It's Saturday night at San Francisco's Warfield Theater, and an impatient crowd is waiting for Nirvana.
By L.A. Kanter
The next morning I turn on MTV to see Nirvana's super-cynical "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sandwiched between - no kidding - videos by Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul. Kurt Cobain hasn't seen the video yet, at least not on MTV, and he isn't looking forward to it. In fact, the very idea that his band is appearing alongside such mainstream successes elicits a low, slightly pained groan from the guitarist.
"We've been lucky enough not to see MTV," he says, a dry, sarcastic tone creeping into his voice. "We're not really aware of exactly how much hype is going on. We've been told about it by a lot of people - mainly by our friends making fun of us."
Cobain is in the enviable position of having his attitude and profiting from it too. After all, Nirvana's major-label debut, Nevermind [Geffen], went gold only six weeks after its initial release - an unlikely feat for a group still fresh from the underground. The band's tight hybrid of punk rock energy, grinding metallic riffs, and catch pop songcraft - "the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath," as Cobain likes to put it - has hit big with college radio fans, modern rockers, and metalheads alike, propelling the album into the Top 10.
To be sure, Nirvana's sound is neither new nor revolutionary. Bands like Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. have worked similar turf for years without half the acclaim. Similarly, Nirvana's dynamic range recalls that of the Pixies; both groups move eloquently between spare bass-and-drum grooves and shrill bursts of screaming guitars and vocals. But what makes Nirvana's ambivalent anti-anthems so intriguing is the multitude of contradictions that they embody and embrace. The songs are fueled by an uneasy coexistence of apathy and rage, boredom and titillation, innocence and ennui, irreverence and profundity. They move with surprising logic between dirge and groove, singing and screaming, melody and noise.
Kurt's guitar work is rooted in the same contradictions. He alternates between extremes of restraint and overkill with astonishing ease. Dry strumming exists alongside fat, aggressive power chords; haunting minor-key lines explode into major-key choruses; smoothly melodic lead lines turn into furious power drill attacks. Snaking inside the deep, muscular grooves of bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, Cobain is just as likely to use his guitar for quick burst of punctuation as for dense walls of sound.
Nonetheless, there are few extended solos on Nevermind, far fewer than on the band's 1989 debut, Bleach [Sub Pop]. "I didn't feel there was a reason to have many solos on this album," says Cobain. "It all depends on what I feel is needed for each song. There are some songs that just shouldn't have a solo, just some fills that remind you of the melody. What solos there are are a bit out of it, a bit weird and strange."
On Nevermind's first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," for example, Kurt's brief solo is a near-masterpiece of restraint. You keep expecting him to take off into typical upper-register runs; instead he remains note-faithful to the melody throughout the eight bar phrase, driving an already painfully catch melody even deeper into your brain.
Contrast that with his solo on the punk/metal rave "Breed," where he bends a simple F#-to-A groove out of shape with twisted tremolando chromaticisms that give the song a strange, increasingly atonal edge. It may not make much musical sense, but considering that the song is supposedly about "marrying at age 18, getting pregnant, stuck with a baby - and not wanting it," the solo makes an even greater kind of sense.
"That solo is really out of key," says the guitarist. "In fact, I can't play it live until I learn it. But I'm too lazy to learn it." Call it laziness or negative capability, but the furious, tossed-off quality of Cobain's work befits the energy and immediacy of Nirvana's songs - something carefully planned just wouldn't work. "I never practice a guitar solo," claims Kurt. "For every guitar solo I've ever recorded, I've always just played what I wanted to at the time and then just picked the best takes."
On Nevermind, Cobain had quite a bit of freedom to pick and choose. While Bleach was recorded in less than a week for $600, Nirvana stretched out on Nevermind, taking one month and spending about $20,000 before finishing. The production by Butch Vig (Smashing Pumpkins, Slayer) makes Nirvana sound not so much produced as edited; the sprawling mania of Bleach is still there, but all the unnecessary baggage has been carved away, leaving a series of carefully honed, tightly focused musical statements. "We think along the same lines, on the same level," says Cobain of Vig. "So every suggestion he had, there was no conflict at all. A few songs weren't finished, so he helped us with arrangements, cutting them down to the average three-minute pop song."
Cobain, not surprisingly, has a typically punk attitude about his equipment. "I guess I've never considered musical equipment very sacred," he says when asked about his set-ending outburst at the Warfield. He says he's probably broken about 300 guitars - a casual attitude indeed for someone who claims his left-handedness makes it difficult to find instruments he enjoys playing.
"I've resorted to Japanese-made Fender Stratocasters, because they're the most available left-handed guitar," explains Kurt. "I like guitars in the Fender style, because they have skinny necks." Cobain runs his guitar through a Roland DS-2 distortion petal and a Carver power amp driven by a MESA/Boogie preamp. He plays "Polly," Nevermind's stark acoustic tune, on a $20 pawnshop guitar.
In fact, Cobain harbors a rather twisted fascination for crappy equipment. "My favorite guitar in the world is the Fender Mustang," he maintains. "They're really small and almost impossible to keep in tune. They're designed terribly. If you want to raise the action, you have to detune all the strings, pull the bridge out, turn these little screws under the bridge, and hope that you've raised them the right amount. Then you put the bridge back and tune all the strings. If you screwed up, you have to do the whole process over again.
"But I like it," he continues. "That way things sound fucked-up, and I stumble onto stuff accidentally. I guess I don't like to be that familiar with my guitar."