Joyless in Seattle

updated 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

KRISTEN PFAFF HAD THE U-HAUL LOADED and was planning to leave for Minneapolis the next day. The year she had spent in Seattle as a member of Courtney Love's band, Hole, had brought professional success—the group's newly released album, Live Through This, received rave reviews—but no happiness. She had made few friends in the city, and the April 5 suicide of Love's husband, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, had greatly upset her. She longed to get back to Minneapolis, where she had got her musical start and where many of her friends still lived.

On the evening of June 15, after packing her belongings, Pfaff decided to take a bath. She quickly fell asleep in the tub; a friend, Paul Erickson, could hear her snoring. At 9:30 the next morning, Erickson discovered the bathroom door still locked. After knocking and getting no response, he kicked down the door. Pfaff was kneeling in the nearly empty tub, with syringes and drug paraphernalia in a purse on the floor.

Police have yet to rule officially on the cause of death, pending the results of laboratory tests. But it seemed clear that the frequently self-destructive grunge-music demimonde had claimed another victim. Love, 30, who, like her husband, has a history of heroin abuse, joined her band mates in pronouncing themselves "deeply anguished" over Pfaffs death. But to many people in Seattle the tragedy was not entirely shocking. "It's scary," says Tom Price, a friend of Pfaff's and a guitarist for the Seattle band Gas Huffer. "There are a lot of drugs, a lot of bad luck. It's a dangerous time to be a musician here."

Pfaff came to the grunge scene in a rather roundabout fashion. She was born and raised in Amherst, N.Y., the same affluent suburb of Buffalo where O.J. Simpson once lived. She showed flashes of musical talent, studying classical piano from the age of 5. An excellent student, she attended Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic girls' school, and then Boston College. She later switched to the University of Minnesota, then settled in Minneapolis, where she took a position doing computer graphics for a bank. "It was a job she was not qualified for," says her father, Norm, a salesman who is divorced from Kristen's mother, Janet, a trucking company-executive. "But she really wanted it, and she was so confident that she got the job and learned it on the spot.

She also began teaching herself to play bass guitar, which she pursued with characteristic zeal. She hooked up with two young Minneapolis musicians, Joachim Breuer and Matt Entsminger, and formed a trio called Janitor joe. "Kristen was an incredibly driven person," says Breuer, 28. "Whatever she set her mind to, she could accomplish."

Janitor Joe steadily built a reputation and in 1993 was on a swing of the California club circuit when Pfaff was spotted by Love and Eric Erlandson, who were looking for a bassist for their own group, Hole. Pfaff, who loved living in Minneapolis, was unsure whether to accept their offer. "She agonized over that decision for a long time," says her father. "Janitor Joe was just gelling rolling, but she recognized the opportunity of being in a successful band on a big label."

It didn't take long for Pfaff to regret her choice. Among other things, she discovered, much as Cobain did, that success in the music business often carries as many burdens as rewards. "Everything became less spontaneous," says Norm Pfaff. "She didn't want to be caught up in the machine."

It isn't clear when Pfaff got involved with hard drugs. Her younger brother Jason, 19, is convinced that her problem emerged when she arrived in Seattle, where heroin has become a staple on the grunge scene. "Seattle was not a good place for her," says her mother. "She hated it there." When Kristen talked to Breuer the evening of her death, she sounded relieved to be getting away. "She was as chipper and happy as she'd ever been."" says Breuer. ""She said she couldn't wait to gel back to Minneapolis."

But that was not to be. When her body was returned to her hometown for burial last week, Geffen Records contacted the Pfaff family and said that Kristen's band mates would like to attend the funeral. Kristen's mother, who rejected the request, would just as soon forget that part of her daughter's life. "I don't know what's going on in that Seattle scene," says Janet, "but there's something wrong, terribly wrong."

BILL HEWITT
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Buffalo, KURT PITZER in Seattle and MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis

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