Editor’s Note: This piece by Jacob Nierenberg originally ran in early April 2019, marking the 25th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain. We revisit it today as yet another year passes. Most importantly: Someone who cares can always be reached at the National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255.
It’s difficult for me to write about Kurt Cobain.
Part of this has to do with the fact that Cobain has been dead for longer than I’ve been alive; in two years, he’ll have been dead for longer than he was alive. In the 25 years since his passing, Cobain has been the subject of more books, documentaries, and conspiracy theories than perhaps any other modern musician. Between that passage of time and the invasive extent to which his life has been scoured, it’s hard to imagine there being anything new to say about Cobain and the music he made with Nirvana.
And yet that passage of time has done little to soften the shock of Cobain’s suicide, a death as sudden and upsetting a moment in rock history as John Lennon’s or Elvis Presley’s. Any of the authors or filmmakers who have eulogized Cobain, or the millions of Gen Xers who grew up listening to Nirvana, could tell you where they were the moment they learned of his death; I’m not one of them. Still, it hurts to read about Cobain’s life and how it came to an end. Cobain’s death remains hot to the touch, and it demands caution and reverence, like a meteorite whose impact left a still-smoking crater on the surface of alternative rock.
To write about Kurt Cobain, you must cut through all the bullshit that surrounds him — the Rolling Stone hagiography, the “spokesman of a generation” narrative — and write about him. Death has transformed Cobain into myth as much as man, so it’s essential to remember who that man was and how he died. Cobain wasn’t a great artist because of his battles with depression and addiction; he was a great artist because he was able to render those battles into music that was visceral and haunting, yet catchy enough to dominate MTV. But those battles weren’t fated to end the way that they did. Cobain had fought his demons to an uneasy stalemate for years, but it wasn’t until the final weeks of his life that they sank their claws deep into him and finally and fatally tore him asunder.
Nirvana began the European leg of its tour behind In Utero, its third (and final) album, in February 1994, and by all accounts, it was a shit show. Cobain made it just five days into the tour before he began talking about canceling the remaining dates; his worsening mood was fueled by deteriorating relationships with his bandmates and his wife, Courtney Love, as well as his ever-present stomach pain. He got his wish on March 1, the first of two dates the band was scheduled to play in Munich, Germany. Before the show, Cobain got into a fight over the phone with Love, then stormed into the dressing room of opening act the Melvins and unloaded on Buzz Osborne, telling his musical hero how he wanted to break up Nirvana and divorce Love.
Just over an hour later, Nirvana’s final performance came to an end. Cobain’s voice had given out due to laryngitis — or that was the excuse he gave — and he cut the show short. With the tour scheduled to resume on March 11, the band members went their separate ways; Cobain flew to Rome, where Love and their daughter, Frances, joined him a few days later. On the morning of March 4, Love woke to find her husband unresponsive, having overdosed on champagne and Rohypnol. Nirvana’s management would claim that the overdose was accidental, but months later, Love revealed that it was a suicide attempt, telling Rolling Stone that Cobain “took 50 fucking pills” and had written a suicide note. In it, Cobain — whose parents split when he was young — wrote that he would “rather die than go through another divorce.”
Nirvana’s tour was rescheduled to allow Cobain time to recover, but he only declined after his return to Seattle. He withdrew from everything Nirvana, refusing a headlining slot at the upcoming Lollapalooza festival and skipping rehearsals with his bandmates. In an attempt to curb Cobain’s heroin addiction, Love forbade him from using drugs in the house; Cobain responded by getting high in seedy motel rooms or his dealer’s apartment. Seattle police were called to their home on March 18 after an argument ended with Cobain locking himself in a room with guns; the police seized the guns, but no charges were filed against him. As with Rome, Cobain denied that this was a suicide attempt.
On March 25, Love and nine others — including bandmates, management, and friends — surprised Cobain with an intervention. Cobain was indignant, lashing out at everyone in the room — especially his wife, who he accused of being “more fucked up than he was,” as co-manager Danny Goldberg remembered to Charles R. Cross, author of Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain.* Love responded by saying that she had made plans to begin a drug treatment program in Los Angeles the next day and told Cobain she would divorce him if he did not seek treatment. His bandmates offered a similar ultimatum, threatening to leave Nirvana. The intervention ended at an impasse; Love left for the airport immediately afterward, and one by one the others departed. For some of them, including Love, it would be the last time they saw him. Cobain was back at his dealer’s that night, asking her, “Where are my friends when I need them? Why are my friends against me?”
Between the intervention and his checking into rehab, Cobain had his final interactions with several other friends and family members. He called his grandparents and made plans to go fishing with his grandfather the following month; speaking to The Seattle Times the month after Cobain died, his grandmother said, “Everything seemed fine […] when he talked to me he seemed to be happy.” Others saw Cobain at his lowest. The day after the intervention, Cobain was visited by his mother and sister, who left his house in tears after seeing him strung out on heroin. On March 29, days after another near-fatal overdose, Cobain agreed to let Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic — once his closest friend — take him to the airport, only to flee home after a fistfight in the main terminal.
The next day, Cobain visited Dylan Carlson, another friend, and asked him for help in buying a gun. Having had his guns confiscated in the past, perhaps Cobain suspected the police would know if he tried to purchase a new one. He told Carlson that the gun was for warding off trespassers — a claim that Carlson, who was at Cobain’s intervention, believed. Carlson and Cobain drove to Stan Baker’s Sports, where the former bought a shotgun and ammunition. “It seemed kind of weird that he was buying the shotgun before he was leaving,” Carlson told Rolling Stone in June 1994. He offered to keep it until Cobain returned, but Cobain declined, taking the gun to his house before heading to the airport that night.
Cobain was meant to spend four weeks at the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles. Because Exodus was not notified that the Rome incident had been a suicide attempt, Cobain was treated like a normal patient. Fellow patients and visitors remember Cobain being surprisingly cooperative with counselors. He was twice visited by Frances and her nanny, and he spent time happily playing with his daughter. At about 6 p.m. on his third day, April 1, he made a phone call to Love, the last conversation he would ever have with her. “Just remember, no matter what, I love you,” Cobain told his wife. An hour and a half later, Cobain went to an outdoor area of the clinic and scaled a six-foot brick wall while no one was looking. By the time Love found out Cobain had escaped, he had already caught a red-eye flight back home.
Cobain’s final days in Seattle are an unsolvable puzzle of unconfirmed sightings and unsuccessful credit card transactions. Some people told the police that they saw Cobain in Viretta Park by his house in the Madrona neighborhood; others claim to have seen him in Capitol Hill, where his dealer lived. There are even unfounded reports that Cobain spent a night at his summer home in Carnation, a 40-minute drive east of Seattle, with a friend. Efforts to trace Cobain’s footsteps were further hindered by Love’s decision to cancel Cobain’s credit card the day after he left Los Angeles; this only made things harder for Tom Grant, the private investigator Love had hired to find her husband. After the card was canceled, it stopped reporting where it was used. Over the next week, there were several attempts to use the card — two of which, confusingly, occurred after April 5, the day Cobain is believed to have died.
All we know for certain about Cobain’s return to Seattle is the first thing he did and the last thing he did. Cobain arrived at his house after midnight on April 2, and at dawn he awoke his friend Michael “Cali” DeWitt, who had been house sitting with his girlfriend (a young Jessica Hopper) while Cobain and Love were in rehab. Shortly after DeWitt and Hopper fell back asleep, Cobain took a taxi to a gun shop, where he purchased more shotgun shells. DeWitt had been using drugs and didn’t even register that Cobain was back; it wasn’t until two days later, during an argument with Hopper, that he realized Cobain’s visit wasn’t a hallucination. He then told Love, who sent her Hole bandmate Eric Erlandson to search the house with DeWitt. The house would be searched two more times in the next two days — once by Grant and Carlson, and again by DeWitt. No one looked in the garage or the greenhouse above it — the site of Cobain’s suicide.
I am choosing to call Cobain’s death a suicide because that is what the evidence most clearly supports. Death, in all its forms, leaves unanswerable questions, but suicide torments the living, to the point where it invites denial that someone would want, more than anything, to die. Theories that Cobain was murdered come no closer to answering those questions; they disrespect him and those who loved him, blackening what is already a tragedy. In the greenhouse, Cobain wrote a note in red ink, addressed to his childhood imaginary friend Boddah, in which he described the void in him that nothing — not his music, not his fans, not even the love of his wife and daughter — could fill. He took out the old cigar box where he kept his heroin kit and got high one last time. Then he raised his shotgun to his mouth and pulled the trigger.
There are two reasons I can think of as to why people kill themselves. The first is out of despair; perhaps it is the belief that the only certainty in life is more suffering and that the only escape from that suffering is death. Perhaps it is the belief that your life is a burden on the lives of those who you love and that in dying you free them of that burden. This is what Cobain’s sister seems to believe: “He thought everybody would be better off without him,” she said in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. “He thought that he was the problem.”
But in suicide, your loved ones are left to carry the weight of your absence. That may be the intention of such an act — “a fierce indictment of the living,” as Anthony DeCurtis wrote in his remembrance of Cobain. Even Heavier Than Heaven’s summary suggests that Cobain’s death was “an act of will that typified his short, angry, inspired life.” That is the second reason to take one’s own life — as an act of rage, meant to cause pain to the ones who love you. Being the “spokesman of a generation” meant having to do and be what everyone else expected of him. Cobain’s suicide was exactly what he wanted. “He wanted to get fucked up into oblivion,” Novoselic said in Heavier Than Heaven. “He wanted to die.”
I can’t say which it was — despair or rage — that Cobain felt more as he composed his suicide note. The two themes were as central to Cobain in life as they were in death, seen in his interactions with a media that never quite understood him and heard in his music, as they were across the grunge scene. Of the four biggest grunge bands to emerge from Seattle — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains — all but one suffered the loss of a frontman whose brilliance and charisma could not save them from themselves. It is a crushing reminder that these men, and others, were able to write these songs of isolation, addiction, and depression because they had lived them.
Cobain lived other things, too — his life, as full of despair and rage as it was, was not without moments of happiness and serenity, and it sounds as if, near the end of his life, he was letting himself experience those moments more often. In his last interview with Rolling Stone in January 1994, Cobain did not sound like a man who wanted to die: “I’ve never been happier in my life,” he said. He also described his vision for the next Nirvana album as a “pretty ethereal, acoustic” work unlike anything he had done before. Cobain would never lay the songs in his head to tape, but I imagine that they would have sounded like a man who had finally found the transcendence from which his band took its name. They might not have meant as much to his fans as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Lithium”. But they would exist, and hopefully, so would Kurt Cobain.
*Charles R. Cross’s Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain is likely the definitive Cobain biography. Other sources were used to corroborate information, but unless otherwise stated, Heavier Than Heaven is the source of most of this piece’s quotes and anecdotes.