NEW YORK, NEW YORK
JANUARY 12, 1992
Heavier Than Heaven
—A slogan used by British concert promoters to describe Nirvana’s 1989 tour with the band Tad. It summed up both Nirvana’s “heavy” sound and the heft of 300-pound Tad Doyle.
The first time he saw heaven came exactly six hours and fifty-seven minutes after the very moment an entire generation fell in love with him. It was, remarkably, his first death, and only the earliest of many little deaths that would follow. For the generation smitten with him, it was an impassioned, powerful, and binding devotion—the kind of love that even as it begins you know is preordained to break your heart and to end like a Greek tragedy.
It was January 12, 1992, a clear but chilly Sunday morning. The temperature in New York City would eventually rise to 44 degrees, but at 7 a.m., in a small suite of the Omni Hotel, it was near freezing. A window had been left open to air out the stench of cigarettes, and the Manhattan morning had stolen all warmth. The room itself looked like a tempest had engulfed it: Scattered on the floor, with the randomness of a blind man’s rummage sale, were clumps of dresses, shirts, and shoes. Toward the suite’s double doors stood a half dozen serving trays covered with the remnants of several days of room service meals. Half-eaten rolls and rancid slices of cheese littered the tray tops, and a handful of fruit flies hovered over some wilted lettuce. This was not the typical condition of a four-star hotel room—it was the consequence of someone warning housekeeping to stay out of the room. They had altered a “Do Not Disturb” sign to read, “Do Not EVER Disturb! We’re Fucking!”
There was no intercourse this morning. Asleep in the king-size bed was 26-year-old Courtney Love. She was wearing an antique Victorian slip, and her long blond hair spread out over the sheet like the tresses of a character in a fairy tale. Next to her was a deep impression in the bedding, where a person had recently lain. Like the opening scene of a film noir, there was a dead body in the room.
“I woke up at 7 a.m. and he wasn’t in the bed,” remembered Love. “I’ve never been so scared.”
Missing from the bed was 24-year-old Kurt Cobain. Less than seven hours earlier, Kurt and his band Nirvana had been the musical act on “Saturday Night Live.” Their appearance on the program would prove to be a watershed moment in the history of rock ’n’ roll: the first time a grunge band had received live national television exposure. It was the same weekend that Nirvana’s major label debut, Nevermind, knocked Michael Jackson out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, becoming the best-selling album in the nation. While it wasn’t exactly overnight success—the band had been together four years—the manner in which Nirvana had taken the music industry by surprise was unparalleled. Virtually unknown a year before, Nirvana stormed the charts with their “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which became 1991’s most recognizable song, its opening guitar riff signifying the true beginning of nineties rock.
And there had never quite been a rock star like Kurt Cobain. He was more an anti-star than a celebrity, refusing to take a limo to NBC and bringing a thrift-store sensibility to everything he did. For “Saturday Night Live” he wore the same clothes from the previous two days: a pair of Converse tennis shoes, jeans with big holes in the knees, a T-shirt advertising an obscure band, and a Mister Rogers–style cardigan sweater. He hadn’t washed his hair for a week, but had dyed it with strawberry Kool-Aid, which made his blond locks look like they’d been matted with dried blood. Never before in the history of live television had a performer put so little care into his appearance or hygiene, or so it seemed.
Kurt was a complicated, contradictory misanthrope, and what at times appeared to be an accidental revolution showed hints of careful orchestration. He professed in many interviews to detest the exposure he’d gotten on MTV, yet he repeatedly called his managers to complain that the network didn’t play his videos nearly enough. He obsessively— and compulsively—planned every musical or career direction, writing ideas out in his journals years before he executed them, yet when he was bestowed the honors he had sought, he acted as if it were an inconvenience to get out of bed. He was a man of imposing will, yet equally driven by a powerful self-hatred. Even those who knew him best felt they knew him hardly at all—the happenings of that Sunday morning would attest to that.
After finishing “Saturday Night Live” and skipping the cast party, explaining it was “not his style,” Kurt had given a two-hour interview to a radio journalist, which finished at four in the morning. His working day was finally over, and by any standard it had been exceptionally successful: He’d headlined “Saturday Night Live,” had seen his album hit No. 1, and “Weird Al” Yankovic had asked permission to do a parody of “Teen Spirit.” These events, taken together, surely marked the apogee of his short career, the kind of recognition most performers only dream of, and that Kurt himself had fantasized about as a teenager.
Growing up in a small town in southwestern Washington state, Kurt had never missed an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” and had bragged to his friends in junior high school that one day he’d be a star. A decade later, he was the most celebrated figure in music. After just his second album he was being hailed as the greatest songwriter of his generation; only two years before, he had been turned down for a job cleaning dog kennels.
But in the predawn hours, Kurt felt neither vindication nor an urge to celebrate; if anything, the attention had increased his usual malaise. He felt physically ill, suffering from what he described as “recurrent burning nauseous pain” in his stomach, made worse by stress. Fame and success only seemed to make him feel worse. Kurt and his fiancée, Courtney Love, were the most talked-about couple in rock ’n’ roll, though some of that talk was about drug abuse. Kurt had always believed that recognition for his talent would cure the many emotional pains that marked his early life; becoming successful had proven the folly of this and increased the shame he felt that his booming popularity coincided with an escalating drug habit.
In his hotel room, in the early hours of the morning, Kurt had taken a small plastic baggie of China white heroin, prepared it for a syringe, and injected it into his arm. This in itself was not unusual, since Kurt had been doing heroin regularly for several months, with Love joining him in the two months they’d been a couple. But this particular night, as Courtney slept, Kurt had recklessly—or intentionally—used far more heroin than was safe. The overdose turned his skin an aqua-green hue, stopped his breathing, and made his muscles as stiff as coaxial cable. He slipped off the bed and landed facedown in a pile of clothes, looking like a corpse haphazardly discarded by a serial killer.
“It wasn’t that he OD’d,” Love recalled. “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.” Love frantically began a resuscitation effort that would eventually become commonplace for her: She threw cold water on her fiancé and punched him in the solar plexus so as to make his lungs begin to move air. When her first actions didn’t get a response, she went through the cycle again like a determined paramedic working on a heart-attack victim. Finally, after several minutes of effort, Courtney heard a gasp, signifying Kurt was breathing once again. She continued to revive him by splashing water on his face and moving his limbs. Within a few minutes, he was sitting up, talking, and though still very stoned, wearing a self-possessed smirk, almost as if he were proud of his feat. It was his first near-death overdose. It had come on the very day he had become a star.
In the course of one singular day, Kurt had been born in the public eye, died in the privacy of his own darkness, and was resurrected by a force of love. It was an extraordinary feat, implausible, and almost impossible, but the same could be said for so much of his outsized life, beginning with where he’d come from.