It was 20 years ago, but I remember it clearly: April 8, 1994, the day the world found out that Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain was dead.
It was mid morning. A light rain was falling outside the KUOW newsroom when the old Associated Press machine’s bulletin dinged. That was our cue that the wire services had picked up something important.
This time it was more rumor than fact: A Seattle radio station was reporting that a body had been discovered in the garage outside the home Cobain shared with his wife, Courtney Love, and their baby daughter. The radio station did not say whose body it was.
At that time I had done a lot of reporting on Seattle’s music scene for National Public Radio. I used to joke I was the oldest living rock reporter (I was 40 at the time). I put in a phone call to my editor in Washington, D.C., to let him know about the rumors. Both of us wanted to jump on the story, but both of us wanted to be cautious. We had no official confirmation from police that Cobain was dead. Nevertheless, his fans began to gather outside the Madrona neighborhood house as soon as they heard the radio bulletins.
It was amazing how fast the word spread, in those days before social media and email. Radio stations, including KUOW, broke into regular programming to announce the shocking news. NPR told me they wanted a story to run that evening. I had two hours to pull something together.
My first telephone call was to Charles Cross. He edited Seattle’s weekly music periodical, The Rocket. In a recent conversation, Cross told me he and his staff had been working on a cover story about Love. They had been having problems pinning the mercurial singer down. He didn’t find out about Cobain’s suicide from a radio announcer.
"The phone rang," recalled Cross. "It was a guy from local radio station KXRX, and he said, 'an electrician called us, there’s a body discovered at Kurt Cobain’s house.'" Cross can still remember holding the telephone away from his ear, thinking "it can’t be him, it can’t be Cobain."
Cross had the bleak task of replacing Love’s cover photo with one of her late husband. The music writer and editor hadn’t really given a lot of thought to Cobain’s legacy at that point. But journalists were calling him from all over the country.
He was forced to take stock of Nirvana’s place in the popular music pantheon. Cross told me at the time that Cobain was one of the most serious songwriters to come out of the area’s alternative music scene. “He was very concerned about the lyrics and about what his songs meant,” Cross said in that 1994 NPR story.
Cobain and his band Nirvana had topped the world pop charts with the album “Nevermind” and its breakout single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Cross, who went on to write the Cobain biography, “Heavier Than Heaven,” told me that song was never expected to sell more than a couple thousand copies.
One Nirvana fan who huddled in the drizzle outside Cobain’s house that day compared the musician to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. “I think the music will sell really well now, because he’s dead,” he stated bluntly.
That was a prescient thought. In the years since Cobain’s death, Nirvana recordings have continued to attract new audiences. Cross says now he believes it’s because the songwriter had the ability to speak his own heart and make those words resonate with his audience.
Two days after Cobain’s body was discovered, 10,000 fans gathered around the International Fountain at Seattle Center to mourn him. It was a spontaneous outpouring of grief, capped with an appearance by Love, who read from her husband’s suicide letter.
Twenty years later, Cobain, a young man from Aberdeen, Wash., has become synonymous with his adopted home, Seattle. Although Cross believes Cobain was shaped by the hard scrabble culture of Aberdeen, where he grew up, the writer says Cobain was the perfect Seattle star.
“He would have been mobbed by paparazzi in Los Angeles,” reflects Cross. “In Seattle, people left him alone.” Left him alone but cheered when "Nevermind" went platinum, or when Nirvana made the cover of Rolling Stone. They’ll cheer once again when the band is finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the April 10 ceremony in New York.