Grunge burst onto the music scene in the early 90s with a laid-back authenticity that quickly overshadowed the superficiality of hair metal. Many Gen Xers and Millennials believe modern music history began in September 1991, when the band debuted “Nevermind,” a record that went on to shatter sales records and still inspires the sound of alternative and rock bands more than 30 years later. When Kurt Cobain, the long-suffering creative genius and soul-bearing frontman, took his own life less than three years later, an entire generation was left with wounds that have never fully healed.
As many personal friends have confirmed since his passing, Kurt Cobain’s death wasn’t a random or unforeseeable tragedy. His inner circle had watched him spiral in and out of heavy drug use for years, and the final days of his life were marked by the desperation that comes as no surprise to the professionals who work with addiction disorders.
While suicide is by no means inevitable for people struggling with heroin use, the classic trajectory of Kurt Cobain’s addiction offers many lessons about how these disorders affect the mind, the body, and the people around heavy users.
The Troubled Early Life of Kurt Cobain
Kurt’s trauma began at age nine when his parents, Wendy and Donald Cobain, divorced. Not long after, his father remarried. The series of events left Kurt with intense feelings of grief and abandonment, which forever changed his personality and his relationship with family members.
Deemed an unwanted houseguest by the many relatives and friends he stayed with following the divorce in 1976, Kurt never felt truly at home anywhere after losing his once happy family unit. “I don’t know how anyone deals with having your whole family reject you,” his stepmother reflects about this period.
In 1983, Kurt’s mother kicked him out of the house when he dropped out of school. After living with his aunt and uncle for a few months, 16-year-old Kurt floated between friends’ couches before a brief spell living underneath a bridge in Aberdeen.
Struggling with the unregulated emotions of a teenager, Kurt soon turned to drugs and alcohol to numb his heartache. His first known exposure to drugs came in 1974 when he was only seven years old and diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Kurt was prescribed Ritalin for the condition, which at the time was still rare.
Kurt Cobain may have started using marijuana as early as 1980 when he was 13. By age 16, he routinely used marijuana, alcohol, and cigarettes. He was also huffing solvents, such as paint thinner and correction fluid while living with runaways and other homeless kids. He would later claim to have tried “virtually every drug out there” by age 19, except PCP, which he was scared to try after hearing horror stories about drug-fueled rampages involving people who used it. In 1986, the 19-year-old Cobain started using Percodan, a prescription opiate, which he later claimed he didn’t know to be addictive.
The pain and self-medication Kurt experienced during his pre-teen and teenage years left an indelible mark on him and would one day come to fruition as his musical signature. Years after his death, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love blamed early exposure for much of her husband’s later drug abuse: “When you’re a kid, and you get this drug that makes you feel that feeling, where else are you going to turn when you’re an adult?”
Nirvana, Drugs and Life as a Star
When Kurt Cobain was 15 years old, his mother threw his stepfather’s guns into the Wishkah River in Aberdeen, WA. Kurt waded into the river and recovered most of the guns, which he sold to buy his first Ibanez Destroyer guitar.
Shortly thereafter, Kurt formed Nirvana with his friend from Aberdeen High School, Krist Novoselic, in 1987. They went through a string of drummers until meeting up with Dave Grohl in 1990. With the basic trio established, Nirvana signed on with DGC Records and started recording “Nevermind” early in 1991. When the album dropped, the critics went wild and millions of fans found what would become the most influential band of the decade. The album went on to sell 30 million copies worldwide. In 1993, Nirvana released “In Utero.” A month later, guitarist Pat Smear joined the band, along with cellist Lori Goldston. In November 1993, less than two months after “In Utero’s” release, Nirvana performed its iconic “Unplugged in New York” concert. A European tour was planned for early the next year.
By 1992, Kurt Cobain, a former homeless street kid, had virtually unlimited access to any drug he wanted. His heroin use began to accelerate. According to his infamous “Heroin Letter,” which was written in the summer of ’92, Cobain had been suffering from mysterious stomach pains for some time. This is not at all uncommon for people addicted to opiates. According to the letter, doctors had been unable to treat the pains and had resorted to prescribing him heavy-duty painkillers. In his letter, which was not released until years after his death, Cobain expresses an increasing frustration with others’ well-meaning advice:
“I’m really bored with everyones concerned advice like: ‘man you have a really good thing going. Your band is great. You write great songs, but hey man you should get your personal s*** together. Don’t freak out, and get healthy.’ Gee I wish it was as easy as that but, honestly I didn’t want all this attention but Im not freaked out which is something a lot of people would like to see. Its an entertaining thought to watch a rock figure whos public domain mentally self destruct. But I’m sorry friends Ill have to decline.”
The End of the Road
The 1994 European tour was a disaster. Kurt Cobain’s drug use was accelerating, and he arrived for every show drunk and high on a variety of substances. In Germany on March 1, the band played its last complete live show. On March 4, Kurt overdosed on a combination of alcohol and Rohypnol in a hotel room in Rome. Called in to consult over Cobain’s increasing tailspin, Steven Chatoff, executive director of a California behavioral health center, said: “They called me to see what could be done. He was using, up in Seattle. He was in full denial. It was very chaotic. And [Cobain’s family and friends] were in fear for his life. It was a crisis.”
Kurt Cobain’s crisis wasn’t limited to his physical health. On March 18, police had to be called to the Cobain residence in Seattle for a domestic disturbance. Cobain’s wife, Hole lead singer Courtney Love, told police that her husband had locked himself in the bathroom with a gun and was threatening to commit suicide. Police talked Kurt out without incident, and he later denied having a weapon or intending to hurt himself. By the end of the month, Kurt had written letters to agents, managers and Nirvana’s record label, demanding to be released from his contract and “firing” the other members of the band. During an April 1 phone call, Kurt told Courtney Love, who was on tour with Hole: “Courtney, no matter what happens, I want you to know that you made a really good record. Just remember, no matter what, I love you.”
This was the last conversation the pair would ever have. The next day, Kurt Cobain secretly checked out of his rehab clinic and disappeared. Just before 9 a.m. on April 8, an electrician looked through the greenhouse window at the Cobain home and saw the 27-year-old singer dead on the floor. The 20-gauge shotgun he had bought a few days before in Los Angeles was resting across his chest. According to the medical examiner, Kurt Cobain had heroin and Valium in his system, and his body had lain undisturbed for nearly three days.
Help came too late for Kurt Cobain, who spent most of his life struggling with drug abuse and depression. His tragic suicide cut short not only his profound music career, but also his relationship with daughter, Frances Bear, and marriage to Courtney Love.
If you know someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, our team is here to provide immediate support and a pathway to treatment for a mental health disorder. Contact us today to learn more.