NFC Nirvana Information Articles and Interviews "No Recess"

"No Recess"

The Rocket magazine - 4/5/95

Kurt Cobain's Year of Rest Without Peace

By Jeff Pike

Kurt Cobain's life ended, by his own hand, in the afternoon or early evening of Tuesday, April 5, 1994. Everything in this story happened later.

"You're going to owe me some pretty good Pink Floyd tickets for this one," a voice told KXRX's Marty Reimer at about 9:40 on the morning of Friday, April 8, 1994. It was the dispatcher for a local electric contractor, responding to reports from employee Gary Smith who had caught a glimpse of a body through a window at the house in Denny-Blaine where he was installing a security system, calling in to notify the media after calling the police.

Thus was the world ushered into a world without Kurt Cobain. In many ways nothing could have been more appropriate. Welcome to the '90s. If Nevermind didn't push you blissfully into the Endtimes Decade, Kurt Cobain's suicide dragged you kicking and screaming. Already, for better or worse, April 8, 1994 is a day as indelibly branded into the memories of millions as November 22, 1963, August 16, 1977, or December 8, 1980. People remember where they were, what they were doing, how they felt, and what others said with an astonishing clarity. And the year since Cobain's death has only served to emphasize the scope of his impact and his self-inflicted death. On one level, people will not stop talking and arguing about it, and for good reason. As the old saw goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and not even monkeys typing randomly could have created a story as bizarre as the death of Kurt Cobain, riddled as it is with weird coincidence, aching drama, and shocking bolts of emotion. Among other things, it turned out to be a pretty damn good test of computerdom's much ballyhooed information highway, as people around the world turned to their keyboards and their modems to express their sadness, their outrage, their anger.

And they're still at it. On the Internet and America Online and other points electronic, much band-width continues to be sacrificed to Cobain and Nirvana and Courtney Love--home pages and folders all over the place. The Internet news groups (alt.music.nirvana and alt.fan.courtney-love) are enormously active, with dozens of postings every day (of which, sadly, only a very few are actually interesting).

On America Online, Courtney Love has become something like cyber royalty, with a series of flaming posts that may or may not have originated from her (verifying authors of computer postings is still virtually impossible.) Whoever wrote them, they're not for the faint of heart:

"...i had a block on my phone 'unless my husband calls' i cannot stress the importance i placed on that last statement--i checked every shift--every few hours--so at 8:54 he called from our phone-for over 6 minutes he tried to get through my block. If you knew him, trust me its hard to imagine Kurt arguing w/anyone for six minutes, but he did, and he failed, all i can think is that he thought my block was for him-that i blocked HIM...i imagine him sitting on our bed, just thinking, she's not even taking my calls, ok, that's it. I'm gonna do it. and he did. i hate that Hotel, its nothing but flies, whores entwined w/Spelling look-alikes-they just used my photo in an LA Times piece to emphasize they're 'glamorous' image--its sick-okay there's a thousand reasons--but I know him and that is the big one. 8:54am... 8:54am... 8:54am.... as for the other i couldn't have sex if i wanted too, unless your in the mood to be called Kurt the whole time, 8:54am.... those pigs..."

This message was posted on America Online on July 28 by someone calling themselves "CMLC."

At the same time, there are plenty of people who want everyone to just shut up about the whole thing. They continue trying to cast Kurt's final exit as little more than a minor blip, a relatively uninteresting tabloid story in a year of great tabloid stories. I have been continually surprised by the people who earnestly buttonhole me to insist that Cobain was nothing--he was no Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix (overlooking the fact that the period of fame for all three was the same), let alone John Lennon or Elvis Presley--he was dirty, he was noisy, he was annoying, he was just a bad kid with a bad attitude (this from the principal of his former high school), he was a drug addict, he killed himself, for God's sake, he abandoned his wife and baby. Perhaps critic Greil Marcus best caught this willful looking away from the scope of Cobain's achievement and tragedy when he noted the coverage it garnered on the radio: "On Your Favorite Oldies, Best of the '70s, Lite Rock, not to mention country, adult-contemporary or hip-hop stations, Kurt Cobain didn't die, and neither was he ever born."

Or perhaps Erik Lacitis--the Seattle Times columnist who wrote an insensitive piece on Kurt's death some five days after the discovery of the body arguing that Cobain should have been happy because he was rich-- spoke best for those who had no sympathy or understanding. Today he says: "It seems longer ago than a year now, for some reason. I think that's because things happen fast in our modern digital world, and things just kept coming along to replace it, like O.J."

Then Lacitis pauses for a moment, and asks, in a tone of baffled sincerity: "Is there really still that much interest in Kurt Cobain?"

That's a good question to address. We all remember April last year, the month that wouldn't end: The bawling fans, the stupefied movers and shakers, the clueless media, tabloid and "legitimate" alike ("What was the name of their hit? How many were in the band?" more than one television reporter desperately needed to know), the horrifying four-color image of Cobain's body splashed across the front page of the Seattle Times, the public memorial service that turned into a riot of joy and grief, the Newsweek cover only three days after the discovery of the body, the news of the arrest of Courtney Love on drug charges in Beverly Hills and the release of her band's album, Live Through This (the promotion for which included a haunting before-the-fact cover story in Spin) Andy Rooney and Rush Limbaugh in a dead-heat foot race for who could miss the point the most completely, MTV broadcasts of Nirvana's "Unplugged" set practically every hour on the hour.

But did April really end in May? Not necessarily, particularly if you're looking at the trail of money left in Kurt's wake. Billboard chart action in 1994, which, granted, all too often operated like a gemstone setting for movie soundtracks such as The Lion King, nonetheless indicated steady sales, the ever-popular "legs," for all of Nirvana's albums, and a respectable, if not overwhelming, showing by Unplugged, released seven months after Cobain's death. If they were ever off the charts, they were never far away. Meanwhile, Hole's Live Through This, after a sluggish start, went gold before the end of the year.

Books about Cobain did well too. Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are, published six months before Cobain's death, has now sold 115,000, according to Azerrad; good figures for a rock biography. During the summer, at his own request, Azerrad quietly added a final chapter. "It was just such an unfinished story," he says. "It sounds stupid but I did it for the fans. I'd made the book as thorough as possible and it seemed there should be a period on the end of the sentence. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but it was kind of therapeutic, frankly." Azerrad says he was approached several times by various producers and agents about selling the movie rights, but turned them all down flat.

Seattle's Dave Thompson, whose quickie paperback Never Fade Away was rushed to market so fast you might have noticed the sonic boom--it was published April 29--was also approached about selling the movie rights. He says he also turned down all offers. "The aggravation the movie would have caused would have been too much," he says. A lot of confusion exists on this point generally: To protect themselves legally, most film producers will move a story toward development only when it is attached to a literary property whose rights they own, but nonfiction remains a gray area. While it's clear who owns the rights to Cobain's songs and even to his image, it's hard to say who "owns" the rights to his story.

Thompson says his book has sold a remarkable 200,000 copies and defends his choice to make a potboiler by saying, "If I didn't do it, someone else would. I think I saved the world some really terrible books." Thompson, a British native, has written dozens of other quickie paperbacks.

A third Cobain book came along toward the end of the year. Written by "the editors of Rolling Stone," Cobain collected practically every word Rolling Stone ever dedicated to Cobain (all post-1992 it seemed). Word is that it did better than expected, which is likely in the range of 50,000.

Sales promotions have happened in a relatively hushed atmosphere, particularly within Cobain's record label. "It's a very, very fine line that we're walking," says DGC publicist Jim Merlis of the approach taken to marketing Nirvana product, "and everyone in the company knows it." The result of their understandable hesitation to be perceived as exploiting a dead rock star--in spite of a market that's hungry for product--has been that releases by Nirvana (and, for a time, Hole, though that now seems to have changed) have seen minimal promotion, which can be summed up essentially as, "Here it is now." Period.

For a time there was talk of making Unplugged a double-CD set with a disc of concert tracks. Merlis says that plan was scuttled last summer. "Dave (Grohl) and Krist (Novoselic) and Scott Litt were together mixing the album and it just got to be a weird feeling. I think they got one song mixed and then they said, 'This is too much. This is too soon. We're just not ready for this yet.' So now it's going to happen whenever Krist and Dave want to do it."

On the fringes, a fair enough barometer for the mainstream in its way, fans and collectors continued to vote with their pocketbooks as the Nirvana bootleg market proved strong, though perhaps not as strong as some expected. "The history of Nirvana boots is that when Nevermind hit, they were huge with bootleggers and lots of radio shows and stuff came out," says one source in the bootleg record industry. "Then things were quiet for awhile. After the Rome radio broadcast (on February 22, 1994) things went into high gear and by the time Kurt killed himself, all the great radio shows and demo tapes came out. There's still more being released every month."

Dozens can now be found, a good many of them the same few shows (Rome is particularly popular because of the comparatively lax copyright laws in Italy) or the same couple of dozen demos recycled in varying degrees of mixdown. There are also two elaborate box sets combining concert recordings and the demos (Heart-Shaped Box and the fabulous Into the Black, which most collectors agree is the best set yet).

So far, little of the material has surfaced that Cobain was reportedly working on in the weeks before his death, and no one at DGC wanted to comment on any of it specifically. It's known that he finished at least three songs, and some rumors speculate on as many as a dozen completed tracks. One of the new songs is performed by Hole on their upcoming "Unplugged" broadcast, which was taped in New York in February. Another was intended for Mark Lanegan, and the third for Iggy Pop.

As for memorabilia, anything Cobain touched seems to be commanding impressive prices now too. In January a guitar of Cobain's was sold at auction in New York for $17,000, making it the high-ticket item at a sale that also included material associated with the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and others. Perhaps it garnered such a high price because of the fact that Kurt had bled on it (a point the sellers publicized to no end). Memorabilia dealer Bob Adamonis, who is based in Seattle and specializes in autographs, says that the price for Cobain's signature went from $40-$50 before his death to upwards of $750 since. He also notes that a good deal of ghoulish material has become available, items he has refused to handle: Shotgun shells left behind by Cobain with the cabdriver who took him to the airport for the flight to rehab in March, and a great many personal articles stolen from the house during the chaos of the discovery of the body.

If the profitability of death is one of the bizarre side stories to Kurt's suicide, it pales in comparison to the conspiracy theories. The bizarre murder allegations are perhaps the strangest part of this long saga and certainly the most sensationalistic. Some have alleged that Cobain's death was not a suicide at all but some kind of ingenious conspiracy--engineered, depending upon who you speak to, by David Geffen, by Gold Mountain, by Fidel Castro, by Oliver Stone, but more often than not, of course, by Courtney Love herself. Why Cobain should have been murdered is almost as much of a mystery as how (let alone how it was missed or covered up), but the reason most typically offered by these conspiracists, in suitable cloak-and-dagger tones, is that he was worth more dead than alive to: MURDERER'S NAME HERE.

The case for these allegations is based on about a half dozen disturbing and fundamentally unanswered questions: Where did Kurt Cobain go and what did he do in the last days of his life? How could his body have lain undiscovered in his house (well, in the upper room of a detached structure on his property) for nearly three days, a period during which he was being searched for and during which, according to police reports and other sources, the house was frequented by nannies, private eyes, friends and workmen installing a security system? Who stayed with Cobain in his second house in Carnation during the days between his leaving rehab and killing himself (which probably happened on Tuesday, April 5)? Who had possession of his credit card, with which, according to one newspaper account, an attempt was made to use it for cash as late as April 10, two days after Cobain's body was discovered and the media circus had erupted? How did this person come into possession of the credit card? And what's with Love's arrest that week in Beverly Hills on drug charges?

Sadly enough, it appears now that we will never get the answers to these questions, or that they will be a long time coming. But a lack of facts has not stopped Richard Lee, for one, from concocting a case of murder based on heavy innuendo and secondhand circumstantial information, such as an apparent lack of blood at the scene. Lee is the producer of public-access cable-TV's weekly show (yes, weekly hour-long!) "Kurt Cobain Was Murdered." When I asked him to describe his theory of the murder scenario (i.e., murdered elsewhere and the body transported), he said flatly, "It doesn't matter," and returned to ridiculing anyone who could be foolish enough to believe it was suicide. Lee's show plays like a cable access version of "Murder She Wrote" with a new suspect or motive each week.

On the other hand, Tom Grant, the Beverly Hills private detective hired by Courtney Love last April to find Cobain after he left rehab, brings more credibility to his charges. Based on his follow-up investigation, he claims to have voluminous evidence of a murder conspiracy. Unfortunately, he has made little of it available, saying he prefers to release only one or two items at a time. Grant is not clear about his reasons for this, and he declined to provide evidence for this story. His opening salvo, carried out largely on talk-radio since December, has been that Cobain's suicide note shows evidence of forgery in the section toward the end that is specifically suicidal, and that it was really just a note Cobain was writing to his fans explaining his decision to retire (remember, persistent rumors of the time had Nirvana likely about to break up). Given that it's based on the highly inexact science of handwriting analysis, and that Grant hasn't made photocopies of the note available to illustrate his allegations, it's a little underwhelming.

Though Grant has not officially released his papers to the media, a strange computer file of what purports to be notes from his investigation has begun to circulate on computer networks. This 25 page document provides a revealing and at times chilling look at the circumstances of Cobain's disappearance and death and contains several inflammatory and shocking accusations. One of the more eerie stories recounted is of hearing the news of Cobain's death over a car radio while en route to search for Cobain in Carnation with Cobain's best friend Dylan Carlson. Grant's investigative file also claims that Seattle Police Officer Antonio Terry was one of those investigating the Cobain death (he took the original missing person's report) and since Terry himself was murdered on June 4, this is but one element of a larger, darker conspiracy. The Seattle Police laugh at these allegations.

Still, other bits that have emerged of Grant's case on his talk-radio appearances and elsewhere remain disturbing and are still unanswered. Grant seems genuinely interested in uncovering the truth, having taken no money for his radio appearances and declining all offers to appear on tabloid TV. While much of Grant's case is based on Cobain being "as happy as he'd ever been with his life," obviously a questionable assertion when you're dealing with a drug addict, Grant's claim that his investigation was hindered by several significant figures does present, at the very least, a picture of the weird three-ring circus that encircled Cobain: drug dealers, drug buddies, industry heavies, sycophant fans, and the ever present media.

It's also interesting that Grant and Lee don't seem to like each other much. Lee calls Grant a "junior G-man" while Grant accuses Lee of operating from too little information. Another interesting point: In January, Grant appeared on Los Angeles' KROQ to discuss his allegations. A few weeks later KROQ broadcast a series of apologies and retractions, a remarkable development given the powerful position of KROQ in the Los Angeles market.

For those wondering, King County Medical Examiner Nikolas Hartshorne says all the evidence points to the cause of death being suicide. Hartshorne--whose ties to Cobain go back to the late '80s when he was a sometime concert promoter--booked Nirvana into the Central Tavern to open for the Leaving Trains in Nirvana's third-ever Seattle show in 1988 (ironically, Leaving Trains lead singer Falling James was Courtney Love's first husband). When Hartshorne gives his account of the events of April 8 last year (he was on the scene within hours of the body's discovery), his sadness and bewilderment are convincing. More importantly, so is his analysis of the physical evidence. "I've never seen a more open and shut case of suicide," he says.

Sue Eastgard, Executive Director of Seattle's Crisis Clinic, which deals on a daily basis with suicide, was not familiar with the murder allegations when I spoke with her, but she was not surprised by them either. "Absolutely that is part of the denial that surrounds suicide," she says. "We can rationalize a murder in our mind better than a suicide. It's a way that we make sense of senseless acts."

Eastgard points out that though the legendary status of Seattle as the suicide capital of the country is simply not true, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S. (and that doesn't count gray-area cases such as auto and household accidents or drug-related deaths), and that a suicide occurs every 17 minutes. "But you don't see telethons for suicide," she says, adding that feelings of shame and humiliation among survivors can create an atmosphere of poisonous silence. "Anniversaries of deaths often stimulate feelings of grief all over again. My hope is that if people are feeling despondent or suicidal that they talk to someone and do something about it."

While it would hardly be fair to call the silence of those who knew Cobain poisonous, they are certainly silent. It makes sense, given the trauma of his death, the trampling of Seattle by the media last April and the unbelievable insensitivity displayed at every turn. All of those close to him--his mother, his father, his sister, his former bandmates, the principals of his former record labels--have ignored all requests to speak about Kurt's death and have largely kept their own counsel in the past year.

With one notable exception: Courtney Love. Love still won't talk to anyone about that tragic first week in April but she has otherwise put herself very much in the public eye. What's to be made of a woman whose bold confidence in her own destiny had her requiring Cobain to sign a prenuptial agreement at the time of their marriage--just as Nevermind was inexorably rolling past the three million mark in sales and with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" still sitting in the top 40? A woman whose sheer power of will refused to allow a great album to be torpedoed by the inconvenience of her husband's suicide or her bass player's death from a drug overdose? (In numerous phone calls to me and other journalists, Love talked about her disappointment that her album had been overshadowed by the tragic circumstances of her life). A woman who seemed to be everywhere at all times--on TV, in magazines and newspapers, and at the other end of the telephone line when you least expected it?

Clearly there are people--in Seattle and elsewhere--who hate her. Richard Lee becomes positively vile on the subject of Courtney Love, as do miscellaneous New York editors and hundreds of contributors to computer news group sites. The most recent up-the-ante entry into this sweepstakes has to be Mudhoney, whose "Into Yer Shtik" on their new album is one of the best things they've done, but you have to admit it's a little hard. The song includes the lyric, "Why don't you blow your brains out too?" After Love called to complain about the song, Mark Arm recently told Melody Maker "If someone is going to be offended by that and take it personally, then they probably deserve it."

But Courtney Love remains resilient above all else, almost seeming to feed off of this kind of treatment, and, for better or worse, she doesn't seem to be going away. In fact she's even agreed to do yet another interview with Vanity Fair in the coming months. All evidence indicates that she wants to be the new Madonna (and already Madonna is aping her) but in fact it's more like she's the new Cher. How far apart, really, is the estimable "Doll Parts" from the estimable "Half Breed"? And how different are Courtney's squealing fans of today from the '70s teenyboppers who rushed out to buy "Gypsys, Tramps, & Thieves"? When Courtney finally makes her move back to the movies, my guess is that she'll surprise us. She'll be really, really good, just like Cher. And we'll really, really like her.

She might even be the first to admit it. Already, in December's Rolling Stone, she's found a place for herself and Kurt in the rock 'n' roll pantheon that includes John & Yoko and Sid & Nancy. But maybe she forgot to mention Sonny & Cher. So much of what she's done in the past year--the rumors of liaisons with Evan Dando, Trent Reznor, even Danzig, the hysteria on airplanes, the continuing public deification of Cobain in her numerous interviews--has sadly served only to divert attention from Kurt's legacy. It was exactly that hysteria of the media spotlight and his ongoing idolatry that drove Cobain to his final act. Who among us can claim--including Courtney Love or anyone reading this story, let alone writing it--that we weren't (and aren't) part of that process and that problem?

Will Kurt Cobain still be famous in five years? Or will we think of him merely as "Kurt Who?, the slacker, Generation X, twenty-something whiner who offed himself for no good reason," as the Erik Lacitises of the world would want to portray him. I don't know, but I think I'm about ready to join the parade of people who want to put it behind us. He's dead now, he's been dead for a year, and he will be dead in five years' time. Those are facts. Nothing we can say or do will change that. And still the yammering goes on and on.

Kurt Cobain is most frequently thought of as the captain of the commercial triumph of punk-rock, which in many ways Nirvana was (though obviously it was never anticipated nor particularly welcomed by him), but the most fascinating, enduring and wonderful aspect of Cobain's work was that he instinctively sought a place for himself in history. And, I believe, he found one, an impressive one. The work will stand, I would bet my last dollar on that.

Part of the continuing fascination with Cobain's death has to be that there is practically nothing to compare it to. Other rock stars have killed themselves--most notably, Joy Division's Ian Curtis, the Band's Richard Manuel, and Johnny Ace--but none were in the prime of their career, except Johnny Ace, who was not exactly a suicide nor an artist of Cobain's stature. And the deaths of other rock stars have touched deep emotional chords--John Lennon, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, even Sid Vicious--but none were so obviously self-motivated. Hemingway was 20 years past his prime when he chose his own endgame.

The two deaths, and lives, that come closest, I think, are Janis Joplin, who OD'd at 27, and Sylvia Plath, who put her head in an oven at 30. All three lived lives of stunning, constant pain--which arose out of both the circumstances of their tortured lives but even more from the sensitivity that allowed them to create their beautiful, chilling reports from the bowels of hell in the first place. What was it about Kurt Cobain's work that reached so deeply inside us? For me, while I appreciated the thunder and cathartic joy of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and still do, my favorite Cobain songs are the ones in which he etched out the most profound feelings from the most mundane scenes:

"Mom and Dad went to a show
They dropped me off at Grampa Joe's
I kicked and screamed
Said please don't go
Gramma take me home."

Unlike Joplin, Cobain had a better sense of how to contextualize his screams and his rants, and unlike Plath, whose dense, violent imagery connects naturally to Cobain's, he worked in a medium that reached millions of people. In death, Cobain and Plath seem connected even more deeply. In fact, the similarities are positively eerie. Clearly, neither was the result of a decision made in haste: Plath prepared cookies and milk for her children, tucked them in for naps, and rested her head inside the oven on a linen napkin. Cobain wedged a chair under the door to make entry to the room difficult and, evidently fearing his face would be obliterated, opened his wallet to his ID card and laid it by his side. It was the end of Kurt Cobain's life, but not the end of his unrest.