Debunking the Kurt-Cobain-was-murdered conspiracy once and for all

Click to play video: 'Remembering Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain 30 years after his death'
Remembering Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain 30 years after his death
WATCH: Fans of the grunge genre from across the globe descended upon Seattle this week to celebrate the legacy of late Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain – who is considered one of the most prolific songwriters of the 20th century. The beloved musician and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ songwriter unexpectedly took his own life 30 years ago, on April 5, 1994 – Apr 5, 2024

When something bad happens, our natural reaction is to ask why. It’s also natural to look for something or someone to blame for this misfortune. And this can often lead us into the world of conspiracies.

I was on the air on Friday, April 8, 1994. In the pre-internet, pre-social media era, radio was how everyone kept up with news in real time. The afternoon went like this.

Story continues below advertisement

alancross · Kurt Cobain’s Death: Minute-by-minute announcements from April 8, 1994

For the first few weeks, there was no question Kurt had died by suicide. But little by little, doubts began to creep in. Eventually, there was a full-blown Kurt-was-murdered narrative that extended to talk shows, books, and documentaries. There are still those who believe that Kurt could not have taken his own life and will point to an endless list of inconsistencies in the official story along with “evidence” that shows nefarious actions by shady people.

Stop it. Just … stop.

Having followed this story from the very beginning — and having spoken to people closest to Kurt many times over the years — I’m convinced that he did in fact kill himself. Let’s deconstruct the conspiracy theorists’ evidence. Yes, there are some loose ends, but life isn’t like a 44-minute episode of CSI. On the whole, though, the rational conclusion is inescapable.

1. Kurt was killed because he was threatening to break up Nirvana

THEORY: Tom Grant, a detective hired by Courtney Love to find Kurt when he bolted from rehab — and a major proponent of a murder angle — claims that Kurt was ready to break up Nirvana and join Courtney in Hole. This is a quote from an interview Kurt gave to a French TV journalist in August 1993:

“It’s a nice thought (collaborations with Courtney). I’d like to, but to tell you the truth, I would rather just quit my band and join Hole, you know, only because when I have played music with them, there’s a level of connection that’s a little bit higher than with anyone else I ever played with. It’s amazing,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s totally satisfying for Courtney and me, but completely unrealistic because we’re already so intertwined with each other,” he continued.

“Most people don’t think of the band Nirvana, they think of Kurt and Courtney, and it gets in the way. People would just overlook the music and look into other things. It’s such a sad situation. I wish we could just join bands … (but) it wouldn’t be considered a real band.”

REALITY: The insinuation is that because Kurt was going to kill off Nirvana, then he needed to be killed off, too. This is plain silly. Calling an end to Nirvana might annoy his bandmates, his management, and his record label, but bands break up all the time. Nirvana had been in a precarious situation for years, so the idea of everything exploding at any second was a way of life for everyone.

The idea of an artist wanting to make music with their significant other isn’t unusual, either. Hello, John and Yoko. Hello, Paul and Linda.

Breaking up the band so he could work with Courtney? I could see it. But as a motive for murdering one of the most famous rock stars in the world at the time? Hardly.

2. The divorce threat

THEORY: It’s no secret that Kurt and Courtney had a tumultuous relationship. There were domestic disputes requiring police visits, their drug use, and anecdotes about the couple from people who knew them. Courtney was reportedly angry that Kurt had refused an invitation for Nirvana to headline the 1994 Lollapalooza Festival.

There is some veracity to all this. In January 1994, Kurt told Rolling Stone that he and Courtney were contemplating a split with both contacting lawyers about drawing up the necessary paperwork. There was also talk of changing wills and pre-nups. And was Kurt having an affair with an unnamed woman?

Story continues below advertisement

REALITY: Look, both Kurt and Courtney had big personalities. Put them in a relationship together, add in lots of money and plenty of drugs, and you have a recipe for drama and disaster. Things will be said in the heat of the moment. And yes, sometimes things escalate to unpleasant levels. But turning to murder? And at the time when Kurt is contemplating to break up Nirvana and join Courtney in Hole?

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

And let’s not forget that a month before his death — and hours before his suicide attempt in a Rome hotel room — Kurt had gone out and bought Courtney all kinds of expensive gifts. (He also stole some candlesticks from The Vatican for her). And about that suicide attempt: If Courtney really wanted Kurt dead, why didn’t she just let him die when he took all those pills in Rome?

3. The unknown enemies

THEORY: In the months leading up to his death, Kurt appeared to be very afraid of someone or something. It might have been the drugs causing paranoia, but the fear was real. Kurt had a stockpile of guns and ammo in the house. A new security system was being installed at the house at the time of his death.

Theorists believe that someone wanted retribution for Kurt turning down Lollapalooza. And why were three shells loaded into the Remington shotgun that Kurt used? Did Kurt load the gun or did someone else?

Story continues below advertisement

REALITY: Kurt did hang around with some shady drug people, all of whom knew he was a heavy user with a lot of money. Everyone in Seattle knew where he lived, too. Having guns for protection? Not a surprise.

The presence of extra shells in the gun has been presented as evidence that something was fishy. I’d theorize that because Kurt was extremely high at the end, he wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind. Maybe the gun had been loaded much earlier. Anything to the contrary is pure speculation.

4. The credit card

THEORY: Kurt used a MasterCard to book his final plane ride home from Los Angeles to Seattle. Around the same time, Courtney, who knew Kurt had gone missing, had his card cancelled. Yet someone kept trying to use the card to get cash advances. There was an attempt to get $5,000 on April 4 over the phone with a call to MasterCard. There was another request for $2,500 after Kurt died. And there was a final attempt to secure $1,000 shortly after that. And then on the morning of April 8, the day Kurt’s body was discovered, someone tried to use the card to by $43.29 worth of flowers.

Who was doing this? Unknown. But it must have been the murderer who stole Kurt’s credit card, right?

REALITY: There’s no proof that it was Kurt trying to get the cash advances. Remember, these were requests made over the phone and were all declined, probably because whoever was calling didn’t have the right PINs or security information. Maybe Kurt lost his card. Maybe he gave it away to a drug friend. And I’ll bet that whoever tried to buy the flowers on the day Kurt died was looking to lay them somewhere in tribute to him. This is a loose end but in no way does it point to murder.

5. The suicide note

THEORY: Why the difference in the handwriting throughout Kurt’s suicide note? Why the use of different coloured ink? Based on his examination of the note, detective Tom Grant believes Kurt didn’t write the whole thing (two handwriting analysts apparently agreed). To him, the note sounded like a statement of retirement, not a final note to the world. Why no mention of Frances, Kurt’s daughter? Why no proper signature? The note ends with “Kurt” spelled out in small letters.

And what about an alleged second note? There’s a story that Courtney found another note months later in a sealed enveloped in her bedroom that apparently detailed how Kurt was going to leave both her and Seattle. More grist for the murder mill?

Story continues below advertisement

REALITY: This is admittedly another loose end, but Kurt was hardly in a good place on April 5, 1994. He may have already been quite high when he wrote the note. Kurt was a visual artist as well as a musician, so the different coloured ink might be part of that. Maybe in his altered state he just wanted the note to look pretty.

As for the second note, its existence has never been verified.

6. The toxicology report

THEORY: In short, conspiracists believe that Kurt injected so much heroin into his system that there was no way he would have been able to aim the gun and pull the trigger. They point to the toxicology report —which was only partially released at the time but leaked with a little more detail in 2024 — which indicated Kurt had plenty of drugs in his system including diazepam (used for treating anxiety and alcohol withdrawal), codeine (a mild opioid painkiller), nordiazepam (a muscle relaxant and anticonvulsant), and 1.52 milligrams of morphine per litre of blood. That’s a lot. (Heroin turns into morphine once injected.)

How could Kurt have that many drugs in his system and still manage to neatly pack up his syringe kit, aim the gun, and fire. Impossible! Someone must have either (a) helped or (b) did all this to Kurt. Murder!

“It’s highly unlikely that he would shoot himself up in both arms, put the needle away in his little kit, and then have the mental capacity to sit there and manipulate this shotgun and shoot himself,” Tom Grant told High Times magazine. “If he wasn’t unconscious, he was at least to the point where he wasn’t aware of what was going on. Anyone could have done anything to him.”

Story continues below advertisement

Oh, and Grant believes that the infamous photo of Kurt’s head is a fake, a stock autopsy photo of someone who had an unfortunate encounter with a lawnmower.

REALITY: There aren’t as many loose ends here as it appears. First, Kurt was an experienced junkie with an extremely high tolerance for heroin, giving him just enough time to complete all the necessary tasks after he injected his last dose. Perhaps he injected himself in stages, looking for the right level of euphoria to accomplish what came next.

More likely, though, is that the results of the toxicology test were misinterpreted and taken out of context.

If you read that number — 1.52 milligrams of morphine/litre — one way, it appears that Kurt had nearly 12 times the lethal level of morphine in his blood at the time of his death. But we’re not sure if this number represents “free morphine count” or “total morphine count” — and there’s a big difference.

A free morphine count measures the amount of drugs injected into a body at a specific moment. A total morphine count measures traces of the drug over a long period of time. As a long-time regular heroin user, it’s highly likely that the toxicology report includes a number that describes the cumulative buildup of drugs in Kurt’s system over weeks and months, not hours. (See this article from the National Library of Medicine. This article also looks at the possible discrepancies.)

Story continues below advertisement

In a case like Kurt, a known longtime drug user, it’s more common for a medical examiner to go with the total morphine count test, which is cheaper, faster, and doesn’t require the same specialized equipment as measuring a free morphine count. Was Kurt’s last injection fatal and rendered him incapable of shooting himself? Based on the toxicology methodology and results, no.

7. The crime scene

THEORY: No clear fingerprints on the shotgun? Someone must have wiped it clean. Who? The murderer, of course. Who had barricaded the door of the greenhouse? Why didn’t Kurt just give himself a fatal overdose and not bother with the whole messy gun thing? Who arranged the body just so and perhaps even combed Kurt’s hair after he died?

The forensics report reads like this: “The item was processed for prints on 05/06/94 by Sr. ID Technician T. Geranimo, #4466. Four cards of latent prints were lifted. The four cards of lifted latent prints contain no legible prints.”

REALITY: I can imagine Kurt’s palms being kind of sweaty in those last seconds, can’t you? In April 2014, Mike Ciesynksi, a retired 20-year vet of the Seattle PD with plenty of cold case experience, opened the Cobain file. He dove deep into the case and went through 35 mm film that was shot of the crime scene. This helped him reconstruct how the gun was fired. Consulting with a firearms expert, it was determined that there was nothing weird about where the spent shell landed, the position of the gun related to the body, or the body itself. His conclusion: “The investigation on the death of Kurt Cobain, which was conducted 20 years ago, reached the correct conclusion that the manner of death was [suicide].”
Story continues below advertisement

In 2021, the FBI made their Cobain case file public. It was all of 10 pages long and contained absolutely nothing new other than two highly redacted letters from a couple of fans asking them to look into Cobain’s death.

8. The El Duce allegations

THEORY: Eldon Hoke was the frontman of a noxiously obscene group called the Mentors, trading under the name El Duce. He claimed that Courtney Love offered him $50,000 to kill her husband during a conversation outside an Los Angeles record shop. “Off the old man before he files for divorce,” was the plan. Before El Duce could be formally commissioned, Kurt was dead. The implication is that Courtney found someone else to do the job.

REALITY: If you know anything about El Duce and The Mentors, I’d call Eldon Hoke an unreliable narrator. Yes, he took a lie detector test on national TV and passed, but that’s not admissible in court. We’ll never get to grill El Duce any further on the matter because he was decapitated when he was hit by a train on April 18, 1997. He was very drunk walking home from a gig.

There are a few more conspiracy angles, but I’ve covered all the important ones.

Finally, consider this. Dave Grohl believes Kurt killed himself. Krist Novoselic believes Kurt killed himself. So does Kurt’s mother and father. So do two of Kurt’s former managers and I’ve spoken to them directly. And having spent time personal time with Courtney, I don’t believe any of the allegations against her. You may disagree, which is your right. But you’re wrong if you think Kurt’s death was anything but a depressed, desperate, drugged-up young man taking his own life.

Story continues below advertisement

Life is messy and death can be even messier. But because we have this pathological feature of the unknown, we’re always going to look for any explanation that might quiet our minds. In the case of Kurt Cobain, we have our answers.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

Curator Recommendations

Sponsored content