Most point to Cobain's heroin addiction or depression as the reason for the Nirvana front man's suicide in 1994, but those explanations are overly simplistic and often unfairly imply blame on Cobain's widow, Love.
While the couple's relationship could be toxic, and Love certainly enabled Cobain's heroin use, as the less dependent user, Love was the one responsible for dealing with Cobain's overdoses. And Cobain overdosed a lot.
Disgraceland: A Rock 'n' Roll True Crime Podcast by Jake Brennan returns for its third season with Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love: No Direction Home, a revealing and uncomfortably detailed two-part look at an unlikely American sweetheart and his thoroughly vilified wife. On part 1, Brennan takes a deep dive into the phenomenon that was America's overnight initiation into the cult of grunge and the toxic roller coaster that was Cobain and Love's relationship.
By 1992, Cobain had become the biggest rock star in the world. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had spun pop culture, fashion and the music industry on their collective heads. Nirvana was at the vanguard of a revolution in rock and roll the likes of which hadn't been seen since the 1960s. Cobain was miserable.
"He was born in dysfunction, and as a child was rejected by his family, his community and society at large," Brennan says. "He never had a chance."
To be so abruptly wanted by everyone, to be almost universally lauded, to see people calling his look a 'style' and suddenly copying it — it was confusing, it felt temporary, it seemed insincere and far too much like everything he had learned to reject.
Cobain turned to heroin for the same reason many people turn to opioids — to self-medicate. He was in constant pain due to a stomach issue that was likely psychosomatic, but that didn't mean it wasn't real.
"It bared similar symptoms to the worst aspects of every stomach ailment you know of, IBS, ulcers, rumination disorder. Certainly this pain demanded something stronger than more milk and laxatives."
Heroin also provided an escape, to nothingness, oblivion.
"He knew that no other drug ... had the power to suppress the deep feelings of loneliness and rejection he'd carried with him since adolescence."
Cobain began shooting heroin around the same time Nirvana started out.
Rather than going out with friends after milestone accomplishments like performing on Saturday Night Live or after Nevermind knocked Michal Jackson's Dangerous off the No. 1 album spot on Billboard, Cobain celebrated with heroin.
Cobain overdosed after Nirvana's legendary SNL performance. Love saved his life that night, as she had many other times when she awakened to find her then-fiancé in a heroin-induced stupor.
"It was all routine to her, she'd saved his life before and would save his life again. It was a process he'd grown accustomed to, grown to depend on. It was familiar, like home."
Listen to Part 1 via the player above or on iHeartRadio.
Nirvana might have been an overnight success as far as mainstream culture was concerned, but the band spent years laying the groundwork for Nevermind, the band's second album, to bloom into the cultural sledgehammer it became.
That meant making a racket in mostly empty bars all over the world, paying their dues, smelling their own BO and wondering if there would be sympathetic homes to return to when the tour was over and they were out of money.
Cobain's appearance belied his work ethic and his drive to succeed. While his look was literally effortless, Cobain's songs were not. Every setback just meant he had to work harder, Nirvana had to get better. And it did.
Fame was scary, and having his face plastered on billboards and magazine covers around the world made it hard to be anonymous. Simple joys like dropping by a record store or grabbing a pack of cigarettes from the store became impossible.
"Kurt had what he wanted: success. But it was not what he expected. With the help of MTV and the strength of the surreal and captivating video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' his band had become so popular, so mainstream that now, the same log-headed mustachioed, rednecks who beat him up and ridiculed him back in Aberdeen, to Kurt, all different versions of his mother's ex-boyfriends, were now card-carrying members of the Nirvana fan club."
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