Nirvana is named Artist of the Year
"Lost amid a flood of rumors and the glare of the public spotlight lies the very real fact that in 1992 Nirvana changed the course of popular music."
PLEASANT GEHMAN journeys to Seattle and finds the trio bloodied by unbowed.
I'm on my way up to Seattle, which is currently to the rock 'n' roll world what Bethlehem was to Christianity, and the only thing the passengers on the plane seem to be talking about is the movie Singles. I'm grateful to be sitting next to a serene-looking woman in a coral sweater and Bermuda shorts, a string of cultured pearls around her neck, her upturned nose buried in a paperback. An hour and a half into the flight, the turbulence starts. It's bad. She's white-knuckling it. In an attempt to take her mind off the frantic bouncing around, I engage her in small talk. She's a 24-year-old mother of three, going to Seattle to visit her father, whom she hasn't seen in five years. A devout Catholic, she's worried that if the plane crashes, her kids won't be raised Catholic. She, in turn, asks me questions. I'm going to Seattle to interview a band, I tell her. She asks about rock writing politely, almost disinterestedly. Finally, she asks which band.
"They're called Nirvana," I say.
"Oh my gawwwwd!" she screams in a 15-year-old's ecstatic falsetto. "No way! How awesome!" She looks at me hard for a second, and then in a conspiratorial tone, whispers, "Do they know you're coming?"
From out of nowhere, 25-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist Kurt Cobain, 27-year-old bassist Chris Novoselic, and 23-year-old drummer Dave Grohl breezed in to 1992 and turned the music world upside down and inside out, transforming "alternative" music into a bona fide big-bug category, and Seattle into a modern-day music mecca. Nirvana made grinding, slush-toned guitars, hoarse-voiced wailing, and alienated lyrics into something that anyone could hum or relate to: It's hard enough for metalheads, and sensitive enough for popsters. The lyrics and voice may belong solely to Cobain, but the sentiments are universally felt; sadness, frustration, alienation, and confusion. What dysfunctionally raised, codepedent, recovering whatever, growing up while there's a hole in the ozone layer, couldn't get into it?
In 1987, Nirvana was formed by Novoselic and Cobain, who lived his own private version of Twin Peaks with his cocktail waitress mother in an Aberdeen, Washington, trailer park. They played with a series of drummers, gigged locally, wrote songs, and without much hoopla eventually made their first album, Bleach, in 1988, recorded in three days for $600. The band toured and became fairly hip in some circles (mainly college radio and among members of other bands). In 1990, they added Grohl, formerly of the D.C. punk band Scream. Eventually Nirvana signed a deal with DGC, recorded Nevermind, toured Europe with Sonic Youth, and then, kaboom, the Nirvana bomb exploded. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became a huge hit: MTV wouldn't leave the video alone, and you could turn on practically any radio station in the U.S. and hear Nirvana.
"Teen Spirit" is the sort of megahit that will earmark 1992 in kids' lives. Ten Years down the line, they'll hear that song and their adolescence will come back to them in a neat little parcel. It's the sort of megahit that spawns parodies ("We were the foundation of 'Weird Al' Yankovic's comeback," says Cobain, with a dubious look on his face). It's the sort of hit that catapulted Nirvana so deep into the limelight so quickly, that their heads are still spinning, with nary the chance to turn into jaded, decadent rock stars. While most success stories are struggling to retain credibility, Nirvana hasn't even had a chance to lose it yet.
"I get recognized every day, every day," says Novoselic, shaking his head. "I just kind of get used to it."
"I'll never get used to it," mumbles Cobain.
Western Washington University: Nirvana has made the two-hour trek north from Seattle to Bellingham to do a secret opening spot for its pals Mudhoney, which is playing in the sizable gymnasium. The crowd goes insane when Nirvana saunters onstage and plugs in. The band barrages the audience with a string of old songs-some off its first-ever demo tape, a few of which will soon be released on a DGC album called Incesticide that will also feature live BBC recordings. Though the audience has never heard the songs before, the entire stage-front is a whirlpool mosh pit, and the stage is covered with four or five single shoes, T-shirts, baseball caps, even a dead pigeon. Courtney Love, Cobain's wife and lead singer for Hole, is standing on the side of the stage, well out of danger. She stands out as a black-velvet and perodide-haired beacon, her eyes focused intently on her husband.
"Most of these songs are so old," she says with a giggle, "that Kurt can't even remember with words! He's just standing there going, 'blah blah blah.'" No one in the crowd seems to notice. The set ends when Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin brings two kids, no more than eight years old, onto the stage. Novoselic relinquishes his bass to one of them, who looks simultaneously delighted and completely terrified. He bangs away at it, his left arm raised in a metal salute. As Cobain and Lukin put Cobain's guitar around the other kid's shoulders and cameras click away, the crowd begins chanting, "Smash it! Smash it!" so after a moment's hesitation, the kid with the bass gleefully complies. It's a moment he'll never forget, but probably won't realize the significance of until years later. Eight years old, and he's done something millions of fans and aspiring musicians would kill to do-jam with Nirvana in front of thousands of people.
Later on backstage, everyone's enjoying a good laugh over the tots' brush with fame. Grohl is shoving slices of deli-tray meat into football players' lockers, while Novoselic politely chats with two fans, explaining why he doesn't want to give autographs. It's about as far from a star-studded, trendy backstage scene as you can get, and that's part of the beauty of Nirvana. It made it the old-fashioned way-with virtually no record-company hype, through word-of-mouth street talk, on its own.
"I've never seen anything like it," says Mark Kates, Geffen's director of alternative music. "It was an amazing thing, unbelievable to be part of. No one even anticipated what happened." He thinks a moment, and then rephrases: "Anyone who thought that a thing like this could even happen was full of shit."
"It's great," enthuses L7's Jennifer Finch. "It's about time we can walk into a 7-Eleven and hear something cool. It's about time we don't have to listen to crap on the radio anymore. And we're happy for their success because now Nirvana has made it possible for bands like us to have constant bags under our eyes from all the hectic touring. We love them for that."
"I went home, went to bed, and suddenly they were No. 1," says Rodney Bingenheimer, a DJ at KROQ in Los Angeles and an early Nirvana supporter. "Now, all the bands that were hairdo metal bands have Maynard G. Krebs goatees, flat hair, and flannel shirts, all because of Nirvana."
As with all situations of an underground band or artist coming up with an across-the-board crowd-pleaser, a backlash seems inevitable. Hip kids are already dissing the entire grunge scene, snickering about sellouts. Record companies are in a feeding frenzy for the next Nirvana. The pressure is on.
"Everything happened so quickly," says Grohl. "I don't think anyone knows what's gonna happen next."
"Everytime somebody says the word 'Seattle,' you have to say 'Nirvana.' People are sick of us," sighs Novoselic. "More people probably hate us in Seattle than anywhere else in the country."
Through Novoselic still tools around Seattle in his battered Volkswagen van, and the band still practices in a weathered, unfinished warehouse space where, until recently, squatters were hydroponically growing marijuana in the basement, Nirvana can feel its own fame breathing down its neck. Though Grohl still dresses like an outdoorsy ragamuffin-hunting caps and saggy-assed long johns-he admits to giving Madonna prank calls from Europe. Now, that's budding rock star decadence at its finest.
"It's not that great being on MTV 20 times a day," Cobain says, not in a bratty way, but earnestly, "It's great for record sales, but I wish there was some kind of contract you could draw up where there was only a certain amount of time they could play you in a week."
"And when people write about you, everything gets screwed up," Novoselic says.
"I don't believe anything that's written about anyone anymore," Grohl adds. "You just have to read it and form your own perspective."
"It's amazing the shit people can get away with," Cobain says. "I don't understand. If I had known about all this crap, I would've thought twice about putting myself in the public eye so much. I had no idea people could abuse you so much.
"I don't even care about the band as much as I used to. I know that sounds shitty, but the band used to be the only thing that was important to me in my life, and now, I have a wife and a child. I still love the band, but it isn't the only thing I'm living for."
But the fact remains that for millions of people, Nirvana's music is something that makes a difference, that takes them higher. At the end of the day, realizing their position, do the guys still manage to have fun?
"Yes!" the trio emphatically exclaims, without even a second's thought.