From the EW archives: Life at the top was far from Nirvana for Kurt Cobain
Twenty-five years after the death of Kurt Cobain, we look back at our April, 22, 1994, cover story by Dana Kennedy and Ben Svetkey, which ran 17 days after his death. The guitarist and frontman for Nirvana, who chafed at the idea that he was the poster child for Gen X, was only 27 when he was found dead by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Seattle home.
The most striking mourners aren’t the ones with the purple-hair punk ’dos or those garbed in the traditional flannel-and-denim underground uniform. Instead, they’re the ones wearing makeshift headbands fashioned from the yellow police crime-scene barricade strips that surround Kurt Cobain’s house. But all of the mourners — a massive swarm of about 7,000 — have poured into Seattle’s historic Flag Pavilion on this crisp Sunday evening, April 10, to honor the 27-year-old alternative-rock icon who, a few days earlier, had blown himself away with a shotgun. They light candles and throw rolls of burning toilet paper over the crowd — a fitting memorial service for an iconoclastic antihero who sang brutalizing pop songs teeming with postadolescent confusion and angst.
At midnight, after much of the throng has dispersed, an anguished and admittedly inebriated Courtney Love — Cobain’s widow and frontwoman for her own group, Hole — arrives. In a weirdly poignant grunge communion, she begins handing out her husband’s old T- shirts. “He thought he could do everything,” Love, 28, tells a clump of mourners, her words catching in her throat. “He thought if Keith Richards could do it, he could too.”
Indeed, Cobain was bent on self-destruction well before Nirvana crashed into the mainstream with 1991’s Nevermind, the breakthrough underground album that sold 5 million copies in the U.S. alone, legitimized the burgeoning alternative-rock scene, and made Seattle the most famous musical mecca since Athens, Ga. Cobain’s dalliance with drugs — including a $500-a-day heroin habit — had been widely reported throughout his career. Wearing his death wish like a badge of honor, he joked about suicide in his songs (a track titled “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” was recorded for but deleted from Nirvana’s last album, In Utero) and toyed with it in his life. It was rumored that when Cobain and Love traveled, they signed hotel registers as “Sid and Nancy,” alluding to punk rocker Sid Vicious and his drugged-out girlfriend Nancy Spungen (he killed her in 1979 and committed suicide in 1980). Love actually angled for the Nancy role in the 1986 film Sid and Nancy but ended up with a small part as a fellow junkie.
Now, in the first weeks after his death, Cobain is already becoming a pop-culture legend, a sort of slacker martyr. His songs — with their extra-crunchy guitar riffs, tumbling melodies, and unapologetically screeching vocals — have always spoken to many in the media-numbed generation. Just 24 hours after Cobain was found by an electrician on the floor of one of his Seattle homes, fast-thinking street vendors were peddling Cobain memorial T- shirts, and Nirvana albums shot back up the charts. Around the country, bands dedicated songs to Cobain at their shows — including Blind Melon on that Friday night’s Late Show With David Letterman. Meanwhile, MTV’s coverage of the tragedy included some rare (for the network) live broadcasts. “First River Phoenix, now him,” notes an executive at Geffen Records, Nirvana’s label. “It really does speak for a certain generation — and the outlook is not good.”
Fans will be picking over the meaning of Cobain’s life and sudden death for years to come. But right now, before his memory is completely mythologized, realistic questions need to be raised. What led Cobain to take his own life at a time when his careers as a musician and father were supposedly on track? Why didn’t anyone stop him?
Even for Kurt Cobain, for whom sudden (and seemingly unwanted) fame had been filtered through a blurry prism of drugs, guns, battles with Love, and custody fights to keep their 19-month-old daughter, Frances Bean, his descent into suicide was especially tumultuous. During his last week, rumors were rampant — that Love was on the verge of leaving him and that the band might be breaking up. Nirvana had also dropped out as headliners of this summer’s Lollapalooza ’94 tour because of what its management called “health reasons.” Pieced together, Cobain’s final days form a chilling portrait of what happens when a young, isolated, severely depressed musician finds himself at the center of a multimillion-dollar business.
“No one else in the world has been in his situation,” says Steve Albini, the Chicago producer who helmed In Utero. “That is, to go from being a garage-rock, carefree gadfly to being on the vanguard of a very influential cultural and aesthetic change. And during the same period of time he became a millionaire and a dope fiend and a father. He went through an enormous amount of experience in a very short amount of time.”
Cobain’s last month began with an overdose of champagne and sedatives in Rome, an apparent suicide attempt that landed him in a coma March 4, during Nirvana’s European tour. A few weeks later, back at the Cobains’ new $1.1 million home overlooking Lake Washington in Seattle, police were summoned when Love reported that Cobain had locked himself in a room with a gun and that she was worried he might kill himself. According to the police report, four revolvers, 25 boxes of ammunition, and assorted unidentified pills were confiscated from the house. Neither Love nor Cobain was arrested in the incident.
Eight days before Cobain was found dead, he was reportedly brought to Exodus, a drug rehab center in L.A., by Love and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. There he roomed with Gibby Haynes, recovering lead singer of the Butthole Surfers, for just 48 hours before he walked out. Somehow he got back to Seattle, but not before his mother, Wendy O’Connor, 47, had filed a missing-persons report. Recalling just one of many moments of chaos in Cobain’s last days, a source at Warner Bros. Records says a member of the punk-funk band Faith No More was driving Cobain around L.A., trying to get him back to a hospital.
“They were driving down a freeway, and Kurt was trying to jump out of the car,” the source says. On April 8, Cobain’s body was found by an electrician who came to the shake-covered Seattle home to install part of a security system. He found Cobain, dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a shirt, lying on his back with a shotgun across him. He was shot once in the left temple. Love later said that before he pulled the trigger, he’d taken drugs, but the postmortem toxicological report had not been released at press time. That Cobain died alone, his death unknown to anyone for at least a day, raises concerns about how the people around him — both his wife, who was in L.A., as well as his management and record label — handled what one record executive called “an accident waiting to happen.” Did anyone try to come to his aid? Or was he such a valuable franchise that those who profited from his career were reluctant to take a stand?
Cobain’s final weeks illustrate the difficulties that arise when dealing with a seriously troubled superstar. “He was so sick,” says a record executive familiar with Gold Mountain, Nirvana’s prestigious, L.A.-based management firm, which also works with major alternative-rock bands like Sonic Youth as well as more mainstream pop stars like Bonnie Raitt. “I just don’t understand — if you have that many people involved in your life, how can you be left alone? Why couldn’t they commit him and put him someplace that he couldn’t walk out of?”
Love has said that Cobain’s heroin addiction worsened last month, after they returned from Rome, and that she authorized an intervention that brought Cobain into rehab two weeks before his death. But before that, the most help Cobain appeared to get was effective, but often contradictory, spin control. In particular, his overdose in Rome was first described by Gold Mountain’s Janet Billig as “incredibly serious.” Within days, a Geffen source in Rome said, “He’s getting better. I believe it was just a mistake.”
Within a week, his manager, John Silva, announced that “the doctor says there’s nothing wrong with him.” Cobain’s near-fatal overdose — which was reportedly accompanied by a suicide note — instead was portrayed as the mistaken ingestion of mixed-up medication for Cobain’s chronic stomach pains. In response, a spokesperson for Gold Mountain says, “We did try to help — a lot of people tried to help. The only person who really knows what happened is Kurt. He was a grown man who made his own decisions.”
But April 8, when news of Cobain’s death reached Geffen’s New York-based staff, some who knew Cobain were furious. “I guess this means they lied to us about Rome,” said a stunned Geffen exec. Though Gold Mountain is known as a savvy firm that guides its talent to the top, insiders say it may not have been so smart when dealing with Cobain’s considerable personal problems. “They coddled him,” says the record executive close to Gold Mountain. “They treated him like a little child.”
Around the time of Nirvana’s 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live, Gold Mountain allegedly helped Cobain procure drugs. (Gold Mountain strongly denies the charge.) Geffen Records, for its part, had a large stake in Nirvana and its doomed frontman as well; after all, Nirvana’s total worldwide record sales were about 13 million. But a Geffen source reports that Geffen’s tough-minded president, Ed Rosenblatt, was visibly shaken by Cobain’s death, issuing a memo saying it “will leave a huge void in all our hearts.”
“Two years ago, they began pushing Nirvana to do this big media blitz, which the band didn’t want to do,” says a Geffen employee. “They pressured them into it and now they have to deal with the results. [Geffen Records] is definitely feeling guilt.” (Geffen claims it was normal promotion.)
Though Love is taking some of the blame in her very public mourning over Cobain’s death, she has always been a lightning rod for controversy. She cemented her out-of-control, wild-babe image with her emotional, pretaped reading of portions of Cobain’s suicide note at his vigil, sometimes crying while she spoke his words, sometimes swearing at him. By all accounts, Love is a dangerous combination of flamboyant instability and focused ambition. In an infamous 1992 Vanity Fair article, she admitted using heroin early in her pregnancy. Like her husband, she was hooked not only on heroin, but on perpetual crisis and drama. Three days after she learned of Cobain’s death, she answered the phone in their Seattle home and mumbled to a reporter: “I’m going to jump out of the window.”
At her post-vigil surprise appearance, she even mentioned Hole’s new album, released four days after Cobain was found dead. “You know, I have a record coming out called Live Through This,” she told the fans. “How sick is that?” Still, some close to the couple suggest Love was also Cobain’s savior. “Courtney is going to be pummeled by the media, but I’m not sure she deserves it,” says Jack Endino, the Seattle producer who worked with Nirvana on its 1989 debut album, Bleach. “If anything, I think she kept him around longer than he might have been otherwise. There’s no doubt whatsoever that they loved each other, and that he was devoted to Courtney and the baby, which makes it even more baffling that he’d end it.”
Very sad, yes, but baffling? Not really. For years, in conversation, interviews, and especially in the lyrics of his anguished, nihilistic, but sometimes tender music, Cobain had talked about death like some people chat about the weather. In the end, he may have been so determined to die that no one could stop him. One executive at an independent label familiar with Cobain’s last weeks says he believes that after the overdose in Rome, the singer pointedly averted any attempts by others to save him.
“He just got away from the people who were trying to stay with him, trying to guard him against himself,” he says. “Someone who knew him personally said the last thing he charged on his credit card was a shotgun.”
Bruce Pavitt, cofounder of Sub Pop Records in Seattle, says Cobain was too isolated toward the end. “He cut himself off from a lot of people,” says Pavitt. “That’s really part of the process of superstardom.”
Though both Cobain and those near him blame the pressures of celebrity on a fragile psyche, his obsession with death dates back to childhood. It was in Aberdeen, Wash. (pop. 17,000), a logging town two hours south of Seattle, that the seeds of Cobain’s future as both a rock god and symbol of ’70s shattered family values were sown. In interview after interview, and in his lyrics, Cobain cites the divorce of his parents, Wendy, a part-time secretary, and Don, a mechanic, when he was 8 as the defining tragedy of his life. (He referred to the memory in his suicide note, writing that “since the age of 7 I’ve become hateful to all humans in general.”) Cobain also said he suffered at the hands of high school bullies because he liked art and music and hated sports.
“I was a seriously depressed kid,” Cobain said last year. “Every night at one point I’d go to bed bawling my head off. I used to try to make my head explode by holding my breath, thinking if I blew up my head, they’d be sorry.”
But those who remain in Aberdeen, where a gray drizzle cast a pall over the town last weekend, are not so much sorry as they are resigned to Cobain’s death. Some, like Kelly Steffensen, the bartender at the Pourhouse, the local tavern where the early Nirvana sometimes played, says Cobain was like many people in his hometown, an area plagued by unemployment and a high suicide rate. “I’ve never seen anything like the despair I’ve seen here,” says Steffensen. “Most people with any intelligence or motivation either find a niche here that’s outside the mainstream of depression, or they get out.”
Cobain did one better. He not only got out — he also transformed the alienation he felt in Aberdeen into million-selling records adopted by a lost generation. Or as he sneered on In Utero, in the best tradition of a self-mocking, ironic twentysomething: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.”
Given both his legacy of dark, angry music and the graphic, rambling suicide note his wife read aloud in a tape played at his memorial service, Kurt Cobain may be the least misunderstood dead rocker of the century, a fitting epitaph for the age of too much information. “The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you,” Cobain wrote in his note. “The worst crime I can think of would be to put people off by faking it and pretending that I’m having 100 percent fun.”
Sadly, the only thing truly left to shock us about Cobain is anything that sounds, well, normal — namely, that he was regarded as a quiet but often kind introvert off stage. Kevin Mazur, a freelance photographer, remembers him as a “great father. He loved this kid. Every chance he got when she was around, he’d be playing with her. He’d make faces at her and she’d be hysterical.” But don’t ask if there are lessons to be learned from his death; even his friends are cynical.
“Lessons?” asks Russell Simins, drummer in the New York band the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and a friend of Cobain’s. “I don’t know if there are any lessons. The bottom line is it’s just sad because he’s one of us. He dresses like us, he talks like us, he looks like us. He sort of thinks like us.”
Cobain’s record label is, in the words of a Geffen source, “trying to cover their butts and trying to be sensitive to the situation.” That situation includes the eerily coincidental release of Hole’s new album last week. “A lot of dollars have been put into Hole,” says the employee. “She’s been hyped up, and she’s now the hot band. And now we have to figure out what to do.”
For the moment, plans for Hole’s spring tour are tentative. Even the normally swaggering and boastful Love seemed truly at a loss about what to do as she doled out the last items of her dead husband’s clothing at the candlelight vigil last week, and then ranted hopelessly at a ghost. “Does that make you happy, Mr. Rock & Roll Fantasy? You know what? Eddie Vedder’s gonna live to be 98. How’s that make you feel, huh?” And she wailed, “I love you, come back. You come back! You love us. You love me, don’t you? You love Frances. Where are you? Are you happier now?”