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.
“It’s a much different thing here, with the rock scene,” says Sub Pop publicist and former Nirvana fan club head Nils Bernstein about the process of mourning. “It’s one thing to suffer these losses on your own, and another to do it with MTV in your face. People who didn’t know Kurt feel like they did. His death is an ongoing event.”
Bernstein, who holds to the Sub Pop view that Cobain was “suicidal forever,” is tired and would like to retreat to Linda’s Tavern and drink a Red Hook with a tight circle of friends. But in a painful coincidence, this is the Saturday long since scheduled as the date of Sub Pop’s sixth anniversary party. “Yesterday, everyone was pretty dazed,” he says. “Everyone just got drunk.” They’ll do the same tonight at the Crocodile Café, at a party that becomes a wake in a sideways manner well after the camera crews have abandoned their positions outside the windows: no speeches, no photographs held aloft, just old buddies getting around to the subject gradually.
“There was a great vibe there,” says Warnick the next day. “It would always come into the conversation, but everyone was very respectful of everyone else. It was really insulated very well.” Warnick’s right—the party felt better by far than any other moment in the weekend following Cobain’s death. For a semi-outsider like me, born and raised in Seattle but now a decade gone, it felt like a welcome earned by my willingness to be cool. Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop, Warnick’s husband Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and numerous other band members, label types, and writers—all would smile, give a brief hug, murmur, “Weird day, isn’t it?” and move on to more manageable subjects.
The jovial skepticism, downing another microbrew and telling a joke rather than analyzing or grieving too obviously, was pure Seattle. Native Northwesterners cultivate this say-no-more attitude, the roots of which I always identify in the historic drive toward seclusion that pushed the area’s pioneers across the map. It’s not the rain—it’s the mountains. A full, snow-capped range on either side of the municipal area. They hold us in.
Seattle’s indie-rock scene reenacts, on a smaller level, the balancing act inherent in every Northwest community, whether as big as Seattle or as small as Cobain’s native Aberdeen, between the interdependency of an isolated group and solitary individuals’ preference for total self-reliance. “It’s a really tight community,” says one local scenester, “but when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure how much people will help each other.” Her words make me think about the phrase that I’ve come to consider Kurt Cobain’s motto, from “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”: “Hate, hate your enemies, save, save your friends.” This phrase means to build a fortress around a group of like-minded people; the problems come when you find yourself at odds with your friends and thrown into contact with strangers who may or may not be enemies (and if you fear the world it’s very hard to tell).
The Northwest’s growth over the past decade, attributable partly to rock’s ascendancy but mostly to the encroachment of Microsoft and other software companies, has shifted the area’s balance. It’s become a mecca for the young, the affluent, a forest of espresso stands and specialty boutiques. Yet at heart, it remains a company town—Cobain’s death was bumped off the top of the news Saturday morning by the unveiling of Boeing’s newest jet, the 777. And it retains a working-class suspicion of pretense and opportunism that’s shared by the musicians and even the businesspeople who dominate Seattle’s rock world. So they find a way to stand outside themselves, as if all this success wasn’t happening to them, almost as if they don’t want it.
“People don’t let each other cross over the line, away from reality,” says Ken Stringfellow, whose own fine band, the Posies, embraces pop and polish much more readily than most Seattle acts. “What makes Nirvana interesting is that they didn’t have to be unrealistic to be extraordinary.” Later, though, he admits that the dichotomies don’t always work out so neatly. “Sometimes people’s skepticism overwhelms them, and they can’t enjoy what’s happened.”
“We lived cloistered away for so many years and nobody gave a damn,” Warnick adds. “And because of all the resources we have here, people are really against all the Guns N’ Roses stuff. All that compromise.”
Because of the city’s growth and Seattle’s current dominance, of course, compromise is unavoidable. But the way Seattle has become a mecca differs from the East Coast norm, in which small groups import their culture, take over a corner, and slowly integrate. There are plenty of new immigrants in the Northwest, many of them Thai or Vietnamese, but the city’s self-conception obscures these communities. And among the young, Seattle isn’t a place where you can come as you are: you come to integrate yourself into a vision based on affinities you believe you share. For someone like Kurt Cobain, the college community of Olympia and, later, Seattle represented a chance to go inside after a childhood in the cold as a small-town outcast. And perhaps inspired by his expression, kids have flocked here to join what he sardonically called “our little tribe.”
From outsider to insider, though, is always a tricky move. It’s the same jump that indie rock, the music Cobain claimed lifted him from the dung heap of conformity, keeps trying to manage. Indie never really did away with rock stars—it just located them at eye level. As a young indie fan, Cobain idolized his own favorite bands, thought of them as the basis of his community. Just like the kids who now idolize him, he didn’t perceive the gulf between artist and audience, and eventually he became part of the indie-rock elite, an elite that in many cases still denies its own elitism. But he was sensitive enough to be bothered by the distance now that he could see it between himself and the kids who thought he was lifting them out of their own shitty lives. And so he felt even more isolated.
“Kurt didn’t have any friends anymore,” says one close acquaintance. When people go over the edge, they’ve usually alienated even their most intimate companions, and at one level this remark doesn’t reflect anything beyond Cobain’s particular illness. But it also makes him an indie rocker to the core, deeply troubled by that shift into broader resonance that characterizes every successful artistic act. Rich Jensen, Sub Pop’s general manager, views the problem as a struggle with the sacred. “Kurt viewed his favorite bands as icons,” he says. “An icon is something you own, or it’s a false idol.”
The Seattle music community has been shattered by death many times in the past five years; part of the vigilant self-protectiveness I sense feels like the fear of yet another disaster. In 1990, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose. In 1991, poet and longtime scene habitué Jesse Bernstein shot himself. Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch overdosed in 1992. And last July, Gits singer Mia Zapata was found strangled on a Capitol Hill side street. Wood, Sargent, and Zapata were all the same age as or younger than Cobain, and because they hadn’t reached the level of stardom that separates people from their regular lives, their deaths were, in fact, much more directly felt among local artists. They’re remembered, too: Andy comes up in conversation at least four times over the weekend’s course; 7 Year Bitch’s soon-to-be-released C/Z album features a song about Stefanie and one about Mia. It’s even called Viva Zapata.
“Mia’s death affected all of us so much,” says Matt Dresdner, bassist for the Gits, who continue to play as a three-piece; their debut album, recorded mostly before Zapata died, is out on C/Z. “She knew so many people; so many would say, ‘Mia was my best friend.’ Person after person, and they really felt that way. She was very accessible always and very honest.”
Partly because it was a murder, Zapata’s death genuinely transformed the smaller, more local scene in which she was a leading light. A women’s self-defense program is now in place, and friends continue to raise money to investigate her murder; Nirvana even played one of the benefits, last fall at the Kind Theatre. There were also negative effects on the scene. “A lot of bands, coincidentally I imagine, broke up after she was killed,” says Dresdner. “I do think Mia was a catalyst and inspired people to do stuff.” Talking about Kurt with people in clubs and cafés, I actually feel his presence less than Zapata’s. She is mentioned over and over. Posters asking for information adorn the wall of the Comet Tavern and Moe’s; on some street corners, you can see the flyers made by friends a long time ago. There’s Mia’s warm, big, charming face, and the words: “Damn! Damn! Damn!”
These intimate shocks, which don’t draw jets full of confused rock critics and bill-waving TV tab reporters, have stayed with Seattle musicians in ways that seem to affect their daily lives. These griefs really do belong to them. Kurt Cobain’s another story. The rage Zapata’s friends feel is not for her, and it’s not existential. It’s a hopeful anger, one they can imagine doing something about.
“Fuck Kurt Cobain. I can’t get a job.”
Gregory Askew is slumped against the side wall at the Café Paradiso, Capitol Hill’s grooviest late-night caffeine station, the night of the announcement. The 20-year-old moved here from New Jersey a year or so ago, but he’s had it with bohemian utopia. “I’m going down to Eugene, just to find a mellow town where everybody’s not competing.”
Askew’s hardly the only kid who’s unimpressed with Cobain’s departure from the world; this reaction has been so common on the West Coast that the San Francisco Examiner did a feature on it Saturday. Like every generation of cool teens, these young fans have invented their own strange style of tuning out. They wear the clothes, play in the baby bands, hang out at the bars and coffee houses, all the while perfecting the art of indifference. When that lackadaisical attitude is personified in figures like Winona and Ethan or Courtney and Kurt, the kids still look up. But they keep their glances quiet and speculative.
In Seattle, these teen-to-twentysomethings are major players in moving the economy from industry to service, working in the bars and record stores they frequent, maintaining the circular flow of cash. “They’re making the town what they thought it would be,” says Rich Jensen as he sits in one of the current hot spots, a laundromat-café called Sit & Spin. Sub Pop’s inexhaustible entrepreneurship is just one example of the attitude: you want a job, open a store. It’s indie at its most vibrant, a culture tossed up in storefronts and basement rooms.
But some kids, like Askew, remain discouraged. The recession hit Seattle a little later than the rest of the country—Boeing laid off 11 percent of its work force last year and there were quieter adjustments at Microsoft as well—and although slacker jobs may seem unlimited, there are only so many gigs available pulling espresso. One Paradiso customer, 16-year-old Nathan Hatch, escaped from a dreary life much like the young Cobain’s to find some people “even close to weird.” He dropped out of school in Elma, near Aberdeen, in ninth grade, and moved to Portland with a skater dude named Paul. Now he’s looking for janitorial work. “I’m hopeful,” he says. “But I’m pretty drunk right now.”
Busy with their own anxieties, Seattle’s club kids don’t seem interested in making Cobain a hero. Maybe, as Nils Bernstein thinks, they’re already over the mystery that not long ago fueled much of the average outcast’s passion for rock and roll. “I’ve seen 12-year-old kids on the bus discussing record deals, dollar amounts,” says Bernstein. “The know way, way, way more than they should about the industry.”
If an idol demands distance, an icon wants to be put inside a devotee’s pocket. The kids I found who did mourn Cobain, hovering behind police lines at the house where he’d died or building shrines from candles and Raisin Bran boxes at the Sunday night vigil organized by three local radio stations, seemed to think of him more as a lost friend than as a candidate for that dreaded assignment, role model. In fact, they seemed a lot like he did: small, unsure, bowled over by the need to feel, but worried about what to say. “When we found out, my friend Blair and I went out to our fort and just played some CDs,” says Dave Johnson, a blond boy from Puyallup who’s in a baby band called Thrive. “Kurt took the wimpy way out. He could have gone somewhere to gather his thoughts. I know places like that to go.”
Johnson and about a dozen friends sit around a heap of flowers, votives, notes, and Xeroxed photographs of Kurt. The girls don’t say much; they look like they’re about to cry. The boys are enjoying all the chances to be interviewed. Even though it comes so awkwardly, through the death of a loved one, they tentatively embrace this moment of prominence. But they agree that, like Kurt, they wouldn’t be able to handle it full time.
“Being a rock star would be kinda stressful,” says Johnson. “I’m not really looking for it. I’m in it for the enjoyment and fun.” I wonder if he was inspired by Cobain’s suicide note, which Love read to the 7,000 vigilgoers in a taped message. “I haven’t felt excitement in listening to as well as creating music . . . for too many years now. The fact is, I can’t fool you, any of you.” And the weary, too-wise kids in the audience really don’t seem fooled.
The speakers at the vigil—a preacher, a poet, a suicide prevention specialist—have nothing to do with why the kids were there. Even a brief taped message from Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic seems beside the point. Only Love’s statement has a visceral effect. But the weirdness of 7,000 people standing around, looking at an empty stage, listening to a tape recording of a grieving widow and of the band they wouldn’t hear new music from again, pushes the crowd out of its grief into an anger that soon turns playful. Near the end, a bunch of kids overrun the Seattle Center’s biggest fountain, climbing on top, forming a mosh pit to no beats and no guitars. “Kurt Cobain!” they chant, then, “Fuck you!” when a security guard tries to move them along, then just “Music!” Would Kurt have felt honored by this action? Well, he was a punk, he liked disruption. But the spirit that moved these kids had nothing to do with Kurt Cobain. It was simply their own spirit, the only one they feel they can trust.
At first, after the suicide, Courtney Love tried to stay behind the veil—not simply out of decorum, but out of genuine grief. Love’s been made into such a cartoon by malevolent rivals, gossip hounds, and media whores that her strength in this ordeal has been, in some ways, its biggest shock. Because Courtney, who knows fakeness well enough to make it the major theme of Hole’s brilliant DGC debut, Live Through This (scheduled to be released, in the cruelest of ironies, today), refused in the end to play like a lady, and did something that finally made Cobain’s death—and her survival of it—seem real.
Strangely, Love performed her heroic act in absentia. The tape-recorded message she prepared for the vigil offered the weekend’s only real catharsis and not only because it bore Cobain’s pathetic, soon-to-be-famous last words. What Courtney did was argue with him, dispute the terms of his refusal; in doing so, she opened up a view of what he must have really felt, the disorder that consumed him. She would read a little from the note, then curse the words, then express her sorrow. “The worst crime I could think of would be to put people off by faking it and pretend as if I was having 100 percent fun.” “No, Kurt, the worst crime I could think of was for you to continue to be a rock star when you just . . . hated it.” Like some heroine from Euripides, furious at the gods, Courtney provided some guidance to escape the dark. Some of what she said was disturbing; she’s clearly not anywhere near solid ground yet. After reading the note, she revealed her own remorse. “We should have let him have his numbness, the thing that helped his stomach and stopped his pain, instead of stripping away his fucking skin,” she sobbed. “Just tell him he’s a fucker, say fucker, he’s a fucker. And we love him.” Courtney was the only one who made the vigil’s audience cry.
As much as the loss of Nirvana, the dissolution of the Love/Cobain partnership is an artistic tragedy. These two were exploring the male-female dynamic together, as musicians and as public figures, with insight, daring, and a sometimes fruitful incomprehension. Just as it’s mercilessly unfair to blame Love for Cobain’s death, it may be in bad taste to point out that he committed suicide the week her album was to be released. Whatever the particulars of his anger, if her career is stalled, that will also be a significant loss.
Listening to Love’s tape at the vigil, I began to think about women’s silence versus men’s, and the balance of power that causes women to speak when men feel they can remain silent. Powerful men can keep their words to themselves; power speaks for them. Part of Cobain’s personal tragedy was his inability to feel his own power; at this moment, Love’s achievement is to be able, across the black expanse of her sorrow, to maintain a sense of her own.
In his painful last love letter to a world he couldn’t grasp, Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” “That’s bullshit,” Courtney said to her ruined husband as she read the note aloud. Truth is, Cobain didn’t even burn out. He fell out of our lives, unfinished. All the media attention, the vigil and the memorials in print and the endless rounds of MTV Unplugged, only recalls his absence, the lack he stood for and could never fill.
A few years ago, a friend of mine died of a heroin overdose. He’d been long gone before he actually left the earth. His old lover said, Ted died because he could never find the words to say what he really wanted. Kurt’s whole struggle, the same one rock’s going through in its most serious moments these days, was to cut into himself until he found a vocabulary that might offer those words. Sometimes a few of them would gush forth. In the end, though, silence swallowed him alive.
Originally published in the April 19, 1994, issue of The Village Voice.