“He told me he loved me, and I know that he does,” Courtney Love wrote, girlishly, soon after she and Kurt Cobain began their romance in 1991. “I want to spend a long time with him. “Her dream, of course, was not to be: Less than three years after the couple started dating, Nirvana’s messianic lead singer killed himself at 27, a victim of drugs, rock and roll and his own inscrutable demons. Tormented by chronic stomach pains and by the pressures of his band’s enormous, almost cultlike success, Cobain turned increasingly to heroin use. But neither the drug’s deadly solace nor the wife and baby he adored were enough to bind him to life. The following excerpt is from the book Courtney Love: The Real Story by Poppy Z. Brite, a former friend of Love’s, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. It offers a harrowing look at one rock star’s end—and at the anguish of the woman he left behind.
In 1993, after recording Nirvana’s In Utero album in Minnesota, Cobain was hospitalized for a near drug overdose. After his release he bought several guns, driving a wedge of fear between him and his wife, who worried not only for her husband’s safety but for that of their daughter Frances.
BY EARLY 1994, KURT’S STOMACH ailment had come back, and with it, a crushing depression. He started taking Klonopin, a tranquilizer. And he started using heroin again. The combination made him paranoid and caused him to have hours-long blackouts.
In the midst of all this, the Cobains were house-hunting. On January 19, 1994, they paid $1,485,000 for a grey shingled house on Lake Washington in Seattle’s quiet Madrona neighborhood. There was also a garage with a small apartment above it, looking out on the lake. Courtney would soon have the apartment converted into a greenhouse.
At the beginning of February, against all his wishes, Kurt boarded a plane to Europe to begin Nirvana’s grueling European tour. On the first of March, in Munich, his voice went out completely. He was diagnosed with laryngitis and bronchitis, and the tour’s remaining shows were postponed. Kurt flew to Rome and checked into the Excelsior Hotel. Courtney joined him the next day.
Kurt bought Courtney roses, champagne, even a piece of the Colosseum. They began kissing, but somewhere along the way Courtney took a Valium, and she fell asleep. “I turned over about three or four in the morning to make love,” Courtney later told various media “and he was…at the end of the bed with a thousand dollars in his pocket and a note saying, ‘You don’t love me anymore. I’d rather die than go through a divorce.’ ” Kurt had washed down fifty tablets of Rohypnol, a strong tranquilizer, with champagne. He was comatose when he arrived at Umberto I Polyclinic Hospital. Courtney was there when he opened his eyes. Later, beside him in the hospital bed, she whispered, “I’d never divorce you. You’re crazy.” They made love. They had to. They’d almost lost their chance forever. “He’s not going to get away from me that easily,” Courtney said afterwards. “I’ll follow him through hell.” She was about to.
When they got back to Seattle, Courtney banned heroin use in the house. Kurt could do it, she told him, but he had to go to a hotel. He went to a hotel. After two nights of this, Courtney was so insanely worried that she forbade him to do heroin anywhere but the house.
As well as heroin and Klonopin, Kurt had started doing speed. Never a big bather, he stopped washing altogether. He didn’t sleep for a week. He seemed to have gone over the edge; nothing he did made sense. He dressed in hunting gear—boots, a heavy jacket, a cap with earflaps—and roamed the house with a shotgun.
On March 18, Courtney called 911. Kurt had locked himself in the bathroom with a bunch of guns, and she was sure he was going to kill himself. The police confiscated four guns, twenty-five boxes of ammunition, and a bottle of pills. On March 25, in desperation, Courtney staged an intervention. Kurt’s old friend Dylan Carson, bass player Krist Novoselic, guitarist Pat Smear and three of Nirvana’s managers came to the house and took turns talking to him for five hours. They threatened to abandon him, to fire him. Afterwards, Courtney could see that the session hadn’t worked. Kurt had just been waiting for them to shut up so he could go take drugs. At that point she knew that, barring a miracle, her husband was going to kill himself.
At last she convinced him to enter the Exodus Recovery Center, a detox clinic in Los Angeles. The clinic agreed to send an ambulance for Kurt, but when it arrived he refused to get in. The attendants wrestled him out of the house. Courtney followed them outside and saw Kurt spitting in any face that came near his, screaming at the top of his still-formidable lungs: “F—K YOU!!!” One of the attendants from Exodus pulled Courtney aside. “Legally, we can’t force him to go,” he told her. “If you love your husband, you’ll go to L.A., and he’ll follow you.”
Courtney saw that there was a car waiting for her. She saw Kurt’s blond head whipping furiously back and forth. She didn’t want to go, but she knew she couldn’t stay either. “Goodbye,” she called out to Kurt, but she didn’t think he heard her.
Courtney checked into the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, installing Frances and Jackie, her nanny, in an adjacent suite. Kurt called several times over the next few days. He would nod off on the phone, then become lucid and say, “Yeah, I’m gonna come check in.” Instead, he wandered around Seattle, looking sick, hollow, ghastly. On March 30, Kurt and Dylan Carlson went to Stan’s Gun Shop and bought a Remington Model 11 20-gauge shotgun. Despite the fact that he had been present at the intervention, Dylan says he had no idea Kurt was suicidal, and believed him when he said he wanted the gun for protection.
Kurt went home and stashed his prize. While he was at the house Courtney called, and this time she persuaded him to come to L.A. Perhaps it was easier for him to go to Exodus knowing he had the gun to come back to. Courtney was forbidden to visit him for three days. She was too desperate to fight; she just wanted Kurt to get better. “I was actually listening to the grownups,” she says. On April 1, Jackie brought Frances to visit her father. He played with her, then telephoned Courtney. “No matter what happens,” he told her, “I want you to know you made a really good record.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just remember, no matter what, I love you.” He hung up. A few hours later, he climbed over the wall at the rear of the hospital grounds. Then he made his way to LAX and flew to Seattle. When Courtney found out Kurt had jumped the fence, she assumed he was still in L.A. She got on the telephone, calling rock stars to get drug dealers’ numbers, calling drug dealers, driving to their houses to make sure Kurt wasn’t there.
In Seattle, Kurt had gone straight home. On the morning of April 2, he took a cab downtown to purchase 25 shotgun cartridges at Seattle Guns. He tried to call Courtney but was blocked by the hotel switchboard, even though she had told them to hold all calls except those from her husband. On April 5 he took Chim-Chim, a treasured plastic monkey he had shown a decal of to Courtney when they first met, and put it in a secret spot, where Courtney would find it months later. He left the TV on. He retrieved the shotgun and climbed the nine wooden steps to the greenhouse above the garage, where he locked one set of French doors and wedged a stool beneath the knobs of the other.
Looking out over dreary Lake Washington, Kurt smoked six cigarettes, drank some root beer, and scratched out a note to “Boddah,” an invisible friend from his childhood. Then he injected a triple dose of heroin, and before it could incapacitate him, he took the shotgun’s barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger. The noise was shattering, but the silence was endless.
Over the next two days workmen and delivery people entered and left the house and grounds, but no one looked in the greenhouse. Night came and shrouded the ruin; daylight glistened upon its cooling surfaces.
On the morning of April 7, Courtney thought she might be having an allergic reaction to a new prescription and, in a sleepy voice, called downstairs at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel for some Benadryl. The desk clerk sent up a security guard, who judged Courtney to be “agitated” and called paramedics and police. The officer in charge reported that they searched Courtney’s “vomit-and-blood-spattered room” and found a syringe and a packet containing a substance they believed to be heroin. (It turned out to be vibbhuti, Hindu good-luck ashes.) The officer took her to Century City Hospital, where a doctor said she was not high.
Nonetheless, when David Geffen, the head of her record company, learned of the incident, he urged her to check into Exodus herself. She acquiesced; maybe everyone would leave her alone there. And maybe Kurt would turn up. She was terribly afraid for him. She and Kurt had always shared the same dreams—not detail for detail but interwoven somehow. But for the last two nights, Courtney hadn’t had any dreams.
She woke up in Exodus on April 8 and turned on the TV to the hospital channel, a tape of soaring birds and crashing surf. She was about to flip through the channels when her lawyer Rosemary Carroll came in. From Rosemary’s face, Courtney knew. But she assumed Kurt had died from a drug overdose. Despite the guns, she had always thought that was what would happen. “How?” she asked; Rosemary told her.
Courtney’s counselor at Exodus tried to prevent her from leaving, but it was like getting in the way of an earthquake. They took a Learjet back to Seattle—Courtney and Frances and Rosemary and Jackie. Kurt’s body had been taken away, a couple of hours after an electrician found him, and someone had picked up the detritus of his skull. But no one had cleaned up the blood. Courtney forbade anyone to do so.
She climbed the stairs to the greenhouse and stood in the doorway. The blood was an enormous Rorschach blot in which she could see all the loneliness ahead of her in the world. She knelt and put her hands in it. Then she stretched out in Kurt’s blood, seeing what he had not seen, the creeping-in of night and the chill blue of dawn. Sometimes she slept, sometimes she sang. And always, always, she searched for him and could not feel him.
The thought of Frances got her up off the floor. She searched the room for any trace of Kurt and found a single, filthy scrap of hair held together by a tatter of scalp. She took it into the house and washed it, and washed herself. She put on one of Kurt’s sweaters, crawled into bed and swallowed any drug that anyone brought her.
An endless stream of people flowed in and out of the bedroom. Courtney remembered very little of it. Jackie brought Frances in, but the 20-month-old was too young to comprehend what was going on. She didn’t understand why her mother couldn’t stop crying.
At one point, Courtney went to view Kurt’s body. His eyes were sewn shut. The hardest thing to part with was his hands. She had always thought they were so beautiful, and they had taught her so much: had guided hers on the guitar strings, had groped wildly for her in the dead of night, had bruised her. His hands were still beautiful. Courtney had plaster casts made.
Kurt’s body was cremated later that day.