By Gavin Edwards
The band waits for sound check, idly picking from the buffet table, complaining about the plane ride from England. Nirvana have a reputation as alcohol-friendly rowdies: like many bands, theyíve been known to trash hotel rooms and vomit on employees of their record company, but at the moment theyíre not living up to their image. They have a smash single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and a platinum album, Nevermind, back in the States, but that seems almost irrelevant: punks by temperament, they scorn wider acceptance. While some might take this success as an occasion for greater extremes of debauchery, Nirvana are just trying to survive their European tour without compromising themselves.
Nirvana disdain the mainstream that they have wandered into. Contemptuous of everyone else in the top ten (especially Guns Ní Roses), they hope their success paves the way for other alternative acts. They would like to spark a teen rebellion that does more than boost their record sales, though they donít object to the money. They grumble and affect apathy, but they participate in endless photo shoots and interviews. Today, after sound check, this means walking to a nearby studio for an interview with FAB-TV/.
In the studio, the band donít hide their dismay at such oft-asked questions as "Youíre from Seattle, arenít you?" Chris fields most of the questions. Singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain rolls himself a cigarette. The interview really goes downhill when the questioner says, "I get the message from ĎCome as You Areí that you have no friends. Does this cause you much pain?"
Somewhat at a loss, Chris improvises: "Pain? What is pain? Women have menstrual cramps... There are window panes...
"But you have no friends," the FAB-TV fraulein persists.
Chris gives up. "Well," he asks, "canít you tell that Iím an abusive prick?"
Heading back to the Loft Club, we pass an older crowd, waiting for the Eric Burdon show next door. ĎĎSmells like thirtysomething," Kurt mutters.
A chubby German teen corners Chris with a pen and paper, seeking a signature. Chris tries to explain that he hates the concept of autographs - "Itís anti-utopian, itís elitist" - and asks why he wants one.
"So I can show my friends that I met you."
"What, they wonít believe you?" Chris leaves without signing; inside the club, he rants about how he would much rather talk about the weather or his airplane flight than sign an autograph - his war against the rock ní roll caste system. "We should just hand out canceled checks," he concludes.
Chris, the oldest member at twenty-six, is the bandís resident ideologue. Although all three members share a cynical left-wing perspective, he is the most likely to go into a tirade, as when he questions the value of a German tour: "I just donít believe in that whole American hegemony thing, McDonaldís and George Bush, American cars, politics, and - bands. Germans should be listening to Germans. To the Scorpions!" Drummer Dave, twenty-two, has the most energy left; he darts in and out of the dressing room and starts throwing food from the buffet at the slightest provocation. Kurt, twenty-four, is quiet and thoughtful. He may sit silently for half an hour but, if asked, has lively opinions on everything from Camille Paglia to the misogyny of the Beat writers. Despite his fatigue from the neverending Nevermind tour, Kurt causes his share of trouble when he spots a stranger backstage.
"Are you an MCA rep?" Kurt demands.
"No, Iím an independent promoter," the German replies.
"Good. We wonít light you on fire, then."
After the show, Chris is soaked. He complains about how cold he is. How about a towel? "No, Iíd rather bitch and whine."
The next morning, the band and crew stagger down to the bus. As we roll through the gray countryside of eastern Germany, the band watches a videotape of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a live performance in Seattle, planned for home-video release. "White-boy funk sucks!" Chris says on the tape. As the song crashes to an end, Kurt pounds his guitar against the floor, sticks it in an electric fan, and then throws it straight up; when it lands, the neck falls off. Chris picks up the body, hurls it in the air, and swings at it with his bass.
"I used to break guitars a lot more," Kurt tells me later. "Most of the destruction was because we were frustrated - our equipment didnít work very often. Now that it works, I donít do it as much."
Hamburg: That evening, I find Kurt and Chris standing in the hotel lobby, waiting for Dave. Theyíve been napping most of the day.
"Iím not drinking tonight," Chris announces. "Iím just going to sleep right after the show. How long have we been doing this now, anyway? Two months?"
Kurt thinks for a moment. "Um, three if you count the Sonic Youth tour. What were we doing before that?"
Neither can remember. After sound check at the modern Markthalle, the band sit down to a New European dinner (lasagna with brussels sprouts) in the gleaming, antiseptic backstage area. They grudgingly do a round of interviews with German heavy-metal magazines that have names like Infernal Horror. Dave thumbs through the Oktober issue of Rock Hard, paying particular attention to an article on the Seattle scene ("Seattle: Der Sound der Zukunft?" or "Seattle: The Sound of the Future?"). Over his shoulder, Kurt spots the article. "Are we mentioned?" he asks.
"No," says Dave.
Nirvana actually started in Kurt and Chrisís small hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. Kurt remembers, "After I graduated, I got a couple of scholarships to art school, but I blew them off." He ran away from home and began "a summer of acid every night and vandalism. We would spray-paint feminist graffiti on rednecksí cars and homes."
Rednecks in the Northwest? "In Aberdeen, theyíre poser, wannabe rednecks, but they just donít have the twang." After getting kicked out of his momís home and his dadís home, pawning his guitar, and almost joining the navy, Kurt was homeless and collecting food stamps. He and his friends, living out Reaganís worst nightmares, would use the stamps to buy Jolly Rancher candies and then spend the change on liquor.
In 1987 he formed Nirvana with Chris; soon after, they left town, Kurt heading to Olympia and Chris to nearby Tacoma. Chris worked as a painter while Kurt found a job as a janitor, cleaning out dentistsí offices and stealing the nitrous oxide. In 1989 they released Bleach (which was recorded in six days for $600) on the Sub Pop label, home to long-haired guitar bands like Mudhoney, Tad, and, at one point, Soundgarden. In 1990 they recruited their fifth drummer, Dave Grohl, formerly of Scream, a D.C. hardcore act. They released a few singles, toured constantly, left Sub Pop for DGC (a subsidiary of Geffen Records), and in 1991 unleashed Nevermind.
"I thought the album would sell 300,000 or 400,000 copies in five or six months," says Ray Farrell, DGCís alternative-sales tactician. "We really had no idea." Nirvana had established a fan base with constant tours, but their first album, Bleach, had sold only 35,000 copies. Largely on the strength of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nevermind blew out of stores, selling one million copies in its first two months. Usually it takes a year to elevate a new rock band like Guns Ní Roses or Janeís Addiction beyond its legion of loyal fans, slowly building up wider name recognition.
"Teen Spirit" instantly topped the college and alternative charts. Smith Collegeís WOZQ played it sixty-seven times in a single week, including one spin by a reggae Dj. The song quickly permeated metal radio, and then rock radio. Even before DGC worked it to rock stations, emphasizing the strong retail sales in various local markets, Dj.ís were getting requests based on the heavy MTV play. Almost thirty stations added the song before the official release. MTV saturated the airwaves with the "Teen Spirit" video, which drummer Dave Grohl describes as "a pep rally gone bad," with tattooed cheerleaders in anarchy jumpers shaking pom-poms. Now, as the song bursts into the pop charts, Nirvana are taking care not to blunt their outsider image: theyíve already declined the opening slot on the Guns Ní Roses tour, a plum for any other band.
Nirvanaís runaway-freight-train success has astounded most of the people entrenched in the music industryís corporate corridors. Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt, practically in tears when the disc went platinum, told the company he had never seen anything like it in his thirty-five years in the business. Although Geffen employees are elated, they stutter and fumble when they try to explain why Nirvana hit the jackpot. Theyíre awed by the response to the album and know they had very little to do with it. Mark Kates, director of alternative music, told me, "We might as well be driving the trucks from the pressing plant straight to the stores."
For those who have made careers out of working with fringe music, an alternative band with punk roots rocketing to the top of the charts without watering themselves down validates their own efforts to destroy the stranglehold of classic rock. "There are 240 million people in this country, and Heart does not address all of them," Kates says, trying to explain the phenomenon.
Nirvana had a lot of things going for them, including an eye-catching cover of a naked baby, underwater, reaching for a dollar bill. But most of their success lies in combining a great, melodic hard-rock record with an image as slackers who didnít make an album for two years because they couldnít be bothered. Their fans can tell theyíre authentically skanky, not fake, teased-hair rebels.
"Theyíve raised the ceiling ten feet on what alternative rock is, and the mainstream as well," says Danny Goldberg, the bandís co-manager. Now, of course, everyone will try to manufacture Nirvanoids that simulate the same sense of rebellious dissatisfaction.
The Hamburg show is a little chaotic. The band stop following the set list, and have to jam before every song until all three are playing the same tune. Kurt croons and howls, his throat a volcano. The show ends with "Territorial Pissings." Chris does mazurkas and Dave knocks over his drum kit. Kurt leans his guitar against his amp, letting feedback fill the hall long after heís left the stage.
Martin Chambers, formerly the Pretendersí drummer and now a balding member of Dave Stewartís Spiritual Cowboys, has made his way backstage. After Nirvana finish the show, Chambers throws his arms around Dave, his comrade in drums, and shouts, "All right! Thatís what itís about! You bring me back ten years!" Chambers bitches about the state of the music industry - "What the fuck do you do after the Pretenders?" - while the band towels off and listens, bemused.
When Chambers leaves, soon after admitting he "never understood what Chrissie was saying," Dave asks, "What was the name of that drummer?" Dave notes that since he actually liked the Pretenders, he found the situation much less awkward than the time when he looked offstage in Vancouver and saw Loverboyís drummer pumping his fist and saying, "Go, man! Go!"
Dave and I go back out to the stage, looking for his cigarettes. "Oh, check this out. This is the coolest part of the show," he says, jumping off the stage. "Sometimes, when thereís been a really crazy show, you can find watches and jewelry and all kinds of stuff on the floor afterward." We sift through the plastic cups on the black rubber floor but donít find anything. Not even cigarettes.
The next morning I have breakfast with Chris and his witty, dark-haired wife, Shelley. Chris mentions that one German rock magazine described Nirvana as a cross between "Roxette und Slayer." He seems more offended by the comparison to Slayer. The conversation turns to Frank Zappaís prostate cancer; none of us know exactly how one gets prostate cancer.
"If I had prostate cancer," says Chris, "Iíd get a gun and shoot George Bush."
And make Quayle president?
"Sure. The whole thingís a joke anyway."
Frankfurt: The band does sound check without Kurt, who has gone back to the hotel to write poetry. Trading instruments and jamming with the sound man and the opening actís drummer, they mangle Led Zeppelinís "Heartbreaker" and their own "On a Plain."
The crew eats dinner while Chris and Dave do more interviews. When Dave finishes, he marches into the room, hunting for food. "Man, I just got grilled on the sellout question," he says. A German punk rocker was interrogating him about the high prices for tickets and T-shirts. Exasperated, Dave finally replied, "Well, you canít expect us to understand your monetary system."
Dave now amuses himself by throwing salami at a Guns Ní Roses poster; heís aiming for Axl, but he hits drummer Matt Sorum. Kurt returns from the hotel and admits responsibility for a graffito in the bathroom. On the wall of the toilet stall, some anonymous rock Ďní roller had scrawled the witticism "Q. Why did God give women one more gene than cows? A. So they wouldnít shit on the kitchen floor." Next to it, feminist Kurt wrote, "You will be strung up by your balls and submerged into a vat of razor blades and sperm."
The road manager arrives with the interview schedule for Italy, a fax pages long. The band stares at it, dismayed. Kurt mutters, "Does anyone have a lighter?"
Chris says, "We need more people in the band, man."
The group quietly waits through the opening set by Urge Overkill. Chris reads Metal Hammer, another bad German heavy-metal mag, while Dave draws an elaborate pattern on his chest with a black Magic Marker. Kurt stares off into space. A roadie comes in and announces that scalpers are selling tickets for $100 each. "Oh, Jesus," Chris says.
Before going onstage, Chris covers his T-shirt with stickers from Metal Hammer: AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Extreme. During the show, he sweats off most of them, and places the rest on fansí foreheads, like a headbanger priest giving communion.
Nirvanaís set once again provides transcendence through slam-dancing. At the end, Kurt, with an enigmatic smile, jumps into the audience; the crowd passes him back.
When Kurt gets offstage, he reports that the crowd was opportunistic: "They were reaching into my pockets, trying to grab money and shit." So why jump? "Itís just fun," he explains. "I donít get to talk between songs very much; Iím always trying to get the songs going faster. So thatís my way of bonding with the audience."
Back at the hotel, the weary troupe ignore the bar and trudge to their rooms: tomorrow they play in Munich. Kurt confesses that he spent most of the day not knowing what city he was in. I ask him if he thinks itís possible for Nirvana to become too successful.
"I think weíve almost gotten too big already. Iím finding it harder to work up the energy to go into the audience and watch the opening act, because everyone asks for autographs. Iím learning to deal with it now, but it was really bothering me a few weeks ago. Now that our albumís gone platinum, itís going to get even worse. But we donít have the right to complain. We all decided to do this. And we could decide to end this any day. I donít know how, it might land me in jail, but we could do it."
Behind his mop of blond hair, Kurt smiles. "If I went to jail, at least I wouldnít have to sign autographs."