It is an interesting coincidence that the respective coroners’ reports for Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley place both of their deaths on April 5, and that they were born within six months of each other just before the Summer of Love. Yet these two Seattle icons made dramatically different exits. Kurt went out with a bang in 1994, while Layne slowly faded away, finally disappearing completely in 2002.
They were suffering saints in my formative, pube-sprouting years, and I enshrined their brooding images in my superstar iconography. Inspired by rock n’ roll fantasies, I steeled my will against the Christ to whom eunuchs bow, tasted 31 flavors of fucked up, and my grandmother even gave me an old maroon cardigan to match my long blond hair. Monkey see, monkey do. The result was the long-awaited loss of my virginity to an avid Hole fan and constant harassment from rednecks at school. Thanks, Grandma.
Then my heroes killed themselves. I never had to really miss Kurt or Layne, though, because the cd-player kept their souls spinning and drowned out the noise of the outside world. Those songs still bring back memories from my childhood.
Kurt Cobain was a lonesome, sensitive child. His parents always bickered with each other when he needed attention, leaving him to his only friends—an imaginary specter named “Boddah” and his gay pal from school, Myer Loftin. Naturally, he was bullied by local yokels for maintaining the latter relationship, setting him squarely against the surly sons of loggers and their masculine redneck values.
Kurt faced a cruel, predatory cosmos throughout those early years in Aberdeen, WA. It was a world populated with judgemental adults and their ruthless, piranha-like spawn, where harsh criticism and bathroom bitch-slappings lurked around every corner—a world which Cobain would never make peace with.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised if they voted me Most Likely to Kill Everyone at a High School Dance[,]” he mused years later. “[B]ut I’m sure I would opt to kill myself first.”
Nothing seemed to satisfy the young man, so he left the comfort of home to seek enlightenment in the gutter. He bummed change like a wandering mendicant, did cheap drugs, surfed couches, and occasionally slept underneath the bridge. This bitter taste set him apart from the flavorless middle-class and their wealthy overlords.
Legend has it that Kurt bought his first amplifier with his father’s guns. His mother had tossed them into the river after a vicious domestic dispute, and Kurt fished them out to take them to the pawn shop. After a brief spell with a punk band called Skid Row, Cobain formed Nirvana with bassist Chris Novoselic, playing a particularly angsty variation of quirky garage rock which resonated with the wayward youth of Seattle.
In 1989 Nirvana was signed to the Sub Pop label, where they enjoyed moderate underground success. Kurt wrote in his journal, “Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want. Nirvana means freedom from pain and suffering in the external world and thats [sic] close to my definition of punk rock.”
Cobain’s choice of band names is compelling. The original Sanskrit term simply means “to extinguish the flame,” as in the flames of desire. The Buddha used the word “nirvana” to describe the state of Enlightenment which frees the soul from this miserable karmic cycle of endless reincarnation.
The Buddha taught four Noble Truths, which come off to many Westerners as being extremely emo:
- Everything is suffering.
- Suffering is caused by desire, which chains every being to fleeting pleasures—and the subsequent sorrow of loss.
Food? Fighting? Fucking? Friendship? Family? Freedom? Feelings? Fuggedaboutit!
- The only way to end suffering is to end desire—to extinguish the flame.
- To end desire, one must obtain Enlightenment through the Eightfold Path:
According to the Buddha, there are no Absolutes to cling to—no heaven, no soul, no God. The Universe is plagued by eternal Entropy, and the only hope is to escape. For Cobain, there was only one way out.
In 1991 Nirvana released Nevermind, and the teenage universe was suddenly cloaked in lumberjack flannel. The album—featuring an infant swimming toward a fishing hook baited with a pistol—eventually sold over 25 million copies worldwide, knocking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous into the Abyss of Not-Number 1. When not completely obtuse, the lyrics were sorrowful, paranoid, and incurably cynical.
Immediately, MTV cameras revolved around Kurt’s face like black-eyed cherubs. Rolling Stone indulged every painful memory and complaint. Teenagers across the globe were inspired to lament their own pathetic lives before they even graduated highschool. They were goaded to buck the fascist trends of corporate America by buying alternative commodities, and a few were even moved to blow their own heads off after Cobain’s suicide.
Kurt wasn’t trying to be a trend-setter, though. He surveyed the sea of Cobain-clones before him, and it made him sick to his stomach. Literally. The waifish, chain-smoking singer suffered from chronic gastroenteritis, which he medicated with heroin until his dying day. Burning guts. Nausea. Loss of appetite. Vomiting. Constipation. Mud-butt. All was suffering for poor Kurt, and the grunge crowd doted over his every tummy ache.
Kurt despised their sympathy, and claimed to hate the fame. He didn’t want “to be a fucking spokesman” for MTV’s alternative marketing scheme. Like the black-clad anarchists gathering in the Pacific Northwest in the 90s, he wanted to break the constraints of “evil corporate Oppressors” with Universal Enlightenment. In his wildest fantasies, Kurt was ready to start a Revolution, even if that meant breaking a few eggs.
One of the drawings in Cobain’s posthumously published journals shows a camoflage-clad soldier wearing a football helmet dangling from a noose. In one passage, he states (with grammatical errors left unedited):
“I am in absolute and total support of: homosexuality, drug use, in experimentation (although I am living proof of harmful results from over indulgence) Anti oppression, ie (religion, racism, sexism, censorship and patriotism) creativity thru music, art, journalism, Love, friendship, family, animals and full scale violently organized, terrorist-fueled revolution.
“You cannot de-program the Glutton.
“It would be nice to see the gluttons become so commonly hunted down that eventually they will either submit to the oppposite of their ways or be scared shitless to ever leave their homes[...]
“Arm yourself, find a representative of Gluttony or oppression and blow the motherfuckers head off.”
In a letter to Tobi Vail (drummer for Bikini Kill) composed just after the recording of Nevermind, Kurt wrote (without corrections):
“Yeah, all Isms feed off one another, but at the top of the food chain is still the white, corporate, macho, strong ox male. Not redeemable as far as im concerned[...]
“But there are thousands of green minds, young gullable 15 year old Boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what theyve been told of what man is supposed to be, and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment[...]
“We can pose as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system to start its rot from the inside[...] And the hairy, sweaty, macho, sexist dickheads will soon drown in a pool of razorblades and semen, stemmed from the uprising of their children[...]
“The revolution will be televised[...]
“As you may have guessed by now Ive been taking a lot of drugs lately It might be time for the Betty Ford Clinic or the Richard Nixon library to save me from abusing my enemic, rodent-like body any longer.”
Drug addiction would take precedence over any of Cobain’s revolutionary aims. As with the Buddha, the world hit Kurt like a hot kiss on a raw nerve, and he was eager to subsume all earthly desires under one.
In February 1992 Kurt married Courtney Love, the brash, bitchy frontwoman for the feminist fatale rock band, Hole—which was a much more appropriate title than her own surname. Love was also a junky, happy to slave over a hot spoon for her husband. It is telling that Kurt seemed to intentionally misspell the drug’s name in his journals, calling it “heroine.”
During one of the Buddha’s sermons, an earnest seeker asked the Awakened One, “What is Enlightenment?” The Buddha simply smiled and held up a flower. It must have been a red poppy.
The junky’s pursuit of Nirvana is like an opioid variation on the Eightfold Path.
- Right Understanding: Opiates can kill the pain of desire, if only for a moment.
- Right Intention: Seek a fix to annihilate one’s Self.
Not long after Kurt and Courtney’s daughter, Francis Bean, was born, an interviewer for Vanity Fair reported that Courtney had shot heroin while pregnant. The public reacted with disgust, and Francis Bean was soon taken into state custody for a short time. Unable to stem the tide of media criticism, Kurt and Courtney resorted to leaving violent threats on journalists’ answering machines. Despite the couple’s erratic behavior, they were awarded custody of their daughter in early 1993.
While he was disgusted with the world, Kurt was fascinated by childbirth. His last album, released in 1993, was called In Utero (though he originally intended to call it I Hate Myself and Want to Die.) He was obsessed with the ability of male seahorses to bear children, and famously said: “Holding my baby is the best drug in the world. I don’t want my daughter to grow up with people telling her that her parents were junkies.”
The situation quickly deteriorated from there. Police were called to the Cobains’ Seattle home a number of times in 1993. On one visit they confiscated an arsenal of Kurt’s guns, which he claimed were for personal protection. On another occasion he was arrested for assaulting Courtney—who had quite a reputation for beating the shit out of her lovers as well. The Cobains’ nanny and various others close to the couple have claimed that Kurt was making plans to cut Courtney out of his will and file for divorce.
Nirvana embarked on a tour later that year, which ended abruptly in March 1994, after Kurt overdosed on Roofies and childrens’ sleeping pills in Italy. He was promptly flown back to America and checked into an LA rehab facility—from which he escaped over the fence. For days, Kurt Cobain was missing. Courtney Love even hired a private investigator, Tom Grant, to look for her husband.
Kurt was finally found by a maintenance man on April 8, 1994, behind the locked door of “the greenhouse” above the garage of the singer’s home in Seattle. A 20-gauge Remington shotgun was cradled in his arms, and a hole was blown through his head. There were syringes, baggies, and enough heroin to kill a small horse in his veins. No fingerprints were found on the gun or the bullets. A farewell letter addressed to his imaginary friend “Boddah” was placed beside his body.
Like Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pete Ham, and Seattle riot grrrl Mia Zapata, Kurt Cobain was 27 when he died.
Conspiracy theories abound. Some see an assassination by greedy record industry executives, who sold Nirvana albums at a rate of 50,000 a day in the wake of Cobain’s death. Tom Grant, P.I. believes that his former employer, Courtney Love, had her husband killed to secure her inheritance. Curiously, Hole’s new album was released two weeks later, entitled Live Through This.
On April 10 a crowd estimated at up to 10,000 gathered in Seattle’s Space Needle Park to pay homage to their newly christened rock star martyr. A recording of Courtney Love was played over a sound system, in which she alternately read portions of Kurt’s alleged suicide note, wept, and incited the crowd to deride her late husband for being so selfish. The devout followers burnt their flannel shirts, called their fallen angel an “asshole” in unison, and at least sixty-eight copycat suicides were recorded worldwide.
The last lines of Kurt’s letter to “Boddah” are particularly insightful:
I’m too much of an erratic, moody baby! I don’t have the passion anymore and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
peace, love, Empathy,
Like Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley came to be portrayed as a Seattle-spawned Opiate Icon. But unlike Cobain—about whom many millions of words have been composed—Staley’s life languished in obscurity. Many argue that Layne’s exacting musicianship far outpaced Cobain’s sloppy style, and that he did not receive the commemoration he deserved. Perhaps if Layne had gone out in an equally dramatic fashion, he would have become a celebrated dead rock star like Kurt. But whereas Cobain talked about hating the media while occupying the spotlight, Staley actually preferred to remain in the shadows, where he slowly slipped out of existence.
Like many of the kids who came to worship him, Layne had a sorry start in life, growing up in Kirkland, WA. As with Cobain, his father left when he was only seven, an abandonment that would haunt the boy into adulthood. When Layne finally did reconnect with his estranged father—after the old man saw his son in a magazine—Layne encountered a withered junky who used his now-famous son to stay high.
Layne was attracted to the sex and drugs in rock n’ roll from the start. “I wanted to do blow, and I wanted to have those babes under my arms,” he said candidly during his last interview with Rolling Stone in 1996. “I didn’t know what blow was, and I didn’t know what sex was, but it looked impressive to me because it was written in [a rock music] magazine.”
He wasted no time pursuing his dream. After high school, Layne began playing in various glam bands before meeting guitarist Jerry Cantrell in 1987. They worked on a few different projects together, eventually moving away from the 80s metal sound with Alice in Chains’ first album, appropriately entitled We Die Young, in 1990. This was followed by the release of Facelift later that year—which would go double platinum.
Their second LP, Dirt, is generally considered to be Staley’s brooding masterpiece, even though most of the lyrics were written by Jerry Cantrell. The album sold over six million copies, and remains one of the most influential albums of the 90s—after which every frontman began singing out of his tonsils. It was soon followed by the sorrowful Jar of Flies, which was actually the first EP to go platinum in the US. Staley contributed most of the lyrics on that album. The meloncholy songs lull the listener into a contemplative stillness, and paint a desperate picture of a man whose innocence and joy has all but dried up.
It was Layne’s work with Mad Season in 1995, however, that yields the most insight into his state of mind. Even the cover art was his own illustration. You might call the mellow music “crackhead blues”: songs about addiction, depression, and the disappointment that accompanies false religion. It was a surprising success, selling more than a million copies.
Unfortunately, success was not as kind to Staley’s soul as it was his bank account. It didn’t take long for the excess to wear him down. “If I ever got a gold record, I was going to do my first line of coke on that. I had a great time riding around in limos and eating lobster and gettin’ laid[...] But I can’t physically or mentally live in that lifestyle constantly.”
Layne even claimed to have had a couple of near-death experiences which he thought might turn his life around. “I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of where I was going to go if I did not follow through with [sobriety.] That makes me sad for my friends who have taken their own lives, because I know that if your time is not finished here, and you end it yourself, then you gotta finish it somewhere else.”
This was to be Staley’s last magazine interview before dwindling into obscurity. He would lose his long-time girlfriend, Demri Parrott, to a drug-related bacterial infection later that year. After this, he simply withered away.
By 2002 he was living in Seattle’s notoriously drug-saturated U District. He became a complete shut-in, flushed with cash, and his only visitors were basically his drug dealers. His body was shattered, and his teeth had rotted down to black gums. With one foot in the grave, he denied his body according to the Eightfold Path of the Junky.
- Right Speech: Gets you the right amount for the right price.
- Right Action: Keeps your dealers from thinking you are a narc.
- Right Livelihood: Brings in enough income to get you to the next fix.
“My liver is not functioning and I’m throwing up and shitting my pants,” he told biographer Adriana Rubio, about three months before succumbing. “I know I’m near death. I did crack and heroin for years. I know I have no chance. It’s too late.”
On April 20 the police kicked in his door after neighbors complained of a horrible smell. They found Staley surrounded in drug paraphernalia, having been dead for at least two weeks. He was 34. Like so many before and after, he had turned his back on the world in pursuit of liberation. His family and friends were devastated. Incidentally, Layne’s last visitor, former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, died about a month ago from a methadone overdose on March 8.
“I believe there’s a wonderful place to go after this life,” Layne had said back in ’96, “and I don’t believe there’s eternal damnation for anyone. I’m not into religion, but I have a good grasp of my spirituality.”
- Right Effort: Measure out the perfect amount for a good hit.
- Right Mindfulness: Cook the goods slowly so you lose the cut but not the rush.
- Right Concentration: Tie off, plunge the needle, and lay back in eager anticipation as the flames of desire flicker out.
© 2011 Joseph Allen
Nirvana — “Lake of Fire”
Mad Season — “River of Deceit”
*[4-6-11 Ed. note: Some minor editing has occured since the original post.]