The Death of Kurt Cobain

DEPENDING ON your view of the afterlife, suicide may or may not be the solution to a life that has become unbearable. For those left behind, however, suicide can be seen as a selfish act which creates problems. Those problems are magnified exponentially when the suicide is a parent, a husband, a group member, world-famous performer. Death may be a full stop: it is all the more devastating when it is a question mark.

Kurt Cobain’s suicide two weeks ago has become a mythological event – a drama acted out in the media. Two weeks ago, 10,000 fans held a vigil in Seattle Center, where Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, reduced the audience to tears with her impassioned reading of the suicide note. Sales of Nirvana albums have tripled; shops in England and America have created their own consumer shrines – dump bins showcasing the group’s four albums with the legend “Kurt Cobain: 1967-94”. At least one fan has already died in a copycat suicide.

Media interest has been compounded by the mystery surrounding Cobain’s last days. There is little firm record of what he did between Thursday 31st March – when he walked out of the Los Angeles clinic where he had gone to beat his heroin addiction – and the morning of Friday 8th April, when his body was found in his Seattle home. This is an awful image: of a young man so determined to die that he shuns friends, family, colleagues, or any one of the thousands of people who might feel connected to him through his music. What had brought him to this point?

Nirvana are an extremely successful group – over 20 million records sold in 30 months. Cobain was part of a great team – with bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl – but he was the front man, the conditions of which are that his voice, presence and face be reproduced millions of times. Because he was a rock star, people looked to him for answers. Cobain hadn’t expected this attention, and grew to hate it at the same time as he believed in it. He hid himself behind a wall of hair and sunglasses; already committed to drugs for pleasure, he took them to obliterate himself.

In this light, his last few days can be seen as a terrible refusal – by walking off the face of the earth, Cobain attained the invisibility that he craved. The method of death reinforced this refusal. Cobain left his i-d open on the ground, held the gun to his chin, and pulled the trigger, destroying the face known to millions. (Identification was made through fingerprints.) His respite was brief; Cobain’s face has been reconstituted in media reports the world over, but now he has become an object, an abstract.

Nirvana were outcasts, small-town American stoners who believed in punk because it articulated their resentments and offered them freedom. Fame and success are thought to bring freedom, but they also bring bondage. Your life is no longer your own; every move is watched. If you’ve become successful young, you’re encouraged to stay that way. You’ve got to the top of the mountain, but the view isn’t quite what you expected. You’re faced with a whole new set of problems, no the least of which are the expectations of others and your own expectations of yourself. As Cobain wrote to his fans in his suicide note: “The fact is I can’t fool any of you: it simply isn’t fair to you or to me.”

Nirvana hit the media as punks. When I visited America in February 1992 to promote a book about the Sex Pistols, I was asked dozens of times about the group whose breakthrough record, Nevermind, directly echoed the title of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. As punks, Nirvana were bound into several scripts. One had to do with the failure that was encoded into the original punk-through the very word itself, American slang for the worthless, the victimized.

On another level, punk was hit-and-run engagement with the mass media that was doomed to failure: becoming successful with lyrics and attitudes which express an impassioned criticism of society has been a perennial youth culture contradiction – from the Rolling Stones on. Making money out of protest and alienation is enough to confound the angriest young man or woman. Most rebels finally make the transition to adulthood by coming to some accommodation with the power structure – Mick Jagger’s involvement with high society and high finance being a good example.

But for punks in particular, conventional success meant failure: the founding myth was laid down by the Sex Pistols, who fell apart as soon as they became successful. Cobain found that his desperation had been turned into a mass consumption which made him rich and reinforced that very image of desperation. Cobain wrote a sarcastic song about it, ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’: “It was making fun of ourselves,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.

Nirvana were quickly slotted into the punk storyline. At the height of Nevermind‘s success, it was rumoured that they had broken up. When, at around the same time, Kurt Cobain met his future wife, Courtney Love, the couple were quickly seen as a new Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon. Cobain and Love playfully toyed with this, checking into hotels as Mr and Mrs Simon Richie (Sid Vicious’s birth-name)’ at the same time as they rejected it: ‘You’d think that people would be evolved enough not to be entertained by a carbon copy of what happened 15 years ago,’ Cobain said last year. ‘Haven’t we progressed?’

Cobain’s attitude to the media became paranoid and confrontational: as he wrote in ‘On a Plain’, “the black sheep got blackmailed again”. After a hostile Vanity Fair profile in September 1992, he regarded himself as “cursed”. “I almost feel like people don’t believe me,” he said. “Like I’m a pathological liar at times, because I’m constantly defending myself. People haven’t evolved enough to question anything that is printed. Even I’m really bad at that too: I believe a lot of the things that I read.”

Just like the Sex Pistols, Cobain became immersed in a struggle, trying to free himself from the self-destruction involved in the whole punk script. And now he’s caught, like a fly in amber. The most popular media trope came from his mother, who referred to the ‘stupid club’ – Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin – the drear baby-boomer litany that serves to reduce Cobain’s individuality. It’s hard to take, because Nirvana were so full of life. Their success, at the end of 1991, offered hope – not the least because their music joyously cut free of circumstances. “I’m the product of a spoiled America,” Cobain said; his story is an American tragedy.

It’s July 1993. Nirvana haven’t played New York in a year and they’re doing what is a music industry showcase at Roseland in mid-town to preview their new record In Utero. The pressure is on them, to an extent that I haven’t encountered since the punk days, 14 years before. It’s as though Nirvana have become negative, psychic lightning conductors: rumours are rife, nobody knows what they are going to do, all eyes are upon them.

The night before, I’ve interviewed Cobain in a hotel room in the clouds – with midnight Manhattan outside, we achieved that state that Paul Morley describes in his book Ask: “Did you reach that uncanny, disorienting point where you float, right over the edge of a revealing all-round contemplation? Was it just a cover-up? What appeared to be the trouble?” Time stands still. Cobain doesn’t look well – his skin is sallow and rough – but he is articulate, polite, witty, sensitive, occasionally sarcastic. He is also surprisingly frank about his heroin use, so much so that I accept his reasons (it was for constant stomach pain) and his statement: “Now things have got better. My whole mental and physical state has improved almost 100 per cent. I’m totally optimistic.” I wanted to believe him. The next morning Cobain overdoses.

The concert is extraordinary, one of the most powerful I have ever seen. Cobain has the magic, the ability to keep you concentrated on him at all times, the ability to make it seem as though he is singing exactly what you’re feeling – that emotional empathy that pop does so well. The young crowd go wild. But then a very odd thing happens. The group stop for a moment, then bring on a cellist Lori Goldstein to accompany them on several acoustic numbers.

Nirvana aren’t carrying the crowd with them. Cobain doesn’t shrink from the situation; his performance of the Leadbelly standard. ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, is both exorcism and challenge. the song is chilling –

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Where did you sleep last night? In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don’t shine
I shivered all night long

and Cobain pushes and pushes this lyric to his limit of endurance. After his last scream, there is a brief silence.

This is not the end. Nirvana regroup for another song, ‘Something in the Way’, sung by Cobain in an intimate whisper. The lyric refers to the period when, in late 1985, he was estranged from both his divorced parents, and homeless in his home of Aberdeen, a decayed logging town about 100 miles south of Seattle in the Pacific North-West. According to official biographer Michael Azerrad, Cobain was unemployed and penniless that winter. He passed the time in the town library reading and writing poetry, sleeping in friends’ cars or, at one point, under the North Aberdeen bridge.

Here is one aspect of Nirvana’s triumph: 1985 was the high point of the Reagan years in America – a time when many Americans felt like exiles in their own country. Through talent, luck and guts, Nirvana epitomized the rehabilitation of these exiles when they broke through in 1991. As Gina Arnold wrote in Route 666: The Road to Nirvana: “Nirvana’s music reflects a time, my time. And my time has its own history, its own leaders, its own rules.”

Nirvana put an underground bohemianism into the mainstream American music industry. Their breakthrough single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, took its last two words from a deodorant marketed at young women, containing the magic word of mediated youth, ‘teen’, it opened up a gap between the 25-45-year-old baby-boomers and the 15-24 baby-busters. Less in number than their 1960s counterparts, early victims of economic outbacks and late 1980s recession, baby-bust teenagers have almost no societal value in the US. The result is a frustration and anger which, lacking an adequate outlet, turns into drug and alcohol-induced oblivion, if not self-destruction.

That’s where Nirvana – all children of divorced parents – came from; that’s what they transcended on Nevermind. Songs like ‘On a Plain’ explore feelings of powerlessness – “As a defence I’m neutered and spayed” – which is undercut by the music’s sheer glee. The group sound welded together as they negotiate the classic verse/chorus/verse structure at high speed. The guitars are recorded so high that all you hear is distortion – as the sound breaks up, you feel it could go anywhere – but this wildness serves the discipline of a strong melody: sweetness in chaos.

In January 1992, Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson’s Bad at the top of the American charts. Then it was grunge-high-fashion and low-concept music industry, the media hurricane. Nirvana came from a small, inward-looking culture in the Pacific North-West. Kim Warnick, of the label Sub Pop, which released Nirvana’s early recordings now says, “I don’t think they knew what they were doing. How do you survive something that successful?”

An early sign of trouble could be found in Cobain’s combative sleevenotes for the Incesticide compilation. Nirvana played pro-abortion, pro-gay benefits wore dresses and presented an androgyny rare in the machismo of American rock. At high school, Cobain had been victimized for having a gay friend; he was shattered to find that the people who had once bullied him were now his fans.

Just by being themselves, Nirvana made enemies. There were spats with the most important American rock media: small beer but indicative of the compromises which Nirvana were called on to make. The American music industry is a conformist medium, and Nirvana were in the centre, signed to David Geffen’s record label, managed by industry insiders Gold Mountain. When Nirvana locked horns with MTV – they wanted to play a new song. ‘Rape Me’; MTV wanted the hit – it was explained to them that refusal could have repercussions for other Gold Mountain artists. The group backed down.

Things began to unravel quickly. In spring 1992, the group nearly split up in a dispute over music writing royalties – Cobain got an increased share. Both he and Courtney Love were taking their heroin use to the point of scandal. A September 1992 Vanity Fair article broke the story, after Geffen had signed Love’s group, Hole, for a much-hyped $1 million advance. One result was that the couple’s daughter, Frances Bean, was taken from them two weeks after birth. Cobain and Love weren’t allowed to be alone with her for a month, until they showed that they were off drugs.

It now seems as though this was the turning point: “I wanted to break up the group all the time,” Cobain said. Just after the Vanity Fair article, Love and Cobain threatened two unauthorized biographers – the first public sign of a violent streak. “There was a lot about guns on Nevermind,” Gina Arnold says. “People took it as irony, but he wrote about it effectively because he knew it.” In July 1993, Cobain was arrested after police seized guns and ammunition at his Seattle home. Nirvana struggled with their new record, In Utero, which on release in late summer 1993 rose to number one in both the US and the UK. Nirvana had worked constantly for the few years preceding a success the magnitude of which had taken them by surprise. The pressure had got to them immediately – instead of touring to support their success, they withdrew for six months. Their front man was in an obvious state. But Nirvana were locked on the rollercoaster, a hot property which had to work in a media environment of unparalleled relentlessness.

During the past 10 years, the music industry has integrated as never before with the other industries that are usually part of the same conglomerate publishing, TV, advertising, films. The demands of these industries are voracious, the arena is not just national, but global. There is so much more music media than there was 10 years ago. As a result, time has accelerated. Their UK representative Anton Brookes says, “What happened to Led Zeppelin in 10 years, happened to Nirvana in three.”

The campaign around In Utero sought to present Nirvana as a group which had hit a troubled patch but was now through it. Just after it was released, Rolling Stone‘s Michael Azerrad published a warts-and-all official biography – which, while detailing Cobain’s heroin use, did so as if to state that it was all over. As we know now, it wasn’t and the Roseland show caught a group finely poised between optimism and self-destruction.

The group rallied for an autumn American tour which showed that they still had the magic: “Nirvana played the Seattle Arena in January,” says Kim Warnick. “It’s a 6,000-seater venue and it’s hard to come across in somewhere like that. As soon as they hit the stage, it felt like nothing else existed. You felt: ‘This is the only place I want to be.’”

It’s now clear that, beneath the surface of business as usual, things were going very wrong: “I haven’t felt the excitement . . .for too many years now,” Cobain wrote in his suicide note. “I feel guilty beyond words about many of these things, for example when we’re backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me in the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury – who seemed to love and relish the adoration from the crowd, which is something I totally admire and envy.”

On 4 March, Cobain overdosed in Rome, on a combination of champagne and 60 pills of Rohypnol, a Valium-like drug. This was Cobain’s fourth over-dose in a year. He came out of coma the next morning and flew back to Seattle on 8 March. The rest of the European dates – including an English tour – were cancelled. Damage limitation went into effect: the incident was presented as an accident, excessive high spirits, that kind of thing. Recent reports in the Los Angeles Times, denied by Gold Mountain, suggest that this wasn’t an accident but a suicide attempt.

The Rome incident was the last straw for the band and Courtney Love. The couple had an intense, sometimes abusive relationship, but no one doubts that they were in love, and that they cared for each other. “After Rome,” Love said, “I couldn’t take any more.” Ten days after his return to Seattle Cobain locked himself in a room after a row with his wife, who called the police, fearing a suicide. The police confiscated four guns and 25 boxes of ammunition.

The next weekend, Cobain’s wife and group performed what is called, in drug-counselling speak, an “intervention”. As Gina Arnold explains: “Friends and family get together to confront the addict. It’s the idea of ‘Tough Love’: if you don’t go into rehab, we won’t support you. We will withdraw our love. We’re not a band, a family unless you come clean.” Cobain denied that he had a problem but on Monday 28th March, he checked into a rehabilitation programme Exodus at the Daniel Freeman hospital in Los Angeles with Courtney Love. On 31st March, he walked out into thin air.

Many people have wondered why there was nobody he could turn to, but if everyone around Cobain made it clear that they didn’t want to know him if he was taking heroin, then his state off mind when he relapsed must have been despairing. On returning to Seattle, it seems that he made for the city’s drug district, Capitol Hill. Some claim to have seen him in town that Friday and Saturday. The rest is supposition.

Cobain spent three days in the wilderness. A missing persons report was filed by his mother, Wendy O’Connor, on 4th April. It stated that he was a suicide risk. Even so, nobody found him – he may have made a trip to his country house in Carnation, several hours away from Seattle. Sometime on Tuesday 5th April, Cobain went into the large room above his garage, pulled up a chair tot get the full view of Puget Sound, and pulled the trigger.

His body was found by electrician Gary Smith at 8.45 on the morning of Friday 8 April. The news hit England that evening. The rest was mayhem, as the international media descended on Seattle, offering money for exclusives about Cobain’s heroin use, publishing photos of the dead body. On Sunday 10th April, a small memorial service was held at Seattle’s Unity Church, quickly organized, and attended by about 200 of Cobain’s family and friends. At the same time, there was a public vigil in Seattle’s principal public space, under the space needle, which, built in 1962, had promised a better world.

The tone was set by Courtney Love’s rendition of her husband’s suicide note, taped and broadcast to the crowd. “He left a note for you,” she said. “It’s more like a letter to the editor. I mean, it was going to happen. It could have happened when he was 40. He always said he was going to outlive everybody and be 120.”

Love then called Cobain an “asshole” for what he did and asked the crowd to call him an asshole too. Gina Arnold remembers: “After a couple of hours, I went up the needle, I wanted some time to myself. The sun was setting down over Puget Sound; the crowd was yelling over and over: ‘Asshole! Asshole!’ It was the perfect mix of anger and sympathy. They had written messages and were building shrines. The notes were heartbreaking. ‘Dear Kurt, you remind me of my dog: his name is Max. I love you both. Mike.’ About 2,000 kids were in the fountain, screaming Nirvana songs and burning their flannel shirts. The radio was playing Nirvana songs, and they were singing along. When ‘On a Plain’ came on, the roar came up in unison – Love myself better than you/I know it’s wrong: but what should I do.

Later that night Love came to the vigil in person, distributing Cobain’s clothes to the fans who remained. As Ann Powers wrote in the Village Voice: “Love did something that finally made Cobain’s death seem real. What Courtney did was argue with him, dispute the terms of his refusal; in doing so, she opened up a view of what he must have really felt, the disorder that consumed him. She would read a little from the note, then curse the words, then express her sorrow . . . like some heroine from Euripedes, furious at the gods.”

Indeed, it is Courtney Love who must now bear the brunt of the attention and blame that follows a shock: one can only wonder what will happen to her and her baby, Frances Bean. A complex, powerful character, she has long been cast as the villain of the piece. Part of this is due to sexism, part a self-willed victim mythology – her songs abound with references to witches and celebrity life – and part her own behaviour: it wad reported last week that she overdosed in Los Angeles on Wednesday 6 April, two days before Cobain’s suicide was discovered. Love recovered, but was charged with possession of narcotics. She has since denied that she overdosed.

This story already has its own momentum: “I don’t see it going away for a very long time,” says Kim Warnick. “It will get into stranger and stranger issues.” Many questions will be asked: was this inevitable? Was it in the genes (three uncles died this way), or was it caused by drugs and fame? Where was everyone? But they pale before the finality of the act. Cobain meant to die. He freely told interviewers about his propensity towards suicide: it’s all over his lyrics. One awful consequence of his act is that what seemed like an internal dialogue is now fixed as autobiography.

Cobain brilliantly embodied the anger and desperation of white Western youth, struggling to make the transition between adolescence and adulthood in societies without adequate rituals. It is an irony that many young people look to rock stars – often invested with religious qualities – to help them with this transition, the very people who often find it difficult to shake off the adolescent attitudes that make them famous. Neither party can ever be satisfied in what is a blocked, and consequently dangerous, ritual.

Cobain’s tragedy was to live out that American archetype delineated by Scott Fitzgerald in Early Success: “It is a short and precious time. When the mist rises in a few weeks, or a few months, one finds that the very best is over.” When the storms struck his craft, at the crucial age of 27, Cobain couldn’t find his way across.

© Jon SavageThe Observer, 24 July 1994

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