What really happened to Kurt Cobain?
Kurt Cobain died on April 5 1994, officially ruled a suicide by shotgun. There is a conspiracy theory that Courtney Love, Kurt's wife, played a hand in Kurt's death, and that he did not actually commit suicide. In this article I want to give information on this conpiracy and context on Kurt's life.
I found most of this information surrounding the conspiracy from the documentary Soaked In Bleach. While I found the movie to be a good source of information, specifically for P.I. Tom Grant's perspective, I also found that it portrays a very biased narrative. My biggest criticism of the movie was the insinuation that Kurt wasn't really suicidal, that he was a happy person all the time, that he was very optimistic, etc. This is untrue, Kurt was suicidal and depressed from a very young age, as documented several times by several different people throughout his life. I thought by pushing this specific narrative so much, it hurt the credibility of the movie. Because without this point, the conspiracy still has some valid points, it's not as if a suicidal person can't be murdered. I found most of the information regarding Kurt's mental state and relationship with Courtney from the biography on Kurt, Heavier Than Heaven.
The most striking facts that stick out to support the conspiracy are:
- Police Investigation.
Most notably, the case was ruled a suicide the very same day that Kurt's body was discovered. This is bizarre considering how high profile this case is. The Seattle Police Department seemed to have tunnel vision, influenced by the missing persons report filed by Courtney stating that Kurt was suicidal.
- Divorce & Prenup.
Kurt was planning on divorcing Courtney, because of their prenup she was going to receive next to nothing, but after his death she instead co-inherited his estate worth millions. Around a month prior to his death, Kurt contacted his lawyer about having Courtney removed from his will, but it wasn't finalized before he died.
- Toxicology Report.
The level of heroin found in Kurt's body was 3 times the lethal limit, even taking into account that he was a heroin addict and heavy user of drugs. This level of heroin would have left him incapacitated, yet he would've still had to load the shotgun and pull the trigger.
- Handwriting Practice.
A notebook page of practiced handwriting and various letters was found in Courtney's backpack. Some people think that the last few lines of Kurt's suicide note appear to be in different handwriting. Specifically, the lines that reference Courtney and their daughter, and is also the part that most reads as a suicide note.
Context on Kurt and Courtney's relationship
Kurt and Courtney got together right around the time Nevermind was released, so just as Nirvana was gaining traction and fame. When courting Kurt, Courtney gave Kurt a heart shaped box filled with various items he'd like. They dated for a while, and when Courtney got pregnant they got married. People in Kurt's life had some objections to Courtney, she seemed to get into fights with others a lot, and was seen as abrasive and causing drama. Kurt loved Courtney, so this drove a huge wedge between him and some of his friends. One huge wedge was with Nirvana's bassist Krist Novoselic, Courtney and Krist's wife had a bit of drama, and Krist noted that this was a turning point and beginning of hostility within Nirvana.
I think there is a common misconception that Courtney got Kurt into heroin, which isn't exactly true. Kurt did heroin before he met Courtney, he actually started around the time his previous girlfriend, Tobi Vail, dumped him. This was also around the time that Nevermind was written. When Kurt met Courtney, although they both already did heroin, they enabled each other to do it much more often. In each other they found someone to do heroin with, whereas otherwise they didn't have anyone else to do it with. This brought them closer and also caused them to both get more heavily into their drug use.
More on the overdose in Rome: Heavier Than Heaven states that this was actually a suicide attempt, while Soaked in Bleach views it as just an accidental overdose. Kurt had overdosed on champagne and Rohypnol, and he was found by Courtney passed out, with a suicide note balled up in his hand. Others around Kurt noted this as another personality shift in Kurt. This overdose was just about a month before he died. Krist stated he believed Kurt might even had brain damage after this event, because he was acting (even more) so bizarrely and erratically following this.
Kurt and Courtney were fighting a lot during the last few months of Kurt's life. Presumably it was mostly due to Kurt's use of drugs, which at that point, he was so heavily addicted he used heroin several times a day, every day. He once called his lawyer and friend Rosemary Caroll and told her he wanted a divorce from Courtney, although no paperwork was started on this before he died.
Context on Kurt's mental state
As stated, Kurt was suffering extremely from his heroin addiction. Around the last year of his life, he would use heroin every day, multiple times a day. He had tried to quit several times but always fell back into it. Some of the reasons contributing to his addiction included his life long undiagnosed stomach condition, whenever he ate any food he often became very painfully ill, heroin was seemingly the only thing that would consistently take this pain away.
He was also suffering from the pressures of fame, and quickly feeling burnt out. During the In Utero tour he often wanted to cancel performances, no longer enjoying performing. Nirvana was asked to headline the upcoming Lollapalooza in 1994, which was a huge music festival. Everyone surrounding Kurt, including Courtney, were heavily pressuring Kurt into agreeing to do this. Kurt was the only person from the Nirvana team that didn't want to. It would have been a huge monetary gain which is why everyone was pushing so hard for it, but Kurt was very weary from performing and touring.
Kurt was also being sued for alleged copyright infringement on the Heart Shaped Box music video by Kevin Kerslake, a music video director. This was causing Kurt much stress and fear that he (and his family) would be completely wiped out financially.
Another huge contributor to his pain at this time were how often him and Courtney were fighting. According to others surrounding Kurt, during the In Utero tour whenever Kurt would call Courtney, every conversation seemed to end with them fighting. Krist Novoselic noted how it seemed like Kurt was struggling personally with something. My assumption was that it was with Courtney. Throughout it all Kurt definitely loved Courtney and considered her a best friend too, in addition to being the mother of his child. The cause for their fights seemed to be centered around his drug addiction, and finances, specifically that Kurt wanted to cancel tours and not perform at Lollapalooza.
Kurt struggled all throughout his life with mental illness. He was noted by several peers growing up to often talk about suicide, and this was in the 80s when it was taboo to speak so morbidly. I would encourage if you are interested to read through some of his journals, especially the ones from near the end of his life to gain a better perspective on his mental state. From the ones included in Heavier Than Heaven it paints the picture of how burnt out and isolated he felt.
Information on Kurt's death
On March 1st 1994, Kurt overdosed and was hospitalized. On March 25th, several of his close friends and Courtney Love held an intervention for him, urging him to go to rehab. On March 30th, he arrived at a rehab facility in Los Angeles. On March 31st, Kurt escaped the rehab facility, and bought a plane ticket back to Seattle. He was reported to have been spotted last on April 2nd and 3rd. Kurt officially died on the 5th. His body was discovered on the 8th by an electrician doing nearby maintenance work, who spotted him through a window.
Courtney Love hired private investigator Tom Grant to find Kurt on April 3rd. Tom Grant stated he immediately noticed red flags when speaking to her, and began to tape all of their conversations. Tom noted that Courtney seemed controlling and jealous, accusing Kurt of infidelity. She had called their credit card company and told them their card was stolen, in an attempt to cut off Kurt's access to money. Courtney was planning to leak a story to the Associated Press that she had OD'd and was in the hospital, so that Kurt would "get scared and call her"; also stated "selfishly, it would help sell records" (Hole's album Live Through This was coming out around this time). Tom asked her "Do you think he won't ever find out you weren't really in the hospital?" Love stated "No, no one will tell him. The people I had do this, I paid." Seemingly she was referring to the fake planned OD story. Courtney was also on recording to Tom critical of Kurt's plans to leave Nirvana, stating "he'd be walking away from potential millions".
Love had filed a missing person's report for Kurt under Kurt's mothers name, rather than under her own name. This missing persons report stated that Kurt was suicidal.
Under Courtney's request, Tom was searching possible hotels Kurt could be staying that, checking for aliases that he was known to use. When he found a possible alias listed at a hotel, he went to Courtney with it, and she stated she did not want Tom to send his people there, because she "didn't want him to know that [she] was looking for him". Tom pushed that they needed to put surveillance on the Lake Washington home (where Kurt's body was later found), Courtney insisted that they didn't because "Kurt won't be there" and that Michael "Cali" Dewitt, would tell Courtney if he did come by. Cali was their live-in-nanny for their daughter; Soaked in Bleach states that he was an ex-boyfriend of Courtney's, Heavier than Heaven states that rather he was an ex Hole roadie.
Tom went to Seattle and met up with Dylan Carlson, who was a friend of Kurt's, and also a known heroin addict. Dylan stated to Tom that he didn't think Kurt was suicidal. The shotgun that Kurt used in his suicide, was registered in Dylan's name. He had gone with Kurt to buy it, as Kurt's other guns were confiscated due to a previous incident on March 18th, when Courtney had called the police stating Kurt was suicidal and had locked himself in a room. (During that same event, Kurt insisted he was not suicidal to the police, and that he locked himself away to hide from Courtney). Dylan claimed that Kurt was paranoid because of a recent burglary, so he agreed to help Kurt purchase the shotgun.
Tom and Dylan went to Kurt's Lake Washington home to search for the shotgun, and found a strange letter sitting out from Cali to Kurt, telling him basically "you need to get it together and call Courtney". Unbeknownst to Tom, but Kurt was already dead at this point, his body lay in the greenhouse, a room that Tom did not know existed. Dylan did not mention this room to Tom while they were there searching for the shotgun.
A few days later upon hearing the news of Kurt's death, Tom immediately went to the lead detective to share his information he had on Kurt from searching for him the last few days, and informed him that they were just in the house the other night, but as he didn't know of the greenhouse, they never discovered him. The detectives told him to reach back out later in the day, not taking much interest in him or his information. Tom noted that this was bizarre, as typically in a police investigation you would want to hold anyone who had so recently been in the same house as a witness or a possible person of interest, especially in such a high profile case. The very same day of finding Kurt's body, it was ruled as a suicide. At this point, they did not know anything about the drug level in Kurt's body, had done any fingerprint analysis, etc. Tom believed that the police had tunnel vision and were mislead by the missing person's report, which stated that Kurt was suicidal. The Seattle police department allowed Kurt's body to be cremated 6 days after he was found. They waited 30 days to process the shotgun for fingerprints. They gave Courtney the shotgun to have it melted down. They allowed the greenhouse, which was the crime scene, to be torn down and destroyed.
The toxicology report for Kurt stated that he had a heroin blood level of 1.52 milligrams per liter. This is 70 times the lethal does for a non-addicted normal person, this would still be 3 times the lethal dose for a heavy heroin user. This amount of heroin would leave a person incapacitated, yet Kurt's sleeves weren't rolled up, a heroin kit was not out, and he was sober enough to load up a shotgun and pull the trigger. The full autopsy report was never released. Heavier Than Heaven's explanation for the extreme amount of heroin found was that in a sense he was killing himself twice, with both heroin and shotgun. The book's perspective was that if he hadn't shot himself he would have soon died from overdose, and that this was intentional.
The shotgun shell was found on the left side of Kurt's body, opposite of where it would have been expected to go, as the exit chamber for the shotgun was on the right, and taking into account the way the gun was found laying.
On March 1st, Kurt contacted his lawyer and friend, Rosemary Caroll, to take Courtney out of his will and get a divorce, though this was never finalized before he died. Rosemary is on taped recording with Tom stating she believed Kurt's suicide note to be a forgery. She worked with Tom and made recorded statements that she believed Cali may have played a hand, and that she thought that the letter he wrote to Kurt read strangely as if Kurt was already dead, that it seemed "phony". Rosemary later denied that she worked with Tom to provide evidence, even though she is on taped recording doing so.
A handwriting sample was found in Courtney's backpack. It seemed to be a practice sheet of different letters. She later claimed she was practicing forging her doctor's signature for prescription medicine. About 70% of Kurt's suicide note is about his relationship with music, and only the last few lines are about his family, this part is in much larger letters than the rest.
Cali claims the last time he saw Kurt was April 2nd. According to phone records, Courtney and Cali spoke 8 times that day. Courtney did not mention this sighting to Tom, who she hired on April 3rd.
Kurt had a prenup. The two were likely getting a divorce, as Kurt had contacted his lawyer about it a month before he died. If the divorce had gone through, Courtney would have received a very small settlement due to the prenup. When Kurt died, she co-inherited an estate worth millions, estimated billions in future royalties.
Having typed this all out you may want to know my opinion..... I can't say with 100% certainty one way or the other, I go back and forth on my opinion. There are definitely bizarre circumstances around his death that should be re-investigated, even if only to definitively prove it was a suicide.
However... if I do have to decide, I would agree with the ruling that it was in fact a suicide. I say this because after completing Heavier Than Heaven, I feel like I have a better understanding of Kurt's mental state throughout his life, and most specifically in the last few months of his life. He was very unwell mentally, which is well documented by several people in his life. Considering his mental state at this time, and throughout his entire life, I think the conclusion that it was actually a suicide holds up.
Cross, Charles R. (2001). Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain.
Statler, Benjamin. (2015). Soaked in Bleach.
Suburban Hitchhiker Daredevil Films.
4-11-2021: Added context on Kurt and Courtney's relationship and Kurt's mental state. Updated my opinion on the case. Updated / added more information. Re-formatted page.
- Watch Kurt & Courtney by Nick Broomfield.
- Watch HBO's special on Kurt.