On April 8, 1994, the discovery of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's death by shotgun inside his Seattle home rocked the world. This is the full story of his last days.
“Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club,” said Kurt Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, on April 9, 1994. “I told him not to join that stupid club.”
The day before, her son — the Nirvana frontman who had reached the heights of music stardom and become the voice of his generation — had killed himself inside his Seattle home. Kurt Cobain’s death meant that he’d joined the fabled “27 Club” of rock stars, including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who died at that young age.
All signs at the scene indeed pointed to suicide. His body was found in his greenhouse while some of his dearest personal belongings, a recently-fired shotgun, and a suicide note were all nearby.
As his mother suggested the day afterward, perhaps Kurt Cobain’s suicide was the inevitable ending for this tortured soul all along. From the divorce of his parents at age nine — an event that profoundly impacted him emotionally for the rest of his life — to his chronic sense of loneliness that was only worsened by his fame, Cobain was haunted by a deep sadness for most of his short life.
He did seem to find some sort of peace, some sort of will to carry on, when he married musician Courtney Love and she gave birth to their daughter Frances in 1992. But, in the end, it apparently wasn’t enough.
And while the authorities and most people who were closest to him agree that Kurt Cobain’s death was a suicide, there are several voices that claim there was foul play of various sorts involved — and that he may have even been murdered. To this day, questions linger about how Kurt Cobain died. But whether it was self-inflicted or not, Kurt Cobain’s death was just the end of a tragic story of a life cut far too short.
Was Kurt Cobain’s Death Inevitable?
According to Charles R. Cross’ definitive biography of Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, he was a joyous child, not at all mired in the gloom that dominated much of his life from adolescence onward. From the time he was born in Aberdeen, Washington on Feb. 20, 1967, Kurt Cobain was, by all accounts, a happy kid.
But even though his sadness may not have been innate, his artistic talent surely was.
“Even when he was a little kid, he could just sit down and just play something he’d heard on the radio,” his sister Kim later recalled. “He was able to artistically put whatever he thought onto paper or into music.”
Unfortunately, that enthusiastic young kid would soon grow into an adolescent who took it upon himself to shoulder the responsibility for his parent’s divorce when he was nine. For a few years, the only one he didn’t feel betrayed by was his imaginary friend, Boddah.
Kurt Cobain’s suicide note would later be addressed to him.
“I hate Mom, I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom. Mom hates Dad.” — Excerpted from a poem of Kurt Cobains’s on his bedroom wall.
“I had a really good childhood,” Cobain would later tell Spin, “up until I was about nine.”
The family was already crumbling before his ninth birthday in February 1976, but it officially split thanks to the divorce one week later. It was the most crushing event of his young life.
Cobain stopped eating and, at one point, even had to be hospitalized for malnutrition. Meanwhile, he grew perpetually angry.
“He was able to sit in silence for long stretches of time without feeling a need to make small talk,” a childhood friend said.
Soon, Cobain moved in with his father. He asked him to promise never to date anyone besides his mother again. Don Cobain agreed — but re-married soon after.
Cobain’s father eventually admitted that he treated his step-children better than his biological son because he feared being left by his new wife. “I was afraid that it was going to get to the point of ‘either he goes or she goes,’ and I didn’t want to lose her,” he said.
Between feeling like the black sheep of his step-siblings, family therapy sessions, and regularly moving between his parents’ homes, the adolescent Cobain had it rough. And he would carry the emotional burdens of his youth with him through the rest of his life. Many he believe the seeds of Kurt Cobain’s suicide were sewn here.
Nirvana Hits The Scene
From a young age, Kurt Cobain began playing guitar, drawing pictures of himself as a rock star, and eventually jamming with a variety of amateur musicians in the Seattle scene.
Eventually, after years of small gigs and increasing popularity, a 20-year-old Cobain found the bandmates that would become Nirvana. With Krist Novoselic on bass and (after a run of drummer that didn’t last) Dave Grohl on drums, Cobain had formed the lineup that would soon become the biggest band in the world. In 1991, the year after Grohl joined, Nirvana released Nevermind to both critical plaudits and massive sales.
But even at the heights of artistic success, Cobain’s personal demons did not quiet. Colleagues would recall how he could be energetic and outgoing one moment and the next, catatonic. “He was a walking time bomb,” his manager Danny Goldberg told Rolling Stone. “And nobody could do anything about it.”
The day after their appearance on Saturday Night Live, following the moment when Nevermind kicked Michael Jackson off the number one spot on the charts, his wife, Courtney Love, woke up to find him facedown next to their hotel room bed. He had overdosed on his drug of choice, heroin, but she managed to revive him.
“It wasn’t that he OD’d,” she said. “It was that he was dead. If I hadn’t woken up at seven…I don’t know, maybe I sensed it. It was so fucked. It was sick and psycho.”
His first near-death overdose happened on the very day he became a worldwide star. Unfortunately, he developed a rapidly intensifying heroin addition — together with Love — that didn’t loosen its grip until his death less than three years later.
The Last Months Before The Death Of Kurt Cobain
The tour for Nirvana’s third and final album, In Utero, kicked off its European leg in February 1994, less than two years after he’d married Love and she’d given birth to their daughter, Frances. Despite all the ways in which his life was moving forward, Cobain had not found happiness.
It only took five days for him to suggest canceling the tour, according to Consequence of Sound. He had simply had enough of the responsibilities of being a professional rockstar and having to deal with an addicted wife while also being an addict himself.
“It’s just amazing that at this point in rock-and-roll history, people are still expecting their rock icons to live out these classic rock archetypes, like Sid and Nancy,” he said in an interview with The Advocate. “To assume that we’re just the same because we did heroin for a while — it’s pretty offensive to be expected to be like that.”
Meanwhile, Cobain developed chronic stomach pains compounded by stress. Furthermore, it didn’t help his mental state to know that he was on tour while his baby daughter was back home halfway around the world. Before the Munich show on March 1, Cobain got into a fight with his wife over the phone.
Nirvana did play that night, but not before Cobain rushed into the opening act’s dressing room, telling the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne how desperate he was to divorce his wife and break up the band.
About an hour later, Cobain ended the show early and blamed it on laryngitis. It was the last show Nirvana ever played.
The tour’s 10-day break gave everyone a chance to go their separate ways and take a breather. Cobain flew to Rome where he was joined by his wife and daughter. On March 4, Love woke up to find him completely unresponsive — Cobain had overdosed on Rohypnol during the night. He even wrote a note.
This overdose didn’t go public at the time and Nirvana’s management claimed it was an accident. Months later, however, Love revealed that he “took 50 fucking pills” and prepared a suicide note. It was clear from the note that his fame had done nothing to mitigate the sadness inside him and that his troubles with Love were only providing echoes of his parents’ divorce that so hurt him as a child.
He wrote that he’d “rather die than go through another divorce.”
Following the suicide attempt, the band rescheduled its upcoming tour dates so Cobain could recover, but he was mentally and physically exhausted. He rejected an offer to headline Lollapalooza and simply didn’t go to band rehearsals. Though Love herself was a frequent heroin user, she told her husband that drug use at home was now strictly prohibited.
Of course, Cobain found a way. He’d stay at his dealer’s apartment or shoot up at random motel rooms. According to Rolling Stone, Seattle police responded to a domestic dispute on March 18. Love claimed her husband had locked himself in a room with a revolver and said he was going to kill himself.
The cops confiscated the .38 caliber gun, a variety of pills, and left. Cobain told them later that night that he had no intention of committing suicide.
Cobain’s wife and relatives, band members, and management team planned an intervention for March 25 with the help of Steven Chatoff of the Anacapa by the Sea behavioral health center in Port Hueneme, California.
“They called me to see what could be done,” he said. “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.”
At the intervention, Love told Cobain she’d divorce him if he didn’t go to rehab. His band members said they’d leave the band if he didn’t. But Cobain only became furious and lashed out. He accused his wife of being “more fucked up than he was.”
Afterward, Cobain retreated to the basement with Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear to make music. Love flew to L.A. in hopes that Cobain would join her so they could go to rehab together.
But that intervention would be the last time that Love and many of Kurt Cobain’s closest friends ever saw him.
How Kurt Cobain Died By Suicide And The Days That Preceded It
The night of the intervention, Kurt Cobain went back to his dealer’s apartment, desperate for answers to two tragic questions: “Where are my friends when I need them? Why are my friends against me?”
Love later said she regretted leaving the intervention as she did and that her stern approach was a mistake.
“That ’80s tough-love bullshit — it doesn’t work,” she said during a memorial vigil two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s death.
On March 29, after another near-fatal overdose, Cobain agreed to let Novoselic drive him to the airport so that he could enter rehab in California. But the two only got into a fistfight at the main terminal as an ultimately resistant Cobain fled.
He then reportedly visited friend Dylan Carlson to ask for a gun the next day, claiming he needed it because there were trespassers at his home. Carlson said Cobain “seemed normal,” and that he didn’t find his request odd because “I’d loaned him guns before.”
Cobain and Carlson visited Stan’s Gun Shop in Seattle and bought a six-pound Remington 20-gauge shotgun and some shells for about $300, which Carlson paid for because Cobain didn’t want the police to know about or confiscate the weapon.
Carlson did find it strange that Cobain would buy a shotgun at all, considering he was supposed to leave for rehab in California. He offered to hold it for him until he was back but Cobain said no.
Police believe Cobain dropped the gun off at home and then flew to California to enter the Exodus Recovery Center.
On April 1, after two days as a patient, he called his wife.
“He said, ‘Courtney, no matter what happens, I want you to know that you made a really good record,'” she later recalled. “I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Just remember, no matter what, I love you.'”
That night, at around 7:25 p.m., Cobain told the rehab center staff that he was just stepping out for a smoke. According to Love, that’s when he “jumped over the fence” — which was actually a six-foot brick wall.
“We watch our patients really well,” said an Exodus spokesperson. “But some do get out.”
When Love found out, she immediately canceled his credit cards and hired a private investigator to track him down. But Cobain had already flown back to Seattle by that time, and according to several witnesses — wandered around town, spent a night at his summer home in Carnation, and hung out at a park.
Meanwhile, Cobain’s mother panicked. She filed a missing person’s report and told the police that her son might be suicidal. She suggested they scour the narcotics-heavy Capitol Hill district for a sign of him.
Before anyone knew where he was or what was about to happen, Cobain had already barricaded himself in the greenhouse above his garage.
The truth is, nobody knows exactly what happened between April 4 and April 5. What is known, however, is that the house was searched three times for the singer while he was still alive and apparently nobody thought to check the garage or the greenhouse above it.
At some point on or before April 5, Cobain propped up a stool against the greenhouse doors from within and decided it was time to go.
“I have it good, very good, and I’m grateful, but since the age of seven, I’ve become hateful towards all humans in general. Only because it seems so easy for people to get along that have empathy. Only because I love and feel sorry for people too much I guess.
Thank you all from the pit of my burning, nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the past years. I’m too much of an erratic, moody baby! I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
Peace, love, empathy.
Frances and Courtney, I’ll be at your alter [sic].
Please keep going Courtney, for Frances.
For her life, which will be so much happier without me.
I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU!”
He took off his hunter’s cap and settled down with his cigar box that contained his stash of heroin. He left his wallet on the floor opened it to his driver’s license, presumably to make the identification of his body a little easier.
He wrote a suicide note, later found near his body on the floor. Then, he pointed the shotgun at his head and fired.
Questions Emerge About How Kurt Cobain Died
The coroner’s report deemed Kurt Cobain’s death a suicide by gunshot.
However, toxicology reports later indicated, according to Tom Grant, the private investigator that Love had hired to find Cobain, that no man could ever ingest as much heroin as they found in Cobain’s body and still be capable of operating a shotgun, much less point its long barrel straight at his own head. Grant posited that the heroin was administered by some perpetrator to debilitate Cobain enough to shoot him — though this assertion remains controversial.
Grant added that the handwriting in the second half of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note was inconsistent with his usual penmanship, suggesting that someone else wrote it to make the death appear to be suicide even though it actually wasn’t. However, many handwriting experts disagree with this analysis.
While Grant is not the only one claiming that Kurt Cobain’s suicide was actually a murder, such theories do remain on the fringes.
A World In Mourning
“I don’t think any of us would be in this room tonight if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain,” Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam said on stage during a Washington, D.C. concert the night Kurt Cobain’s suicide was announced.
He left the audience with a simple plea: “Don’t die. Swear to God.”
Outside of Cobain’s Seattle home, fans started gathering. “I just came here to find an answer,” 16-year-old fan Kimberly Wagner said. “But I don’t think I’m going to.”
The Seattle Crisis Clinic received around 300 calls that day — a stark increase from the average of 200. The day the city held a candlelight vigil, Cobain’s family held a private memorial of their own. His body was still being held by medical examiners. The casket was empty.
Novoselic urged everyone to “remember Kurt for what he was — caring, generous, and sweet,” while Love read passages from the Bible and some of Cobain’s favorite poems by Arthur Rimbaud. She also read parts of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note.
The world mourned Kurt Cobain’s death — and, in many ways, it still does.
A quarter-century later, Kurt Cobain’s death still remains a fresh wound for many.
“Sometimes I’ll get depressed and get mad at my mom or my friends, and I’ll go and listen to Kurt,” said 15-year-old Steve Adams. “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.”