Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Free Speech

By Debbie Gilbert

MARCH 8, 1999:  The last time I visited Washington State’s Olympic Coast, I spent some time in Aberdeen, a logging town that went bust after the federal government, in an attempt to preserve old-growth forest, cracked down on clearcutting. In this conservative, blue-collar community filled with weather-beaten wooden cottages, the spotted owl is a symbol of misguided liberalism.

I came here because this was where the late rock star Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, grew up, and I wanted to see how the town might have shaped the person he became. It was easy to imagine how a frail, pacifist kid with an artistic temperament could have been ridiculed and tormented by hard-drinking lumberjacks. Aberdeen did not seem to be a place that tolerates nonconformity well.

I found a bridge over the Wishkah River where Kurt supposedly slept when he was homeless in 1985 (it was the basis for the song “Something In The Way”), and I crawled underneath. It was muddy down there, muddy and dismal. A person would have to really be down on his luck to sleep in that place.

And that, in essence, was Kurt. Bad luck dogged him throughout his life, despite all his success. One of the biggest pieces of misfortune turned out to be his choice of a wife, actress-singer Courtney Love. You’ll reach this conclusion, too, when you see the 95-minute documentary Kurt and Courtney, now available on BMG Video.

The movie was the talk of the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, because it couldn’t get a screening. Courtney, threatening legal action, had it pulled off the schedule. Moreover, as you’ll learn from BBC director Nick Broomfield’s narration during the film, Courtney coerced the movie’s investors to back out, so it had to be completed without financing. And you won’t hear one note of Nirvana’s music during the film, because Courtney owns the rights to Kurt’s songs. But you’ll know where you would have heard it, as Broomfield — who remains low-key and nonjudgmental, letting you make your own assumptions — points out the gaps in the soundtrack where songs were removed.

Kurt and Courtney consists mainly of Broomfield and his cameraman driving up and down the West Coast, trying to find people who will talk about Kurt’s April 1994 death. Many decline to speak out for fear of retribution; others are willing, but their honesty and motives are dubious. The central question: Was his death a suicide, as it appeared, or was foul play involved?

There are two leading proponents of the latter theory. Private investigator Tom Grant, whom Courtney had hired to find Kurt when he disappeared a week before his death, claims hiring a detective was just a ruse so it would look like Courtney had made an effort. Believing that she married Kurt solely for the purpose of furthering her career, Grant has gone bankrupt trying to prove that Kurt’s death was not a suicide. And Courtney’s own father, Hank Harrison — who seems to be using her notoriety to gain publicity for himself — talks about his suspicions; he claims the couple had been planning to divorce and there was a lot of talk about changing Kurt’s will.

Then there’s the hulking punk musician El Duce, who says, “Courtney offered me $50,000 to whack Kurt Cobain.” And a former nanny says that if Kurt wasn’t murdered, “he was driven to murder himself.”

Acquaintances invariably describe Kurt as quiet, shy, polite — a nice guy, if withdrawn — while they agree that Courtney is “a harpy … sucking attention from everyone else in the room.” Obsessed with controlling every aspect of her celebrity, she has sent death threats to journalists and even physically attacked them.

Broomfield finally catches up with Courtney at an ACLU gala where she has been invited to speak, presumably because she starred in The People vs. Larry Flynt, which championed the freedom of the press. Broomfield takes to the podium to question why, if Courtney believes what she’s saying, she has tried to silence journalists. The ACLU hustles him offstage, thereby violating his own free-speech rights. But the film speaks for itself.

For me, the best moment is when Broomfield interviews Kurt’s aunt Mary, a warm, caring person who encouraged his musical talent. She plays a tape recording of him at the age of 2, an exuberant child laughing and singing to his imaginary friend. Five years after Kurt left us, I still think about what might have been, and wish he could have found his way back to that early happiness.

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