April 12, 2004 12:00 PM

I see her and see the positive,” says Courtney Love, glancing at a recent photo of Frances Bean, her only child with Kurt Cobain. “She means more than rock and roll, money or health.”

And she may be the one silver lining in the dark clouds that hover over the tragic legend of Cobain, leader of the seminal ’90s band Nirvana, who battled drug addiction and killed himself with a shotgun April 5, 1994, at 27. Looking through dozens of photos for PEOPLE—days before a disturbing outburst of erratic behavior in New York City while promoting her new album America’s Sweetheart—Love, 39, lights up at snapshots of herself with Cobain, whom she wed in 1992, and their daughter, now 11. Of one October 1992 family portrait, she says, “That is two parents who love their kid.”

Heroin was ultimately Cobain’s fatal undoing—he committed suicide about a week after he escaped a detox clinic—but raw sadness, which he said dated back to his parents’ divorce when he was 8, seeped through his life and saturated his music. When Nirvana hit with the multiplatinum ’91 album Nevermind and its anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Cobain instantly became the pioneer and icon of grunge, the raw Seattle-based sound that spawned an attitude of alienation and a uniform of unkempt chic. Nirvana’s sound “made everything else seem so dated. It brought forward a lot of alternative groups of the late ’90s,” says MTV News’s Kurt Loder. Even today, “it defies generational pigeonholing. The music will live on.”

As for Cobain’s personal legacy, it remains shadowed by pain: After a drug-related arrest, Love lost custody of Frances Bean last October to her stepfather, Frank Rodriguez, but is allowed frequent visits. Another legal battle, over rights to Cobain’s music, put her at odds with her husband’s bandmates, drummer Dave Grohl, 35 (who went on to form the Grammy-winning band Foo Fighters), and bassist Krist Novoselic, 39 (who is active in Democratic party causes and campaigning for John Kerry).

Cobain’s family, too, has been fractured over the past decade. His father, Don Cobain, a highway patrolman in Washington, refuses to discuss Kurt, even with close relatives. Kurt’s grandfather Leland Cobain, 80, is plagued by the suspicion that Kurt didn’t kill himself. “I think he was murdered,” he says. (In fact, conspiracy theories have spread over the years, but the Seattle police say the case is closed.) And Kurt’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, 57, who bitterly fought Love for custody of Frances Bean last year, became estranged from her sister Mari Earl after the latter spoke about Kurt for an antidrug campaign in schools. “I still cry,” says Earl, 50. “I still think, ‘What a loss, a tremendous loss.’ Breaks my heart.”

Todd Gold and Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles and Mary Green in New York City

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