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

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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.

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