Kurt Cobain: I’m Not Gonna Crack!
Poisoned by the chalice of instant success, bedridden with road-rash after a ton of amp-smashingly intense gigs – what's happened to Nirvana's tortured singer and distillery of teen spirit, Kurt Cobain? "All I need is a break," he says…
FOR NOW, Kurt Cobain and his new wife, Courtney Love, live in an apartment in Los Angeles' modest Fairfax district. The living room holds little besides a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier, a stringless guitar, a makeshift Buddhist shrine and, on the mantel, the couple's collection of naked plastic dolls.
Scores of CDs and tapes are strewn around the stereo – obscurities such as Calamity Jane, Cosmic Psychos and Billy Childish, as well as Cheap Trick and the Beatles. 'Norwegian Wood' drifts down the hall to the dimly lit bedroom where Cobain lies flat on his back in striped pyjamas, a red-painted big toenail peeking out the other end of the blanket and a couple of teddy bears lying beside him for company.
He's been suffering from a long-standing and painful stomach condition – perhaps an ulcer – aggravated by stress and, apparently, his screaming singing style. Having eaten virtually nothing for over two weeks, Cobain is strikingly gaunt and frail, far from the stubbly doughboy who smirked out from a photo inside Nevermind. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who smashes guitars and wails with such violence – until you notice his blazing blue eyes and the faded pink and purple streaks in his hair.
"All I need is a break, and my stress will be over with," says the 25-year-old Cobain. "I'm going to get healthy and start over."
He's certainly earned a break after playing nearly 100 dates on four continents in five months, never staying in one place long enough for a doctor to tend to his stomach problem. He and his band mates, bassist Chris Novoselic (pronounced nova-SELL-itch) and drummer Dave Grohl, have had to cope with the peculiar position of being the world's first triple-platinum punk rock band.
Soon after the US release of Nevermind, MTV pumped 'Teen Spirit' night and day as the album vaulted up the charts until it hit Number One. Although the band's label, DGC, doubted the album would sell more than 250,000 copies, it sold three million in just four months and continues to sell nearly 100,000 copies a week.
Friends worried about how the band was dealing with it all.
"Dave's just psyched," says Nils Bernstein, a good friend of the band who coordinates their fan mail. "He's 22, and he's a womaniser, and he's just: 'Score!'." Novoselic, according to Bernstein, had a drinking problem but went on the wagon this year so he could stay on top of his exploding career.
But rumours are flying about Cobain. A recent item in the US music industry magazine Hitssaid Cobain was "slam dancing with Mr Brownstone", Guns N' Roses slang for doing heroin. A January profile in BAM magazine claimed Cobain was "nodding off in mid-sentence" adding that "the pinned pupils, sunken cheeks and scabbed, sallow skin suggest something more serious than mere fatigue."
Cobain denies he is using heroin. "I don't even drink any more because it destroys my stomach," he protests. "My body wouldn't allow me to take drugs if I wanted to, because I'm so weak all the time.
"All drugs are a waste of time," he continues. "They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self-esteem. They're no good at all. But I'm not going to go around preaching against them. It's your choice, but in my experience, I've found they're a waste of time."
Cobain brushes off speculation that he's finding fame difficult and dismisses rumours that he'll soon break up the band because it has become too big. "It really isn't affecting me as much as it seems like it is in interviews and the way that a lot of journalists have portrayed my attitude," he says. "I'm pretty relaxed with it."
But people who know him say otherwise. Choosing his words carefully, Jack Endino, producer of the band's début LP, Bleach, says: "When I saw them in Amsterdam a few months back it seemed like they were a little grouchy and… under pressure, let's put it that way."
"Kurt is ready to strangle the next person who takes his picture," adds Bernstein.
Fame rubs against Cobain's punk ethos, which is why he refused a limo ride to Nirvana'sSaturday Night Live appearance. "People are treating him like a god, and that pisses him off," says Bernstein. "They're giving Kurt this elevated sense of importance that he feels he doesn't have or deserve. So he's like: 'F*** you!'.
"Chris and Dave had to pick up a lot of Kurt's slack," Bernstein continues. "Chris and Dave were close before, but now they're inseparable."
"Just to survive lately, I've become a lot more withdrawn from the band," Cobain confesses. "I don't party after the show; I go straight to my hotel room and go to sleep and concentrate on eating in the morning. I'd rather deal with things like that. Our friendship isn't being jeopardized by it, but this tour has definitely taken years off of our lives. I plan to make changes."
Stress has bothered Cobain before. He had an onstage breakdown at a 1989 show in Rome, near the end of a particularly gruelling European tour. Says Bruce Pavitt, co-owner of Sub Pop Records, Nirvana's first label: "After four or five songs, he quit playing and climbed up the speaker column and was going to jump off. The bouncers were freaking out, and everybody was just begging him to come down. And he was saying: 'No, no, I'm just going to dive'. He'd really reached his limit. People saw a guy in front of them who was going to break his neck if he didn't get it together." Cobain was eventually talked down.
If he can stand the heat, Cobain (extremely bright and unafraid to take provocative stands) may emerge as a John Lennon-like figure. The comparison with Cobain's idol isn't frivolous. like Lennon, he's using his music to scream out an unhappy childhood. And like Lennon, he's deeply in love with an equally provocative and visionary artist – Courtney Love, leader of the fiery neo-feminist band Hole.
Cobain and Love were married in February at a secluded Hawaiian location after the band's tour of Japan and Australia, with only a female nondenominational minister and a roadie as a witness.
"It's like Evian water and battery acid," Cobain says of the couple's chemistry. And when you mix the two? "You get love," says Cobain, smiling for the fast time. "I'm just happier than I've ever been. I finally found someone that I am totally compatible with. It doesn't matter whether she's a male, female or hermaphrodite or a donkey. We're compatible." Whenever Love walks into the room, even if it's to scold him about something, he gets the profoundly dopey grin of the truly love-struck.
"I have thought about it, and I can't come to any conclusions at all," says Cobain ofNevermind's phenomenal panglobal chart-busting success. "I don't want to sound egotistical, but I know it's better than a majority of the commercial s*** that's been crammed down people's throats for a long time."
NEVERMIND EMBODIES a cultural moment; 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is an anthem for (or is it against?) the 'Why Ask Why?' generation. But don't ask him to speak on behalf of them: "I'm a spokesman for myself," he says. "It just so happens that there's a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times, because I'm as confused as most people. I don't have the answers for anything. I don't want to be a f***ing spokesperson."
"That ambiguity or confusion, that's the whole thing," says Nevermind producer Butch Vig. "What the kids are attracted to in the music is that he's not necessarily a spokesman for a generation, but all that's in the music – the passion and [the fact that] he doesn't necessarily know what he wants but he's pissed. It's all these things working at different levels at once. I don't exactly know what 'Teen Spirit' means, but you know it means something and it's intense as hell."
Cobain agrees the message isn't necessarily in the words. "Most of the music is really personal, as far as the emotion and the experiences that I've had in my life are concerned," he says, dragging on a cigarette, "but most of the themes in the songs aren't that personal. They're more just stories from TV or books or movies or friends. But definitely the emotion and feeling is from me.
"Most of the concentration of my singing is in my upper abdomen, that's where I scream, that's where I feel, that's where everything comes out of me – right here," he continues, touching a point just below his breastbone. It just happens to be exactly where his stomach pain is centred.
When Nevermind hit Number One, Cobain was "kind of excited," he says. "I wouldn't admit that at the time. I just hope that it doesn't end with us. I hope there are other bands that can keep it going."
Although Cobain is thrilled when underground bands infiltrate the mainstream charts, he's outraged by others who ride the coat-tails of the alternative boom. His favourite target is Pearl jam, also from Seattle, whom he accused of 'corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion' in a recent Musician magazine interview. "Every article I see written about them, they mention us, and they're baiting that fact," says Cobain. "I would love to be erased from my association with that band and other corporate bands like The Nymphs and a few other felons. I feel a duty to warn the kids of false music that's claiming to be underground or alternative. They're jumping on the alternative bandwagon."
Cobain is happier to reel off a list of some of the bands he does like: The Breeders, the Pixies, REM, Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, Beat Happening, Dinosaur Jr and Flipper. Then there's his beloved Captain America. "Eugene and Frances Kelly are the Lennon and McCartney of the underworld – or the Captain and Tennille," says Cobain. On last year's tour Cobain and covered 'Dolly's Lips', a song written by Eugene and first recorded by The Vaselines, the Scottish tunesmith's previous band.
For the members of Nirvana, plugging fellow underground musicians is one of the few consolations for the pressures of fame. When the band played Seattle's Paramount Theatre for its big homecoming show last Halloween, the support act was Bikini Kill, a confrontational female-led band from nearby Olympia that came out in lingerie with SLUT written across their stomachs. Novoselic is toying with the idea of a 'punk-rock MTV' featuring underground acts.
Helping out fellow alternative types strengthens the community that made Nirvana's own success possible. "It's not a matter of destroying the music industry," explains Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman, "it's a question of being able to be included. Egalitarian revolution – that's what makes them a punk rock band."
Novoselic and Cobain come from rural Aberdeen, Washington, a hundred miles southwest of Seattle, where Novoselic's mom runs Maria's Hair Design. A depressed logging town, Aberdeen has seen better days – namely, during the whaling era in the mid-19th century, when the town served as one big brothel for visiting sailors, a fact that Novoselic has said makes residents "a little ashamed of our roots". Pervasive unemployment and a perpetually rainy, grey climate have led to rampant alcoholism and a suicide rate more than twice the already high state average. The local pawnshop is full of guns, chainsaws and guitars.
One of the more popular bars in town is actually called the Pourhouse, which is where two young men of Cobain's age, Joe and James, sit down for a pitcher of beer each. Joe is out of work because his leg is broken. "I tried to fly off a house," he explains.
"Yeah, I know the Cobain kid," says James. "Faggot".
"He's a faggot?" asks Joe, taken aback. Recovering quickly, he declares: "We deal with faggots here. We run 'em out of town."
This is where Cobain and Novoselic grew up. That's why they kissed each other full on the lips as the Saturday Night Live credits rolled. They knew it would piss off the folks back home – and everybody like them.
"I definitely have a problem with the average macho man – the strong oxen working-class type," Cobain says wearily, "because they have always been a threat to me. I've had to deal with them most of my life – being taunted and beaten up by them in school, just having to be around them and be expected to be that kind of person when you grow up.
"I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be," Cobain continues. "Just watch a beer commercial and you'll see what I mean."
Of course, Cobain was miserable in high school. Surrounded by hard-drinking meatheads whose only prospects were unemployment or risking life and limb hacking down beautiful centuries-old trees, Cobain was a sensitive sort, small for his age and uninterested in sports. "He was terrified of jocks and moron dudes," recalls Cobain's old friend, Mudhoney bassist Mart Lukin.
"As I got older," says Cobain, a fan of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, "I felt more and more alienated – I couldn't find friends whom I felt compatible with at all. Everyone was eventually going to become a logger, and I knew I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be some kind of artist."
"If he would have been anywhere else," says his mother, Wendy O'Connor, "he would have been fine – there would have been enough of his kind not to stick out so much. But this town is just exactly like Peyton Place. Everybody is watching everyone and judging, and they have their little slots they like everyone to stay in – and he didn't."
A FRIEND of Cobain's half-joked that Nevermind sold to every abused child in the country, and maybe that's not far from the truth – the divorce rate soared to nearly 50 per cent in the mid-'70s, and all those children of broken homes are becoming adults. Including Kurt Cobain.
His parents – a secretary and an auto mechanic – divorced when he was eight, and "it just destroyed his life," says his mother. "He changed completely. I think he was ashamed. And he became very inward – real shy. It just devastated him. I think he's still suffering." A bit of a "juvenile" as he puts it, Cobain was shuffled from his mother to his father, uncles and grandparents and back again.
Cobain listened to nothing but The Beatles until he was nine, when his dad began subscribing to a record club and albums by Led Zeppelin, Kiss and Black Sabbath began arriving in the mail. Then Kurt began following the Sex Pistols' American tour in magazines. He didn't know what punk sounded like, because no store in town stocked the records, but he had an idea. "I was looking for something a lot heavier, yet melodic at the same time," Cobain says, "something different from heavy metal, a different attitude."
Cobain idolized the Aberdeen band The Melvins, driving their tour van, hauling their equipment and watching more than 200 of their rehearsals, by his estimate. Melvins leader Buzz Osbome became his friend and mentor and took 16-year-old Cobain to his first rock show – Black Flag. According to erstwhile Melvins bassist Matt Lukin: "He was totally blown away." It was about this time that Cobain moved from drums to guitar.
"I don't think he had a hell of a lot of friends," Lukin recalls. "He was always trying to start bands, but it was hard to find people who wouldn't flake out on him." Osbome introduced him to Novoselic, a shy youth so tall (he's six foot seven) that he bumped his head on the beams in Cobain's house. Cobain formed a band with this kindred spirit two years his senior. They went through names like Ed, Ted and Fred; Skid Row; and Fecal Matter before settling on Nirvana. Nerves and crummy equipment hampered their live attack, but Nirvana slowly developed a powerful sound, becoming very popular in neighbouring Olympia, where they would play wild parties at Evergreen State College.
Meanwhile, Cobain's mother kicked him out of the house after he quit high school and played in bands instead of getting a job. Homeless, Cobain slept on friends' couches. At one point, he lived under a bridge in Aberdeen, an arrangement chronicled in 'Something In The Way' onNevermind.
A vandal with a cause, Cobain loved to spray-paint the word 'queer' on 4×4 trucks, the redneck vehicle of choice. Other favourite graffiti included GOD IS GAY and ABORT CHRIST. In 1985 Novoselic, Osborne and 18-year-old Cobain wrote HOMOSEXUAL SEX RULES on the side of an Aberdeen bank (though Osborne swears it said QUIET RIOT). While Osborne and Novoselic hid in a garage, Cobain was caught and arrested. A police report lists the contents of his pockets: a guitar pick, a key, a beer, a mood ring and a cassette by the militant punk band Millions Of Dead Cops. He received a $180 fine and a 30-day suspended sentence. "He is really a very angry person," says Sub Pop's Bruce Pavitt, "so he makes dramatic gestures that piss people off." But Cobain is also sensitive, and sensitive people are often the angriest. "Exactly," says Pavitt. "That's the key."
Cobain took jobs as a janitor at a hotel and at a dentist's office (where he dipped into the nitrous) and moved in with Matt Lukin, who was then with The Melvins.
In a demo session with producer Jack Endino, one of the patron saints of the Seattle grunge scene, Cobain and Melvins drummer Dale Crover finished ten songs in one afternoon. Impressed, Endino played the tape for Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman. Cobain met the label's boss soon after at a Seattle coffee shop and Nirvana were signed up.
A year and two drummers later, in October 1988, Sub Pop released the single 'Love Buzz'/'Big Cheese'; Bleach was released in June 1989, recorded for the princely sum of $606.17.
Bleach sold slowly at first, but after a few months critical raves and effusive praise from indie kingpins Sonic Youth eventually helped the album to sell 35,000 copies – highly impressive for an indie release. The album's sales have since exploded in the wake of Nevermind.
By this time, however, Bleach drummer Chad Channing was history. Osborne knew Dave Grohl from sharing bills with Grohl's band, Scream. After Scream's bassist quit, Grohl called Osbome in desperation, and Osborne hooked him up with his old buddies in Nirvana. "Chris and Kurt liked Dave because he hits the drums harder than anybody," says Butch Vig.
In August 1990, Nirvana recorded six tracks with Vig for a planned Sub Pop album. Bleachwas very good, but Cobain had returned to the studio with songs that were a quantum leap past anything he'd done before.
Meanwhile, Sub Pop had begun talking to major labels about a distribution deal. Figuring that if they had to be on a major label, they might as well choose it themselves, the members of Nirvana began shopping the Vig demos. Only a major could afford to buy Nirvana out of their Sub Pop contract, and major distribution would get their punk to the people. "That's pretty much my excuse for not feeling guilty about why I'm on a major label," says Cobain. "I should feel really guilty about it; I should be living out the old punk-rock threat and denying everything commercial and sticking in my own little world and not really making an impact on anyone other than the people who are already aware of what I'm complaining about. It's preaching to the converted."
A BIDDING war broke out among a handful of labels. Nirvana signed to DGC, the label run by entertainment magnate David Geffen, a subsidiary of giant MCA and the home of Guns N' Roses and Cher. The band received $287,000 in advance money.
The group approached REM producer Scott Litt and Southern pop maestro Don Dixon, but neither wound up taking the job, and the band chose Vig to produce instead. During rehearsals for the album, one song really stuck out. "As soon as they started playing 'Teen Spirit'," Vig says, "it was awesome sounding. I was pacing around the room, trying not to jump up and down in ecstasy."
Nevermind was recorded last spring for $135,000, including living expenses, mastering and even Vig's fees. He has since renegotiated his deal. Slayer producer Andy Wallace mixed the album, and Vig knew something was up when all sorts of people started asking him for advance tapes. Now he's besieged with offers to produce bands and "make them sound like Nirvana".
Just last September Novoselic and Cobain were so poor they had to pawn their amps; now Cobain gets twenty bucks out of the cash machine and finds there's another $100,000 in his account. When Novoselic told a friend he'd bought a five-bedroom house in Seattle, the friend pointed out that the payments would just be another headache. "What payments?" Novoselic replied. He'd paid for the house in full.
"A lot of people ask me: 'When's he going to buy you a new car?' When's he going to buy you a house?'," says Cobain's mother. "I couldn't even accept it if he offered it. We could have helped him along if we would have realized that this was really going to be something. We thought he'd get over it. I wish we would have helped him out a little more. He owes us nothing."
Nirvana, however, owes DGC another record, which the band are likely to start recording late this Autumn or early winter. Says Jonathan Poneman, "Either Kurt is going to create something that is an ornate masterpiece, or he is going to create something angry and filled with rage and confusion." Butch Vig thinks it might be a low-key acoustic album.
"I have a pretty good idea," says Cobain. "I think both of the extremes will be in the next album – it'll be more raw with some songs and more candy pop on some of the others. It won't be as one-dimensional."
One-dimensional or not, there's a good chance Cobain's audience just doesn't get his message. The anti-macho 'Territorial Pissings' was used as background music for a football show; 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' might suffer the same fate as 'Rockin' In The Free World' or 'Born In The USA' – listeners may not get the irony at all. Actually, Cobain predicted this in the chorus to Nevermind's 'In Bloom' – 'He's the one who likes all the pretty songs/And he likes to sing along…/But he knows not what it means." Cleverly, the song is a natural-born singalong, trapping listeners into the joke.
According to Nils Bernstein, most Nirvana fan letters are along the lines of. "Hey, dude, I saw you video and bought your tape! You guys really kick ass!"
"Everybody says: 'You guys kick ass'," says Bernstein. About half ask for the lyrics to 'Teen Spirit' (the complete lyrics to Nevermind will be included with the next single, 'Lithium'). Most letter writers are between ten and 22, buy cassettes and watch MTV "There's not very many sexual letters," says Bernstein, "which is a drag. The ones from prison are the best ones; also the ones from the military." And what do soldiers say? "They say: 'Hey, you guys kick some ass!'."
Cobain accepts that much of his new audience is made up of the same types who hassled him in high school. "I can't have a lot of animosity towards them, because I understand that a lot of people's personalities aren't necessarily their choice – a lot of times, they're pushed into the way they live," he says. "Hopefully, they'll like our music and listen to something else that's in the same vein, that's a bit different from Van Halen. Hopefully, they'll be exposed to the underground by reading interviews with us. Knowing that we do come from a punk-rock world, maybe they'll look into that and change their ways a bit."
But it's doubtful that most of them ever will. "Yeah, it seems hopeless," Cobain says with a sigh. "But it's fun to fight. It gives you something to do. It relieves boredom."
© Michael Azerrad, 1992