Love and Cough Syrup

The Moment Kurt Cobain Met Courtney Love

On the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, here's the story of how Cobain and Courtney Love were tussling on the floor within 30 seconds of locking eyes on each other. An excerpt from Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross, recently re-released with a new preface.

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Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love first locked eyes on each other at eleven in the evening on Friday, January 12, 1990, and within 30 seconds they were tussling on the floor. The setting was the Satyricon, a small, dimly lit nightclub in Portland, Oregon. Kurt was there for a Nirvana gig; Courtney had come with a friend who was dating a member of the opening band, the wonderfully named Oily Bloodmen. Already infamous in Portland, Love was holding court in a booth when she saw Kurt walk by a few minutes before his band was set to appear onstage. Courtney was wearing a red polka-dot dress. “You look like Dave Pirner,” she said to him, meaning the remark to sound like a small insult, but also a flirt. Kurt did look a bit like Pirner, the lead singer of Soul Asylum, as his hair had grown long and tangled—he washed it just once a week, and then only with bar soap. Kurt responded with a flirt of his own: He grabbed Courtney and wrestled her to the ground. “It was in front of the jukebox,” Courtney remembered, “which was playing my favorite song by Living Color. There was beer on the floor.” She was glad her comment had gotten attention, but she hadn’t expected to be pinned to the floor by this little waif of a boy. For his part, Kurt hadn’t counted on his opponent being so tough: She was three inches taller than he was, and stronger. Without his high-school wrestling experience, she might have won the tussle. But the roll on the floor was all in jest, and he pulled her up with his arms and gave her a peace offering—a sticker of Chim Chim, the “Speed Racer” monkey he had made his mascot.

Kurt later would say he was immediately attracted to Love: “I probably wanted to fuck her that night, but she left.” But the day he met Courtney, he still had a girlfriend, and she was with him. But the connection between Kurt and Courtney was sexual: Wrestling was a fetish of Kurt’s, and an opponent as worthy as Courtney was a major turn-on.

They parted that night but Courtney followed Nirvana’s career the way a baseball pitcher in the American League might follow the exploits of a National League player. She read Nirvana’s clips in the rock press, and she put Kurt’s Chim Chim sticker on her guitar case, even though she remained unconvinced about the band—their early material was too metal for her. Like most rock critics at the time, she preferred Mudhoney, and after listening to “Love Buzz” in a record store, she passed on buying the single. Seeing the band in concert later, she was more struck by their strange physical appearance: “Krist was really, really big,” she observed, “and he dwarfed Kurt to the point where you couldn’t see how cute Kurt was because he looked like a tiny boy.”

Her opinion of Nirvana, and the tiny boy, changed entirely when she bought the “Sliver” single in October 1990. “When I played it,” she recalled, “I was like, ‘Oh, my God—I missed this!’ ” On the B-side was “Dive,” which became her favorite Nirvana song. “It is so sexy, and sexual, and strange, and haunting,” she noted. “I thought it was genius.”

Courtney soon nicknamed Kurt “Pixie Meat,” because of both his diminutive size and Kurt’s worship of the Pixies. Courtney confessed to Dave Grohl that she had a crush on Kurt, and when Dave told her Kurt was suddenly single, Courtney sent Kurt a heart-shaped box filled with a tiny porcelain doll, three dried roses, a miniature teacup, and shellac-covered seashells. Before sending it she rubbed her perfume on it like a magical charm. Kurt was already obsessed with dolls. He would repaint their faces and glue human hair onto their heads. The resulting creatures were both beautiful and grotesque, looking as much like child corpses as dolls.

Kurt and Courtney met the second time in May 1991 during an L7 concert at the Palladium in Los Angeles. Kurt was backstage drinking cough syrup directly from the bottle. In a bit of fate, Courtney opened her purse and displayed her own vial of cough syrup, a more powerful brand. They wrestled to the ground again. The vibe was very sexual. When Kurt let her up, they talked shop. Courtney was quick to brag that her band, Hole, had finished recording Pretty on the Inside, with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth producing; Kurt talked about his own album, which was still in production. Kurt was usually meek when meeting someone for the first time, but in his efforts to impress Courtney, he pulled out every name and credential he could—he clearly wanted to one-up her. As Kurt soon discovered, few could gain a verbal advantage over Love. She knew far more about the music business than he did, and Hole’s career was accelerating as quickly as Nirvana’s at the time.

In their conversation, Kurt disclosed he was staying at the Oakwood Apartments; Courtney told him she lived just a few blocks away. She wrote down her phone number on a bar napkin and told him to call her sometime. She was earnestly flirting, and he was flirting back.

He called her later that night at three in the morning. “There was a lot of noise in the background,” Courtney recalled. Kurt pretended as if he were phoning only because he wanted to discover where she got her cough syrup—he’d begun to prefer this to all other intoxicants that spring. But what he really wanted was to talk to her more. And as Kurt found out, Courtney could talk. This night, her normally booming voice was just a whisper—her ex-boyfriend and bandmate Eric Erlandson was sleeping in the next room. At the time, she was also in a long-distance relationship with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.

They talked for an hour, and it was a conversation Kurt would remember for weeks. Though he was typically direct and short-tempered on the phone, there were occasional individuals who could bring out the conversationalist in him, and Courtney was one of these. He was able to say things over the phone he’d been unable to speak in person just a few hours earlier. Kurt mentioned the heart-shaped box and thanked Courtney for it. It touched her that he’d noticed, but soon she went on to other topics, spewing forth a stream-of-consciousness rap that included producers, critics, Sonic Youth, guitar-playing, cough syrup brands, and songwriting, among other brief stops. She switched from subject to subject the way someone might flick the channels of a television remote control. When Kurt described the conversation to his friend Ian Dickson, he began by declaring, “I’ve met the coolest girl in the whole world.”

As Dickson, and his other friends, came to complain that May, “Kurt would not stop talking about her. It was ‘Courtney says this,’ and ‘Courtney says that.’ ” It would be five months before they would see each other again, but during that time Kurt would recall their conversation frequently, wondering if it was real or just a drug-induced dream caused by too much cough syrup.

Copyright ©2001 Charles R. Cross. Excerpted from the book Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross, published by Hyperion Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. All Rights Reserved. Used With Permission.