As we approach the 20th anniversary of his death, one writer recalls a memorable encounter with the doomed Nirvana frontman

It’s nearly 2am on 24 July 1993 and Kurt Cobain is lying on my king-size bed in a tacky Manhattan hotel. His tiny frame takes up virtually no space. He has discarded the disintegrating black and red jumper he wore on stage earlier at a “secret” gig at Roseland and now, freshly showered, is wearing a white T-shirt, ripped jeans and Converse decorated in graffiti. His red nail varnish is badly chipped. His dirty blonde hair is damp and frames his unexpectedly beautiful face. He is half watching the muted TV which is showing back-to-back episodes of Beavis & Butt-head; their meat-head stoner behaviour reminds him of the people he grew up with in Aberdeen, Washington State.

I have been hanging around in New York for three days waiting to interview Cobain for The Face magazine. There have been sightings: one afternoon I’m in the lobby of a hotel talking to his wife, Courtney Love, and playing with his daughter, Frances Bean, when he appears from nowhere. He wanders towards us in slow motion. Those ripped jeans, a T-shirt, a pink and white cardigan, dark shades with white plastic frames. He says quietly to no one in particular, “You been waiting for me?” If Love is acting out her notion of being a rock star, from the ripped baby doll dresses to the wilfully controversial statements, it is her husband who is the natural icon.

Another day there is a photo shoot for the piece.

It’s surreal. Cobain, dressed in a Tigger suit for the inside cover of the magazine, is careering from one end of the studio to the other, steering his 11-month-old daughter around in her pushchair. Both are breathless with laughter. It’s hard to relate this scene back to the rumours that are swirling endlessly around: Kurt Cobain is hooked on heroin. He is addicted to cough medicine. He is dead. Love lounges barefoot on a sofa, occasionally demanding kisses. It’s a very public display of affection.

Every time an interview is scheduled with Cobain it’s cancelled. There’s no time to get it done at the hotel. No time at the photo shoot. No time before the gig. When Cobain comes off stage at Roseland he looks terrible. His skin is blotchy and the energy has been sapped out of him. He’s asked if he’s finally ready for the interview. “Yeah, sure,” he says weakly. I return to my hotel room and wait. I tidy away my stuff — like he’ll notice — and try to let adrenaline fight my chronic jet lag.

When Cobain knocks on my door I’m not sure what to expect: the energetic dad or the worn-out rock star. He’s neither. What I find instead is a shy, warm, funny and — there is no way of avoiding this — deeply sad 26-year- old. He is two months older than me and yet, while I am excited about the unknown future, he already seems defeated by life. He lies on my bed, his head propped up on two enormous pillows. He moves only to reach for another cigarette or to visit the bathroom. He is sometimes gone for so long that I fear he’s lying dead on the marble floor.

Each time he returns to the bed I feel like an unqualified therapist. He tells me in his sleepy west coast voice about his early years. He sat in his room for 90 per cent of the time — the sensitive, arty kid in a world of alpha-male jocks. “By the age of nine, I pretty much gave up any idea of ever even surviving the age of 21 because I felt so alienated.”

I ask if Frances Bean has made life any easier. “She’s completely changed my outlook on everything. I don’t know…” He drifts off. His eyes well up. “I started to heal my negative attitude when I got married…”

I can’t quite bring myself to ask if he’s shooting up in my bathroom, but I do ask Cobain about heroin. “I’m not addicted any more. But I’ll always be a junkie.” We talk about his belief that when you die you’re completely happy.

He is, he says, not afraid of death — only of dying right now and leaving behind a wife and child. He talks about death for so long that I am left wondering not if but when.

Dawn approaches and Cobain is fading fast. We wander down to the lobby. He refers to himself in passing as a big rock star and I tease him mercilessly. A smile flickers across his face. “That’s what I call myself now.”