On April 13, 1994, five days after Kurt Cobain was found dead at his Seattle home, Richard Lee broadcast the first episode of his public access show, Now See It Person to Person: Kurt Cobain Was Murdered. Lee, a self-styled investigative journalist, has gone on to produce hundreds of hours of material obsessing over variants of the theory, most pointing the finger at Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love.
In 2000, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic obtained a restraining order against Lee. In 2018, Love and her daughter, Frances Bean Cobain — along with the City of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department — won a court battle against him to prevent the release of previously unpublished photos of Kurt Cobain’s death scene.
This piece, however, isn’t about Richard Lee. In a sane world, he would have remained a fringe figure, the subject of occasional reports in Seattle’s local media. Unfortunately, this isn’t a sane world. Instead, the theories that he’s picked at for 26 years have surged back into the mainstream, becoming a source of fascination for Generation Z. But why are so many people who were born after Cobain died so gripped by the notion that all wasn’t as it seemed?
“Kurt was murdered” conversations have periodically bubbled back to the surface of online discourse throughout the years since Cobain’s death. But the release of the docudrama Soaked in Bleach in 2015 was a catalyst for the theory to harden into fact for many younger fans. It arrived at a perfect time: The oldest members of Gen Z — born in 1995, the year after Cobain’s death — were hitting their 20s, and the bulk of the generation was in its teens, primed to get into Nirvana.
Directed by Benjamin Statler, who co-wrote the film with Richard Middleton and Donnie Eichar, Soaked in Bleach focuses on Tom Grant, a private investigator hired by Love to find Cobain after he absconded from rehab and disappeared. Like Lee, Grant has been at the heart of Cobain conspiracy culture since the very beginning, as he, too, believes Cobain’s death was murder, not suicide. Unlike Lee, the former LAPD detective benefits from having a law enforcement background and being a peripheral player during Cobain’s final days.
Grant has maintained his website about the case — where you can pay to chat to him about it for the low, low price of $45 per half hour — since 1995. In February of that year, a Seattle Police Department memo noted that he had accused Love of involvement in her husband’s death and the police of colluding with a cover-up. Three years later, Grant’s theories were brought to a wider audience in the book Who Killed Kurt Cobain? by Ian Halperin and Max Wallace. Six years after that, he assisted the same authors with a sequel, Love & Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain, based on 30 hours of phone calls he taped with both Love and her entertainment lawyer Rosemary Carroll.
Grant appears prominently in Nick Broomfield’s 1998 film Kurt & Courtney as well. The documentary also features Love’s estranged father Hank Harrison, and El Duce, the lead singer of the Mentors, who claimed Love had paid him $50,000 to kill Cobain. El Duce was hit by a train days after Broomfield interviewed him, which has provided another breadcrumb in the trail for those who believe in a murder conspiracy.
There’s plenty of evidence, however, that both Kurt & Courtney and Soaked in Bleach are built on sensationalism, the circumstantial and a willingness to discard inconvenient facts. Even Broomfield himself doesn’t believe that Cobain was murdered, although his quote saying as much is unfortunately worded: “I think that he committed suicide. I don’t think that there’s a smoking gun. And I think there’s only one way you can explain a lot of things around his death. Not that he was murdered, but that there was just a lack of caring for him. I just think that Courtney had moved on, and he was expendable.”
Meanwhile, several of the expert witnesses interviewed for Soaked in Bleach have subsequently claimed the filmmakers didn’t accurately represent their views. For instance, former New York City Police Department homicide detective Vernon J. Geberth wrote on Facebook, “I was one of the experts interviewed during this documentary and was not happy that the producers made it appear that I agreed with their ‘homicide’ theory. I had made it quite clear that I believed that Kurt Cobain took his own life and backed up my opinion with the facts that I had obtained from the Seattle Police Department’s Homicide Division coupled with my own experience with suicide cases.”
Forensic linguist Carole Chaski, another expert who appeared in Soaked in Bleach, told the House of Mystery Radio Show, “My results don’t support the conspiracy theory that Courtney Love authored the bottom portion [of Kurt Cobain’s letter] to make it look like a suicide note.” She explains at length how she ran the whole note as well as contentious portions at the start and end through software that identifies linguistic patterns in suicide notes, comparing them with control samples, to come to this conclusion.
Still, the damage had been done: The 2015 docudrama had already introduced many of Grant’s theories to Gen Z, while almost in tandem, Kurt & Courtney became available on Netflix (in March 2016). And for fans born after 2000, for whom Cobain is an icon on T-shirts, filtered through a handful of records and interviews stripped of context on YouTube, there was an obvious appeal to believe that he’d been murdered.
Lucy O’Brien, author of She Bop, a history of women in popular music, as well as biographies of Dusty Springfield and Madonna, argues, “It’s part of the rock narrative that elevates the musician to the status of romantic hero. When he dies/falls apart, it’s not his fault, but down to the succubus who ‘stole’ him — like Yoko Ono, who gets blamed for breaking up the Beatles, and Courtney Love, for not ‘looking after’ Kurt.”
In an essay to celebrate Love’s 55th birthday, the writer Lisa Whittington-Hill put forward a similar argument: “Women are often vilified and condemned for the deaths of their male partners. Love, like all women, was supposed to save her partner from death and addiction. Fans of Cobain projected all their anger and resentment over the loss of the Nirvana frontman onto Love, and soon she was blamed for not only his addiction but also his death.”
In home video, included in the 2015 documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Love is seen teasing Cobain about the public perception of them and their marriage: “Why does everyone think you’re the good one and I’m the bad one?”
After Cobain’s death, Love took part in several interviews where her “worthiness” as a widow was questioned. The most notorious is a 1995 Barbara Walters special, in which Walters introduced Love with the following preamble: “For the first time, Courtney tells why her superstar husband Kurt Cobain committed suicide. She says it was her fault… and tonight, she reveals why.” In the comments beneath YouTube clips from the interview, you’ll find plenty of people sympathetic toward Love, but studded among them are repeated calls to “watch Soaked in Bleach” and “do some research,” along with accusation after accusation of murder.
Of course, many of those who have watched Soaked in Bleach consider that to be research. To them, Cobain wasn’t a man with serious substance abuse and mental-health issues who wrote and spoke frequently about death (as well as from a family with a history of suicide), he was a martyred murder victim. After all, the movie proves it.
“We need to understand that they’re not really theories, they’re a kind of mythology,” explains Daniel Allington, a senior lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at King’s College London with a research interest in conspiracy theories. “The internet has had a big impact on all modern mythologies — my own research shows that the more time people spend talking about politics online, the more likely they are to believe in political conspiracy theories, for example — but there are other factors.”
“Kurt Cobain was lost to the world before most of his current fans even knew who he was,” he cites as one such factor. “They may feel that they can make up for that by keeping his mythology alive. Ideas that most people consider ridiculous can give true believers a sense of being part of a special group. In this case, I suspect that part of the appeal is the feeling of having a special connection to the man himself thanks to possession of ‘secret knowledge’ about his death.”
If Kurt & Courtney and Soaked in Bleach are the foundational testaments of the “Kurt was murdered” church of conspiracy, then YouTube is a source of weekly sermons. Case in point: Soaked in Bleach-esque feature-length videos like “Escaping Exodus: Investigating the Death of Kurt Cobain” and “The Last Days of Kurt Cobain According to Courtney Love,” which pretty much just rehash Grant’s theories.
More ambitiously, YouTuber AmericanSpyFox, aka Charles Elliott, has created an episodic series, aptly titled the Nirvana Series, with videos dedicated to specific days in the lead-up to (and aftermath of) Cobain’s death, as well as themed videos on topics like why Cobain hated Axl Rose and his friends’ attitudes toward his success. It was, though, Love’s interviews in the years since her husband’s death that played a major role in him creating the series. “Courtney Love, or rather, Courtney Love’s behavior, is the reason I explored it further,” he writes over email. “Over the years, I’d watch her interviews and notice that although she was often asked the same questions, there always seemed to be different answers.”
That said, he doesn’t consider himself a “tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist” and thinks the final two episodes of his series — his analysis concluding with the death of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, which occurred two months after Cobain died — will bear that out. “I try to remain pragmatic in my approach,” he writes via email. “And honestly, what may surprise most people will be the ending. People think they know how I feel, but it’s more complicated than that. A lot of people are still heartbroken over Kurt’s death and simply don’t want to believe he ‘abandoned’ them.”
As such, anyone related to Cobain’s final days — Love or otherwise — is subject to intense scrutiny. Journalist and author Jessica Hopper was staying at Cobain and Love’s house shortly before he died. Nineteen at the time, Hopper was the then-girlfriend of Frances Bean’s nanny Cali Thornhill Dewitt, who has himself gone onto a successful career as an artist and designer. Still, because she was one of the last people to see Cobain alive, it’s led theorists to question her online and even attempt to interrogate her in person.
In 2015, at an event in Dublin to promote her book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, Hopper was confronted during the Q&A portion by a woman convinced that Cobain was murdered. After a heated exchange, Hopper told the woman to “go back to the internet.” The woman took Hopper’s advice — uploading the exchange to YouTube. It was later deleted, but subsequently uploaded to Vimeo by someone else.
To the true believers, the fact that Hopper became distressed doesn’t prove she was a friend reliving grief, but rather that she has something to hide. Similarly, that Love has sued neither Grant nor the makers of Soaked in Bleach — despite sending cease-and-desist letters upon its release — is “proof” that she’s afraid of what a legal case would bring out, not that she’s unwilling to drag herself and her daughter through a lengthy, traumatic process.
Silvia, 41, the purveyor of SoakedInBullshit.com, a blog that aims to debunk the claims made in Soaked in Bleach, was once one of those true believers. “I love Nirvana and I love Hole equally, but I was also a conspiracy theorist,” she tells me. “I came across Tom Grant’s theory, and he convinced me about the usage of the gun in combination with morphine levels in Kurt’s blood. That was until I found contradicting information, because I was sick of waiting for Grant to say something more. I looked things up myself and a whole can of worms opened up.”
She believes that a lot of people who propagate the conspiracy theory are “Gen Xers who can’t let go” — born in 1979, she’s a Gen Xer on the cusp — but she also sees different groups in online discussions. “There are a lot of QAnon people, depressed young ones, lots of fakes and the gamer community, which is infested with conspiracy theories,” she explains.
Elliott obviously has a different perspective. Since starting his series, he says he’s heard from “people from all walks of life, ranging from 60-year-old doctors to 25-year-old police officers to teenage musicians. Even an Arizona prosecutor wholeheartedly agrees with me.”
I ask him why he thinks Gen Z is particularly open to the theory. “They’re hearing the story for the first time, and it makes no sense to them how so many obvious clues were left unexplored,” he responds. “These kids have developed in the information age. They question everything and allow no social injustice to go unnoticed. My generation watched Beavis and Butt-Head and believed every word they said.”
I’m part of the same generation as Elliott, born in the messy crossover between Gen X and millennials (sometimes called “Xennials” by people who hate language). But our mutual love of Nirvana and the music of the 1990s have brought us to very different conclusions. That my teenage fandom included a fondness for Hole and Love as well as Cobain and Nirvana is clearly a factor.
Another Love fan — Molly Mulshine, an American writer and comedian based in London — dedicated an entire episode of her podcast Diva Behavior to the singer and songwriter. She offers up another example of how the conspiracy theory surrounding Cobain’s death has spread in recent years: “About a year ago, I saw an Instagram post about Courtney’s personal style on a fashion account I follow. It had a ridiculous amount of comments for a relatively small account — somewhere in the 3,000s — so I clicked through to see what all the fuss was about.”
“The entire comments section consisted of kids berating the account owner for posting the picture,” she continues. “They were acting like it was a foregone conclusion that Courtney Love had killed Kurt or arranged for his death. They were all repeating accusations made in Soaked in Bleach, while urging commenters who hadn’t seen it to watch it on YouTube. It was like watching a radicalization algorithm in action.”
Interestingly, Mulshine’s guest on her Love episode, 23-year-old music critic Keely Quinlan, doesn’t exactly dismiss these theories. “There’s so much literature surrounding the bizarre circumstances around Kurt’s death,” she tells me. “Now compound that with the array of documentaries on streaming services about the Kurt/Courtney conspiracy theory, and you’ve got all the elements to propel those beliefs. I don’t believe in the theories entirely, but there were suspicious facets of Kurt’s death that I think you’d have to be pretty dense to not give any merit. Especially with my generation and those younger than me, we’re so obsessed with knowing and having facts concretely available that something opaque or anomalous like a suspicious death completely entrances us.”
Plus, she adds, “To a certain extent, so much of what Gen Z consumes comes from YouTube videos. Regardless of free will, the videos suggested by those algorithms have a potential to introduce radical pathologies to kids.” She mentions, in particular, Shane Dawson’s 104-minute documentary from last year, Conspiracy Theories With Shane Dawson. In it, Dawson, one of the world’s most popular YouTubers, outlines theories ranging from “iPhones secretly record every word you say” to “the military deliberately caused California wildfires with a directed energy weapon.” It racked up 45 million views, and a follow-up tallied 32 million more. Quinlan describes both as “like red-pilling but endorsed by a celebrity.”
She’s not wrong. Series like Dawson’s can have a particularly powerful effect by increasing people’s general willingness to believe, says Daniel Jolley, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Northumbria who researches why conspiracy theories spread. “The strongest predictor of belief in a specific conspiracy theory (e.g., ‘climate change is a hoax’) is belief in other conspiracy theories (e.g., ‘the moon landings were faked’),” he explains. “Belief in one conspiracy theory could make someone more susceptible to believing in theories such as ‘Kurt Cobain was murdered.’”
In other words, if you can bring yourself to consider that “9/11 was an inside job,” or that “the moon landings were faked on a studio lot,” the idea that a famous rockstar didn’t take his own life but was murdered instead isn’t nearly such a huge leap. Besides, the secrets needed for Cobain to have been killed seem minor in comparison.
I should note, though, that the fascination with Cobain goes way beyond his death and ties into a more general nostalgia for the 1990s — a nostalgia felt by Gen Zers who have only viewed the decade retrospectively through fashion and pop culture. For many, Cobain has become a pile of signifiers — chief among them, the grunge sweater, heralded as experiencing a revival by the Wall Street Journal back in 2013, and those famous white sunglasses, the subject of a hymnal in British GQ by the magazine’s chief content officer in 2018.
Similarly, in the Fall 2019 Vetements Collection, designer Demna Gvasalia “homaged” (still a fancy word for “ripped off”) Cobain’s “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” T-shirt from his 1992 Rolling Stone cover, with a $550 T-shirt that read “Corporate Magazines Still Suck a Lot.” Writing for the Cut about that eruption of commercialized 1990s nostalgia, Sarah Spellings summed up how detached Cobain’s symbols have become from their original context: “Full disclosure: I was minus 3 years old when all this went down and when I first saw the photo (without the Rolling Stone text), I thought it was a Vetements ad.”
Elliott, however, counters, “We cannot deny that everything 1990s is hot right now, but I think Nirvana, more specifically Kurt, transcends generations. Kurt Cobain spoke directly to the kid with no clear path — and there will always be kids who are unsure of what role they play in the universe.”
Which might be why, for all the popularity around Cobain conspiracy theories, a community making the counterargument — that the simplest answer is usually the correct one — is also developing. They include older fans like Silvia of SoakedInBullshit, but also the moderators of the r/Nirvana subreddit. Its first rule reads, “Threads and comments concerning conspiracy theories related to Kurt Cobain’s death are prohibited.” Along those lines, its fourth rule states, “Low-effort posts, frequent reposts and comments or threads bashing Courtney Love will be removed.”
Scottish songwriter and monologist Matt Johnston, aka the Narcissist Cookbook, wrote “Courtney,” a piece that critiques the conspiracy theory in just under eight minutes. “It was me trying to look directly at why I get sucked into these kinds of theories, rather than lashing out at anyone else,” he tells me. “The themes of ‘Courtney’ fit in with other pieces I was writing about the importance of stories in human culture. My track ‘David,’ about the Munich shootings in 2016, is a companion piece.”
“She refused to hide in Kurt Cobain’s shadow or define herself in relation to him while the world insisted on doing just that — and still does — and her hurricane-force personality made people love her or hate her,” he continues. “Society’s latent misogyny was channeled into how Courtney Love was perceived even before he died.”
The renewed interest in the Cobain conspiracy theory only calcifies her like this once more — only now, to another generation. “People born after 2000 are likely to have heard the story that ‘Courtney Love murdered her husband’ a hundred times before they hear any refutations of it. And by that point, the idea is too embedded in most people’s heads to be easily challenged,” Johnston argues. “The further we get from the event, the more hyper-real it’s going to appear and the more deeply ingrained in our shared mythological language it’s going to get.”
I think he’s right. And while “Courtney” is approaching 50,000 views on YouTube, it’s a monologue that asks you to take time and asks questions. It’s a lot more complicated than the certainty of Soaked in Bleach or the opening lines of “Ask Courtney” by the Flatbush Zombies — so frequently quoted on social media — which bluntly claims, “Love hurts ask Courtney / She killed Kurt.”
For his part, as Elliott prepares to release the final two installments of his Nirvana Series, he’s not even bothering to try to change minds. “One thing I’ve learned by speaking to thousands of people from all over the world about this case is that humans believe what they want to believe,” he tells me. “They’ve already made up their minds during the first minute of my series. I’ve never had even one person tell me I changed their mind if they believe it was suicide from the start. And if they believe it was murder, that opinion doesn’t change either. As for me, I’m still debating.”
In the meantime, a new generation isn’t sure what there is to argue about.