Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story
Beyond The Myths: In his new book, Seattle author Charles Cross details Kurt Cobain's tragic path of pain and fame
When the tortured, inspired life of rock star Kurt Cobain ended in the spring of 1994, a music world and a generation of fans mourned the loss of an artistic genius. Among them was Seattle author Charles R. Cross, who, as editor of The Rocket entertainment magazine, had chronicled the rise of Cobain and the Northwest scene that bore him. In "Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain" (Hyperion), Cross traces the musician's path from its humble beginning in small-town Washington to its chilling conclusion in the greenhouse of his lakeside mansion. Drawing from extensive interviews with family and friends, mounds of official records and Cobain's own journals, Cross tells a compelling tale of passion and creation, addiction and depression, desperation and destruction. What follows is an abridgement from many chapters of that tale — a story full of painful questions and incomplete answers.
THERE HAD NEVER quite been a rock star like Kurt Cobain. He was more an anti-star than a celebrity, refusing to take a limo to NBC and bringing a thrift-store sensibility to everything he did. When he and his band Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live, Kurt wore the same clothes from the previous two days: a pair of Converse tennis shoes, jeans with big holes in the knees, a T-shirt advertising an obscure band and a Mister Rogers-style cardigan sweater. He hadn't washed his hair for a week, but had dyed it with strawberry Kool-Aid, which made his blond locks look like they'd been matted with dried blood. Never before in the history of live television had a performer put so little care into his appearance or hygiene, or so it seemed.
Growing up in a small town in southwestern Washington state, Kurt had never missed an episode of Saturday Night Live, and had bragged to his friends in junior high school that one day he'd be a star. A decade later, he was the most celebrated figure in music. After just his second album he was being hailed as the greatest songwriter of his generation; only two years before, he'd been turned down for a job cleaning dog kennels.
Aberdeen, Washington, February 1967
KURT DONALD Cobain was born on the 20th of February, 1967, in a hospital on a hill overlooking Aberdeen, Washington. His parents lived in neighboring Hoquiam, but it was appropriate that Aberdeen stand as Kurt's birthplace — he would spend three quarters of his life within 10 miles of the hospital and would be forever profoundly connected to this landscape.
By his second Christmas, Kurt was already showing an interest in music. His mother Wendy's older brother Chuck was in a band called The Beachcombers. His Aunt Mari played guitar, and great-uncle Delbert had a career as an Irish tenor, even appearing in the movie "The King Of Jazz." Kurt was fascinated by the family jam sessions. His aunts and uncles recorded him singing the Beatles' "Hey Jude," Arlo Guthrie's "Motorcycle Song'' and the theme to "The Monkees'' television show. Kurt enjoyed making up his own lyrics, even as a toddler. When he was four, upon his return from a trip to the park with Mari, he sat down at the piano and crafted a crude song about their adventure.
Like many couples who married young, his parents Don and Wendy were two people overwhelmed by circumstance. Their two children became the center of their lives, and what little romance had existed in the short time they'd had prior to their kids was hard to rekindle. The financial pressures daunted Don, who worked at a service station at the time; Wendy was consumed by caring for the children. They began to argue more and to yell at each other increasingly.
When Kurt was in second grade, his parents and teacher decided his endless energy might have a larger medical root. Kurt's pediatrician was consulted and red dye 2 was removed from his diet. When there was no improvement, his parents limited Kurt's sugar intake. Finally, his doctor prescribed Ritalin, which Kurt took for three months. "He was hyperactive,'' his sister Kim recalled. "He was bouncing off the walls, particularly if you got any sugar in him.''
In February 1976, just a week after Kurt's ninth birthday, Wendy informed Don she wanted a divorce. To Kurt, it was an emotional holocaust. "Rather than outwardly express his anguish and grief, Kurt turned inward," his Aunt Mari remembered. That June, Kurt wrote on his bedroom wall: "I hate Mom, I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom, Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you want to be so sad.''
The divorce was hard on Kurt physically as well. Mari recalled Kurt in the hospital during this time; she'd heard from her mother he was there as a result of not eating enough. Kurt told his friends he had to drink Barium and get his stomach X-rayed. It's possible this was the first symptom of a stomach disorder that would plague him later in life and that his mother had also suffered from.
For his 14th birthday, his Uncle Chuck told Kurt he could have either a bicycle or an electric guitar. To a boy who drew pictures of rock stars in his notebook, it was no choice at all. Kurt had already destroyed a Hawaiian lap guitar of his father's; he had taken it apart to study the internal workings.
The guitar Chuck bought him wasn't much better: It was a cheap second-hand Japanese model. It often broke, but to Kurt it was the air that he breathed. That same year Kurt began to make his own short films, using his father's Super 8 camera. One of his first productions was an elaborate Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" ripoff that showed aliens — played by figures Kurt sculpted with clay — landing in the Cobain backyard. In a film he made in 1982, a teenage Kurt pretends to cut his wrists with the edge of a torn-in-half pop can. The gruesome film simply added ammunition to concerns his parents already had about a darkness they saw inside him. "There was something wrong,'' his stepmother Jenny argued, "something wrong with his thought process even from the beginning, something unbalanced.''
Kurt's experimentation with drugs commenced in the eighth grade when he started smoking marijuana and using LSD. By ninth grade he was a full-on pothead. Marijuana was cheap and plentiful in Grays Harbor — most of it homegrown — and it helped Kurt forget his home life.
Kurt was living with his father when Don remarried; eventually Kurt left home and began to stay with other relatives. Kurt would spend the next few years bouncing around the metaphorical wilderness of Grays Harbor. Though he'd make two stops that were a year in length, over the next four years he would live in 10 different houses, with 10 different families. Not one of them would feel like home.
Aberdeen, Washington, 1983
Kurt began to play guitar as a teenager, and music soon took on a larger role in his life — he also played the drums in his high-school band. His tastes initially veered toward what he called the "butt rock" he heard on KISW (a Seattle station whose signal made it all the way to Aberdeen at night), but by 1983 his tastes and musical influences had widened.
IN THE SUMMER of 1983 Kurt discovered punk rock, which would soon be a balm for much of his internal emotional pain. He wrote in his journal:
"I remember hanging out at a Montesano, Washington, Thriftway when this short-haired employee box-boy, who kind of looked like the guy in Air Supply, handed me a flyer that read: `The Them Festival. Tomorrow night in the parking lot behind Thriftway. Free live rock music.' Monte was a place not accustomed to having live rock acts in their little village, a population of a few thousand loggers and their subservient wives. I showed up with stoner friends in a van. And there stood the Air Supply box-boy holding a Les Paul (guitar) with a picture from a magazine of Kool Cigarettes on it. They played faster than I ever imagined music could be played and with more energy than my Iron Maiden records could provide. This was what I was looking for."
Kurt was describing Roger "Buzz" Osborne, lead guitarist of the Melvins, Grays Harbor's only punk band of the day. They had started the year before, naming themselves, mockingly, after another employee at the Thriftway. In 1983, the Melvins had no real fan base. Yet a dozen impressionable boys would gather around their practice space behind drummer Dale Crover's house in Aberdeen.
Music became the driving force of Kurt's life, particularly after his mother kicked him out of her house at 17. He was a junior in high school at the time, failing his classes, and with no money or prospects — he carried his material possessions around in four Hefty bags. Seven years later he would write a song about this period and title it "Something In The Way.'' The song implies that the singer is living under a bridge. It would eventually become one of the touchstones of his cultural biography, one of his single most powerful pieces of myth-making: This kid was so unwanted he lived under a bridge. It was a potent and dark image, made all the more resonant when Nirvana became famous and pictures began to appear in magazines of the underside of the Young Street Bridge in Aberdeen, its rank, fetid nature apparent even in photographs. It looked like something a troll would live under, not a child. The bridge was only two blocks from his mother's house, a distance, as Kurt told it, that no amount of love could cross.
The "living under the bridge story," however, was greatly embellished by Kurt in the telling. "He never lived under that bridge," insisted Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, who met Kurt in school that year. "He hung out there, but you couldn't live on those muddy banks, with the tides coming up and down.'' The truth was, there were many old apartment buildings in Aberdeen with central heating in the hallways, and this is where he would retreat most nights.
In December 1985, Kurt began to rehearse some of the songs he'd written, with Dale Crover on bass and Greg Hokanson on drums. He called this grouping Fecal Matter, and it was his first real band. He persuaded Crover to accompany him on a trip to Aunt Mari's to tape some of the songs. Having the actual tape in his hand was tangible proof to him that he had talent. Nonetheless, Fecal Matter broke up without ever playing a single gig.
The idea of forming a new band was a constant refrain in his head. On a dozen occasions during 1987, he had traveled as a roadie with the Melvins to gigs in Olympia, where he observed an enthusiastic audience for punk rock, albeit a small one. Once he made it all the way to Seattle with the band. It was a taste of a larger world. Being a Melvins roadie was not a glamorous job: There was no money or groupies to speak of, and Osborne was infamous for treating everyone like a servant. But it was an abuse Kurt gladly withstood, as there was little that escaped his study. Kurt had pride developing, particularly when it came to his guitar playing; as he carried Buzz's amp, he imagined the roles reversed. He practiced every moment he could, and the fact he was getting better was one of the only avenues to self-confidence he found. His hopes were rewarded when Osborne and Crover asked him to jam with them in Olympia, at the closing night of a club named Gessco. Though only about 20 people witnessed the show, the night would mark his debut performance in front of a paying audience.
That year Kurt moved to Olympia to live with his new girlfriend, Tracy Marander, in a studio apartment. Being unemployed, Kurt set in motion a routine he would follow for the rest of his life. He would rise at around noon and eat a brunch of sorts. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was his favorite food. After eating, he would spend the rest of the day doing one of three things: watching television, which he did unceasingly; practicing his guitar, which he did for hours a day, usually while watching TV; or creating some kind of art project, be it a painting, collage or three-dimensional installation.
By 1987, his new band, soon to be named Nirvana, was going strong with Novoselic on bass and Aaron Burckhard on drums. They began to play regularly at the Community World Theater in Tacoma, though to suggest that they built an audience there would be an exaggeration. The theater itself was a former porno movie house that soon thereafter would go out of business and become a church.
It would be under the name Nirvana that the band would first gain attention in Seattle. Kurt passed a demo tape to Jonathan Poneman, co-owner of Sub Pop, the Northwest independent record label. Poneman took the cassette to his partner Bruce Pavitt at the Muzak Corporation, day job of choice for many members of Seattle's rock elite. Poneman auditioned the tape for those present, including Mark Arm of the band Mudhoney. They gave it the thumbs down. Still, Poneman was able to schedule Nirvana on the bottom of a bill at a small Seattle club called the Vogue for one of the label's monthly "Sub Pop Sunday" showcases. These $2-cover showcases featured three bands, though the beer specials were as big a part of the draw as the music.
Most of the members of the Seattle rock establishment thought the band stank. Perhaps the harshest critic of the band's performance, as always, was Kurt himself. On the ride home, Kurt discussed the show as their first real setback and vowed they'd never be so embarrassed again.
Over the next year the band practiced and toured incessantly. By 1989, Nirvana was beginning to draw large crowds, at least at their shows in the Northwest. In the next year they would release Bleach, their first album, and see their reputation grow beyond Seattle as "grunge" became a worldwide phenomenon.
NIRVANA RETURNED to Seattle to play a more successful show on Feb. 25, 1989, at the University of Washington. Billed as "Four Bands for Four Bucks," the show drew Nirvana's biggest crowd to date, an audience of about 600. It was during Nirvana's set that the crowd went wild. Seattle audiences had begun to slamdance in the late '80s. When the crowd was large enough, waves of people would begin to slam off each other. Nirvana's frenzied sound made the perfect soundtrack for slamdancing, since they never slowed down and rarely even paused between numbers. When the occasional fan would climb onstage and then jump back into the audience — called stage-diving — the ritualistic dance was complete. Kurt calmly sang and played while dozens of kids jumped onstage, only to jump right off. It was organized confusion (a name that Kurt had fantasized about using for Nirvana), but this was exactly what Kurt had dreamed of: Using his music to create chaos.
By mid-1989, the Northwest music scene began to gain international attention, greased by some smart moves by Sub Pop's Pavitt and Poneman, who were showing that their real brilliance wasn't in running a label but in marketing one. Their very concept of calling their annual showcase "Lamefest" was a stroke of genius. It immediately disarmed any possible criticism, while appealing to disaffected music fans who wore T-shirts that read "loser." Despite the poor state of Sub Pop's bank account, in early 1988 they'd sprung for plane tickets for a few British rock critics to take a holiday in Seattle. It was money well spent. Within weeks, Sub Pop bands were in the English music weeklies, and bands like Mudhoney were stars, at least in Britain, of the "grunge" movement. The term was meant to describe loud, distorted punk, but it was soon used to categorize virtually every band from the Northwest, even those like Nirvana, who were in truth more pop. Kurt hated the term, but the hype machine had begun in earnest, and the Northwest scene grew. Though there were few venues to play in Seattle, each show became an event, and the crowds became exponentially larger.
Nevermind: Fall, 1991
By the fall of 1991, everything about Kurt's world had changed: He was now a burgeoning star and Nirvana was the hottest thing in popular music. The band's "Nevermin" album, released in September, had vaulted up the record charts, buoyed by the stunning success of the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In an early draft of that song Kurt had included a lyric that went, "Who will be the king and queen of the outcasted teens?" He clearly was the king. Soon he would find his queen. He had met Courtney Love in Portland a couple of years earlier, but it was in the fall of 1991 that their romance began in earnest.
ON OCT. 12, Courtney Love boarded a plane in Los Angeles and flew to Chicago. She spent her last $10 on a cab to the Metro Club, where she was surprised to find Nirvana on the bill. She watched the final 15 minutes of Nirvana's set, which basically involved Kurt smashing the drum kit, all the time wondering what made this boy so angry. After the show she made her way to a backstage party, where she beelined for Kurt.
They left the club together and walked along Lake Michigan, eventually ending up at the Days Inn. Kurt told Courtney he could count his previous lovers on one hand. She was as shocked by this fact as anything else he said; she came from a Sunset Strip world where sex was as casually offered as a ride home from a gig.
Ironically, Kurt's confidantes thought he was slumming to become involved with her; Courtney's friends felt the same about her dating him. Their individual stories had a familiar feel, and when Courtney described a childhood that included neglect, being shuttled between divorced parents, and struggles in school, it was a terrain Kurt knew.
As they began to date that fall, their relationship took a more destructive bent: Kurt brought up the idea of doing heroin together. They scored dope, went to his hotel, prepared the drugs and he injected her — Courtney couldn't stand to handle a needle herself, so Kurt, a former needle-phobe, handled things for himself and her. After getting high they went out walking and came upon a dead bird. Kurt pulled three feathers off the animal and passed one to Courtney, holding the two others in his hand. "This is for you, this is for me,'' he said. And then holding the third feather in his hand he added, "and this is for our baby we're gonna have.''
But Kurt already had another mistress. By the fall of 1991 heroin was no longer a recreational weekend escape for him; instead it was part of an ongoing daily addiction. Later, Kurt sat down and, for the sake of a treatment program he was enrolled in, detailed his entire drug history. It begins:
"When I got back from our second European Tour with Sonic Youth, I decided to use heroine (sic) on a daily basis because of an ongoing stomach ailment that I had been suffering from for the past five years (and that) had literally taken me to the point of wanting to kill myself. For five years, every single day of my life, every time I swallowed a piece of food, I would experience an excruciating, burning, nauseous pain in the upper part of my stomach lining. The pain became even more severe on tour, due to lack of a proper and regimented eating schedule and diet. Since the beginning of this disorder, I've had 10 upper and lower gastrointestinal procedures, which found an enflamed irritation in the same place. I consulted 15 different doctors, and tried about 50 different types of ulcer medication. The only thing I found that worked were heavy opiates. There were many times that I found myself literally incapacitated, in bed for weeks, vomiting and starving. So I decided, if I feel like a junkie as it is, I may as well be one."
His timing put the start of his full-fledged addiction at the beginning of September 1991, the month of the release of "Nevermind."
The Last Rehab
Kurt and Courtney married in early 1992, and they had a daughter in August. During most of that year, Kurt was in a drug haze and Nirvana remained on hiatus. By the fall the band was back together again and Kurt was temporarily clean. The band played a triumphant homecoming show on Sept. 11, 1992 at the Seattle Center Coliseum to glowing reviews. Nirvana recorded its follow-up to "Nevermind" in February of 1993, and when "In Utero" was released it was a critical and commercial success, though it failed to sell as quickly as "Nevermind." Kurt reluctantly went on tour to promote the album during the fall of 1993. While on the European leg of that tour, in March 1994 Kurt attempted suicide in Rome. Less than a month later, he agreed to go back into treatment, though several earlier attempts at rehab had already failed to curb his drug addiction.
EXODUS RECOVERY Center was a Los Angeles-area rehab favored by rock stars. Kurt checked in for what was scheduled to be a 28-day program.
On his first morning, he began his course of treatment, which consisted of group therapy meetings and individual therapy with his substance-abuse counselor, Nial Stimson. "He was totally in denial that he had a heroin problem," Stimson said.
During that afternoon, Kurt was visited by nanny Jackie Farry and his daughter Frances Bean Cobain. Courtney, who was across town going through rehab at a different facility, did not visit because her physician had advised against it in the early stages of Kurt's sobriety. Frances was 19 months old at the time; Kurt played with her but Farry noticed that he seemed out of it, and she assumed it was because of drugs the center had given him to help with withdrawal. They came back on the next morning at 11, and Jackie found Kurt looking surprisingly rested. "He was in this incredibly happy mood, which I just didn't get," Farry recalled. "I was thinking, `God, for one second, maybe he really is for real this time.' He was laying it on thick, saying all these incredibly complimentary things to me and being really positive. And that wasn't his deal — sitting around and trying to make the world look great. Usually he was kind of grumpy. But I just took it as a sign that it was a positive 24-hour turnaround."
Farry went down the hall for a moment, thinking she would give the two of them time alone together. When she returned, Kurt was holding Frances over his shoulder, patting her on the back, and sweetly talking in her ear. Farry gathered Frances and told Kurt they'd see him the next day. He walked them to the door, looked his daughter in the eyes, and said, "Good-bye."
That afternoon, Courtney repeatedly tried to reach Kurt on the patients' pay phone. She finally called when he was near it, and they had a short conversation. "No matter what happens," he told her, "I want you to know that you made a really good album." She found it odd he would mention this, since her record wouldn't be released for another week. "What do you mean?" she asked, confused at the melodrama in his voice. "Just remember, no matter what, I love you." With that, he hung up.
Later that evening, he walked out the back door of Exodus, climbed the 6-foot wall and was gone. Two hours after he jumped the fence, Kurt used his credit card to buy a first-class ticket to Seattle.
Courtney was already searching L.A. for him, convinced as soon as she heard word he'd left Exodus that he was going to score drugs and potentially overdose.
Meanwhile, Kurt was on the plane. He found himself sitting next to Duff McKagan, of the band Guns `N' Roses. McKagan had begun his career in several Northwest punk bands, and despite all the bad blood between Nirvana and Guns, Kurt seemed happy to see Duff. Kurt admitted he had left rehab. "I knew from all my instincts something was wrong," McKagan said. The two talked about mutual friends but there was also a wistfulness to the conversation. "We were talking about what it feels like to be going back home," McKagan recalled. "That's what he said he was doing, `going home.' " When the plane arrived in Seattle, McKagan went to ask if Kurt needed a ride, but when he turned around, Kurt was gone.
Kurt arrived home at 1:45 in the morning on Saturday, April 2, walking up the driveway to his mansion in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood. He and Courtney had bought the $1.1 million house on Lake Washington Boulevard less than three months before. If he did sleep, it wasn't for long: At around 6 a.m., as dawn broke, he appeared in Cali DeWitt's room on the first floor of the house. Cali, a former roadie with Courtney's band Hole, was originally hired as a nanny for Frances. That morning, he was at the mansion with girlfriend Jessica Hopper, and had passed out from partying the previous night.
Kurt walked into Cali's room and sat on the end of the bed. Jessica woke, but not Cali. "Hey skinhead girl," Kurt sang to Jessica, mimicking the lyrics to a punk song. Jessica implored Kurt, "Call Courtney! You've got to call Courtney; she's freaking out." She grabbed a number off a table, handed it to him, and watched as Kurt dialed. The hotel operator announced Courtney wasn't taking any calls. "This is her husband. Let me through," Kurt demanded. Kurt had forgotten the code name that was needed to reach his wife. He kept repeating, "This is her husband," but the hotel operator wouldn't let him through. Frustrated, he hung up.
Twenty minutes later, Kurt called Graytop Cab. He told the driver he had "recently been burgled and needed bullets." They drove downtown, but seeing as it was 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, sporting goods stores were closed. Kurt asked the driver to take him to 145th and Aurora, saying he was hungry. Most likely Kurt checked into either the Crest or Quest Motels, places he had stayed before — they were near one of his dealers. That day he also went to a gun store on Aurora and bought a box of 20-gauge shotgun shells.
Over the next two days there were scattered sightings of Kurt. On Sunday evening he was seen at the Cactus Restaurant in Madison Park having dinner with a thin woman and an unidentified man. After Kurt finished his meal, he licked his plate, which attracted the attention of other patrons.
In Los Angeles, Courtney was attempting to do press, despite the fact that she was again going through a hotel detox. On Monday, she met with Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times to talk about Hole's new album, "Live Through This." She kept sobbing during the interview, and a Narcotics Anonymous handbook sat on her coffee table.
Courtney phoned Kurt's old friend Dylan Carlson, who reported he hadn't heard from Kurt. Courtney thought Dylan was lying, and she kept challenging him. But her attitude didn't seem to change his demeanor and he flatly said, "The last time I saw him was when he was going to L.A. and we bought the shotgun." Kurt had convinced Dylan to buy him a shotgun — arguing that it was for "protection" — the day he flew to Exodus for rehab. It was the first Courtney had heard of a gun, and she became hysterical. She phoned Seattle Police and filed a missing person's report, claiming she was Kurt's mother. Courtney asked the police to check their Lake Washington home, and officers drove by several times, but saw no activity.
On Monday night Cali left the house for the evening, leaving Jessica alone in his room. Around midnight she heard noises. "I heard footsteps upstairs and in the hall," she recalled. "They were walking with a purpose, you know, not tip-toeing about, so I assumed it was Kurt." She called out "hello" into the darkness of the hallway, but heard no answer and returned to Cali's bedroom. Jessica and Cali had been lectured by Courtney that as "staff" they should stick to Cali's room. Cali didn't return until after 3 a.m., and he and Jessica slept late the next morning.
On Tuesday afternoon, Courtney sent Hole's Eric Erlandson to the Lake Washington house to look for Kurt. He burst into the house like a big lightning bolt and told them to search every nook and cranny, because Kurt had stashed a shotgun: He specifically insisted they look in a secret compartment in the back of the master bedroom closet, which Courtney had told him Kurt used. They found the compartment but no guns. They also searched a mattress for a hole Kurt had cut in it to store drugs — it was empty. No one thought to search the garage or greenhouse.
Courtney continued to phone home, but her calls went unanswered. On Wednesday, April 6, she told private investigator Tom Grant she thought Cali might be hiding Kurt. Grant flew to Seattle that night, picked up Dylan Carlson, and together they checked a dealer's apartment, the Marco Polo, the Seattle Inn, and the Crest, but found no sign of Kurt. At 2:15 a.m. Thursday they searched the Lake Washington house, entering through a kitchen window. The temperature outside had dropped to 45, but it seemed colder inside than outdoors. They went from room to room and found the bed unmade in the master bedroom, but cold to the touch. Not seeing any sign of Kurt, they left at 3 a.m., without searching the grounds or garage.
The Final Hours
TWO DAYS EARLIER, in the predawn hours of Tuesday, April 5, Kurt Cobain had awoken in his own bed, the pillows still smelling of Courtney's perfume. He had on his comfy "Half Japanese" T-shirt (advertising a Baltimore punk band), his favorite pair of Levis, and, as he sat on the edge of the bed, he laced up the only pair of shoes he owned — they were Converse sneakers.
The television was on, tuned to MTV, but the sound was off. He walked over to the stereo and put on R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People," turning the volume down so that Michael Stipe's voice sounded like a friendly whisper in the background. He lit a Camel Light and fell back on the bed with a legal-sized notepad propped on his chest and a fine-point red pen. He had already written a long personal letter to his wife and daughter that he'd jotted down while in Exodus; he'd brought this letter all the way back to Seattle and had stuck it under one of those perfume-infused pillows. "You know, I love you," he wrote in that letter. "I love Frances. I'm so sorry. Please don't follow me. I'm sorry, sorry, sorry." He had repeatedly lettered "I'm sorry," filling an entire page with this plea. "I'll be there," he continued. "I'll protect you. I don't know where I'm going. I just can't be here anymore."
That note had been hard enough to write, but he knew this second missive would be far more important. He used tiny, deliberate characters, and wrote in a straight line without the benefit of rules. He composed the words very methodically, making sure each was clear and easy to read. He had filled half the page before he mentioned his family: ". . . I have a goddess of a wife who sweats ambition and empathy and a daughter who reminds me too much of what I used to be. Full of love and joy, kissing every person she meets because everyone is good and will do her no harm. And that terrifies me to the point where I can barely function. I can't stand the thought of Frances becoming a miserable, self-destructive, death rocker that I've become. I have it good, very good, and I'm grateful, but since the age of 7 I've become hateful toward all humans in general. Only because it seems so easy for people to get along, and have empathy. Empathy! Only because I love and feel for people too much I guess. Thank you all from the pit of my burning nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the past years. I'm too much of an erratic moody baby! I don't have the passion anymore and so remember, it's better to burn out than to fade away."
When he put the pen down, he had filled all but two inches of the page. It had taken three cigarettes to draft the note. The words hadn't come easy, and there were misspellings and half-completed sentences. He didn't have the time to rewrite this letter 20 times like he had many of the letters in his journals: it was getting brighter outside and he needed to act before the rest of the world woke. He signed it "peace, love, empathy. Kurt Cobain," printing his name out rather than using a signature. He underlined "empathy" twice; he had used this one word five times. He wrote one more line — "Frances and Courtney, I'll be at your altar" — and stuck the paper and pen into his left coat pocket.
He rose from the bed and entered the closet, where he removed a board from the wall. In this secret cubbyhole sat a beige nylon gun case, a box of shotgun shells, and a Tom Moore cigar box. He replaced the board, put the shells in his pocket, grabbed the cigar box, and cradled the heavy shotgun over his left forearm. In a hallway closet, he grabbed two towels; he didn't need these, but someone would. Empathy. He quietly walked down the 19 steps of the wide staircase. He had thought this all through, mapped it out with the same forethought he put into his album covers and videos. There would be blood, lots of blood, and a mess, which he didn't want in his house.
As he headed into the kitchen he passed the doorjamb where he and Courtney had begun keeping track of how tall Frances had grown. In the kitchen he opened the door of his $10,000 Traulson stainless steel refrigerator and grabbed a can of Barq's root beer, making sure not to lose grip of the shotgun. Carrying his unthinkable load — root beer, towels, a box of heroin and a shotgun, which would later be found next to him — he opened the door to the backyard and walked across the small patio. Dawn was breaking and mist hung close to the ground. He strolled the 20 paces to the greenhouse, climbed the wooden steps and opened the rear set of French doors. The floor was linoleum: it would be easy to clean. Empathy. This had always been the thing he kept in the back of his mind, like a precious salve, as the only cure for a pain that would not go away. He didn't care about freedom from want: He wanted freedom from pain.
He sat thinking about these things for many minutes. He smoked five Camel Lights. He drank several sips of his root beer. He grabbed the note from his pocket. There was still a little room on it. He laid it on the linoleum floor. He had to write in larger letters, which weren't as straight, because of the surface he was on. He managed to scratch out a few more words: "Please keep going Courtney, for Frances, for her life which will be so much happier without me. I love you. I love you." Those last words, written larger than anything else, had completed the sheet. He laid the note on top of a pile of potting soil, and stabbed the pen through the middle, so that like a stake it held the paper aloft over the soil.
He took the shotgun out of its soft nylon case. He carefully folded the case, like a little boy putting away his best Sunday clothes after church. He took off his jacket, laid it on top of the case, and put the two towels on top of this pile. Ah, empathy, a sweet gift. He went to the sink and drew a small amount of water for his drug cooker and sat down again. He pulled the box of 25 shotgun shells open and took three out, sticking them in the magazine of the gun. He moved the action on the Remington so that one shell was in the chamber. He took off the safety.
He smoked his last Camel Light. He took another sip of the Barq's.
Outside an overcast day was beginning — it was a day like the one in which he had first come into this world, 27 years, one month, and 16 days earlier. He grabbed his cigar box and pulled out a small plastic bag that held $200 worth of Mexican black tar heroin — it was a lot of heroin. He took half, a swab the size of a pencil eraser, and stuck it on his spoon. Methodically and expertly he prepared the heroin and his syringe, injecting it just above his elbow. He put the works back into the box and felt himself drift, rapidly floating away from this place. For a while Kurt had been a believer in Jainism and that religion preached that there were 30 heavens and seven hells, all layered throughout our lives; if he had any luck, this would be his seventh and final hell. He put his works away, floating faster and faster, feeling his breathing slow. He had to hurry now: everything was becoming hazy, and an aqua green hue framed every object. He grabbed the heavy shotgun, put it against the roof of his mouth. It would be loud; he was certain of that. And then he was gone.
Beginning today, author Charles R. Cross will be appearing at several events to discuss his book, "Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain." The schedule:
Today (Sept. 2): Bumbershoot Festival, book reading, 2:15 to 3:15 p.m.
Tomorrow (Sept. 3): Bumbershoot Festival, "Cool Panel," noon to 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 17: University Bookstore, book signing, 4326 University Way N.E., 7 p.m.
Oct. 20-21: Northwest Bookfest, Stadium Exhibition Hall.
Adapted from "Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain," by Charles R. Cross. Copyright 2001 by Charles R. Cross. Published by Hyperion.