AUGUST 1993–NOVEMBER 1993
God damn, Jesus fucking Christ Almighty, love me, me, me, we could go on a trial basis, please I don’t care if it’s the out-of-the-in-crowd, I just need a crowd, a gang, a reason to smile.
—From a journal entry.
Like every other American family with a young child, Kurt and Courtney purchased a video camera. While Kurt could construct a guitar out of a block of wood and spare wires, he never figured out how to install the battery, so the camera was used only when they were near an outlet. A single videotape charted the period from their first Christmas together in December 1992, through to images of Frances as a toddler in March 1994.
A few of the scenes on the tape were of Nirvana shows, or were footage of the band offstage, hanging out. One short fragment captured Kurt, Courtney, Dave, Krist, and Frances sitting in Pachyderm Studios listening to the first play-back of “All Apologies,” collectively appearing battle-weary after a week in the studio. But most of the tape documented the development of Frances Bean and her interaction with their friends: It showed her crawling around Mark Lanegan and talking while Mark Arm sang her a lullaby. Some of the tape was humorous, as when Kurt lifted up the baby’s butt and made fart noises, or the footage of him serenading her with an a cappella version of “Seasons in the Sun.” Frances was a beatific child, as photogenic as her parents, with her father’s mesmerizing eyes and her mother’s high cheekbones. Kurt adored her, and the video documents a sentimental side of him the public rarely saw—the look he gave both Frances and Courtney during these tender moments was one of unadulterated love. Though this was the most famous family in rock ’n’ roll, much of the footage could have been from any household with a Toys “R” Us charge account.
But one segment on the tape stands out above all others and shows how extraordinarily different this family was. Shot by Courtney in the bathroom of their house in Carnation, the scene begins with Kurt giving Frances a bath; he’s wearing a burgundy smoking jacket and looking like a handsome country squire. As he lifts Frances like a plane over the tub, she involuntarily snorts because she’s having so much fun. Kurt wears the kind of ear-to-ear smile that was never captured by a still picture—the closest any photographer came was the photo of Kurt, Wendy, Don, and Kim from the Aberdeen days. In the video, Kurt looks to be exactly what he is: a caring, doting father, enthralled by his beautiful daughter, and wanting nothing more in life than to pretend she is an airplane, soaring over the bath and dive-bombing the yellow rubber ducks. He talks to her in a voice like Donald Duck—just like his sister Kim did when he was growing up—and she giggles and cackles, full of the kind of glee that only an eight-month-old can exude.
Then the camera turns toward the sink, and in the blink of an eye, the scene changes. To the right of the basin, mounted eight inches up the wall, rests a toothbrush holder—the same kind of white, porcelain toothbrush holder in 90 percent of all homes in America. Yet what makes this particular fixture so remarkable is that it isn’t storing toothbrushes: It’s holding a syringe. It is such an astonishing and unexpected object to see in a bathroom, most viewers wouldn’t notice it. But it’s there, hanging solemnly, needle-tip pointed down, a sad and tragic reminder that no matter how ordinary this family looks on the outside, there are ghosts that follow even the tender moments.
By July 1993 Kurt’s addiction had become so routine, it was a part of life in the Cobain house, and things worked around it. The metaphor frequently used to describe the role of alcoholism within a family—that of a 10,000-pound elephant in the middle of the living room—seemed so obvious that few bothered to utter it. That Kurt was going to be messed up for at least part of the day had become the status quo; as accepted as the rain in Seattle. Even the birth of his child and court-ordered treatment had only served to temporarily distract him. Though he’d been on methadone and buprenorphine for weeks at a time, he hadn’t been free of opiates long enough to completely detox for almost a year.
In the crazed logic that overtakes families caught up in addiction, it almost seemed better when Kurt was on drugs: In contrast, he was impossible when he was suffering the physical pain of withdrawal. Only a few actually voiced this theory—that the system orbiting around Kurt was more stable when he was using drugs rather than abstaining—but Kurt professed it himself. In his journal he argued that if he was going to feel like a junkie in withdrawal, he might as well be one in practice. And he had friends that agreed with him: “The whole ‘getting him to stop using drugs’ [theory] was absurd and ultimately damaging to Kurt,” argued Dylan Carlson. “Drugs are a problem when they are impacting your ability to, say, have a house or maintain a job. Until they become a problem of that nature, you just leave the person alone and then they’ll hit the emotional bottom on their own—you can’t drive them to that bottom....He didn’t have any reason to not do drugs.”
By the summer of 1993, addiction was a lens through which everything in Kurt’s life was distorted. Yet though he was outwardly happier on drugs, in the crazy contradiction that is addiction, he was inwardly filled with remorse. His journals were marked by laments on his inability to stay sober. He felt judged by everyone around him, and he was correct in this perception: Every time his bandmates, family, managers, or crew encountered him, they did a quick survey to determine whether he was high or not. He experienced this ten-second once-over dozens of times during each day, and was furious when it was assumed he was stoned when he was not. He felt he was a functional addict—he could use drugs and play—so he hated the constant scrutiny and found himself spending more and more time with his junkie friends, where he felt less inspected.
Yet by 1993 even the drugs weren’t working as well as they once had. Kurt found the reality of drug addiction a far cry from the glamour he had once imagined reading the works of William S. Burroughs, and even within the insular subculture of addicts, he felt he was an outsider. One journal entry from this period found him desperately pleading for friendship, and ultimately for salvation:
Friends who I can talk to and hang out and have fun with, just like I’ve always dreamed, we could talk about books and politics and vandalize at night, want to? Huh? Hey, I can’t stop pulling my hair out! Please! God damn, Jesus fucking Christ Almighty, love me, me, me, we could go on a trial basis, please I don’t care if it’s the out-of-the-in-crowd, I just need a crowd, a gang, a reason to smile. I won’t smother you, ah shit, shit, please, isn’t there somebody out there? Somebody, anybody, God help, help me please. I want to be accepted. I have to be accepted. I’ll wear any kind of clothes you want! I’m so tired of crying and dreaming, I’m soo soo alone. Isn’t there anyone out there? Please help me. HELP ME!
That summer Kurt’s drug rehabilitation physician, 60-year-old Robert Fremont, was found dead in his Beverly Hills office, slumped over his desk. His cause of death was ruled a heart attack, though Fremont’s son Marc asserted it was suicide by overdose, and that his father had been again addicted to drugs. At the time of his death, Fremont was being investigated by the Medical Board of California, charged with gross negligence and unprofessional conduct for overprescribing buprenorphine to his patients. Fremont certainly made plenty of buprenorphine available to his most famous client—he would dispense it to Kurt by the carton.
On July 17, 1993, Nevermind finally fell off the Billboard charts after being on for just under two years. That week the band traveled to New York to do press and play a surprise appearance as part of the New Music Seminar. The night before the show, Kurt sat down and conducted an interview with Jon Savage, author of “England’s Dreaming.” Perhaps because Kurt admired Savage’s book, he was particularly forthcoming about his family, describing his parents’ divorce as something that made him feel “ashamed” and yearning for what he had lost: “I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security.” And when Savage asked if Kurt could understand how great alienation might lead to violence, he replied in the affirmative: “Yeah, I can definitely see how a person’s mental state could deteriorate to the point where they would do that. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve fantasized about it, but I’m sure I would opt to kill myself first.” Virtually every interview Kurt did in 1993 had some reference to suicide.
When Kurt was asked the inevitable question about heroin, he told the inevitable lie: He talked in the past tense, said he did heroin “for about a year, off and on,” and claimed he only did it because of his stomach problems. When Savage followed up on the stomach pains, Kurt declared they were gone: “I think it’s a psychosomatic thing.” Savage found Kurt particularly jovial this night. “I haven’t felt this optimistic since right before my parents’ divorce,” he explained.
Twelve hours later, Kurt was lying on the floor of his hotel bathroom, having overdosed again. “His lips were blue and his eyes were completely rolled back in his head,” recalled publicist Anton Brookes, one of the people who rushed to Kurt. “He was lifeless. There was a syringe still stuck in his arm.” Brookes was shocked when he saw Courtney and the nanny Cali spring into action like experienced medical aides—they were so methodical he was left with the impression they did this regularly. While Courtney checked Kurt’s vital signs, Cali held Kurt up and punched him violently in the solar plexus. “He hit him once, and he didn’t get much reaction, so he hit him again. Then, Kurt started to come around.” This, plus cold water to the face, got Kurt breathing. When hotel security arrived, drawn by the noise, Brookes had to bribe them to not call the police. Brookes, Courtney, and Cali dragged the still-groggy Kurt outside. “We started walking him,” Brookes remembered, “but at first his legs weren’t moving.” When Kurt finally could speak, he insisted he did not want to go to the hospital.
After food and coffee, Kurt seemed fully revived, though still very high. He returned to the hotel, where he was scheduled to get a massage in his room. As Kurt was getting his rubdown, Brookes grabbed packets of heroin off the floor and flushed them down the toilet. Ironically, less than three hours after he was comatose in the bathroom, Kurt was back doing interviews, denying he used drugs. At soundcheck that evening, he was still way too high—perhaps due to a bag not found by his handlers. “He pretty much died right before that show,” recalled sound-man Craig Montgomery. When David Yow, of the opening band the Jesus Lizard, went to chat with Kurt before showtime, “Kurt couldn’t talk. He could just mumble. I said, ‘How are you?’ and he said, ‘buzzcolloddbed.’ ” In a pattern that was becoming all too familiar, despite Kurt’s earlier impairment, he seemed fine onstage, and the show itself was a marvel. The band had added Lori Goldston on cello, and it was the first time they featured an acoustic interlude in their set.
Nirvana returned to Seattle the next week and played a benefit on August 6 to raise funds to investigate the murder of local singer Mia Zapata. That week, Kurt, Courtney, Krist, and Dave spent a rare night out together taking in Aerosmith at the Coliseum. Backstage, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler took Kurt aside and told him about his experience with 12-Step recovery groups. “He wasn’t preaching,” Krist remembered, “just talking about similar experiences he’d been through. He tried to give him encouragement.” For once, Kurt appeared to listen, though he said little in response.
That same week, also at the Seattle Center, Kurt did an interview with the New York Times, conducted at the top of the Space Needle. Kurt picked this location because he’d never been to Seattle’s most famous landmark. He was now insisting a representative from DGC’s publicity department tape every interview—he thought this would cut down on misquotes. The talk with Jon Pareles, as with all of Kurt’s 1993 interviews, sounded like a therapy session, as Kurt discussed his parents, wife, and the significance of his lyrics. He exposed enough of himself that Pareles wisely noted the contradictions: “Cobain ricochets between opposites. He is wary and unguarded, sincere and sarcastic, thin-skinned and insensitive, aware of his popularity and trying to ignore it.”
The first week of September Kurt and Courtney returned to Los Angeles for a two-week stay, their first extended visit since moving. They attended the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, and Nirvana won Best Alternative Video for “In Bloom.” The band wasn’t playing this night, and there were few of the histrionics of the previous year’s awards. Much had changed in the music business during the last year, and Nirvana had been missing in action for most of it. Though In Utero was highly anticipated, they were no longer the biggest rock band in the world, at least commercially: Pearl Jam now held that honor.
That week, Kurt and Courtney appeared at a benefit for “Rock Against Rape” at Hollywood’s Club Lingerie. Courtney was on the bill as a solo act, but after performing “Doll Parts” and “Miss World,” she called out for “her husband Yoko” and Kurt came onstage. Together they did duets of “Pennyroyal Tea” and the Leadbelly tune “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” It was the only occasion they would ever play together in public.
In Utero was finally released on September 14 in the U.K. and September 21 in the U.S., where it entered the charts at No. 1, selling 180,000 copies in the first week alone. It reached those sales figures without being carried by Wal-Mart or Kmart: Both chains had objected to the song title “Rape Me” and the back-cover collage of Kurt’s fetus dolls. When his manager phoned with this news, Kurt agreed to revisions that would get the album into the stores. “When I was a kid, I could only go to Wal-Mart,” Kurt explained to Danny Goldberg. “I want the kids to be able to get this record. I’ll do what they want.” Goldberg was surprised, but he knew to accept Kurt’s word: “No one would dream of saying no to him at that point. No one made him do anything.”
Yet Kurt did clash with his managers over concert dates. He began 1993 asserting he wasn’t planning on touring. While not unheard of, this decision certainly would have diminished the new record’s chances of hitting the top of the charts. On this issue, Kurt faced a juggernaut of opposition: Everyone who worked with him—from his managers to his crew to his bandmates—made most of their money from touring, and they urged him to reconsider. But when he discussed the matter with his lawyer, Rosemary Carroll, he seemed adamant. “He said he didn’t want to go,” she remembered. “And frankly, he was pressured to go.”
Most of the pressure was from management, but some came from his own fear of scarcity. Though he was wealthier than he had ever imagined possible, a tour would make him richer still. A memo Danny Goldberg sent Kurt in February 1993 outlined details of his projected income for the next eighteen months. “Thus far, Nirvana has been paid a little over $1.5 million,” the memo states on the subject of songwriting income. “I believe there is another $3 million in the pipeline to be paid out over the next couple of years.” Goldberg estimated that Kurt’s income after taxes in 1993 would include $1,400,000 from songwriting royalties, $200,000 for expected sales of two million of the new record, and if Nirvana toured, an additional $600,000 from merchandising and concert revenue. Even these figures, Goldberg wrote, were conservative: “I personally believe that [your] income for the next eighteen months will be double this amount or more, but for rational family planning I think it’s safe to assume $2 million, which presumably gives you the breathing room to furnish your house very nicely and know that you will have a substantial nest egg.” Despite his earlier protests, Kurt agreed to tour.
On September 25 Nirvana was back in New York to appear again on “Saturday Night Live.” They played “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Rape Me,” and though the performance was rocky, it was free of the tension of their first visit. In addition to cello player Goldston, they had added former Germs guitarist Georg Ruthenberg, known by his stage name of Pat Smear. Smear was eight years older than Kurt, and he’d already been through a long junkie drama with Darby Crash, his band-mate in the Germs. He gave the impression there was little that could unnerve him; his wry sense of humor lightened the band, and his solid playing helped Kurt fret less onstage.
The week before the In Utero tour began, Kurt flew to Atlanta for a visit with Courtney, who was recording Hole’s album. When he came by the studio, producers Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie played him the songs from her record that were done. Kurt seemed proud of Courtney’s effort and praised her lyrical skills.
Later that day, Courtney asked Kurt to sing background vocals on a few unfinished numbers. He protested at first, but relented. It was apparent to Slade and Kolderie that Kurt was not familiar with much of the material. “She said things like, ‘Come on, sing on this one,’ ” recalled Kolderie. “He kept saying, ‘Well let me hear it. How can I sing on it if I haven’t heard it?’ She’d say, ‘Just sing off the top of your head.’ ” The results were less than impressive, and Kurt’s vocals were used on only one song in the final mix. But Kurt warmed up considerably when the official session ended and a jam ensued. He sat down at the drums, Eric Erlandson and Courtney picked up guitars, and Slade grabbed a bass. “It was a blast,” recalled Slade.
Kurt returned to Seattle, only to leave a week later for Phoenix to rehearse for Nirvana’s upcoming tour. On a connecting flight to L.A., the band Truly were on the same plane, and Kurt had a warm reunion with his old friends Robert Roth and Mark Pickerel. Pickerel ended up in the seat next to Kurt and Krist—Grohl was in the front of the cabin—and Pickerel felt embarrassed for carrying a copy of Details with Nirvana on the cover. Kurt grabbed it and devoured the article. “He became agitated as he read,” Pickerel recalled. Kurt was unhappy with Grohl’s quotes. “He went on and on about it,” Pickerel said. A few minutes into his rant, Kurt announced that for his next album, “I want to bring in other people just to create a different kind of record.” He would revisit this subject repeatedly that fall, threatening to fire his bandmates.
The In Utero tour began in Phoenix at a 15,000-seat venue where Billy Ray Cyrus had performed the night before. It was the largest-scale tour Nirvana undertook, and included an elaborate set. When MTV asked Kurt why the band was now playing big arenas, Kurt was pragmatic, citing the increased production costs of the show: “If we were to just play clubs, we’d be totally in the hole. We’re not nearly as rich as everyone thinks we are.” When USA Today ran a negative review of the debut (“Creative anarchy deteriorated into bad performance art,” wrote Edna Gunderson), Smear defused a Kurt fit by remarking, “That’s fucked—they totally got us. That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in my life.” Even Kurt had to laugh.
Courtney begged Kurt not to read his reviews, yet he obsessively sought them out, even searching for out-of-town newspapers. He had become increasingly paranoid about the media and now demanded to inspect a writer’s previous clippings before agreeing to an interview. Yet in Davenport, Iowa, Kurt ended up in a car coming home from a gig with publicist Jim Merlis and a Rolling Stone writer. Kurt was unaware a journalist was in his midst as he directed Merlis to a Taco Bell– like joint. The fast food restaurant was swarming with kids from the concert, all wide-eyed when they saw Kurt Cobain standing in line to order a burrito. “Taco day was my favorite day at school,” he told everyone within earshot. The story, of course, ended up in the press.
During this first week of the tour, Alex MacLeod drove Kurt to Lawrence, Kansas, to meet William S. Burroughs. The previous year Kurt had produced a single with Burroughs titled “The Priest They Called Him,” on T/K Records, but they’d accomplished the recording by sending tapes back and forth. “Meeting William was a real big deal for him,” MacLeod remembered. “It was something that he never thought would happen.” They chatted for several hours, but Burroughs later claimed the subject of drugs didn’t come up. As Kurt drove away, Burroughs remarked to his assistant, “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.”
In Chicago, three days later, the band ended a show without playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and there were boos. Kurt sat down that night with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke and began, “I’m glad you could make it for the shittiest show on the tour.” Kurt’s interview with Fricke was so full of references to his emotional turmoil, it could have just as easily appeared in Psychology Today. He talked about his depression, his family, his fame, and his stomach problems. “After a person experiences chronic pain for five years,” he told Fricke, “by the time that fifth year ends, you’re literally insane....Iwasas schizophrenic as a wet cat that’s been beaten.” He reported his stomach much healed now, and admitted to having eaten an entire Chicago pizza the night before. Kurt announced that during the worst of his stomach problems, “I wanted to kill myself every day. I came very close many times.” When he discussed his hopes for his daughter, Kurt argued: “I don’t think Courtney and I are that fucked up. We have lacked love all our lives, and we need it so much that if there’s any goal that we have, it’s to give Frances as much love as we can, as much support as we can.”
After Chicago the shows improved, and so did Kurt’s spirits. “We were on the upswing,” recalled Novoselic. Everyone enjoyed playing the In Utero material, and they’d added “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and a gospel number called “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” During parts of the tour fourteen-month-old Frances traveled with her father, and Kurt appeared happier when she was around. At the end of October the Meat Puppets opened seven shows, uniting Kurt with his idols Curt and Cris Kirkwood.
For some time Nirvana had been in negotiations with MTV about playing the network’s “Unplugged” program. It was while touring with the Meat Puppets that Kurt finally acceded to the idea, inviting the Kirkwoods to join the show, thinking their supplementary presence in the band would help. The idea of playing a stripped-down show made Kurt nervous, and he worried more in advance about this particular performance than any since the band’s debut at the Raymond kegger. “Kurt was really, really nervous,” remembered Novoselic. Others were more direct: “He was terrified,” observed production manager Jeff Mason.
They arrived in New York the second week of November and began rehearsals at a New Jersey soundstage. But as with every interaction the band ever had with MTV, more time went to negotiations than rehearsal. The Kirkwoods found they spent most days sitting around waiting; additionally, they were warned by Nirvana’s management to refrain from marijuana around Kurt. They found this particularly grating, since Kurt was consistently late for rehearsal and obviously was high. “He would show up looking like the apparition of Jacob Marley,” Curt Kirkwood observed, “all bound up in flannel, in a cutting-up-a-deer hat. He looked like a little, old farmer. He thought this disguise would make him fit in with the locals in New York.”
Though Kurt had agreed to do the show, he didn’t want his “Unplugged” to look like the others in the series; MTV had the opposite agenda, and the debates became contentious. The day before the taping Kurt announced he wasn’t playing. But MTV was used to this ploy. “He did it just to get us worked up,” said Amy Finnerty. “He enjoyed that power.”
On the afternoon of the show, Kurt arrived, despite threats otherwise, but he was nervous and in withdrawal. “There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him,” allowed Jeff Mason. “Therefore, everyone was more than a little concerned about the performance.” Curt Kirkwood was worried because they hadn’t rehearsed an entire set: “We played the songs through a few times, but never a rehearsal set. There was never any concerted practice.” Finnerty was troubled because Kurt was lying on a sofa complaining about how poorly he felt. When he said he wanted Kentucky Fried Chicken, she immediately sent someone to locate some.
But he really desired more than just KFC. A member of Nirvana’s crew told Finnerty Kurt was throwing up, and asked if she could “get something” to help him out. “They told me,” Finnerty recalled, “that ‘he’s not going to make it on the show if we don’t help him out.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve never done heroin, and I don’t know where to find it.’ ” It was suggested that Valium would help Kurt through his withdrawal, and Finnerty asked another MTV employee to purchase a supply from a corrupt pharmacist. When Finnerty handed them to Alex MacLeod, he reported back, “These are too strong—he needs a Valium 5 milligram.” Eventually a separate messenger showed up with a delivery Kurt himself had arranged.
Kurt finally sat down and did a brief soundcheck and blocking rehearsal. He was tentative about the acoustic format and filled with dread. His greatest fear was that he’d panic during the show and ruin the taping. “Can you make sure,” he asked Finnerty, “that all the people who love me are sitting in the front?” Finnerty shuffled the audience so that Janet Billig and some of Kurt’s other associates were in the front row. But even that wasn’t enough to calm him; he stopped the soundcheck once again and told Finnerty, “I’m scared.” He asked if the crowd was going to clap even if he didn’t play well. “Of course, we’re going to clap for you,” Finnerty said. He insisted she sit so he could see her. He also asked a production person to locate some fretboard lubricant; he’d never used it previously, but said he’d watched his Aunt Mari apply it on her acoustic when he was kid.
Backstage, waiting for the show to begin, Kurt still seemed disturbed. To lighten his mood, Curt Kirkwood brought up what had been a running joke between them: Kirkwood would scrape gum off the bottoms of tables in restaurants and re-chew it. “Man, you are fucking weird,” Kurt declared. As they prepared to walk toward the stage, Kirkwood pulled a wad of gum out of his mouth and offered Kurt half— this gag drew Kurt’s first smile of the day.
As the cameras started rolling, that smile was long gone. Kurt had the expression of an undertaker, an appropriate look as the stage was set for a macabre black mass. Kurt had suggested Stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. When “Unplugged” producer Alex Coletti asked, “You mean like a funeral?” Kurt said that was exactly what he meant. He had selected a set of fourteen songs that included six covers; five of the six cover songs mentioned death.
Though dour in expression, and with eyes that were slightly red, Kurt looked handsome nonetheless. He wore his Mister Rogers sweater, and though his hair hadn’t been washed for a week, he appeared boyish. He began with “About a Girl,” which was performed in a markedly different arrangement, stripping its volume to emphasize the basic melody and lyrics. It wasn’t exactly “Unplugged,” since Nirvana used amps and drums, albeit with pads and brushes. A more accurate title was suggested by Jeff Mason: “They should have called it ‘Nirvana toned-down.’ ”
But Kurt’s emotional performance was toned-up. Next was “Come as You Are” and then a haunting rendition of “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” with Novoselic on accordion. Only after this third song did Kurt speak to the audience. “I guarantee I will screw this song up,” he announced before a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” He did not screw up, and he felt relieved enough during the next break that he joked that if he messed up, “Well, these people are going to have to wait.” You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the crowd. For the first time in the night he seemed present, though still addressing the audience in the third person.
Kurt’s tension had manifested itself in the crowd: They were reserved, unnatural, and waiting for a cue from him to fully relax. It never came, but the tautness in the room—like that found during a championship game—served to make the show more memorable. When it came time to do “Pennyroyal Tea,” Kurt asked the rest of the band, “Am I doing this by myself or what?” The band had never managed to finish a rehearsal of this song. “Do it yourself,” Grohl suggested. And Kurt did, though halfway into the song he seemed to stall. He breathed a very short breath, and as he exhaled, he let his voice crack on the line “warm milk and laxatives,” and it was in that decision—to let his voice break—where he found the strength to forge ahead. The effect was remarkable: It was like watching a great opera singer battling illness complete an aria by letting emotion sell a song, rather than the accuracy of the notes. At several turns it seemed as if the weight of an angel’s wing could cause him to fold, yet the songs aided him: These words and riffs were so much a part of him he could sing them half dead and they’d still be potent. It was Kurt’s single greatest moment onstage, and like all the high-water marks of his career, it came at a time when he seemed destined to fail.
After “Pennyroyal Tea” the rest of the songs hardly mattered, but he grew more confident after each one. He even smiled at one point, after a request from the audience for “Rape Me,” joking, “Ah, I don’t think MTV would let us play that.” After ten songs, he brought the Kirkwoods on, introduced them as “the Brothers Meat,” and performed three of their numbers with their backing. The Kirkwoods were venerable misfits, but their strangeness fit perfectly into the Cobain aesthetic.
For the final encore, Kurt chose Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Before playing the song, he told the story of how he’d considered buying Leadbelly’s guitar, though in this rendition the price was inflated to $500,000, ten times what he’d said three months before. Though Kurt was prone to exaggeration in telling any story, his offering of the song was understated, subdued, ethereal. He sang the tune with his eyes shut, and when his voice cracked, he turned the wail into a primal scream this time that seemed to go on for days. It was riveting.
As he left the stage, there was yet another argument with MTV’s producers—they wanted an encore. Kurt knew he couldn’t top what he’d already done. “When you saw the sigh on his face before the last note,” Finnerty observed, “it was almost as if it was the last breath of life in him.” Backstage, the rest of the band was exhilarated by the performance, though Kurt still seemed unsure. Krist told him, “You did a great job up there man,” and Janet Billig was so moved she wept. “I told him it was his bar mitzvah, a career-defining moment, becoming the man of his career,” Billig recalled. Kurt liked this metaphor, yet when she complimented his guitar playing, this seemed a step too far: He lambasted her, announcing that he was “a shitty guitar player” and that she was never to commend him again.
Kurt left with Finnerty, avoiding an after-show party. Yet even after a transcendent performance, his confidence seemed no higher. He complained, “No one liked it.” When Finnerty told him it had been incredible and that everyone loved it, Kurt protested that the audience usually jumped up and down at his shows. “They just sat there silently,” he grumbled. Finnerty had heard just about enough: “Kurt, they think you are Jesus Christ,” she announced. “Most of these people have never had the opportunity to see you that close. They were totally taken with you.” At this he softened, and said he wanted to phone Courtney. As they entered an elevator in his hotel, he nudged Finnerty and bragged, “I was really fucking good tonight, wasn’t I?” It was the only time she ever heard him admit to his own skill.
Yet an event that occurred two days before the “Unplugged” taping was more indicative of the internal Kurt than anything on MTV. On the afternoon of November 17, the band prepared to leave their New York hotel to head to an “Unplugged” rehearsal. As Kurt walked through the lobby, he was approached by three male fans holding CDs, asking for autographs. He ignored their pleas, walking to a waiting van with his hands over his face in the manner used by countless felons to avoid being photographed leaving a courthouse. The trio seemed surprised he was so ungracious, though as cellist Lori Goldston recalled, “There was something about them that didn’t seem completely displeased. Even though they hadn’t gotten an autograph, they’d had a connection with Kurt, which was what they really wanted.” Even a “fuck you” from their enigmatic hero was reason for celebration.
As the van filled with the rest of the group, a crew member was slightly delayed, so they waited. It was apparent that if the van were to idle there for days, these fans would remain for the duration, simply to stare at Kurt, who would not return their gaze. While they were waiting, Krist remarked to Kurt, “Hey, that guy called you an asshole.” Novoselic most likely said this in jest—no one present remembers hearing anything disparaging. The missing crew member finally jumped into the van, and the driver began to pull away.
But at the moment the vehicle lurched into drive, Kurt yelled, “Stop!” with the same forcefulness a man might yell “Fire!” at the first sight of flames. The driver hit the brakes, and Kurt rolled down the passenger-side window. The fans on the sidewalk were stunned he was acknowledging their presence, and thinking, perhaps, that he was finally going to offer them a precious autograph. But rather than reach out the window, Kurt stretched his long, thin body out of it, not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio on the Titanic. Once fully extended, he arched his back and launched a huge wad of phlegm from the deep recesses of his lungs. It languished in the air, in what seemed like slow motion, before landing squarely on the forehead of a man who was holding in his hand a copy of the eight million–selling Nevermind.