Kurt Cobain, king of Grunge, frontman of Nirvana and spokesman for an entire disillusioned generation, died as he had lived – in the loud, angry chaos of a bewildered genius that altered the course of modern music, exported the Seattle sound to the rest of the world and sold 75 million albums in a career spanning 7 short years. Dead at 27 by taking a shotgun to his head on April 5, 1994, he left a fascinating trail of whys and what-ifs that always attend the early end of tortured, fractured lives that thrive and die by depression, addiction, loneliness and music.
The September 24th anniversary of Nirvana’s second release – Nevermind – was equivalent of a hand grenade tossed into the charts at the end of summer 1991, with the single Smells Like Teen Spirit proving epochal in the history of rock `n’ roll. And as with any resurrection of the life and legacy of Kurt Cobain, the events surrounding the last 48 hours of his existence return as well, as fans re-imagine the singer and songwriter escaping from a drug rehab facility in Los Angeles and going AWOL on the streets of Seattle before killing himself in his million dollar home in Madrona, in East Central Seattle.
Keeping track of a man who doesn’t want to be found was especially hard in those days (1990s) without cell phone footprints and a cancelled credit card. But he did pop up from time to time, and was spotted in various locations in the Capitol Hill and Lake Washington area, which later helped journalists and investigators piece together a rough picture of what he was doing during the last 48 hours of his life.
Bret Chatalas, owner of Cactus, clearly remembers Kurt Cobain’s showing up at his Madison Park location with some friends on the night of Sunday, April 3rd. It was early spring, a cold Seattle evening, but Cobain still chose to be seated in the restaurant’s outside seating area.
“They [Cobain and his friends] were planning to go see a movie, while they were having dinner,” recalls Chatalas. “They started out with dessert, which was a bit odd in my opinion, but apparently if you’re doing heroin, you’re into sweet things…”
The staff at Cactus who served Cobain and his group say that he seemed to be in good spirits that evening. He enjoyed Cactus’ longtime menu favorite “Bananas Dulce” (still on the menu today), sautéed in brown sugar and rum, and then asked Chatalas for the movie listings. They decided to go watch The Piano, finished their dinner and left for the cinema.
But as with any humdrum life event that becomes greatly significant when it precedes a major, unexpected tragedy, Cobain’s last dinner at his favorite Mexican restaurant is now a matter of public record. 23 years on, and guests still ask owner Bret Chatalas for details about Cobain, perhaps hoping that he will remember something that the media had failed to report.
“When Cobain paid his bill and the waiter went to run his credit card, it was declined,” recollects Chatalas. (Cobain’s wife, musician Courtney Love had cancelled his credit card as soon as she heard he had escaped from the Los Angeles rehab clinic.) “The waiter asked me to go talk to him, and it was obvious that he was high on heroin. Where he was supposed to write the name of the restaurant, he had written the dollar amount.
“It was kind of gibberish but it was still decipherable, so I accepted the check. That was the last time I ever saw him – that Sunday night. Sometimes, I wish I had held onto that check. I did try afterwards to get it back from the bank, but the check had already gone through the system and it was too late.”
So there you have it. A little piece of Seattle’s music history that will always be tied to Cactus in a small, bittersweet memory from the last hours of our local-boy, music legend’s life.
***Here is a clip from “The Last 48 Hours of Kurt Cobain” where a younger version of Cactus’ owner Bret Chatalas talks one of the last public sightings and meals of Kurt Cobain on the evening of April 3rd, 1994: