Inside the Heart and Mind of Kurt Cobain.
By Michael Azerrad
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 hail to the dimly lit bedroom, where Cobain lies flat on his back in striped pajamas, a red-painted big toenail peeking out the other end of the blanket and a couple of teddy bears lying beside him for company. The surprisingly fragrant Los Angeles night seeps through the window screen.
Heís 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. Itís 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.
Cobain had abruptly canceled an earlier interview, partly because of the anti-Nirvana letters that recently dominated ROLLING STONEíS Correspondence page and partly because the magazine borrowed the title of the bandís hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for a headline on the recent Beverly Hills, 90210 cover.
Then he came around. "There are a lot of things about ROLLING STONE that Iíve never agreed with," says Cobain in a gentle growl one or two steps up from a whisper. "But itís just so old school to fight amongst your peers or people that are dealing with rock & roll, whether or not theyíre dealing with it in the same context that you would like to. There are a lot of political articles in there that Iíve been thankful for, so itís really stupid to attack something that youíre not 100 percent opposed to. If thereís a glimmer of hope in anything, you should support it.
"I donít blame the average seventeen-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout," Cobain adds. "I understand that. Maybe when they grow up a little bit, theyíll realize thereís more things to life than living out your rock & roll identity so righteously."
"All I need is a break, and my stress will be over with," says the twenty-five-year-old Cobain. "Iím going to get healthy and start over"
Heís 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. And 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 worldís first triple-platinum punk-rock band.
Soon after the September release of Nevermind, MTV pumped "Teen Spirit" night and day as the album vaulted up the charts until it hit Number One. Although the bandís label, DGC, doubted the album would sell over 250,000 copies, it sold 3 million in just four months and continues to sell nearly 100,000 copies a week.
For Nirvana, putting out their first major-label record was like getting into a new car. But the runaway success was like suddenly discovering that the car was a Ferrari and the accelerator pedal was Krazy Glued to the floorboard. Friends worried about how the band was dealing with it all.
"Daveís just psyched," says Nils Bernstein, a good friend of the band membersí who coordinates their fan mail. "Heís twenty-two, and heís a womanizer, and heís just: ĎScore!í" 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 rumors are flying about Cobain. A recent item in the music-industry magazine Hits said Cobain was "slam dancing with Mr. Brownstone:" Guns ní 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 donít even drink anymore because it destroys my stomach," he protests. "My body wouldnít allow me to take drugs if I wanted to, because Iím so weak all the time.
"All drugs are a waste of time;í he continues. "They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self-esteem. Theyíre no good at all. But Iím not going to go around preaching against it. Itís your choice, but in my experience, I've found theyíre a waste of time."
Cobain brushes off speculation that heís finding fame difficult and dismisses rumors that heíll soon break up the band because it has become too big. "It really isnít 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. "Iím pretty relaxed with it."
But people who know him say otherwise. Choosing his words carefully, Jack Endino, producer of the bandís debut album, Bleach, says, "When I saw them in Amsterdam a few months back, it seemed like they were a little grouchy and... under pressure, letís put it that way." "Kurt is ready to strangle the next person who takes his picture," adds Bernstein.
Fame rubs against Cobainís punk ethos, which is why he refused a limo ride to Nirvanaís Saturday Night Live appearance. "People are treating him like a god, and that pisses him off," says Bernstein. "Theyíre giving Kurt this elevated sense of importance that he feels he doesnít have or deserve. So heís like ĎFunk you!í
"Chris and Dave have had to pick up a lot of Kurtís slack," Bernstein continues. "Chris and Dave were close before, but now theyíre inseparable."
"Just to survive lately, Iíve become a lot more withdrawn from the band," Cobain confesses. "I donít go 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 isnít being jeopardized by it, but this tour has definitely taken some years off of our lives. I plan to make changes."
Stress has gotten to Cobain before. He had an onstage breakdown at a 1989 show in Rome, near the end of a particularly grueling European tour. Says Bruce Pavitt, co-owner of Sub Pop Records, Nirvanaís 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, ĎNo, no, I'm just going to dive.í He had really reached his limit. People literally saw a guy wig out in front of them who could break his neck if he didnít get it together." Cobain was eventually talked down. [see comment]
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 Cobainís idol isnít frivolous. Like Lennon, heís using his music to scream out an unhappy childhood. And like Lennon, heís 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 on February 24th in a secluded location in Waikiki, Hawaii, after Nirvana's tour of Japan and Australia, with only a female nondemoninational minister and a roadie as a witness."
"Itís 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 first time. Exhausted and bedridden, Cobain is still so smitten that he can proclaim: "I'm just happier than I've ever been. I finally found someone I am totally compatible with. It doesn't matter whether sheís 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 canít come to any conclusions at all," says Cobain of Nevemind's phenomenal success. "I donít want to sound egotistical, but I know itís better than a majority of the commercial shit thatís been crammed down peopleís 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. Just donít call Cobain a spokesman for a generation. "Iím a spokesman for myself," he says; "It just so happens that thereís a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times because Iím just as confused as most people. I donít have the answers for anything. I donít want to be a fucking spokesperson."
"That ambiguity or confusion, thatís the whole thing," says Nevermind's producer Butch Vig. "What the kids are attracted to in the music is that heís not necessarily a spokesman for a generation, but all thatís in the music - the passion and [the fact that] he doesnít necessarily know what he wants but heís pissed. Itís all these things working at different levels at once. I donít exactly know what 'Teen Spirit' means, but you know it means something and itís intense as hell."
Cobain agrees the message isnít necessarily in the words. "Most of the music is really personal as far as the emotion and the experiences that Iíve had in my life;í he says, dragging on a cigarette, "but most of the themes in the songs arenít that personal. Theyíre 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 from my upper abdomen, thatís where I scream, thatís where I feel, thatís 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 centered.
When 'Nevermind' hit Number One, Cobain was "kind of excited," he says. "I wouldn't admit that at the time. I just hope 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, he's outraged by others who are riding the coattails of the alternative boom. His favorite target is Pearl Jam, also from Seattle, which he accuses 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, sitting up cross-legged on the bed. 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 do feel a duty to warn the kids of false music thatís claiming to be underground or alternative. Theyíre jumping on the alternative bandwagon."
"I donít know what I did to him; if he has a personal vendetta against us, he should come to us," says Pearl Jamís Jeff Ament, who says Cobain barely even said hello when they did a recent minitour together. "To have that sort of pent-up frustration, the guy obviously must have some really deep insecurities about himself. Does he think weíre riding his bandwagon? We could turn around and say that Nirvana put out records on money we made for Sub Pop when we were in Green River - if we were that stupid about it."
Cobain is happier to reel off a list of some of the bands he does like: the Breeders, the Pixies, R.E.M., Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, Beat Happening, Dinosaur Jr and Flipper. Then thereís his beloved Captain America, a ramshackle pop group from Scotland. "Eugene and Frances Kelly are the Lennon and McCartney of the underworld - or the Captain and Tennille," says Cobain.
For the members of Nirvana, plugging fellow underground musicians is one of the few consolations for the pressures of fame. When the band played Seattleís Paramount Theater for its big homecoming show last Halloween, its opener 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 bands.
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."
It's fitting that Nirvana bumped Michael Jackson off the Number One spot on the pop charts. Besides a fondness for small children and animals, Cobain and Jackson have little in common - Jackson claims it doesn't matter if you're black or white, but when Cobain hears such saccharine platitutes, he screams. Jackson's music is Eighties-style ear candy, while Nirvana makes grass-roots music for the Nineties. Thereís no glamour in Nirvana, no glamour at all, in fact.
Novoselic and Cobain come from rural Aberdeen, Washington, a hundred miles southwest of Seattle, where Novoselicís mom runs Mariaís Hair Design. A depressed logging town, Aberdeen has seen better days - namely, during the whaling era in the mid-nineteenth 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, gray 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, chain saws and guitars.
One of the more popular bars in town is actually called the Pourhouse, which is where two young men about Cobainís 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;í he explains.
"Yeah, I know the Cobain kid," says James. "Faggot."
"Heís 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. Thatís 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. Iíve had to deal with them most of my life - being taunted and beaten em 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 youíll see what I mean."
Of course Cobain was miserable in high school. Surrounded by hard-drinking metalheads whose only prospects were unemployment or risking life and limb hacking down beautiful centureis-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 Matt Lukin.
"As I got older," says Cobain, a fan of Beckett's, Burroughs's and Bukowski's, "I felt more and more alienated - I couldnít find friends I was 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 OíConnor, "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 didnít"
A friend of Cobainís half-joked that Nevermind sold to every abused child in the country, and maybe thatís not far from the truth ... the divorce rate soared to nearly fifty percent in the mid-Seventies, and all those children of broken homes are becoming adults. Including Kurt Cobain.
Cobain started life as a sunny child. "He got up every day with such joy that there was another day to be had," recalls his mother. "When weíd go downtown to the stores, he would sing to people:í Cobainís intelligence was apparent early on. "It kind of scared me because he had perceptions like Iíve never seen a small child have;í his mother continues. "He had life figured out really young. He knew life wasnít always fair. Kurt was focused on the world - he would be drawing in a coloring book, and the news would be on and he was very attuned to that, and he was just three and a half. He knew all about the war.
"He had make-believe friends, too," OíConnor says. "There was one called Boda ...he blamed everything on him. He had to have a place at the table - it just became ridiculous. One day his uncle Clark asked if he could take Boda with him to Vietnam because he was lonely there. And Kurt took me aside and whispered in my ear: ĎBoda isnít real. Does Clark know that?í"
But Cobainís 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 - he just held everything. He became real shy. It just devastated him. I think heís still suffering." A bit of a "juvenile;í 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 Pistolsí American tour in magazines. He didnít 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 and drove their tour van, hauled their equipment and watched over 200 of their rehearsals, by his estimate. Melvins leader Buzz Osborne became his friend and mentor and took sixteen-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 donít 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 wouldnít flake out on him." Osborne introduced him to Novoselic, a shy youth so tall (heís six foot seven) that he bumped his head on the beams in Cobainís 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 neighboring Olympia, where they would play wild parties at Evergreen State College.
Meanwhile, Cobainís 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 friendsí couches. At one point, he lived under a bridge in Aberdeen, an arrangement chronicled in Nevermind's "Something in the Way."
A vandal with a cause, Cobain loved to spray-paint the word queer on four-by-four trucks, the redneck vehicle of choice. Other favorite graffiti included GOD IS GAY and ABORT CHRIST. In 1985 Novoselic, Osborne and eighteen-year-old Cobain wrote "HOMOSEXUAL SEX RULES" on the side of an Aberdeen bank (Osborne swears it said, QUIET RIOT). While Osborne and Novoselic hid in a garbage dumpster, Cobain was caught and arrested. A police report lots 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 thirty-day suspended sentence.
"He is really a very angry person," says Sub Popís 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. "Thatís the key.í
Cobain took jobs as a janitor at a hotel and at a dentistís office (where he dipped into the nitrous) and moved in with Matt Lukin, who was then with the Melvins. Just to freak the neighbors, Cobain made a satanic-looking doll arid hung it from a noose in his window. He kept some pet turtles in a bathtub that he put in the front room. Then he realized there was no way to drain the water, so Lukin, a carpenter, simply cut a hole in the floor. The foundation eventually became waterlogged, leaving the rickety shack teetering.
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 Popís Jonathan Ponemnan. (Two cuts wound up on Bleach, and later this year Sub Pop will release a collection of Nirvana rarities.)
At a Seattle coffee shop, Poneman met Cobain, who was awed by Sub Pop because it boasted one of his favorite bands, Soundgarden. Novoselic showed up a bit later. "Chris was drunk and belligerent," recalls Poneman, "and just didnít give a flying fuck about it - 'Okay, you want to put out our records, thatís cool.' And then heíd insult me." Poneman signed Nirvana anyway.
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. (Jason Everman didnít actually play on the album, although he was credited as a guitarist because he bankrolled the recording. "We still owe him the $600," says Cobain. "Maybe I should send him off a check.")
Bleach sold slowly at first, but after a few months critical raves and effusive praise from indie kingpins Sonic Youth eventually helped Bleach to sell 35,000 copies, very impressive for an indie release. (The albumís sales exploded in the wake of Nevermind.)
But by this time, 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 Osborne in desparation 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 producer Butch Vig.
In August 1990, Nirvana recorded six tracks with Vig for a planned Sub Pop album. Bleach was very good, but Cobain had returned to the studio with songs that were a quantum leap past anything heíd 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. "Thatís 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. Itís 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 ní Roses and Cher. The band received $287,000 in advance money.
The group approached R.E.M. producer Scott Lift 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 himself (he has since renegotiated his deal). Slayer producer Andy Wallace mixed the album. Vig knew something was up when all sorts of people started asking him for advance tapes; now heís 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 thereís another $100,000 in his account. When Novoselic told a friend heíd bought a five-bedroom house in Seattle, the friend pointed out that the payments would just be another headache. "What payments?" Novoselic replied. Heíd paid for the house in full.
"A lot of people ask me: ĎWhenís he going to buy you a new car? Whenís he going to buy you a house?í" says Cobainís mother. "I couldnít 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 heíd 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 will likely start recording late this fall 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.
"1 have a pretty good idea," says Cobain. "1 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 wonít be as one-dimensional."
One-dimensional or nor, thereís a good chance Cobainís audience just doesnít get his message. The antimacho "Territorial Pissings" was used as background music for a football show; "Smells like Teen Spirit" might suffer the same fate as "Rockiní in the Free World" or "Born in the USA." - listeners may not get the irony at all. Actually, Cobain called it in the chorus to Nevermind's "In Bloom" - "Heís 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 sing-along, trapping listeners into the joke.
According to Nils Bernstein, most Nirvana fan letters are along the lines of "Hey, dude, I saw your video and bought your tape! You guys kick ass!"
"Everybody says, ĎYou 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 twenty-two, buy cassettes and watch MTV. "Thereís nor 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, ĎHey, you guys kick some ass!í"
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 toward them, because I understand that a lot of peopleís personalities arenít necessarily their choice - a lot of times, theyíre pushed into the way they live," he says. "Hopefully, they'll like our music and listen to something else thatís in the same vein, thatís a bit different from Van Halen. Hopefully, theyíll be exposed to the underground by reading interviews with us. Knowing that we do come from a punk-rock world, maybe theyíll look into that and change their ways a bit"
But itís doubtful that most of them ever will. "Yeah, it seems hopeless," Cobain says with a sigh. "But itís fun to fight. It gives you something to do. It relieves boredom." He laughs.