20 years ago yesterday, Kurt Cobain OD’d on heroin for…like, the 10th or 11th time. Or maybe it was more like the 20th. Or maybe he’d previously OD’d even more frequently than that, it’s kind of hard to tell.
When I was leafing through a book about the young man at the library, it fell open to a page describing an overdose in May 1993, and I thought, “O, well this is way before the Rome concert, this must have been his 1st OD.” Not even close.
Reading the book backwards, I got to the part where he OD’d in the Cedar Sinai hospital shortly after Courtney gave birth to their Frances, was revived, escaped from the hospital, got high, got a gun, and returned to encourage his wife to re-commit to their double-suicide-pact if the authorities tried to take their child away.
At that point I gave up trying to find the 1st time he overdosed. There just seemed to be no beginning to all of these overdoses!!!
So on today’s blog, commemorating a random Cobain overdose from the wide array of available overdoses to commemorate, let’s talk about Nirvana and heroin. But first, here’s a mixtape with tracks from Nirvana’s performance at the Cow Palace April 9th of 1993 at a benefit concert they organized to help Bosnian rape victims.
William S. Burroughs
Apparently it was in August of 1993 that Kurt Cobain asked William S. Burroughs to be in his video for the song Heart Shaped Box. Cobain is basically begging the old man:
“Most importantly I wanted you to know that this request is not based on a desire to exploit you in any way. I realize that the stories in the press regarding my drug use may make you think that this request comes from a desire to parallel our lives in some way. Let me assure you that this is not the case… To the extent that you may want to avoid any direct use of your image (thus avoiding the aforementioned link for the press to devour), I would be happy to have my director look into make-up techniques that could conceal your identity…”
Reviewing the video, my question quickly becomes: IS that William S. Burroughs? Because if you take a look at the guy who climbs up on the cross and try to imagine him without a beard and mustache + long hair, Santa hat etc. then you’ll realize that the dude—if he is in fact not William S. Burroughs—looks exactly like William S. Burroughs.
I can find nothing in the way of credits for the video aside from the fact that it was directed by Anton Corbjin, who followed Cobain’s extremely meticulous treatment.
I’m like: has anyone looked into this? I assume it would be legend now if it were true so it must not be—I doubt Dave Grohl & Novoselic would have kept their mouths shut about it for 20 years otherwise. But who knows?
Whether the old man is Burroughs or not, I think we can assume that Cobain was imagining Burroughs up on that cross.
This video is more or less acknowledged as the apical manifestation of Kurt Cobain’s highly personal alphabet of psychological symbolism. Cobain–who saw himself as an artist almost as much as he saw himself as a musician, and who considered leaving the music industry to pursue art between Nevermind and In Utero–had spent years, collecting dolls, heart-shaped boxes, models of “The Visible Man”, etc. and arranging them in elaborate collages and paintings (such as the one which appeared on the back cover of In Utero). The exchange of these sorts of talismans (particularly heart-shaped boxes and doll parts) had been a sort of code-language of love during Cobain’s early courtship with Courtney Love, when they’d exchanged gifts of bizarre thrift-shop findings, as well as drugs and then bodily fluids. In this video, we see all of these elements come together in this sort of epically realized nightmare. The landscape in the video for Heart-Shaped Box is the landscape of In Utero is the landscape of Kurt Cobain’s mind during the final year of his life. The boundaries between these netherspheres are porous.
Imagining Cobain’s visit to Burroughs in Lawrence Kansas that year puts me in mind of all the kings and heroes who journeyed up into the mountains at Delphi. If he HAD been on his way to Delphi, like Darius of Persia, when he got there, bad news would have been waiting for him: You will be dead in less than a year.
In real life, apparently, the two of them spent most of the visit talking about Leadbelly. If Leadbelly seems like a portentous subject, I’ll leave the reader to puzzle out the encoded symbolism.
Burroughs sent Kurt Cobain a book whose inscription dates it April 19th, 1993. This would have been a month after
The accounts of that spring are fragmented. There’s a photograph of Burroughs signed copy of The Cat Inside. The date is April 19th, 1993. Pretty sure this must have been sent shortly after their collaboration on “The Priest They Called Him,” was completed. They’d collaborated in the fall of 1992, and the record came out in October of 1993.
In Utero—rapidly laid down with Steve Albini in a remote cabin/studio in Minnesota,recorded in six days, mixed in five—was supposed to to sound raw. But it came out more raw than anyone had really expected. There was a huge, stupid controversy in April after Steve Albini claimed, in conversation with a journalist, that he, “had no faith that the album would be released.”
So Scott Litt got called into remix the Albini masters.
Cobain quietly fumed, and it was in his sullen, stoned sulk that he came up with a plan in late April of 1993 which he outlined in his journal:
He would first release the Albini version as I Hate Myself and Want To Die, but only on vinyl, cassette, and 8-track tape. His next phase of operations would come one month later. “After many lame reviews and reports on curmudgeonly uncompromising vinyl, cassette, and eight-track only release, we release the remixed version under the title ‘Radio-Friendly-Unit-Shifting, Compromise Version.’
Unsurprisingly, Cobain’s ingenious plan didn’t work out exactly the way he’d hoped. In Utero was released in October. As In Utero, not as I Hate Myself and I Want To Die. On compact disc as well as in a variety of other formats. It debuted number 1 on the Billboard Charts and sold 180,000 copies it’s first week, despite being boycotted by Walmart and Kmart.
Sunday May 7th, 1993
In light of my discovery that Cobain was practically an old hand at OD’ing by the time he OD’d twenty years ago yesterday on Sunday May 7th, 1993, only two things really stick out about this particular OD:
- It marks a sort of descent away from a high-watermark in terms of Cobain “trying to get sober,” or at least playing around with the idea. His daughter had only been returned to himself and Courtney Love a few months prior and supervision—involving piss-tests–had ended a month prior.
- Cobain was apparently rambling about Hamlet for the duration of the overdose.