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Nirvana: The 1994 Cover Story on Kurt Cobain’s Death, ‘Into the Black’

Kurt Cobain

This article was originally published in the June 1994 issue of SPIN.  

Seattle bid goodbye to Kurt Cobain on April 10 in true grunge-rock style, bursting the ranks of a quickly organized public vigil and leaping into the nearby international fountain, a giant, water-spouting structure some 50 yards wide and ten feet deep that flanks the Flag Pavilion. As the hastily erected loudspeaker system played the song “Serve the Servants,” an estimated 5,000 kids poured over the statue, plugging up the spigots, lifting their middle fingers to the skies, and howling with gleeful rage. Weeping girls wore beauty pageant banners around their middles, made out of the plastic yellow, “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” tape, the same kind of tape which, three days earlier, had criss-crossed the driveway to Cobain and Courtney Love’s home. Shirtless boys with the letters k-u-r-d-t dripped on their skins in melted wax — in several cases, in scabbed-over razor cuts — stood atop the fixture, moshing to the music, tossing one another onto the loving arms of the masses below, and, in perhaps the ultimate gesture of complete disdain for the media, burning their flannel shirts.

It was a truly awesome moment of spontaneous, pagan catharsis. And if there was any doubt in Cobain or his detractors’ minds that Nirvana’s core audience did not understand his message — that they were, as Cobain himself once worried in the liner notes of Incesticide, at bottom, redneck, metal-headed morons with no sense of his message — the vigil at Seattle Center dispelled that notion forever. As the sun set over Seattle and the loudspeaker poured out Nirvana songs, the crowd led itself in one final chant, directed at Cobain’s spirit. Gleeful, defiant, anarchic, and funny, the word that they shouted — the denial that Cobain had asked them for — was “asshole.” Asshole, asshole, asshole.

And as the word wafted upward on wax-covered winds, mingling with the horrid smell of cotton candy, hippie incense, and candle smoke, one couldn’t help but feel that, if there is a God, then somewhere Cobain was smiling, because the little girls — and the little boys — had understood. “The fact is, I can’t fool any of you,” Cobain had said in his suicide note, which had been broadcast to this ecstatic crowd a half-hour earlier via a powerful, obscenity-laced statement read by a weeping Courtney Love, who characterized the note as “a letter to the fuckin’ editor.” The note read, in part, “I feel guilty beyond years that the manic roar of the crowd doesn’t affect me as much as it did Freddie Mercury. Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out onstage. I’ve tried everything to appreciate it and I do. God, believe me, I do… thank you from the pit of my burning nauseous stomach for your concern and your letters during the last years.”

Love interrupted her reading several times to cast asides at Cobain’s comments, calling him an asshole (a word she asked the crowd to repeat, which they did), a “fucker,” a “sad sensitive unappreciative Pisces-Jesus man,” and the note itself “bullshit.” “The fact is I can’t fool you,” Cobain wrote, “any one of you. The worst crime is faking it.” Love, in a voice soaked with tears, replied, “No, the worst crime is leaving.” Cobain’s life ended abruptly, a violently rendered period mark to a brief, enraged, but ultimately beautiful era, this bohemian oasis of proud and negative self-assertion that the world has titled “grunge.” The world, Horace Walpole once said, “is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel.” For Cobain, a man who did both so heart-wrenchingly effectively, that tragedy is now over. For the rest of us, the end has come much too soon.

And that it was an end was a certainty. Anyone who had any doubts about that was certainly disenchanted of them by the end of the long weekend beginning on April 8. That was the day that news of Cobain’s death, by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, flashed ’round the globe, born on the incredibly swift path created by sheer misery. As reports came in, a miasma of hard-to-quantify grief settled on the city, imbuing entire neighborhoods, perfectly visible on the wet and impassive faces of the combat-booted denizens of Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

As the day wore on and night fell on Seattle, those same kids began making the trek out Lake Washington Boulevard to Viretta Park, a small open space adjacent to the Cobain home. The house itself is enshrouded by bushes, including a camellia tree in full flower which, by morning, had been denuded of its blooms. By Friday night, the road itself was crawling with police and media. Burly guys in security jackets — guys who’ve probably had the same role at Nirvana concerts — guarded the driveway, which was criss-crossed with police banners. Television trucks with mobile transmitters jutting up through the trees flanked the narrow roadside. Powerful lights beat down on helmet-haired news anchors, each of whom was voraciously exploiting the grief of every tear-stained face they could lasso into appearing as instant “talent.”

Across the road, Michelle and Paul, two fans, were standing, silently surveying the scene. They said they were disgusted. “This is so terrible,” said Michelle. “He hated publicity. He was shy.” Michelle was clutching a drooping sunflower. Her boyfriend, Paul, had some poems in his hand, including one called “Intoxicate My Castle,” which is dedicated to “Kurdt and Courtney Spungeon.” Presently, the two walked up the hill to a gap in the bushes, from which you could see the green house where Cobain had taken his life. A security guard placed at the gap in the hedge approached them with a flashlight. “Would you like to lay those here?” he asked kindly, flashing a beam on a patch of ground already containing similar offerings. Michelle gave him a baleful stare. The security guard abruptly turned the beam off and backed away gently. “Or would you like to kinda do your own thing?”

Kurt Cobain / Photo by Juergen Teller/Outline

Meanwhile, over the hill, many of the core members of Seattle’s scene were gathered at Linda’s Tavern, a bar co-owned by Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt. The crowd included lots of out-of-towners, who had coincidentally flown in for Sub Pop’s sixth anniversary on Saturday night. People were talking and laughing like usual, albeit in an almost hysterical, falsely elated fashion. The undercurrents were surprisingly rough: Cobain himself had been drinking here just one week before. In this milieu, the misery was intensified by what made it famous in the first place: the surprisingly enduring, close-knit nature of the musical community here. Local music rep Pat Riley summed it up when, at some point during the tired evening he mouthed, “How’s it going” across the counter to the sad-faced singer for Gas Huffer. “Really shitty,” was the reply. Pat nodded wistfully, and lifted his glass. “Well,” he said, nodding across the bar, “here’s to tomorrow.”

We’re still alive, you see. But do we deserve to be? Subsequent events really did make me wonder. Did we, for instance, not realize the seriousness of the situation before it happened? Was there something any of us could have done? Apparently not. I, for instance, have had one laugh in 48 hours and it was an exceedingly black one: As a colleague and I stared, horrified, at an early Friday morning AP wire report announcing the discovery of a dead body on the Cobain property which was described as being a “white blond male in its mid-20s,” she turned to me and said in a voice fraught with high hopes, “Maybe it’s Beck.”

It was the kind of remark Cobain himself might have appreciated, the sort of easy cynicism which Sub Pop bands and fans revel in. But in fact, cruel humor aside, my colleague and I both knew at the time that odds were high that the “it” was indeed Cobain. Somehow, the idea of a late Kurt Cobain, though shockingly sad, was hardly surprising. Perhaps we’d been psychologically prepared for it by things he had sung. “Look on the bright side is suicide,” he sings on In Utero. And, “You can’t fire me because I quit / Throw me in the fire, and I won’t throw a fit.” Or perhaps we were forewarned by the more subtle indicator that was his obvious psychic pain, so perfectly realized artistically on Nirvana’s four records.

The fact was, I and many other rock critics had been tracking stories on Nirvana all week, including the band’s inexplicably dutiful agreement to change the album cover of In Utero for acceptance at the Wal-Mart chain, their withdrawal from the Lollapalooza tour, and, finally, some faintly rumored allegations of a breakup.

All three issues paled into insignificance with the news that on April 8, the body of Cobain had been found in his Seattle home, lifeless, by an electrician named Gary Smith. A one-page suicide note, penned in red ink, was found on a shelf less than ten feet from where Cobain lay. He had fired one shot into his left temple.

It quickly became known that Cobain had been missing since the previous Monday, when his mother, Wendy O’ Connor, filed a missing person report with the Seattle police — a report which described him as “armed with a shotgun and possibly suicidal.”

The saga unfolded from there. We learned that Cobain’s March 6 pill-and-alcohol overdose in Rome was, in fact, a suicide attempt, complete with a note, and covered up as such by his publicity agents. Two weeks later, on March 18, we discovered that police had been called to the Cobain household by Love, who, according to the police report, told them that her husband was locked in a room with his guns and threatening to kill himself. According to the report, Cobain emerged from the room and denied that he was contemplating suicide. Police confiscated four guns, 25 rounds of ammunition, and a bottle of unidentified pills. But Cobain was still in possession of a shotgun.

Ten days later, Love allowed a counsellor to lead an “intervention,” which resulted in Cobain being placed in a drug treatment center in Marina Del Rey. But Cobain escaped and for six days was MIA. Until April 8.

On that Friday afternoon, the media descended on SeaTac. It was as if Tonya Harding had suddenly reappeared in full spangly regalia, brandishing a billy club and raring to go. Pretty soon it became clear that the television and print journalists divided themselves into two informal camps. The first camp — led by A Current Affair, who immediately offered electrician Smith $1,500 for an “exclusive” — was going for the “inside story,” i.e., looking for tiny tie-ups to the messy story’s loose ends. They wanted to know where Cobain had spent the past four days; why Love had spent the last two weeks in Los Angeles rather than Seattle, and so on. By and large, this group was hampered by the fact that it had no inside connections whatsoever.

Cobain in Cork, Ireland, August 1991 / Photo by Ed Sirrs/Retna

The second group — a group that can be defined by its knowledge of Sub Pop publicist Nils Bernstein’s home phone number — had less interest (or less optimism) about getting the “real” story, and so spent its time reporting on side issues — the number of calls to a suicide hotline; the amount by which record sales were increasing — and interviewing each other. (I myself was called a “source” by numerous publications, including a critic from a Seattle paper who asked me what effect I thought Cobain’s death would have on the Seattle scene. Since I reside in California, I didn’t feel qualified to answer.)

Nutty as it sounds, however, that paper had an excuse, since legitimate sources were pretty damn scarce. On Friday, Sub Pop Records, in the Terminal Sales building downtown, was besieged by reporters, none of whom got past the receptionist’s icy “no comment.” Geffen Records Northwest representative Susie Tennant simply abandoned her office for the day. On Saturday, Bernstein received 63 calls on his home phone — despite having an unlisted number.

Many of those calls were begging invitations to Sub Pop’s party — a place which would have been a singularly inappropriate venue for any kind of hard reporting. There, on Saturday night, friends, band members, and employees of Sub Pop took refuge together, evincing once again Sub Pop’s wonderfully strong sense of community. The party took place at the Crocodile Club, and featured performances by several young Sub Pop bands, including Sunny Day Real Estate and Pond, and an incomplete performance by VelocityGirl, whose singer, Sarah Shannon, seemed emotionally unable to finish the set.

Again, as at Linda’s Tavern, the audience exhibited similar brief moments of instability. Otherwise cheerful conversations would be punctuated with sudden hugs. Tears occasionally came to the surface. Midway through the proceedings, Sub Pop’s co-owner, Jonathan Poneman, visibly shaken, took the stage to welcome his guests. “You guys are our family,” he said. “Being here tonight is the best possible way of celebrating Kurt’s life and his true spirit… Nirvana has had a hugely positive effect on all of us. We should remember and celebrate the positive things about Kurt Cobain.”

And we should. Because in the thought-free frenzy for angles, scandals, scoops, the real story about Cobain has been criminally misplaced. The fact, for example, that Cobain was clinically depressed — a fact that is self-evident from his actions, and a condition that ran in his family (two of his uncles also committed suicide) — has been overlooked in favor of stories about his symbolic importance; his cultural placement alongside John Lennon; his life as a cliché. The questions of how long he had been depressed — it seems like every song he wrote on Nevermind and In Utero gave clues to his state of mind — and what steps had been taken to help him, are almost pointless now. His life is over, and we can’t have him back.

What still matters most is, as Nirvana’s bassist Novoselic pointed out in his eulogy, his music and his spirit; the way he touched people, the way he moved them into a frenzy of love and sympathetic anger.

This is the aspect of Cobain’s life — the most public, the deepest, and the least changeable — that best bears scrutiny. Public safety experts often decry suicides like Cobain’s because they say it sets a bad example for his fans. On the contrary, I believe that beneath Cobain’s clearly stated ambivalence toward life there was a burning core of positivity that expressed itself not in his sad lifetime, or in his incredibly painful death, but in the wide-ranging influence he had on other people. We’ll never know how many lives his music has actually saved and will continue to save, but I bet you anything it’s more than a few.

They always say that after the anger and the grief comes acceptance, a sort of post-storm calm when everything finally settles. And so, as the kids at Seattle Center sent their sweat and their tears up to heaven on that cold April night last month, the clouds over Seattle began, both literally and figuratively, to lift. W.H Auden wrote, “Harrow the house of the dead / Look shining at / New styles of architecture / A change of heart.” That is what Kurt would have wanted.