Kurt Cobain at 45
Much more than last year’s numerous celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, reading here and there that Kurt Cobain would have been 45 years old yesterday but for that moment of despair on the banks of Lake Washington really hit home, and not only because it reminds those of us so moved when he joined what his mom called “that stupid club” of our own mortality.
To wax unduly nostalgic about the loss, as Baby Boomers invariably do when considering their fallen heroes, seems particularly inappropriate for an artist who railed against living in the past and being force-fed somebody else’s canon while his own went unheralded. (Scoff if you like, but he cared much more about the Melvins than Jimi Hendrix.) “Hate Haight! I’ve got a new complaint/Forever in debt to your priceless advice,” he howled, excoriating the notion that the ’60s should tell him and us how to live or what to listen to. And then along came Rolling Stone’s David Fricke on MTV’s mourning marathon to tell us every 10 minutes that he’d been “the John Lennon of his generation,” leaving us to rail, “He was the Kurt Cobain of ours!”
Of even less value is playing the game of “where would he be today?” Would he have broken up Nirvana and gone solo, pursuing softer sounds a la the Unplugged sessions, or would his path hone to the corporate rock of Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters? Would he have dragged Courtney Love down even quicker, or lifted both of them out of the downward spiral? (They’d have been married 20 years on Friday.) Would he pull out of music and into activisim like Krist Novoselic, or would he have been a stay-at-home dad to Frances Bean before reuniting Nirvana to headline Lollapalooza? Etc., etc., ack, ugh, phoeey.
Every scenario we might imagine seems absurd, and they all show a fundamental disrespect of and lack of understanding for a complicated, mercurial artist with a serious streak of perversity, conflicting desires to win our love and drive us away, and seemingly no filter for keeping the emotions of the moment out of the music he was making on stage or on record in the here and now. And ultimately it is the music that endures and which is the primary reason why the tributes yesterday resonate, because those sounds absolutely remain as urgent, vital and necessary today as they did then.
With that in mind, here is a piece written for Request magazine in 1993, circa the release of Cobain’s best album, In Utero, and based on one of only three interviews he granted at the time, to Jon Pareles at the New York Times, Robert Hilburn at the Los Angeles Times and this reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Smells Like A Nirvana Article
By Jim DeRogatis
Request, November 1993
Several hundred people are waiting outside Club USA, a trendy New York disco in the heart of Times Square. It’s the third night of the New Music Seminar, the music industry’s largest annual gathering, and the crowd has come to hear the Boredoms, a jazz-noise group from Japan that’s one of the seminar’s biggest buzz bands. People are growing irritable in the heat of the muggy July evening because the beefy bouncers won’t let anyone in, even though the place is as big as an aircraft hangar and only half full.
Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is standing with a small group that includes his wife, Shelli, and band biographer Michael Azerrad. Novoselic has gone unnoticed until now, even though he stands a foot taller than most of the people on line. Maybe it’s because New Yorkers don’t acknowledge celebrities in their midst, or maybe no one recognizes him since he cut the long hair and shaved the scraggly beard he wore in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In any event he hasn’t asked for or received special treatment, which I find admirable, since it’s in keeping with punk rock’s central tenet that band members are no better than their fans.
I wince when Novoselic starts jumping up and down and shouting at the bouncers to let him in—until I hear what he’s screaming. “Don’t you know who I am?” he shouts. “I’m Andy Kaufman. I was in Taxi!”
The bassist bears more than a passing resemblance to the dead comic, but it doesn’t matter to the bouncers, and soon he and his friends are shrugging their shoulders and heading off to another club.
* * *
Since its release in late 1991 Nirvana’s second album has sold nine million copies worldwide. Nevermind was the first punk album to make it to No. 1, and its success resulted in a major-label feeding frenzy that injected obscene amounts of money into the once-marginal indie-rock world. “Alternative” suddenly became a viable marketing niche, and every move that Novoselic, guitarist-vocalist Kurt Cobain, and drummer Dave Grohl made came under the media’s harsh glare.
That’s a hell of a lot of baggage to carry to a recording session, and skeptics expected the group to self-destruct as the Sex Pistols did in a brilliant flash before it could even attempt an encore. But the members of the Seattle trio fought the pressures of addictions, fame, and money, hired Chicago producer and provocateur Steve Albini, and recorded the follow-up to Nevermind in two weeks for twenty-five thousand dollars, a fraction of the time and money spent on most major-label releases. And somehow they pulled it off.
In Utero—“in the womb”—is an uncompromising album full of harsh guitars and aggressive rhythms, but Nirvana’s candy-coated riffs and sing-along choruses are present in force, and they’re every bit as catchy as those on Nevermind. As always Cobain’s angry, passionate voice cuts through the chaos around it, demanding your attention. “Teenage angst has paid off well,” he sings, acknowledging with the first line of the first song that the band has been changed by stardom. Then he proceeds to prove that it hasn’t hurt the music a bit.
“Whether this record is released or the tapes are bulk-erased is less important than what the band has done up until now,” Albini said in his usual acerbic manner when the album was finished last spring. “They got themselves in a position of influence and power by being a band that everybody liked, and at this point, everything that they do for the rest of their career is going to be secondary to what they’ve done up until now. Not secondary in quality, but secondary in impact.”
Several months later Cobain reflects on Albini’s comments and grins. “We’re certain that we won’t sell a quarter as much, and we’re totally comfortable with that because we like this record so much,” he says in a measured, quiet voice. “I wasn’t half as proud of Nevermind as I am of this record. We intentionally made an aggressive record. I’m really proud of the fact that we introduced a different recording style, a different sound, and we’re in a position where we’re almost guaranteed a chance of it being played on radio. They’re at least going to try it for a while and see how it sticks. And just doing that is a satisfying accomplishment.”
Cobain is sitting on a well-worn couch in the split-level living room of the house he shares with his wife, Courtney Love (leader of the band Hole), and their fifteen-month-old daughter, Frances Bean. The family outgrew the home it bought after Nirvana’s initial success, and this place is a rental. Located on a steep hill in North Seattle, it’s only yards from the shore of scenic Lake Washington. Frances Bean’s playpen and wading pool sit in the living room near an enormous TV and a collection of plastic anatomy dolls, one of which graces the cover of In Utero. Beside the couch sit two new Fender guitars, prototypes that the company wants to manufacture as the “Kurt Cobain model.” Cobain designed it himself: A cross between a Jaguar and a Mustang, he calls it a “Jagstang.”
In six days Cobain’s band will play its first high-pressure show in a year at the New Music Seminar; in eight weeks In Utero will arrive in record stores. Courtney and the baby are in England as Hole performs at the Phoenix Music Festival, and Cobain is alone except for Geffen Records publicist Luke Wood, who’s coordinating his interviews. As our conversation begins Wood puts his tape recorder on the coffee table next to mine—“Double-recording . . . for the band”—before going off to the kitchen.
* * *
Geffen is paranoid about the media, but the members of Nirvana seems just as concerned and annoyed. Shortly after In Utero was finished, several major publications ran stories quoting sources who said that Geffen considered the album “unreleasable.” With comments like, “I don’t think that all the pussies and wimps who liked the last album will ever like this one,” Albini didn’t help matters any. Finally the band and the label bought a full-page ad in Billboard to set the record straight, lest anyone think that the group’s satirical T-shirt slogan—FLOWER-SNIFFIN’ KITTY-PETTIN’ BABY-KISSIN’ CORPORATE ROCK WHORES—had become a reality.
Albini’s name in the credits was supposed to be insurance against such charges. With the exception of occasional high-profile projects like PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, he mostly works with hardcore punk bands, recording in his basement studio on Chicago’s North Side. His underground credentials are flawless: As a musician he led Big Black, a grinding metallic trio that was enormously influential in the underground (including Seattle’s nascent “grunge” scene). As a producer he takes a flat fee based on what bands can pay, rejects groups that don’t live up to his punk ideals, and stresses immediacy in recording (one or two takes and a song is done, overdubs be damned).
“I’ve never really paid any attention to Steve Albini’s personality or anything that he supposedly is a crusader for,” Cobain says between bites of a cheap frozen pizza. “In fact, I’ve never really been much of a Big Black fan to tell the truth. I think I had Songs About F---ing. It’s good music; it’s something a bit more innovative than a lot of stuff that was coming out at that time. I saw their last show here in Seattle at the Steam Room. But for the most part I wanted to work with him because he happened to produce two of my favorite records, which were Surfer Rosa [by the Pixies] and Pod [by the Breeders]. By listening to those records, I realized something that I had been trying to prove for like three years: Ever since we started recording, I’ve always thought that it would be really logical to record with a lot of microphones to get an ambience from the room. It just seems obvious to me that if you want it to sound like you’re standing right next to the band, if you want that live feeling, then you have to use a lot of microphones.
“It just seems like an obvious thing to do,” Cobain continues. “And every time we went in the studio, we would ask the person we were recording with to try this and they just flat out refused every time: ‘This isn’t the way you record. It’s not what I learned at engineering school.’ During the recording, I felt totally comfortable, and I still have no regrets with the way the tracks were done, except I wish I would have added a few more vocal harmonies. For some reason, the vocals didn’t turn out the way they should have. I’m not a big fan of multi-tracking, but I did that on Nevermind on quite a few tracks, and I didn’t even realize it at the time. I didn’t realize that that was what Butch [Vig] was doing; I thought he was just asking for a lot of takes so he could pick out which was the best. It should have worked [on In Utero], because we had these great microphones—we used three or four microphones. I stood in front of these amazing, expensive-looking mikes, and it sounded great in the playback. But the final mixes for some reason got squashed. We’re a pretty vocal-oriented band, and that’s one of the main things I regret.”
Albini helped the band get the live sound it wanted, but when the trio returned to Seattle with cassettes of the finished album, problems in the mix became apparent. Most were solved in mastering (the process of preparing tapes to manufacture CDs and cassettes), but two songs were remixed by R.E.M. producer Scott Litt, and another (“I Hate Myself and Want to Die”) was dropped because Cobain thought there were too many noise songs in a row. (“It was just such a typical, boring song,” he says. “We could write that song in our sleep. There was no point to putting it on the record . . . If you look back on the record, there are so many noise songs all in a row that it makes it seem like it’s nothing but a noise record. It’s really not; there are plenty of soft spots to it.”) In Utero is now titled in favor of pop songs, with seven catchy would-be anthems to five pure noise outbursts.
Cobain and Novoselic (who were interviewed separately) both laugh when it’s suggested that the album begins with “Serve the Servants” and its “teenage angst” line for the benefit of rock critics. Nirvana is rarely so calculated. When I note that the song’s jagged, angular guitar solo sounds like Robert Quine, neither musician recognizes the name. Alternative rockers from New York or Los Angeles would never admit that they didn’t know the former guitarist with Richard Hell and the Voidoids, but Cobain and Novoselic grew up in small-town Aberdeen, Washington. Their punk discoveries were hard-earned, unpredictable, and incomplete, but they made a lasting impression.
“The guitar players I’m fond of are like from Scratch Acid and the first White Zombie EP,” Cobain says, wiping tomato sauce on his T-shirt. (His fingernails are perfectly painted with bright red polish, but his toenails are chipped and fading, in need of a fresh coat.) “F---ed-up, bending strings, borderline in-tune—that type of chaos.”
With a driving mechanical drumbeat and electronically treated screams, “Scentless Apprentice” is one of several discordant songs that recall Big Black. The tune is credited to the band, and it came together in rehearsal; the lyrics are a bizarre free-association nightmare about childbirth. “My lyrics are total cut-up, just because I take lines from different poems that I’ve written,” Cobain says. “I build on a theme if I can, but sometimes I can’t even come up with an idea of what the song is about.”
There’s little doubt about what the singer is addressing in the deceptively sweet “Heart-Shaped Box.” As much as he’s protested the idea that he’s a spokesman for his generation, Cobain eloquently sets twentynothings’ frustration against baby boomers’ pious preaching. Following the formula of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the verses percolate over a quiet riff until the song explodes in an angry, irresistible chorus: “Hate Haight! I’ve got a new complaint/Forever in debt to your priceless advice.”
The opening chords of “Rape Me” also recall Nirvana’s biggest hit. The song can be taken on several levels: as a statement against atrocities in the former Yugoslavia (Novoselic spent time there as a teenager and Nirvana played a benefit for Bosnian rape victims); as an angry comment against misogyny (in the liner notes of Incesticide Cobain attacks the “wastes of sperm and eggs” who raped a woman while singing “Polly”), or as a response to perceived media abuses (“My favorite inside source/I’ll kiss your open sores”). When the song was written more than a year ago, Nirvana thought it would be a single. The group tried to play it on the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, but it wasn’t permitted, and Cobain was told the network is squeamish about a “Rape Me” video. The track is the catchiest on the album, and it isn’t hard to imagine it becoming a hit—and a Madonna-sized scandal.
Violence against women is a common topic on gangsta rap albums, but it’s rarely addressed so directly in rock. Cobain says the band members may reconsider the song for a single and video in the future, but for now they’re going with “Heart-Shaped Box” because it’s “fresher and more of an epic first single.” You can almost hear Geffen’s collective sigh of relief.
“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” is the album’s most enigmatic song title, but the tune contains one of Cobain’s most revealing choruses. “I miss the comfort in being sad,” he sings, summing up the dilemma of someone who’s found fame by complaining but who suddenly doesn’t have much to complain about. “I guess I could consider that a personal thing,” Cobain says thoughtfully. “But for the most part the song is about Frances Farmer, and I’m sure she felt that way, too.”
The rebellious actress was a rising star in the late ’30s, but she became an alcoholic and the center of Hollywood scandal, after which she was hounded by the press, institutionalized by her parents, and finally lobotomized. Cobain and Love named their daughter after Farmer, but the singer pauses when asked why he’s drawn to her story. “The tragedy of bureaucracy and how people are treated,” he says after a while. “Public humiliation is one of the most stressful things a person can go through.”
In November 1992, after months of veiled references in numerous articles on the band, Cobain admitted using heroin to Robert Hillburn in the Los Angeles Times. After dabbling with the drug for several years, he said he developed a serious habit during the chaotic days following the success of Nevermind. After going through rehab he started visiting a clinic to help deal with stomach pains from a serious ulcer. He maintains that the ulcer caused most of the sullen behavior journalists described as drug-related, but his position on drugs is clear: He’s nonjudgmental, but says he learned the hard way that they’re stupid.
“It was long overdue,” Cobain says of his confession to Hillburn. “I tried to deny it for so long simply because I didn’t want to influence anyone. There was just no point in bleeding my heart in front of the whole world; it’s really no one’s business. But I was pretty much cornered at that point. I couldn’t deny it any more, otherwise everyone would think I was a big liar.”
“Dumb” seems to be a song about falling into addiction (“I’m not like them/But I can pretend”) and discovering the pleasures (“I think I’m dumb/Or maybe just happy”) and the pains (“Skin the sun/Fall asleep/Wish away/The soul is cheap”). But a sober and clear-eyed Cobain politely disagrees with my reading. “Actually, that was a song about a concussion. I wrote it two years ago, and the lyrics came to me in about ten minutes. It was just one of those four-track demo things late at night.”
The second half of In Utero is more chaotic, hitting the listener with the album’s hardest tracks in rapid succession: “Very Ape,” “Milk It,” the sarcastically titled “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” and “Tourette’s” (with mumbled lyrics transcribed in their entirely in the liner notes as, “F---, s---, p---”). The four noise tunes are divided into pairs by “Penny Royal Tea,” a pleasant hook-filled number about a home-abortion method. The song mentions Leonard Cohen and contains another of Cobain’s most memorable lines: “I’m anemic royalty.” It was not, as reported by England’s New Musical Express, co-written with his wife, Cobain says.
“All Apologies” is a lulling, hypnotic track that features cellist Kera Schaley, a member of the Chicago group Doubt and a friend of Albini’s. “All in all is all we all are,” Cobain chants mantralike to end the song and the album, but the lyric that demands the most attention is shouted in the middle of the tune: “I’m married/Buried.” “That was another line that was written before Courtney and I started going out,” Cobain says dismissively, but it’s sure to be cited by the legions of Love-bashers.
* * *
Since their marriage in February 1992 at a quiet ceremony in Hawaii, Love has become the most hated rock wife since Yoko Ono. She’s been the focus of several intensely negative stories, including Lynn Hirschberg’s infamous Vanity Fair article charging that Love used heroin while pregnant, and a chapter in Britt Collins and Victoria Clarke’s as-yet-unpublished Nirvana: The Definitive Story. (Cobain attempted to stop the Collins and Clarke book with nasty late-night phone calls, but he shouldn’t have bothered: A reading of the advance manuscript reveals that the authors dig up no truly embarrassing dirt, rely extensively on previously published articles, and generally write some of the most flatulent prose ever committed in the name of rock journalism.
To be sure, Love has courted her share of controversy and publicity, cultivating a sexually aggressive and sometimes obnoxious persona onstage, in interviews, and in her music. But it’s doubtful that she could have foreseen the way things are amplified in the media, or the painful personal costs for her and Cobain. Azerrad’s unauthorized biography, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, reveals that the two were separated from their child for a month by Los Angeles County authorities because of the drug charges leveled in Vanity Fair. Cobain told Azerrad that he considered shooting himself after the article was published, and he vowed revenge on Hirschberg: “She’d better hope to God that someday I don’t find myself destitute without a wife and baby. Because I’ll get f---ing revenge on her. Before I leave this earth, she’s going out with me.”
The media’s treatment of Love is obviously a sensitive issue in the band. Novoselic dismisses everything that’s been written about her supposedly bullying ways with two sentences—“It’s just a story. People need something to write about”—but he is reluctant to discuss the subject further. Cobain meanwhile says journalists are trying to make the couple conform to stories that have already been written—the John and Yoko or Sid and Nancy models. “Why can’t there by a Kurt and Courtney model? Why do they dwell on the past?” he asks. “I don’t mean to put down Sid and Nancy or John and Yoko, but I just don’t relate to them in any way.”
In June Cobain was arrested and spent three hours in jail before being released on bail of nine hundred fifty dollars. He says he and Love were jamming together when neighbors called police because of the noise. The police report charges that the singer assaulted his wife, but Love denied this in The Seattle Times and said the couple only started arguing after police asked if there were guns in the house. Cobain said there weren’t, but Love said there were, and she didn’t appreciate having them around. The cops were obligated to arrest one of the partners for a cooling-off period, and they confiscated three guns and several clips of ammunition.
“Once the cops explained to me that they had to take one of us to jail because there was a domestic violence call from one of the neighbors, I understood that because they were so nice about it,” Cobain says. “They explained it in full detail and made me realize that most domestic violence calls are real, and if one or the other people aren’t arrested, then the cops will just be called back an hour or two later, and this time one of them may be dead.”
The most surprising thing about the incident isn’t the fight—“Kurt and I hardly fight,” Love told the NME. “No one could ask for a better husband”—but the fact that Nirvana’s leader feels the need to own guns. Guns come up several times in the lyrics on Nevermind, usually in a negative context. “No, I don’t have a gun,” Cobain chants in “Come As You Are,” and in “In Bloom,” he seems to attack as ignorant gun-toting fans of his music. (“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he don’t know what it means/He don’t know what it means”). “Throughout my entire life, I had never shot a gun before,” the singer says. “Growing up in Aberdeen, I had plenty of opportunities, but I was against . . . not really against the right to own a gun, I’m all for that, it’s a right that we all have.”
“But wouldn’t America be a better place if we didn’t all have guns?,” I ask.
“It’s true, but you’d never get rid of them,” Cobain says. “I don’t know, I just decided to buy a gun one day. Actually, a friend of mine gave us one for a wedding present, and I never used it. And finally I went to the range and started shooting one day and kind of realized that this is like a challenging thing—a nice pastime—to try and hit this target. And I came to the realization that you really have to be prepared to shoot a gun if you’re going to defend yourself, because it’s a really hard thing to hit a target.
“Have you shot guns before?” Cobain asks. I tell him that I haven’t.
“It’s amazing how precise you have to be. Like if there was a person right there in the corner, I’d probably still, because I’ve only had the experience of shooting like twenty times since I’ve owned guns since last year, I’d have to shoot off four or five rounds to actually hit the person. And that’s a really dangerous situation. I want to be able to be precise and shoot their kneecaps or something. Shoot exactly where I want to, so I don’t actually have to kill somebody.”
“Do you worry that you need to protect yourself in a John Lennon way?.” I ask. (Publicist Wood has caught the drift of our conversation and entered the living room, and he’s listening intently with a look somewhere between consternation and horror.)
“Not in that way, no,” Cobain says. “It’s just kind of a vulnerable are. We’ve got big windows, and I have a baby and a wife to protect. Things like that happen. People come into your house, not to steal your stereo, but to rape your wife and sodomize your baby. I just could not survive something like that. There’s no way I could ever live with myself without trying to get revenge on that person and putting him out of his misery. I wouldn’t think twice about blowing somebody away if they came into this house.”
I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, not Aberdeen, I tell Cobain, and where I come from, only idiots own guns, and they use them in stupid ways. I tell the singer that if somebody comes into his house, they’re probably breaking in to steal his f---ing stereo, and would he really want to kill someone based on such a slight offense? I was mugged once, when I was working my way through college. It was right before Christmas, and I had just cashed my two-week paycheck and Christmas bonus. Two kids tackled me from behind, held a knife to my back, grabbed my wallet, and ran off. I’d worked hard for that money, and I was furious. If I’d had a gun at that moment, I would have shot them both in the back—and I would have hated myself forever from that point on. A couple of hundred bucks meant a lot to me then, but it wasn’t worth two lives.
For these reasons, I would never want to own a gun, I tell Cobain, much less consider using one in anger.
The singer stares at me with a vacant, detached look; it’s clear that he doesn’t really understand my point, and that the only way anyone will take his guns away is if they pry them from his cold, dead fingers. “There’s a difference between owning a gun and having it safely put away in your house for an intruder,” he finally says. “To carry a gun . . . I would never carry a gun.”
I’m not convinced, and it’s the only time during several hours of smart, friendly, and spirited conversation that I feel as if we have no connection.
* * *
There’s an element of danger in most great rock ’n’ roll, a sense that anything can happen. This is a key to Nirvana’s appeal: At any moment, the group might career out of control or come screeching to a violent halt.
“When we played in Buenos Aires, we brought this all-girl band from Portland called Calamity Jane,” Cobain says. “During their entire set, the whole audience—it was a huge show with like sixty thousand people—was throwing money and everything out of their pockets, mud and rocks, just pelting them. Eventually the girls stormed off crying. It was terrible, one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, such a mass of sexism all at once.
“Krist, knowing my attitude about things like that, tried to talk me out of at least setting myself on fire or refusing to play. We ended up just having fun, laughing at them. Before every song, I’d play the intro to ‘Teen Spirit’ and then stop. They didn’t realize that we were protesting against what they’d done. We played for about forty minutes, and most of the songs were off Incesticide, so they didn’t recognize anything. We wound up playing the secret noise song [“Endless Nameless”] that’s at the end of Nevermind, and because we were so in a rage, we were just so p---ed-off about this whole situation, that song and the whole set were one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
The show sounds similar to dozens the Replacements played in their heyday. On any given night the Minneapolis quartet could deliver a passionate full-throttle blowout, a drunken self-indulgent mess, or a combination of both. But the night before interviewing Cobain, I saw former Replacements leader Paul Westerberg perform at the base of the Space Needle during the Bite of Seattle festival. Westerberg led his hired band through a tight, well-rehearsed, and boring set, stopping frequently to ask if everyone was in tune.
Anarchy doesn’t age well, and it’s impossible to sustain. In Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, rock critic Gina Arnold makes a case that Nirvana’s success was the result of a decade of underground activity. Punk rock failed to change the world in the late ’70s, but it inspired a generation of musicians, writers, college-radio DJs, promoters, and indie-label entrepreneurs who built an alternative network. From that network came the Replacements, the Feelies, Hüsker Dü, Mission of Burma, Naked Raygun, Big Black, and many more bands that played uncompromising music powered by the emotion of the moment. For most of them the moment came and went before conditions coincided to make a difference to the outside world. But for Nirvana everything clicked.
“There are different aspects of where we were culturally,” says Novoselic, the band’s resident philosopher. “In January 1990 George Bush had like an eighty-five percent approval rating, and in 1992 when Nevermind was happening, we elected this governor from Arkansas. Maybe it took until late 1992 for the ’90s to happen.
“And now comes the exploitation part of it. There are some bands out there now that would easily fit into the repertoire of, say, Rick Springfield or Phil Collins. But they’re young, they dress kind of hip and modern, and they’re called alternative. It’s just bulls---. It’s just exploitation.”
But there’s got to be more to the story than that. Mudhoney’s classic “If I Think” from 1988’s Superfuzz Bigmuff EP is easily the anthemic equal of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But Mudhoney didn’t do what Nirvana did. Novoselic nods and stumbles for an answer.
“Yeah. No. Maybe it was the production,” he says finally. “What ‘If I Think’ did was help to unite the Seattle scene. When that EP came out, it was a must-have, and those were magical times. That was the Seattle scene. When Mudhoney was playing and we were playing, and Tad and the Fluid. That was a little time in history that you can compare to the Liverpool scene, the Cavern Club. It was innocent. It wasn’t exploited. Now look what it’s come to. Everybody’s older and wiser.”
Says Cobain: “A lot of the bands who are finally getting their just rewards, like Soul Asylum—bands who have been around for a long time and have apparently been innovative—they seem to be in competition with each other now. It’s mainly been quotes from most of these bands in articles; that’s where I’ve noticed it. I don’t understand how these people can come from an environment and a lifestyle after so many years of being in underground music and keeping that kind of music alive, and now it suddenly seems like a desperate attempt by some of these bands who’ve never been recognized at trying to say we deserve that. It’s kind of sickening to see how these bands become careerists all of a sudden. That’s what everyone was against when they started these bands. The reason I wanted to be in a band was to be in a band and write songs. You can be validated if you sell two thousand records, and you should be happy with that.”
Maybe it was just a nostalgic window to the past but the scene at the Crocodile Café the night before didn’t seem too jaded. Novoselic is still holding his head from the festivities, and he’s drinking coffee to clear the fog. Scream, Grohl’s old hardcore band from Washington, D.C., played an energetic reunion gig at Seattle’s hippest rock club, part of a tour to promote a new CD of previously unreleased material. (The drummer skipped Nirvana’s week of interviews to travel with the group.) Novoselic danced awkwardly through the entire show, part of an enthusiastic crowd that included fellow Seattle legends Tad and Mark Arm of Mudhoney (but not Cobain). When the members of Scream took the stage, Nirvana’s bassist welcomed them by shouting, “Stone Gossard Pirates!,” simultaneously dissing the Pearl Jam guitarist and pathetic Pearl Jam wannabes Stone Temple Pilots.
Novoselic’s life has clearly been changed by Nirvana’s success, but it’s just as plain that he hasn’t lost much of his love for the music. He owns a beautiful two-story house in a pleasant tree-lined neighborhood midway between downtown Seattle and the Cobains’ place further out on the city’s edge. But he seems proudest of his two jukeboxes, one in the living room for 45s, and one in the basement that plays albums.
Midway through out conversation, the Federal Express man rings the doorbell. Novoselic brings the package into the den and opens it to find a framed gold record signifying sales of five hundred thousand for Incesticide, the compilation of B-sides and rarities that Nirvana released after Nevermind. Today’s Seattle Times carries a short item noting that Nevermind has finally dropped off Billboard’s Top 200 album chart after an impressive ninety-two weeks.
“If it wasn’t for ‘Teen Spirit,’ I don’t know how Nevermind would have done,” Novoselic says. “There are no ‘Teen Spirits’ on In Utero. There are six or seven great songs, but no phenomenal big hit.”
Regardless of how many copies the album sells, the band members believe they’ve already succeeded. They’re working together better than they ever have, Cobain says, and he hopes they’ll write more as a group in the future. The night before our interview, he and Novoselic sat up until dawn brainstorming over the storyboard for the “Heart-Shaped Box” video, which the duo envisions as a spoof of The Wizard of Oz filmed in a technique approximating Technicolor.
“I have my heart set on—everybody, the whole band has their heart set on—releasing ‘Scentless Apprentice’ after ‘Heart-Shaped Box,’” Cobain says. “That’s a really good example of the direction we’re going in. We actually collaborated on that song. It came together in practice. It was just a totally satisfying thing to finally contribute equally to a song, instead of me coming up with the basics of the song. Obviously, we’re pretty much on the same wavelength; there’s never been a situation where I tell them what to do. But there are a lot of times where I’ve had to sit behind the drum set and show Dave what I’ve been thinking in my head, and he’ll incorporate that idea. For the most part it’s always been like eighty percent my song that I’ve written at home and introduced to the band later on in practice. I’m just so pleased to be able to collaborate. I’m getting tired of being expected to be the sole songwriter. I would love to have a songwriting partner. And Krist and Dave for some reason have started to come out of their shell.”
“There was a time when things broke down and got screwy after the success of Nevermind, but everything was pretty much resolved by communication,” Novoselic says. “There were just so many factors; things were happening so fast. There was all this fame and all these people who might want something. You’d walk into Safeway, and people would be looking at you real strange, wanting autographs. We had different reactions to it. There was a time when the way I reacted to the band was, ‘I don’t care. Whatever.’ And I think Kurt reacted to that: ‘Well, Krist doesn’t care anymore.’ And it snowballed. But now I find myself getting more and more outspoken again, and I think that’s healthy. I think Kurt respects that. He has somebody to bounce things off of and get some input from. He feels he has all this pressure on him as the center figure, the singer-songwriter, and he appreciates having some help.”
The difficulties the members of Nirvana face now include accepting the responsibilities of platinum-selling rock stars (“We have to be a good role model to people,” Novoselic says sincerely. “I try not to brag about being a drunkard or a pot smoker”) while maintaining their punk credibility (“Do you think that we’re still a pain in the ass for the music industry?” he asks. “Are we still uncooperative? Is there still that vibe in the air?”). They also have to focus their rage on the right targets and convince the massive Nevermind audience to grow with them. But there’s every indication they’re up to the challenge.
At Roseland during the New Music Seminar the band takes the stage after an opening set by invited guest the Jesus Lizard, a Chicago quartet that’s considered one of the harshest bands in the noise-rock underground. Augmented by a second guitarist, former Exploited player Big John Duncan, Nirvana runs through a sloppy but intense twenty-song set that draws from each of its albums. This is the first time fans are hearing “Serve the Servants,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” and “All Apologies,” but many are singing along by the final choruses.
There’s an unusually heavy bonehead element at the show, violent jocks slamming with wild abandon in the middle of the floor, disregarding the etiquette of the mosh pit, and sending dozens of more peaceful fans scurrying to the sides of the room with bruises and bloodied noses. The group ends its set with four acoustic songs, sitting on stools at the edge of the stage like Led Zeppelin in its unplugged mode. “F--- the folk s---,” one of the boneheads shouts, but most people listen intently to the simple, eloquent versions of “Dumb,” “Polly,” and “Something in the Way.” The show ends with Ledbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which is treated as a sort of Appalachian folk song similar to the version done by Ricky Skaggs. Its sad haunting strains provide the night’s most moving moment.
Nirvana returns for a half-hearted, badly out-of-tune “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and a version of “Endless, Nameless.” But the encore is anticlimactic. Tonight, the band members make their point by quietly strumming their instruments instead of smashing them.
The night after the Roseland show, I run into Novoselic as he’s heading into Irving Plaza to see Pavement, one of the many indie comers pegged as “the next Nirvana.” It’s an opinion I don’t share, and I’m leaving to catch the older but more reliable Buzzcocks at the Academy when the bassist stops me with a big, friendly hello.
“I know you,” I say. “You’re Andy Kaufman.” And Novoselic smiles broadly.