By Jerry McCulley.
But on a rain-drenched Friday night inside the cavernous Los Angeles Sports Arena, none of that seems to matter much. Nirvana has just finished a blistering, feedback-smothered rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" midway through its opening set for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and 16,000 kids are on their feet roaring their approval for a song that has quickly gone from format-smashing breakthrough radio hit to bona fide teen anthem. "We're stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain usÖ" goes the refrain, singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain spitting the words out with a scabrous howl, the hem of his black dress (yes, dress) swirling around his long-john-covered knees, tufts on his fried, over-dyed hair clinging to his cheeks. Contagious? Certainly. Stupid? Hardly.
"I wanted to at least sell enough records to be able to eat macaroni and cheese, so I didnít have to have a job," says Cobain in a sarcastically soft-spoken near-whisper that is in dead contrast to the venomous snarl he often employs onstage. Cobain and his band-matesóbassist and longtime friend Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohlóhave been cornered in their dressing room for what has become an increasingly rare interview.
It's clear that they are alternately mystified and pained at having to repeatedly analyze their own unlikely good fortune. "I canít stand it when people come up to me and say, ĎCongratulations on your success!í" complains Cobain. "I want to ask them, ĎDo you like the songs? Do you like the album?í Selling two million records isnít successful to me unless itís good." Nevermind, the bandís first release on DGC, picks up the threads of Bleach, Nirvanaís 1989 debut on Seattle-based Sub Pop Records, and weaves them into a consistently riveting collection of songs that are forged from an unlikely amalgam of unrelenting thrash energy and an intuitive flair for the melodic pop hook. Itís the Knack and Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath... or so says their official bio.
That scrap of paper also describes the chance meeting of the squat Cobain and the towering Novoselic at a Washington state art institute where they were supposedly honing their skills in such crafts as saw-blade painting and burlap-and-seashell assemblage. "Some of it is true," says Novoselic of their "official" history. "I've got Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from doing all the needlepoint," adds Cobain, explaining perhaps just how much to believe.
Cobain grew up in the tiny logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, "in a two-story houseÖ lower-middle-class family," before spending a couple of years in a trailer park when his parents divorced. Born in Compton, California, to Yugoslavian immigrant parents, Novoselic found himself transported from Southern California to the wooded confines of Aberdeen when he was 15. "It was a big culture shock for him," says Cobain of his friendís migration, "'cause he was listening to Devo at the time.
"I didnít meet Chris until after high school," Cobain continues. "I met [him] through the Melvins, mutual punk rock friends. The only handful of people who shared the same interests as us. It wasnít too hard to find each other. We started going to punk-rock shows in Tacoma and Seattle. Watched the Melvins practice every day and hung out. He never had an interest to be in a band, I donít think. Iíd been looking for years for people to jam with."
Cobain explains that he and Chris were big fans of the roller-coaster punk rock scene of the early Ď80s, though he "never wanted Henry Rollinsís autograph. I just wanted to talk to him. I donít understand why people have to have a keepsake to show their friends."
"I was a KISS fan," admits Novoselic with uncharacteristic sheepishness. "When I was really young, like 10 years old, I had all their posters and stuff. And then, when I got older, I got into punk rock. I saw a lot of cool shows, like Husker Du."
When Cobain got his first guitar as a teenager, he wasted little time in discovering and honing his gift as a songwriter. "I started working on songwriting right away, rather than learn a bunch of Van Halen covers,í says the purple-coiffed 24-year-old. "ĎCause thatís not going to do me any good. I had to develop my own style. I only know a couple of cover songs to this day and theyíre the same ones I learned when I got my guitar: ĎMy Best Friendís Girlí by the Cars and ĎCommunication Breakdowní by Led Zeppelin. Some Lou Reed chords."
Cobain and Novoselic formed Nirvana in 1987, went through the obligatory handful of drummers while signing with Sub Pop and recording Bleach for a purported $600, then found the same sort of American critical raves and European fan response that other Seattle bands were receiving. Grohl signed on shortly before Nevermind was recorded.
But Cobain is quick to dash any myths about his loyalty to the vaunted Northwest music community. "I have no desire to be part of the ĎSeattle scene,í" he insists. "Weíre never there. We donít live there. I canít really think of any good bands that still exist in Seattle, except Mudhoney and Tad. Weíve always felt friendly with those bands Ďcause we started out together. But everybody goes their separate ways. For some reason, itís still vital." Adds Novoselic: "The press has to sustain themselves so theyíll always create something new."
Their cynicism extends to the phenomenal success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the song that has made a mockery of its former "alternative" label by crossing over from college radio to become a huge hit on a dizzying array of Top 40, AOR, and dance-oriented commercial outlets. Its success has meant that the band has found itself in some rather unusual airwave company. "I was driving and ["Teen Spirit"I came on the radio," says Dave Grohl, "and I thought, ĎGod, that really sounds like s--t!í And then right after it came that Boston song: [sings] ĎSmokiní! Smokiní "
"Thatís why Iím not excited about, ĎHey! Weíre No. 4!í with Garth Brooks and all that other s--t. I donít give a s--t about that," says Novoselic.
"I donít find it very flattering," Cobain continues. "Itís tolerable. I was listening to the radio and there were all these industrial disco songs, and then all of a sudden our song comes on and it seemed completely foreign by comparison. I was surprised. When I look back on the ĎTeen Spirití song, itís semi-commercial, itís powerful. But then youíre up against the majority of what theyíre playing on the radio."
Twenty minutes after the interview begins, Grohl and Novoselic duck out for a soundcheck, scrupulously avoiding any further questioning when they return. Itís possible that this is some sort of payback for the several interview sessions that Cobain has skipped out on recently. Kurt soldiers gamely on alone, nodding off occasionally in mid-sentence. Heís had but an hourís sleep, he says blearily. But the pinned pupils; sunken cheeks; and scabbed, sallow skin suggest something more serious than mere fatigue. The haggard visage and frail frame make him appear more like 40 than 24.
Cobain can be a perplexing mix of contradictions. One moment he can be expressing his disgust at the complacency around him; the next heís effusing rapturously about his impending marriage to Courtney Love, the leader of the Los Angeles band Hole. "Iím getting married and thatís a total revelationó emotionally, that is," he says. "Iíve never felt so secure in my life, and so happy. Itís like I have no inhibitions anymore. Itís like Iím drained of feeling really insecure. I guess getting married has a lot to do with security and keeping your mind straight. My future wifeís and my personalities are so volatile that I think if we were to get into a fight, weíd split just like that. Getting married is an extra bit of security."
One on one, Cobain slips out of the punky demeanor of his bandmates and expresses himself with gentle-humored articulation. Much lip service has been paid to the notion of Cobain as nihilistic voice of a disaffected generation. Be advised itís a role he has no interest in playing. "I think thereís a lot of passion in the songs," he says of his work. "And at the same time, thereís a lot of sarcasm. I donít want to be classified as some anally poetic visionaryóthis dark star who does nothing but sit around and brood. It seems like youíre [allowed] only two personalities: Either youíre gloomy and a poetólike Robert Smith or Morrisseyóor youíre some mindless dork.
"But Iím totally paranoid of being thought of as a political person, Ďcause itís so exhausted. No matter how intelligently you go about it, youíre still going to be the butt-end of most jokes."
But as Cobain relates the details of his childhood, itís easy to see where the "disaffected" perception came from. "At a pretty young age, I felt alienated," he confesses. "Right around the age of 9, I started feeling more confused. I couldnít understand at the time why I really didnít want to hang out with the kids at school. Years later I realized why: I obviously didnít relate to them, because they didnít appreciate anything artistic or cultural.
"In Aberdeen, 99 percent of the people had no idea what music was, or art. It was their bread to become loggers. Thatís it. I think the fact that Iím physically smallóI was really a small kid - had a lot to do with why I didnít want to go into the logging industry."
Itís clear that, from an early age, Cobain immersed himself in an eclectic collection of music. "I own all the Stooges albums," he recites. "All the early Ď80s punk stuffónot necessarily the hardcore stuff, but the anti-hardcore stuff that was going on at the time, like Flipper, the Butthole Surfers, and Scratch Acid, stuff like that."
That accounts for Nirvanaís thrash quotient, but what of Cobainís obvious melodic flair? "I think the Beatles are responsible for most of the melody," he responds. "For the first seven years of my life, I listened to nothing but the Beatles. I had a Monkees album, which could be classified as Beatle-esque. And the Chipmunks Sing the Beatles album. I used to listen to that album all the time. I actually preferred the Chipmunks to the Beatles. Iíve personally kept myself musically uneducated for years. I still couldnít name a song off Satanic Majesties Request. I donít know much about the Rolling Stones, [though] Iíve heard every one of their songs at least a dozen times. But I just donít think of myself as that much of a musical historian. I expect to deal with that aspect of it much later on, when Iím an old man."
Itís dealing with the unexpected success and the expectations that follow that give Cobain pause for thought. "I donít know if success would be the downfall of why Iíd want to quit," he says. "I want to quit when Iím not having fun anymore. Especially if I wasnít writing good songs anymore.
"But itís such a cliché thing to say: ĎOnce weíre not having anymore fun, weíre just going to quit.í Everyone says that and then, you know, the Who get sponsored by Budweiser. The music business is so incestuous that people like David Bowie are so entrenched in the lifestyle and have cultivated relationships with people within the music industry for years and theyíre his friends and he doesnít want to offend them so he just keeps going. Keeps milking it for all itís worth because itís his life and itís all he knows. I suppose if the music was a bit more raw, and if it was good, at least, it would be better. But no oneís buying that Tin Machine shit.
"It just happens when you reach a certain age. But thereís still people like Neil Young. Thereís still a handful of people like that whoíve never lost their sights. To mature, to me, to use examples of other bands, is to wimp out. To put up an image that isnít sincere anymore. I mean, Pete Townshend canít possibly do what he did in his early twenties now. Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend," he adds with a smirk. (Ironically, the band opens its set that night with a joyously loopy rendition of Who's Next's "Baba O'Riley.")
"That's why I hope to destroy my career before it's too late. Before I look ridiculous. There are plenty of things I would like to do when I'm older. At least just have a family, that would satisfy me."