Kurt Cobain's Downward Spiral: The Last Days of Nirvana's Leader

In this investigative report, Rolling Stone traces Cobain's final days – from his nearly fatal drug overdose in Rome to the discovery of his body one month later in Seattle

Kurt Cobain, Modena
Raffaella Cavalieri/Redferns
Kurt Cobain performing live onstage at Palasport, Modena.
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On April 8, shortly before 9 a.m., Kurt Cobain's body was found in a greenhouse above the garage of his Seattle home. Across his chest lay the 20-gauge shotgun with which the 27-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter ended his life. Cobain had been missing for six days.

An electrician installing a security system in the house discovered Cobain dead. Though the police, a private-investigation firm and friends were on the trail, his body had been lying there for two and a half days, according to a medical-examiner's report. A high concentration of heroin and traces of Valium were found in Cobain's bloodstream. He was identifiable only by his fingerprints.

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Mark Lanegan, a member of Screaming Trees and a close friend of Cobain's, says he didn't hear from Cobain that last week. "Kurt hadn't called me," he says. "He hadn't called some other people. He hadn't called his family. He hadn't called anybody." Lanegan says he had been "looking for [Kurt] for about a week before he was found. . . . I had a feeling that something real bad had happened."

Cobain's friends, family and associates had been worried about his depression and chronic drug use for years. "I was involved in trying to get Kurt professional help on numerous occasions," says former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg, now president of Atlantic Records.

It wasn't, however, until eight days after Cobain returned to Seattle from Rome to recuperate from a failed suicide attempt in March that those close to him realized that it was time to resort to drastic measures. Cobain had gone "cuckoo," says Gold Mountain Entertainment's Janet Billig, who manages Courtney Love's band Hole. Along with several domestic disputes, Cobain's relationship with Nirvana was rocky. In fact, Love told MTV that Cobain said to her in the weeks after Rome: "I hate it — I can't play with them anymore." She added that he only wanted to work with Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

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"In the last few weeks, I was talking to Kurt a lot," Stipe said in a statement. "We had a musical project in the works, but nothing was recorded."

On March 18, a domestic dispute escalated into a near disaster. After police officers arrived at the scene, summoned by Love, she told them that her husband had locked himself in a room with a 38-caliber revolver and said he was going to kill himself. The officers confiscated that gun and three others, along with a bottle of various unidentified pills. Later that night, Cobain told them that he hadn't actually been planning to take his own life.

At this point, Love, along with Cobain's other family members, band mates and management company, began talking to a number of intervention counselors, including Steven Chatoff, executive director of Anacapa by the Sea, a behavioral health center for the treatment of addictions and psychological disorders, in Port Hueneme, Calif. "They called me to see what could be done," says Chatoff. "He was using, up in Seattle. He was in full denial. It was very chaotic. And they were in fear for his life. It was a crisis."

Chatoff began interviewing friends, family members and business associates in preparation for enacting a full-scale intervention. According to Chatoff, someone then tipped off Cobain, and the procedure had to be canceled. Nirvana's management, Gold Mountain, claims that it found another intervention counselor and told Chatoff a small lie to turn down his services politely.

Meanwhile, Roddy Bottum, an old friend of Love and Cobain's and the keyboardist for Faith No More, flew from San Francisco to Seattle to care for Cobain. "I really loved Kurt," Bottum says, "and we got along really well. I was there to be with him as a friend."

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On March 25, roughly 10 friends — including band mates Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, Nirvana manager John Silva, Billig, longtime friend Dylan Carlson, Love and Goldberg (Bottum had already gone home) — gathered at Cobain's home on Seattle's Lake Washington Boulevard to take a different approach with a new intervention counselor. (Novoselic is said to have staged his own separate confrontation with Cobain as well.) As part of the intervention, Love threatened to leave Cobain, and Smear and Novoselic said they would break up the band if Cobain didn't check into rehab. After a tense five-hour session in the two-day process, Cobain retired to the basement with Smear, where they rehearsed some new material.

Love had hoped to coax Cobain into flying to Los Angeles with her so that the couple could check into rehab together. Instead, she wound up on a plane with Billig at the end of the first day of intervention. (The couple's daughter, Frances Bean, and a nanny followed the next day.) Love would say that she regretted leaving Cobain alone ("That '80s tough-love bullshit — it doesn't work," she said in a taped message during a memorial vigil for Cobain two weeks later). After a stop in San Francisco, Billig and Love flew to Los Angeles, and on the morning of the 26th, Love checked into the Peninsula Hotel, in Beverly Hills, and began an outpatient program to "detox from tranquilizers," according to Billig.

Back in Seattle, Cobain stopped by Carlson's condominium on March 30 to ask for a gun because, Cobain said, there were trespassers on Cobain's property.

"He seemed normal, we'd been talking," Carlson says. "Plus, I'd loaned him guns before." Carlson believes Cobain didn't want to buy the shotgun himself because he was afraid the police would confiscate it, since they had taken his other firearms after the domestic dispute that had occurred 12 days earlier.

Cobain and Carlson headed to Stan's Gun Shop nearby and purchased a six-pound Remington 20-gauge shotgun and a box of ammunition for roughly $300, which Cobain gave Carlson in cash. "He was going out to L.A.," Carlson says. "It seemed kind of weird that he was buying the shotgun before he was leaving. So I offered to hold on to it until he got back." Cobain, however, insisted on keeping the shotgun himself. The police believe that Cobain dropped the weapon off at his home and left Seattle to check himself into rehab. Smear and a Gold Mountain employee met Cobain at the Los Angeles airport and drove him to the Exodus Recovery Center, in the Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital, in Marina del Rey, Calif.

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Despite his inability to proceed with his plan, Chatoff says he spoke with Cobain by phone several times before Cobain left for Los Angeles. "I was not supportive of that at all," says Chatoff of Cobain's admittance to Exodus, "because that was just another detox 'buff and shine.'"

Cobain spent two days at the 20-bed clinic. On April 1 he called Love, who was still at the Peninsula. "He said, 'Courtney, no matter what happens, I want you to know that you made a really good record,'" she later told a Seattle newspaper. "I said, 'Well, what do you mean?' And he said, 'Just remember, no matter what, I love you.'" (Hole were due to release their second album, Live Through This, 11 days later.) That was the last time Love spoke to her husband.

According to one of Cobain's visitors at the clinic, "I was ready to see him look like shit and depressed. He looked so fucking great. He walked out an hour later." At 7:25 p.m., Cobain told the clinic staff he was stepping out onto the patio for a smoke and, according to Love, "jumped over the fence." Actually, it was a brick wall more than 6 feet high. "We watch our patients really well," says a spokesperson for Exodus. "But some do get out."

Kurt Cobain 1967–1994

The next day, Love canceled Cobain's credit cards and hired private investigators to track him down. But he had already flown back to Seattle. "I talked to Cali [one of Frances Bean's nannies, whose real name is Michael DeWitt]," Carlson says, "who said he had seen [Kurt] on Saturday [April 2], but I couldn't get ahold of him." Neither could anybody else. On April 4, Cobain's mother, Wendy O'Connor — who says she had been afraid for her son's safety for some time — filed a missing-person's report. She told the police that Cobain might be suicidal and suggested that they look for Cobain at a particular three-story brick building, described as a location for narcotics, in Seattle's upscale, bohemian Capitol Hill district.

The police believe Cobain wandered around town with no clear agenda in his final days, though they suspect he stopped by a gun shop to buy more rounds of ammunition. Neighbors say they spotted Cobain in a park near his house during this period, looking ill and wearing an incongruously thick jacket. Cobain is also believed to have spent a night at his summer home in nearby Carnation with an unidentified friend.

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Sometime on or before the afternoon of April 5, Cobain barricaded himself in the greenhouse above his garage by propping a stool against its French doors. The evidence at the scene suggests that he removed his hunter's cap — which he wore when he didn't want people to recognize him — and dug into a cigar box that is believed to have contained his drug stash. He penned a one-page note in red ink. He also tossed his wallet on the floor, open to his Washington driver's license, which friends believe was to help the police identify him.

Love reconstructed the rest of the tragedy for MTV: Cobain drew a chair up to a window overlooking the Puget Sound, sat down, took some more drugs (most likely heroin), pressed the barrel of the 20-gauge shotgun to his head and — evidently using his thumb — pulled the trigger. (Though the county medical examiner has determined that Cobain died on the afternoon of April 5, the police report that two people claim to have spoken to him on April 6.)

In a cruel twist of fate, it wasn't until April 6 that Love's private investigators arrived in Seattle. "I was working with [an investigator]," Carlson says, "and the day we were going to Carnation to look for him, we found out he was dead." Before Cobain's body was found, the police say they asked workers outside his house if they had seen him, though the police didn't go inside the house.

Elsewhere on April 7, an emergency phone call was placed to 911 about a "possible overdose victim" at the Peninsula Hotel. The police, the fire department and ambulances arrived at the scene, where they found Love and Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson. (Frances Bean and her nanny were staying in the room next door.) Love was taken to Century City Hospital, arriving around 9:30 a.m. She was released two and a half hours later. Lt. Joe Lombardi of the Beverly Hills Police says that Love was arrested immediately after her discharge and "booked for possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of a hypodermic syringe and possession/receiving stolen property."

Criminal lawyer Barry Tarlow, Love's attorney, says that contrary to published reports, Love "wasn't under the influence of heroin" and "didn't overdose." He says that "she had an allergic reaction" to the tranquilizer Xanax. Tarlow says the stolen property was a prescription pad that "her doctor . . . left there when he was visiting. . . . There were no prescriptions written on it." And the controlled substance? "It was not narcotics," says Tarlow. "It's Hindu good-luck ashes, which she received from her entertainment lawyer Rosemary Carroll."

Love was released at about 3 p.m. after posting $10,000 bail. She immediately checked herself into the Exodus Recovery Center, the same rehabilitation facility from which her husband had escaped a week earlier. The following day, April 8, she checked out when she received word that her husband had been found.

The first time Cobain's troubles made tabloid headlines was in August 1992, after a now infamous Vanity Fair article was published in which its writer, Lynn Hirschberg, reported that Love had used heroin while pregnant with Frances Bean. (Love has denied this.) As a result of subsequent media attention, the Cobains were not allowed to be alone with their newborn daughter for one month.

After a long and taxing battle with children's services in Los Angeles, where they were then living, the couple regained custody of the girl. In a September 1992 Los Angeles Times article, Cobain admitted to "dabbling" in heroin and detoxing twice in the past year — a strategic move, according to an insider, to mollify children's services. In subsequent interviews, Cobain never admitted to using heroin after he and Love had detoxed before Frances Bean was born.

In the spring of 1993, after the band had recorded In Utero with producer Steve Albini in Minnesota, another frightening series of events began to unfold.

First came good news: On March 23, 1993, following a Family Court ruling in Los Angeles, children's services stopped its supervision of the Cobains' child-rearing. But just six weeks later, on May 2, Cobain came home (then in Seattle's Sand Point area) shaking, flushed and dazed. Love called the police. According to a police report, Cobain had taken heroin. As Cobain's mother and sister stood by, Love injected her husband with buprenorphine, an illegal drug that can be used to awaken someone after a heroin overdose. She also gave Cobain a Valium, three Benadryls and four Tylenol tablets with codeine, which caused him to vomit. Love told the police this kind of thing had happened before.

A month later, on June 4, the police arrived at the Cobains' home again after being summoned by Love. She told the police that she and Cobain had been arguing over guns in the house. Cobain was booked for domestic assault (he spent three hours in jail), and three guns found at the house were confiscated. One of those weapons, a Taurus .380, had been loaned to Cobain by Carlson. (Cobain picked up the guns a few months later; they were again confiscated in the March 1994 domestic dispute.) A source says that Cobain told him that the fight was actually over Cobain's drug use.

Seven weeks later, on the morning of July 23, Love heard a thud in the bathroom of the New York hotel where the couple was staying. She opened the door and found Cobain unconscious. He had overdosed again. Nevertheless, Nirvana performed that night at the Roseland Ballroom. Fans never knew the difference.

A few days later, Cobain returned to Seattle. One friend says: "He just kept to himself. Every time he came back after a tour, he would get more and more reclusive. The only people that saw him a lot were Courtney, Cali and Jackie [Farry, a former baby sitter and assistant manager]." Cobain never seemed to fully believe he had a problem — even as recently as the intervention, friends confirm. Cobain's clinical depression had been diagnosed as early as high school, according to Gold Mountain. "Over the last few years of his life," says Goldberg, "Kurt saw innumerable doctors and therapists." Many who were close to Cobain confirm that the musician frequently suffered dramatic mood swings.

"Kurt could just be very outgoing and funny and charming," says Butch Vig, who produced Nevermind, "and a half-hour later he would just go sit in the corner and be totally moody and uncommunicative." "He was a walking time bomb, and nobody could do anything about it," says Goldberg.

On Sept. 14, In Utero was released. Even though Cobain had vowed not to "go on any more long tours" unless he could keep his chronic stomach pain from acting up, the band hit the road for a long stretch of U.S. dates and interviews, including one with Rolling Stone in October. According to sources, Cobain detoxed from heroin before the tour.

On Jan. 8, 1994, Nirvana performed what would be their last American show, at the Seattle Center Arena. The band then spent the next couple of weeks relaxing in Seattle. During that time, in a move considered uncharacteristic by many, Cobain authorized Geffen to make a few changes to In Utero. In order to get chains such as Kmart and Wal-Mart to carry the album, which the stores had previously rejected, Geffen decided to remove Cobain's collage of model fetuses from the back cover.

Geffen also changed the song title "Rape Me" to "Waif Me," a name that Cobain picked, according to Ray Farrell of Geffen's sales department. "At first, Kurt wanted to call it 'Sexually Assault Me,'" Farrell says, "but it took up too much room. In the end he decided on 'Waif Me' because waif, like rape, is not gender specific. Waif represents somebody who is at the mercy of other people." The altered version was also shipped to Singapore — the only country where In Utero was banned.

Nirvana (minus Pat Smear, who was still at home in Los Angeles) emerged from hibernation on the weekend of Jan. 28 and spent three days in the studio. On Feb. 2, the band members left for Europe. They stopped in France to appear on a TV show and began their tour in Lisbon, Portugal, on Feb. 5. It was the first time Nirvana had scheduled so many consecutive dates in Europe. The band and crew traveled by bus. Cobain and Smear traveled in one bus; Grohl and Novoselic rode in another. According to road manager Alex Macleod, two buses were a matter of luxury, not animosity.

"The shows went really well," recalls Macleod. "But Kurt was tired; I mean, we were traveling a lot."

About 10 to 12 days into the tour, heading back through France, Cobain began to lose his voice. For a while, a throat spray purchased in Paris and administered before shows helped ease his discomfort.

After a swing through a handful of French and Italian cities — including Rome — Nirvana performed in Ljubjana, in the former Yugoslavia, on Feb. 27 and, two days later, at Terminal Einz, in Munich, Germany. It would be Nirvana's final show. Cobain lost his voice halfway through the performance and, says Macleod, went to see an ear, nose and throat specialist the next day. "[Cobain] was told to take two to four weeks' rest," Macleod says. "He was given spray and [medicine] for his lungs because he was diagnosed as having severe laryngitis and bronchitis."

According to Macleod, the doctor who prescribed the throat spray to Cobain told him: "'You shouldn't be singing the way you're singing,' the same as they always say. 'You have to take at least two months off and learn to sing properly.' And he was like 'Fuck that.'"

The band postponed two more German shows — in Munich and Offenbach — until April 12 and 13 and took a rest. Novoselic flew back to Seattle the following day to oversee repair work on his house; Grohl stayed in Germany to participate in a video shoot for the film Backbeat (he played drums on the soundtrack); and Cobain and Smear headed for Rome. The band had made it through 15 shows with another 23 to go.

Cobain decided to stay in Europe. The plane trip and jet lag were too much to take in his condition. "He as much as anyone else was bummed out that they had to pull these two shows," says Macleod. "But there was no way that he could have gone on the next night."

On March 3, Cobain checked into Rome's five-star Excelsior Hotel. That same day, in a London hotel room, a writer for the British monthly Select was interviewing Love, who was preparing for an English tour with her band Hole. The writer says that during their talk, Love was popping Rohypnol, a tranquilizer manufactured by Roche, which also makes Valium. According to pharmacists, the drug is used to treat insomnia. It has also been used to treat severe anxiety and alcohol withdrawal and as an alternative to methadone during heroin withdrawal. (Gold Mountain denies withdrawal as an issue in Love's and Cobain's cases.) Known in some parts of Europe as Roipnol, the drug is not available in the United States. "Look, I know this is a controlled substance," Love said in the interview. "I got it from my doctor. It's like Valium."

According to Gold Mountain, Love, Frances Bean and Cali met Cobain in Rome the next afternoon. That evening, Cobain sent a bellboy out to fill a prescription for Rohypnol. He also ordered champagne from room service.

At 6:30 the following morning, Love found Cobain unconscious. "I reached for him, and he had blood coming out of his nose," she told Select in a later interview, adding, "I have seen him get really fucked up before, but I have never seen him almost eat it." At the time, the incident was portrayed as an accident. It has since been revealed that some 50 pills were found in Cobain's stomach. Rohypnol is sold in tinfoil packets; each pill must be unwrapped individually. A suicide note was found at the scene. Gold Mountain still denies that a suicide attempt was made. "A note was found," says Billig, "but Kurt insisted that it wasn't a suicide note. He just took all of his and Courtney's money and was going to run away and disappear."

Cobain was rushed to Rome's Umberto I Polyclinic Hospital for five hours of emergency treatment and then transferred to the American Hospital just outside the city. He awoke from his coma 20 hours later and immediately scribbled his first request on a note pad: "Get these fucking tubes out of my nose." Three days later, he was allowed to leave the hospital. Cobain's doctor Osvaldo Galletta says that the singer was suffering "no permanent damage" at the time.

"He's not going to get away from me that easily," Love later said. "I'll follow him through hell."

The couple then returned to Seattle. "I saw [Kurt] the day he got back from Rome," says Carlson. "He was really upset about all the attention it got in the media." Carlson didn't notice anything abnormal about Cobain's health or behavior. Like many of Cobain's friends, he regrets that neither Cobain nor anyone close to Cobain told him that Rome had been a suicide attempt.

The days after Cobain's death were filled with grief, confusion and finger pointing for all concerned. "Everyone who feels guilty, raise your hand," Love told MTV the morning after Cobain was found. She said she was wearing Cobain's jeans and socks and carrying a lock of her husband's blond hair. According to Billig, a doctor was summoned to stay with Love at all times. "She's a strong enough person that she can take it," says Craig Montgomery, who was scheduled to manage a since-canceled spring tour for Hole.

"It was hard to imagine Kurt growing old and contented," adds Montgomery. "For years, I've had dreams about it ending like this. The thing that weirds me out is how alone and shut out he felt. It was him that shut out a lot of his friends."

Novoselic told a Seattle newspaper that he believed Cobain's death was the result of inexplicable internal forces: "Just blaming it on smack is stupid. . . . Smack was just a small part of his life."

The news of Cobain's death was first reported on Seattle's KXRX-FM. A co-worker of Gary Smith, the electrician who found Cobain's body, called the station with what he claimed was the "scoop of the century," adding, "you're going to owe me a lot of concert tickets for this one."

"Broadcasting this information was kind of an eerie decision to make," says Marty Reimer, the on-air personality who took the call. "We're not a news station." Cobain's sister, Kim, first heard of her brother's death through radio reports, as did his mother, Wendy O'Connor. "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club," O'Connor said to a reporter, referring to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison. "I told him not to join that stupid club."

After Reimer called the Associated Press with the story, MTV played reruns of Nirvana's Unplugged performance and Seattle DJs took to the airwaves. "He died a coward," barked one Seattle DJ on KIRO-FM, "and left a little girl without a father."

"I don't think any of us would be in this room tonight if it weren't for Kurt Cobain," Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder told a capacity audience during a Washington, D.C., concert the night that Cobain's death was announced. Vedder left the crowd with the admonition: "Don't die. Swear to God." (Two weeks later, Pearl Jam dropped plans for a summer U.S. tour because, according to the group's manager, Kelly Curtis, Cobain's suicide "knocked the wind out of the band.")

Outside Cobain's Seattle house the afternoon after his body was found, 16-year-old Kimberly Wagner sat on a wall for four hours, crying and fielding queries from news-hungry TV stations and magazines. "I just came here to find an answer," she sobbed. "But I don't think I'm going to."

Nearby, Steve Adams, 15, stood with a friend. As a Gray Line tour bus full of curiosity seekers passed by, he explained what Cobain's music meant to him. "Sometimes I'll get depressed and get mad at my mom or my friends, and I'll go and listen to Kurt. And it puts me in a better mood. . . . I thought about killing myself a while ago, too, but then I thought about all the people that would be depressed about it."

The Seattle Crisis Clinic received roughly 300 calls that day, 100 more than usual. Dr. Christos Dagadakis, director of emergency psychiatry at Harborview Medical Center, says, however, that "there was no particular increase in overdoses or suicide attempts coming in to our emergency room."

It wasn't until April 10, after an emotional vigil held for 5,000 fans in a park near the Space Needle, that Seattle experienced its first possible Cobain-related suicide. After returning home from the vigil, Daniel Kaspar, 28, ended his life with a single bullet.

The effects of Cobain's suicide reverberated around the globe. In southern Turkey, a 16-year-old fan of Cobain's locked herself in her room, cranked Nirvana music and shot herself in the head. Friends said she had been depressed ever since hearing about Cobain's death.

On the day of the candlelight vigil in Seattle, Cobain's family scheduled a private memorial service at the Seattle Unity Church nearby. There was no casket; Cobain's body was still in the custody of the medical examiners (he was later cremated).

The Rev. Stephen Towles began the service by telling some 150 invited guests: "A suicide is no different than having our finger in a vise. The pain becomes so great that you can't bear it any longer."

Novoselic delivered a short eulogy afterward, instructing mourners to "remember Kurt for what he was — caring, generous and sweet." Carlson read verses from a Buddhist poet.

Love, clad in black, read passages from the Book of Job and some of Cobain's favorite poems from Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations. She told anecdotes about Cobain's childhood and read from his suicide note. She included parts that she had not read on tape for the vigil. "I have a daughter who reminds me too much of myself," Cobain had written.

Gary Gersh, who signed Nirvana when he was with Geffen (he is now president of Capitol Records), read a faxed eulogy from Michael Stipe. Last to speak was Danny Goldberg. "I believe he would have left this world several years ago," Goldberg said, "if he hadn't met Courtney."

As of this writing, neither Grohl nor Novoselic has told his story to the press, though, along with Cobain's family and Gold Mountain, they will be setting up a scholarship fund for Aberdeen, Wash., high-school students with "artistic promise regardless of academic performance." Children's services departments in both Seattle and Los Angeles confirmed that they had no case workers assigned to Frances Bean. Love, meanwhile, donated all of Cobain's guns, including the one he used to kill himself, to Mothers Against Violence in America.

"Courtney is taking time off right now," says Roddy Bottum. "It's a traumatic time in her life. She's lost a husband, and there's photographers in the trees."

This story is from the June 2nd, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 683: June 2, 1994