Berlin: The Backstage are of the LoftClub is decrepit and covered with graffiti making fun of Lenny Kravitz: LET LOVE DROOL. Outside the club in downtown western Berlin, the weekend is in full swing, but the three members of Nirvana, hard rock's newest superstars, have no interest in participating. Keeping up with their own success has exhausted them to the point of immobility. "We don't try very hard," confesses bassist Chris Novoselic, "but we're going to start trying a lot less."
The band waits for sound check, idly picking from the buffet table, complaining about the plane ride from England. Nirvana have a reputation as alcoholfriendly rowdies: like many bands, they've been known to trash hotel rooms and vomit on employees of their record company, but at the moment they're 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 N' 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 don't 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 don't hide their dismay at such oft-asked questions as "You're from Seattle, aren't 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 'Come as You Are' 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, "can't you tell that I'm an abusive prick?"
Heading back to the Loft Club, we pass an older crowd, waiting for the Eric Burdon show next door. ''Smells 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—"It's anti-utopian, it's elitist"—and asks why he wants one.
"So I can show my friends that I met you."
"What, they won't 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 'n' roll caste system. "We should just hand out canceled checks," he concludes.
Chris, the oldest member at twenty-six, is the band's 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 don't believe in that whole American hegemony thing, McDonald's 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, I'm an independent promoter," the German replies.
"Good. We won't light you on fire, then."
After the show, Chris is soaked. He complains about how cold he is. How about a towel? "No, I'd 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 didn't work very often. Now that it works, I don't do it as much."
Hamburg: THAT EVENING, I FIND KURT AND Chris standing in the hotel lobby, waiting for Dave. They've been napping most of the day.
"I'm not drinking tonight," Chris announces. "I'm 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 Chris's 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 rednecks' cars and homes."
Rednecks in the Northwest? "In Aberdeen, they're poser, wannabe rednecks, but they just don't have the twang." After getting kicked out of his mom's home and his dad's home, pawning his guitar, and almost joining the navy, Kurt was homeless and collecting food stamps. He and his friends, living out Reagan's 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 dentists' 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, DGC's 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 N' Roses or Jane's Addiction beyond its legion of loyal fans, slowly building up wider name recognition.
"Teen Spirit" instantly topped the college and alternative charts. Smith College's WOZQ played it sixty-seven times in a single week, including one spin by a reggae D.J. 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.'s 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: they've already declined the opening slot on the Guns N' Roses tour, a plum for any other band.
Nirvana's runaway-freight-train success has astounded most of the people entrenched in the music industry's 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. They're 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 didn't make an album for two years because they couldn't be bothered. Their fans can tell they're authentically skanky, not fake, teased-hair rebels.
"They've raised the ceiling ten feet on what alternative rock is, and the mainstream as well." says Danny Goldberg, the band's 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 he's left the stage.
Martin Chambers, formerly the Pretenders' drummer and now a balding member of Dave Stewart's 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! That's what it's 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 Loverboy's 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 there's 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 don't 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 Zappa's prostate cancer; none of us know exactly how one gets prostate cancer.
"If I had prostate cancer," says Chris. "I'd get a gun and shoot George Bush."
And make Quayle president?
"Sure. The whole thing's a joke anyway."
Frankfurt: The band does soundcheck without Kurt, who has gone back to the hotel to write poetry. Trading instruments and jamming with the sound man and the opening act's drummer, they mangle Led Zeppelin's "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 can't expect us to understand your monetary system."
Dave now amuses himself by throwing salami at a Guns N' Roses poster; he's aiming for Axl, but he hits drummer Matt Sorum. Kurt returns from the hotel and admits responsibility for a graffiti in the bathroom. On the wall of the toilet stall, some anonymous rock 'n' roller had scrawled the witticism
"Q. Why did God give women one more gene than cows? A. So they wouldn't 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 fans' foreheads, like a headbanger priest giving communion.
Nirvana's 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? "It's just fun," he explains. "I don't get to talk between songs very much: I'm always trying to get the songs going faster. So that's 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 it's possible for Nirvana to become too successful.
"I think we've almost gotten too big already. I'm finding it harder to work up the energy to go into the audience and watch the opening act, because everyone asks for autographs. I'm learning to deal with it now, but it was really bothering me a few weeks ago. Now that our album's gone platinum, it's going to get even worse. But we don't have the right to complain. We all decided to do this. And we could decide to end this any day. I don't 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 wouldn't have to sign autographs."
Thanks to MOLE for this interview