Dateline / NBC
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Dateline NBC
updated 4/5/2004 11:40:19 AM ET 2004-04-05T15:40:19

It ended and began with his death. Ten years ago, on April 8, 1994, the spokesman for an angst-ridden generation, rock singer Kurt Cobain, was found dead in his house in Seattle. It was an apparent suicide. 

Brilliant and fatalistic, the lead singer of Nirvana helped popularize grunge, underground rock music which his band brought into the mainstream. Journalists Max Wallace and Ian Halperin have written extensively about Kurt Cobain.

Ian Halperin: “To this day, Kurt's legacy definitely lives on.”

Matt Lauer: “Tell me why it was that people connected so much with Kurt Cobain. Not what it was about his death. What was it about his life?”

Halperin: “He's reaching out really to the downtrodden of society, or the average Joe on the street who wants to look up to his lyrics and his music and say, hey this man is talking my language.”

Cobain left behind his wife Courtney Love, the outrageous front woman of the band, Hole, and their baby daughter, Frances Bean. It marked the end of what looked like a classic tale of rock and roll success and excess. 

Wallace: “She said they bonded over pharmaceuticals.”

Lauer: “Talk to me a little bit about drugs, and the role they played in their lives together and individually”

Halperin: “There was a very heavy drug connection. They just lived the life of true rock and rollers.”


They had the perfect outsider credentials. He came from a broken blue-collar home in rural Washington. She's the daughter of an heiress and a hippie writer, manager of a band that became The Grateful Dead. She had a troubled childhood, spending time at juvenile hall. At 16, she was a stripper. For both, music was their getaway.

A rock and roll union
By the time they married in 1992, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had become the glamorous, infamous, golden couple of their era,  a tattered Taylor and Burton.

Todd Gold, senior editor for People Magazine interviewed Love for people's upcoming 30th anniversary edition.

Gold: “Kurt and Courtney as a couple, symbolized everything about the slacker generation… They had the world at their fingertips and were tortured drug addicts. Theirs was a relationship you know, filled with conflict.”

Personal trauma seesawed with professional success. In January 1992, Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live and their albums sold in the millions.

Even after death, Cobain's music still resonates. Two Nirvana albums released posthumously, including one recorded from a 1993 MTV Unplugged, have sold a total of more than five million copies. And since Cobain's death, his widow Courtney Love has reinvented herself from surly baby doll to punk princess to glossy movie star. She became a gifted actress, praised for her performance in "The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Drugs seemed to be a thing of the past, something she didn't want to talk about, as she made clear in this 1997 interview on the Today Show:

NBC's Jamie Gangel: “There is the drug use. The heroin scenes.”
Courtney Love: “Where are you going with this. You can't do this. I'll walk off I mean I really will. I'm not going to do this on the Today Show, I'm just not.”

Courtney Love, it seemed, had moved on.

Gold: “Courtney has the stuff that legends are made of. She's charismatic, she's dangerous, she's smart, she's sexy.”

Courtney Love's downward sprial
But lately, there seems to have been another change. Since late last year, Courtney Love seems to be hurtling full-throttle towards self-destruction.


Arrested in October 2003 for allegedly trying to break into her ex-boyfriend's house, she was charged with being under the influence of a controlled substance. Hours later, she reportedly overdosed on the prescription painkiller oxycontin, and was charged with possession. Love denies the charges against her. Within a week, she'd lost custody of her daughter, Frances, now 11. Love is embroiled in a custody battle over Frances with Cobain's mother.

Gold: “Courtney's fighting inner demons at the moment. And she's doing it in public. And it's frightening. She's careening around like an out-of-control car.”

Then last month, there was a raunchy rampage. In one wild night, she seemed to unravel. First there was an impromptu peep show on David Letterman, and later that evening, performing at a concert, Love allegedly threw a microphone stand into the audience. One man's head was gashed open. There was another arrest, another charge.

At a concert the following night, Love allegedly dove into the crowd, sending a photographer to the hospital claiming a bruised neck.

Renowned drummer Patty Schemel was a member of Love's band "Hole" for six years.

Patty Schemel: “I think she's hit bottom, and she's continued digging… It scares me to hear what's going to happen next, you know? What's going to be the next headline. “

And just when it seemed that for Love things just couldn’t get any more complicated, there's this:

Lauer: “So who wanted Kurt Cobain dead?”

Wallace: “Courtney Love certainly had a motive.”

In their new book, "Love and Death," Max Wallace and Ian Halperin question whether Cobain's death was really a suicide and if Courtney Love was involved in his death. They are all questions that have dogged her in print and on the Internet since her husband's death.

When well-loved celebrities die, conspiracy theories about how they died often follow. Was Marilyn Monroe murdered? Did Jim Morrison fake his own death? And of course some people believe Elvis is alive.

Schemel: “People want to create someone to blame for what happened. And so they're pointing their finger at Courtney.”

But in this, their second book on the subject, Wallace and Halperin claim they now have pertinent information that will shed new light on the circumstances of Cobain's death.

Wallace: “The source of all the stories about Kurt being suicidal come directly from Courtney Love. Courtney Love telling the press. Courtney Love telling Kurt's friends that he was always suicidal. This is where it all comes from.”

Second book relies on private eye information
They claim that in the months leading up to his death, Cobain, whose songs often touched on depression, was not in fact suicidal. They say Cobain's friends told them that he was happy then, that he was preparing to make drastic changes in his professional and personal life -- changes that also would have affected his wife. The couple's relationship, they say, was collapsing.

Lauer: “It's been described as a turbulent relationship. Was it also a violent relationship?”

Halperin: “Absolutely. As their relationship progressed, it seemed more violence would come out.”

In their new book, the authors rely in part on private eye Tom Grant, a former L.A. County sheriff's deputy. Courtney Love hired Grant a week before Cobain's death when her husband skipped over the wall of a rehab facility in Los Angeles, and disappeared.

Grant: “She was on some type of an upper, and she was very hyperactive. And very animated and very angry.”

He says after talking to Love on the phone, his gut told something in her story didn't jibe.

Grant: “Right away, the very first words to me on the telephone… was a lie.”

Grant says he decided to tape all the phone conversations he had with Courtney Love. 

Lauer: “So basically every time you talked to her on the phone, you were rolling tape?”

Grant: “Right.”

Lauer: “She didn't know that?”

Grant: “Nope.”

A week later, Kurt Cobain was found dead in Seattle. And Tom Grant says he began to suspect Courtney Love might know more than she was letting on. 

Retracing final steps
As of April 7, 1994, Kurt Cobain had been missing for a week. Grant says he went to search for him in the house Cobain shared with his wife. He says he went in with a friend of Cobain's and recorded the search on audiotape. It was dark, at 2:15 a.m., the rain was pouring down. They found nothing.

Grant says Courtney Love asked the two to return to the house later that day to check if Cobain's new shotgun was still in the closet. They drove back there in the dark. There was no trace of a gun and no sign of Cobain. It was later that day, April 8, that the news broke.


Kurt Cobain was found dead in his greenhouse. He was 27. Lying next to him was his drug paraphernalia. One hand still gripped his shotgun. His mouth was the point of entry for the blast. There was a note handwritten on an IHop placemat nearby, a pen jabbed through it. The voice of a generation had been silenced.

Schemel: “It was just really difficult, realizing that I wasn't going to see him anymore was a -- left such an ache.”

Two days later, April 10, thousands of fans poured into a Seattle park for an emotional vigil.  On tape, a tearful Courtney Love read from the suicide note and addressed the crowd.

Grant: “The man died on my watch. He died while I was in the process of trying to find him.”

Grant says in the dark and the rain, he'd missed the greenhouse. But the body had been there all along. It had been there for at least two days, undiscovered.

Grant: “Everything that kept happening here just wasn't making any sense to me. It wasn't adding up. It stunk to high heaven.”

It wasn't until April 13, five days after the body was found, that the medical examiner pronounced Cobain's death a suicide. But Max Wallace and Ian Halperin, claim the Seattle police recorded the death as a suicide at the scene, before conducting a full investigation.

Wallace: “Every division of the Seattle police department concluded it was a suicide while Kurt's body was still laying there.”

Lauer: “All right.  But here's a guy that's a known drug and heroin addict. He injects himself with a huge quantity of heroin. He has a shotgun on his chest. Why shouldn't you believe that's a suicide?”

Wallace: “Yes, he was a junkie. The shotgun was there. What looked like a suicide note. Of course they were going to conclude it was a suicide. They'd already rushed to judgment. They'd already concluded the Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. Case closed.”

Authors insist there is unsettling evidence
But for Wallace and Halperin, the case is far from closed. For six years the authors have claimed that there may have been a conspiracy to murder Cobain. They question the police and medical examiner's findings, hey see inconsistencies in the forensic evidence, in the violent manner of Cobain's death. Have they found new evidence, or are they just seeing what they want to see?

Take for example the level of drugs found in Cobain's system. A Seattle newspaper reported that he was found with Valium and 1.52 milligrams per liter of Heroin in his bloodstream -- three times a lethal dose. 

Wallace and Halperin say Cobain may have been too doped up to fire the shotgun.

Wallace: “The forensic pathologist that we spoke to said that there's no way this guy could have injected a triple lethal dose of heroin into his system, then rolled down his sleeve, put away the drug kit, picked up the shotgun and shot himself. He would have been incapacitated within seconds.

Lauer: “Well, wait but aren't there people you talked to who did say that it was a possibility?”

Wallace: “With heroin, there is no ceiling level. So there's always a very minute possibility that this could have happened.”

But two medical examiners Dateline spoke to said Cobain's tolerance to drugs, acquired through repeated abuse, might have enabled him to turn the gun on himself. Three other medical examiners said the information was inconclusive

And what about the gun, did it offer up any clues? According to the police reports no legible fingerprints were found on the gun cartridge, nor on the pen used to write the note. And mysteriously, there were no prints on the shotgun itself, except where Cobain's hand gripped it in death.

Halperin: “Dead men don't wipe fingerprints off their own guns.“

Still, the authors acknowledge that gun experts say prints can be smudged off a gun when it recoils on firing.

And what about the note, Kurt Cobain's final gasp of poetry? Written in a dense hand, the first part of the note may be addressed to his fans -- "The worst crime I could think of would be to rip people off by faking it."

Then, in the last five lines addressed to Cobain's wife and daughter, the writing veers and magnifies: "Keep going Courtney for Frances..." and ends "I love you" with poignant finality. The authors claim some handwriting analysts state these lines look different from the rest.

Wallace: “They say that the last five lines are written by somebody else or probably written by somebody else.”

Lauer: “Written by someone else, or how about Kurt Cobain who's now just injected himself with a massive dose of heroin and is now taking the pen in his hand?”

Wallace: “They seem pretty clear that it was a different type of handwriting. “It's possible.”

But when Dateline showed the note to four handwriting analysts , one told us that the entire note was written by a single person, and that the printing was similar to other samples of Kurt Cobain's writing. Three said the sample was inconclusive.

Grant says he doesn’t believe Courtney Love forged the suicide note. What Grant claims sounds even more outrageous. He says he suspects Courtney Love had a hand in her husband's death. And he says he found a motive during a conversation with the couple's lawyer, and godmother to their baby.

Grant: “Kurt had called her a few weeks earlier, asking to have Courtney's name taken out of the will. That Courtney had called her a few weeks earlier, asking her to find the meanest, most vicious divorce attorney she could find. Now, of course, I'm seeing motive all over the place here.”

Lauer: “What would Courtney Love's motive be for wanting Kurt Cobain dead?”

Grant: “The oldest motive in the world: money, wealth and fame.”

Grant says in early conversations with Love, she mentioned the possibility of divorce and the prenuptial agreement the couple had signed. He says she worried about the effect a divorce might have on her career.

Grant: “If Kurt were to leave Courtney Love right before her album were to hit the stands, it would just devastate her career. If they were to get a divorce, she'd get, at best, half of everything. If the man commits suicide, she gets it all.”

Hank Harrison is Courtney Love's father. He told Dateline he thinks Love is somehow implicated in Cobain's death, and he's written his own book about it. 

Hank Harrison: “She's a psychopath, she has a sociopathic personality like I do. I don't know who killed him. I know who benefited from his death: my daughter, for one.”

It may not surprise you to learn that father and daughter have been estranged for years. But while Harrison buys the theories, the authorities don't. The Seattle police department told Dateline that Kurt Cobain's death was investigated "very thoroughly.” And a spokesman for the King County medical examiner's office told us that there was no rush to judgment, that "The... medical examiner's office determined the cause and manner of death of Kurt Cobain only after considering all of the evidence.”

Gold: “Courtney Love kill Kurt Cobain? Did she have a hand in any kind of conspiracy to kill Kurt Cobain?  These are favorite topics of you know, fanatics… She denies it. Nobody's able to prove it. The bottom line is she wishes he was alive. It's a sad, sad story.”

Schemel: Simply, that's just ridiculous. Any kind of rumor around that is just completely false. Kurt died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, due to depression and his drug-addiction.”

Courtney Love declined an interview with Dateline. Her attorney told us that Love had no comment and that she categorically denies the allegations. Still, 10 years after his death, the controversial theories about how Kurt Cobain died don't fade away, and there's no shortage of people keeping them alive.

Lauer: “If Kurt Cobain committed suicide, end of story, end of books, you know.  If there's a conspiracy here and there's a murder, you guys come back with your second book.  And there's a lot of money to be made on conspiracy theories.”

Wallace: “Yeah.  Some people could argue that we're just exploiting Kurt's death for our own gain.”

Lauer: “And some people are arguing that.”

Wallace: “That's a fair observation.”

Halperin: “We would not have done a second book if we did not feel there was just this plethora of evidence that had never been released before.”

Patty Schemel told us she thinks Love is hurt by allegations she was involved in Cobain's death.

Schemel: “You know that makes her even sadder. To, you know, have your husband die, commit suicide, and then people blame it on you? I don't know. People are brutal.”

On April 15, Courtney Love faces a hearing on the drug charges against her in California. Four days later, she's due in court in New York, to face misdemeanor assault and reckless endangerment charges stemming from the incident at that concert last month.

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