LAST SPRING, Kurt Cobain sat at his kitchen table at 3 a.m., chain-smoking and toying with one of the medical mannequins he collected. “It’s hard to believe that a person can put something as poisonous as alcohol or drugs in their system and the mechanics can take it – for a while,” he said to me, absently removing and inserting the doll’s lungs, liver, heart.
At 5 feet 7 inches, 125 pounds, Kurt was slight, painfully thin; he’d wear several layers of clothes under his usual cardigan and ripped jeans just to appear a little more substantial. He knew well just how much abuse, self-inflicted and otherwise, that fragile frame could withstand.
A few days after Kurt’s death, a Seattle limo driver who had often squired Kurt around town remarked: “Nice young man. Very quiet. But I guess he had a lot of hurtin’.” Between stomach pain, chronic bronchitis and scoliosis, hurtin’ dominated Kurt’s life. Even his own body was a hostile environment.
Many believed Kurt’s stomach pain was just a lie to rationalize his heroin use, but it was real; his mother had identical symptoms in her mid-20s. Ironically, Kurt said his scream emanated from precisely the same spot that he felt the pain in his guts; even playing guitar was sometimes painful because of his scoliosis. But what tormented Kurt wasn’t merely physical. All that talent and charisma packed into such a brittle little package recalled Robert Fripp’s description of Jimi Hendrix as a thin wire with too much current running through it.
Kurt realized fame was alienating him from his friends, whose entire creative and social lives were predicated on poverty. When he bought a Lexus earlier this year, peer pressure made him trade it back in and stick with his trusty old gray Volvo.
Indeed, friendship was a big reason Kurt stayed in the band. Krist Novoselic and David Grohl were two of the best, most loyal friends he had left. And he knew firsthand the power of the music they made together – the endorphin rush of performance erased even his most excruciating stomach pain. That’s why he sometimes hurled himself into the drums during the encores – to prove that he was feeling no pain. Still, Kurt was growing apart from the thing he loved most. “I just don’t feel the same, emotionally, about our music anymore,” he told me, relaxing at home just after completing In Utero. “With this record, I’m just deadpan. My emotions just don’t come out during it. I don’t know if that’s the production, the performance or just my lack of interest at this point.” Yet critics and fans disagreed, and even Kurt wavered about the record.
On April 9, 1993, Nirvana played San Francisco’s Cow Palace to benefit Bosnian rape victims. Kurt arrived to find a large entourage filling the dressing room, and he slouched in a folding chair against the wall. There was another chair next to him, but nobody could just plop down and talk to him. So I did. He smiled, said, “Hi,” and plunked Frances onto my lap. We chatted about Speed Racer, one of his favorite TV shows. He sang me the theme song as several self-appointed minders eyed us.
The drug rumors, still unconfirmed, were raging: Was Kurt a debilitated junkie who couldn’t perform or write anymore? Was the band that had already revolutionized the music industry a flash in the pan? The show silenced the skeptics. The Nevermind songs were as uplifting as ever; the new material exuded undeniable power.
It seemed prosaic at the time, but hindsight says otherwise: Kurt changed what side of the stage he played on, from his usual stage left to stage right. “It kind of makes it interesting again,” he explained.
In October, Nirvana began their first U.S. tour in two years. The band’s new guitarist, Pat Smear, bolstered Kurt with propulsive chording and passionate leads, but he also played another crucial role: He never failed to lift Kurt’s spirits. But nobody could lift those spirits quite like Kurt’s daughter. Frances accompanied Kurt for most of the tour, while Courtney recorded her new album. Frances was the light of Kurt’s life – whenever she was around, his face would brighten, he’d flash a rare grin, and the entire room (or bus) filled with his joy.
Nirvana had resolved to make roadwork pleasant – they picked their favorite bands to open, including the Breeders, the Butthole Surfers, Chokebore, Half Japanese, Mudhoney and Shonen Knife. They indulged in two band buses, nice hotels and a masseur. They booked numerous days off and brought along wives, fiancees and friends. Maybe that’s why they played the most consistently amazing concerts of their career, transcendent shows where you almost felt your feet weren’t touching the ground.
Halfway through the tour, a bunch of us caught a club set by the British punk-pop legends Buzzcocks. Backstage, Buzzcocks told Kurt what an honor it was to meet him, but over and over, he softly insisted, “No, it’s an honor to meet you.” Later, he hung out in front, chatting with some punk-rock kids who treated him as a peer – they didn’t even ask for autographs. Kurt was very happy. Not everyone found him so approachable. Kurt’s piercing eyes, his moodiness, his chemical state, his fame and his almost palpable charisma were extremely intimidating. But he was actually a kind, sweet man and a sincere listener.
I found this out when I traveled with Nirvana on that tour. By the time we reached New Orleans in December, I was in the middle of a personal crisis. From a pay phone on Bourbon Street, I made a midnight call to Kurt, who invited me over to his hotel room to talk. He was exhausted but eager to help – he even opened up about his own history of moribund relationships and creative lulls. At 4 a.m., I was in the middle of a sentence when he just shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep. He wasn’t high; he simply couldn’t stay awake anymore. “Why’d you leave?” he demanded the following morning.
At tour’s end in December, Nirvana appeared on MTV Unplugged. Kurt chose an unprecedented number of covers, and revealingly, they were either about fame, death or both. Meat Puppets’ ‘Plateau’ says there’s only more work when you reach the top, while on David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, Kurt intoned, “I thought you died alone a long, long time ago.” “Don’t expect me to cry for all the reasons you had to die,” he crooned on ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’. That was the last time I saw Kurt Cobain. He hugged me goodbye.
Like most suicides, Kurt’s provided plenty of hints; in retrospect, they were beyond cries for help, they were announcements. That’s the way he was. “He was unhappy before he was famous, and he was unhappy after he was famous,” says former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg. “He was just unhappy.”
In August 1992, Nirvana’s triumphant set closed England’s Reading Festival. Still wearing the doctor’s smock he’d worn during the show, Kurt walked offstage hand in hand with a little boy with terminal cancer who had wangled his way backstage. Kurt slowly descended a set of stairs as one klieg light beamed down on him. All in white, his blond hair gleaming, he looked just like an angel, the boy a cherub. A crowd of people surrounded Kurt, but somehow the light never touched them. It was very quiet, especially after the thunderous noise of the show. The crowd followed him down an alleyway made by the backstage tents. Then Kurt turned a corner, still hand in hand with the boy, and was gone.
© Michael Azerrad, Rolling Stone, 2 June 1994