Hardly Nirvana

updated 03/21/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1994 01:00AM

THE STORY HAD A FAMILIAR RING: A young rock star with a history of drug abuse is felled by an accidental overdose in a European hotel room. Kurt Cobain, 27, the iconoclastic lead singer of the breakthrough grunge band Nirvana, had checked into Suite 541 of Rome's Excelsior Hotel on March 2 for a much-needed respite in the midst of the band's world lour. The next day Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, 28, lead singer of the neopunk band Hole, flew in from London to join him, putting up their daughter Frances Bean, 1½, and the child's nanny in the suite next door. That evening, Cobain and Love ordered a small dinner from room service and settled in for the night. Bothered by chronic throat pain and flu symptoms that had forced him to cancel two shows in Germany the previous week, Cobain took a combination of the prescription drug Rohypnol, a Valium-like tranquilizer available in Europe, and chlorylhydrate, a prescription anesthetic. Then, though he rarely drinks, he shared some champagne with Love, whom he hadn't seen in a month.

That was all it took. By the time Love awoke the next morning at about 5:30, Cobain was lying on the floor near the bed in a coma. At first it looked as if Cobain had ventured down the same path of self-destruction that had claimed such earlier rock icons as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. In fact, at least one early report had him dead.

Fortunately for Cobain, that report was greatly exaggerated. After being rushed to Rome's Umberto I Polyclinic Hospital, Cobain had his stomach pumped and was transferred to Rome American Hospital, where he regained consciousness later that afternoon. "He was overwhelmed," says Love, by the volume of cards and flowers he received from fans. He was discharged four days later. Said Osvaldo Galletta, the doctor who treated him: "He was in a life-threatening condition when he arrived, but now he's in good shape."

Ironically, the incident occurred at a time when Cobain seemed to be more at peace with himself than he had been in years. When he and Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl propelled their roiling guitars and slurred lyrics into the mainstream in 1991 with the album Nevermind—which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide—and its hit single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Cobain seemed a man on the edge. Known for his screaming vocals and onstage guitar-smashing, the singer often acted out offstage as well, making threatening phone calls to unauthorized biographers, trashing other bands' music and even mocking segments of Nirvana's audience.

Much of his anger, Cobain has said, is a legacy of his childhood in the logging town of Aberdeen, Wash. His parents divorced when he was 8, and his preference for music and art over sports made him an outcast and a punching bag for the town's jocks. Years later, as Nirvana went from northwest cult band to global megaband, Cobain nursed his image as a tortured artist, a brooding recluse furious at being sucked into the mainstream he had always railed against. Called the spokesperson for the twenty something generation, Cobain declared in 1992, "I don't want to be no f—king spokesperson."

Both Cobain and Love had also battled heroin addiction, which jeopardized custody of their daughter when child-welfare authorities suspected they were using during Love's pregnancy. They have admitted they used the drug, but Love says she did not use it after discovering she was pregnant, and Cobain says he quit soon after. (The baby was born healthy.) "I knew that when I had a child I'd be overwhelmed, and it's true," Cobain told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "I can't tell you how much my attitude has changed since we've got Frances. Holding my baby is the best drug in the world."

Michael Azerrad, author of the 1993 book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, credits Love with bringing about the changes in Cobain. "Contrary to popular belief, Courtney is actually a very good influence, especially in terms of substance abuse and things like that," he says. "I think getting married and having a child really did wonders for him. He's pretty intensely in love with Courtney, and he loves his baby."

By midweek, Cobain and Love were back in their new home in Seattle overlooking Lake Washington. In a statement released to concert promoters, the band announced it was postponing its remaining European concerts, explaining, "Kurt Cobain will recover fully from last week's incident. However, he will need time to recuperate." But Nirvana will go on. Said a source close to the group: "The incident, if anything, brings the band closer together."

CYNTHIA SANZ
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles, GABRIELLE SAVERI in Rome and VICKIE BANE in Seattle

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