By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
April 19, 1994
People couldn't believe the photograph. The day after Kurt Cobain shot himself faceless in his million-dollar home, his friends and the hundreds of rosy, downcast kids who mourned him found a nasty slice of evidence on the front page of the Seattle Times: a shot taken from above the glass doors of the garage where Cobain died, revealing the suicide scene. Two detectives hover like shadows. But what's cruelly fascinating is the body. The image is only a fragment: one dirty-jean-clad leg with a white sock and a badly tied Converse, one arm from the elbow down in a light blue thrift-store shirt, one clenched fist. Near a detective's foot, another photograph can almost be seen, an official snapshot on a driver's license. The body and the license, both so small they don't seem real, feel unknowable, the definition of not enough.
"That picture was so tacky, I was shocked," says Kim Warnick on Sunday afternoon, as she bides her time until five, when the candlelight vigil would begin. Warnick fronts the longtime Seattle band the Fastbacks, and she works as a sales rep at Nirvana's former label, Sub Pop; we're discussing the media frenzy, the possible motives, the usual stuff. "But you know what really got me about it? His ID. You can see his wallet opened up to his driver's license, right by his body. Kurt didn't want any mistakes about what he was doing. He wanted to be perfectly clear."
It's a strange bit of the typical that Kurt Cobain would worry that killing himself with a shotgun was an act that might be misinterpreted. Suicide, especially one as violent as Cobain's, is the loudest possible invocation of silence; it's a perfectly clear way of turning your life into a mystery. His commitment to contradiction got him in the end, but even as he cut himself off forever he was trying to make himself speak.
Here are some facts: Kurt Cobain, 27, singer/guitarist/writer for the world's most successful "alternative" band and Seattle's current favorite non-native born Native Son, killed himself Thursday, April 7, at his home near Lake Washington. He was not the first rock star to commit suicide at the top of his game. His body was discovered by electrician Gary Smith the next morning. Cobain is survived by an angry widow, Hole singer-songwriter Courtney Love, and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, as well as his divorced parents, bandmates, and various friends in the local and national music scenes. Immediately before his suicide, he had fled from a Southern California drug-treatment facility; his path up the coast to death remains unclear. Six weeks before his death, Cobain had been hospitalized in Rome after entering a coma brought on by a mix of alcohol and prescription drugs. Shortly after that, Love called the police to Cobain's and her home because, she claimed, he was trying to kill himself. The police found four guns and 25 boxes of ammo on the premises. Six days before his body was found, Cobain's mother, Wendy O'Connor, filed a missing persons report with the Seattle police. After his death, O'Connor was quoted as saying, "I told him not to join that stupid club," a media favorite later surpassed by the last words of Cobain's suicide note: "I love you, I love you."
And now, here are some rumors, flickering around and beyond the facts: Kurt Cobain killed himself because Courtney had finally given up on him and was filing for divorce. Courtney had been in L.A. or even Seattle the day before Kurt's death, not London, as reported. Cobain had spent at least one of his last nights at his and Courtney's country house with an unidentified companion. The band had broken up at least a week before the death. He'd never really kicked heroin; the supposedly accidental overdose in March was actually a suicide attempt. He killed himself because of writer's block.
There are other facts, and other rumors. And then there is the wall. It's made of friends' grief, fans' confusion, journalists' embarrassment, and what several writers call a "veil of silence" created by Gold Mountain, Nirvana's and Hole's management company. Above all it builds off the special Northwest penchant for keeping things in. The wall looks like another photograph of Kurt, this one torn into pieces and pasted back together, nothing left intact or clear.
"Kurt Cobain is not a person," says Daniel House, owner of Seattle independent record label C/Z. "He's turned into something that represents different things for different people. I understand the press is going to be all over it, but I wish they would leave it alone completely. Because that attention is why Kurt died. He had no life, no peace, constant chaos. He had become a freak." House's view, which was duly cited in Time magazine the Monday after Cobain's death, is very popular in Seattle: Kurt had his troubles, but if his band had never exceeded normal expectations, like maybe headlining the thousand-seat Moore Theatre once a year, he could have been saved.
In our century, "fame kills" is almost a mantra; add Cobain's name to the pantheon and sign him up for a page in Hollywood Babylon. But it's hard, especially in a hometown, to pinpoint the moment when a star like Cobain slips into that nether realm, becomes flat and reproducible, something read instead of someone known. And Cobain spent his short career pulling away from this transformation, jumbling his statements, turning his back. For most stars, even the tragic ones, the transformation magnifies; for Cobain, it worked as erasure. His death can be viewed as the final step on a chain of denials that are echoed in the story of his adopted town, his scene, his generation, every one radically unwilling to speak for itself. So it's no surprise that in the days following Cobain's death, nobody emerges to speak for them. Even the journalists hesitate in the face of such grief-benumbed wordlessness.