Kurt Cobain, the rock martyr; Courtney Love, the widow who wants it all. In the years since his death, the question “What really happened?” has taken on a sinister life all its own. As a controversial documentary hits the US, Dave Thompson investigates the million-dollar death cult.
LATE IN THE EVENING of April 19, 1997, a bald, bearded and burly punk rocker reeled drunkenly across the platform of Riverside Metrolink railway station, on the fringes of Los Angeles, watched while a train came barrelling down the track towards him, then either stepped — or fell — off the platform and onto the track. Death was instantaneous.
As soon as the news hit the LA punk underground, people began wondering if there was another way the accident could have happened. If, maybe, it hadn’t been an accident to begin with.
Eldon Hoke, “El Duce” to his public, would have relished the controversy. He had, after all, spent his entire life courting it, and in the 21 years since he formed the punk band, The Mentors, he never had far to look. Through the mid-’80s, The Mentors were one of the star turns at Tipper Gore’s PMRC (Parents’ Music Resource Center) investigations, as she testified before Congress on the subject of obscenity in rock, producing The Mentors’ ‘Golden Showers’ as evidence for the prosecution. “Bend up and smell my anal vapours,” the future Second Lady quoted El Duce, “your face will be my toilet paper.”
A decade later, El Duce himself appeared on The Jerry Springer Show discussing the “shock rock” which his porno-punk rockers so delighted in detailing. And on April 2, 1996, the Globe tabloid went to press with El Duce’s most extravagant gesture yet, the claim that Courtney Love had personally offered him $50,000 to blow her husband’s head off — a claim without a shred of corroboration or evidence in support, either then or since. The 39-year-old El Duce was never afraid of making enemies. But this time, even his friends agreed, he really had gone too far.
According to El Duce, Love first approached him outside the Rock Shop, a Hollywood music memorabilia store, in December 1993. “She wanted me to be her hit man,” El Duce announced. “It was a straight offer — I murder Kurt Cobain, she gives me $50,000.”
He wasn’t afraid to repeat his claims, either. He granted interviews to anyone who asked for one. He formed a new band, an offshoot of The Mentors, the unequivocally titled Courtney Killed Kurt. And when British documentary director Nick Broomfield showed up at his Southern California ranch on April 11, 1997, shooting for his Kurt And Courtney documentary, he happily told his story again, while Dr Edward Gelb, one of America’s leading polygraphists, monitored his story on a lie detector machine (not quite the credible evidence it was hoped, given that the test’s independent witness fell asleep before its conclusion).
El Duce had no doubt that Love’s offer was serious: “She told me she didn’t care how I did it — she just wanted her husband dead.” Cobain, she explained to him, was fed up with her hanging around with other guys, and was going to divorce her. But he was worth millions, and Love was determined that she was going to keep the money. “With the marriage about to end,” El Duce reasoned, “she knew the only way was to have Kurt killed and inherit [it].” And he admitted he was tempted by her offer: “I’m not a wealthy man, and $50,000 is a lot of money.” Of course he didn’t do it, and when Love came looking for him again, in March 1994 according to Rock Shop manager Karush Sepedjian, he was away on tour and they never met up. But less than ten days later, when Cobain was found dead above the garage of his home, El Duce was not too surprised. “I was like, Whoa! I wonder if she actually did pay some sucker to blow his head off.”
Eight days after his polygraph test, he was dead. As his remains were scraped off the track, the question now convulsing conspiracy fantasists was whether she had paid some other sucker to wipe out El Duce too.
The death of Kurt Cobain never looked like it was going to lie quietly. From the moment his body was found, by electrician Gary Smith, on April 8, 1994, the grapevine buzzed with rumour.
The official story was simplicity itself. That Friday morning, Gary Smith arrived at the Cobains’ Seattle home to install a new security system. There was no answer at the front door, although a television was on inside; so he got to work, following wires along the garage to the upstairs room once used by the Cobains’ daughter’s nanny, Michael “Cali” DeWitt. Looking in a window, he saw an up-ended plant, and what he initially thought was a mannequin. It was only when he saw the blood that he realised he was wrong. It was about 8.40 am, and Kurt Cobain was dead.
Smith called the police; it was his employer who phoned the local rock radio station KXRX. They initially ignored the report: hoax calls — not least, those involving Cobain — were fairly commonplace. It took a second conversation and a confirmation call to the police to convince the station. By 9.30, the news was cutting into the morning rush hour traffic.
Cobain wasn’t supposed to have been in Seattle at the time. A week earlier, on March 28, the singer had entered the Exodus Recovery Center in Marina Del Ray, just outside LA, finally making good on his repeated promises to seek help for his drug problems. Three days later, however, he quit and flew home.
Immediately upon his return hooking up with one of his oldest friends, musician Dylan J. Carlson, Cobain purchased a Remington M-11 20-gauge shotgun. The next day, April 2, he called Love in LA, where she was gearing up for the release of Hole’s new album, Live Through This. “No matter what happens,” he told her, “I want you to know you made a really good record.” Love was taken aback. “Do you mean you want a divorce? Or are you going to kill yourself?”
“No. But remember, no matter what happens, I love you.” Alarmed, Love at once called Seattle police, filing a missing persons’ report, and twice over the next few days officers visited the Cobain home in search of the singer. They never found him. Neither did Tom Grant, a Beverley Hills private detective whom Love hired to join the search; neither did the workmen who were installing new security lights around the grounds of the house.
But Cobain was there all the same, in his nest above the garage. And sometime on the evening of April 5, a mixture of heroin and Valium coursing through his system, he scrawled a note to Courtney and daughter Frances Bean; planted it in a mound of soil he’d tipped out of a plant pot; then reached for the newly-purchased shotgun. And lying on the floor, with the stock gripped firmly between his sneaker-clad feet, he pulled the trigger.
So much for the official story.
So why, for example, could the authorities find no identifiable fingerprints on the gun? Dead men, after all, rarely have the presence of mind to wipe down the weapon they have just blown their heads off with. Why was there no mention of suicide in Cobain’s final letter? Why did the authorities appoint one of Courtney Love’s own friends, Dr Nikolas Hartshorne, as officiating coroner? Who was using Cobain’s credit card in the days immediately following his death? And why did he even bother shooting himself, when there was so much heroin in his system that it constituted a lethal overdose in itself? And then there were the incidental details, the circumstantial evidence which pointed towards a darker conclusion.
Ever since Cobain and Love were married, tales of domestic discord had circulated widely, culminating less than three weeks before Cobain’s death on the night a terrified Love called police to the couple’s home, insisting that Cobain had locked himself in the bathroom with a gun, and was threatening suicide, murder and more.
The divorce rumours persisted, even after Cobain himself tried to quash them in a January interview with Rolling Stone — “I don’t think Courtney and I are that fucked up.” There was talk that he’d consulted lawyer Rosemary Carroll about changing his will. And there was the growing belief that the week he’d died, Cobain had finally made up his mind to get out of the music industry. Just days before his body was found — at the same time, ironically, as Courtney Love was officially reporting him missing to the Seattle Police — it was announced that Nirvana had pulled out of the Lollapalooza tour, which they were to have headlined.
Cobain’s death might have decapitated a multi-million dollar phenomenon, but at least it created a posthumous industry to take its place. His simple retirement — and Lollapalooza alone was worth $9.5 million — would have killed the whole thing.
The Seattle Police investigation has not, according to conspiracists, presented a watertight case for suicide. The smudged prints which they did find on the shotgun were at least consistent with Cobain’s own. His last note did not specifically mention suicide, but it barely looked forward to a happy future, either. And not only was there no indication that anybody else had been in the room with Cobain, there was no way a mysterious other could have escaped the scene — the door to the room was locked from the inside (a police finding which private investigator Tom Grant disputes), as was the window. Friend of Courtney’s or not, coroner Hartshorne had no choice but to summarise the whole thing as an “open and shut case of suicide”, and on May 11, the police confirmed “there’s been no foul play — just an early death that no one could explain”.
No-one, that is, outside of an ever broadening circle of conspiracy buffs for whom such an admission of uncertainty is catnip. An independent investigative journalist, Richard Lee, was the first media figure to begin piecing together what he perceived to be the inconsistencies, hitting the airwaves on April 13, 1994 — just five days after the tragedy — with the Seattle public access television programme Who Killed Kurt Cobain? Since then, he has racked up over 200 hours of televisual monologues, detailing the whos, whats and whys of the case, and another 200 hours of on-line material (www.speakeasy.org/kurtwasm). No longer Was Kurt Cobain Murdered?, his show was swiftly re titled Kurt Cobain WAS Murdered.
The mob, the media, his wife, his baby’s nanny… Lee’s list of suspects was endless. Neither Geffen Records, Nirvana’s label, nor Gold Mountain, their management, was above suspicion. Neither were the Seattle Police, the medical examiner, lawyer Rosemary Carroll, MCA-Universal, Seagram’s, Time-Warner… and when Love’s private investigator, Tom Grant, announced that he, too, believed foul play was involved, Lee added him to his list of suspects as well, explaining, “to be frank, there was immediately something I didn’t like much about Mr Grant, basically that he seemed to have the policeman’s habit [Grant is a former LA County Sheriff] of changing details in the description of events he was relating to you within the course of a conversation, and acting as if you weren’t too intelligent, or concerned about his discrepancies…”
It should also be noted that alone of the principal crusading conspiracists — a roll call which includes the late El Duce, Montreal journalists Ian Halperin and Max Wallace, LA author Toby Amirault, and Love’s own father, Deadhead author Hank Harrison — Lee has not made any capital from the case, and may in fact have caused himself damage. His attempts to win a seat on the Seattle City Council in February, running on the totally unrelated platform of public expenditure, can scarcely have been boosted by his hour-long appearances on Channel 29, all close-up camera angles and ratty moustache, and ever more labyrinthine theories over who really pulled the trigger that day.
Grant, however, collected eight months of wages from Love before she finally took him off the case, since when he has popped up on radio talk shows and NBC Television’s Unsolved Mysteries to air his views and suspicions. Wallace and Halperin, whose 1985 investigation into low-level corruption within the Concordia University athletics department won them a Rolling Stone award for best investigative reporting at a university newspaper, have written a book on Cobain’s “murder” (Who Killed Kurt Cobain?, published in March by Birch Lane Press, a division of Carol Publishing). Internet maven Amirault, too, has written a book (the still unpublished The Murder Of Kurt Cobain, also the title of his website) and so has Harrison, whose Beyond Nirvana: The Legacy Of Kurt Cobain is also scheduled for a 1998 publication, and who joined Halperin and Wallace on a November 1996 Canadian tour, presenting a three hour multi-media lecture on the subject.
Indeed, Harrison wasted no time whatsoever mourning the son-in-law he never met, tirelessly touting his own take on the tragedy, much of it geared towards his own flesh and blood. “When I heard that Kurt died, I just knew there was foul play involved,” Harrison told the dope-fiend bible High Times in 1996. “I called Courtney and challenged her to take a polygraph exam at my expense — because I knew that sick and nauseous junkies don’t take shotguns and kill themselves.” Neither do Zen masters, he told a baffled Canadian audience later in the year, “[not] unless they’re lighting themselves on fire in Vietnam to protest the war”. Kurt Cobain, of course, was a Zen master, “and the fact that he didn’t know it was so Zen”.
Whatever Cobain was (or wasn’t), Love refused her father’s offer of a polygraph exam, just as she refused to have anything more to do with the man she claimed date-raped her mother on the night Love was conceived. The pair have apparently barely spoken since 1987, and in 1995 Love told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I don’t want this man near me ever.” Harrison denies that his crusade against his daughter is fuelled by familial bitterness, although he does admit to Broomfield’s camera, “It’s a great war and I hope the public watches it.” Rather, he has embarked upon this investigation as a simple quest for justice, fuelled by a natural loathing of seeing murder go unpunished. “I don’t think he killed himself,” Harrison tells Broomfield. “I think somebody killed him. I’m not saying Courtney did it. I don’t really know…”
To High Times, Harrison portrayed a daughter who not even a mother (let alone an estranged father) could love. “Courtney has a dark side, a suppressed and repressed dark side to her personality that is extraordinarily violent. She tried to kill me twice. She’s been extraordinarily violent with her friends, and was kicked out of every band she’s been in for violent outbursts. It’s almost like she has multiple personalities. And one of those personalities is really evil — really, really dark and sinister — more so than you can imagine. I mean, real sick. She watched the Frances Farmer story 32 times, [and] it worried me. I realised at that point that Courtney was deeply troubled.”
“I’ve got her number!” he roars to Broomfield. “I got her nailed. I’m still the father, period. I don’t care if you’ve got $177 million, I’ll kick your ass. If you want to cop to me, maybe we can work something out. But until then, I’ll keep kicking your ass.”
Throughout the autumn of 1996, Harrison was ass-kicking his way across Canada with Halperin and Wallace, turning in a performance which all three were convinced would nail the killer for good. They were armed with an impressive body of evidence — a slide show highlighting inconsistencies within the police investigation, and the “crime scene” itself; interviews with participants, suspects and investigators; and a Biblical altruism which went way beyond simply solving a rock’n’roll whodunnit. They were crusading for the children, Halperin and Wallace swore. According to their findings, upwards of 60 teenagers have committed suicide in the four years since Cobain died, each one unable to carry on living in a world in which their idol himself could not survive.
“A proper investigation would put an end to the hundreds [sic] of copycat suicides that have followed Cobain’s death,” Halperin told Toronto. “If we can prevent one more copycat suicide, wouldn’t it be worth it to re-open the investigation?” he pleads. “One life saved?”
Interestingly, Tom Grant raised this same issue two years earlier, when he appeared on CBS Radio’s Gil Gross show, but Love’s legal advisors were no more impressed by it now than they were back then. On November 11, lawyer Jack Palladino interrupted the Toronto Opera House presentation. Rosemary Carroll turned up the following night in London, Ontario. And Nick Auf Der Maur, father of Hole bassist Melissa, was one of two men ejected from the Montreal event on November 14 for heckling the speakers while they tried to explain why the show was not, after all, about to go on — the New York law firm of Gendler, Codikow & Carroll had just announced they would be suing on Love’s behalf if it did.
But before one dismisses their bellicosity as a sign of fear that the “truth” about Cobain’s demise is getting too close to the surface, it is worth remembering that the Seattle Police Department has yet to be convinced there is anything more to the case either. They continue to insist that no new evidence whatsoever has come to light, as Pat Kingsley, the Los Angeles PR agent whom Love shares with Tom Cruise and Dodi Fayed among others, tirelessly reiterates. “Anyone who wants to know what happened to Kurt Cobain should talk to the coroner in Seattle and the DA in Seattle. Courtney was not involved.”
Indeed, amid all the claims, threats and innuendo, it seems incredible that nobody has yet considered by far the most likely reason for Love’s hostility towards her accusers: the possibility that she simply resents being publicly condemned for murdering her husband, and that she is responding to those suggestions in the same way as would any other human being, regardless of their nature or status: with denials, anger, threats. In other words, the next time you lose somebody you love, imagine how you’d feel if your father and his friends then told the world that you’d killed them.
Nick Broomfield, documentary-maker of Kurt And Courtney, which is now on cinema release in the US and scheduled to be screened by the BBC as part of their ‘Storyville’ season this summer, apparently agrees. “I went into it thinking that I would like her, and I was particularly on her side because of people like her father and her terrible childhood. Then, during the course of making the film, I met Lynn Hirschberg [who received a death threat from Courtney Love after writing in Vanity Fair in 1992 that she had taken heroin while pregnant], and she was very worried that I was going to fall in love with Courtney, and would think that she was exaggerating and being hysterical. The strength of feeling I encountered about her changed my mind. It’s a much darker, more horrible world than I’d ever anticipated — a cloud of heroin hangs over the whole thing.”
Broomfield, whose fame as a filmmaker resides on his wilfully intrusive documentaries about, among others, serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Hollywood madame Heidi Fleiss, South African white supremacist Eugene Terre Blanche and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, maintains that
Kurt And Courtney is less about the nature of Cobain’s death (which he, in any case, firmly believes was a suicide) than about Love herself. Despite his efforts, he never managed to make direct contact with her, but what Broomfield believes to be attempts, using her control of the highly lucrative Cobain estate as leverage within the media and music industry, to thwart the making of the documentary come to form the film’s subplot.
“I think the problem really was that Courtney has decided that she’s a different person now, so she doesn’t want to deal with anything that happened other than being with Versace, and a grieving widow,” Broomfield explains. “She’s been through a great personal tragedy, and that’s it. She’s not predisposed to go over that area of her life at all. But if I wanted to do a puff piece about her being an actor, I’m sure there would be absolutely no problem.
“I don’t, in any way, have anything personally against Courtney,” he continues. “I just think a lot of the things she does are quite misguided. It started off being a film about someone that I had a great deal of admiration for, and who I think is a musical genius, who had, and will have, a fantastic influence for a really long time. And then it became a story to do with free speech and censorship, and the terrifying reality of conglomerate, corporate power in the newspaper and television world, which is very well illustrated by the film.”
Love’s first legal assault on Kurt And Courtney did not address its intent but rather its content. Far from attempting to deprive Broomfield of his right to free speech, as Sundance Festival chief Robert Redford accused following the removal of the documentary from his film festival in January (“What I find ironic is that someone that’s benefitted… from the principle of free speech would be conducting a campaign to prevent another artist from expressing himself”), her actions were those of an aggrieved copyright holder defending her property — performances of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Hole’s ‘Doll Parts’ — from unsanctioned usage. “This is not about Courtney Love,” insists Pat Kingsley. “It’s about Nirvana, her husband’s group, and the rights were not cleared. You want to use a Frank Sinatra song in a movie, you can’t do it without getting permission and paying for it, and the same applies here.”
Shorn of its copyright music, the movie should theoretically have been in the clear when it was to open at a San Francisco cinema in February. But no. The film’s distributor received the following from Courtney Love’s lawyer Michael Chodos: “We are told that Mr Broomfield’s movie conveys the message that Ms Love killed her husband Kurt Cobain or somehow participated in his murder. Such accusations are false and defamatory, nothing more. By choosing to display the film… (you) are liable along with (the filmmmaker) for any resulting damage.” The distributor ignored the threat, and, at time of writing, the movie has now opened across the USA without any legal repercussions.
In 1994, within weeks of Cobain’s suicide, the Paradigm Agency picked up the film rights to the just-published Cobain biography, Never Fade Away. Screenwriter of Colors and Bad Boys, Richard DiLello, was already on board; Evan Dando and Meg Ryan had both reportedly been lined up to star. But even a tentative approach regarding soundtrack material was furiously repelled by Nirvana’s management company, Gold Mountain. “The whole idea of [this movie] is really upsetting,” spokeswoman Janet Billig announced. “I can’t find a word in the English language to express how we all feel about this.” But she thought of one anyway — no. “We have advised our lawyers that we wouldn’t want this to happen.”
They still don’t, and it is not only Gold Mountain and Courtney Love who are so fiercely opposed to a movie version of Cobain’s life. Although Hank Harrison insists that Krist (aka Chris) Novoselic’s wife is open to his beliefs and theories (an allegation which family friends strenuously, and incredulously, deny), it is painfully obvious that the only people willing to openly discuss Cobain’s death with the media are those who were not, in fact, very closely involved, the exception being Broomfield’s uncomfortable interview with Dylan J. Carlson.
The most pertinent questions have, in any case, already been answered: by Novoselic’s decision to remain bound to both the record label and the management company which, the conspiracists are still convinced, played a major part in Cobain’s demise; and by his own jealous stewardship of Nirvana’s legacy (he himself has described the conspiracy theorists as “obsessed”). Far from milking a fat cash cow, just two “posthumous” albums have been permitted to appear since Cobain’s suicide: the soundtrack to Nirvana’s graceful appearance on MTV’s Unplugged, and its corollary From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah, an electric live anthology which caught the band at its dishevelled best — a very far cry from the respectful pause, then unceasing deluge which normally follows a superstar death. So far as the directors of Nirvana Incorporated — Novoselic, Grohl and Love — are concerned, there would be no cashing in on this legend, musically, verbally, or otherwise.
Neither Novoselic’s (now-defunct) Sweet 75 nor Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters played the Nirvana card during their promotional campaigns, while Love, too, has remained tight-lipped on the subject of her husband — perhaps even too tight-lipped. Rumours, after all, were rife that Cobain played a major part in the songwriting process which resulted in Hole’s last album, Live Through This, rumours which may have been confirmed in February this year when Novoselic broke his silence to confirm that the Hole B-side, ‘Old Age’, was, regardless of Love’s solo writing credit, originally a Cobain-composed Nevermind outtake. But that, and the rest of the Hole songwriting conundrum, is another story entirely.
“What it comes down to,” one of Cobain’s former associates explains, “is this. Courtney has her story about her life with Kurt and what led up to his death, [Kris and Dave] have theirs, and a lot of other people, who weren’t even around at the time, have theirs. And unfortunately those are the stories which everyone hears. They’re the only people who would talk to Nick Broomfield, to High Times, to Unsolved Mysteries.
“Courtney and [the band] have their own reasons for not wanting to talk, Kurt’s friends have theirs, and probably the truth lies somewhere in between them all. But nobody is ever going to figure it out by sneaking around and drawing conclusions, and then pulling in the same old cast of characters to shoot their mouths off.
“Right now, the only people who are talking about what happened to Kurt are people who don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. But what can anybody reply to them? If you say they’re full of shit, then they say you’re lying to protect yourself, and the whole thing goes back and forth and round and round, and ultimately it just gives them more publicity. And of course that’s all they really wanted in the first place. None of these people cares about Kurt or what happened to Kurt. All they care about is selling their books, and getting on television, and reading their names in the papers.”
Or, as Courtney Love (allegedly) e-mailed to author Toby Amirault, when he asked why she had yet to sue her accusers for libel, “why havent [sic] we sued? because tyou [sic] people are not fucking worth it… leave us the fuk [sic] alone.”
And if they don’t “leave us the fuk alone”? Adding his own name to the flock of foes whose well-being has allegedly been compromised by their real or imaginary Love-baiting, Hank Harrison alleged “there have been a few threats,” adding, “I have been told she has a contract out on me.” But he consoled himself at the time, February 1996, with the knowledge that, “the more attention that gets paid to what I’m talking about here, the funnier it’s going to look if I ended up dead somewhere on the railroad tracks.”
As he waited for a train a little over a year later, just eight days after he submitted to, and passed, a polygraph test for Nick Broomfield’s documentary El Duce probably had a very similar notion.
© Dave Thompson, MOJO, May 1998