Awaken

n early 1992, when I first met Kurt Cobain, he and Courtney Love were living in a little apartment in a two-up-two-down building on an ordinary street in the Fairfax section of Los Angeles. I had flown there from New York to interview him for a Rolling Stone cover story, the one with a famous photograph of him wearing a homemade T-shirt that said “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” I was nervous. Not much was known about Kurt at that point, other than he was this guy from Seattle who screamed in his songs, smashed his guitars, and might be a heroin addict. He was also the most celebrated rock musician on the planet.

It was dusk when a taxi dropped me off at his place. Courtney greeted me at the door and graciously offered me a plate of grapes. There was a tiny, dimly lit living room with no furniture, LPs and guitars strewn around the floor, and a small Buddhist shrine with burning candles. As “Norwegian Wood” played faintly on a crappy stereo, Courtney led me down a short hallway to the bedroom. I got to the door and opened it to find Kurt lying in a little bed in a little room, his back against the wall, facing the doorway, his shocking blue eyes gazing at me through the subdued lighting. His bare feet stuck out past the bedsheets, and his toenails were painted a rosy hue. The smell of jasmine flowers wafted through the screen of the window above his head. To this day, whenever I smell jasmine I’m transported to that moment.

“Hi,” he said, and two things struck me instantly. The first was: oh, wow, I know this guy. He wasn’t some sort of rock-and-roll space alien—he was actually like a lot of the stoners I went to high school with. (I was kind of a stoner in high school myself.) All the nervousness went away. The other thing I realized is uncomfortable to say: I sensed that he was one of those rock musicians who dies young. I’d never met someone like that before or even known many people who had died at all. I just sensed it. It turns out that a lot of other people around him did, too: his bandmate Dave Grohl sensed it, and so did Kurt’s wife, Courtney Love. Even Kurt’s own mother acknowledged it. It just wasn’t something that anyone would say out loud at the time.

I sat down on a little footstool next to his bed, started up the tape recorder, and began asking him questions. I asked Kurt what he was like as a kid, and he said something about being small for his age. I stood up, unfurled my wiry five-foot-six-inch frame, and said, in a theatrically manly voice, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” We exchanged smiles, and our bond grew from there. Somehow I got to talking about Arlo Guthrie’s “The Motorcycle Song” and how I’d play it on the family record player and run around the house pretending I was a motorcycle. And Kurt said, “I did that, too!” He said that his parents had divorced by the time he was ten years old and he’d been melancholic ever since. I told him how I’d felt the same way about my own parents’ divorce, when I was the same age. We grew up on the bands that so many American kids of our era did—Kiss, Cheap Trick, Queen, Black Sabbath—before having our lives changed by punk rock. So here I was, a bespectacled college-boy Rolling Stone journalist from New York City, connecting with a high-school dropout from the rural timber town of Aberdeen, Washington, whose dad worked in a lumber mill counting logs. But that didn’t make me anything special—a whole lot of people could have connected to Kurt Cobain. The beautiful thing was, he had a knack for conveying that in song, and in the most ineffable way.

As I was talking with Kurt, he was experiencing heroin withdrawal. He told me he was in bed because he was nursing a cold, which made sense—he was coming off a tour that had gone from Australia to New Zealand to Singapore to Japan to Hawaii. All those shows and travel would naturally take a toll on anybody, even someone who had just turned twenty-five. It didn’t really seem like he had a cold, but I ignored that. Like many people around him, I just didn’t want to know. Which is ridiculous—I was a reporter.

Kurt Cobain sitting on a bed wearing a pajama shirt and corduroy pants.
Cobain, at Inn at the Market, Seattle, 1993.Photograph by Charles Peterson

A few months after the Rolling Stone story came out that April, in 1992, the magazine sent me to England to cover the big Reading Festival, whose final day featured a bill almost entirely composed of grunge bands, with Nirvana headlining. I was staying at the Holiday Inn, where a lot of the bands stayed, too. One evening, I was standing in the lobby, spacing out for a moment, when I swore I felt something gently pass over the top of my head, like a hand an inch away. I ignored it and waited for whoever it was to give up and introduce themselves, but there wasn’t anyone near me. Finally, I turned around, and there, twenty feet away, was Kurt, staring at me with his laser-beam eyes.

I walked up to him. He was glad to see me and said that he liked my Rolling Stone story. In retrospect, I can see why: the article served his purposes. I quoted an anti-drug speech he gave—which he seemed to think let him off the hook for using drugs. I acknowledged that he was truly in love with Courtney, who was getting a lot of grief from the media. I took his crippling stomach pain seriously, which few people did. And I let him plug some of his favorite bands, which helped him feel a little better about his burgeoning fame. In the hotel lobby, we furthered the connection we’d made during the interview. I bought him a vodka-and-orange-juice at the packed bar, and we chatted a bit before the swirl of acquaintances and gawking onlookers compelled Kurt to retreat to his room.

Nirvana’s concert at Reading was a triumph—and not just because they played at all. The U.K. music press had been speculating that Kurt was too heroin-sick to perform, and the rumor was that Nirvana would cancel. But not only did they play; they played what is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock concerts ever. Along with a gaggle of other journalists, I stood at the back of the stage, looking out at thousands of faces bouncing up and down in huge, rolling swells as they pogoed in the light. Onstage, some freaky guy danced with the band like a blissed-out rag doll, doing what everybody in the crowd wished they had the room to do. The music, including a new song called “All Apologies,” was transcendent.

Kurt Cobain on stage playing a guitar upside down.
Cobain, at the Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, B.C., 1991.Photograph by Charles Peterson

Late one evening a month or so later, the phone rang. It was Courtney. She wanted to know whether I would like to write a book about Nirvana. “That sounds interesting,” I said, playing it as cool as I could manage, “but could I talk to Kurt about it?” She handed the phone to Kurt. “Hey,” he said, in his cigarette growl. I asked why he wanted to do the book. This was shortly after Vanity Fair had published a story that was used as evidence to briefly relieve them of custody of their infant daughter, Frances. Kurt promised me access to anyone I wanted to talk to, and that I could write whatever I wanted. “Just tell the truth,” he said. “That’ll be better than anything else that’s been written about me.”

Before I began writing what would become “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” Courtney would sometimes call me, I think partly to try to frame the narrative and partly to ingratiate herself with the guy who was going to write the book—or maybe it was just because she and Kurt liked and trusted me without even knowing me that well. Her conversation was dense with references to various pharmaceuticals I’d never heard of, like Klonopin and diazepam and Vicodin, as if everybody knew what they were—that’s how Courtney talks, as if you’re intimately familiar with all the arcane things and people she’s mentioning at such high velocity. The pharmaceutical thing was so relentless that one day I walked over to the Strand Bookstore and bought a used copy of the “Physicians’ Desk Reference,” a big, fat book listing all prescription drugs and their uses and effects.

On the walk home, I bumped into a particularly distrustful and controlling member of Nirvana’s management team. This was before any of the interviews for the book had begun. If this manager had suspected I was going to write a lurid exposé about Kurt and Courtney’s drug use, I knew that the book would be cancelled. Of course, this person noticed the Strand bag I was now carrying and asked the very question I was dreading: “Oh, what book did you buy?” I mumbled something and quickly changed the subject, dangling the bag behind my back. I can laugh about it now, but my legs were shaking.

For the next six months, I flew to Seattle to conduct interviews, returning to New York to transcribe, research, and write. Being around intense people like Kurt and Courtney, with their constant drama and palpable charisma, was exciting but also stressful and exhausting. The publication of the book was timed to coincide with the release of the “In Utero” album that September, and, when it was done, the publisher felt that we should let Kurt read the book “as a courtesy”—publishing-biz speak for “He can read it, but he can’t change anything”—before advance versions went out to the press. But, given Courtney’s notoriously combative tendencies, they didn’t want her to see it, so we couldn’t simply mail Kurt the manuscript. Instead, I’d fly out to Seattle and have Kurt read the book in my presence. Kurt completely understood why we had to do it this way—Courtney could make things complicated, we all knew that. So I booked a room at the Warwick Hotel, in downtown Seattle, and flew from J.F.K. with the manuscript. The first night, I took out the thick pile of photocopied paper and a box of the chocolate-covered butter cookies that we both liked, set them on a little desk in the corner of the room by the windows, and waited.

Around midnight, there was a knock on my door. Kurt was sober at that time. Courtney had ordered the car-service driver not to make any detours and had somehow slipped me a tiny note asking me to make sure that Kurt didn’t call any pager numbers: “P.S. Xtra secret don’t tell I wrote this.” Kurt sat down at the desk and began reading. He smoked constantly and read intently. I kicked back on the bed and worked on an article or played solitaire on my laptop. It was very quiet. The only sounds were the distant gurgling of the hotel’s plumbing, a hum whenever the ventilation system switched on, and Kurt turning pages.

Occasionally, he’d pipe up and say, “Yeah, yeah, this reads real good.” Sometimes he would chuckle at something funny or sigh at something painful. A few times, he moaned and asked, “Aw, do you have to keep that in?” I don’t remember every passage that bothered him, but one was about a breakdown he had onstage in Rome, in the autumn of 1989. Every time Kurt objected, I’d explain why it had to stay in the book, and he never pressed the matter. After all, that was our original agreement—to do it any other way would be, as he said in our first conversation about the book, “too Guns N’ Roses.” Once in a while, he’d point out a factual error, like correcting the name of the aunt who gave him his first guitar lessons.

That first night, he got about a third of the way through the book before he started to fade. It was a lot to absorb. I imagine that he was mostly thinking about how this would play to the authorities who wanted to take his child from him. I also think he may have been looking at it as Nirvana’s chief conceptualist, weighing how everything squared with how he wanted the band—and himself—to be perceived.

Kurt, being a student of rock history, knew that the story of a rock band is essentially a legend—in the sense that there’s some wiggle room in the truth as long as it serves the over-all myth. So Kurt was an unreliable narrator of his own story. That’s nothing new—it would be hard to name any rock star who wasn’t the same. It’s up to the journalist to determine what’s true and what isn’t. But sometimes journalists play along because they’re naïve, lazy, or overworked, or they want to be in on the game because it makes for sensational copy. Whatever the reason, it works to the artist’s advantage. I wasn’t rigorous about investigating Kurt’s mythologizing—for one thing, a tight deadline meant that I just didn’t have the time, and, for another, he had charmed me and I unquestioningly bought a lot of his tall tales—which turned out well for him.

The second night was a repeat of the first: me and a guy reading the book I wrote about him, in a generic little hotel room, punctuated by the rustle of paper and the occasional grunt of appreciation or soft chuckle. He told me it was illuminating to read about his entire life in chronological order. Very few people have that luxury. Sometimes he’d take a break, and we’d stand together by the window overlooking Fourth Avenue and talk, eat cookies, or look down to the street, where little gangs of homeless kids swarmed around taxis stopped at red lights, trying to wangle a few bucks out of the cabbies. During those breaks, we didn’t speak about the book—instead, we talked about people we knew in common, music we were listening to, or politics. Sometimes we’d just stare out the window at the city without saying anything at all.

A little before dawn on the third night, he turned over the last page, planted his palm on the top of the stack as if absorbing its vibrations, and took a long drag on his cigarette. Then he got up, walked over to me, and said, “That’s the best rock book I’ve ever read.” He hugged me and looked me in the eye. “Thank you,” he said, and then he was gone.

My publisher was surprised and immensely relieved that Kurt had only a few minor factual corrections. They were expecting him to raise a fuss, possibly to the point that it could torpedo the whole book—which had already happened with another book about the band. What the publisher overlooked was that the most sensational things were said by Kurt himself. But also, once again, I had dutifully noted down Kurt’s key talking points, particularly about being a good, loving parent; that’s all he cared about. The rest was window dressing. There’s a popular misconception that Kurt was just a guileless junkie. But that’s a fallacy. He totally knew what he was doing.

Kurt Cobain holding a guitar smiling and looking up.
Cobain, at the Crocodile Cafe, Seattle, 1992.Photograph by Charles Peterson

After I was done with the book, Kurt and I became friends. I don’t claim to have been his exclusive confidant or anything, but, every once in a while, the phone would ring in the wee hours of the morning. It was ridiculous that he’d call at such an hour—he didn’t seem to have considered the time difference between Seattle and New York, or maybe he thought that everyone else was as nocturnal as he was—but I always picked up. I worried that he might be in a crisis, and I didn’t ever want to regret that I’d ignored a crucial call.

Usually Kurt would want to rail, sometimes volcanically, about management or the label or the band. And after he’d gotten it all off his chest he’d suddenly realize that he’d been talking completely about himself, pause, and ask, “So how are you?”

In July, 1993, Nirvana came to New York to play a show at the Roseland Ballroom, a cavernous former dance hall in midtown Manhattan. It was for the CMJ convention, which catered to college radio stations and was a key platform for promoting the forthcoming “In Utero.” While he was in town, Kurt had a business dinner with a bunch of “the grownups,” as he disdainfully referred to the various executives involved in the band’s affairs, at a fancy restaurant on the East Side. He asked me to come along—I suppose so he wouldn’t be completely alone with business types. Or maybe he wanted me to see for myself what he was always complaining about.

Eight of us sat around a large, circular table. I sat directly across from Kurt, out of conversation range, but I could see that he was uncomfortable. He was withdrawn and not responding much to anything anyone said to him. Everyone tried to pretend like nothing was wrong. They all ordered food—appetizers, entrées, and wine—but Kurt ordered only a slice of cake. “That’s all you’re going to have, Kurt?” someone asked. Kurt just kind of mumbled.

Kurt excused himself to go to the bathroom. He was gone a long time. I considered the possibility that he had sneaked out of the restaurant. That would have been brilliant. But, eventually, just as I was starting to think that someone should go check on him, he returned. He was high, dazed, his eyelids nearly closed. He was nodding slightly. It was the first time I’d ever been sure that Kurt was high on heroin. Surely everyone else at the table could see this, too, but no one acknowledged it in any way, and the conversation continued around Kurt, as if he were a senile grandparent. It was obvious to me that Kurt got high at that dinner deliberately, as a self-destructive protest.

The ostensible purpose of the dinner, aside from dining at a fancy restaurant and putting the bill on the expense account, was to discuss some pressing business decision with Kurt. But Kurt was in no condition to make any decisions. When the check was paid, everyone scattered. So I found myself standing on the sidewalk with Kurt, who was stoned out of his mind on heroin in a city he didn’t know well. I walked him back to his hotel, holding on to his arm—as if he were an elderly person—in case he stumbled. I made sure that he didn’t walk into other people, or traffic.

When we arrived at his hotel room, Courtney was lying on the bed, reading a magazine. She wasn’t surprised that Kurt was high, just disappointed. She’d been working hard to keep him away from drugs, and she scolded him a little bit while he stood there, sheepish and unsteady, offering only halfhearted protests and denials. Then he flopped down on the end of the bed, sidewise, and Courtney nonchalantly put up her feet on his back like he was a sofa cushion. I got the sense that something like this had happened many times before. Kurt was sleeping, or something like it, and Courtney apparently had things under control, so I left them and headed down the hall to stop by a little party the rest of the band and crew were having. Kurt overdosed later that evening. He had gone to the bathroom for a long time. Then Courtney heard a thud. She opened the door—or tried to, but Kurt’s unconscious body was blocking the doorway.

The band and crew’s party couldn’t have been more different from the heartbreaking scene in Kurt’s hotel room: here, there was booze, horseplay, and a blaring boom box. But it, too, became terrifying. Soon after I arrived, one of the guys in the band stepped out the window and onto a broad ledge on the side of the building, several stories above the street. He started walking on the ledge toward the next window of the room—which was maybe ten feet away. I was petrified. He was hammered, not the ideal condition for tightrope walking. I thought that I was about to witness a horrific moment in rock history, but he made it. Everybody in the room cheered. Then one of the crew tried it. And I was petrified all over again, but he made it, too. Then the guy in the band went a second time. By now, I was thoroughly freaked out. But he made it again, and, thankfully, there were no more ledge walks. I made a beeline for the drinks table.

Courtney eventually forced her way into the bathroom and saw Kurt turning blue. Terrified, she sent word out to the band’s crew: pack up the equipment—there will be no show tomorrow, because Kurt is dead. I’m not sure who resuscitated him, or how, but he played a great concert at Roseland the following night.

In October, 1993, I visited Kurt in Seattle while the band was rehearsing for the “In Utero” tour, and one night he invited me to a practice. He claimed it would be boring, but then he said everything about his life was boring. It wasn’t, of course.

The band’s practice space was in a loft building in the SoDo neighborhood, a grim industrial area south of downtown. The long, concrete-floored hallway leading to their room was lined on one side with cremation urns, which were manufactured in another area on the floor. It was late when we arrived, and the entire building was silent. At that point, Nirvana was perhaps the biggest band in the world, but you’d never know it from their rehearsal space. The room was about six hundred square feet, with windows that looked out onto other industrial loft buildings. A small riser for the drum set was as fancy as they got. There was a modest P.A., some ordinary-looking amps, and a couple of standard-issue microphones. They had no soundproofing, no sound person, no special lights, no recording equipment, no well-stocked bar. A few mismatched old chairs were strewn around the room, some concert posters hung on the wall, and there was a small fridge. It could almost have been your band’s practice space.

They fussed with the P.A. a little, and then they were off, running down songs from “In Utero.” Kurt ran the rehearsal, giving specific directions to each of the musicians. They played sections of songs, starting and stopping until Kurt felt that things were right. I suppose this was what Kurt thought was the boring part, but it was illuminating to see how much he controlled things, how exacting he was with music that appeared so rough-hewn. It was difficult to hear some of the flaws Kurt wanted to correct, but when the band fixed them it was obvious that everything had snapped into place.

The following month, Courtney decided that it would be good if I joined Nirvana’s U.S. tour for a little while. I was a relatively steady person, a little older, and drug-free. She figured that I would be good company for Kurt on the road, maybe help keep him on the straight and narrow—if only by example. I don’t know if I accomplished that, and I didn’t wind up spending all that much time with Kurt, but I think that having someone else on the bus did break up a little of the tension and boredom. Sometimes a cloud gathered over the touring party. That was largely due to Kurt’s mental state; his mood, dark or light, pervaded every room, and it depended a lot on whether he’d been fighting with Courtney. But everyone in the band felt some sort of tension: even if they tried to make light of it, Kurt, the bassist Krist Novoselic, and the drummer Dave Grohl felt the enormous pressure of being a world-famous rock group and resented the invasive journalism that comes with it. There were tensions within the band, too.

Once, I stopped by Kurt’s hotel room when he started yelling that he wanted to fire Dave, unquestionably one of the great rock drummers, for being an unsubtle and unspontaneous musician. The thing was, Dave was staying in the room right next door. I hissed at Kurt, “He can hear!” “I don’t care!” Kurt yelled back, more at the adjoining wall than at me. I was sure that Dave heard the whole thing. Regardless, Dave was already aware of Kurt’s feelings. He told his biographer, Paul Brannigan, that on a flight from Seattle to Los Angeles he had overheard Kurt bad-mouthing his drumming two rows back. Once they landed, Dave told their trusty Scottish tour manager, Alex MacLeod, that he was quitting the band after the last scheduled show. MacLeod talked him out of it.

After we reached Dallas, Kurt called my room and asked whether I wanted to walk around downtown with him, the kindly Pat Smear (an early L.A. punk icon and now a rhythm guitarist on the tour), and Kurt’s daughter, Frances, fifteen months old at the time. We rolled out with Kurt pushing Frances in her stroller, making her laugh with a ridiculous assortment of rude noises. The emptiness of downtown Dallas on a weekday afternoon was baffling to me, a provincial New Yorker, but great for Kurt, who could stroll around without being hassled by fans.

Walking down a wide boulevard, we found ourselves at the edge of a big open space. An enormous flock of grackles circled above, forming an undulating disk so vast and dense that the sunlight filtering through looked gray. It felt apocalyptic. Except for the occasional car, there was not another human being in sight. It dawned on me that this was Dealey Plaza, the site of the John F. Kennedy assassination. There was the former Texas School Book Depository and, surprisingly close by, the “grassy knoll.” Like countless other people, we examined the crime scene, considered the angles, weighed conspiracy theories. Eventually, Frances needed baby supplies, so Kurt rolled off with her to a drugstore. That was the last time I saw Kurt Cobain.

On or about April 5, 1994, Kurt went up to an attic over his garage, took a lot of heroin, and then killed himself with a shotgun. He left a note. Its closing words were “peace, love, empathy.”

The quality of empathy was very important to Kurt; he spoke of it often. Which might come as a surprise, given all the wanton vandalism and assorted other mischief he committed as a teen and indeed throughout his all-too-brief adult life, not to mention his avowed disdain for so many of the people around him. How much empathy did he have when he hit a man on the head with his guitar during a show in Dallas, in 1991?

But maybe, as Kurt claimed, opiates really did still his misanthropic impulses and help him experience empathy, or something resembling it. Maybe his outspokenness about empathy was actually a passive-aggressive plea for people to have empathy for him. At any rate, Kurt avowedly cherished the ability to imagine what other people are feeling, right down to the last moments of his life. In his suicide note, the word “empathy” was underlined twice. His name was in the smallest lettering on the whole page.

Then there’s the question of why he did it. In an outtake from Grant Gee’s 2007 documentary, “Joy Division,” there’s an interview with the iconic English post-punk band’s former road manager Terry Mason. Mason describes what happens almost every time someone finds out that he used to work with the group, whose singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself, in 1980. “All the time, they’re dancing around their humbug to ask me the big one. They always want to ask that, and it usually starts with the line ‘I’m not a ghoul like the others, but why did Ian kill himself?’ ” Mason says. “Everyone thinks there’s some deep, dark, mystical secret. And there’s not. He was a nice guy, got into a strange situation, and the only way he could think about [it] at that time was to kill himself. Sorry, no secrets.” And then, twenty-seven years after his friend’s death, it looks like Mason might start to cry. But before he does he looks straight into the camera and says, “Cut.”

People often ask me why Kurt killed himself. Actually, what frequently happens is, they wind up telling me why he killed himself. They have their opinions, despite never having met him, and dismiss my firsthand observations of Kurt as incompatible with what they already believe. Very few of them acknowledge this simple, unsensational fact: Kurt had several clinically established risk factors for suicide, including inhuman levels of professional pressure, chronic and severe physical pain, and a heroin addiction that he just couldn’t seem to shake (or didn’t want to). He also had a long family history of suicide.

Both sides of Kurt’s family are marked by suicides. In 1913, his great-grandfather’s sister Florence Cobain, seventeen years old, wanted to go to the movies, but her father wouldn’t let her, so she shot herself in the chest with a rifle. Somehow she survived and lived to be ninety-four. One of Kurt’s great-grandfathers on his mother’s side attempted suicide with a knife. He survived but died later, after purposely reopening the wounds in a psychiatric hospital. In 1938, when Kurt’s grandfather, Leland, and Leland’s brothers Burle and Kenneth Cobain, were young men, their father, John, a deputy sheriff, was sitting on a stool at the beer counter of a store in Markham, Washington, twelve miles southwest of Aberdeen. John apparently reached in his pocket for a cigarette and accidentally knocked his pistol out of its holster. The gun dropped to the floor and discharged, killing him. In 1979, when Kurt was twelve, Burle killed himself with a gun. Five years later, Kenneth did.

I didn’t know any of that history when I wrote “Come as You Are,” nor was it the kind of thing I even thought to ask about. All I knew was that I had the distinct feeling that Kurt would not live a long life. But what, if anything, could I do about it? Was it even my place to get involved?

A couple of times, I did get involved. One evening, in 1993, I got a panic-stricken call from Courtney, who told me that Kurt had locked himself in a room in their house. He was distraught, she said, and had a gun and was threatening to use it on himself. She was terrified. So was I. I asked if I could speak with Kurt, but there was no way to get the phone to him. I could hear him yelling in the background. I told her to call the police and to keep me posted. Then I called one of Nirvana’s managers. I relayed what was happening and said that such a volatile person, who did drugs and had a small child, absolutely should not have guns. There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and then a reply: “I’ll take care of it.”

When Kurt started spiralling down, I remembered a visit to his hotel room while he was on tour in New Orleans. We were lying on his bed, talking and watching a Pete Townshend concert on public television with the sound off, and Kurt marvelled at how Townshend was so passionate about making music—even after, in Kurt’s opinion, his music was no longer any good. I’d been a huge Who fan as a teen and noted his respect for his fellow guitar smasher Townshend. Months later, I was part of a team working with Townshend on a project about the history of the Who’s 1969 rock opera, “Tommy.” Townshend had helped his friend Eric Clapton recover from a heroin addiction years earlier and was all too familiar with substance abuse. I asked Townshend whether he might have a word with Kurt about beating heroin and dealing with the slings and arrows of fame. I gave him Kurt’s phone number, hoping that he would call and that Kurt would listen.

“When Cobain was in deep trouble with heroin addiction in 1993,” Townshend wrote in the Guardian, in 2002, “Azerrad asked if I would contact Cobain, who was in constant danger of overdosing. I had chosen this year to give booze another gentle try after 11 years. When Azerrad approached me, I was not drunk, nor unsympathetic, but I did not make the necessary judgment I would make today that an immediate ‘intervention’ was required to save his life.” To this day, Townshend probably wonders what might have happened had he gotten through to Kurt. That’s the kind of thing that haunts people who know people who have committed suicide: Is there something I could have done? Twenty-seven years later, I still ask myself that question. I tried, but perhaps I could have—and should have—tried harder. The thing is, although I was in my early thirties, I was still immature and naïve. Maybe I wasn’t so well suited to the task.

And there were other people much closer to Kurt. Krist Novoselic had known for a long time that Kurt didn’t exactly have a lust for life. In Krist’s interview with the historian John Hughes for the Washington State Web site, he recalled an early tour when he was reading “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” the 1962 classic by the Russian dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Kurt asked him what the book was about, and Krist said it was about prisoners suffering in a brutal Soviet Gulag in Siberia. “And he’s like, ‘Ah, and they still want to live?’ ” Krist recalled. “He was disgusted.”

Krist could have been a crucial port in the storm, but, sadly, Kurt had begun to push his friend away in 1990, when Krist told Kurt that he disapproved of his heroin use. They were never as close again. Things got a little better when they were rehearsing before the recording of “In Utero”—there was the excitement of playing new songs, working with the revered recording engineer Steve Albini, and starting a new, more artistically liberated phase of the band. But, by the time they recorded the “Unplugged” show in New York, in November, 1993, they had become distant again. Kurt surrounded himself with his wife and child and a different set of friends, several of whom were drug addicts, and Krist didn’t feel welcome.

In rereading “Come as You Are” recently, for an annotated version that I’m working on, I began to notice leitmotifs that I had missed when I was in the thick of writing the original. Twenty-eight years can give you some objectivity. One of those recurring themes was how Kurt understood that every good legend has a protagonist and an antagonist. There’s a Greek word for this eternal conflict: agon. The protagonist of this particular legend is Kurt Cobain, but the antagonist changes over the course of his story: Aberdeen bullies; the town of Aberdeen itself; Kurt’s mother; Kurt’s father; various drummers; homophobes; misogynists; racists; the band’s previous label, Sub Pop; his own body; “the grownups”; Pearl Jam; heroin addiction; their current label, Geffen/DGC; and so on. For every setback, there is something or someone else to blame, and when one antagonist left the stage he found a new one, usually embellishing or even manufacturing their sins in order to enhance his own victimhood. There was always, as one of his songs put it, something in the way.

This coping mechanism may have started when Kurt was very little and had imaginary friends. “There was one called Boddah,” his mother, Wendy, told me for the Rolling Stone story. “He blamed everything on him.” Another antagonist was Kurt himself: the self that he hated and wanted to die. In legends, the protagonist is supposed to vanquish the antagonist. That didn’t happen this time. Or perhaps it did.

Ithought that I was prepared for Kurt’s death, although I didn’t know whether it would come in days or decades. Then, suddenly, it happened. That’s when I found out that you never really can be prepared for such a thing. I don’t remember much from the weeks and months after. I could outwardly function, but inside I felt catatonic and remained grief-stricken for several years. I can’t even imagine what people who were closer to Kurt went through. “The awful thing about suicide is, the person who commits suicide, their problems are over,” the Joy Division bassist, Peter Hook, said, in a 2020 podcast about the band. “And yet yours, and everybody left behind—his family, his parents, everybody else, in every occasion—theirs is just beginning. And they last all your life.”

Dealing with the death of someone you know is always difficult and strange, but that difficulty and strangeness is vastly compounded when the person was a public figure. When a parent dies, for instance, you can dole out the information at a rate you’re comfortable with. You can tell friends and co-workers one at a time—or not at all. They offer their condolences, share a memory of the person if they knew them, say a few supportive words, and that’s it. But, when it’s a public figure, everyone knows right away. If people know that you knew the famous person, a lot of them will reach out to you, even if they wouldn’t have done the same had a relative died. Often, they have a parasocial relationship with the celebrity, an emotional attachment to someone who did not know them. They tell you, unbidden, what that person meant to them. They don’t seem to understand that you did actually know and love this person, and they knew and loved you, and that you’re on a different level of grieving.

Many people asked what Kurt was really like. The more I explained it, the more my answer became rote, in turn pushing Kurt further and further away, reducing him to a few pat, well-rehearsed anecdotes. This went on for a long time—in fact, decades.

There are the people who tell me with absolute certainty that Kurt was murdered. They have seen a movie about it, or read something on the Internet that left them utterly convinced of this outlandish and highly improbable scenario. I understand that people have trouble coming to terms with the fact that someone they adored so much would do this to himself—and to them—so they look for someone else to blame. At first, I would patiently explain that Kurt was deeply depressed, repeatedly telegraphed what he was going to do, and that there was no evidence to the contrary. Explaining this time and time again only deepened my sadness, so eventually I learned to just abruptly cut off the conversation.

The mainstream news media were largely clueless about Kurt, and often tasteless and cruel. In an episode of “The Larry Sanders Show” that aired after Kurt’s death, Garry Shandling’s character is reading the newspaper. “It turns out the electrician found Kurt Cobain’s body two days after he was dead,” he says. “Talk about grunge.” By far the worst was the crotchety “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney. “Everything about Kurt Cobain makes me suspicious,” Rooney ranted. “This picture shows him in a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee. I doubt that Kurt Cobain ever did enough work to wear a hole in his pants. He probably had ten pairs just like these hanging in the closet—all with fake holes in the knee. . . . If Kurt Cobain applied the same brain to his music that he applied to his drug-infested life, it’s reasonable to think that his music may not have made much sense, either.” I wanted to kick in my television screen.

Sales of “Come as You Are” spiked in the wake of Kurt’s death. I felt awful that I was benefitting financially from this horrific, heartbreaking thing. A wise friend reassured me, “Being a good journalist means being in the right place at the right time. That’s what you did. Don’t feel bad.” That made me feel a little better. The truth is, I would soon need the money—I was so depressed for the next few years that I couldn’t work much. The world became like the iris in old silent movies, when the picture closes up into a circle in the middle of the screen, surrounded by blackness.

For many years, if Nirvana’s music started playing, I would quietly step outside until it was over. I never played it at home, either. Hearing it triggered such vivid, intense memories—and feelings of regret. The music’s strength—it really is an open window into Kurt’s soul—only reminded me of all the hints I’d missed, things I could have done and stupid things I shouldn’t have done. But a few years ago, at a loud bar in the East Village with some friends, several songs from the band’s 1991 blockbuster album, “Nevermind,” started playing at high volume. This time, instead of stepping outside, I stayed and listened. And you know what? Those are great, enduring songs played by a world-class rock band and sung by one of the great rock singers. Despite Kurt’s torment—or in a determined attempt to overcome it—Nirvana made life-affirming music. It made me feel better.

Until recently, I hadn’t read anything about Nirvana, either. I didn’t want other people’s reminiscences and speculation to muddy my own memories. “Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?” Elvis Costello once sang. I didn’t want someone else’s fingerprints on my memories. But my strong desire to put my experience with Nirvana behind me was nothing compared with how Kurt felt. “I wish nobody ever knew what my real name was,” Kurt says in “Come as You Are.” “So I could some day be a normal citizen again.” His desire reminds me of a daydream I still have now and then, in which Kurt faked his death. He staged it so he could quit everything, run away somewhere, and start a new, anonymous life. In this fantasy, I’m walking down the street and I recognize him. He’s disguised somehow, maybe with a big beard and a baseball hat pulled down low, but his laser-blue eyes instantly give him away. He sees me, too, but we just nod at each other, smile, and keep walking.

Journalist Michael Azerrad holding Francis Bean Cobain sitting next to Kurt Cobain holding a cigarette.
Michael Azerrad, with Cobain and his daughter, Frances, at the Cow Palace, California, 1993.Photograph by Courtney Love


Source: New Yorker