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- April 25, 1994
- Vol. 41
- No. 15
No Way Out
The Tragic Specter of Drugs Lurks Over the Suicide of Kurt Cobain, Rock's Poet of Pain, and the Arrest of His Wife, Courtney Love
SHORTLY BEFORE SUNSET ON April 9, Courtney Love, wearing one of her dead husband's trademark cardigan sweaters and accompanied by a small group of friends, wheeled her 20-month-old daughter Frances Bean's baby carriage into a beachfront park. On the shores of Seattle's Lake Washington, the park was just a short walk from the gray-shingled $1.1 million home she and Kurt Cobain had moved into three months before. For a few moments, Love, 28, paced the pebbled beach, then she wept and hugged a comforting friend. "Why?" she sobbed quietly. "Why?"
It was a mantra much repeated last week as fans, in shock, outrage and sorrow, tried to understand why Cobain, the gifted yet chronically unhappy rocker, had gone alone to a small room above his garage in Seattle's quiet Madrona neighborhood and ended his life with a single shotgun blast. "I came here looking for answers," said one grieving 20-year-old who had kept a vigil outside the house since morning. "But I don't think there really are any. I was hoping it was a dream. Ever since I heard the news, I wanted to wake up."
Cobain's last nightmarish act was born of the same explosive anguish that fired the music of his band, Nirvana, and made it world famous. In the end. the humor that tempered the fury of Cobain's art, and the newfound happiness brought by the birth of the baby he adored, somehow deserted him. Pain, it seemed, was all that remained.
News of Cobain's death spread quickly on the morning of April 8 after Gary Smith, 50, an electrician contracted to install a burglar alarm, discovered his body sprawled on the bare floor of the garage apartment. "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club," said Cobain's mother, Wendy O'Connor, alluding to the pantheon of rockers who died in their prime—among them Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, whose grave is 15 miles south of Cobain's home. All had died, like Cobain, at 27.
Though widely believed to be winning his long struggle with heroin addiction, Cobain had backslid into old drug habits in the four weeks since his return from Rome, where on March 4 he had sunk into a coma after overdosing on a mixture of tranquilizers and champagne. Haunted by that incident. Love feared a suicide attempt and called police March 18 when Cobain locked himself in a room during a domestic quarrel. Police, who had responded to a similar call from Love last June, confiscated three handguns, a semiautomatic rifle and 25 boxes of ammunition for safekeeping. Afterward, Courtney agreed to a so-called tough-love intervention and, with several friends, confronted Cobain on March 25 about his drug use. "I told him," she said, " 'You've got to be a good daddy. We've got to be good parents.' "
But the intervention backfired when Cobain bolted 36 hours after checking in on March 28 to the Exodus Recovery Center, a drug-treatment facility in Marina Del Rey, Calif. His mother reported him missing after four days, but Seattle police, informed that Cobain had purchased a shotgun, were unable to locate him. Nor could a private investigator hired by Love. Cobain apparently spent one or two nights in a country house he and Courtney owned near Carnation, 40 miles northeast of Seattle. Days before his death, Cobain, looking ill and wearing a heavy coat on a warm day, was reportedly seen by neighbors in Madrona.
On the afternoon or evening of Tuesday, April 5, police now believe, Cobain locked himself in the room above his garage and composed a note to his wife, friends and fans. Writing in a tight, left-handed scrawl with a red ballpoint pen, Cobain alluded to the chronic, undiagnosed pains in his "burning, nauseous" stomach that had haunted him for years and held often made him consider suicide before. Heroin, he told Michael Azerrad, author of 1993's Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, was the only ding that quenched the fire in his gut. (Heroin and valium were reportedly found in Cobain's blood after his death.) Cobain agonized, too, about his music. "I don't have the passion anymore," he wrote.
Two days later, with Cobain's body still undiscovered, his wife Courtney was taken from the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills to Century City Hospital for treatment of a suspected drug overdose. She was later arrested for drug possession and released by police that same day after posting $10,000 bail.
The next day in Seattle, Cobain's body would be found. In a phone interview with MTV's Kurt Loder on April 9, Love quoted Cobain's final missive: "It's not fun for me anymore. I can't live this life." So fearsome was the blast that he fired to his head, authorities had to use fingerprints to identify the body. The next day, Love said, she clipped a lock of Cobain's blond hair. Later that night, she washed it, remembering how he hated to shampoo. She even wore some of Cobain's clothes in order, she hoped, to come to terms with the fact that she and Frances would never see him again. Suicide, she added, was the "Cobain curse."
Despair has, in fact, run in the family. Two of Kurt's father's uncles committed suicide in the late '70s, according to cousin Bev Cobain, a registered nurse specializing in mental health. Alcoholism and dysfunctional marriages plagued the clan, she says, adding with a weak smile, "I don't think there was much functional stuff going on in the whole family."
Yet the pain that led Cobain to kill himself was not evident in early childhood. Born in 1967 in Aberdeen, a depressed logging town on the Washington coast 108 miles southwest of Seattle, he was the first of two children of homemaker Wendy Fradenburg and auto mechanic Donald Cobain. A precocious, energetic child who loved to draw and to sing Beatles tunes, Cobain was diagnosed as a hyperactive preschooler. Doctors prescribed Ritalin, an amphetamine-based drug that often kept him awake until 4 a.m. To counter the drug's side effects, he was also given sedatives. Yet Kurt remembered those days as "blissful limes...I was constantly screaming and singing.
His world collapsed in 1975 when his parents divorced. They later conceded that their children, especially 8-year-old Kurt, had been seriously wounded by the legal and emotional battles that followed. "It just destroyed his life," said Wendy. "He changed completely." Retaliating for his unhappiness, Kurt sketched rude caricatures of his parents on his bedroom walls, captioning them "Dad sucks" and "Mom sucks."
Growing more angry and difficult to control, Kurt was sent from Wendy's house, where she raised daughter Kim, now 24, to live with Don. whose interest in hunting and sports Kurt despised. Urged by his father to join his junior-high wrestling team, Kurt once blew a big match by allowing his opponent to pin him without offering any resistance. Don, watching from the stands, walked out in disgust.
When Don couldn't control his son, Kurt moved in with various relatives, including his paternal grandparents. Iris and Leland Cobain. His grandmother, says cousin Bev Cobain, "was the only person who gave him unconditional love."
By his freshman year in high school, Kurt was smoking marijuana on an almost daily basis. Alienated from most of his classmates, especially jock types, whom he would taunt and spit at—and sometimes get beaten up by—Kurt grew his hair long and dyed it wild colors. "He stood out. says childhood friend Cameron Ross, 22, "like a turd in a punch bowl."
Cobain, meanwhile, had begun playing guitar. "His main goal," says Warren Mason, an Aberdeen musician who gave him lessons in 1981, "was to learn 'Stairway to Heaven,' " the then-ubiquitous Led Zeppelin anthem. Music, Mason saw, transformed Cobain. "He wasn't the moody guy you read about," says Mason. "He was a happy, responsive little kid."
After turning on to the Sex Pistols and other punk groups, Cobain began to meld Zeppelin's heavy-metal power chords with the Pistols' punk iconoclasm. The result would, within a few years, help Nirvana become the avatar of Seattle's neopunk grunge sound.
But his rebellion was more than just musical, and Cobain dropped out of Aberdeen High School a few weeks before he was supposed to graduate in 1985. Though the otherwise poor student had won two state art scholarships, he decided to skip college and live instead what he called the "Aberdeen fantasy version of being a punk rocker." Working part-time as a janitor at his old high school, he crashed where he could, living at one point under a bridge. Days were spent drinking and doing drugs. At night he vandalized cars and defaced buildings.
Kurt's pained, haunting voice and his-talent as a guitarist saved him from a life of petty crime. "You always went away hearing Kurt's voice," says Jack Endino, 36, who later produced Nirvana's first album, Bleach. "It stuck in every one's mind."
In 1987, Cobain, along with a high school friend, bassist Krist Novoselic, now 28, and a succession of drummers—Dave Grohl, 25, signed on in 1990—began performing his songs around Aberdeen and, later, in Olympia and Seattle. Taking the name Nirvana in 1987, the group released Bleach, which cost only $606.17 to record in 1989. Geffen Records signed the group two years later, and Cobain never fully recovered from the shock when Nirvana's next album, Nevermind, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and gave his generation an anthem, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song, full of verbal twists ("I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us"), startling guitar passages and Cobain's primal screams, made him a superstar overnight.
As poster boy for today's lost generation, Kurt turned his torn jeans and grungy T-shirts into an antifashion statement of punk alienation. His hacked blond hair, sometimes bleached or dyed pink, hung over his eyes, obscuring surprisingly sensitive good looks. In front of cameras, he mugged with a madhouse gleam in his eye, acting as if only a demented world would declare him "the voice of a generation." "Kurt was a poet," says Ray Manzarek, 59, the ex-Doors keyboardist who had watched Jim Morrison self-destruct 23 years earlier. "Kurt didn't speak for his generation. He spoke for himself. That's what poets do."
In performance, Cobain would jerk around the stage as if being electrocuted, attack the amps to create ear-splitting feedback and howl his sometimes disturbing anthems—"I was drawn into your magnet tar pit trap," he sings in "Heart Shaped Box," "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black"—into the microphone. But for all his onstage bravado, Cobain, who could laugh at his own ambivalence—"Teenage angst has paid off well," he sang in the opening cut of Nirvana's last album. In Utero—felt isolated and misunderstood. Early last month, when he was on tour in Germany, he telephoned his 52-year-old cousin Art Cobain in the middle of the night. "He said he was getting really fed up with his way of life," says Art, who hadn't seen Kurt since the singer was a child. "He really seemed to be reaching out. I invited him to our family reunion, but he never showed up."
In the end, not even Love, who had become the dominant person in his life, could reach out to Cobain. A child of divorce herself—her mom, Linda Carroll, is a well-known psychologist; she lost track of her father, Hank Harrison, who once published a book about the Grateful Dead—Love had formed her own punk band, Hole, by 1991 when she and Cobain began their cyclonic courtship. A former actress who used to dance in strip joints to make ends meet, Love, who has said "we bonded over pharmaceuticals," was pregnant by the end of the year. The couple wed in early 1992. Six months later Frances Bean was born, and Cobain appeared to have found an anchor. But in the end, neither the daughter he doted on nor even the numbness provided by heroin could help Cobain cope. And when the poet of pain became a suicide, it left family and fans grappling with troubling emotions of their own.
During an outdoor candlelight vigil held in Seattle five days after Cobain's death, thousands of fans listened as organizers played a tape recording of Courtney's angry reading of her husband's suicide note. One depressed 28-year-old fan in the crowd went home afterward and, like the rock idol he had gone to mourn, killed himself with a shotgun.
For Cobain's widow, despair turned to rage. Breaking down on the tape-recorded message, Courtney interrupted her reading and cursed herself for submitting Cobain to the "tough-love bulls—t." In a cracking voice she said, "He always said he was going to outlive everybody and live to be 120.... He such an asshole. I want all of you to yell 'asshole' really loud." Toward the end of the reading, she asked the assembled fans to chant. "Say 'You're a f—ker.' And then say that you love him."
While fans listened. Love herself was attending a memorial service for Cobain a few blocks away at the Unity Church of Truth. Hurriedly organized for family and friends, the service was attended by about 100 people, including Kurt's sister Kim, Don Cobain and Don's father, Leland. Heartbroken that she had been too ill to attend, Kurt's grandmother Iris told Bev Cobain, "Now I have no way of saying goodbye."
Dressed in black, Love read passages from the Bible and a portion of Cobain's suicide note. A message from R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe, a friend of Cobain's, was also read. Following the two-hour service, as a tape of songs by Cobain, the Beatles. Leadbelly and Iggy Pop played in the background, friends lingered and talked quietly among themselves, wondering aloud, as so many others were, "Why?"
"It's complicated and hard to figure out," says producer Endino, who attended the service. "Basically he was just a nice guy who didn't like fame. He was not your typical rock-star exhibitionist. The complete antithesis of David Lee Roth. He was happy to be making music and to get the hell out of Aberdeen. But how many rock icons blow themselves away aT the height of their fame?"
But on April 9, as she cradled Frances Bean in her arms during her walk by Lake Washington, Courtney couldn't consider such questions. Struggling to hold back her tears, she pointed to some birds swooping overhead. "The birds, Frances, look at the birds," Courtney said softly, her voice cracking. "Do you want to fly like the birds?"
JOHNNY DODD and BILL DONAHUE in Washington and CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles
- Johnny Dodd,
- Bill Donahue,
- Craig Tomashoff.
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