Kurt Cobain, 1994, and the End of Grunge
The 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death this past April was given some media attention, and this triggered untapped feelings in me. When he died, I was not much bothered by it personally, although I was 20 at the time and liked Nirvana. But now that 20 years has gone by, I miss him and am finally grieving over his passing.
No one else has really ever represented my generation. That’s not to say that Kurt Cobain was the spokesperson of a generation, as his popular image in recent years has suggested. Indeed, he was tagged with this title even before his death. One prominent media figure said that at the very least he was his generation’s most somber poet laureate. That’s closer to the truth, but American youth demographics have been broad for quite long a time.
Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, and grunge, did not appeal so much to blacks, Hispanics, and the whites who loved country music. But for those of us who had been turned on by punk rock and then alternative rock, Kurt Cobain became our ambassador to the mainstream. He was not a star (as his contemporaries Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, and Scott Leiland were), he was an icon that not even his rival Eddie Vedder could hold a flame to.
For a short time, in the form of Seattle punk rock, my generation was given a voice, culturally. For Kurt Cobain, however, this was not such a sweet renaissance. For a number of reasons, he took the extraordinary step of killing himself. For years, those reasons had stirred like a cauldron within him. Millions were left wondering what those reasons really were, and how he got to that point. Over years of research, the answers have surfaced. It happened in 7 weeks that swiftly spiraled out of control.
Up through January of 1994, things had been about as usual as they could be for Kurt Cobain (if his life could ever have been described as usual). For months, he had been stoked on the record he had made with his band. As Nirvana’s songwriter, Kurt saw it as artistic vindication over their groundbreaking Nevermind album which he had been dissatisfied with. As a proud punk rocker who obsessed over artistic integrity, Kurt had been self-critical over anything that could be perceived as “selling out.” He was irritated over what he saw as the slick production of Nevermind, and for this reason didn’t see his songs as having stood on their own true merit.
When Nevermind‘s follow up, In Utero, came out in the fall of 1993, Kurt seemed as close to happy as he’d been since childhood. By the end of 1993 however, his strength was sapping, the effects of years of abuse on his psyche and body. Still, as the In Utero tour careened through America through the new year, his spirits remained up in the promotion of the album. The final US tour dates, on the 7th and 8th of January, found him in his hometown of Seattle, and by all reports, he was in a good mood.
In spite of having nearly a month to regroup before the start of Nirvana’s European tour, from the outset of February, Kurt resisted having to go on tour, but the pressures of rock stardom cajoled him into it.
For the first week in Europe, Kurt was fine, but as week one turned into week two, something went seriously awry. In the accumulation of stress brought on by fame, the obligations of his career, and the additional responsibilities that came with being a new father and husband, Kurt had grown more dependent on heroin in the past year.
All this was in addition to the litany of medical problems he had suffered over the years – from scoliosis to agonizing stomach pains – all of which led him to use heroin to begin with. Now his heroin dependency was exploding in his face. Stuck in Europe with little recourse to sustain his habit, drug withdrawal ensued. Hard drug withdrawal by itself can be excruciating and for Kurt, it was. His health issues added only more potency to it as he could not dull their symptoms without the heroin.
Meanwhile, it was becoming undeniable to Kurt that his wife, Courtney, was falling out of love with him. Kurt had a profound love for Courtney, but she saw him as choosing heroin over her. And as if this weren’t enough to exacerbate his condition, he caught wind that she was having an affair. In phone calls to each other from overseas, they already had not been getting along. Now, the fighting intensified.
Signs of desperation peppered dates leading up to his demise. The band’s photo shoot on February 13th was made unnerving by Kurt’s antics. On February 25th and again on the 27th Kurt requested to end the tour (he was rebuffed outright by band and management). On March 1st, after playing in Munich, Kurt quit the tour.
On March 4th, while on break in Italy, Kurt intentionally overdosed on a massive amount of Rohypnol, and although it didn’t kill him, it probably left him brain damaged. Back in Seattle, on March 18th, Courtney called the cops, claiming Kurt was threatening suicide. Officers were dispatched to the Cobain residence where they confiscated Kurt’s guns along with a bottle of unidentified pills.
On March 25th, a heavy intervention was staged by Kurt’s band, management, wife, and best friend. The band threatened to disband, and Courtney threatened to walk out on him with their two year old daughter, Frances. March 30th saw him checking into Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles. Then, on the evening of April 1st, Kurt escaped Exodus and took the next flight back to Seattle.
For the next 3 days, Kurt wandered around Seattle on a heroin binge, and on the 5th of April, he shot himself.