On April 8, 1994, the echo of a shotgun blast reverberated around the world. Kurt Cobain was dead, by his own hand, according to police investigators and the King County medical examiner. While millions of Gen Xers mourned the death of their "voice of a generation," critics and fans alike were quick to point out the foreshadowing of the Nirvana leader's suicide through his song subject matter and titles (i.e., "I Hate Myself and Want to Die"), his omnipresent drug habit and various quotes from interviews given over the years.
Shortly after, the repercussions began. After the Seattle public memorial, held in a park near the Space Needle on April 10, 28-year-old Daniel Kaspar returned home, despondent over Cobain's death, and shot himself. This was only one of the more than 60 "copycat" suicides related to the death of Cobain. And if the evidence presented in a recently published book is to be believed, these tragic victims of their own hands weren't even emulating their hero. The book, Who Killed Kurt Cobain?, postulates that he was murdered.
There are a number of automatic responses to such an assertion--everyone knows that Cobain offed himself; look at the suicide note, the lyrics, the heroin; this is just another crazy conspiracy theory, albeit a considerably more hip one than JFK or Roswell; and besides, who would have wanted to kill the '90s greatest rock figurehead? For these reasons, the book is best read by forgetting that you know who the subject is, by ignoring what you think you know about Cobain and analyzing it as a true-life murder mystery.
The book, and a largely unrelated documentary by BBC filmmaker Nick Broomfield, have, at the very least, damaged Courtney Love's bid for Hollywood respectability. At worst, they have stirred up considerable antipathy toward her from Cobain fans who feel they haven't been given all the answers. Now, with Love set to restart her musical career with the September 8 release of Hole's album Celebrity Skin, the Cobain murder theory stands as a wild card whose power no one can gauge.
In a recent Billboard piece about the upcoming MTV Video Awards, at which Hole will perform, Jamie Saxon, Wherehouse manager in Hollywood, predicted that Hole's commercial standing will hinge on the strength of the band's performance at the awards show. Saxon is quoted as saying, "Courtney Love hasn't had a lot of good PR lately, and she needs to remind people that she's in a band." Of course, much of the bad PR Saxon refers to has--directly or indirectly--come from Who Killed Kurt Cobain?
The authors, Montreal journalists Ian Halperin and Max Wallace, embarked on their investigation after hearing a number of Seattle musicians and people close to Cobain express their doubts as to his suicide, and after hearing about the claims of Beverly Hills investigator Tom Grant. Grant was originally hired by Courtney Love a few days before Cobain's body was found, but he continued investigating independently after becoming convinced that the death was not a suicide. His claims have been made public in a number of magazine articles and talk-radio appearances, and Grant strongly believes that Love was behind the murder of her husband.
Grant, though met with derision by many naysayers of the murder theory, has a sterling reputation and apparently has not attempted to cash in on his investigation's findings. The authors of the book launched a critical investigation of his findings, verifying many findings and casting doubt over others; the general conclusion is that there is more than ample evidence to warrant a reopening of the case by the Seattle PD, although this is unlikely.
Max Wallace, co-author of the book, says he was "always quite skeptical about that because they're not going to admit that they botched the case. For the Seattle PD to reopen it is to admit that they made a mistake and a rush to judgment. The goal is to have some outside law enforcement agency look into it. Grant's goal right now is to get the FBI looking at it, because if there was an interstate conspiracy--let's say Courtney Love's in California plotting to kill Kurt in Washington state--that would be the FBI's jurisdiction."
The biographical portion of the book, covering Cobain's and Love's respective childhoods, their romance and subsequent marriage, and chronicling the couple's much publicized troubles with drugs and confrontations with the media, is extensive and thorough, though somewhat biased toward the authors' conclusion.
The trauma of Cobain's parents' divorce is downplayed, with greater weight given to the marital problems between Love and Cobain, and the chasm created between Love and Cobain's bandmates. The book also reveals that in the summer of 1993, Cobain's perpetual excuse for his heroin use and general misery, his mysterious "burning, nauseous stomach," was both diagnosed and treated. Cobain's best friend, Dylan Carlson, verifies that fact, saying that he was a "new person after that."
Knowing that this is sensitive subject matter and that any evidence presented to support the claim that Cobain was murdered would be subjected to intense criticism, the authors researched and presented their evidence meticulously. There are several indisputable facts that support the murder theory. Hours before the body was discovered in the greenhouse of Love and Cobain's Lake Washington home, someone attempted to use his credit card to purchase flowers. However, the medical examiner determined that the body had been dead for about three days. Mysteriously, no legible fingerprints were found on the shotgun, the shells and box of shells, or the pen used to write the "suicide" note (which was stabbed through the note into the dirt of a planter near the body). Also, two of the world's foremost handwriting analysts determined that the last four lines of the note were written by a different person than the body of the note.
Without those last four lines, the note could possibly be read as a retirement letter from rock stardom; as reports at the time verify, Cobain was through with Nirvana.
It's well-known that Cobain was high at the time of his death. A cigar box containing syringes, burnt spoons and pieces of black tar heroin was found next to his body. What's not so well-known is that, according to toxicology reports, he had three times the lethal dose of heroin in his body at the time of death. The authors did extensive research into the pathology of heroin and heroin addicts and concluded that after shooting up such a huge amount of heroin, Cobain would have been unconscious in seconds, leaving no time to roll his sleeve back down and shoot himself. This conclusion was also reached in an extremely detailed and referenced essay entitled "Dead Men Don't Pull Triggers" by Roger Lewis, which can be found on the Internet.
Additionally, the book explores other possibly related occurrences--the death of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who was reportedly leaving the band; the claim by Mentors' lead singer El Duce that Love offered him $50,000 to whack Cobain, and El Duce's mysterious death subsequent to discussing the offer with the media; and the death of Seattle detective Antonio Terry, who was connected to Cobain's missing-persons case before the discovery of the body.
The authors are careful not to directly accuse Courtney Love of arranging the murder of her husband, even stating that they are not completely convinced that she was involved. They do, however, have harsh words for Love ("She's made a career of springboarding off the heads of her critics up the ladder of success and she has no intention of falling down now") and present many facts that implicate her. It's unclear whether Cobain was having an affair toward the end of his life, but it appears that Love believed that he was sleeping with a Seattle heroin dealer named Caitlin Moore. In the book, Grant claims that the Cobains' lawyer, Rosemary Carroll, told him that shortly before Cobain's death he asked her to draw up a will excluding Love because they were divorcing. The Cobains' prenuptial agreement would have kept Love from collecting anything beyond a small settlement, while his death left her a multimillion-dollar estate and interest in all Nirvana profits.
The book additionally points out that, until his death, it was never thought that Cobain's overdose in Rome in March of '94 was anything but an accident. Soon after his death, though, Courtney Love began proclaiming that it was a suicide attempt, and that he had left a suicide note at that time also. The attending doctor at the hospital in Rome maintains that it looked like an accidental overdose and denies Love's claim that more than 50 pills (of the "date rape" drug, Rohypnol) were pumped from his stomach.
The aspect of the book most damaging to its credibility is whom the the authors associated themselves with during the process. They served as consultants on Broomfield's documentary, Kurt and Courtney, which has been panned by critics as uncredible and tabloid; however, the authors describe Broomfield as Britain's Michael Moore, a stretch by any measure.
Also, the two authors went on tour with Hank Harrison, Courtney Love's long-estranged father, a publicity-seeking former hippie who will seemingly do anything possible to cash in on his daughter's fame.
In the book, Harrison repeatedly claims that he believes his daughter was responsible for Cobain's murder. The authors do not endorse Harrison's views, and co-author Wallace admits the tour may have been a mistake.
"Hank's quite invaluable as a source for information about early Courtney, but he never met Kurt, and a lot of the things he says about the death have to be taken with a grain of salt," Wallace says. "Being too closely associated with Hank was one of our biggest fears, and it sort of came true, unfortunately. We labored to distance ourselves from him; originally the promoter wanted us to go on with him and present these things [about the Cobain case] together. We said, 'No, no, no, we'll be the opening act.'
"He was certainly valuable for attracting attention; that's what he was there for, obviously. Because he's Courtney Love's father, he's gonna bring people and the media out. So it was good for attracting attention, but it was probably a mistake. We got a little bit too associated with Hank Harrison. In retrospect I don't know if I'd do it again."
Altogether, the book succeeds in presenting its case. Most facts presented are immutable, and those that aren't completely verifiable are treated as such, with criticism from all sides being presented.
The case is a fascinating mystery, made all the more intriguing by the notoriety of its subjects. And despite the authors' association with sources of questionable character, their conclusion is undeniably logical: that the case should be reopened and reexamined by an outside law enforcement agency. This is still far from happening.
Reactions to Who Killed Kurt Cobain? have been generally positive, even from Courtney Love's camp. "Actually what's happened is quite interesting," Wallace says, "because I think at the time we were having all those problems, when Courtney was coming after us and sending her goons to find out what we had, they were very worried, they didn't know what we were doing. They wanted the manuscripts, that's what this guy [lawyer-investigator Jack Palladino] was demanding. Now that it's come out and they've been able to read it, I think they realize that it's a lot more fair than they expected.
"We haven't gotten any death threats or legal threats or anything like that." No death threats. That may be the ultimate endorsement when dealing with Courtney Love.
Contact Brendan Kelley at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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