Interview with Kurt Cobain on tour
It had been tough one to arrange: 48 hours before I was due to leave for Florida to spend three days with Nirvana, the trip was suddenly cancelled.
I knew this hades't come from the band so I wrote a letter to Nirvana's co-manager John Silva, drawing his attention to what had happened. He overruled the decision and I flew to Atlanta to catch the band at some big, brutish sports arena.
The gig was brilliant, the backstage atmosphere relaxed. Kurt Cobain was quiet but in good spirits. Back at the opulent hotel Nirvana were staying in, there was an gathering in Krist Novoselic's room: beers flowed, weed was passed around, and a David Bowie CD played on a portable stereo. It was like being in your stoner mate's bedroom. The interview took place around 2am in my room. As always, Kurt came across as a good bloke. I remember looking at him, his ice-blue eyes seemingly brighter than ever, and thinking that despite his ragamuffin appearance he radiated charisma and star quality. It turned out to be the last major interview I - or any one else - did with him.
He seemed totally in control, at peace with his wired life. Hindsight, of course, suggests that nothing could be further from the truth...
Backstage at Atlanta's Omni Arena, Dave Grohl, his then fiancée and a couple of friends are chatting in the corner with a few beers. Krist Novoselic is bobbing around the room munching pita bread. Kurt Cobain is kicking back on a couch. The atmosphere is so casual and sociable, it's hard to believe that we're deep in the bowels of a typically sterile American arena.
Kurt's wife Courtney Love is here, having just finished recording Hole's second album, 'Live Though This'. The couple's daughter, little Frances Bean, is wandering around with a big smile on her face: later, Kurt will lovingly feed her a macaroni cheese dinner before cuddling her and talking quietly in her ear. REM's Michael Stipe has came down to say hello. Members of the support band The Breeders wander in and out for a drink and chat.
This is life on Nirvanas 'In Utero' tour. Go looking for misery, anger or pain and you'll be very disappointed.
"I'm not gonna say a damn word about being tough," laughs Cobain. "I'm having the best time of my life!"
Nirvana, and Cobain in particular, have seemingly survived going supernova better than expected. At 2am, Kurt is slouched in a chair in my room. He looks happy and relaxed.
The first thing we talk about is why Nirvana are having so much fun playing cavernous arenas.
"We've been touring since the beginning of time," says Kurt, "playing clubs over and over again, which can be a bit monotonous".
"When 'Nevermind' blew up, we had the chance to go into this huge arena rock tour, but emotionally and physically I just couldn't have dealt with it at the time. Since then, I've had a lot of time to sit at home and work it over in my mind".
"Now that we're playing on larger stages, we have an amazing PA system which allows me to hear everything. That's usually how I judge a good show - by the monitors".
"It's simply a matter of getting used to something. If you don't like broccoli, force yourself to eat it if you want to get vitamin C. Eventually, you might enjoy it. We had no choice but to do arenas. We couldn't have played clubs unless wa wanted to stop alot of people who wanted to see us from doing so".
"This is the first tour we've done on a bus and with the luxury of having a backstage - all the basics you're denies in clubs. We don't have to scrounge for money to buy a hamburger at McDonalds, and those are the kind of luxuries I used to scoff at. I was into the 'starving artist' frame of mind, but it all really does help out"
"It was realizing that, and also what I said before about the monitors. I've always been really particular about being able to hear myself, because we're obviously a loud band and our music overpowers my vocals a lot of the time. But we got rich enough to be able to afford to run a big PA system".
How hard has it been to deal with all the press scrutiny?
"I almost fell victim to the same frame of mind as someone who goes to the factory every day and pushes in their time card," he replies. "I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn't please everybody. It's not nice to be criticized; no one wants to be a scapegoat. But I came to terms with it because I had no choice."
What about your own personal media image? There were rumours of drug abuse, which led Los Angeles Social Services attempting to take Frances Bean from you and Courtney.
"I think I needed that time after our last tour, when Courtney and I went into seclusion, and she got pregnant and I started to do drugs. I know that sounds almost like an endorsement for drug use, but I honestly don't regret at least taking that time off. I regret taking drugs, but I really needed the rest and time to sort things out."
'In Utero' seems to document a lot of the anger and frustration you must have felt during that period?
"Hmm, no," he shrugs. "But obviously, there are a few lines in certain songs which allude to what I've been through. A person can read an entire set of lyrics to one song and find the one line that might have something to do with my personal life, and think the entire song is about that."
Is 'In Utero' the closing of one chapter in Nirvana's history?
"Yeah, definitely. I had to get this teen-agnst rock out of my system - and I felt the best way to do that was to make the raunchiest record I could, without denying any of the pop sensibilities that we have. In our earlier days, we didn't have lot of melody: if you listen to 'Incesticide' or even 'Bleach', there's not much. Obviously, on 'In Utero' there's songs like 'Scentless Apprentice' and 'Milk it' which are just balls-out, angry punk rock..."
And the ferocious 'Tourette's'?
"Yeah, that song didn't need to be written - if anything, it hurt the album. I could scream my guts out for any fast punk rock song, but it wasn't as good as 'Territorial Pissings' (off 'Nevermind'). At the time, I felt the majority of the album was a little too the middle-of-the-road, straight 4/4 rock, and I wanted to have some faster songs. I guess I didn't have time to write anything better."
Would you have liked more time to make 'In Utero'?
"Well, I don't mean to complain about 'Tourette's' so much, because the rest of the album devours it. I'm totally happy with this record. It introduced a whole new sound to the mainstream audience. I mean, that ('In Utero' producer) Steve Albini underground sound is pretty tired for people who are familiar with it, but we had to do it. It was pretty much the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy."
For a while it seemed as though you weren't happy to have attracted certain new fans - the "jock assholes", as you described them. Have you come to terms with the fact that this is unavoidable for a band which sells 10 million albums?
"I was always comfortable with that. I'm not nearly as judgmental as I've probably come over in print. A lot of times, when I say stuff like that it's in a sarcastic tone and that doesn't come across. The main concern I've always had is what we had to deal with tonight (Cobain had stopped the show to yell at a "breast-groper" in the audience). I don't want jerks to 'come to the rock show' and ruin it for other people."
What conclusions have you come to about going from relative anonymity to super stardom in such a short space of time?
"The biggest one is that I can never say or do anything that will be perfect enough for everyone to understand. During the last 18 months, I've read such much crap that I've become numb. I can't waste my time on being concerned with that sort of stuff."
You co-operated with Michael Azerrad on his book, 'Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana', which washes so much of your dirty laundry in public. Any regrets?
"The mistake we made was not having some kind of document written up by a lawyer that would've protected us from magazines using nothing but the drugs chapter. Most people are only going to remember what they read in a magazine. They won't know about all the other stuff because they won't buy the book, and they probably don't care about it anyhow."
Have any of the Nirvana rumours made you laugh?
"I've laughed at all of them. I've gotten pissed off and then I've laughed about them. People don't know that, but I do."
You must admit that you did seem to spend most of last year complaining about becoming famous in interviews... "But the problem with that was that, yes, I was complaining - but 99 per cent of the questions were about that subject. They realized I was vulnerable about that subject, took advantage of it, and wrote every single fucking article about it.
"I've talked for hours with journalists about being in rock 'n' roll, and it's never been printed. Even at the height of our explosion, we were all trying to get those things across. But we're at the mercy of the journalist, and the journalist is at the mercy of the editor. And they wanna sell the dirt. Obviously, your first reaction is, I'' never do an interview again'. Then I decided, 'Okay, I'll never talk about anything negative again'."
"I've always thought of rock 'n' roll as a joke. Probably the biggest downfall I have is that I've hardly ever read rock magazines, and I never cared about what my favourite bands had to say."
What has becoming a father done for you as a human being? Has it influenced your song writing?
"I haven't had a chance to see if it affects me musically - I haven't attempted to write a song for months. The biggest impact of having a child is personally. I've always been chronically depressed, or at least pessimistic, for a part of each day."
"Now, I only have to see Frances for 10 minutes and my spirits are lifted so high I feel like a different person."
Have you found the responsibility of being a parent daunting?
"Maybe at first, when I realized Courtney was pregnant. And again, during the time we had all those months off. But I used that time to sort out what I want to do in the future and how I might react to problems that may arise whilst raising Frances.
"I've just decided that I'm not going to pressure her in any way. I'm never gonna cram PC or feminist thoughts down her throat. If she wants to wear the latest trends, then I'll get them for her. She'll eventually come around. That over-bearing influence stuff is probably the only thing I resent about my parents.
"They tried to tried to mould me; they were convinced I was gonna be a bum because I wasn't interested in all the normal things kids are into. And that was probably the most damaging thing that happened to me while I was growing up, so it wasn't hard for me to realize that I wouldn't do it with Frances."
How much did all the stuff with the LA Social Services make you realize that you had to be totally committed to Frances?
"I didn't need that lesson, because we were already prepared. Although I was doing drugs right up before she was born, I did try to stop a couple of times during that period but I didn't get it out of my system. But I knew I had to keep on trying. Otherwise, there might have been a chance that I would dabble in it when she was around and I didn't wanna do that - that's a totally dangerous thing.
"Again, I don't regret anything. It's something I had to do and it was part of my rehabilitation. But the whole thing seriously almost ruined us; it was a really hard thing to go through."
Was it during this period that you developed a readiness to use any means necessary to protect your family? (Earlier in the year, police had confiscated several guns from the Cobains' house in Seattle).
"It helped, yeah. I've always had a really violent part to my personality, which I've shown quite a few times by getting into fights and stuff like that. But to protect something as precious or innocent as a baby, nothing would stop me. I wouldn't hesitate blowing somebody away who broke into my house to harm us."
Do these feelings help you to understand what you mean to your own parents?
"Absolutely. The time I did realize that was when we had Frances. I was still pig-headed enough to unnecessarily blame my parents for a lot of things they didn't deserve to be blamed for. Every teenager resents their parents for trying to mold them into something they're not, or for not understanding their art or music.
"My mother was an fantastic, attentive and compassionate mother throughout my childhood, until I started becoming incorrigible and rebellious. She was 18 when she had me and she did a really great job. I appreciate it every day."
Kurt says that the best part about the current tour is that "every night we go on, I realize that 98 per cent of those kids honestly like our band. They're not up there to see circus act. And even if they did come to see that, they realize that I'm not fucked up after the second song and I'm having a good time.
"To be able to sell out an arena and know that so many of those kids are good people who are sincere and aware of things is a great feeling. After every show, I'm totally pleased to go out to the bus and talk to the kids. They're so cordial and nice about it: I feel there's so many more intelligent kids than there ever have been before. All we ever wanted to do was break down the rock 'n' roll myth - to show that rock stars were just people."
Are you getting more optimistic about the future as you get older?
"Absolutely. But I still have to be cautious. I still have to be sure that
our tour manager chats to security before a show to make sure they don't
let any sleazy types backstage who look like they're on drugs.
I have to give most of the reason for my new sense of confidence to the kids at the shows. Selling 10 million records has to make you wonder if
there are really that many people who like the band. The answer is no. It
became a trendy thing; perhaps only two million really liked us.
But hey, I'm happy with two million. I was convinced at the start that
there would only be a few hundred we could relate to!"
Thanks to Steffan Chirazi for this interview.