In a 1994 article in Rolling Stone magazine, writer Neil Strauss took a deep dive into the Nirvana singer’s final days, including a look at his lengthy battle with drugs and depression.
Cobain’s body had been found to contain high traces of heroin and valium when he died, though at the time of his death, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed the idea that his drug habit was the reason he killed himself.
“Just blaming it on smack is stupid,” Novoselic told a Seattle newspaper at the time. “Smack was just a small part of his life.” Indeed, Cobain had long suffered from clinical depression, having been diagnosed with it in high school.
“Kurt could just be very outgoing and funny and charming,” Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana‘s landmark 1991 album Nevermind, told Rolling Stone. “And a half hour later, he would just go sit in the corner and be totally moody and uncommunicative.”
In the days leading up to Cobain’s suicide, plenty of family and friends had expressed major concern for the rock star, who wasn’t returning anyone’s calls—his mother, Wendy O’Connor filed a missing person’s report, and his wife Courtney Love, who was herself detoxing from drugs at the time, hired a private investigator to try and track him down.
Weeks prior to his death, friends and family had also attempted to enact a full-scale intervention to curb his heroin use. Love had threatened to leave him, and Novoselic and Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear said they would break up the band if he didn’t check in to rehab.
Cobain went—but he didn’t stay, walking out of a California clinic two days after he admitted himself on April 1, instead returning to Seattle.
On April 5, he locked himself in a room above his garage and shot himself in the head. According to the medical-examiner report, his body was identifiable only by his fingerprints. A radio station was the first to broadcast the news, which shook not just the music industry, but the entire the world.
Kurt Cobain died 23 years ago today: A requiem
When Kurt Cobain committed suicide on April 5, 1994, the crack of that gunshot tore through a generation. Charles Cross reflects on the lasting impact of the doomed rock star in Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain (It Books). He spoke with USA TODAY's Korina Lopez about the book's insights.
Nirvana's influence extended beyond rock into hip-hop. "Jay Z's Holy Grail borrows lyrics from Smells Like Teen Spirit," Cross says. "So Kurt was nominated for best rap song (at the Grammy Awards) in 2014."
His look changed fashion. Cobain's ripped jeans and plaid shirts would make their way to runways, selling for hundreds of dollars. But Cobain was poor until the last few years of his life and bought his clothes at thrift shops and garage sales. "If you Google 'grunge' on the Nordstrom website, you'll find (dozens of) clothing items," Cross says. "That they're high-end items is ironic, because he dressed like that out of economy and laziness."
Cobain reshaped Seattle's cultural image. When asked in interviews about being a leader of the grunge movement, Cobain either bristled or refused to answer. But Nirvana will forever be associated with grunge, along with Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. "Grunge is now part of Seattle's cultural identity," Cross says.
After Cobain died, the music industry offered support to artists with addictions. "In the '70s, you simply got the artist enough drugs and tried to control them," Cross says. "Now labels and managers are more proactive, finding private AA meetings while the artist is on tour, making drug-free zones backstage or bringing sober coaches on the road."
It wasn't fame, Courtney Love or drugs that drove him to suicide. Suicide, addiction and depression ran in both sides of his family. "He made suicide attempts long before Courtney even came into the picture," Cross says. "There were also the reckless drug overdoses, of which there were many; they show a reckless disregard for living. Maybe Kurt never had a chance."
Suicides in Seattle declined the year after his death. "For better or for worse, Cobain is the most famous person to commit suicide. While there were some copycat suicides, the number of suicides the year after his death actually went down," Cross says. "His suicide was so horrible and public, it took away the romance of suicide."
He chose to become a heroin addict. Cobain suffered from chronic stomach pain his whole life. "In his diary, he said he made a decision to become a heroin addict, partly because it was effective in cutting off his physical pain."
Cobain was the last rock star. "He was the last star to have touched an entire mainstream generation. The songs were his voice. Cobain's charisma, genius and music were all really about him. We haven't seen one that spanned everything, so he's the last in 20 years," Cross says. "I hope there will be another, though."