When I heard Kurt Cobain’s body had been found and that he had died from an apparent suicide, I was in Detroit on business. Television networks and other press were trying to track me down to interview me about his dying. I knew Kurt well, and he considered me a sort of big brother, who he sometimes called for advice, often marital. He knew I never wanted anything from him, which was rare in his world, and that created a nice, genuine, and non-pressuring friendship.
I didn’t want to talk to the media about this. I didn’t want to be one of those eager TV vultures on a branch, swooping down to peck on the motionless corpse. But then I decided I should do one interview, just to be on the record with a sober appraisal of a special, wonderful, fragile, and tortured man, who I had had the great pleasure to know, and the world had the great pleasure of his music. So CBS sent a cameraman to my hotel, and I sat across from an unmoving camera on a tripod, as an interviewer in New York asked me questions by phone, which I would then put down, out of shot, face the camera, and answer.
Kurt, I stressed, was a flawed man, but a genius, and a good person, who should neither be mythologized nor condemned but at this time remembered fondly and treated gently, and the sadness of the moment acknowledged.
I drove back to New York from Detroit that day, and that night stopped in Syracuse to sleep, and in my hotel room I wrote the following TOPSPIN editorial for our next issue, which we were reconstructing to be a tribute to Kurt.
— Bob Guccione Jr., founder of SPIN, December 29, 2015
[This editorial was originally published in the June 1994 issue of SPIN. In honor of SPIN‘s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, which concludes with the cover story from that same June ’94 issue.]
On a business trip to Seattle a couple of years ago, I arranged to meet Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love for dinner. I had met them in L.A. a few months earlier at Danny Goldberg and Rosemary Carroll’s house and now their office and mine made the arrangements for us to hook up again. When I arrived in Seattle, messages were waiting for me. Kurt had changed hotels and pseudonyms. I called the new place and the operator said no one by that name was registered. I said, are you sure? Sure he was sure. I tried the original code name. Same thing. I called Nirvana’s office, Kurt was definitely there, they told me. I called back and, frustrated, I said, I don’t understand, I’m supposed to meet Kurt Cobain and I’ve got this series of aliases for him but — and the operator interrupted and said, we have Mr. Cobain registered, and put me through. The world’s biggest rock star, as he was then — grunge’s Atlas with the youth world on his skinny shoulders — registered under his own name.
We eventually wound up in a pizza parlor, with a few of their friends from local bands, having first lost Kurt and Courtney who stopped to buy hats for everyone. Not just any hats, extraordinarily stupid ones, which Courtney wanted everyone to wear, and which only I and my girlfriend Karen politely declined. Kurt wore an oversize duck hunter’s checkered cap and, hunched forward from his lifelong back problems, he looked miserable. He wasn’t, but he looked it.
Later, we crossed town, in horse-drawn carriages, to a bar at the top of a hotel. Even though it was sub-freezing, Courtney had spotted this sad convoy passing the restaurant and ran out into the street to stop and hire them. More musicians had joined us by now, including Krist and Dave from Nirvana. The bar led onto the roof and a few of us went out for air. The night was crystal clear and black and the air was cold and rejuvenating. Everyone talked animatedly and nobody felt worse for wear.
At one point, I suddenly realized everyone but Karen, Kurt, and I had gone back in. Kurt was leaning on his arms against the roof ledge, absolutely still, staring out across Seattle. I went and stood next to him and started to talk to him. He seemed to be staring at a point way beyond the horizon. When I spoke, he looked straight at me. He had the most remarkable eyes of anyone I’ve ever met, with the same intensity I’ve seen in photographs of Picasso. An arresting, haunting light that shone from somewhere very deep and, now we know, very troubled.
When we went inside, back into the noise and smoke of the bar, Karen asked me, “What was he he looking at so intently?” I told her that I thought Kurt Cobain was looking for his life.
Tragically, he never found it. Possibly, it was right under his nose, but he couldn’t see it amongst the clutter he couldn’t understand. I came to know him well enough to tell you he was sincere and incredibly honest, to a fault. He spoke without thinking about the commercial consequences. The much ballyhooed Nirvana “backlash” that preceded and enveloped In Utero was the creation of those people Cobain disappointed by not acting the role of rock star. Hell, when you become as successful and gigantically important as he became, you’re not supposed to still be one of us. It’s offensive to some consumer aesthetic or other to try. He wasn’t supplying the requisite fantasy. He genuinely hated the success because he realized, with horror when he reached it, that it involved being an image other people wanted, no longer what he wanted.
That was the part of the job description no one could prepare a guy like Kurt for. He didn’t have the emotional structure to support the incredible weight of millions of people’s expectations. Every artist wants to matter as much as they possibly can, but most take so long to get to that position that they develop their sense of self and perspective on the way. Rock stars like Kurt are catapulted to positions of, frankly, exaggerated importance so quickly that they can no more handle themselves perfectly than an astronaut can calmly get out of his seat and walk around while his spaceship is being propelled into the sky.
His torment was real and so was his genius, another thing he didn’t understand, I believe. He lacked the ego of great genius, the self belief, not necessary to make you create, but essential for you to believe that you should, to sustain you through the travails of being different. It’s like a sealant. Kurt didn’t have that.
We should not, while memorializing him, glorify or in any way excuse that he took his own life, whatever his reasons, or the fact that he was a heroin addict who tried, unsuccessfully, to kick it. But it would be just as wrong to villainize or dismiss him as an irresponsible screw-up. He was a tragic man and we should feel for him, try to understand what we can never know. His death is a tragedy and we should pray that he now finds the peace that eluded him in life.
He was the poet of this generation, that was not an exaggeration. It will be easy in the coming months, especially for older people, to downplay Kurt’s significance and contribution but that will be wrong. Like Rimbaud, he died too young, lived too unflatteringly, and left too little compared to what we hoped for, but it was enough for him to be one of the pillars in the artistic pantheon. The horrible manner of his death and the degree of anger we feel because he destroyed something we loved so much creates a cultural blood clot. Previous generations’ heroes died mythical deaths. James Dean, Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin flew too close to the flame. Lennon was martyred. But Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. He pulled the plug on his pain and there’s nothing remotely romantic or mythical about that.
He loved his daughter, he loved Courtney; he must have hated himself and how lost he was, probably always was, more. Watching one of MTV’s umpteenth airings of Nirvana Unplugged the night after his body was discovered, I felt I was watching a ghost. He seemed that alive, that charismatic, simultaneously comfortable — swiveling side to side in his chair, wearing the sort of cardigan middle-aged people wear sitting in front of a log fire — and painfully uncomfortable, insecure in front of the audience. Just that, insecure. A musical genius, equal to anyone in the history of rock’n’roll, but more delicate, finally unluckier than most of his peers, singing how when bad folks die “they don’t go to heaven where the angels fly, they go to the lake of fire and fry,” oblivious to the irony that, in covering the Meat Puppets’ “Lake of Fire,” he was singing a twisted version of his own eulogy, or that this neutered format of acoustic grunge was the first opportunity for many people to understand the words he was singing, and see what a great and special light has gone out.