The shot heard around the world
His suicide was a dreadful paradox: unexpected, yet somehow horribly predictable. This is the story of Kurt Cobain's final downward spiral.
Select: June 1994. Story by Jo-Ann Greene in Seattle, Andrew Harrison and Johny Wallers
[Sorry for the "editorial" comments in the following, but this is a classic example of the press running amok with unnamed sources providing information that is just plain wrong - jj]
'I Hate Myself and I Want to Die'. He meant it as a joke, a neat, one-line summation of the furious self-loathing that hot-wired every Nirvana song. For a while they wanted to use it as a title for the follow-up to 'Nevermind', but then they thought again and dumped the song of the same name on a Beavis And Butt-head compilation LP, of all places. But the line took on a life of its own. Intended by Kurt Cobain as a self-deprecating soundbite, it became his epitaph.
It is an ugly, reductive way for a man of Cobain's incandescent talent to be remembered, but it seems likely to be the one that sticks. Nirvana's genius was to take the directionless frustration of a fucked-around post-Reagan, post-Bush American generation and, by personalising it, make it universal. In 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' alone, they could lay claim to writing that generation's theme song. Now all that achievement, and all that revenge against the corporate rock whores Cobain despised, will be buried by the black weight of a meaningless death.
In their obituary, the Financial Times sneered that Kurt had "taken the easy route" to immortality. Despite being epically crass, this also missed the point that Cobain had never sought the tawdry goal of rock immortality, had never wanted to he Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. He couldnít even handle being bigger than The Melvins. But by dying in such horrifying circumstances, and doing so in the middle of the self-perpetuating media circus that Nirvana had become, he sealed his fate.
When his mother Wendy OíConnor told the American media that "I warned him not to join that stupid club," she spoke truer than she knew. Kurt killed himself ó it appears ó because he hated what he was becoming, but by doing so he took the last step, and finally joined the club.
Sad ironies like this come thick and fast when one tries to make sense of Kurtís suicide. Hereís Courtney Love, after Kurtís overdose in Rome, joking to Select last month that she "hated to be Yoko" and that she wished it had been Eddie Vedder in a coma ó ĎTheyíd have had a fuckiní candle-lit vigil for him". On April 4, four days before Kurtís body was found, hereís Vedder himself dedicating Pearl Jamís suicide song ĎGo!í to Cobain: "Oh please donít go out on me now/Donít go on me now! Never acted up before/Donít go on me now! Swear I never took it for granted." And six days later, at the Seattle Centre in the shadow of the Space Needle, Kurt indeed got his candle-lit vigil. He was cremated the same day.
But perhaps the saddest fact of all is how quickly any surprise at the shocking manner of Kurtís death evaporated. The consensus seems to be that sooner or later he was bound to do it, and the events m Rome seemed only to confirm that Kurtís downward spiral had become terminal.
Courtney called the police to the Cobain home, panicking that Kurt had locked himself in the bathroom with a gun and might shoot himself.
During and after Kurtís 20-hour coma, Nirvanaís label Geffen worked long hours trying to convince the media and the public that the overdose of champagne and the heavy-duty sedative Rohypnol was accidental, and was in any case complicated by flu and exhaustion. In Seattle, however, it didnít take long for the leaks to start. As one source said, "You donít take 50 sedatives by accident." [Except of course he didn't take 50 pills according to the doctor in Rome - the lies of the unnamed sources begin - jj]
Later, Courtney emphatically told Select that it was not a suicide attempt, but then mentioned that the overdose was triggered by "a tiffí between the two. Finally, any doubts that Kurt really had tried to kill himself in Rome were put to rest on April 12, when the LA Times reported that a suicide note had been found in his hotel room. [The contents of this note are unknown since nobody but Courtney saw it prior to Kurt's death, but the Seattle police used it for comparing the handwriting on "the" note. Note that at least one Seattle policeman has said that the Rome note wasn't suicidal, and Courtney confirmed this in the 1994 Rolling Stone interview. So it's by no means certain that Rome was a suicide attempt - jj]
Now it emerges that Kurt might have attempted suicide a second time, towards the end of March, before succeeding on or after Tuesday April 5. On March 18 Courtney called the police to the coupleís home in the middle-class Seattle neighbourhood of Madrona, panicking that Kurt had locked himself in the bathroom with a gun and might shoot himself. The police left after confiscating one semi-automatic rifle, three pistols, 25 boxes of ammo, and a bottle of (unidentified) pills ó the second time guns had been taken from Kurt. In June 1993, Los Angeles police were called to a minor domestic row between Kurt and Courtney, and took away several guns which were later returned. [Again, the facts here are wrong. Courtney admitted to the police regarding the March 18 incident that she had not seen him with a gun nor had he threatened suicide. - that's in the official police report. - jj]
According to Courtney, Kurt owned more than one weapon. His method of dealing with bad press was to buy a gun and mentally put the journalistís name on it.
Guns, guns, guns. As more details emerge, it becomes clear that Kurt had more than a passing interest in weaponry.
"Iím not against guns," he told Michael Azerrad, in his unstinting Nirvana-biog Come As You Are. "I own one. I believe in them for protection. Iím not as much of a hippy as some people want me to be."
In fact, according to Courtney Love, he owned more than one. During a Ďphone call to Select last New Year, she told the editor that Kurtís method of dealing with bad press was to buy a gun and mentally put the writerís name on it. At the time, she said he had five, including one for Britt Coffins and Victoria Clarke, co-authors of the doomed unofficial Nirvana biography which he and Courtney spent so much time and effort in stymying; one for the hated Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair; and one for NMEís Keith Cameron, a long-time fan and supporter of the band whose cover story on Kurtís heroin problem had earned him excommunication from the Nirvana circle and a drink thrown in his face by Holeís Eric Erlandson at the 1992 Reading Festival. As for the other two, who knows? [Oh, what a crock. Courtney says some amazingly stupid things at time, but magazine's that repeat those statements make me want to start throwing things! - jj]
What follows is an account of Kurtís movements between his "recovery" from his coma and return to Seattle, and the moment when his body was discovered. It is inevitably incomplete ó as Select went to press no full post-mortem report on Kurt Cobainís body had been released ó and some sources would only talk on condition they wouldnít be named.
LEAKED POLICE REPORTS SAY HEROIN AND VALIUM WERE found in Kurtís system when his body was examined, and it appears that shortly after his return to Seattle he had begun taking heroin again. (According to Seattle police reports, Kurt had already suffered one heroin overdose, on May 2, 1993. He was treated at the Harborview Medical Centre and released, still refusing to acknowledge that he had a problem with the drug.)
In desperation, Courtney Love decided to call in a professional to hold what is known in the jargon-heavy world of dependency therapy as an "intervention". In an intervention, those close to an addict or alcoholic confront him with his problem, attempting to break his denial so heíll get help. That weekend, Kurtís friends, family, label and management, along with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, tried to make him face his problems. [Note: the list of who was actually was at the intervention varies according to the source, but Dave was almost certainly not there - jj]
The intervention was part of the larger "Tough Love" programme, an extreme method for coping with those whose behaviour is out of control, Tough Love insists the person change behaviour and, if not, help and support, both emotional and financial, are withheld until they do. The theory is that people have to be allowed to hit rock bottom, and then theyíll be forced to seek help. However, itís one thing applying this to an ordinary person, quite another trying it on with an enormously wealthy and headstrong rock star. [Especially if you believe the person has just tried to commit suicide three weeks before! - jj] The intervention failed, and time was short. Courtney was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on March 25 to rehearse for Holeís tour and do press for the release of ĎLive Through Thisí, out on April 12. Frightened to leave Kurt on his own, she asked him to come with her. He refused. Following the Tough Love philosophy, she took Frances and left Kurt behind.
But on Monday, March 28 [wrong date - jj], Kurt entered the Exodus Recovery Centre, a drug rehabilitation facility in the Daniel Freeman Hospital in Marina Del Rey, California. Tough Love appeared to be working at least a little but, two days later, Kurt fled the hospital and returned to Seattle where he visited Dylan Carlson, an old friend and guitarist with the local band Earth. During last monthís Select interview, Courtney had wryly described Dylan as "one of Kurtís little influences".
Geffen brought in a friend who was meant to be staying with Kurt, keeping tabs on Kurt. "The guy meant to watch him fucked up."
"Kurt wanted a gun for protection," Dylan later told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "He had the cash. He insisted on me buying him the gun."
Kurt was concerned the police, whoíd already confiscated guns from him twice in the past, would take this one too. One of the guns previously confiscated was actually registered to Carlson.
At the time, Carlson had no idea there was anything wrong. "Kurt was facing a lot of heavy things, but he was actually pretty upbeat," he says. "He was prepared to deal with the things facing him."
Besides, Carlson had believed the reports about Kurtís overdose in Rome, and was unaware Kurt had made a suicide attempt. As for Kurtís rehab, Carlson says: "He felt he had no habit. That was more something management wanted him to do."
On Thursday March 31 [wrong date - jj] the pair went to Stanís Gun Shop, a local weapons store, and there Dylan bought a 20-gauge shotgun and ammunition. This was to be the last time Dylan saw his friend alive. [The sequence here is wrong. The gun was bought, THEN Kurt went to rehab. Why did the press consistently get something so straightforward wrong. Damned if I know - jj]
MEANWHILE, A DISTRAUGHT COURTNEY SCOURED Los Angeles for him, cancelling all but an interview with the LA Times in the process. Unsurprisingly, she never found him. On Sunday, according to a source close to the band, Courtney and Geffen hired private investigators to track Kurt down. By now, they thought he might be back in Seattle.
On Monday, April 4, a missing persons report was filed with the Seattle Police from a caller in Los Angeles. It stated that "Cobain had run away from [a] California facility and flew back to Seattle. He also bought a shotgun, and may be suicidal, but is not considered dangerous". The report went on to give the Seattle address of a drug dealer where Kurt might be found.
The caller was reported to be Kurtís mother Wendy OíConnor, but reporter Dan Raley of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer confirms that she never left the Seattle area.
There were no confirmed sightings of Kurt by people outside the Nirvana circle after April 2, and the Seattle Police turned up nothing more than a vague report from neighbours in Carnation (just North-east of Seattle) where the Cobains owned a farmhouse. Fresh tyre-tracks leading to the house were noticed. Kurt definitely spent at least one night there. His sleeping bag and an ashtray filled with two different types of cigarette butts were found there, implying someone was with him. The LA Times stated that "one report had him calling a friend to ask the best way to shoot yourself in the head". No day or time was given. [Kurt "definitely" spent one night in Carnation based on tire tracks and cigarette butts. Obviously, their understanding of the word "definitely" diverges from my own! - jj]
The Seattle Police Department went round to Cobalnís Madrona home twice over this period. On both occasions they found workmen outside the house, but no sign of Kurt. Finally, sources say, the private investigators found him, but couldnít persuade Kurt to come home or get help. [Wrong, wrong - jj]
At a loss to know what to do, a source close to the Cobains says, "They (Geffen) brought in a friend who was meant to keep tabs on him". [Note this "friend" was really brought in when they returned to Seattle from Rome - the blame for losing track of Kurt rests on the decision to proceed with the intervention. - jj] Courtney desperately wanted to fly home, but was convinced to stay put: more Tough Love, it seems. Itís a decision she now deeply regrets.
But, according to the same insider, "the guy meant to watch him fucked up". Kurt was on his own. Eventually he returned home and got high on valium and heroin. Then at some time during Tuesday April 5, he went into the garage of the house he shared with Courtney and Frances Bean, sat on the floor, took the shotgun, pointed it at his chin and pulled the trigger.
ON THURSDAY, APRIL 7, POLICE WERE CALLED TO Courtney Loveís room at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills early in the morning. According to Sgt Robert Smith, "She was transferred to Century City Hospital on the basis of a drug overdose". Courtney was treated and released into police custody. She was charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of a hypodermic needle and other drug paraphernalia, and possession of stolen property ó a doctorís prescription pad.
Although the police would not confirm what drug she had taken, it was widely reported to be heroin. Courtney was released on $10,000 bail, and will be arraigned on May 5. She has denied the charges. Her lawyer Barry Tarlow says, "She was disturbed, concerned, troubled (over Kurtís disappearance), but she was not under the influence of anything."
Instead, he says Courtney was merely suffering from an allergic reaction to medication from her doctor, that the "heroin" was ashes contained in a charm necklace she was wearing, and the prescription pad was left by her doctor. He gave no explanation for the hypodermic found in her room.
Later that day, Nirvanaís management announced the band were withdrawing from the forthcoming Lollapalooza tour, citing Kurtís "ill health". No one knew where he was, much less that lie was almost certainly already dead.
Back in the Cobainsí Seattle home, the TV was left on but otherwise the house remained dark and locked. The contractors installing a home-security system worked on outside, oblivious. Then, on Friday at 8.40)am, electrician Gary Smith arrived to install outside lighting. Looking through a window tie saw what he initially thought was a mannequin on the floor a mannequin dressed in trainers, jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Then he saw blood.
KURT HAD LEFT A NOTE HAND-WRITTEN IN RED INK ON A single piece of paper. Scattered around were a computer game, a cuddly toy and some tapes, including a copy of ĎIn Uteroí. Heíd also left identification, but in the US only a relative can officially ID a body, and the police were apparently unable to locate Courtney . Eventually, his fingerprints were used to confirm his identity. Kurt's body was taken to King County Medical Centre where an autopsy was carried out immediately, confirming that he died of self-inflicted shotgun wounds to the head.
It is possible that someone was aware that Kurt was already dead on Thursday. It has been suggested that a 911 call reporting a body at the Cobain house was made on Thursday morning, and that the caller rang back five minutes later to say it was a hoax. Seattle Police deny this, but the East Precinct Commander confirmed that the house had been checked earlier in the week.
Meanwhile, Seattle local rock station KXRX had received two calls from Gary Smith's boss - it had taken two calls to convince them that what he was saying was true. Though the official identification wouldn't be made until the next day, by late morning the station broke the news of Cobain's suicide.
Within hours, Seattle had turned into a media circus. Sub Popís lines were jammed with calls asking for comments. By noon their receptionist was answering the phone with, "Hello, this is Sub Pop. We have no comment about Kurt Cobainís death".
For those in the music community there was barely time to draw breath, never mind grieve. Radio stations were flooded with requests for Nirvana songs.
Meanwhile television crews were arriving at the Cobainsí home, a large, detached house overlooking Lake Washington. At this point the media far outnumbered the few mournful fans whoíd arrived to pay their respects.
Bored by the lack of action at the house, reporters spread out to the clubs, interviewing anyone willing to make a statement. Most people had barely begun to take it all in.
Saturday brought more cameras, fans, flowers and tributes. In the afternoon, Courtney and Frances, accompanied by family and friends, arrived in several limousines. Michael Azerrad was selected to go out and make a statement to the press, and through him, Courtney thanked the fans, but beyond that had no comment.
Later she gave a phone interview to MTV, barely managing to keep control and crying audibly while she read snippets of Kurtís suicide note.
Meanwhile, local radio stations KNDD, KXRX and KISW scrambled to organise the candle-light vigil for the following evening, Sunday. Throughout the afternoon, an estimated 7,000 fans arrived at the outdoor Flag Pavilion at the Seattle Centre.
At 5pm the vigil began. Three DJs, representing their respective radio stations, each talked about the impact that Cobain had made on them. A minister, Stephen Towles, said a prayer. Local poets read their own work dedicated to Kurt, and the organisers played first a tape-recording of Cobainís uncle reminiscing about the teenaged Kurt, and then a taped message from Courtney.
I donít know what to say. I feel the same way you do," she said. "He left a note, but itís more like a letter to the fucking editor."
She explained that it didnít "take away his dignitv" to read his suicide note, "considering that itís addressed to most of you." She paused before spitting out, ĎHeís such an asshole! I want you all to say asshole really loud." Many did, others were simply too shocked and upset to comply.
Krist Novoselicís briefer recording marked the end, with only representatives from the local Crisis clinic left to ask those despondent to call them for help. Many feared a rash of copycat suicides, and throughout the US the media carried stories on the warning signs and prevention of suicide.
Some at the vigil, though, made a gesture Cobain might have smiled at himself: they jumped in the ornamental fountain.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Seattle, a memorial service for Kurt brought over 200 of Kurt's family and friends to the Unity Church, though they'd kept the location, date and time under wraps. Courtney read a passage from The Bible and again from his suicide note. At the end, a tape of some of Kurtís favourite songs was played.
Surprisingly, Courtney later appeared at the Seattle Centre candle-light vigil, which was by now almost over, to sit with fans. Those watching nearby saw her take out a photo of Kurt that she passed around, crying. One could just make out her words before she left: "He was a good father".
And it seems he was. Frances Bean Cobain has a little trick, one her grandmother, Wendy OíConnor, taught her. She did it while her mum was being interviewed for last monthís Select. Courtney says "Daddy?", and Frances ó all 20 months of her ósings the first line of ĎAll Apologiesí ("What else should I be?"). At the time it just seemed cute, a nice party-trick from a normal little girl with her toys and her crayons and her Laura Ashley sailor-suit ó which is exactly what the Bean is. Now, remembering it makes you want to weep.
NONE OF WHICH FULLY ANSWERS THE QUESTION, WHY? Kurtís music was a raging product of self-hatred and manic confusion ó arguably the same things which consumed him. But itís still a big step from "I feel stupid and contagious" to self-destruction.
MTV has released details from a statement by Courtney that said Kurt had "grown weary of career pressures and was unhappy with Nirvana" and revealed that in the last month of his life heíd become friends with Michael Stipe, and was keen to collaborate with him. This is the only evidence Kurt was even thinking of a future at all: inside sources suggest the Rome show would always have been the last-ever Nirvana show, and that Kurt had passed the point of no return just as the band had.
In the absence of a simple answer to Kurtís suicide, rumours have bred. The most lurid says he was so savagely brain-damaged in the Rome incident that he could no longer play guitar; another that Cobain had quit Nirvana and was suing Grohl and Novoselic for back royalties (the band had always spilt songwriting money three ways even though Kurt wrote all the songs); yet another that Grohl and Novoselic had threatened to fire him unless he got off drugs. The most bizarre holds that Kurtís will leaves everything to Courtney, Frances Bean and Melody Maker journalist Everett True. These are the more printable rumours.
Short of them, what else is there to draw from this whole episode? Itís true to say that Kurtís death is every bit the defining moment for this generation that Lennonís was for another. But to canonise the man would be the final insult. He hated all that stuff. Instead, play his records, marvel that a human being could make sounds like that at all, let alone turn them into such inconceivable rock songs, and be thankful that what happened to Kurt Cobain's life hasn't happened to yours.
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE
Kurt Cobainís depression stretched far back into Nirvanaís history, as these quotes show.
"I just want to go home, I donít want to play for these people, these people are fucking idiots, theyíre stupid, they expect me to go up there and perform like a trained animal. I want to quit music."
To Sub Popís Jonathon Poneman in Rome, November 1989, where Kurt had threatened to throw himself off the PA five songs into Nirvanaís set, from Michael Azzeradís Come As You Are
"I was determined to get a habit. I wanted to. I said, 'This is the only thing thatís saving me from blowing my head off right now.'"
"(The heroin rumour) pisses me off. I feel like people want me to die, because it would be the classic rock Ďní roll story."
"Everyone wants to see us die. We might just keep going to spite those fuckheads... Thereís going to be a time when Iím not going to be able to deal with it anymore, when my daughter is old enough to realise whatís going on..."
To Azerrad re the title, ĎI Hate Myself And I Want To Dieí: ĎIím tired of taking this band so seriously and everyone else taking it so seriously and trying to read into things. Basically, thatís what all our songs are about confusion and I hate myself and I donít want to live, so I thought it was really appropriate."