By Chris Morris
"House calls are making a comeback," notes Chris Novoselic,
Nirvana’s tall goateed bassist, as he watches a tattoo parlor
being setup in his band’s North Hollywood motel suite. Drummer
Dave Grohl stares intently as the tattooist, a long-haired guy
named Paul, flips through the pages of his sample book. Inks and
an electric needle are laid out on a small formica bench: the
sharp smell of robbing alcohol perfumes the air.
gonna get Black flag - the bars." guitarist Kurt Cobain says
with a cackle. "It was such a popular thing for kids to do
in the early '80s, to get the bars on their arms. I thought I’d
wait until I was 25 to do it."
job is a momentary diversion - another way to breakup another
evening in another motel room that’s rapidly approaching
squalor, in an atmosphere of escalating lassitude. Sending out
for tattoos is, of course, the L.A. thing to do. But, as Cobain
wryly suggests, it is also the punk rock thing to do. And Nirvana,
all of a sudden, is the punk rock band of the moment.
A month earlier,
the Washington state-based trio was one more highly lauded alternative
rock act, with two singles, an EP and the album Bleach, all on
the Sub Pop label. Two years’ worth of tours had elevated
the band to demigod status among underground headbangers, but
that buzz had yet to translate into national prominence.
came with a bang in September, when Geffen’s DGC Records
issued Nevermind, Nirvana’s major-label debut. Music-industry
handicappers gaped in awe as the album entered the Billboard chart
at number 144...clambered its second week to number 109...vaulted
to number 65...rocketed to number 35...and, in only its seventh
week on the charts, blasted to number four, nipping at the heels
of Guns N’ Roses’ heavily hyped Use Your Illusion
I & II.
unexpected rise was fueled by MTV’s rapid rotation of the
video for Nevermind’s first single, "Smells Like Teen
Spirit." The song - a caustic anti-anthem about youthful
apathy that boasts the sardonic hook line "Here we are now,
entertain us" - was dressed by director Sam Bayer in flamboyantly
anti-establishment colors, decked out with a mutant high school
assembly that included slamming students, a thrashing janitor,
tattooed cheerleaders and a bound-and-gagged principal. That,
combined with burgeoning airplay at modern rock radio and album-oriented
stations, sold 600,000 copies of Nevermind in five weeks. No mean
feat, considering that it took R.E.M. four albums to attain that
level; Faith No More hit similar sales after they had toured for
a year behind their breakthrough, The Real Thing.
Poneman, co-owner of Sub Pop, the Seattle label that squired Nirvana
and such high-profile alternative brethren as Soundgarden, Mudhoney
and Tad to major attention, sees Nirvana’s popularity as
a stroke of lightning. "There was the sort of grass-roots
hype on this band I can only compare to when I was a teenager
and people said Bruce Springsteen was the best performer in the
world," he says. "These three individuals represent
their generation. It’s a luck of timing: This band not only
delivers the goods, they manage to capture the time."
their hotel room waiting to be tattooed, the new representatives
of their generation appear somewhat nonplussed by Nirvana’s
success. "I just thought it would be like another successful
independent record vibe," says Grohl, whose lantern jaw and
long, lank brown hair make him look like the all-American headbanger.
"I didn’t think it would be that much different than
Bleach - just a progression."
Adds the pug-nosed
Cobain, "I expected our core audience to buy our record within
the first couple of weeks, and sales would decline after that.
But after I realized that we were on MTV, I suspected we would
sell a lot more."
sort of funny," Grohl continues, "because people look
at the video like it’s some monumental statement. So many
people think it’s the epitome of this rebellious high school
the question: Won’t the video’s exuberant mosh-pit
imagery obscure that song’s biting message? Might the legions
currently flocking to Nirvana be missing the point?
Cobain agrees, with a touch of weariness. "Most of the new
fans are people who don’t know very much about underground
music at all. They listen to Guns N’ Roses; maybe they’ve
heard of Anthrax. I can’t expect them to understand the
message we’re trying to put across. But at least we’ve
reeled them in - we’ve gotten their attention on the music.
Hopefully, eventually, maybe that message will dig into their
minds. I don’t really expect it to."
then adds, "It attacks the audience we’re supposedly
selling our product to. At the same time, it’s not malicious,
it’s not meaning to put them down...." His voice trails
up the thread: "Maybe that’s one of the reasons we
didn’t expect the record to go this well. We knew it was
against the grain. I mean, the first thing that started freaking
me out was playing shows and seeing sort of bi-level redneck logger
guys in the front row. I had never expected that kind of audience."
it’s really selfish to judge your audience like that,"
Cobain counters. "Because, overall, I can tell from the expressions
on everyone’s faces that they’re enjoying the music.
Fuck the message, because it’s not half as important as
the music in the first place. My mother likes our music. So if
I can please her, or our relatives, or anyone who will hear our
music on AOR radio who’s never heard our type of music before,
that means we’re doing something right. Besides, we’re
so similar to Aerosmith and hard-rock music, most kids who like
hard-rock music now, who don’t know anything about underground
music, are obviously going to like us."
between Nirvana and Aerosmith may begin and end with both bands’
propensities for loud guitars and snappy song hooks. Nirvana’s
contemporary power derives not from ancien régime codpiece
posturing or scarves dangling from mikestands, but rather from
an abiding affection for the cacophonous revelations of early-’80s
punk, an ironic and caustic take on adolescent and post-adolescent
values in the ‘90s, and (perhaps most particularly) a will
to transcend the cultural slag heap of their hometown environs.
Washington, where Cobain and Novoselic grew up, borders the Pacific
Ocean about 100 miles southwest of Seattle. "‘Twin
Peaks,’" Cobain says with a wan smile, "without
isolated," Novoselic observes, with his typically laconic
manner. "It’s a wood-industry town, you know. They’ve
been through a lot of hard times. When the economy goes down,
less homes are being built, there’s less lumber going out.
Things work in cycles - three-four years good times, three-four
years bad times."
not a lot of enthusiasm among the people of this town at all,"
Cobain says. "People just don’t want to do anything.
There’s a massive sense of depression and alcoholism. Also,
the town, when it first was built, was a seaport, and it was mainly
just a whorehouse. The sailors would come and screw the women.
Eventually it turned into a little community. So there’s
also this overall sense that we’re a little ashamed of our
like the edge," Novoselic elaborates. "There’s
Seattle, there’s Olympia, there’s Aberdeen, then there’s...China.
No ideas are going through. There’s like a collective unconscious
there. Just people in their houses, rained out, drinking a lot.
A lot of drugs. There’s no white-collar, just a few bankers
downtown, and lawyers. Public defenders and prosecutors. That’s
the legal system. Maybe a few private lawyers doing divorce cases."
son of a machinist, and Novoselic, whose father worked in the
logging business, met shortly after leaving high school in the
mid-’80s, through a mutual friendship with Buzz Osborne,
guitarist and singer for the Aberdeen-based punk band the Melvins.
and Matt Lukin [now the bass player for Mudhoney] discovered punk
rock," Novoselic explains. "They’d go to Seattle
and catch all these cool shows and buy records. I told Buzz, ‘I
play guitar,’ and he started turning me on to all these
bands, like Flipper, MDC, Butt-hole Surfers. I thought it was
really cool. Then I tried turning people on to it, but I’d
just get all these closed-minded reactions. One guy said, ‘All
that stuff’s just, "I wanna fuck my mom, I wanna fuck
my mom."’ They were just so closed-minded."
or nothing," Cobain interjects scornfully.
To make some
cash, Cobain and Novoselic started up a Creedence Clearwater Revival
cover band. Cobain played drums, Novoselic guitar. A guy named
Steve played bass. "But then he cut his fingers off in a
logging accident," Cobain adds, with a dark laugh.
to jell in the fall of 1986, after Cobain and Dale Crover, the
Melvins’ drummer, recorded a demo, the fragrantly titled
Fecal Matter, on a four-track machine owned by Cobain’s
aunt, an aspiring country singer. Novoselic signed on as Nirvana’s
bassist, Cobain took on full-time guitar chores and Aaron Burkhart
became the first in a conga line of drummers. Armed with such
eventual staples of the Nirvana repertoire as "Love Buzz,"
"Floyd the Barber" and "Spank Through," the
band started playing in Aberdeen, "in this shitty old house,"
Novoselic recalls. "We’d play in front of five people.
Everybody would be drunk and stoned."
liked it," Cobain says. "But eventually we traveled
to Tacoma and Olympia. Hopefully we could play in Seattle some
day - that was our big goal."
came when Jonathan Poneman and his Sub Pop partner Bruce Pavitt
asked the group to record a 45 for a limited-edition release (1000
copies) for the label’s singles club. "Love Buzz"/
"Big Cheese" was issued in December of 1988, and the
group started getting stage shows in Seattle, many of them set
up by Poneman and Pavitt. At times the response was underwhelming:
"We played some kind of benefit show on a Sunday afternoon
at the Central Tavern," Novoselic remembers. "We showed
up, setup, and nobody was there. Nobody was there. So we left."
Pop was sufficiently encouraged to release their album Bleach,
cut in late ‘88 with drummer Chad Channing. (Although guitarist
Jason Everman’s name appears on the record, he doesn’t
play on it; he was performing with the group onstage, and Cobain
says his name was slapped on the jacket "to make him feel
a part of the band.") Recorded for only $600 in a pure-grunge
mode by producer Jack Endino, it features a number of tracks that
prefigure "Smells Like Teen Spirit," reflecting the
petulant outbursts of a generation gone dumb. "Would you
believe it, it’s just my luck/No recess!" runs the
chorus of "School," while "Scoff" features
the shrieking refrain, "Gimme back my alcohol."
the album’s release in June of 1989, the band - including
Everman - undertook their first national tour, minus the glamor.
"We stayed at this one place in Texas," Cobain recalls,
"out in the woods, next to a lake where there were signs
all over the grass that said, ‘Beware of Alligators.’
We slept with baseball bats at our sides." Adds Novoselic,
"We hacked up a baseball bat or something, put motor oil
on it and tried to cook Cup-A-Soups. That’s how we lived.
It was fun, though - we were a hardy bunch. What’s the word
- youthful enthusiasm. It was Kerouwacky."
booted from the tour upon its conclusion in New York, while Nirvana
played onward as a trio. Cobain claims the group did five American
and European road stints behind Bleach. They were still making
$100 a show in Europe in late 1989, crammed into a van with 11
tourmates, including the beefy Sub Pop band Tad. "We mainly
survived off of the deli trays - cold cuts every morning."
The next year,
Nirvana finally made its move toward the big time. The members
were leery of signing a seven-album deal with Sub Pop, which at
the time was contemplating a distribution deal (ultimately declined)
with Sony Music. Encouraged by Soundgarden’s manager Susan
Silver, the group flew to L.A., secured the services of an attorney
and began getting courted by major labels - "MCA, Charisma,
Capitol, Island, DGC, the whole ball of wax," as Novoselic
puts it. DGC eventually won the nod, mostly because New York noisemeisters
Sonic Youth, with whom Nirvana had toured, already had a home
time of the signing, Cobain and Novoselic, who had been making
do with fill-in drummers (including the Melvins’ Crover
and Mudhoney’s Danny Peters), secured the services of Grohl,
a member of the Washington, D.C. band Scream and no stranger to
punk campaigns himself. With Scream, Grohl explains, "we
were staying in this house in Laurel Canyon with three mud-wrestling
girls for a week-and-a-half; we had two shows booked, and the
guarantees were like for a hundred dollars a show. Then our bass
player’s girlfriend wired him $800 over the telephone, and
he disappeared. He flew back to D.C. - end of band."
On the advice
of mutual friend Buzz Osborne, Grohl flew to Seattle to play with
Nirvana: "All I really had was a suitcase and my drums, anyway,
so I took them up to Seattle and hoped it would work. It did."
Nevermind in early’91 with Butch Vig, producer of such sub-rosa
bands as Killdozer and the Laughing Hyenas. The record was made
as a pure punk-rock maneuver, loud and subversive. Mischievously,
the group buried a bonus song "Endless Nameless" some
14 minutes into the last CD track (its feedback grind has probably
awakened many an unsuspecting dozer). Some of the punk gambits
are more elusive; the lovely acoustic ballad "Polly,"
for instance, documents a rape from the rapists dispassionate
point of view.
his motives, lyricist Cobain says, "I think the reason ‘Polly,’
in particular, has such impact is because it could be considered
a Top 40 song, a very simple, easy-listening song, with acoustic
guitar and harmonies. But I decided to put some disturbing lyrics
in, just to counteract that and make that the statement - that
the song should not be that kind of song."
was inspired by Cobain’s views on the oppression of women.
Other songs, such as the almost equally unnerving "Lithium,"
are closer to home: "It’s another story that I made
up, but I did infuse some of my personal experiences, like breaking
up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that
death void that the person in the song is feeling - very lonely,
irony-laced lyrics and the harpoon-sized melodic hooks of such
stormers as "In Bloom" and "Stay Away," one
carries away from Nevermind the blunt, ear-smoking punk-rock roil
that is at the core of both the band and its music. Barely has
such an infernally loud band scaled the charts so quickly. But
Cobain suggests that such music - punk rock, underground, alternative,
whatever you label it - will continue to gain commercial clout,
the result of an unlikely rapprochement with standard-issue hard
rock and metal.
like this hard rock and underground rock is fusing together and
being thrown into this one melting pot. It’s being considered
as almost the same thing. I’ve noticed a lot of the cock-rock
bands - Poison, stuff like that - in interviews, and in the image
they’re to portray with their new records, the tougher,
meaner street bands, that they’re trying, not necessarily
to jump on the wagon, but to make it seem as if they’re
cool and hip - accepting it.
role models, whether you like that idea or not, and the people
who like their music are listening to what they have to say. And
they’re listening to the new bands that they’re supporting,
these supposed ‘alternative’ bands. There are a lot
of really mainstream bands who sound just like Poison or resemble
Poison very much, and they’re being promoted as alternative
bands. I find that really offensive, you know. I think one of
the biggest examples of that would be Pearl Jam. They’re
going to be the first type of band to say that they’re ‘alternative’
and then accept the Poison bands as much as the Poison bands are
going to accept them. They’re going to be the ones responsible
for this corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion."
Nirvana just as much a part of the corporate meatgrinder as any
other hard-rock bands currently marketed by major record labels?
"The only way I can describe ‘alternative’ anymore
is ‘good music’," Cobain says. "I don’t
care what it sounds like - I don’t care if it’s abrasive
or clean or retarded. It doesn’t matter anymore. I mean,
there are so many bad bands and so many bad songwriters out there
that the only alternative to bad music is good music. And that’s
we’re doing does have a mission," Novoselic suggests.
"And the mission is to break things open for other bands
in the underground. Basically, to give people a chance to see
there’s a lot of good music there."
plays "old 70s Gibson basses," uses an Ampeg 400T head
driven through two 2X15 MESA/Boogie cabinets, and plucks Rotosound
RS66 extra-long strings.
pounds Tama drums ("not exclusively, because I haven't been
asked to") and utilizes Remo heads, with an Aquarian head
on the snare. He prefers cymbals "that can take a beating,"
instrument specs are somewhat out of the ordinary. "Well,
I play whatever guitar is cheap. I prefer Fender Mustang's, but
they're hard to find in left-handed versions. I play whatever
I can find, whatever's cheap or whatever's left-handed. I have
a MESA/Boogie preamp. I use four Crown 800-watt power sources.
A Radio Shack burglar alarm. I use a Roland DS1 distortion box,
an Electro-harmonix Small Stone.
piano wire for guitar strings, 'cause it's a lot thicker,"
Cobain says with a straight face. "I buy it in bulk, in these
big long tubes, and just cut it to the length of the guitar. They're
thicker than the thickest guitar gauge that's available. I don't
know what the thickness of 'em is anymore - I can't remember.
I use a really thick E string, and then a smaller size A. A few
of the others are guitar strings - I think I use Dean Markleys,
because they're the cheapest."
interviews with Nirvana