When Kurt Cobain Died: Former Billboard Editor Recalls Being On the Scene When It All Happened

Kurt Cobain
AP Images

The body of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain is taken to a medical examiner's van after he was found dead earlier that day at his home in Seattle, Wash. on April 8, 1994. According to a police source, Cobain died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound, and a suicide note was found next to the body. 

Every generation has that one unforgettable death that bears the question, "Where were you when ____ died?" For baby boomers, it was JFK. For the cool music-minded baby boomers, it was John Lennon. And, for Generation Xers, like myself, it was Kurt Cobain. Like generations past, you never forget where you were when a cultural icon dies. For me, the day the news broke that Kurt Cobain died is permanently etched in my mind because I was there.


It was 9:40 a.m. PST on Friday, April 8, 1994 when Seattle radio station KXRX broke the news that Kurt Cobain is dead. I arrived in Seattle shortly after, around 10:30 a.m., on a flight from Los Angeles. I was one of the few music journalists flown up to attend Sup Pop Records' 6th anniversary party. I was a 23-year-old editor about to embark on the story of my career.

When I got into the cab en route to my hotel, the driver turned to me and said, "Did you hear the news?" For some reason, my heart sunk instantly. "Kurt Cobain is dead," said the driver. It was a feeling I'll never forget--stunning, but not shocking. I always thought Kurt was not long for this world, but assumed it would be a heroin overdose and not something as violent as a self-inflicted gunshot blast to his head. An overwhelming feeling of nervousness rushed through me as I realized that what was supposed to be a fun party weekend, was about to turn into the daunting task of reporting this story from the scene.

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Day one consisted of "man on the street" reporting, gathering reactions from fans and Seattle-ites, heading up to his house at 171 Lake Washington Blvd. to scope out the scene, and interviewing local record store owners, including the influential three-store indie record store chain Cellophane Records. "All three stores sold a few hundred CDs, singles, and vinyl by the morning of April 9, including the $100 interview CD of Nirvana," Cellophane's marketing director Hugh Jones told me for my April 23, 1994 Billboard article, "Cobain Mourned by Fans, Industryites in Memorials, Music Stores."

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Likewise, Tower Records described the rush to buy Nirvana product as "a pathetic scene. Everything is going out the door. If people were really fans, they would've had this stuff already," said Tower Records' Chris Simmons at the time. Soon, the King County Medical Examiner issued a statement positively identifying the body of Kurt Cobain by his fingerprints. Two hours after this announcement, most local record stores were completely wiped out of all Nirvana product.

Surprisingly, Sub Pop continued with their anniversary party the next night, April 9, 1994, at the Crocodile Café. Velocity Girl, Pond, and Sunny Day Real Estate performed as planned, as members of Love Battery, the Posies, Silkworm, Young Fresh Fellows, and the Walkabouts looked on quietly. Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt said a few brief words, “We should remember and celebrate the positive things about Kurt Cobain.” Other than that, little was said. I remember a sadness permeating through the club, blank stares of those in attendance as they watched bands performing onstage, and knowing nods to one another acknowledging silently the shock of the situation.  It was a somber, surreal, and incredibly sad scene.

The next day, April 10, 1994, two memorial services were held. A private service was held at Unity Church of Truth for 200 members of his family, close friends, and employees of Nirvana's record label and management team. Two private wakes were also held -- one at Courtney Love's house and another at Krist Novoselic's house.

I attended the public memorial service at the Flag Pavilion, near Seattle's famed Space Needle, along with approximately 5,000 fans. I remember arriving at the Flag Pavilion just around 4 p.m., thinking the scene looked like a mini-Lollapalooza – kids were playing hacky sack or spread out on blankets with food. Some even passed out flyers for their own bands, a seemingly inappropriate time to be a self-promoter.

Lots of young kids and flannel-clad teenagers were accompanied by their parents and well-behaved. Women handed out vigil candles. I still have two of these candles. Kids handed out suicide information pamphlets. Many jumped in the fountain as if to celebrate Kurt’s life, instead of mourning his death. Someone wore a “Kurt Died For Your Sin” T-shirt, while another brought his pet iguana, and yet another child, a 10-year-old boy, came dressed formally for a funeral while clutching his mother’s hand. It was an eclectic scene to say the least.

Taped messages from Courtney and Krist were aired over the loud speakers. Krist thanked fans for their concern and urged the crowd to follow their dreams: “Catch a groove and let it flow out of your heart. That’s where the music will always be.” It was hard to hear the pain in Krist's voice.

Courtney's recording took a different tone. Overwrought with emotion and clearly devastated, she let out her anger and frustration, crying. "Why didn't' you just fucking stay?... He’s such an asshole. I want you all to say ‘asshole’ really loud.” The crowd obliged. I screamed "asshole" too. Later that evening, Courtney would show up with Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland and hand out some of Kurt’s clothing to those last to leave.

Looking back now 20 years later, I have a hard time listening to Nirvana's music without feeling a deep sadness. It almost makes me feel guilty to enjoy their songs knowing now that they came from someone who was in a lot of emotional pain and suffering from depression that was never really treated. I think the reason Nirvana and Kurt Cobain have not left the public consciousness is because -- other than great music standing the test of time -- it's that his lyrics and message connects to anyone who has ever felt like a misfit, outcast, or weird and that is a connection that stands the test of time.

To honor his legacy and bring more awareness to mental health issues and suicide prevention, Carrie Borzillo is selling signed copies of her book, "Nirvana: In the Words of the People Who Were There," on her website with a % of the sales benefitting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.