Death of Kurt Cobain
The relevance of particular information in (or previously in) this article or section is disputed. (November 2015)
Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the American rock band Nirvana, was found dead at his home, located at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East in Seattle, Washington, on April 8, 1994. Forensic analysis determined that he had committed suicide three days prior on April 5. The Seattle Police Department incident report states: "Kurt Cobain was found with a shotgun across his body, had a visible head wound and there was a suicide note discovered nearby." The King County Medical Examiner noted puncture wounds on the inside of both the right and left elbow. Prior to his death, Cobain had checked out of a drug rehabilitation facility and had been reported as suicidal by his wife Courtney Love.
Despite the official ruling of suicide, several theories have arisen of alternate explanations for Cobain's death. Tom Grant, a private investigator hired by Courtney Love to find Cobain after his departure from rehab, believed that Cobain was murdered. Grant's theory has been analyzed and questioned by television shows, films, and books. Authors and filmmakers have also attempted to explain what might have happened during Cobain's final days, and what might have led him to commit suicide.
- 1 Discovery of Cobain's body
- 2 Theories
- 3 Reactions of Cobain's friends
- 4 Notes
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Discovery of Cobain's body
On Friday, April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain was discovered in the living quarters above his garage at his Lake Washington house by VECA Electric employee Gary Smith. Smith arrived at the house that morning to install security lighting when he saw Cobain lying inside. He found a suicide note with a pen stuck through it lying in a flower pot. A shotgun purchased for Cobain by Dylan Carlson was found resting on Cobain's chest. Cobain's death certificate stated that his death was a result of a "contact perforating shotgun wound to the head" and concluded that his death was a suicide. The report estimated that Cobain died on Tuesday, April 5, 1994.
Memorial and cremation
On April 10, 1994, a public memorial service was held at the Seattle Center, where a recording of Courtney Love reading Cobain's suicide note was played. Near the end of the vigil, Love arrived and distributed some of his clothing to his fans. In the following days, Love publicly consoled and mourned with fans who came to her house.
Cobain's body was cremated. Love divided his ashes; she kept some in a teddy bear and some in an urn. In 1994, Love took another portion of his ashes to the Namgyal Buddhist Monastery in Ithaca, New York. There they were ceremonially blessed by Buddhist monks and mixed into clay, which was made into memorial sculptures. A final ceremony was arranged for Cobain by his mother on May 31, 1999, that was attended by both Love and Tracy Marander. A Buddhist monk chanted while his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, scattered his ashes into McLane Creek in Olympia, Washington, the city where he "had found his true artistic muse.":351
Advocates of the verdict of death by self-inflicted gunshot wound cite Cobain's persistent drug addiction, clinical depression, and handwritten suicide note as conclusive proof. Members of Cobain's family also noted patterns of depression and instability in Cobain before he achieved fame. Cobain mentioned that the stomach pains from an undiagnosed stomach condition were so severe during Nirvana's 1991 European tour that he became suicidal and stated that taking heroin was "[his] choice"; saying, "This [heroin] is the only thing that's saving me from blowing my head off right now."
In Charles Cross's biography Heavier Than Heaven, Nirvana band member and bass guitarist Krist Novoselic is quoted on seeing Cobain in the days before his intervention: "He was really quiet. He was just estranged from all of his relationships. He wasn't connecting with anybody.":332 Novoselic's offer to buy a nice dinner for Cobain resulted in unintentionally driving him to score heroin: "His dealer was right there. He wanted to get fucked up into oblivion... He wanted to die, that's what he wanted to do.":333 In his own book, Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy, Novoselic alludes to the circumstances of Cobain's death: "Tragically, Cobain picked the wrong way to resign from the position he was thrust into."
In March 2014, the Seattle Police Department developed four rolls of film that had been left in an evidence vault (no reason was provided for why the rolls were not developed earlier). According to the Seattle police, the 35mm photographs depict the scene of Cobain's corpse more clearly than previous Polaroid images taken by the police. Detective Mike Ciesynski, a cold case investigator, was asked to look at the film because "it is 20 years later and it’s a high media case." Ciesynski stated that the official cause of Cobain's death remains suicide and that the images will not be released publicly:
What are people going to gain from seeing pictures of Kurt Cobain laying on the ground with his hair blown back, with blood coming out of his nose and trauma to his eyes from a penetrating shotgun wound? How’s that going to benefit anybody? It wasn’t going to change my decision that this was a suicide, and actually I’m the one that makes the decision finally: Do we go forward or not? Morally I would not be able to justify that. Legally I can’t justify doing that.
According to a spokesperson for the Seattle Police Department, the department receives at least one request weekly, mostly through Twitter, to reopen the investigation. This resulted in the maintenance of the basic incident report on file.
The first to object publicly to the report of suicide was Seattle public access host Richard Lee. A week following Cobain's death, Lee aired the first episode of an ongoing series called Kurt Cobain Was Murdered. Lee claimed several discrepancies in the police reports, including several changes in the nature of the shotgun blast. Lee acquired a video that was taped on April 8 from the tree outside Cobain's garage, showing the scene around Cobain's body, which Lee claimed showed a marked absence of blood for what was reported as a point-blank shotgun blast to the head (several pathology experts have noted that a shotgun blast inside the mouth often results in less blood, unlike a shotgun blast to the head.):128
The main proponent of a conspiracy surrounding Cobain's death is Tom Grant, a private investigator employed by Courtney Love after Cobain's disappearance from rehab. Grant was still under Love's employment when Cobain's body was found. Grant believes that Cobain's death was a homicide.
There are several key components to Grant's theory.
Bloodstream heroin levels
On April 14, 1994, Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Cobain was "high on heroin when he pulled the trigger." The paper reported that the toxicological tests determined that the level of heroin in Cobain's bloodstream was 1.52 milligrams per liter and that there was also evidence of valium in his blood. The report contained a quote from Dr. Randall Baselt of the Chemical Toxicological Institute, stating that Cobain's heroin level was at "a high concentration, by any account." He also stated that the strength of that dose would depend on many factors, including how habituated Cobain was to the drug. Grant argues that Cobain could not have injected himself with such a dose and still have been able to pull the trigger.:113
Several different studies on heroin use have noted the difficulty in pinpointing the level of heroin that an addict can tolerate. In a 2004 story, Dateline NBC questioned five medical examiners about the figure from the toxicology report. Two said Cobain could have built up a tolerance through repeated usage, allowing him to pull the trigger himself, while the other three maintained that the information was inconclusive.
Grant does not believe that Cobain was killed by the heroin dose. He suggests that the heroin was used to incapacitate Cobain before the final shotgun blast was administered by the perpetrator.:116 Some have noted that Grant, Wallace, and Halperin have used the dosage reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, not the actual autopsy report, and that they may not have the correct figure. The Seattle Police Department cannot release the information to the media because reports and records of autopsies are confidential and protected under Washington State law as well as Federal law by the Privacy Act of 1974, US Code.
There have also been concerns that the high concentration may not translate to a high heroin dose, especially if Cobain died only a couple of minutes after the drug was injected.
While working for Cobain's wife Courtney Love, Grant was given access to Cobain's suicide note and used her fax machine to make a photocopy, which has since been widely distributed.
After studying the notes, Grant believed that it was actually a letter written by Cobain announcing his intent to leave Courtney Love, Seattle, and the music business. Grant asserts that the lines at the very bottom of the note, separate from the rest, are the only parts implying suicide. While the official report on Cobain's death concluded that Cobain wrote the note, Grant claims that the official report does not distinguish the questionable lines from the rest of the note and simply draws the conclusion across its entirety[clarification needed]. However, it should be noted that many of Kurt's notes were written in this manner. This was discovered when Cobain's Journals were published in 2002.
Though despite consulting with many handwriting experts, some disagree with Grant's claims. Document examiner Janis Parker concluded that the suicide note was written by Kurt Cobain. When Dateline NBC sent a copy of the note to four different handwriting experts, one concluded that the entire note was in Cobain's hand, while the other three said the sample was inconclusive. One expert contacted by the television series Unsolved Mysteries noted the difficulty in drawing a conclusion, given that the note being studied was a photocopy, not the original. But in the very same documentary two other experts found the writing, especially the last four lines, suspicious.:112
The shotgun, a Remington Model 11 20-gauge, was not checked for fingerprints until May 6, 1994. According to the Fingerprint Analysis Report, four latent prints were lifted but contained no usable prints.
The Seattle Police Department's follow-up report states that the shotgun was inverted on Cobain's chest with his left hand wrapped around the barrel. A responding officer had to pry the shotgun from Cobain's hands, which could be a reason for the lack of usable prints.
Grant also cites circumstantial evidence from the official report. For example, the report claimed that the doors of the greenhouse could not have been locked from the outside, meaning that Cobain would have had to lock them himself. Grant claims that when he saw the doors for himself, he found that the doors could be locked and pulled shut. Grant also questions the lack of fingerprint evidence connecting Cobain to key evidence, including the shotgun (although this could be attributed to the gun's oil coating or condensation in the greenhouse). Grant notes that the official report claims that Cobain's fingerprints were also absent from the suicide note as well as the pen (although, as it was stabbed into the soil, it would be likely that a palm print would erase fingerprints) that had been shoved through it, and yet Cobain was found without gloves on. None of the circumstantial evidence directly points to murder, but Grant believes it supports the larger case.:121
On March 3, 1994, Cobain was in a coma in a Rome hospital. At this time, Cobain's management agency remarked that Cobain had accidentally taken too many pain pills due to him suffering from influenza and fatigue. After his death, Love claimed that Cobain's overdose in Rome was a suicide attempt. Love told Rolling Stone's David Fricke, "He took 50 pills. He probably forgot how many he took. But there was a definite suicidal urge, to be gobbling and gobbling and gobbling."
In studying the Rome incident, journalists Ian Halperin and Max Wallace contacted Dr. Osvaldo Galletta, who treated Cobain after the incident. Galletta contested the claim that the Rome overdose was a suicide attempt, telling Halperin and Wallace, "We can usually tell a suicide attempt. This didn't look like one to me." Galletta also specifically denied Love's claim that 50 Rohypnol pills were removed from Cobain's stomach.:89
However, they also stated:
Grant believes Courtney may have mixed a large number of pills into Kurt's champagne so that when he took a drink, he was actually unknowingly ingesting large amounts of the drug, enough to kill him. But if that's the case, why did she call the police when she found him unconscious on the floor? If she wanted Kurt dead, why didn't she just leave him on the floor until he died?
Galletta also noted that Cobain's recovery was aided by the timely intervention of Courtney Love, who called for help.
Grant believes that the claim the Rome incident was a suicide attempt was not made until after Cobain's death. Grant claims that people close to Cobain, including Nirvana's management Gold Mountain Records, specifically denied the characterization prior to Cobain's death. Grant believes that if Rome had truly been a suicide attempt, Cobain's friends and family would have been told so that they could have watched over him.
Others have asserted that the claims by Gold Mountain and others were simply efforts to mask what was happening behind the scenes. Lee Ranaldo, guitarist for Sonic Youth, told Rolling Stone, "Rome was only the latest installment of [those around Cobain] keeping a semblance of normalcy for the outside world."
Grant spoke to Cobain's attorney Rosemary Carroll at her office on April 13, 1994. He said she pressed him to investigate Cobain's death, and that Cobain was not suicidal. Carroll also claims that Cobain had asked her to draw up a will excluding Love because he was planning to file for divorce. Grant said this was the motive for Cobain's death.:119 Carroll also provided Grant with a handwriting practice note that she found in Love's backpack that was left at her home. It has been suggested that the handwriting on this practice note is markedly similar to the handwriting found on the last 4 lines of Cobain's suicide note. Carroll has not commented publicly on the matter.
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield decided to investigate the theories himself. He brought a film crew to visit a number of people associated with both Cobain and Love, including Love's estranged father, Cobain's aunt, and one of the couples' former nannies. Broomfield also spoke to The Mentors' bandleader El Duce, who claimed that Love had offered him $50,000 to kill Cobain.
Though El Duce claimed that he knew who killed Kurt, he did not mention a name and offered no evidence to support his assertion. However, he mentioned speaking to someone called Allen, before quickly interjecting, "I mean, my friend", then laughing, "I'll let the FBI catch him." Broomfield incidentally captured El Duce's final interview, as he died days later when he was struck by a train in the middle of the night.
Broomfield titled the finished documentary Kurt & Courtney. It was released on February 27, 1998. In the end, Broomfield felt he hadn't uncovered enough evidence to conclude the existence of a conspiracy. In a 1998 interview, Broomfield summed up his thoughts: "I think that he committed suicide. I don't think that there's a smoking gun. And I think there's only one way you can explain a lot of things around his death. Not that he was murdered, but that there was just a lack of caring for him. I just think that Courtney had moved on, and he was expendable."
Ian Halperin and Max Wallace
Journalists Ian Halperin and Max Wallace followed a similar path and attempted to investigate the conspiracy themselves. Their initial work, the 1999 book Who Killed Kurt Cobain?, drew a similar conclusion to Broomfield's film: while there wasn't enough evidence to prove a conspiracy, there was more than enough to demand that the case be reopened. A notable element of the book included their discussions with Grant, who had taped nearly every conversation he had undertaken while he was working for Love. Halperin and Wallace insisted that Grant play the tapes of his conversations with Carroll so that they could confirm his story. Over the next several years, Halperin and Wallace collaborated with Grant to write a second book, 2004's Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain.
Contesting The Murder Theory
Grant counters the claim that he profits from the sale of casebook kits on his website by stating that it offsets some of the costs of his investigation. Grant stated: "I wrestled with that... but if I go broke, I'll have to give up my pursuit and Courtney wins."
Sergeant Donald Cameron, one of the homicide detectives involved in the case, specifically dismissed Grant's theory, claiming,"[Grant] hasn't shown us a shred of proof that this was anything other than suicide." Cobain's friend, Dylan Carlson, told Halperin and Wallace that he also did not believe that the theory was legitimate, and in an interview with Broomfield implied that if he believed that his friend was murdered, he would have dealt with it himself. In Kurt & Courtney, he specifically states that he would kill Courtney and any others involved if he believed that they had murdered Kurt. He has criticized Tom Grant's investigation.
Many of Kurt's friends and family have supported the suicide verdict. Bandmate Krist Novoselic has strongly voiced his opinion that Kurt killed himself. Kurt's friend Everett True also shared this opinion, along with Dave Grohl. Kurt's father, Donald Cobain (who worked with Washington State Patrol), has made no attempts to reopen the case, despite his professional connections.
Reactions of Cobain's friends
Several of Cobain's friends have accepted that he committed suicide, but noted their surprise when it happened. Mark Lanegan, a long-time friend of Cobain's, told Rolling Stone: "I never knew [Cobain] to be suicidal. I just knew he was going through a tough time." In the same article, Dylan Carlson noted that he wished Cobain or someone close to him had told him that Rome was a suicide attempt.
Danny Goldberg, husband of Rosemary Carroll and founder of Nirvana's management agency Gold Mountain Entertainment, refers in his book Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit about "the crazy Internet rumors that Kurt Cobain had not committed suicide but had been murdered," stating that Cobain's suicide "haunts [him] every day."
In August 2005, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon was asked about Kurt's death in an interview for Uncut Magazine. When asked what she thought to be Kurt's motive in committing suicide, Gordon replied: "I don't even know that he killed himself. There are people close to him who don't think that he did..." When asked if she thought someone else had killed him, Gordon answered, "I do, yes."
In the same interview Gordon's then husband and collaborator Thurston Moore stated:
Kurt died in a very harsh way. It wasn't just an OD. He actually killed himself violently. It was so aggressive, and he wasn't an aggressive person, he was a smart person, he had an interesting intellect. So it kind of made sense because it was like: wow, what a fucking gesture. But at the same time it was like: something's wrong with that gesture. It doesn’t really lie with what we know.
A musical hero of Cobain's, Greg Sage, said about him in an interview:
Well, I can’t really speculate other than what he said to me, which was, he wasn’t at all happy about it, success to him seemed like, I think, a brick wall. There was nowhere else to go but down, it was too artificial for him, and he wasn’t an artificial person at all. He was actually, two weeks after he died, he was supposed to come here and he wanted to record a bunch of Leadbelly covers. It was kind of in secret, because, I mean, people would definitely not allow him to do that. You also have to wonder, he was a billion-dollar industry at the time, and if the industry had any idea at all of him wishing or wanting to get out, they couldn’t have allowed that, you know, in life, because if he was just to get out of the scene, he’d be totally forgotten, but if he was to die, he’d be immortalized.
Cobain's grandfather, Leland Cobain, publicly said that he believes Kurt was the victim of murder and not suicide. He stated that he thinks Kurt "was murdered."
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