Nirvana: Cast a Giant Shadow
Kurt Cobain— rock visionary, Godfather of Grunge, voice of the disaff- ected—was also a powerful and influential guitarist. Alan di Perna discusses his impact on American music—and why a man who had everything came to the terrible conclusion that he had nothing.
As the leader of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain set the tone for rock music in the Nineties, and beyond. He was the premier icon of grunge, the raw, guitar-heavy, blunt-spoken style that will stand for all time as a signifier of the era, much as glam does for Seventies and psychedelia for the Sixties.
As a human being, Cobain personified the anxieties, frustrations and despair of his generation—kids from broken homes, young men and women facing a future of reduced economic expectations. A misfit within the institution called rock and roll, Kurt’s punk values put him at odds with the rock stardom that the world was so eager to thrust upon him. As he declared in the sardonic “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” (In Utero), “I do not want what I have got.” Kurt Cobain’s death—at age 27, of a self-inflicted wound to the head with a 12-gauge shotgun— denied a voice to a generation most in need of a champion, comforter and friend.
Born on February 20, 1967, Cobain was just eight when his parents divorced. Although almost universally associated with Seattle, he was actually from Aberdeen, Washington, a small, economically depressed logging town more than 100 miles from Seattle. “White trash posing as middle class,” is how Cobain described his background to biographer Michael Azerrad in the latter’s Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. By all accounts, Kurt was deeply and permanently hurt by his parents’ divorce. After the split, he never really had a stable childhood home. At school he was diagnosed as hyperactive and given the drug Ritalin. He dropped out in the 12th grade. Cobain didn’t fit in with the macho stereotype imposed on young males in Aberdeen. He had no use for hunting, sports or other “manly” pursuits, although he did enjoy getting high with the local stoners. He was harassed at high school for befriending a gay student. In later life, he would speak out vehemently against homophobia, sexism and racism.
Cobain demonstrated artistic ability at an early age, and his collages, sculptures and other artworks adorn Nirvana’s records. Had he not become a musician, he might well have pursued a career in the visual arts. But when he was 14, his fate took another course: his father bought him his first electric guitar, which Kurt soon discovered he was most comfortable playing left-handed. Cobain’s musical tastes developed along much the same lines as many musicians of his generation. His mother introduced him to the Beatles, the Monkees and other Sixties pop music when he was very young, but he moved on to bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC while still in his preteens. When punk rock finally made its way out to Aberdeen, sometime in the early Eighties, Cobain embraced it eagerly. Years later, he would be embarrassed when relatives or childhood friends recalled him jamming to Iron Maiden records or drawing the Led Zeppelin logo on his bedroom wall. But it is precisely that combination of heavy metal and early Eighties punk (Black Flag, Flipper, etc.) that would later become known as grunge and have an extraordinarily powerful effect on the masses.
Cobain started writing songs soon after picking up the guitar. His first band, a trio called Fecal Matter, did not last long. But in 1986, he and bassist Chris (later Krist) Novoselic, a friend from Aberdeen High, teamed up to form the nucleus of a band that would eventually be called Nirvana. (Cobain had wanted to call it Skid Row at one point.)
By 1987, Cobain had moved to Olympia, Washington, a college town that was somewhat more bohemian than Aberdeen and about 50 miles closer to Seattle. Acquaintances from that time recall him as a quiet, reclusive guy who mainly stayed inside the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, working on his sculptures and collages. An inveterate haunter of thrift shops and swap meets, Cobain was perpetually buying old dolls and other semi-collectible junk, much of which he used in his artwork. He applied his thrift-shop aesthetic to his guitars as well and became infamous for playing a succession of battered old pawnshop specials. But there was a practical angle to his obsession with six-string castoffs: affordable left-handed guitars are fairly hard to find and Cobain played with such angry violence that the Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters that were his guitars of choice frequently needed replacing. (In the days before they were popularized by bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Nirvana, Jags and Jazzmasters could be had for very reasonable prices.) Shortly before his death, Cobain designed a signature model hybrid cross between a Jaguar and a Mustang for Fender.
Early in 1988, Cobain, Novoselic and drummer Dale Crover journeyed to Seattle to make a demo at Reciprocal Recording Studios with engineer Jack Endino, an important figure at the city’s highly influential indie label, Sub Pop. The demo led to a deal with Sub Pop, and on June 11, 1988, with Chad Channing now on drums, Nirvana released its first single, “Love Buzz,” a cover of an obscure song by Shocking Blue, the early Seventies Dutch group that had had a big hit with “Venus.” A year later, Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, came out on Sub Pop.
Cobain often said in interviews that he deliberately suppressed his more melodic, quirky, “new wave” side on Bleach. (Kurt often used the term “new wave” to describe everything from the Young Marble Giants and Gang of Four to the Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid, all groups that had greatly influenced him.) His feeling was that this sensibility didn’t really fit in with Sub Pop’s early Seventies hard rock aesthetic, as exemplified by Soundgarden and Green River, the group which later mutated into Pearl Jam.
Cobain’s musical tastes were quite a bit broader than the noisy alternative fare championed by Sub Pop and similar indie labels. But coming from the rural wastelands of a place like Aberdeen, he could see where Nirvana fit in. “We’re a perfect example of the average uneducated ‘twenty-something’ in America in the Nineties,” Cobain told Michael Azerrad. “[We’re] punk rockers who weren’t into punk rock when it was thriving. All my life, that’s been the case, because when I got into the Beatles, the Beatles had been broken up for years and I didn’t know it… Same thing with Led Zeppelin.”
But Cobain’s sense of kinship with his age group went beyond music: “My story is exactly the same as 90 percent of everyone my age,” he said. “Everyone’s parents got divorced. Their kids smoked pot all through high school, they grew up during the era when there was a massive Communist threat and everyone thought they were going to die from a nuclear war. And everyone’s personalities are practically the same.”
Cobain was a reluctant, unwilling spokesman for his generation. He was uneasy with notoriety, even the underground notoriety that Nirvana gained on the strength of Bleach and its follow-up EP, Blew, also released in 1989. On the band’s first European tour, a grueling low-budget trek with the band Tad, Cobain had what Sub Pop co-owner Bruce Pavitt has described as a nervous breakdown onstage in Rome, storming offstage, climbing into the rafters and screaming at the audience. Adding considerably to Cobain’s unhappiness was his chronic, undiagnosable stomach pain, which began shortly after his move to Olympia and would torture him for the rest of his life.
But Cobain’s existence wasn’t completely bleak. In 1990, he began a relationship with Tobi Vail, of the band Bikini Kill, a leader in the radical feminist riot grrrl movement. He apparently took his relationship seriously; by all accounts, he wasn’t much of a casual womanizer. He told Michael Azerrad that he’d slept with only two women over the course of all Nirvana’s touring. “I’ve always been old-fashioned in that respect,” he said. “I’ve always wanted a girlfriend that I could have a good relationship with for a long time. I wish I was capable of just playing the field, but I always wanted more than that.”
Nirvana’s career began to accelerate at a heady pace during 1991. In April, they went to record with producer Butch Vig at Smart Studios, his recording facility in Madison, Wisconsin. Now perhaps best known as the drummer of the band Garbage, Vig was then an up-and-coming indie producer with well-regarded records by the Laughing Hyenas, Smashing Pumpkins, Firetown, Tad and Killdozer, among others. The recording of the song “Polly” that appeared on Nirvana’s landmark Nevermind album came from the Smart sessions. Earlier versions of five other Nevermind songs—“In Bloom,” “Dive,” “Lithium,” “Breed” and “Stay Away”—were also recorded during the week-long recording project.
A month after the Smart dates, drummer Chad Channing left Nirvana. He was replaced by Dave Grohl, a hard-hitting stickman from the Washington, DC, hardcore scene. Grohl took Nirvana’s sound to a new level of intensity. Once the “classic” Nirvana lineup was in place, a significant record deal wasn’t far behind. Geffen Records had been taking an active interest in the band since April of 1990, when Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (who’d recently signed to Geffen themselves) brought label A&R man Gary Gersh to a Nirvana show in New York. A deal was formally consummated a year later, on April 30, 1991. In May, Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl were in Los Angeles with Butch Vig, recording what was to become a landmark rock album, 1991’s Nevermind.
“Kurt was enjoying himself when he made that record,” Vig remembers. “That was before Nirvana got really big. They had a kind of casual attitude toward making the record. There was not a lot of pressure. I felt more pressure making that record than they did. ’Cause it was really the first major-label record I was making.”
With an initial budget of $65,000, the band could certainly take a more leisurely approach than they’d taken with Bleach (which had cost just $606.17 to make). Cobain, meanwhile, was apprehensive about being seen as a major-label sellout. After Nevermind was completed, he had fears that it sounded too slick—that the final mix of the record, completed by producer Andy Wallace, was a little too radio friendly.
“Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m a little embarrassed by it,” Cobain told Azerrad. “It’s closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is to a punk rock record.”
Understandable though they may be, Cobain’s artistic qualms about the record sell it short. It is an astoundingly powerful album, an irrefutable declaration of an important new band’s arrival. The disc’s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” became an instant anthem. It is a showcase for the kind of expressive mood swings that were a trademark of Cobain’s guitar playing, songwriting and personality. The tune is a brilliant evocation of volatile emotions, with its sullen, world-weary verses that explode into abrasive power chording for the choruses.
In an interview for Australian radio, Cobain explained that the song’s attention- grabbing title came out of a relaxed evening at his house.
“A friend of mine and I were goofing around my house one night. We were kinda drunk, and we were writing graffiti all over the walls of my house. And she wrote, ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit.’ Earlier on, we’d been having this discussion about teen revolution and stuff like that. And I took [what she wrote] as a compliment. I thought she was saying that I was a person who could inspire. I just thought it was a nice little title. And it turns out she just meant that I smelled like that deodorant [called Teen Spirit]. I didn’t even know that deodorant existed until after the song was written.”
Cobain worked notoriously fast as a lyricist. He’d write the words to his songs in the car on the way to the studio, or even a few seconds before having to record a final vocal. But the unstudied, hasty quality of his lyrics are part of their expressiveness. His songs are like action paintings: kinetic, disconnected bursts of angry energy. He shifts from topic to topic in a manner that has been compared to a restless adolescent channel surfing through the cable TV wasteland. It has been pointed out that Cobain’s lyrics were inseparable from his plaintive, raspy vocal style. Nobody else could sing those words with quite the same effect. But it’s equally true that Cobain’s distinctive voice was inseparable from his guitar style. The voice and guitar in Nirvana rubbed against each another in an ever-shifting dynamic, like a couple making love, or fighting, or both at the same time, with Cobain’s choppy guitar rhythms and grainy distortion welling up to dominate at one moment then slipping into subaqueous quietude the next.
The months following the release of Nevermind were turbulent ones for Cobain. Not only were there the pressures of sudden, massive stardom to cope with, but he also entered into two relationships that were to have a profound effect on him. One was with Courtney Love, longtime punk scenester and splashy front-woman for the group Hole. The other was with heroin. Cobain and Love first met at a Nirvana club gig in 1989, but didn’t become serious about each other until ’91, after Kurt had moved to Los Angeles to record Nevermind. Love was often blamed for introducing Cobain to heroin, but he had experimented with the drug as early as his Aberdeen days. Cobain always insisted that he became a serious heroin user of his own accord, because it was the only thing that seemed to quell the terrible pain in his stomach. In describing this pain to Azerrad, Cobain made some seemingly rhetorical statements which later proved tragically prophetic: “Halfway through [Nirvana’s last] European tour, I remember saying I’ll never go on tour again until I have this fixed because I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to fucking blow my head off, I was so tired of it.”
Cobain and Love were married on February 24, 1992. Their daughter, Francis Bean Cobain, was born on August 18 of that same year. Because of press reports—inaccurate, Love insisted—that she used heroin while pregnant, the Los Angeles Children’s Services began proceedings to take the Cobains’ daughter away from them. It was the beginning of a long and difficult legal battle that the couple ultimately won, in March of 1993. But it wasn’t only the law that seemed to have it in for the Cobains. Provocative, outspoken and confrontational, Love was disliked by many Nirvana fans who perceived her as a gold digger who manipulated the passive Cobain. Love often joked about being her generation’s Yoko Ono.
But even in the midst of all these difficulties, Nirvana’s career kept on skyrocketing, and Cobain continued developing as a songwriter. December ’92 saw the release of Incesticide, a collection of previously unreleased rarities. Selections like “Hairspray Queen” and “Mexican Seafood” go back to that first Jack Endino–produced demo. The public finally got to hear some of the “new wave” side that Cobain had suppressed on Bleach and Nevermind. Meanwhile, at a much more advanced level, Cobain was writing songs for what would become Nirvana’s final, and arguably finest, studio album, In Utero. Thanks to the band’s success, Cobain was finally able to make pretty much the album he’d always wanted to make.
Influential alternative rock producer Steve Albini (Pixies, Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) was drafted to produce the disc. “The main reason we recorded In Utero with Steve Albini is that he is able to get a sound that sounds like the band is in a room no bigger than the one we’re in now,” said Cobain in a hotel room interview with British journalist Jon Savage. “In Utero doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a hall, or that it’s trying to sound larger than life. It’s very in-your-face and real.”
As a lyricist, Cobain had begun to move away from the last-minute, free-associative writing techniques he’d used in the past. “There are more songs on this album that are thematic,” he told Savage, “that are actually about something, rather than just pieces of poetry. Like ‘Scentless Apprentice’ is about the book Perfume, by Patrick Suskind. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song based on a book before.”
The result of all these efforts is a far more diverse and adventurous album than Nevermind. Cobain’s songwriting skills had become more focused and assured. “Serve the Servants” verges on the Beatlesque, while “Scentless Apprentice” is among the heaviest things Nirvana ever recorded. Tracks like “Rape Me,” “Heart Shaped Box” and the stately “Pennyroyal Tea” showcased Cobain’s unique sense of melodic phrasing: vocal lines of irregular length that generally resolved on the major third of whatever chord the singer happened to be strumming when the line ended. Cobain’s words and cover art suggest a peacefully resigned acceptance of the life cycle, from birth to death. Even the album’s more disturbing images of disease and pain seem appropriate elements of that cycle.
A similar mood of slightly eerie tranquility pervaded Nirvana’s November 18,1993 appearance on MTV’s Unplugged and the album that was taken from it. The stage decor, with its heavy drapery, candles, flowers and muted blue lighting, was designed by Cobain himself. Seen in retrospect, the set design seems to foreshadow Cobain’s death a few months after the Unplugged appearance. “Kurt seemed to like to take things and internalize them,” says Unplugged producer Alex Coletti. “I’d heard that he was something of a visual artist. So beyond making sure he was happy with the stage set, since he seemed to show some interest in it, I thought it would be good if he had some creative input. He was pretty cooperative. He did specify that he wanted star lilies, which are these big white flowers. ‘You mean like a funeral?’ I asked. ‘Yeah,’ he said. I don’t want to read too much into it, but that memory sure spooked me out a couple of months later.”
“Kurt wanted something that would break away from just the normal, dull TV set,” says Nirvana tour manager Alex MacLeod. “He didn’t want it to look like just a bare stage. He had seen a lot of Unplugged shows before and felt they weren’t really unplugged. His feeling was that a lot of the bands would just use semiacoustic instruments and play their songs exactly the same way they would if they were doing a full show. He wanted to make Nirvana’s Unplugged appearance slightly different, sort of a downbeat kind of set. Really laid back. To just go in and play a bunch of songs and, to some extent, make changes to the arrangements. They tried to stick to acoustic instruments as much as possible. Kurt wanted to make it something that would show a whole different side of the band.”
Being asked to do Unplugged was a validation of sorts for Cobain, a confirmation of his arrival as a significant rock songwriter. The show has always been a tunesmith’s forum, an opportunity to strip away the high decibels and let the songs stand on their own melodic and lyrical integrity. Resisting considerable pressure from MTV to focus mainly on big Nirvana hits in his performance, Cobain assembled a diverse set that included both well-known and lesser-known songs of his, as well as a few covers.
“It was the first time in a long time that I’d seen them so nervous about doing something,” says Alex MacLeod. “Things had gotten to the point where they’d go out and play in front of 7,500 or 10,000 people, like [very nonchalantly] ‘Okay, boom, let’s do it.’ But they were really nervous about doing Unplugged. Because they were really leaving themselves wide open.”
The set turned out to be a rousing success. It was capped by a riveting version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a traditional tune recorded by one of Cobain’s musical heroes, the American folk-singing archetype, Leadbelly. Having done pained, screaming justice to the death-haunted ballad, Cobain left the stage, never to return.
If only Cobain’s own life had been able to attain a similar sense of triumphant completion. The sad chain of events leading to his death probably began on March 4, 1994, in Rome, when Cobain fell into a near-fatal coma after taking some 60 sedative pills washed down with champagne. Although initially reported as an accident, the Los Angeles Times later stated that the overdose was in fact a suicide attempt and that Cobain had even left a suicide note. (The newspaper cited “sources close to the situation who asked not to be identified” as the basis for this statement.) Two weeks later, Courtney Love summoned police to the home she and her husband shared in Seattle. Following an argument with Love, Cobain apparently locked himself in a room with three or four guns (reports vary) and 25 boxes of ammunition. Love called in the law because she feared he intended to take his life. Cobain denied this, saying he merely wanted to be alone for a while. The officers confiscated his weapons, nevertheless. Cobain had begun to amass a collection of guns, for protection purposes, he said, while he and Love were living in Los Angeles.
By March 28, Cobain and Love had returned to L.A., she to work out some final details on the release of Hole’s new album, Live Through This, he to check into a drug rehabilitation clinic. This was to be the last of several unsuccessful rehab attempts. Three days later, Cobain abruptly left the clinic and apparently flew back to Seattle. Fearing for his safety, Love hired private detectives who tried in vain to locate him. On the morning of April 8, his body was found at a home he owned in Seattle. An electrician who had come to work on the premises made the discovery. Medical experts determined that Cobain had been dead for several days.
Shortly before the death, reports that Nirvana planned to break up surfaced. In his suicide note, Cobain said, “I haven’t felt excitement in listening to as well as creating music for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things.” The note goes on to thank Nirvana’s fans for their “letters and concern during the last years.”
Among the many ironies associated with this brilliant artist’s short, sad life is that while he was unable to conquer his own intense pain, his music helped millions of fans deal with theirs.