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Five Moving Passages From Nick Soulsby’s ‘The Oral History of Nirvana’

The full book hits shelves on March 31

On March 31, Nick Soulsby will release his new book, I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana. While the volume as a whole consists of interviews with friends and colleagues who knew and worked with the band, this excerpt in Esquire chronicles the going-ons within the band’s final tour, where Kurt Cobain was very clearly dealing with a worsening drug addiction and depression. It’s quite a long read, but we’ve assembled five especially moving passages. Read the full excerpt here

1. Kurt Cobain truly believed that, as photographer Youri Lenquette puts it, “the people around him didn’t like him.” 

YOURI LENQUETTE: There was some kind of destructive logic in him at the time. He believed the people around him didn’t like him—which totally wasn’t the case! From being on tour with Nirvana, seeing how they acted with him, they were really good people . . . The fact that he couldn’t connect to these people anymore was a sign of depression . . . I have good memories of that session—I didn’t feel there was any tension. It was just friends having drinks and shooting photos. It wasn’t tense. But with depression you feel good some moments, then the very next day you’re back to a negative way of thinking—it’s not all one or the other. He didn’t hate them, it wasn’t a conflict, but my impression was he was brooding on this idea that nobody loved him, building up something not based in reality. It was just him; his whole way of seeing things was very dark . . . He didn’t look well, he was in bad health mainly fueled by the use of drugs.

2. Buzzcocks guitarist Steve Diggle recounts how, at one point on tour, Cobain was messing around with a gun.

STEVE DIGGLE: He had a gun at the French gig—was pointing it out the window at the journalists. I was up in the dressing room thinking, What’s he doing? Didn’t know if it was a plastic gun or a real gun, to be honest. There was a whole bunch of stairs up to the dressing room at the Zenith—I’d been meeting some friends of mine so I’m milling around where the journalists were and I looked up and thought, Fuck, he’s got a gun up there! He was pointing down at them. I headed upstairs and he was kneeling down by the window. I enjoyed that—it was great, funny.

3. It wasn’t immediately obvious that Cobain was suffering. According to Diggle, “one day he’d be quiet, other times he’d be animated. Everyone gets like that on tours — you didn’t detect anything heavy.”

STEVE DIGGLE: He was up and down on the tour—one day he’d be quiet, other times he’d be animated. Everyone gets like that on tours—you didn’t detect anything heavy. There’s a bit of video somewhere: I’m walking to the stage, he walks out [of] his dressing room and walks with me all the way to the stage—together. He was such a lovely guy, like they all were. All of them had learned something from punk rock and he’d taken it into this era—and he was true to it. There’s a lot of inspiring things about the heaviness of what he was saying. They weren’t there to be fucking bought. I thought he was sticking to his beliefs—heavy-duty, real things. Maybe dark and intense but real—we couldn’t see where it was ending. 

4. Cobain had to pile on the makeup during photo shoots due to his poor health.  

YOURI LENQUETTE: He ended up wearing a lot of makeup because he had things on his skin as a result of his bad health and his bad habits. I told him straight, “It’s going to look really bad.” He agreed but I had to tell him I didn’t have any makeup in the studio. My girlfriend happened to be a mixed-race girl, so he asked, “Can she lend it to me?” So he went into the makeup room, started putting it on without an assistant and, after a while, I go in. He’s looking like Al Jolson! My girlfriend’s skin was a light chocolate color; he has all this makeup made for her skin tone all over his face. I had to say it: “Come on Kurt, it looks ridiculous, we can’t use it.”

5. Cobain’s friends were well aware of his struggles. Below, Lenquette describes wishing that Kurt would “tell me the reality of things.” 

YOURI LENQUETTE: Like most people who take drugs, at some point they lie to you because they know what you’re going to say . . . It was obvious, I could see what was going on, I had proof of what was going on, but it was difficult to have a real discussion because he’d never tell me the reality of things. In 1994 he lied about having an addiction when, at that time, he really was addicted . . . You couldn’t have a real discussion, though—he really was in denial. It’s hard dealing with people when they just don’t want to tell you. If I asked him he didn’t even try to deny it but it was always the same: “Yeah, well, but just these last three days.” He would tell you he was doing good in some sense even when you knew that wasn’t the case—it’s a key symptom in a way, someone trying to tell you not to worry and that they know what they’re doing.