Nirvana: The Final Scream
Originally printed in Guitar World, November 2008
March 1, 1994 - Munich, Germany
If there was a beginning of the end of Kurt Cobain’s short life, that final chapter most certainly began in February 1994. Nirvana were touring Europe, promoting their 1993 album, In Utero, and trying to plan the rest of their tour schedule for the summer. Though Kurt had reluctantly agreed to do the European leg of the tour, he began the trip with the motivation that he was promoting a record he was proud of. The first few shows of the tour had been terrific, even if Kurt was already complaining of a sore throat. Problems with his throat necessitated three visits to doctors in the first week. In truth, the larger health crisis was that he had difficulty finding drugs in Europe, and that had soured his mood and affected his health. Cobain’s withdrawal was bad enough that he was forced to take prescription drugs to help him cope.
But in Paris on February 13, Cobain’s typical melancholy mood turned into something that in retrospect was a harbinger of doom. The band agreed to do a photo session on its off day with a photographer they had known for years, Youri Lenquette. Cobain considered Lenquette a friend, which is why he had agreed to the session at a point in his career where he rarely did promotional work. It was no surprise that Kurt refused to smile during the session, but when he found a BB gun in Lenquette’s studio, the gun turned into the focal point of the sitting. Lenquette later recalled trying to convince Kurt to put the gun down, but Kurt insisted that it be included in the photos. The gun looked remarkably like a firearm, but it was merely something Lenquette kept in his studio as a prop and as a sort of joke.
To the photographer and the other two members of Nirvana, Cobain’s fascination with the pistol was anything but humorous. He kept playing with the gun, put it to his temple and mimed pulling the trigger. He completed the act by pretending his head was reacting to the bullet. It was suggested again that Kurt put the gun down, but he ignored that plea and insisted that Lenquette take a photograph. For Lenquette it was a difficult situation: he had the most famous rock star in the world posing outrageously, but the poses seemed in bad taste. Still, the photographer kept shooting. In one picture taken that day, Kurt inserted the barrel of the pistol into his mouth. The pictures were widely published after his death.
That Kurt Cobain would pose with a gun in his mouth—in front of a photographer whosold pictures to news agencies worldwide—is indicative of how far things had gone downhill. Early in his career, Cobain was a master at controlling and manipulating his image, even directing photographers to shoot him from certain angles. Cobain always vamped it up for photo sessions and had been photographed with guns before, but the grotesque nature of the Paris photos suggested something beyond simple punk rock cynicism—it reflected desperation, nihilism and a larger death wish that was playing itself out in every aspect of Kurt’s life. He simply didn’t care anymore about anything: not his health, band or the public image he had once valued so dearly.
Kurt didn’t pull any real triggers that day in Paris, but as the tour wound through Europe, he began an almost daily ritual of visiting a doctor in whatever town the band was passing through. He complained of stomach problems, back problems and throat pain, but most of his ailments were due to drug withdrawal. Much of Europe viewed drug addiction compassionately as a sickness, in contrast to the United States, where it was considered a moral failing. Many European doctors would prescribe opiates in pill form to help addicts suffering from withdrawals. Still, finding a physician so inclined was a hit-or-miss proposition, particularly in cities where Nirvana had never toured before. In Barcelona, Kurt visited one doctor, and when that failed to produce the desired results, he visited another later in the same day. In Paris, he visited one physician twice; the next day, in Rennes, he saw yet another.
How many of Kurt’s physical problems were related to his addiction and how may were separate issues could never be determined. By that point in his life, it was all intertwined. When he took the more illicit route and bought drugs on the streets, he couldn’t risk taking them across a border, so he was able to use only enough to get over the day’s withdrawal. It wasn’t a matter of seeking euphoria—drugs had long ago failed to give Kurt a high. It was simply a matter of staving off vomiting, fever and the shakes.
On February 20, on a day that saw the band traveleing from Switzerland to Modena, Italy, Kurt turned 27. There was little celebration on the tour bus. His manager, John Silva, gave Kurt a carton of cigarettes as a present. Cobain joked to the crew that his manager was trying to kill him, but considering his own health, cigarettes were hardly his biggest worry. February 24 was Kurt and Courtney’s second anniversary, but they were not together. Kurt put off any celebrating—he had planned that for later in the month when they were together—and played a show in Milan, which was issued as a bootleg. It may have represented the last decent Nirvana show, as the group tore through 22 songs over 90 minutes. Kurt was clearly struggling with his voice, but the punk part of Nirvana’s sound was still strong, and the crowd loved them.