Saturday morning and was taken to his Lake Washington home by a hired driver. He allegedly purchased shotgun shells at some point that weekend. Exactly what transpired after that is up to speculation. The outcome is crystal clear. According to the King County coroner’s report, Kurt Cobain died sometime during Tuesday, April 5, 1994. On Friday, April 8th, around 8:40am, a 50-year old electrician named Gary Smith, who had been contracted to install a motion detector and lights on the property, wandered to the back garage house and climbed the stairs to a second story deck. He saw something that looked like a mannequin lying on the floor inside, but upon further inspection, peering through the window, he saw dried blood around the figure’s head. He phoned 911.
Seattle firemen arrived and broke a pane in one of the French doors to the upper room, and gained access. Police fished out the wallet from the body’s pocket. It was Kurt Cobain. A cigar box filled with syringes, a spoon, some cigarette butts, $120 in cash, and an open can of Root Beer all lay about the floor near his body. Kurt was resting on his back with the Remington shotgun between his legs, pointing towards his chin, his left hand holding the gun. Two rounds were reportedly in the shotgun and one spent shell was on the floor. The pellet wounds from the spent shot had been released in the upper mouth of the victim. An enormous amount of heroin was allegedly later found in his system. In a flower tray filled with dirt, a note written in red ink contained handwriting traced to Kurt. It was mostly a jumbled, stream-of-conscious, pronouncement to his fans. Only a few lines were devoted to his wife and daughter.
This was how it ended. The death was ruled a suicide. Adamant opposition to that summation has been raised quite vociferously by one Tom Grant. A former detective in the Los Angeles area, Grant was a private investigator in 1994 when he claimed Courtney hired him to trace Kurt’s whereabouts shortly after his departure from the Exodus clinic on April 1st. Grant claims he became privy to many conversations with Love over the next month which heightened his suspicions that she may have had something to do directly with the death of Cobain. He alleges that Kurt was wanting to divorce Courtney and that she wanted him to go on the Lollapalooza tour to reap the millions he was being offered. He contends that she staged a phony overdose for herself on the night she thought Kurt would be murdered, Saturday, April 2nd, so that it would look like a dual suicide pact. He points to the assertion that with so much heroin in his bloodstream, Kurt would be incapable of picking up the gun, let alone pulling the trigger. And Grant’s biggest allegation is that the note left behind was not a suicide message, but instead a letter Cobain had simply been writing to let his fans know he was going to retire from the spotlight for awhile. Grant’s assertion is that whoever killed Cobain felt the note was tinged with the right ‘farewell’ sentiment that it could aid in masking the murder by being perceived as a suicide note.
Courtney’s own estranged father, Hank Harrison, wrote a book called “Who Killed Kurt Cobain?,” a tome that certainly didn’t rule out the possibility that his own daughter might have had a hand in it. A slew of websites have devoted much server time to the advancement of this theory. Filmmaker Nick Broomfield shot a documentary entitled “Kurt and Courtney” in 1998, and he presented several on-camera interviews with subjects who claimed to have knowledge of key facts that might have pointed to foul play in the matter. With no formal investigation being conducted by the Seattle Police Department on the homicide front, it is a moot issue at the time of this writing to pursue a dissertation on the speculations. However credible or incredible the evidentiary facts stack up, the outcome from the action resulted in true sorrow and a sense of great loss across the world.
Fellow Seattle rocker, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, seemed to be tapped into the same disenchantment and introspection in his lyrics that Kurt presented on his albums. He spoke with Melody Maker about his take on what might have driven Cobain to crash so hard. “The thing is you’d think your ego would be massive, playing for all these people, having all these people sing your songs. The fact is, you never think you’re that good. You don’t feel like you deserve this kind of attention or adulation. And so what you end up feeling instead of this large ego is, you feel like you’re worthless. You can’t live up to the glorification, and it makes you feel small and it makes you feel real s****y.”
Sensitive soul Michael Stipe of R.E.M. reflected to Newsweek that the awesome surge in popularity Nirvana experienced would be hard for any average Joe to weather responsibly. “If R.E.M. had sold 5 million copies of ‘Murmur’ (their first album), none of us would be alive to tell the tale. I really believe that. I’d have died with Quaaludes in my blood and a lot of Jack Daniels.” He went on to reveal his intentions of teaming with Kurt. “I know what the next Nirvana recording was going to sound like. It was going to be very quiet and acoustic, with lots of stringed instruments. It was going to be an amazing f***ing record, and I’m a little bit angry at him for killing himself. He and I were going to record a trial run of the album, a demo tape. It was all set up. He had a plane ticket. He had a car picking him up. And at the last minute, he called and said, ‘I can’t come.”
Danny Goldberg, Nirvana’s onetime manager, told Time magazine, “In all the years I knew him, he had very mixed feelings about being on this planet.” In the same issue, Daniel House, an owner of an independent record label and friend of Kurt, said, “None of this would have happened had he not been famous. When Nirvana started catching on, he was kind of bewildered. His music was so personal, it amazed him when people came out in droves to hear it.”
Journalists and fans alike descended on Seattle in the days following the discovery of Kurt’s body. The community spirit of admirers had the same deep sense of shock throughout their pack as did those hordes of sympathizers who surrounded Graceland in 1977 and the Dakota in 1980. A public memorial service was held at the Seattle Center Flag Plaza on Sunday, April 10th. Both Courtney and Krist released taped statements to the gathered throng.
Cobain’s body was cremated. Esquire magazine reported that Courtney put some of the ashes in an urn, some in a Buddhist shrine in their Washington home, and buried a bit in the back garden. The remaining remains were packed into a teddy bear knapsack which she carried with her practically everywhere in the days following the tragedy. She traveled to Ithaca, New York where she brought the ashes to Namgyal Buddhist monks who chanted and prayed over them, sending Kurt on his way and taking away the bad karma surrounding his demise. She reportedly left them with two handfuls of remains and went on a Hole concert tour with the rest, promoting her album “Live Through This,” which was released two weeks after Kurt’s death.
Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl privately mourned during the months following their friend’s passing. They first appeared at a live performance together on July 12, 1994 as part of the Stinky Puffs, a band led by a 10 year-old boy, at the opening of the Yo Yo A Go Go Festival in Olympia, Washington. In 1995, Grohl moved out from behind the drums to lead guitar and lead vocal with the quirky and highly successful band Foo Fighters. Novoselic paired with a Venezuelan street singer in 1997, forming Sweet 75 and immersed himself in the world of politics. When the town of Aberdeen proposed a plan to erect a memorial to Kurt, Krist none-too-subtly vowed to take the life-size sculpture and ‘smash it to bits.’ The town council decided not to go through with the memorial.
In the days following Cobain’s passing, several reported ‘copycat’ suicides began occurring around the globe. A man who had attended the April 10th public memorial service, went home afterwards and shot himself to death. The media counseled distraught teens to take caution and call hotlines should they be depressed to the point of self-destruction. Kurt’s cousin, Bev Cobain, a psychiatric nurse who also suffered from clinical depression, wrote a book aimed at troubled teens titled “When Nothing Matters Anymore.” “I wanted the kids to know that role models make bad decisions, too,” she said. “Kurt was a wonderful role model in many respects, but he made a bad decision. I wanted people to see that there are other options.”
The garage behind the Cobain’s Lake Washington house was demolished in June 1996.
While much of history since the early ‘90s tends to look at the ‘grunge’ movement as a period of self-absorbed, devastatingly-downbeat bands such as Nirvana who cashed in on teen malaise, the music that was created during those times still endures. The captivating quality Kurt Cobain possessed was the ability to translate such vivid imagery to words of value and meaning. The solid musicianship that poured forth from the trio’s instruments was uncompromisingly solid rock. Adolescents weaned on the merits of grunge went on to mix many of the hard rock sounds of the genre with hip-hop vibes, in turn creating today’s bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock. While his spirit was frail and chipped, Kurt Cobain’s music contains a hearty dose of bravado and craft. Many of the bands that came after Nirvana tried to jump on the ‘whine’ wagon, and not only did we begin to reject their misery, consumers came to see it as markedly phony. The rock/rap of today is grounded in moronic self-assurance, and the pop resurgence showed that music lovers were eager to just hear something lightweight.
Even though he was a grunge emo, it was always refreshing to know that Kurt was well aware that he was being a pain about his self-absorption. When he was asked by Monk magazine to assess the band members of Nirvana, he kiddingly obliged. For drummer Grohl, he said, “Dave is in really good shape although he smokes two packs of cigarettes a day.” Sizing up bassist Novoselic, Kurt offered, “Chris is the horror of the stars. He has no shame whatsoever in carousing with the likes of Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp.” As for himself, Mr. Cobain was succinct and deliciously self-aware. “F*** him, he complains too much.”
Sidebar: The “Suicide” Note
To Boddah pronounced,
Speaking from the tongue of an experienced simpleton who obviously would rather be an emasculated, infantile complain-ee, this note should be pretty easy to understand. All the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses over the years. Since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and the embracement of your community has proven to be very true. I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to, as well as creating, music along with reading and writing for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things. For example, when we’re backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury who seemed to love, and relish in the love and adoration from the crowd. Which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact is I can’t fool you. Any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun. Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage. I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it, (and I do, God, believe me I do, but it’s not enough). I appreciate the fact that I and we have affected and entertained a lot of people. I must be one of those narcissists who only appreciated things when they’re gone. I’m too sensitive. I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasm I once had as a child. On our last three tours, I’ve had a much better appreciation for all the people I’ve known personally and as fans of our music, but I still can’t get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone. There’s good in all of us, and I think I simply love people too much. So much that it makes me feel too f***ing sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man! Why don’t you just enjoy it? I don’t know. I have a goddess of a wife who sweats ambition and empathy and a daughter who reminds me too much of what I used to be. Full of love and joy kissing every person she meets because everyone is good and will do her no harm. And that terrifies me to the point to where I can barely function. I can’t stand the thought of Frances becoming the miserable self-destructive, death rocker that I’ve become. I have it good, very good, and I’m grateful, but since the age of seven, I’ve become hateful towards all humans in general. Only because it seems so easy for people to get along, and have empathy. Empathy! Only because I love and feel for people too much I guess. Thank you all from the pit of my burning nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the past years. I’m too much of an erratic, moody baby! I don’t have the passion anymore and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
Peace, love, empathy. Kurt Cobain
Frances and Courtney, I’ll be at your altar.
Please keep going Courtney for Frances
For her life, which will be so much happier without me.
I Love you. I love you!
© 2001 Ned Truslow