Live

Watch CBSN Live

"Born lonely": Kurt Cobain's ex gives intimate account of icon on brink of stardom

Kurt Cobain's ex on icon before stardom

Boston musician Mary Lou Lord dated Kurt Cobain just as Nirvana was rocketing from relative anonymity to international fame. Twenty-five years after his death, she tells her story.

Sept. 22, 1991

The bouncer wasn't letting Nirvana into the club. The band's album "Nevermind" was only a few days from being released, and the trio from Aberdeen, Washington was only a few months from international fame. But that night, they weren't yet rock stars. And they weren't on the list to get into Boston's legendary rock club the Rathskeller, known as "The Rat," at least according to the bouncer. And anyway, the Melvins had already wrapped up their set.

"You should let them in," said a young woman who recognized the band.

kurt4-credit-maryloulord.jpg
Kurt Cobain Courtesy Mary Lou Lord

"Who the f*** are you?" inquired the bouncer.

The woman was musician Mary Lou Lord. The 26-year-old was known around town for busking in the subway, playing acoustic covers of musicians she liked but not many others knew of, at least not yet — like Shawn Colvin and Daniel Johnston. She knew Nirvana because her radio DJ friend had given her a copy of their demo tape that included songs from "Nevermind" before it was released. She loved it. She had spent the whole summer listening to it in her Walkman. Something about their sound kept pulling her in, she said, like a magnet.

Lord didn't tell any of that to the bouncer, though. She repeated her advice and then went back inside the Rat, hoping the band would eventually get inside.

They did. When the blond guy came over to thank her, she said she didn't know at first that it was Kurt Cobain. Slight and soft-spoken, he certainly didn't seem like the lead singer. She was expecting someone huskier, to match the big voice.

"I thought he was the roadie, I honestly did," Lord said.

Nirvana was part of the new guard of rock, and Lord wasn't the only one at the Rat that night that knew it. When some acquaintances came over to say hi, she suspected it was because of who she was talking to.

rat-credit-richard-parsons.jpg
Legendary Boston music club The Rathskeller, known a "The Rat," closed in 1997 Richie Parsons

"The guy said, 'Hey Mary Lou, heard you playing in the subway, you sounded really good!'" Lord said. "Kurt was like, 'You play in the subway?"

Cobain, then 24, asked her what kind of music she played. She replied he probably wouldn't know it. When Cobain said he liked a lot of music, Lord told him about bands like Daniel Johnston, Teenage Fanclub and the Vaselines.

"Those are my favorite bands, in order," Cobain said, according to Lord. 

ml-london91.jpg
Mary Lou Lord, pictured in 1991 Courtesy Mary Lou Lord

Lord didn't believe him, at least not at first.

Cobain invited Lord upstairs to talk. Lord said she soon discovered Cobain, like her, had an affinity for bands that were underappreciated.  She found she shared Cobain's taste for music, which she describes on a podcast she recently produced with fellow musician Maryanne Window as "melodic, different, daring."

At the end of the night, Lord offered Cobain a ride back to the Howard Johnson where the band was staying.

Cobain accepted gratefully, Lord said. He was confused when she started unlocking her bike.

"I said, you get on the back," Lord said.

Cobain rode on the back of her bike to the hotel. They stayed up all night talking, Lord said, watching the sun come up. It was Sept. 23, 1991. 

The next day, the release of "Nevermind" would mark the beginning of a rock revolution. Cobain would be at the center, and Lord would have a front row seat.

"The underdog gets his day"

Lord spoke to CBS News last month from her childhood home in Salem, Massachusetts, detailing a relationship with Cobain she called short, but intense — in many ways like the band's rise to fame. The less than two months the two dated marked the time period that Nirvana was  rocketing from relative anonymity to international stardom. "Nevermind" exploded in popularity in the U.S., the U.K. and most of the world within months of its release, and by the beginning of January 1992 it had reached #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, replacing Michael Jackson's "Dangerous."

Nirvana appealed to a generation that was rejecting the formulaic commercial rock and longing for music that was not only powerful, but accessible, said former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg, who recently released a book about his friendship with Cobain. As hair bands dominated the radio waves, Nirvana was a "f*** you" to the mainstream, said Marco Collins, a Seattle radio DJ who championed the "Seattle sound" in the early 90s — later known as grunge, or to many in Seattle, "The G-word."

Kurt Cobain Investigation
In this 1993 file photo, lead singer of Nirvana Kurt Cobain is photographed. Mark Terrill / AP

"[Nirvana] was pure punk rock energy. It was the system being flipped on its head. It just felt revolutionary," Collins said. "...The whole mainstream schlock had gotten so boring, and MTV was inundated with this s***. All of a sudden, the anti-rock star steps up and steals the mic — it was just this feeling that the underdog was finally getting his day."

But even in Seattle, where Nirvana was so popular by 1991 Collins would often play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his radio station twice in a row, Nirvana's crossover success came as a huge shock. For those who know Lord, including Collins, it comes as no surprise that she recognized a uniqueness to Nirvana before anyone knew just how popular they would become.

"Mary Lou can sniff out soon-to-be superstars better than anyone I know," said singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, a three-time Grammy winner. Lord was playing Colvin's songs in Boston's T well before Colvin signed a record deal and was catapulted to international fame with her 1997 hit, "Sunny Came Home." The two became close friends.

Lord later began writing songs, moved to Olympia, Washington and recorded for the Kill Rock Stars label. She made her major label debut on Sony with her album "Got No Shadow" in 1998. The album, re-released last year on Fire Records, featured collaborations with Colvin and Elliott Smith — another celebrated singer-songwriter of whom Lord was an early champion.

"She pays attention beforehand," Colvin said. "Most of us just kind of wait till it hits us — but Mary Lou seeks it out. She knows what's great, and before everybody else."

Sept. 23, 1991

In the cluster of clubs that dot Boston's Lansdowne Street, in the shadow of Fenway Park, there was only a line to get into one. It was the Axis, where Nirvana was playing with Bullet Lavolta and the Smashing Pumpkins ahead of the "Nevermind" album release the following day. Lord had taken Cobain up on his invitation to come.

kurt2-credit-maryloulord.jpg
Kurt Cobain  Photo: Mary Lou Lord

The place was packed, the room "sick with excitement," said Bullet Lavolta drummer Todd Phillips. After the opening bands finished their sets, WFNX DJ Kurt St. Thomas introduced Nirvana as the "coolest f***ing band in the world." As Philips described in a 2011 Boston Phoenix article cited by Vanyaland, Nirvana went on to play a raucous 60-minute set that was "hot, sweaty, loud and reckless."

"Sometime around 'Drain You,' I looked around the room and noticed that everyone had this dough-eyed yet-wide-awake look on their faces; that they were really seeing something important, or really being a part of something important," Phillips wrote.

Afterwards, Lord invited Cobain to the Central Square apartment of Boston music scene icon Billy Ruane. She was staying there in exchange for organizing the beloved music promoter's massive record collection. She had only gotten through the C's.

Cobain and Lord played records and talked music, Lord said. Cobain loved Lord's 1953 Martin D18 guitar and asked her to play for him. Lord worked up the nerve to play songs off of Nevermind — just released hours before. Cobain, she said, was stunned.

"He just looked at me like, 'What is this?" Lord said. "He was kind of blown away because they were just a small band from Seattle at that point."

cobain-jockey-kurt1-credit-maryloulord.jpg
Kurt Cobain Mary Lou Lord

Cobain insisted that she open for Nirvana the next night, she said, when they played again at the Axis. Lord demurred.

"He's like, well, we'll bring the guitar just in case you change your mind," Lord said.

Cobain spent the night. The next evening, they returned to the Axis, where another line had formed outside. This time, Lord walked to the front of it with Cobain, as he carried her guitar and held her hand.

"People knew me as the dorky busking girl from the subway," Lord said. "As we walked by the people in the line, I saw them looking like, 'What is he doing with subway girl?'"

Lord didn't end up opening for Nirvana. But like the night before, she said she was blown away by the energy of the performance.

"You could really feel that there was some kind of a change happening," Lord said, "You just had the sense of, I'm in the right place right now."

"Almost written out"

Lord and Cobain's relationship has not been free of questions. They dated just before Cobain and Courtney Love, who has publicly accused Lord of harassment and trying to make a career off a fling with Cobain. Lord denies those claims, and says Love was the one who threatened her. A representative for Love did not respond to a request for comment from CBS News.

marylou1.jpg
Mary Lou Lord performing in Boston's "T" Courtesy Mary Lou Lord

A note faxed to the Boston Phoenix in 1993 and signed Kurt Cobain, in response to a profile of Lord in the newspaper, said Cobain was drunk in Boston when a "creepy girl came on to me."

"I NEVER had a relationship with her," the note read. "Please Mary whoever you are, leave me alone and see a therapist."

Lord is convinced the note was a fake.

The dispute between Love and Lord has largely dominated the media coverage of Lord's story, but the account of Lord's relationship with Cobain has remained a relatively unknown chapter in the public picture of Cobain's story. In February, Lord recounted her time with Cobain extensively on her podcast, "How the Hell did that Happen?"

Lord's story was also detailed by Cobain biographer Charles Cross and in the account of music writer and Cobain friend Everett True in his book "Nirvana: The Biography." True says Lord "has almost been written out of the Kurt Cobain story."

"Yet I have a strong memory from around this time of meeting a besotted Kurt going on and on about this girl called Mary Lou Lord, how in love with her he was, and how he was going to move to Boston to be with her," True wrote. "A  fantasy perhaps, but he believed it at the time."

Sept. 29, 1991

Nirvana was going to be on MTV. Lord, her friend, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl were gathered at a New  York City hotel, eagerly awaiting the premiere of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video on MTV's "120 Minutes."

ap9309020148.jpg
Nirvana pose after receiving an award for best alternative video for "In Bloom" at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1993. From left: Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Kurt Cobain. Man at right, not a member of the band, unidentified  Mark J. Terrill/AP

It was a landmark for any musician at the time, but a monumental moment for Nirvana. The song, now considered the defining anthem for a disaffected generation, would propel the band's explosive success — aided in no small part by MTV's heavy rotation of the video.

Lord had taken a bus to New  York from Boston the night before, after getting a message on her answering machine from Cobain beseeching her to come and see them play. Lord said she got in too late to catch the show, but Cobain was still elated to see her, even dancing with her to disco music she put on a jukebox at a bar.

When the video aired, the bandmates were ecstatic, Lord said, calling their moms as Lord and Cobain jumped on the bed. "They were just like, look at us, we're on MTV!" Lord recalled. "...Knowing what we know,  that was a very big deal to share that moment with him and with Dave and Krist."

In the following weeks, Lord was meeting up with them on their U.S. tour dates while still trying to hold down her job at a Boston record store. With no cellphones and internet, she said, they had little indication of their exponential success other than the "MTV-watching jocks" starting to show up at the clubs they played.

When the tour reached Detroit, Lord told Cobain she had to go back to Boston. She couldn't risk losing her job at the record store.

"Kurt said to me, he's like 'no, please, please stay,'" Lord said. "I couldn't."

The two parted ways. Lord headed back to Boston, and Nirvana continued on to perform that night in  Chicago. It was where Cobain's romance with Courtney Love would begin.

Nov. 5, 1991

Lord had spent the past few weeks busking to save up for a ticket to England. Cobain had been calling her regularly from the road, regaling her with tales of raucous shows, and he wanted Lord to meet Nirvana as the European leg of the tour launched.

kurt-5-credit-maryloulord.jpg
Kurt Cobain Mary Lou Lord

Lord arrived in London to a much different Nirvana than she had parted ways with in Detroit. "Nevermind" was already spiking in the charts, and the band was at the center of a near-constant buzz of activity. She couldn't have a conversation with Cobain without others butting in — "Kurt, Kurt." The band seemed stressed out — the tour was starting to take a toll — and Lord suspected, not for the first time, that Cobain had a drug problem.

But the shows still had their trademark energy, Lord said, and British crowds were "out of their minds"  to see them. And Cobain, she said, seemed genuinely happy to see her.

Then, the phone rang. The call came in around three in the morning as the two were asleep in a hotel after a gig at the London Astoria. Lord was exhausted and went back to sleep, but she recalled Cobain was on the phone for a long time.

The next morning at breakfast, Kurt told Dave Grohl, "Oh, Courtney called," Lord said. She wasn't sure what he meant.

After they checked out, Cobain asked Lord how she was getting to Wolverhampton, the next stop on the tour. She said she was taken aback by the question.

"I felt like saying, 'I'm going with you,'" Lord said. "But I said, 'Oh, I have things to do in London,' which I didn't, it was a lie. I just didn't know what he meant."

Cobain gave her an itinerary with the tour contacts and said, "This is how to reach me."

courtney-5-globe-photosmediapunch-ipx.jpg
Courtney Love, second from right, poses with Hole at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards Globe Photos/MediaPunch

"I said okay, and I gave him a kiss and a hug, and I said bye," Lord said.

Lord went to visit friends in London, confused. That night, she watched as Nirvana came on a British television program. Before the performance, Cobain said, "I just want everyone in this room to know Courtney Love, the lead singer of the pop band Hole, is the best F*** in the world."

Lord was shocked.

"I had been with him the night before," Lord said. "I didn't know who Courtney Love was."

Lord soon found out that Dave Gwiazdowski, her radio DJ friend back in Boston, had the previous day interviewed Love, who was in town to perform with her band Hole at the Rat. When Love said Hole had tour dates planned with Nirvana, Gwiazdowski mentioned that Lord and Cobain were together in London. Unbeknownst to the DJ, Love and Cobain had struck up a quiet romance in Chicago, and Love seemed stunned.

Lord isn't sure what Cobain and Love may have spoken about on the phone, or what precipitated the sudden breakup. She returned to Boston, devastated, and started the difficult task of trying to get over the world's biggest rock star.

"Born Lonely"

When Cobain took his own life in Seattle on April 5, 1994, Lord felt as though she had lost him for the second time. Lord was then living in Olympia, Washington and had just returned there after touring with Beck when she learned of Cobain's death, Lord told CBS News in the interview. Devastated, she mourned his loss along with shellshocked fans and friends there.

Kurt Cobain House
A sign marks the location of "Kurt Cobain Landing" at a park near the childhood home of Kurt Cobain, the late frontman of Nirvana, in Aberdeen, Wash.  Elaine Thompson/AP

Looking back on that day, she said it sometimes seems longer than the 25 years Cobain's been gone because she hadn't seen him since their breakup in London. Even today, there's much she still wants to know — including what Love may have told him on the phone that night.

"I have a million questions," Lord said. "And I always thought that I would see him again and I would get to ask him those questions, but it didn't turn out that way."

Lord says she doesn't remember Cobain as a rock star, because he wasn't one when she met him. She remembers him as a "good kid" who loved music, but one who was "born with a certain kind of loneliness."

"I didn't have to see [loneliness] in Kurt, I knew that in Kurt, I felt that in Kurt," Lord said. "I could hear it even in his voice when he said 'Please don't leave.'"

Unlike a rock star, Lord believes Cobain didn't crave attention when he performed — rather, he wanted the listener to see themselves reflected back in his songs. Lord believes Cobain saw music as a way to connect with others, to feel less alone. She describes the same kind of loneliness in singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, whom she met five or six months after Cobain's suicide.

Lord calls Smith, who later became her close friend and touring partner, "incredibly similar" to Cobain. Though Smith had a much quieter musical delivery, Lord said she felt the same kind of "magnetic pull" to Smith's music as to Nirvana's.

marylou-elliott2.jpg
Mary Lou Lord and Elliott Smith Courtesy Mary Lou Lord

"These two people, in my mind, in the 90s, were the ones who spoke to the lonely kids," Lord said. "Just like them, they were born lonely, and no one could understand that more than them."

Like Cobain, Smith took his own life. He was 34 when he died in 2003. Cobain and Smith never met, but Lord is positive Cobain would have adored Smith's music.

To friends of Lord, it comes as no surprise that she shared a natural connection with fellow artists like Smith and Cobain.

"[Cobain] was obviously so passionate and such a deep artist that I'm sure he found her appreciation and what she intuitively understood about him as a person comforting," Colvin said. "A lot of artists feel like nobody gets them, and he was clearly a tortured soul and obviously a sensitive person. There's no one kinder than Mary Lou — and I think he knew that about her."

David Morgan contributed reporting. Archival video courtesy Jody Urbati-Moore.