On 8 April 1994, I was a twenty-year old dozing through a mild hangover when the news of Kurt Cobain’s death came through on my radio/cassette player. Several weeks later John Smith, the Labour leader, died and I was crushed by grief. It’s odd that this loss hit me more powerfully than the first, seeing as I’d never met John Smith and his death was definitely not my fault.
February 1994 had been snowless but harsh. It was the kind of bitingly cold month that did not lend itself well to sleeping in Parisian doorways. And yet that is what I had done, having found myself penniless in the French capital.
I had hitchhiked from my university town of Liverpool all the way to Paris with my sweetheart in order to celebrate our love on the Champs Elysées on Valentine’s Day. What we would do on the Champs Elysées, we weren’t sure. Where it was, we couldn’t say for certain. And how we would fund this trip, we had not fully fleshed out. But we were in love and Paris was the place to mark it.
We quickly discovered that hotel rooms were a luxury that we couldn’t afford, but we decided we could cope with sleeping rough as long as we could snuggle up on a bench in the underground. At one point during our time as down and outs in Paris, a kindhearted homeless guy actually gave us his a plastic cup full of change. We must have looked like such a hapless pair.
The problem with the Parisian underground stations in 1994 was that they closed just after midnight and then didn’t open again until 5am. And so, to keep warm, we would find an all-night café, buy one cup of coffee between us and nurse it until the time came to catch some zeds in the Metro. As romantic mini breaks go, this one was not the most opulent.
So, that’s why we happened to be in a rather smart café on the Champs Elysées in the earliest hours of 14 February 1994. I had just started to think that we had overstayed our welcome as we eked out our one expensive cup of coffee when someone even scruffier than us walked in. To begin with all I saw was messy blonde hair, a shambolic walk and an old green cardigan, and I thought, ‘This joker will be thrown out before us.’
How wrong I was.
The staff were electrified by the man’s presence and a woman at a table along from us started saying, ‘C’est le chanteur! C’est le chanteur de N-ir-v-a-na! C’est Kurt Cobain!’
My beau was a skinny boy in torn jeans and old trainers. Protecting him from the teeth-shaking Parisian cold was not one, but seven Nirvana T-shirts. The black one with the big yellow face, the one of the baby underwater, the In Utero album cover; three long sleeved and four short. He was a bit of a fan.
So, after psyching ourselves up we went to speak to him.
My first impression was how handsome he was. That hadn’t really come across to me in the NME covers and MTV videos. In person, his were the kind of sweet, symmetrical good looks you’d expect from a traditional pop star; not the figurehead for the alienated and dispossessed.
The second was frank astonishment that he actually wanted to talk to us. More than that, he invited us to sit down, he hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, he didn’t speak French and he wanted to talk to someone, anyone, in English. It was ‘cool’ that we’d hitchhiked, ‘amazing’ that we’d done so from Liverpool. ‘I love that city,’ he said.
He’d just ordered some food, too much; did we want some? ‘It’s a cheese sandwich, do you like cheese?’ (We gratefully accepted it but thought that we would never, ever eat it – until hunger overcame our desire to preserve a relic within mere hours.)
We tried to explain why we’d come to Paris, but at that moment, unwashed, tired and cold, it was difficult to comprehend ourselves. So, it was understandable that he never grasped the fact that we weren’t in Paris to see Nirvana play.
Have you ever met a famous person and found them assuming that you are a bigger fan than you really are? He asked if we were going to his gig; we muttered a white lie about not being able to get tickets and, before we knew it, he was promising to get us on the guest list – it was the least he could do after we’d come so far to see him. By the stage it would have been impolite to point out his error, and anyway, we were about to get a free ticket into an amazing concert we could never afford. I remember him writing down my name. (My name!) So we could get on the list. And like an earnest little boy, he said, ‘I’ll do my best, if I remember.’
Later we queued at Le Zenith, a venue in north Paris. When we reached the box office I had to show the woman my passport, she searched the names whilst I held my breath. Without even looking up, she passed me an MTV branded envelope with the golden ticket: Nirvana with support from the Buzzcocks.
Stickers were slapped on our shirts and we were funnelled to our seats – a first for me never having sat at a concert before – and the rest was a blur. Kurt’s big white baggy shirt, the huge stage, the deep reds and blues of the lights and the silhouettes of our comrades down in the mosh pit – from our seats halfway up the auditorium so enticingly near and yet so far. They played everything we loved: Lithium, Slither, Breed, School, Pennyroyal Tea…
Halfway through the gig, I finally deciphered the words on my sticker: ’after show’. And at the end, sure enough, we were ushered through a barrier into a large room, full of the beautiful people.
I’d like to say that the time I went to a Nirvana after show party was the wildest night of my life, but it felt more like an awkward corporate function than anything else.
Kurt didn’t appear at the party. There were lots of plates of fruit and cake, that, as hungry as we were, we didn’t dare touch. There were men in suits and chic French women, but no Kurt. Krist Novoselic was walking around the room talking into a large mobile phone. But no Kurt. That mobile phone was the first one I had ever seen in the flesh. Why does he need a phone when he’s not at home, I wondered? 1994 was a long time ago.
Dave Grohl appeared, smiling a lot. Everyone else was French or stuck up and we ‘seemed normal’. I remember hoping that we didn’t smell too much and trying to act so natural that he must have been alarmed.
The French publicist came and joined us. She had lost Kurt the previous night, no one had known where he’d been. We knew; he’d been in our café on the Champs Elyseés. Had he seemed okay? ‘Yes, he was fine, we spoke about Liverpool,’ I stuttered in my terrible French. What on earth did I know about how he was?
Eventually we left, but before we did, we wrote Kurt a note thanking him and giving our love to Courtney and his 18-month-old daughter, Frances Bean.
And then, just seven weeks later, he was dead. In his suicide note, Kurt expressed a feeling of not being able to live up to the commitment of the fans he’d met recently on tour. He wrote: ‘The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun… I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.’
It took me years to start realising that maybe we should have been clearer about why we were in Paris that night. We hadn’t hitchhiked 512 miles to see his band play. We weren’t asking him for a commitment he couldn’t give. We weren’t besotted fans, just ridiculous, disorganised romantics.
Coda: an abiding memory of when we left Kurt and walked into that bitterly cold Paris night, twenty years ago, is how I said, ‘This could be the coolest thing we ever do.’ Two decades later, two decades older and, tragically, I know I was right.