Kurt Cobain, 1994, and the End of Grunge


This post preceded the Endangered Left and appeared on Robert Lindsay’s “Beyond Highbrow” in summer, 2014. I’m re-posting it here with some editing, but it is not updated for “Montage of Heck”, which apparently is the definitive documentary on Kurt Cobain. Montage of Heck is scheduled for wide release in November of this year.

The 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death this past April was given some media attention, and this triggered untapped feelings in me. When he died I was not much bothered by it personally, although I was 20 at the time and liked Nirvana. But now that 20 years has gone by, I miss him and am finally grieving over his passing.

No one else has ever really represented me generationally. That’s not to say that Kurt Cobain was the spokesperson of a generation, as many have claimed over the years. Indeed, he was tagged with that title at the onset of his fame. After his death one prominent, media figure said that, at the least, he was his generation’s most somber, poet laurette. That’s closer to the truth, but American youth demographics had already been fragmented for decades. Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, and grunge did not appeal so much to blacks, Hispanics, and the whites that loved country music. But for those of us who had been turned on by punk rock and alternative rock in the 1980’s, Kurt Cobain became our ambassador to the mainstream. He was not a star – as his contemporaries Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, and Scott Leiland were – he was an icon that even his rival Eddie Vedder could not hold a flame to.

For a short time in the form of Seattle punk rock, my generation was given a voice, culturally. For Kurt Cobain however this was not such a sweet renaissance. For a number of reasons he took the extraordinary step of killing himself. For years those reasons stirred like a cauldron within him. Millions of fans were left wondering what those reasons really were, and how he got to that point. Over years of research the answers have surfaced; it happened in 8 weeks which swiftly spiraled out of control.*

Up through December of 1993 things had been about as usual as they could be for Kurt Cobain (if his life could ever have been described as usual). For months he had been stoked on the record he made with his band. As Nirvana’s songwriter Kurt saw it as artistic vindication over their groundbreaking “Nevermind” album, which he had been dissatisfied with. As a proud punk rocker who obsessed over artistic integrity, Kurt had been self-critical over anything that could be preceived as “selling out”. He was irritated over the slick production of Nevermind and for this reason didn’t see his songs as having stood on their own, true merit.

When Nevermind’s follow up, “In Utero”, came out in the fall of 1993, Kurt seemed as close to content or stable as he’d been since childhood.** After years of abuse on his psyche and body however his strength was sapping by year’s end.*** Still, as the “In Utero” tour careened through America into the new year, his spirits remained up in the promotion of the album. The final US tour dates, on the 7th and 8th of January, found him in his hometown of Seattle, and by all reports he was in a good mood.

Little has been reported on the details of his life in January, 1994, but we do know he was having trouble settling into a mansion he and his wife, Courtney Love, had just purchased. As someone who was use to being homeless, living in a tour van, living in his car, crashing at a friend’s pad or in a motel room, or, most luxuriously, having a small apartment he’d trash, it was obvious that Kurt was giving up his proud punk rock badge for his love, Courtney, who wanted to cash it out for celebrity posh. Consequently, drugs became an exacerbated problem for him again, and it was in this state of things that he went off touring on a grind which felt like business, and nothing more.****

Within 48 hours of his arriving in Europe, Kurt had a meltdown and already wanted to return home. He regained his composure, but as week one turned into week two, something began to go seriously awry.

In the accumulation of stress brought on by fame, the obligations his career necessitated, and the additional responsibilities that came with being a new father and husband, Kurt in the past year had grown more dependent on heroin. All this was in addition to the litany of medical problems he had suffered over the years – from scoliosis to agonizing stomach pains – all of which led him to use heroin to begin with. Now this time, his heroin dependency was exploding in his face. Stuck in Europe with little recourse to sustain his habit, drug withdrawal ensued. Hard drug withdrawal by itself can be excruciating, and for Kurt, it was. His health issues added only more potency to it, as he could not dull their symptoms without the heroin.

Meanwhile, it was becoming undeniable to Kurt that Courtney was falling out of love with him. Kurt had a profound love for Courtney, but she saw him as choosing heroin over her. To add insult to injury, he caught wind that she was having an affair. In phone calls to each other from overseas, they already had not been getting along. Now the fighting intensified.

Signs of desperation peppered dates leading up to Kurt’s demise. The band’s photo shoot on February 13th was made unnerving by Kurt’s antics. On February 25th, and again on the 27th, Kurt requested to end the tour (he was rebuffed outright by band and management). On March 1st, after playing in Munich, Kurt quit the tour.

On March 4th, while on break in Italy, Kurt intentionally overdosed on a massive amount of Rohypnol, and although it didn’t kill him, it probably left him brain damaged. Back in Seattle, on March 18th Courtney called the cops claiming Kurt was threatening suicide. Officers were dispatched to the Cobain residence where they confiscated Kurt’s guns along with a bottle of unidentified pills. On March 25th a heavy intervention was staged by Kurt’s band, management, wife, and best friend. The band threatened to disband, and Courtney threatened to walk out on him with their two year old daughter, Frances. March 30th saw him checking into Exodus Recovery Center, in Los Angeles. Then, on the evening of April 1st, Kurt escaped Exodus and took the next flight back to Seattle. For the next 3 days Kurt wandered around Seattle on a heroin binge. Then on the 5th of April, he went back home where he secluded himself in an obscure room, and he shot himself.

* http://www.guitarworld.com/nirvana-final-scream A fuller account of those 8 weeks.
* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9UeDXEqY-A A personal account of his life in 1994. ** http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/kurt-cobain-the-rolling-stone-interview-19940127 Junkies lie and exaggerate. Nonetheless, he was in a better space in 1993 than in, at least, the preceding few years. *** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJtm9HomKdE Commentary is based on Observation 101. **** In spite of having nearly a month to regroup before the start of Nirvana’s European tour, Kurt resisted going as it neared, but the pressures of rock stardom cajoled him into it.

Postscript, 7/31/15: The author no longer believes the account above.