Authors: Max Wallace
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Copyright © 2004 by Ian Halperin and Max Wallace
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
For information address Atria Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
First Atria Books hardcover edition April 2004
is a trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Credits for the photo insert: page 1 (top) courtesy of Kris Parker; page 2 (bottom), page 4 (bottom), pages 7 and 8 courtesy of the authors; page 2 (top) courtesy of Sestini/Gamma; page 2 (bottom), page 3 courtesy of Tom Grant; page 4 (top) courtesy of Brian Garrity; pages 5 and 6 courtesy of Keystone Agency.
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In memory of
ithin days of the release of our first book,
Who Killed Kurt Cobain?,
in April 1998, the letters, calls, and e-mails began to pour in. Most of them demanded to know the same thing: Why hadn’t we answered the question posed by the book’s title?
The seeds of our initial investigation had been planted in 1994, shortly after Cobain’s death, when Ian Halperin was on a West Coast tour with his band, State of Emergency. A former member of the band had moved to Seattle a year earlier and formed relationships with a number of people in Cobain’s circle, including one of Kurt’s drug dealers and his best friend, Dylan Carlson.
When Ian arrived in Seattle, his old bandmate introduced him to a number of Seattle scenesters, including friends of Kurt, each of whom related their doubts about the official story. Even then, soon after the apparent suicide, there was a feeling in Seattle that Kurt’s death may not have come at his own hand.
Ian, who had met Kurt in 1990, before a Nirvana gig in Montreal, didn’t give much thought to the claims until he heard that a private detective hired by Courtney Love was claiming that Kurt had been murdered and that Courtney may have been involved. When he returned to Canada, Ian contacted his old writing partner, Max Wallace, who was then station manager of North America’s oldest alternative radio station, CKCU-FM, and had solid connections in alternative music circles. A decade earlier, we had shared a
magazine award for investigative journalism. We decided to embark on our own minor investigation into the circumstances of Cobain’s death, and came out with a somewhat skeptical treatment in the June 1995 issue of
magazine. On the strength of the article, we were commissioned to produce a video documentary about the murder theory, and a few months later, we traveled to Seattle and California to investigate the case.
But while we were conducting our own probe, the murder theory was taking on an unstoppable momentum of its own. Courtney Love’s private detective, Tom Grant, had gone public with his murder theory in numerous national and international media forums, including a major U.S. network television show. Before long, our documentary had turned into a hastily assembled book, published on the fourth anniversary of Kurt’s death.
Instead of taking a stand on Grant’s charges, our book examined the facts on both sides and in the end simply called on police to reopen the investigation. Some reviewers mocked the conspiracy theory at the core of our book, but most praised its objectivity. The
issued us an imprimatur of credibility when it labeled the book a “judicious presentation of explosive material.” Some readers, however, seemed to believe we had been a little
Among the myriad of letters we received following the book’s release were a number from forensic and law enforcement specialists who told us that we had missed the boat; the details we reported clearly demonstrated that Kurt Cobain had been murdered. But by then, the case was over for us. Max wrote two more books on unrelated subjects, appeared as a guest columnist for the
Sunday New York Times,
and produced two documentary films. Ian wrote three books, was hired as a correspondent for
and embarked on an acting career that landed him a role as Howard Hughes’s friend in Martin Scorcese’s upcoming film
Meanwhile, another high-profile case was making its way back into the headlines. A month after the publication of
Who Killed Kurt Cobain?,
former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman published
Murder in Greenwich
exploring the 1975 murder of fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley—a book that regularly jockeyed for first place with ours on Ingram’s True Crime bestseller list. Fuhrman had pointed to Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel as the likely killer and, when the case was reopened after twenty-seven years,
Murder in Greenwich
was credited. On June 7, 2002, Skakel was convicted of the crime.
For Fuhrman, a crucial piece of new evidence had surfaced two decades after Martha Moxley’s death. Nearly a decade after Kurt Cobain’s, we came into some damning new evidence of our own.
t is a typically rainy day in Montesano, Washington, when we arrive for our interview with Kurt’s paternal grandfather, Leland Cobain, in June 2003. Leland and his late wife, Iris, were said to have been closer to Kurt than even his own parents, and there were reports that, shortly before his death, Kurt had made plans to go on a fishing trip with his grandfather. Although we had contacted him while we were researching our first book, Leland—like most of Kurt’s immediate family—was reluctant to be interviewed. Now, more than nine years after Kurt’s death, we had heard that Leland was finally ready to talk about his famous grandson.
Most biographical accounts of Kurt’s early years describe his family living in a trailer park, conjuring up images of a “trailer trash” upbringing. Indeed, the small Montesano lot where Leland resides, and where Kurt had lived on and off during his youth, is officially given this designation in the town directory, and perhaps it once served this purpose. But when we arrive, we are surprised to find that the dwellings aren’t trailers at all, but rather small, prefab, bungalow-style units with well-groomed lawns and beautiful trees. Boats and golf carts are parked in many of the driveways, suggesting a more affluent community than what we had been led to expect by the condescending biographies and press accounts.
Leland greets us warmly at the door of his slightly cramped two-bedroom house. He and Iris had moved in more than thirty years earlier, when Kurt was just a young child, and Leland had continued living here alone after Iris’s death in 1997. Just a stone’s throw away is the house where Kurt himself had lived briefly with his father after his parents’ divorce. When the going got rough, however, it was his grandparents’ house where he sought refuge. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe the house as a shrine to Kurt, but from the moment we walk in the door, his presence can be seen and felt everywhere. The first sight that catches one’s eye is a framed gold record presented to Nirvana in 1993. Underneath it is a kitschy black velvet portrait of Kurt given to Leland a few years ago by a fan. The rest of the walls and bookshelves are crammed with photos of Kurt and the other grandchildren, sandwiched in between plaques and trophies commemorating Leland’s achievements as a champion golfer and dartsman. More Kurt-related memorabilia is crammed in the basement, including hundreds of photos and letters sent to Leland and Iris by Nirvana fans from all over the world.
“I’m very proud of him,” says Leland, tearing up slightly as he pauses in front of a photo of a cherubic three-year-old Kurt. “He was a good kid. I miss him.” He takes us on a tour of the house, pointing out the many artifacts associated with his grandson and telling stories about the boy who had spent a lot of time within these walls. Leland is a spry seventy-nine-year-old, who wears hearing aids in both ears to remedy a deafness acquired while fighting at Guadalcanal as a young marine during the Second World War and then exacerbated by rolling asphalt for a living years later. After his discharge from the marines, he developed a serious alcohol problem, which he admits made him a “different person.” By most accounts, his problems started after his father—a local county sheriff—was killed when his gun went off accidentally. However, his heaviest drinking reportedly started after his third son, a severely retarded boy named Michael, died in an institution at the age of six. Leland, though, soon conquered his personal demons, found religion and gave up alcohol completely. “I became a changed man,” he recalls. By the time Kurt was born in 1967, he had become a respected citizen of Montesano, a regular churchgoer and, by most accounts, a pretty good father and grandfather, frequently babysitting for Kurt and his younger sister, Kim. But it was Iris, not Leland, with whom Kurt most closely bonded.
“They were so much alike,” Leland recalls, pointing to a photo of a strikingly beautiful brunette taken just after the couple were married. “Kurt loved his grandmother so much. I think she was the only member of the family who he could confide in. I think he was closer to Iris than he was to his own mother. He got his artistic side from Iris, that’s for sure.”
Leland takes out a box of drawings Kurt did as a child. One of them, signed “Kurt Cobain, age 6,” depicts Donald Duck and shows undeniable artistic talent for one so young. “When I saw that one, I said to Kurt, ‘You traced that, you didn’t draw it,’ and he got mad; he said to me, ‘I did too draw it.’ ”
After Kurt left his hometown for good in 1987, he kept in touch with his grandparents only sporadically. Leland takes out a Christmas card they received after Kurt moved away:
Dear long lost grandparents: I miss you very much. Which is no excuse for my not visiting…. We put out a single just recently and it has sold-out already…. I’m happier than I ever have been. It would be nice to hear from you as well. Merry Christmas
Leland hadn’t read our first book, and we had yet to tell him the subject of this new one. After a tour of the house, and an hour’s worth of anecdotes about Kurt and his family while sitting around the dining room table, we are at last prepared to broach the topic we thought would be the most difficult to bring up. Two of Leland’s brothers had killed themselves years earlier, fueling the most common of all the clichés about Kurt’s own fate—that he had somehow inherited the “suicide gene.” It is obviously a sensitive subject, and Leland’s voice chokes when he talks about the family tragedies. Finally, we ask him how he and Iris felt when they learned their own grandson had killed himself.
His response is not at all what we expected: “Kurt didn’t commit suicide,” he declares matter-of-factly. “He was murdered. I’m sure of it.”
In the days and weeks following Kurt Cobain’s 1994 death, journalists and biographers descended on his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, seeking clues to help make sense of the suicide of the town’s most famous descendant—a town Kurt had constantly scorned in his music, his interviews and his journals. So glaring was Aberdeen’s sense of hopelessness that many came away feeling Kurt’s eventual fate was hardly surprising, was perhaps even inevitable. The suicide rate in Aberdeen is twice the national average, and the unemployment rate staggering, since the near collapse of the logging industry years before. Drugs and other symptoms of despair were all-pervading.
“It’s as if the town were being held accountable for Cobain’s ruin—which is not entirely unfathomable,” wrote Mikal Gilmore, who visited Aberdeen a week after Kurt’s death. “When you are confronted with the tragic loss of a suicide, you can’t help sorting backward through the dead person’s life, looking for those crucial episodes of dissolution that would lead him to such an awful finish. Look far enough into Kurt Cobain’s life, and you inevitably end up back in Aberdeen—the homeland that he fled.”
Now we had come to Aberdeen nine years later seeking a different set of clues.
Three hours after our interview with Leland, we stumble upon an unexpectedly rich source of Cobain lore a few miles down the highway: two women in their early twenties, a stringy-haired boy of seventeen, and a baby. They are loitering outside the bus station when we stop to ask for directions, and we quickly strike up a conversation about Aberdeen’s most famous native son.
They are too young to have really known Kurt, but we ask them whether they ever listen to his music. “Nobody around here listens to that stuff anymore,” replies the boy, who could pass for a teenage Kurt, minus the distinctive blazing blue eyes. Today, he says, hip-hop and death metal rule in Aberdeen. They make us an offer we can’t pass up: “You want to see his house?” and then proceed to cram themselves in the car. The baby, wedged between his mother and a skateboard, squirms contentedly in anticipation of whatever adventure lies ahead. “Later, we’ll bring you to meet one of Kurt’s old friends if you want,” says Autumn, the twenty-three-year-old mother. She tells us she has two more children at home, and then ventures, “You’re not narcs, are you?”
As we cruise through the streets of this grim town, passing churches and bars and not much else, it calls forth the description of Kurt’s Aberdeen friend Dale Crover, who once said, “There’s nothing to do here but smoke dope and worship Satan.” Is that true? we ask our impromptu tour guides. “Pretty much,” says the guy. “Oh yeah, and also skateboarding. There’s always that.”
The carload of us arrive at a small, impeccably manicured house at 101 East First Street in a section of town the locals call “the flats.” Kurt’s family moved here shortly after his birth from their rented house in nearby Hoquiam. His father, Don, worked as a mechanic at the local Chevron station to support the family while his mother, Wendy, took care of Kurt, born February 20, 1967, and his sister, Kim, born three years later. Wendy had scrimped and saved Don’s earnings to buy the house—a badge of respectability heralding arrival into the middle class, and a decided step-up from her own working-class roots. She was determined that her children would make something of themselves and eventually escape the dead end that Aberdeen represented for most of the kids who grew up here.
And yet Don’s father, Leland, never really approved of Wendy or what he called her “social-climbing ways.”
“I think she thought she was better than our family,” he recalls. “She was always criticizing Don because he wasn’t enough of a muckety-muck. She wanted him to be making more money and she was never satisfied.”
Aberdeen does not celebrate its status as a cradle of the musical movement called grunge. Indeed, the first thing you notice when you drive through the town looking for indications that a superstar grew up here is that there are none, even in the museum devoted to preserving local history. There’s plenty in the museum about the fact that Aberdeen once boasted more than fifty brothels servicing the loggers and sailors, until a wave of morality shut them down in the 1950s. But it’s almost as if the locals are embarrassed to claim Cobain as one of their own.
We ask the museum’s curator, Dan Sears, Is the fact that there is not a single mention of Cobain in the Aberdeen Museum of History due to the continuous scorn Kurt heaped on the town—a town whose population he once described as “highly bigoted, redneck, snoose-chewing, deer-shooting, faggot-killing, logger types”?
“Not at all,” Sears replies. “It’s because my predecessor said he didn’t want a bunch of long-haired hippies coming in all the time.” He notes that we are the third set of visitors that day asking about Cobain. Just a few minutes earlier, he had fielded a query from a forty-year-old man and his son who had come a thousand miles to visit Kurt’s hometown.
Sears does recommend one Kurt-related attraction in Aberdeen that we might want to visit, but even this homage seems to have been treated with a kind of pained embarrassment. Some years earlier, a local truck driver–turned–sculptor named Randi Hubbard had constructed a 600-pound, life-size concrete statue of Cobain in the garage of her husband’s muffler shop. “I think we all have a little Kurt Cobain in us,” explains Hubbard, who knew Kurt when their families lived a block away from one another in Aberdeen. “He was a precious little kid when I knew him. As Kurt said, the townspeople of Aberdeen didn’t like change or culture. I wanted to put something in the entrance to the town to show the world that some of us loved Kurt.”
Initially, the Aberdeen City Council had approved her offer to erect the statue in a park at the east entrance of town. But then the angry letters and phone calls from local residents started to pour in, and the town councillors quickly backpedaled. A local chamber of commerce president summed up the general feeling: “There are lots of people who deserve to be honored…. [But] there’s a difference between being famous and being infamous.”
Today the statue sits tucked in among auto parts and greasy rags. Just as well; Kurt would never have approved. He didn’t want to have anything to do with Aberdeen or its residents, as his bandmate Krist Novoselic made clear when he publicly threatened to smash the statue to pieces if it was ever unveiled. “If anybody puts up a statue of Kurt, I’ll kick it down,” Novoselic said in 1994. “He would not have wanted it. That’s not what Kurt was about.” (A few years later, Hubbard constructed the first sculpture—a statue of a firefighter—to be erected at Ground Zero after September 11.)
But if the town has failed to brag about its most famous native son, it seems that everybody here has some Cobain connection and is quite willing to talk about it, as we discovered when the desk clerk of our hotel told us that she attended kindergarten with Kurt.
“He was a quiet guy,” recalls Bobbi Fowler. “Kids used to tease him ’cause he was from a poor family. He didn’t have the popular stuff other kids had. He struggled ’cause of his mom—that was well known. She didn’t treat him good. They didn’t have a lot of money, Kurt’s family.” This didn’t quite mesh with the description Kurt gave his official biographer, Michael Azerrad, in 1993. “I was an extremely happy child,” he recalled. “I was constantly screaming and singing. I didn’t know when to quit. I’d eventually get beaten up by kids because I’d get so excited about wanting to play. I took play very seriously. I was just really happy.”