(I wrote this story differently than I write most things. I thought doing it as a Rolling Stone article would help lend some verisimilitude to the story.
It’s an alternative rock What If?, and it’s not the first contribution to this kind of canon - Chuck Klosterman is as responsible for this as is Stephen King’s 11/22/63 - but if you’re willing to take a trip to my alternate Earth in the near future, then let’s find Nirvana together…ish…)
As the glass fills up with raspberry iced tea, the pills come out.
It’s only two pills and as it turns out they’re both anti-depressants, but somehow the weight of them – the gravity – seems to grow exponentially in the hands of Kurt Donald Cobain.
“I don’t want to do this too much,” he stresses at one point. “I figured one to get it out of the way would be fine.”
It’s not just the pills that’ve had their meaning suddenly called into question by the fact of merely being in the palm of the former (?) Nirvana frontman.
The question, of course, is the same one it’s been for nearly the past two weeks since he seemingly reappeared out of the ether and onto a Philadelphia stage: what does Kurt mean by this? The pills? This interview? The return? Any of that? None of those?
And, of course, the biggest one of them all: Is this merely a blip before he fades away entirely or has the former voice of a generation come back to a center stage that compels him as much as it repels him?
For the better part of a generation, it wasn’t even a question up for debate.
Like Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa or the chauffeur in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Kurt Cobain had disappeared. While a cottage industry had spawned an online full of conspiracy theories and recent sightings since what Cobain, even now, can only refer to as “the unpleasantness” of April 16th, 1994, 339 months is plenty of time for someone to get relegated to a forgotten status.
Even on the date of the return nothing had been seemingly different in the world of the Foo Fighters. Nothing alluded to on the website, or on the Twitter feeds of lead singer/drummer Dave Grohl, his bassist wife Kim Grohl-Deal, or guitarist Kim Thayil. Therefore, when Grohl asked the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center if they were having a good time and they responded in kind it was seen as nothing more than usual rock-show banter. Grohl suggested he was going to rest his voice for a song or two, which in the past two years has meant his wife has assumed temporary frontwoman status for the Fighters and sings a few songs while some diehards wait for Cannonball off her 1997 solo EP and most fans opt to check in on the viability of the closest concession stand and/or bathroom. This occasion, Grohl asked with an almost mad scientist’s glee, “Will the mystery guest pleeeeeeeease sign in?”.
You may remember that quote as the last thing that happened before the Internet exploded, then exploded again, then went into thermonuclear meltdown.
What it looked like to several cameraphones and a few Instagram pictures was a slightly older version of Steve McQueen dragging a guitar, then putting it up around his shoulder. What it was was actually the side of a milk carton being made irrelevant.
Knowing what we all know now it is borderline funny to watch any video of the event that isn’t the ubiquitous supercut of people fainting in mid-taping. A notable buzz starts to grow through the crowd, and then gets louder, and louder. This is all in the 26 seconds before he looks up, and anyone seeing the shocking shade of blue gone cold in his eyes who hadn’t known, knew. It’s not quite a jet engine roar, but it is thousands of people shrieking with glee, and even his first quip barely slows it down.
“I don’t know what everybody’s getting all excited about,” says Cobain as he scratches his nose. “It’s just a stupid Boston cover song.”
Then That Riff started.
As Kurt Cobain launched into the opening of Smells Like Teen Spirit, it ceased to be a Foo Fighters concert and transformed into something else entirely: 1992. Kim Thayil can barely keep a smile off of his face while he plays as Cobain howls about mosquitos vs. his libido; Kim Grohl-Deal slips ably into a bass groove while behind her, her husband seems to find another gear and takes his already notoriously hard drumming up as if to recapture his youth. And as important as they are to the tableau, they almost aren’t needed at all.
Make no mistake about it: this is not the Kurt who left. He is bigger (read: nearly average size), not every note is played perfectly, and to start his voice is still scratchy and seems to run ragged on occasion even if it isn’t part of the song.
For 304 seconds not a damn bit of that mattered. The crowd is screaming, screaming along to every word when they aren’t profanely offering up thanks for the whole thing (“This is happening!”, famously yells someone in the fourth row in one of the videos. “HOW THE FUCK IS THIS HAPPENING!?”) and the entire guitar solo is a standing ovation as Thayil and Cobain stand apiece from each other and quicken the pace.
That alone would’ve been enough for a moment in musical history, but even before Spirit dies all the way down, Cobain is banging out a chugga-chugga. You can see him mouth to Deal & Thayil about what’s to come, and by the time the chorus in Rape Me hits, the Nirvana Fighters have completely ceded center stage to the force of nature in the borderline Mr. Rogers cardigan hissing and wincing into the microphone. Grohl breaks a drumstick, but recovers in a matter of moments. For the past eight minutes the crowd has been pogoing through their screams, screaming through their pogoing, or both. It must be said, the song transforms at the end with four people singing it on the stage instead of just two or three, let alone a woman.
For about half a minute after, Cobain walks up to both of the Kims and mentions something to them briefly. To Dave, it’s merely a sentence or two. And the crowd is roaring so many competing cheers that it becomes hard to differentiate them all. Cobain cuts through them the way he used to cut through such things, and in this case, the scalpel is the blistering You Know You’re Right. Possibly the hardest song in the Nirvana discography, and released on the 2009 compilation Verse, Chorus, Verse as the “new song,” the In Utero castoff should be causing a borderline riot. At least a couple of fights. Certainly a mosh pit or six. But all it is is another opportunity to pogo and sing along; Cobain fades towards the drum kit and stands on it yelling at Dave while Thayil looks back for a second before taking the brunt of the stage on his own, Kurt opting to sing along and into Dave’s mic at the end before giving up and letting the Kims do it up front while he whirls around behind them. When that’s over he walks back to the microphone, and bows his head. Just for a moment.
He gathers a breath before Heart-Shaped Box, and as hard as he’s been playing before, he plays harder. Is he thinking of April 16th, 1994 as he does this? Is it because of that that he’s doing this? Sweat is flying off of his forehead as he sings to her; he has to be singing to her. It explains the change in his eyes, and the insouciant posture of his prior songs is completely evaporated now. You see now why an entire cycle of rock music died out in America even before Andrew David Parker drove into Woodstock ’99 in his absence; when he is on, there is a charisma-fueled presence rivaled by few. Backed by one of the few American rock bands to go on past the boom period of grunge - a band spawned in large part due to his sabbatical -all his singing of this song does to smarter fans is remind them of the other void. His voice gets grimmer and more than a hint of a snarl is evident by the time the chorus comes crashing in; whatever the new complaint had been is irrelevant now. He’s found a new one; maybe a new one million. Thayil is at his best since Cobain’s reemergence here and shows off his wizardry as Cobain picks up the pace even more in a shortened bridge before the third verse. When the song dies out after the last “your advice”, Kurt runs a hand through his shaggy blond hair, and lets out a sigh.
Again, it could’ve ended there. Famously, it didn’t.
Cobain is looking into the crowd, but the word into doesn’t apply. He is staring off into a point in space where no human being could be in the arena, and you can almost see his eyes firing through most of the emotions available to humankind.
It’s two lines before anybody realizes Kurt is singing Violet off of Live Through This. The Kims suddenly surge to life and Grohl quickly locks in step and all of a sudden by the time Kurt is sneering “You should learn how to say no!”, it sounds like the East Coast is going to implode entirely from the force of three guitars and a drummer who all sound as if they are playing the entrance music for the triumphant return of Lucifer himself. Cobain quickly loses the guitar portion of the song (with this level of backup behind him it doesn’t matter as much as it might seem) and now is howling into the night like a deranged mental patient. His lips turn into a rictus smile as he emotes that it might be a day or it might be forever.
The bridge comes early then extends a bit, and while the Kims are taking their cues from Kurt and filling, he is doing nothing with the extra time he’s made except a five count of sharp, staccato exhales. Several people in real time comment online that they were reminded of the climatic moment during the “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” cover on the Unplugged album. He has a phrase that he needs to repeat five times itself to get to the end, but for most of them he’s away from the mic and screaming so loud he’s being picked up just fine anyhow. Not at the crowd. Not at the Kims. Not at Grohl. In this circumstance, it becomes less a complaint lodged from the weak to the strong and almost a dare for lightning to strike twice. It is nearly thirty years to the date, after all. With the last “take everything!” Kurt turns the latter word into a five-syllable twelve-second work with a final scream, and suddenly throws the Gibson off his body and lets it fall to the stage in front of the drum riser.
And then, in the moments after, the Picture Reblogged Around The World. Several thousand vantage points of this are all over the Internet but it needs the professional AP backstage shot done north-south and not a fan’s vantage point from east to west to really capture the tableau.
It’s not the look of admiration on Thayil’s face in the background as he walks up behind Kurt. It’s not the side of the black-dressed Kim Deal running towards him and her own guitar left in the dust.
It’s the face of Kurt Cobain as he’s bent over with his hands on his thighs gasping for air looking as if that bus just missed hitting him by inches and it is only now registering to him.
“When you changed the line to 16 above and one below, what were you thinking?”
A silence comes over the table. For several moments, a spoon scrapes against the inside of the glass and Cobain doesn’t even look up when the answer finally comes.
“Something along the lines of ‘all the times I tried to kill myself and Courtney got it right the first time out’.”
While further inquiries into this line of questioning go flaccid, with the help of myriad police reports as well as journal entries from Cobain’s book, we can roughly piece together the events of that mid-April day.
Cobain had made several attempts to kill himself in the month previous, and as a result of his heroin addiction, everything was falling away from him. Rumors swirled thick in the air at the time about the extent of his self-abuse and the fact that Nirvana was either breaking up (per scuttlebutt) or on hiatus while Cobain got his stomach problems settled (per their management). In addition to that, the tempestuous marriage with fellow addict Love, new baby or not, was hitting a low, and rumors of divorce were in the air at the time as well.
In the previous week, Cobain had gone out to the greenhouse on the family’s property with a shotgun and paper and pen in hand, as well as a small boom box playing R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People; however, he had also gotten high on heroin, and as he overdosed, the end of the note got away from him. Emerging from the hospital a week and a half later, Love berated Cobain for having to save his life again. While it’s unsure if sixteen is the exact number, it’s well known from several sources close to the former couple that she had saved his life from other overdoses on multiple occasions. The afternoon of this particular argument, things turned angry quickly upon Cobain’s return, and their final argument broke out. When it began they were on opposite sides of the room, and when it ended a gun that also had Cobain’s fingerprints on it – from some of the previous attempts as well as this, their final fight on the 16th – was in Courtney’s right hand, having successfully blown her brains across the kitchen and even leaving streaks running down their refrigerator.
Kurt called 911, and then after questioning by the Seattle Police Department, was let go the next evening.
And with that, almost three decades away began. April 16th is brought up four times, and Cobain refuses to talk about it on any occasion. However, he is willing – to an extent – to talk about his time after that.
“Got to Vancouver, and then I could still see Seattle, so I got on another flight.” The macaroni and cheese in front of him gets pushed around a bit but uneaten. “When that happened and I couldn’t see Seattle anymore, that felt nice. So I got on a few more planes.”
As it turns out Cobain spent the better part of the nineties and most of the aughts living in various spots throughout Europe with green contact lenses, hair dyed jet black and under his trusty alias of Bill Bailey. Loath as he is to speak about the understandably traumatic event that sent him out of America, he is more than proud to open a book or two that shows off his Polaroids from his time spent in Minsk, London, Barcelona, Paris, Stockholm, and Lausanne between 1995 and 2005, before he ultimately settled on Oslo as being “so far off the map and so damn cold even if people had an idea of what I looked like they couldn’t begin to find me.”
Maybe he had the right idea after all.
It’s hard not to think that the only reason this moment a few weeks ago became possible was because everyone that’d been part of the Seattle wave had crumbled as if he’d just outpaced an angry fist of history; what should’ve been the glory years of Pearl Jam buried under a Ticketmaster lawsuit and eventually causing them to breakup after the lackluster No Yield, Chris Cornell’s horrifying decision to go solo and lead with a Michael Jackson cover pretty much dooming Soundgarden to punchline status (though Thayil would find a soft landing with the Fighters), the heroin overdose later that year of Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley. Live Through This went platinum eight times over, of course, but that defined end of the line and then some. What world tour was there going to be to support it? There wouldn’t even be stomach for the label to release a third single, let alone a video to follow Miss World. With the rock industry suddenly spinning off of its axis, it was British electronic dance from Fatboy Slim to the Chemical Brothers that went from interesting oddity to everywhere on the dial for years to come.
Even later on in the decade, the ones who seemingly escaped were felled by misfortunes big and small: the biggest and most notorious being Andrew David Parker driving his former U-Haul full of explosives into the main stage at Woodstock ’99 during Rage Against the Machine’s set, killing 337, injuring another 148, and tragically killing the band on impact with the exception of Tom Morello, who was blinded and paralyzed in the terrorist attack, and eventually succumbed despite a valiant effort to overcome his injuries in 2000. (The passing of the Hatch Act in 2001 would virtually end the outdoor rock show festival scene until the second President Clinton would repeal it in early 2010.)
And from across the water, the rechristened Bill Bailey cycled relentlessly.
“It’s a horrible thing to say, well, you left your daughter to get raised by a foster family and within a month of her mom’s suicide you were dosing again because after a couple days off you were throwing up and shitting your pants,” says Cobain after putting away the macaroni and cheese, though the glass will refill with tea a few times. “I just couldn’t deal, man.” His hand runs across his face and though his eyes seem wan momentarily, it passes. “You’d think seeing–” It hangs in the air, but even now actually putting the words together seems beyond his reckoning. “–that unpleasantness would’ve scared me off for good.” He offers up a sarcastic smile familiar to the eye. “But that’s heroin for you.”
Dave Grohl’s laugh comes easy back in America two days prior to the Cobain interview on the other side of the pond.
Everybody knows why at this point, since Grohl is one of the first people to turn the internet and not having a label to one’s advantage back in 2002 when, after some impromptu and inebriated jam sessions with Thayil and his wife a couple years previous, he decided to see if the drunken happy incident had legs as a full-fledged band. His kids run around underfoot, and his hotel suite gives them the space to chase each other in a virtual Mobius strip. So of course he’s not talking about himself — this is, after all, The Week After.
He laughs, then starts, then laughs even harder to the point where he has to wipe tears from his eyes before beginning:
“Shit,” he offers with characteristic candor, “I didn’t even know Kurt could spell Norway. But I figured it was worth a shot, y’know? You start dreaming that level of ridiculousness, it’s like, it’s like you might as well ask. Why not ask for a pet unicorn for Christmas, right? What are the fucking odds? And what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t get this impossible thing? You go on living? So when I found out a few months ago, I hesitated. I know how he is.”
For the first time, there’s doubt in Grohl’s eyes.
“Or how he was, anyway. But nothing happens for months and then this guy is writing back to me, you know?” Again, the easy laugh. “If I hadn’t forgotten that fake name he would’ve surprised me, too. I sent him a letter back and wanted…I wanted one more time, at least. Tons of people did. And like I said, since I didn’t think I was going to get it, I felt perfectly fine in asking for it.”
Grohl also mentions that he’d reached out to former Nirvana guitarist Krist Novoselic, but didn’t hear back from him “for pretty obvious reasons”. (Sen. Novoselic’s office failed to get in touch before press time to Rolling Stone’s inquiries.) When asked how he found Cobain after these years, it is the one thing Grohl refuses to answer. Follow-up questions asking if Frances was the link not only get unanswered by him, but in the subsequent interview it also falls under the purview of things Kurt leaves unanswered. His daughter, as she has been since the dawn of the millennium, expresses nothing via way of words to the press and merely extends middle fingers to photographers. Her dad would probably be proud of her; the time away from the spotlight hasn’t made him suddenly verbose, though he is slightly less guarded than he was before.
“As I got myself clean a couple years ago, I just thought about how much bullshit I’d let go by, y’know? I didn’t realize I’d be back on a stage, but I’d picked up a guitar again. Really, my main thing as I got sober and managed to stay sober was to get back into painting. Nobody gave a shit if Bill Bailey painted something and I’d been having fun doing it before everything went nuts. Actually, I’d been debating if I should sell some oil paintings I was working on under my other name.”
The handful of paintings completed are both beautiful and horrifying – minotaurs using a human being for a piñata, et al – and seem to ride the line between outsider art and standard oil painting. “Getting addicted to cookies is one thing. After everything I threw at me, that’s nothing. Plenty of room to walk out here and enjoy the air – at least there was.” He taps against the tabletop, lining up his thoughts. One suspects with that modifier that there may be another European city to come on his journey if he doesn’t come back to center stage given that now people know where he is, whether he’s generally being a recluse or not.
“All the shit I used to worry about, and now that I’m clean most of it’s gone. Hell, all of it might be gone. Long gone, really. All the time I spent worrying about MTV, like anybody knows what the fuck that is anymore. Other bands, and most of them’re gone too.” (Billy Corgan refused to comment on the record as well, but on the Smashing Pumpkins’ website the day after Cobain’s performance put up a brief and generally positive statement hoping that ‘last night was a sign of things to come’.) “Record labels, the press, and I look back on it now with a relatively clear head and I’m just…stunned at how much petty shit I got into and how far I let it go. Can’t blame it all on being an addict, either. I was wired that way, anyhow. It all used to be the center of my being and now I can barely place a name with the problem.”
Cobain looks outside his window, the fork clattering against a clear plate. For the better part of 90 minutes he’s been dodging two relatively important questions, and while he dodges one, he is willing to offer a honest but cloudy response to the other one.
“I know it’d be easier if I just said I was back. But for me to say that would be a lie. It’s a different thing to go out and do something like that for 20 minutes against four months or whatever. And the moment was really pure, no matter how off I was. Trying to recapture that…I might as well be trying to fit an elephant in a jar.”
But days before in Virginia Beach, as Grohl noodled around with husband/wife openers Jack & Meg White of the Raconteurs, he had a much more direct answer as to what the future may hold.
“I think we–I think I can get him back. Even if we have to coddle him through one more go-round just so we can finally close that chapter. I’m not usually gung ho about reunion shows, but this one — I hate to say it, but it feels like it almost needs to happen. Like it’s…like it’s destiny, really! It’s all up to him, of course, but if you’re asking just me? I’m with what seems to be fortyleven quadrillion rock fans out there. I think we should give it one more go-round and do it.”
The drumstick spins in his hand. and he offers up a smirk.
“Hell, I can do it.”
He offers up a wry grin.
“Keep in mind, it might take me until 2053 –but I can do it.”