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King of Pain
Q - October, 1993.
On the eve of the release of In Utero, the hungrily anticipated successor to the planet-rogering Nevermind, Q meets Nirvana and delves into Kurt Cobainís curious world of heroin abuse, acute paranoia, wilful self-destruction, shoulder-shrugging nihilism and child-like love. "I wish I could have taken a class on becoming a rock star," he confesses to Phil Sutcliffe. "It might have prepared me for this."
By Phil Sutcliffe.
It's around midnight. Kurt Cobain sits forlorn at the head of a long, empty table in a Manhattan hotel conference room. "Itís impossible, itís not worth it," he says in one worn-out sigh. "I think if this book comes out there just wonít be a band any more." This book is the notorious, though still unpublished, Victoria Clarke and Britt Collins version of the Nirvana story. Since last autumn, rumours of its contents have moved Cobain and his wife, Hole singer Courtney Love, to counter-attacks ranging from legal pressure to threatening answerphone messages ("If anything comes out in this book which hurts my wife, Iíll fuckiní hurt you!").
A few minutes earlier, Love had interrupted the interview in some distress, clutching her stomach, as if that was where the hurt was, and asked for a private word with her husband. Sheíd been checking through proofs of the book supplied to the band that evening by the prospective publishers, who are so alarmed by the prospect of litigation that they have offered Nirvana not only a preview but various options on right of reply and text approval too.
As is well known, the most vexed area of the Clarke-Collins investigations concerned Love and Cobainís flirtation with heroin, which probably began in late 1991 and went critical when she found she was pregnant the following January. Love says that after doctors confirmed the baby would be unharmed if she quit at once, she entered a detox clinic and stayed straight from then on. Their daughter, Frances Bean, was born, normal and healthy, on August 18 last year. However, an article in Septemberís Vanity Fair quoted Love, falsely she swears, as admitting sheíd carried on shooting up for two months after the positive pregnancy test ó a line Clarke-Collins were alleged to be pursuing through concerted efforts to obtain confidential medical records.
Itís not just a matter of the Cobainsí "good name". A Los Angeles court took the Vanity Fair piece as prima facie evidence to remove Frances from their home for some weeks (she was placed in Courtneyís sisterís care) and then, until March this year, compelled the couple to continuously prove they were fit parents via the indignity of supplying regular urine samples to confirm that they hadnít resumed drug-taking. These were the memories revived by reading the book proofs.
"Iím just in a haze right now," says Cobain in his slow-motion Northwestern drawl. "For the last six months there have actually been a few positive articles written about Courtney. We thought the curse had lifted. Now this. I canít decide whether I like playing music enough to put up with the shit thatís written about us, especially the shit thatís written about somebody I totally love.
"I wish I could have taken a class on becoming a rock star. It might have prepared me for this. Those women have gone out of their way to try to destroy two other peopleís lives. Or theyíre so numb they thought it wouldnít bother us."
Looking up from contemplation of the smudged red varnish on his fingernails, he gives the reserved hint of an ironic laugh which is all the public merriment he permits himself. "The strange thing is I used to be an extremely negative person," he says. "My attitudes and opinions have only got more optimistic in the last couple of years and thatís because of having a child and being in love. Itís the only thing I feel Iíve been blessed with. Thatís the life I want. For years, thatís the life I was searching for. I wanted a partner. I wanted security. I wanted a family. Everything else is totally irrelevant.
"I know it seems as if Iím a complainerÖ"
Kurt Cobain, now 26, is a career put-upon-artist, constantly offering cues and clues to connect his difficult life with his roaring, howling yet somehow listener-friendly music.
His apprenticeship in angst was served after what one of his new songs mocks as "that legendary divorce": idyllic childhood in the remote timber-trade town of Aberdeen, Washington state, shattered at eight when his parents split and he began shuttling from mother to father to aunts, uncles and grandparents (an experience obviously not unconnected with the heart-stopping primal screams of "Please donít go!" from a child to his mother on the 1988 [sic] Sub Pop single, Sliver).
Whatís ultimately unfathomable is that although he had no family background nor education in any of the arts, after a few years he began to put his feelings into painting, sculpture, poems and music ó in addition to vandalism, drug-taking and all-round obnoxiousness, that is.
Furthermore, he revealed a natural aptitude for the lifestyle of the tormented artist. In his teens, he actually offended the very last relative or friend who would put a roof over his head, and for a time lived on the street ó as if tiny Aberdeen were an alienating metropolitan hell. He slept out in cardboard boxes on peopleís porches or the river bank, as recalled in Something In The Way: "Underneath the bridge/The tarp has sprung a leakÖ And Iím living off of grass/And the drippings from the ceiling".
Courtney Love went into labour. She gave birth with her husband at her side ó vomiting and semi-comatose with withdrawal symptoms.
Looking back with his strong instinct for candour as well as Art, Cobain has acknowledged that he wasnít entirely the victim of circumstance; in part, he was experimenting with himself, playing a rather arduous role in a boho romance to see what emerged.
However, from his teens, there had always been one aspect of his suffering that was utterly involuntary ó frequent, excruciating and unexplained stomach pain. Although it was often dismissed as psychosomatic, purging emotional traumas through his creative endeavours afforded no relief and it was this plain physical agony, by Cobainís account, which eventually led him to adopt another of the stock images of the artist: the strung-out addict teetering on the brink of self-destruction.
According to Michael Azzeradís authorised, yet vivid and startlingly honest Nirvana book, due out in October, on tour in Europe and with Nevermind running riot in album charts everywhere, Cobain decided his stomach pain had become so constant and unbearable that he would try heroin as an anaesthetic. He insists he persuaded Courtney Love to share the highs and the habit, not vice versa as has often been mooted.
For him, though, it got out of hand. It did kill the pain but, says Azzerad, he also recognised a compulsion to take the experience all the way to the pits of addiction. While he detoxed at the same time as his wife, for him it didnít take. He went back to the drug and could not finally accept the "cure" until his baby was about to be born. In early August, Ď92, he entered a Los Angeles hospital where, days later, in another wing, Courtney went into labour. She gave birth with her husband at her side ó vomiting and semi-comatose with withdrawal symptoms.
Maybe thatís when he stopped playing the game of art with his life. He cleaned up. Within a few months, a doctor suggested that his stomach pains might be caused by trapped spinal nerves. Subsequent treatment and exercise relieved the former soul-destroying eruptions. Thus, to the surprise of many, Cobain came to record the follow-up to Nevermind in rather good shape.
Yet if, after all, Nirvanaís main man wasnít going to take romantic artistry the whole way and actually self-destruct, the people at their record company, Geffen subsidiary DOC, realised they could now move on to worrying about the new album. In particular, there was the art-purism fuelled and commercially suicidal tendency towards "back to the roots" American noise-punk ó as in catastrophic unlistenability ó when all any sensible executive (or, indeed, fan?) could wish for was a facsimile of the sound that made the universally acclaimed, unimpeachably pulverising Nevermind sell nine million worldwide.
The appointment of Steve Albini as producer just about put the tin lid on the panic, for had he not been a member of the very horrible Big Black, the unspeakable Rapeman? Had he not produced the cochlea-crunching Pixies, the timpani-trashing Breeders? Yes, it was that Steve Albini.
I happen to love Steve Albini," says Dave Grohl, 24, Nirvanaís ever upbeat drummer. ĎHe really prides himself on being the biggest dick you ever met in your life and he does a good job of it. Heís also an incredibly intelligent producer."
Had the record company tried to stop Nirvana using him?
"No. We didnít say ĎWe wannaí, we said ĎWeíre gonnaí," says Grohl. "After Nevermind, we had the power. Our A&R man at the time, Gary Gersch, was freaking out. I said, Gary, man, donít be so afraid, the record will turn out great! He said, Oh, Iím not afraid, go ahead, bring me back the best you can do. It was like, Go and have your fun, then weíll get another producer and make the real album."
Certainly DGC could afford to contemplate the loss. Two weeks in Pachyderm, an outback Minnesota studio ó Nirvanaís choice ó cost, Cobain maintains, $17,000 [plus $100,000 recording fee to Albini Ė jj]. Peanuts. And the sessions went without a hitch.
Albiniís style of recording was exactly what Nirvana had hoped for to capture the true essence of the sound which, they felt, had been smoothed and prettified on Nevermind. First, he festooned the room with mikes to catch every nuance of each instrument (four or five for the snare drum alone). Then he blasted through, first-taking almost every song. In a fortnight, Nirvana walked away with cassettes of the album, In Utero, three very happy men.
Which is when the rumours set in: initially, that the album had indeed been rejected by DGC as a mass market impossibility. Then the story shifted tack ó partly because Steve Albini had joined the fray with dark, non-specific hints that his work was being adulterated ó to suggest that Nirvana had bowed to label pressure and heavily re-recorded or remixed, cravenly dumping "alternative" integrity for commercial gain.
What was it all about?
"The truth is Steve Albini is very paranoid. Iíve never worked with so many people I respect as I do now at DGC," says Kurt Cobain, former scourge of "corporate rock whores". "Some of them didnít like the record and told us so. Some of them loved it. Either way, we did what we wanted because our contract gives us 100 per cent artistic control."
It was all smoke and no fire then?
"Those tapes we took away from the studio sounded very different when we played them at home," says Cobain. "For three weeks none of us could work out what was wrong and we didnít know what the fuck we were going to do. Then we realised it was the vocals and the bass werenítj loud enough. The mixing weíd done with Steve Albini was so fast it was ridiculous, about one hour per track. We decided to remix two songs, Heart-Shaped Box and Scentless Apprentice [sic], with Scott Litt (R.E.M.ís producer). The rest we were able to improve during mastering. That took care of it. Weíre totally satisfied now."
"This album sounds like Nirvana!" Grohl enthuses. "Nevermindís only flaw was that it had no flaws. Play it alongside our live tapes and itís a sharp, thin thing compared to this big boom, this rumble, this khhhhhsss (a fair impression of megawatt static issues from the back of his throat). In Utero is boom and rumble, man!"
"The music industry is so full of arrogant people, people who have no shame, people without a shred of decency..."
So thatís all right then, at least until the reviews come in. The album isnít the easy-listening option.
Except that when Nirvana made their concert comeback with a short-notice gig at the Roseland dance hall in New York, they threw another curveball. Live, for an hour, the scattering of songs from In Utero fitted seamlessly with the Nevermind material ó a familiar, incendiary roar, nothing outlandish. The masses moshed, the industry enclosure bobbed and grinned.
But then on came the lady cellist. Nirvana pulled up stools and played a five-song acoustic set, including Polly and Something In The Way from Nevermind and a Leadbelly song called Where Did You Sleep Last Night. Then they walked off. In silence. Launching their "new campaign", a multi-platinum band had actually made their audience forget to want an encore. When, after five minutes of shuffle and mutter, Nirvana did come back with a full-on electric Smells Like Teen Spirit and the feedback workout Endless Nameless, it was hardly by popular demand.