By Jon Pareles.
But if ever a band was ambivalent about reaching a mass audience, it is Nirvana. In a song from the new album, "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"ómusic-business jargon for a recording that gets played on radio stations and sells wellóKurt Cobain snarls, "I do not want what I have got" and agonizes, "What is wrong with me?"
Whatís wrong with him is that he writes songs all sorts of people can like. And ever since Nevermind lodged in the Top 10, Nirvana has been trying to remain a band of punk underdogs rather than a pop commodity. Ask Mr. Cobain about In Utero hitting No. 1 on release (it has since slipped a few notches) and he says: "I donít have high hopes of staying up in the charts. Meat Loaf is so obviously more talented than I am." In fact, prosperity and its discontents nearly tore apart the band.
On a sunny late-summer afternoon in Seattle, Mr. Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohlóthe guitarist, bassist, and drummer of Nirvanaówere reluctantly doing advance promotion for In Utero. Dressed in thrift-shop shirts, fraying jeans and sneakers, the three musicians didnít act like limo-level rock stars. Lunch was microwaved burritos at a 7-Eleven. Eventually, the band members decided to take the visitor to the cityís emblematic Space Needle.
On line for the express elevator, a teenager approached, lugging a large video camera. "Uh, um, is it O.K. if I take your picture?" he asked Mr. Cobain. The guitarist scowled, his blue eyes narrowed. "Iíll kill you," he said; the teen-ager cowered. Then Mr. Cobainís face relaxed into a broad smile. "Sure, go ahead," he said.
That teen-ager with the camera is both Nirvanaís livelihood and its nightmare. The band had hoped to reach a market of intelligent iconoclasts, people who distrust bands that are too popular because if so, they must be too easy to take. "When the album first started getting heavy play, I think we were mostly concerned with losing those college kids," Mr. Cobain said of Nevermind. "For some reason, that didnít happen to us.
Looking back, he now thinks Nevermind sounds too "clean." "Ugh," he said. "Iíll never do that again. It already paid off, so why try to duplicate that? And just trying to sell that many records again, thereís no point in it." In July, Nirvana confirmed its allegiance to the college crowd with its first New York show since 1991. The band played Roseland Ballroom as part of the New Music Seminar, the annual convention and showcase where the rock underground meets the business. To start the set, Mr. Novoselic intoned, "Alternative rock, the sound thatís sweeping the nation!" The concert ended with Mr. Cobain alone on stage, kneeling with his guitar by an amplifier, creating a torrential squall of feedback.
The new album, too, is drenched in guitar noise and sounds much rawer than Nevermind. To produce In Utero, Nirvana chose Steve Albini, known for the low-budget blasts of bands like the Pixies and Big Black. Mr. Albini, who had once dismissed Nirvana as "unremarkable," asked for only a $100,000 feeónot a percentage of royalties, like most other producersóbut refused to allow any Geffen Records staff to visit the sessions. All the vocals, Mr. Cobain said, were recorded in a single seven-hour marathon; Nevermind took days.
The songs on In Utero alternatively lash outó" Go away, get away, get away," Mr. Cobain howls in "Scentless Apprentice," based on the Patrick SŁskind novel Perfumeóand tear at themselves.
Mr. Cobain does not like explaining lyrics, which he says he assembles from spiral-bound notebooks of bed-time jottings. "Itís just thumbing through my poetry books going, ĎOh, thereís a line,í and writing it down. Thatís all I do.
"None of my poems are coherent at all," he continued. "Theyíre not based on anything. Itís just a bunch of gibberish. I mean, I try to have relations to some of the lines, and thereís a lot of double meanings, and in certain senses, they do relate to something, but itís always changing. But when I say ĎIí in a song, itís not me, 90 percent of the time."
Yet when pressed, the songwriter admits he can be found in his songs. Mr. Cobain, 26, and Mr. Novoselic, 28, both grew up in Aberdeen, Wash., a logging town of 16,800 on the western end of the Olympic Peninsula.
To his family, Mr. Cobain was a dead-end kid. A verse in "Serve the Servants" from In Utero says: "I tried hard to have a father / But instead I had a Dad / I just want you to know that I / Donít hate you any more. Behind it, he acknowledged, is his own story.
His parents, Don and Wendy Cobain, were divorced when Kurt was 7 years old. He frequently skipped school, smoking marijuana and often heading for the town library. After reading through the local selection, he started using the stateís inter-library loan system. "The library never kicked me out, though they knew I was under age," he said. "It was the only place I could hide."
Both he and Mr. Novoselic recall getting "swats" in school: corporal punishment with a paddle. At the urging of the principal, Mr. Cobain dropped out, played guitar, hung out. "When I was 17, I got kicked out of my momís house," he said. "I was living on the streets and I called my dad, and he said I could come back to stay for a few days, on a trial basis. When I did, he had me take the test for the Navy, and he had me pawn my guitar. He had the recruiter come to the house two nights in a row.
"I was really trying to better myself and do what my parents wanted me to do. But I smoked some pot and magically came to this realization that I donít belong hereóespecially not in the Navy. So I just packed up my stuff and left, walking past the recruiting officer, and I said, ĎSee ya.í"
In person, as in his songs, Mr. Cobain ricochets between opposites. He is wary and unguarded, sincere and sarcastic, thin-skinned and insensitive, aware of his popularity and trying to ignore it. Before agreeing to do an interview, he had demanded clippings by the interviewer, particularly on music by "women and minorities," said a Geffen Records staffer. But heís not exactly politically correct; he owns, he said, "an M-16, a few revolvers and one Beretta."
By mixing punk, heavy metal and good pop tunes, Nirvana altered the pop-music landscape with Nevermind. "There is a pre-Nirvana and post-Nirvana record business," says Gary Gersh, now president of Capitol Records, who signed the band to Geffen. "Nevermind showed that this wasnít some alternative thing happening off in a corner, and then back to reality. This is reality."
But in 1992, the band nearly self-destructed. According to Michael Azerradís exhaustive biography, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Mr. Cobain started using heroin regularly in late 1991óat first, he has said, to relieve debilitating stomach pain.
He had also begun a romance with Courtney Love, the brash lead singer of a Los Angeles band called Hole. They were both injecting heroin at the end of 1991 when Ms. Love became pregnant; they were married in February 1992. But she kicked the habit, she has said, soon after she found out. He continued on and off until August 1992, when their child Frances Bean Cobain was born.
An article in Vanity Fair implied that Ms. Love had taken heroin well into her pregnancy. Two weeks after the baby was born, using the article as evidence, the Los Angeles Department of Childrenís Services forced the couple to surrender the child to Ms. Loveís sister. Although the Cobains soon regained custody, county officials continued to monitor them until March 1993.
Still, Mr. Cobain said, the title of In Utero doesnít refer to the allegations of Ms. Loveís drug use during pregnancy. "I just liked the way it sounded," he said. The albumís tone is by turns wrathful and miserable, the lyrics full of images of sickness and decay. The albumís back cover, a collage of rubber fetus dolls, orchids and models of bodily organs, suggests the aftermath of a massacre.
When In Utero was released, the national Wal-Mart chain refused to sell it, apparently due to that image (although the chainís spokesman claimed it was for lack of consumer interest). So did Kmart, which stated that the record "didnít fit within our merchandise mix."
"One of the main reasons I signed to a major label was so people could buy our records at Kmart," Mr. Cobain said. "In some small towns, Kmart is the only place that kids can buy records."
Clearly, Nirvana still makes some people uncomfortable. But can a band remain an underdog with millions of fans? "I think we look ridiculous already," he said. "I donít want to have a long career if I have to put up with the same stuff that Iím putting up with. Iím trying it one last time, and if itís a more pleasant year for us, then fine, weíll have a career. But Iím not going to subject myself to being stuck in an apartment building for the next 10 years and being afraid to go outside of my house. Itís not worth it. I would gladly give up music for my life. Itís more important."
Mr. Novoselic added: "We were fools. But on the other hand, look where we are.