I once asked Kurt Cobain if he felt blessed.
“Sure,” he said, and then turned his easygoing assent into something very different. “Blessed and cursed–equally as cursed, you know.”
In the winter of 1991, I spent a week with Nirvana as they toured Germany. A half-hour after I met him, Kurt taught me how to roll cigarettes by hand. He said he had stopped coughing ever since he learned to roll his own, and that he had decided he was allergic to cigarette filters. I taught Kurt how to clear out his ears by pinching his nose and blowing. When he was suffering from back pain, I locked arms with him and hoisted him up on his back to realign his spine.
Kurt was quiet in Germany, largely because his body’s ailments: ongoing back pain and endless agony with his stomach. Backstage in Frankfurt, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl were clowning around with the road crew, throwing salami and making jokes. Kurt sat on a couch, silent, staring off into space. But if you didn’t mind waiting for hours without Kurt saying anything–and some people couldn’t handle it–his personality would unfold. His silence was never a vacancy. Kurt sometimes used it as a conversational weapon, but it was usually a retreat from his physical pain to the sanctuary of his own mind.
Once we got to know each other, we spent the tour making fun of Camille Paglia. Before I left Germany, Kurt suggested that we get together for drinks the next time the band came through New York City. Although we had met as journalist and subject, I felt like I might have found a new friend. Of course, his life took other directions. Kurt married Courtney Love and they holed up in an L.A. apartment. And Nevermind went octuple-platinum, meaning that it was no longer feasible to just casually get together with Kurt. It was two years before the band played New York. In the meantime, I followed them the way everybody else did: watching videos and awards shows, playing their albums until I memorized them.
Last year I saw Kurt again for another article. True to form, he was two hours late to our first meeting. Although he often shied away from physical contact, we shook hands–he had a light, delicate handshake–and I noticed he had painted his fingernails bright red. We quickly began catching up on each other’s lives. If Kurt was using heroin while he was around me, he hid it well. In Seattle last summer, he was alert and happy–which is how I’m going to remember him.
Kurt was smart and well-read. He once told me his favorite book was Patrick Suskind’s Perfume; another time, he said it was William Burroughs’ Junky. The first inspired his song “Scentless Apprentice,” the second became a blueprint for his own heroin addiction. I’ve since recommended both books to other friends. Kurt had a great sense of deadpan humor, as when he claimed to feed his daughter with live rats or when he threatened to light record-company employees on fire. He held grudges: It was unwise to get him started on Lynn Hirschberg, Steve Albini, or Tabitha Soren. He was direct, and would often bring up stories of shooting up or going to jail before I could wonder how I would broach these topics.
I remember Kurt’s bedroom. It was tidier than the rest of his disordered house, although there was an acoustic guitar tossed on the unmade bed and stacks of baby pictures everywhere. I inadvertently sat in his favorite chair and he politely asked me to move–his back was acting up again.
Kurt was five foot six and weighed only 125 pounds. He curled up in his armchair like a china doll in a protective box. He was working his way through a quart of Haagen-Dazs Peanut Butter Burst. He smoked a steady supply of Merit Ultra Lights. (Typically, Kurt had completely changed his mind and returned to prerolled cigarettes–although he preferred Camel Lights and Chesterfield Lights.)
I was eating a Creamsicle he had given me downstairs, pulled from a refrigerator full of Gatorade and TV dinners. There was no garbage can in the bedroom. When I asked Kurt what I should do with the wooden Creamsicle stick, he took it and padded off to the bathroom. Using the bathroom later on, I discovered there was no garbage can there either–he just dropped the stick in the toilet. Not wanting to be responsible for blocking up Kurt and Courtney’s plumbing, I fished it out and stuck it in a pocket. There was also no toilet paper.
In Utero had quickly become a totem for me, music I played when I felt like defying the world. I told Kurt that I could listen to the album over and over without getting tired of it. He shrugged off the compliment, saying that he couldn’t. When I said my favorite line on the album was the “Pennyroyal Tea” lyric “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally,” Kurt just smiled.
When I first heard the news of Kurt’s suicide, I couldn’t believe he was dead. After being told a dozen times in the past year that Kurt Cobain was a corpse or that Nirvana had broken up, I had learned to shrug off stray rumors. And although I could imagine an accidental overdose, a suicide barely seemed plausible–the Kurt I knew took pleasure in too many things. It’s not like he hadn’t told me about feeling suicidal from stomach pain and wanting to blow his head off. It’s just that I had assumed–hoped–that he got those urges out of his systems by taking his medicine and writing songs like “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.”
Kurt was looking forward to Nirvana’s next album, which he wanted to be a departure for them, completely different, “really bizarre,” maybe using an oboe and a sampler. He doted on Frances Bean’s every waking moment, as she learned to talk and clamber around the house. He was trying to find a place to bring her up so she wouldn’t have to relive his own childhood traumas. “Just having a baby makes you so much more optimistic,” he said. Most of all, he was deeply in love with Courtney. My clearest memory of Kurt is him glowing with delight as he described his wife and my being jealous at the state of marital bliss he had achieved. Kurt told me not to worry–one day I’d find somebody who made me as happy as Courtney made him.
Within minutes of Kurt’s death being announced, people were trading jokes–dead men don’t wear plaid–and sneering at a pampered rock star who couldn’t handle fame. I thought they sounded unusually defensive, trying to ward off his death however they could. If you had listened to Nevermind over and over, if you had ever let his music into your life, then Kurt’s suicide spoke to the darkest part of your soul. Kurt had once sung of missing the comfort of being sad; now he had forcibly stated that death was the ultimate extension of that equation.
Kurt was the first rock star of the MTV generation to die: not just somebody I admired, but a peer. He wasn’t supposed to leave yet. I don’t believe anybody kills himself because he’s not as committed to live shows as Freddie Mercury was. Kurt’s suicide note gave excuses, not reasons. I couldn’t pretend to decipher his motivations, so I tried to will him back to life with scattered memories.
I remembered how he always poked holes in sweaters so he could stick his thumbs through the sleeves. I remembered how he stirred his vodka-and-Sprite with his right index finger. I remembered how clutter followed him wherever he went, Pigpen-style. I remembered how he cracked open one of his gold records so he could hear the music on the gilded vinyl. It turned out to be not Nirvana but a classical album.
Even after CNN confirmed that the decomposing body was Kurt, I tried to pretend the news wasn’t real–just another ugly rumor. Then I started playing Kurt’s music, and I nearly threw up listening to his anguished scream. Switchblades twisted inside my stomach, half my pain, half his. I still can’t listen to “Come As You Are” all the way through. “And I swear I don’t have a gun/No, I don’t have a gun,” Kurt sings over and over, and I can only wish it were true.
I talk to people who are angry that Kurt copped out, that he left Frances Bean without a father, that he didn’t provide his audience with a method to conquer his own problems. I just miss him a lot. I find myself listening to “Something in the Way” while I say a quiet prayer for Kurt, hoping that he’s been released from his agonies and found that Leonard Cohen afterworld he dreamed of.
Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published as “Remembering Kurt” in the June 1994 issue of Details.