The morning after Nirvana's 11 January 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live, Nevermind went to number one on the chart. Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and their heroin supplier spent the following week in New York. It was suitably debauched. When the dealer proved unreliable Cobain himself bought drugs on the street while his pregnant fiancee waited in their hotel. In the months that followed there were dramatic reports of binge drinking, violence and sexual involvement with third parties as the couple moved first from Manhattan to Seattle, then to an apartment in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles. Despite giving an interviewer the impression that his day-to-day existence was 'fairly routine', Cobain struck at least one visitor as 'wild... a virtual lunatic'. According to journalist Frank Hulme, 'Kurt was doing $100-a-day of heroin, chasing it down with cough syrup, then falling asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth.' Diagnosis was simple: 'A young man in despair.'
There are thousands of ways for a twenty-four-year-old to find unhappiness, and few of them involve making millions of dollars. The money merely adds poignancy. But relentless pressure - to fulfil his ambitions and to make the record company rich - had done the job in Cobain's case. No one who starts taking drugs ever thinks they will get addicted. It just happens. In the last days of 1991 and the first weeks of 1992 Geffen and Gold Mountain continued to insist Cobain was happy, healthy, writing new material and enjoying the chance to live quietly with his girlfriend. The reality was that he was almost constantly stupefied by drugs. In the intervals when he was not buying heroin and methadone, Cobain devoted extended passages of the day to self-flagellation and fascinated self-analysis. 'I'm too much of a creepy, negative person... A sicko... Desperate... The pathological type.' He also described himself as 'ugly, awkward, uptight and socially retarded.'
By the time Nirvana met to shoot the video for 'Come As You Are' Cobain was unrecognizable from the man of a year before. He arrived on location in the Hollywood Hills wearing a heavy overcoat - to face 70° weather. He seemed listless and detached, and his sole comment to the director was that he wanted himself 'blurred'. (This was achieved by filming Cobain's face through running water.) According to Grohl, Cobain 'looked bad. Grey. I didn't understand addiction and so I just thought, "What the fuck are you thinking? Why are you doing this?"' Even that paled by comparison to Novoselic's reaction. At one point he looked wearily at his old friend and said, 'Why not put us all out of our misery?' Later that night he made it clear to Cobain he was 'fucked up and needed help'.
On 24 January Nirvana began a six-week tour of Australia, New Zealand and Japan. It was a disaster. Within a week even Grohl was forced to admit everyone knew it was a mistake; Novoselic's views can only be guessed. Apart from the anxiety and risk of drug-trafficking in a foreign country, Cobain's stomach pain now returned with doubled intensity. He made an appointment with an unsympathetic Australian doctor who assumed - wrongly, Cobain insisted - that his real problem was his addiction. A second G.P., with a picture of himself and Keith Richards on his wall, prescribed methadone. By the time the tour ended in Hawaii Cobain was back to his daily dosage of opiates.
All the capacities of psychotic rage and hysteria he had enlarged through heroin were stretched to the limit on tour. For years Cobain had ended his concerts by splintering his guitar and amplifier, taking wild offence at the drums and screaming at Novoselic like a madman. Now, the stage persona became the reality. In New Zealand Cobain pushed a table laden with bottles and plates out of his fifteenth-floor hotel window. This piece of what Hulme calls 'rock-star psychosis' was followed by another. At the next stop in Singapore, Cobain informed Novoselic and Grohl he was 'fucked off' at being 'the fall-guy for Nirvana', and insisted he receive a higher share of the group's publishing royalties. 'Not only that,' says a witness to the scene. 'He had a roadie bring Chris to his hotel suite to tell him.' Throughout the Far East tour Cobain prompted instant dislike as well as intense devotion. When Nirvana reached Japan he ignored the record company representatives sent to meet him at the airport, stepped outside the terminal, belched theatrically, and announced he was there to 'repay the cunts for Pearl Harbour'.
Part of Cobain's behaviour was undoubtedly beyond his control. A sick man like himself, who once informed his mother nonchalantly that he woke up every day of his life in pain, who spent five years with chronically bad digestion, was likely to show personality defects for another reason. As he dosed himself with heroin, valium, cocaine and marijuana, Cobain aggravated not only his stomach, but what the doctors now call bipolar disorder.
According to the US department of health, the condition shows itself in 'alternating bouts of dejection and mania.' When depressed, the sufferer is likely to have 'persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings', 'a general sense of hopelessness and pessimism', decreased energy, and sleep disturbances characterized by 'insomnia, early-morning waking, or oversleeping'. In the manic phase, individuals typically feel an 'unrealistic belief in their own abilities', 'swings of mood elevation and irritability', increased energy, and an 'aggressive response to frustration'.
This was Cobain's lot. To say that he might have benefited from some strong, humanly sympathetic figure only states the obvious. To Beverley Cobain, 'it was Kurt's greatest tragedy that no one was there to save him from himself'. Neither Nirvana's manager, nor David Geffen - and certainly not the friends who laughed and applauded as he vomited in front of them - ever plausibly suggested he curb his drug use. This conspiracy of silence applied equally to Cobain's entourage. 'I couldn't understand,' said Grohl. 'If something like that is destroying somebody... I guess I don't understand addiction.' Michael Lavine admitted 'I didn't have enough guts to [confront him].' Cobain himself would remember only 'Dead silence. Dirty looks and dead silence. [Novoselic and Grohl] weren't the type to confront anyone about anything. They were so passive-aggressive that they'd rather give off bad vibes than talk about anything.' For years Cobain had admitted to a crippling inability to address a problem until it was too late. This ironic light had now to be cast on his own treatment by others. For the rest of his life - over two years - almost all Cobain's friends would staunchly deny that he ever had a serious drug problem.
When, in 1994, every newspaper headlined the news of Cobain's violent suicide, a campaign began to preserve the myth; to die at the height of his power, escaping the horrors of middle age and decreasing fame, to end not with a whimper but with a bang that reverberated around the world - that truly was the fate Cobain's friends would have chosen for him. The role played by drugs was discounted. 'Just blaming [Cobain's death] on smack is stupid,' said Novoselic. 'People have been taking smack for a hundred years. It was just a small part of his life.' According to this version, Cobain took heroin for its analgesic qualities, not to enjoy himself, and along with the feelings of anger and betrayal went a broad streak of denial that his addiction had hastened the end. In a long harangue in Spin, Love would complain, 'All they want to talk about is how much drugs Kurt and I did. That is not all we did. We had a life. We ate breakfast. We ate lunch. We ate dinner. We rented movies, and ate ice cream. We would read out loud to each other almost every night, and we prayed every night. We had some fucking dignity.'
All of those things were true. Until he was nine, Cobain was raised in a normal working-class home; although he could never reject Aberdeen enough, some of its habits and customs stuck with him. Among these was a refreshing directness and simplicity of outlook that survived the ravages of his later fame. When in the mood, he could be exceptionally kind, sensitive and considerate of others. He was in most senses the antithesis of rock star vanity.
Only after he was twenty-five would Cobain the man clash seriously with Cobain the rock icon. With the release of Nevermind and 'Teen Spirit', with Love and drugs, he seemed to abandon himself to his own self-image: his determination to be, without adequate moral or intellectual equipment, absolutely different from everybody else. It comes as no shock that Cobain's private life was rooted in his need for family and domesticity, or that he reserved his most jaw-dropping behaviour for the times someone was watching. It was the particular tragedy of Cobain's life that he lost the ability to separate the public, performing image and the man himself.
A mark of his efforts to do so came in his periodic cries for help. In the fortnight between Saturday Night Live and Australia, Cobain and Love decided to detox together. He submitted to a week of alternating sleep and nausea before catching the plane to Sydney, where he did, for a day or two, swear off drugs. That spring he checked into the Exodus Recovery Center in California, a facility popular with celebrity addicts. This, too, proved an inadequate response: in one ominous foreshadowing of his escape from the same hospital two years later, Cobain told the clinic staff he was stepping out for a walk and promptly scaled the wall. Then he flew to Seattle and bought more heroin. Meanwhile, despite relentless pressure from his management and colleagues, Cobain refused to countenance touring with Nirvana, a decision that brought an angry phone call from Novoselic and more than one clash with Geffen.
Another feature of Cobain's life was his insistence that he could 'handle' his habit. In fact his chronic heroin dependence was the genesis of almost daily conflict. Cobain was both the instigator and victim of violent arguments with dealers. He told interviewers, 'It wasn't a heavy addiction at all' and persuaded a biographer to write that 'detoxing was easy', but in truth Cobain was among the most notorious users in the industry, something he made almost no effort to conceal, even in public. He regularly bought heroin on the streets, and once startled the night-clerk of the Olympus Hotel in Tacoma by crashing through the front door, carrying a small paper bag and wildly demanding the bathroom. A locked cupboard in the Fairfax apartment contained what a guest calls 'a whole pharmacy' of supplies - there were needles, spoons and phials, as well as the heroin and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. In January Cobain had been spending $100 a day on his habit. By July the figure had risen to four times that - relatively modest by Hollywood standards, but enough for the nickname 'Kurt Cocaine' to be revived behind his back.
In the days after Cobain's suicide his widow characterized Seattle as a drug mecca, where heroin was more plentiful than in New York or Los Angeles. Others in the local community agreed with the police that the magnifying-glass of media attention had distorted the reality of drugs in Seattle. 'It wasn't more of a problem here than anyplace else,' says Daniel House, owner of C/Z Records and a former manager at Sub Pop. Nor, however, was it any less of a problem: heroin-related deaths in Seattle jumped by 90 per cent in the 1980s, while a single local hospital recorded 830 life-threatening overdoses in 1993, the most recent statistics available. Seattle police handle 6,000 drug cases a year. On University Avenue, from 3,500 to 5,000 dirty needles are exchanged weekly at a stand run by a volunteer named Bob Quinn. Most needles are for shooting heroin, Quinn says, although amphetamine use is big among teenagers.
If all this falls short of Love's claim that heroin in Seattle is 'like apples in the orchard', it tends to support Cobain's view that 'with dope, supply leads to demand'. When, like most things Cobain wanted, success turned to ashes in his mouth, he soon resumed the drug habit of his youth. The difference lay all in the scale. Suddenly the weak, naive Aberdonian was keeping company with crack dealers and pimps. As Cobain's interest in music dwindled, so his love of drugs grew proportionately greater. No one attempted to stop him: some actively encouraged his habit. By late 1992 he was a shambling parody of the author of Nevermind, stumbling from one heroin fix to another and submitting to visits from a social worker in order to keep custody of his daughter. Although the outcome would have been the same in Pittsburg or Kansas or Cleveland, it was unfortunate that Cobain spent the last two years of his life in a town notorious, in his widow's words, for 'grunge, cappuccino and heroin'; and ironic that he came to epitomize the thing that ruined him.
Nirvana had barely made their breakthrough before Cobain threatened to destroy the group.
The incident took place against a backdrop of increasing irritation between Geffen and Gold Mountain on one side and the band on the other. Preparations were under way for a US arena tour that spring when Cobain, wanting to be with Love during her pregnancy and in no condition to leave home, refused to travel. It was not impossible to feel sympathy for the decision. Since 1989 Nirvana had toured America, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan, released two albums, given countless interviews and appeared on the cover of every music title in the world. According to Frank Hulme, 'Dave rued the lost sales of Nevermind, but agreed they needed a break.' There was grudging acceptance of the decision from Novoselic: 'The tour just seemed like a lot more pressure. Before, we were just vagabonds in a van, doing our thing. Now you've got a tour manager and a crew and it's a production.'
Less easily accepted was Cobain's enslavement to drugs. As well as the now 'shitty atmosphere' at group meetings, there was Novoselic's outburst to his wife, 'Kurt's a fucking junkie asshole and I hate him!', and a falling-out between Nirvana's two founders. Here some discrepancy exists between Cobain's account ('All Chris did was give me bad vibes and dirty looks') and Novoselic's ('I tried to help'). Later that spring Cobain screamed at Novoselic's wife for the tactless remark, 'Kurt, I just hate to see you doing this to yourself'. By the time they returned from the Far East Nirvana had divided into two warring camps, Cobain and Love versus the Novoselics, with Grohl unhappily bringing up the middle.
The result was a bitter clash about publishing royalties. What incensed Novoselic and Grohl was not so much that Cobain would demand more than twice their share on the grounds that 'I'm under pressure' - they were used to that - but that he asked for the new arrangement to be retrospective. Neither of his colleagues would see another penny from Nevermind until Cobain had finished collecting his due. In extreme circumstances, had the album stopped selling as dramatically as it had started, it could have left them in substantial debt to Cobain.
To see their career turned into cinema noir was an appropriate enough fate for Nirvana. Practically alone of rock groups, whorarely have much interest beyond the surface, they did almost exactly resemble a film. In fact they closely echoed the plot of one particular picture, a favourite in the rock business, and one that Frank Zappa could never see without recalling the happy likeness - Spinal Tap. Nirvana avoided the more laughable extremes of that group's saga, but they had the disputes about vision, the warring girlfriends and even, insofar as Grohl was the sixth such musician, the multiple drummers. It is uncertain whether Cobain prompted the crisis because of Love, because he needed the money, or, more plausibly, because he feared his talent had gone sour and he was terrified of the future. 'I can't handle work,' he admitted in 1989. A year later Cobain told Sounds: 'I don't want to have any other kind of job. I can't work among people.' By 1992 he struck Hulme as 'morbidly scared' of losing his money and restarting a 'slow and ugly life' in Aberdeen. If Cobain had disliked the town as a boy, he positively repudiated it as an adult. 'I'd literally rather kill myself than go back there,' he told his cousin. When a dispute between the Weyerhaeuser company and its workers was reported in the press Cobain was quoted as saying, 'I'd blow my brains out, living like that.' On taking off in a plane, he liked to look down at the rows of identical houses and make a gesture like the pulling of a bomb lever. Cobain's motives for reneging on his agreement may never be known, but by the time the dust had settled and he collected his money, he was married to a woman whose rejection of the 'slow and ugly life' matched his own.
On 24 February 1992, in a ceremony attended by Grohl, three Nirvana employees and a passing drug dealer (though not Novoselic and his wife), Cobain married Love. The service, on a cliff overlooking Waikiki Beach, was performed by a non-denominational female minister found by the bride through the Hawaiian wedding bureau. The groom, high on heroin, wore green and white check pyjamas and a lei; at the phrase 'man and wife' he broke down and cried. By the time they retired to a local bar to celebrate so many of the party were weeping that, as Cobain put it, had Love shown any public emotion 'it would have been a wake'.
Love did not show public emotion. Methodical, capable, icily efficient, she made other rock wives look almost shamefully self-effacing. Even Yoko Ono appeared low-key and shy by comparison. While it seemed to Grohl that 'Courtney was the ideal mate for Kurt', the idyll soon proved more apparent than real. Once the first delights of marriage had worn off it became obvious to both that, although they complemented each other in many, perhaps most, respects, in others they were woefully incompatible. Love rebelled fiercely against the shackles of domesticity, while Cobain's vision of a perfect match was of a relationship so close that every confidence was shared, no private agenda pursued. He wanted to possess and to be possessed. This vision filled his wife with horror. Not only was there the matter of her career, there was also the threat of Cobain's drug habit.
Looking back on the ceremony three years later, Love told David Fricke:
If you don't think I knew what I was getting into when I married Kurt... I mean, the lack of credit I get. Kim Gordon and Julie Cafritz told me when me and Kurt got serious, 'You know what's going to happen?' They spelled out everything. Not taking into account Kurt dying, obviously. Actually, in Cafritz's version Kurt would OD: 'You'll become junkies. You'll get married. You'll OD. You'll be 35, you'll try and make a comeback'... I knew [what was] happening.
Looking at Cobain's life in full, it is tempting to see a kind of insecurity of which his need for a strong wife was typical. He honestly thought he was marrying above himself. Love compensated for his crippling lack of self-esteem. 'She's my one and only chance,' Cobain described her to Grohl. What he wanted from marriage was constant encouragement, loyal support, affection. Within reason, Love gave them to him. That she also valued her independence and career was understood, and in July 1992 Hole signed to Geffen for a sum that led one cynic to tell Newsweek, 'sleeping with Kurt Cobain is worth a million dollars'. 'They jogged along,' says a man who knew the couple in London. Although one was 'passive-aggressive' and the other 'a thug', they enjoyed a punk contempt for the world. According to Hulme, 'They were compatible. They may have loved one another. I doubt they'd have won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.'
The headline in Rolling Stone that April read: 'Inside the Heart and Mind of Nirvana.' The tone was scrupulously upbeat. Cobain assured the magazine he was happier than he'd ever been. (According to Rolling Stone, 'whenever Love walks into the room, even if it's to scold him about something, he gets the profoundly dopey grin of the truly love struck.') He dismissed rumours of a rift inside Nirvana; his attitude to fame was 'pretty relaxed'; he admitted to mellowing with age and not blaming 'the average seventeen-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout.' The hoped-for impression was of an affable family man, studiously calm, a husband who worshipped his wife and praised his friends and fellow musicians (with the notable exception of Pearl Jam). Unmentioned was Cobain's collection of drugs and guns, his sudden mood swings and his violent outbursts against his group. He may not have been able to control his anger - it was a form of addiction - but Cobain went too far in claiming, 'I don't even drink anymore because it destroys my stomach. My body wouldn't allow me to take drugs if I wanted to, because I'm so weak. All drugs [do is] destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self-esteem. They're no good at all.' Anybody reading the article would have come away thinking Cobain to be a civilized and rational adult with a conservative outlook on life, and a new-found self-restraint; it was a marvellous performance. No one would have guessed there was a supply of heroin, needles, spoons and rubbing alcohol in the cupboard behind him.
Inside Cobain's heart and mind was not a comfortable place to be, nor easily reached. When other rock stars talked about themselves it was usually in the context of self-exposure - they were pleased to be famous and they wanted to share their good fortune. Now Cobain came forward and pleasure was the last thing on his mind. On the wide canvas of his unhappiness, his reaction to fame loomed among the largest.
There were those, of course, who saw Cobain as a symptom of a disease that had eaten at the body of society, mainly through rock music, for years. When the obituaries came in they used words like 'tragic' and 'dysfunctional' to describe behaviour that, to others, was cynical and self-indulgent. 'He claimed to be put upon,' says Hulme, 'but he was hopeless without attention.' Cobain's advisers had evolved into his servants. Hard-headed businessmen running record companies had become doting sentimentalists and fed his belief that he was beyond rebuke, that even mild criticism was part of a plot. It was enough to make Cobain paranoid, and it did. He also became a show-off and a bore. After a three hour dinner that summer at Quaglino's in London, Cobain and a girlfriend went to great lengths to avoid being photographed on their departure. Yet the restaurant, as he well knew, was high in the top ten of paparazzi haunts; hence the reason for its star-studded clientele. In the imbroglio that followed, punches were thrown and insults exchanged with photographers. ('I have absolutely no respect for the English,' Cobain said later. 'I thought I'd never say anything racist in my life, but they are the most snooty, cocksure, anal people. They make me sick.') There were other signs that he was not entirely free of rock-star vanity. When Cobain returned to Aberdeen in 1992 he did so in a stretch limousine. By flying into New York wearing a false beard and a hat he achieved more public scrutiny than would have resulted from his normal appearance. He treasured every scrap of praise, never forgot a word of criticism and would do anything to attract publicity without ever admitting it.
Cobain never sought to be a youth spokesman. Insofar as he was taken up by ambitious critics, disc jockeys and impressionable fans, he was unlucky: he suffered the fate of a symbol. In one of innumerable articles on grunge, Atlantic commented that 'Twentysomethings... have become a Boomer metaphor for America's loss of purpose, disappointment with institutions, despair over the culture and fear for the future.' According to this view, the times had come into alignment with Cobain's gloomy vision, rather than the reverse. As John Peel says, 'He was the perfect role model for the nineties. That pressure, in the form of constant demands that he act in type, finally broke him. But for a year or two, no one summed up the times better than Kurt.' He became the first superstar of both punk and the new decade.
By degrees, predictably, Cobain became convinced by his own myth. He began to deny more and more being a figurehead, with the inevitable result that he became one. It was a particular hallmark of Cobain's life that he showed virtually no capacity for power. As a musician he had breathtaking leadership skills. But in most other respects he was cruelly handicapped. Easily led, self-obsessed, over-indulged, Cobain lacked anything resembling an ethical centre. He was incomplete - someone with personality but no character. That flaw led Cobain to deny the consequences of his own actions, and to accept the privileges of fame even as he shunned the responsibilities. Other than a hazy allegiance to left-wing politics and feminism, he had few personal beliefs outside of music; and it always surprised him that, as he said 'people looked for a deeper meaning' of his role. 'The idea that getting high wasn't enough shocked Kurt,' says Hulme. 'No one had warned him that he might have to give a moral lead.' It was ironic that after the years of work Cobain had done to become famous, when it happened it caught him unawares.
When Geffen had first released Nevermind, they thought it might sell 50,000 copies. That level would have been the right one for cobain; high enough, but not so elevated that he became a Messiah figure. There was always a deep-seated and nagging part of him that wondered if the game was worth the candle. In the end Cobain could see the truth of what he had long dimly known and perhaps hopefully suppressed - that for a compassionate and sensitiveman to be treated as a god can be a disagreeable experience. Instead of happiness, he once said, he found only a kind of 'giddy high'; instead of glory, only 'ashes and muck'.