As "Nevermind" zoomed past Bono & Jacko, so the rumours started: Kurt Is Dead ...Kurt & Courtney & heroin ...As the bulldozers continue to gather up the money, will Nirvana survive the madness of mega-success? But more to the point, will they survive Courtney Love? Keith Cameron waits patiently for an audience & soon spots that all is not well in their domain.
So, somewhere deep in the pristine recesses of Madrid's Velodrome, we have to wait. And wait. Hey, don't worry, we've got really good at waiting over the last couple of days. Have a coffee, eat some food, do a little pacing up and down. Oh yes -waiting, we know how to do it.
There's a slight commotion in the distance and all eyes turn at once. Here they come! She leads him by the hand, and from a distance they resemble those drawings of Chrisopher Robin dragging Winnie the Pooh along the ground.
As they get nearer, though, the vision fades. Christopher Robin was never this female, never this pregnant, and Pooh never wore such a sappy grin or had a blood red lipstick welt on his right cheek. She looks angry. He looks cute. Everyone else looks relieved.
Ladeeez an' gennullmen....I give you King Kurt and Queen Courtney, newly crowned monarchs of the former Republic of Nirvana. Pray silence for her Majesty!
"Here he is!" she shrieks. "Here's everyone's little investment!"
God, don't you just hate royalty and their bad jokes?
I Hadn't seen Nirvana since December'91, when they'd played the Transmusicales Festival in Rennes, France. It was the band's last date before cancelling the rest of their European tour due to Kurt Cobain's ravaged voice and, although messy in places, their performance still heaved with a sometimes dangerous, sometimes carefree sense of abandon, enough to be a vivid reminder of just why this band had meant more than any other for years.
In the dressing-room afterwards, all were exhausted. Chris Novoselic rolled a cigarette with the deliberate, weary motions of a man three times his age, while Dave Grohl sat motionless for ten minutes with a towel over his head, every now and again moaning, "I think I'm about to die".
Kurt, however, was remarkably animate, clearly happy it was all over, and talked enthusiastically about how much he'd enjoyed touring with Shonen Knife and was now just looking forward to going home for a rest. Considering his band had clocked up four months on a promotional treadmill that had become steeper and faster the more 'Nevermind' sold, he looked in pretty good shape.
See you next year, Kurt. He smiled. "Sure."
Next year turned this year, 'Nevermind' zoomed past Jacko, Bono and Axl. Nirvana did Saturday Night Live, the Rolling Stone front cover, landed the Reading Festival headline slot, the whole shebang, and suddenly ghoulish rumours concerning the health - physical and otherwise - of the frail genius at the centre of what was now the Nirvana Phenomenon started to become commonplace.
It got harder to laugh at the weekly brace of 'Kurt Is Dead' stories when various credible sources were whispering about Cobain and partner Courtney Love doing heroin together, about them being completely out of it all at their wedding in Hawaii, about them going into detox and then quitting. About how the band were on the verge of splitting up. About Courtney doing junk while pregnant....
As far as the tabloid music press were concerned, Nirvana were just too good to be true. Rarely had the rollercoaster dynamic of rock'n'roll been so extreme - unknowns shoot from nowhere to top of charts with incendiary musical formula. The all-important twist? They didn't even try! They don't want to be successful! Brilliant. And now, with the accountants still hiring bulldozers to gather up the money, they've begun to blow it all via smack, the biggest sucker punch of the lot. From nobodies to superstars to fuck ups in the space of six months?! That had to be a record.
Nirvana Inc battened down the hatches and made to ride out the storm. It was business as usual. The band were taking a break from each other, but they'd be working on some new material soon with a view to releasing a new song as a single to coincide with Reading. Everything was fine, really it was.
During this rest period I interviewed Chris by telephone and asked him how the wedding of the year had gone. "Oh, quiet." Masterful diplomacy. Chris in fact hadn't been at the wedding, since Courtney had refused to let his wife Shelli attend. Meanwhile, Kurt repeatedly and vehemently denied taking heroin.
As stonewalls go, this all highly impressive. Sure, the rumours continued, but while Nirvana weren't actually doing anything it wasn't hard to dismiss this as nothing more than the idle tittle-tattle that was the inevitable lot of a multi-million selling rock band. Then came the time to really pick up the slack once more. A two week tour of Europe was organised for late-June/July in order to make up for the shows cancelled at the end of last year. After the gig at Belfast King's Hall, Kurt was rushed to hospital suffering from acute stomach pains.
"Ulcers," sez Nirvana. "Oh yeah," yawns everyone else.
Could so much have changed in six months? Moving round the archways of Valencia's bull-ring where, that night, Nirvana would give Spain its first in-the-flesh taste of what this nonsense was all about, it was almost a relief to greet Kurt Cobain once again, a paler, bleached -haired, bespectacled Kurt Cobain, but recognisably the same lovable scruff who late last year turned rock'n'roll upside down with a song named after a deodorant. Chris Novoselic ambled up to say "hi" and bemoan a chronic hangover -the inevitable punishment for a late-night sesh with support band Teenage Fanclub- and Dave Grohl soon emerged from down the rampway that led to the sun-baked arena, all smiles as ever.
Hmmm, I thought. This doesn't seem so bad. OK, so I've never seen Kurt look quite that pale before, and I'm not sure it's such a good idea for Courtney to be zipping about with Kurt on that hired motorbike while seven months pregnant but, hell, it's not as if anyone's dead.
No-one is dead. That much we can take away from this latest close encounter with planet Nirvana without fear of contradiction. But death - specifically heroin-induced - has been a talking point amidst US underground circles recently. During the New Music Seminar, NYC noise harbingers Unsane lost their drummer Charlie Ondras to an overdose, then the following week Stefanie Sargent from Seattle band Seven Year Bitch died in similar circumstances. What year did you say it was?
We are sitting in one of Nirvana's dressing rooms after the taming of the bull-ring. By Nirvana's standards, it's been pretty lacklustre stuff, but the crowd didn't seem to mind. Kurt is showing me his glasses which, along with his new hairstyle, are supposed to enable him to walk down the street unrecognised. I suggest that people will most likely stare at him anyway.
"You're probably right."
Chris and Steve Double are talking cameras, the bassman's current pet hobby, while Dave dispenses beers and chats to Anton, Nirvana's UK press guy. Courtney Love, meanwhile, is sounding off to anyone within earshot about Stefanie Sargent. For the record, Courtney's current reading material is 12 Days On The Road, the recently published account of the Sex Pistols' fatal American tour.
"People say she was a junkie but how do they know that? I mean, I don't think if you do it once or twice it means you're hooked, that's not a junkie. And if you have someone with you, too, that's good. She was alone, though, you know that? Still, it's sooo rock."
Spend two days in tour fatigues with this new, arena-compatible Nirvana production machine - "I don't know the names of most of the crew," admits Dave - and it dawns on you that the overriding issue here is not that Kurt Cobain is on heroin (or isn't , or was, or is and is trying to get off) but that his wife is a Grade A pain in the arse.
She seems almost universally disliked. "The Wicked Witch Of The West," is one crew member's assessment, while someone else refers to Kurt being a nice guy BC - "before Courtney ". Any impression of calm and harmony is down to the fact that everyone close to the band has obviously passed the Krypton Factor-sponsored How To Tolerate Courtney test. Chris and Shelli simply ignore her. The irrepressible Dave alternates that approach with some impressive mimic routines. During the Valencia show, Courtney is sitting on the stage, near Grohl's kit. "Courtney!" he screams in mock petulance, "Get the f- off my stage! " It's just the sort of thing Courtney would say.
A recent addition to the Nirvana entourage is Janet Billig, who looked after Hole's affairs in her previous employ at Caroline Records. Her role on this tour is like a cross between wet nurse and human sponge, indulging whims and soaking up all of Courtney's excess bullshit.
One of the reasons for her unpopularity could be because right now she - and only she - has the full confidence of Kurt Cobain, the man without whom Nirvana can't function. As demonstrated by their regal entrance prior to the Madrid show, Courtney is only too well aware of this. For much of that day, everything is put on hold - Nirvana's soundcheck, interviews, the NME picture -session, Teenage Fanclub's soundcheck, everything -because Kurt isn't around, still holed up with the missus back at the hotel. Anton repeatedly tries to speak to him but, on the one occasion when the phone gets picked up, Courtney yells "He's asleep! " and slams it down again. Eventually she lets Anton talk to Kurt, who seems unaware of all the fuss. After four hours of waiting, Steve gets a 15 minute photo-shoot. There is no Nirvana soundcheck.
The Fanclub's Gerry Love casts Nirvana's hassled tour manager Alex a sympathetic look.
"There is no way," he states firmly, "we're ever gonna let it end up like this."
Whether heroin is at the root of this unreliability I don't know for sure, nor am I about to proscribe the freedom - or is that stupidity - of anyone to take whatever substance they choose to take, be it alcohol, tobacco, heroin or carpet cleaner. But the fact is that Courtney's dealing the hand of an unborn baby as well as her own. The health of little Frances Bean Cobain is the X factor that elevates all this second-hand scandal into something a whole lot scarier, something much more important. She doesn't have a choice.
The most recent scare story concerning Nirvana involves Courtney being admitted to hospital in Bilbao - Nirvana's final port of call before heading back to the US - having damaged her womb. She is advised to stay there for five days but insists on going back with the band. Then Kurt has to shell out a considerable amount of money, maybe $25,000, for the first class plane seats so that Courtney can fly home lying down and a specially appointed ambulance to pick her tip at LA airport.
Ok, another story, another rumour, but who'd take the trouble to make this stuff up? This is serious shit, and it's no wonder some people are freaking out and saying Reading will be it. Game Over. The End.
And all because this cool band sells a supertanker load of records! That's the disconcertingly prosaic truth of the matter. In Spain, about the only times when things got put in this much perspective were when Nirvana were actually playing - Madrid was still below-par, frenzy-wise, but a thrilling experience purely because the audience was so enthused by it all - and when I finally interviewed Dave, Chris and Kurt. Away from the panic, the waiting, the torn-up schedules, hell, it seemed almost like old times, almost normal.
"Petty tour drama can be an ordeal," considers Dave. "People have tantrums, people's tempers flare- But I can block everything out. I'm not really an emotional person at all, just because I'd rather ignore emotion than confront it, so when it comes down to really heavy shit it kinda just breezes right by me. I don't really want to get involved in anyone else's problems and I don't want to be the cause of anyone else's, so I just lay low. I think maybe that's what'll keep me sane through this whole trip."
What causes the madness?
"Just constant gratification is unhealthy for anybody, y'know? This is why you've got people like Michael Jackson and Axl Rose, Insane Rock Star A or B, because they're constantly being pampered. I've tried to keep some level of consideration for everybody through this whole thing. I don't like to have people do stuff for me. I don't like to have runners go out and get me meals, I don't like to call down to room service and ask them to bring me up some cigarettes - it's just not normal. That's the kind of thing that will get to you and make a difference in eight months of being in a popular band with a lot of money. It's gross."
Dave's closest brush with a total gratification zone came when he met Bono on U2's recent American tour.
"Fuckin' asshole! It was such a bummer 'cos when I was 13 I thought 'War' was a great album! He reeks of rock-star-ness, he was not a human being. He wanted us to open up for them on tour, and I said, 'No, that's not what we're into'. And he was saying, 'You owe it to the audience, you've got to take that next step.' And I said 'I don't wanna take that next step!' He was desperately trying to make a connection. 'Do you like the blues?' 'No'. 'Do you like gospel?' 'Er, no, not really.' 'So what kind of music do you listen to?" Punk fuckin' rock, man!' And then of course he tells me about punk rock and he was there and he was the meaning of punk rock. After meeting that guy it made me wanna give up being in a rock'n' roll band."
Chris Novoselic reckons he's got his priorities sorted. After this tour's finished, he's off to Croatia to see his family, who live in Zadar, about 250 miles up the coast from Dubrovnik.
"I try to have humility about things, just be for real. 'Cos all of this is fabricated. People, they build these institutions like governments or rock bands or anything, and reality is distorted. Some people are worried about eating and here we are off on this whole rock'n'roll circus. I have to take it with a grain of salt."
Has it changed the way you feel about Dave and Kurt?
"No, it's pretty much the same as it always was, just pretty laid-back. We spent some time away from each other just to do our own things, but we're looking forward to getting back to how things were, lock ourselves away and work. Our new record's just gotta sound different I've been on this big rant lately of how transition is natural, continental drift, the seasons, the weather's different every day, people grow older and change.... When I think of 'Nevermind' now I think of interviews and being famous. Now I'm focusing on this new record and not even considering anything that's happened, and maybe we can come out absolved. "
"I see this as such a rite of passage - you get signed to a major, you get money, you go into the studio, a big 24-track hubbub, either it sells or it doesn't. And ours sold, but that's all behind us now. All the records we've sold have given us the power to do whatever we want."
Is he worried about Kurt?
"You hear all the rumours. Just media bullshit. You gotta have a good story."
But there's usually no smoke without fire.
"Yeah." Silence. "Yessirree." A sigh. "And after the fire, the fire still burns. ... But there's freedom of speech. What if you walked into a crowded theatre and yelled 'Fire!' Is that freedom of speech?"
I should hope so. Sometimes there' s an excess of freedom.
"Yeah there is, isn't there? People lose perspective on things. Which is really easy to do in artificial environments. You just accept it. Today I'm here in Madrid and that's just what's goin' on. There's a light at the end of the tunnel. This is my reality, it's what I have to do."
By the time I get to see Kurt, it's over an hour after the show's finished. I'm watching Chris and Dave fool around at a disc presentation ceremony, a routine they're well versed in by now, and talking kilt tartans to Matt Cameron from Soundgarden, who were due to play here with Guns N' Roses the following night but the gig's been cancelled. Anton tells me I can have 20 minutes and then he's sending the other two on to finish things off. He doesn't make 'it clear whether these are the only terms to which Kurt would agree to do an interview.
It's pretty obvious that Kurt Cobain has been running on reserve tanks for most of this Euro-jaunt. Never have I seen him so static onstage, so apparently unmoved by the whole experience of playing rock'n'roll. The contrast is made all I the more poignant by the 'Lithium' promo vid and its scenes of psyched-up mayhem from last year's Reading.
"Yeah, last year's shows were way better," he nods. "I don't think we've had a long enough break. I'm still not enjoying it as much as I should. According to our manager and most of the people we work with, the break that we had was too long. Everyone wants us to work and work all the time, and not stop. It was only four months of relaxation and I really needed that. I've come to a lot of conclusions about myself within the last four months. I've learned to accept the fact of being a rock star and how big the band's become. I can at least deal with it, I'm not as pissed off as I was. It's still.... I dunno. I'm such a picky person that everything has to be perfect."
Does it feel like you created something that's got to be broken down now?
"Well, it's a bit embarrassing to play in front of kids who wear Skid Row T-shirts, y'know?" he chuckles. "It's really hard to overcome that, to just shake it off and say, 'Oh well, they're just dumb kids, maybe they'll throw away their Skid Row records and listen to Mudhoney because of us. But that story's old. I'm tired of talking about 'the underground'!
"I've never claimed to be a Punk rocker, I've just claimed to have liked punk rock music. I'd like to be a rhythm guitar player in a band! No-one realises how fuckin' hard it is to scream at the top of your lungs and concentrate on playing guitar solos. We're actually thinking of getting Buzz from The Melvins in to play guitar with us live. Its still not gonna relieve me of my vocal duties, though."
Oh, yes Kurt, but the band wouldn't be the same if you didn't sing.
"No, I know that." He laughs. "Well maybe I could start another band. I'm thinking of doing that, actually, with Mark Arm and Eric from Hole. But then, I'm so lazy with this band I couldn't imagine being in two bands at once. Jesus!"
It sounds like you'd like to escape from the limelight. Does it get you down to read every week that you're a heroin addict?
"Yeah, it does get to me, it pisses me off. I had no idea that being in a commercial rock band would be like this, because I've never paid attention to other commercial rock bands. I've never read a U2 interview so I don't know if there are rumours about them doing insane things. I'm not really aware of any other rock band that have had so many rumours written about them. Guns N' Roses went into it admitting stuff, trying to create something, same with Jane's Addiction, who totally flaunted it, totally glamorised heroin use. I think that's ridiculous."
There then follows the weirdest episode of a pretty weird two days, I've just asked Kurt whether the heroin rumours are true - to which he's laughed, said "No!" and made me feel his arms for any tell-tale scars or holes, though obviously shooting up isn't the only way to take smack and to be honest I'm not sure I knew what I was meant to be looking for, but still, it's an impressive gesture at the very least - when Anton walks in with a woman I recognise as Susan Silver, manager of Soundgarden. She waves at Kurt, says, "I just wanna say goodnight," then sits down next to him. Anton tells me to turn the tape machine off.
"Just turn it off!"
As well as being a sweet guy, Anton's a useful Thai boxer and he's got these dogs, see.... So off it goes. Susan talks intently to Kurt, looking directly into his eyes, the gist of it being just call me if there's anything you want, then she and Anton leave.
Erm, Kurt, about what you were saying....
"See! She thinks I'm on heroin!" he whispers excitedly. "She does! Didn't you see it in her eyes? And I've heard it from a whole bunch of people, she says stuff, she actually tells people I'm on heroin all the time. That's Soundgarden's manager, it goes from the fuckin' highest level of people in the music industry down to the street punk kids."
Make of all this what you will.
Perhaps I was naive enough to suppose that, when you've sold as many records as Nirvana have, it would convey power, a means by which the band could control their own destiny. And maybe it has but it also seems to have raised the stakes unhelpfully, even dangerously, high.
Maybe I'm reading too muck into little things, maybe it's all as petty as Dave says and maybe I'm just fearing the worst. Frankly, having spent two days looking at how different it is for Nirvana right now - or rather, how it was six weeks ago - I found it difficult not to.
No, look, Reading'll be great, just the boost they need. They can still do it, you know. Put Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Chris Novoselic on a stage or in a rehearsal space or in a studio and they can still wreak magic, the three losers who took on the world and won. And once the baby's born everyone's bound to calm down and take stock of things, realise what's important in life. Because that's all it is, after all, it's only life.
Dave: "Did you know if you take the 'N' and the 'D' and the first 'E' out of 'Nevermind' it spells 'vermin'?"