By Dan Hedges
"Tour... tour... tour," Dave Grohl of Nirvana says in
Virginia, so fried-out that he’s starting to drool. "Ever
since I’ve been in this band, we’ve been touring.
Five nights of playing. Two days of doing press. When we’re
not on stage, we’re eating, or sleeping, or shitting, and
that’s about it. It’s enough to drive anybody insane."
Scoring triple platinum with ‘Nevermind’ has its bright
and darker sides.
life at the Top O’ The Charts, ladies and gentlemen. For
drummer Grohl, guitarist Kurt Cobain, and bassist Chris Novaselic,
scoring triple platinum with Nevermind has its bright and darker
three can finally afford to order extra-large Cokes with their
burgers and fries. And the band’s grunge-pop success (along
with that of fellow up-and-comers Alice In Chains, Soundgarden,
and Pearl Jam) has definitely put the Pacific Northwest on the
also sent record label folk, hordes of them, winging toward Seattle
to wave contracts at anything with a lumberjack shirt and a pulse.
And for Nirvana, it’s meant that lots of people suddenly
want them to explain what they’re doing. Why they do it.
How they do it. And what it all means to the Future of Mankind.
As Dave Grohl
insists, "We’re the last people to analyze anything
we do. It’s usually by mistake or luck. MTV had a lot to
do with how the record went, exposing kids in the midwest who
don’t have an alternative record store that sells music
from the subculture. But if you want to know why we’ve taken
off? We have no idea."
mainstream TV appearances (as on Saturday Night Live last January)
have introduced them to a wider audience. But more importantly,
the exposure’s proved (in an era of studio gimmickry) that
the band is the same grungy slopfest onstage as it is on your
tape deck. No mirrors, no tricks...maybe a guitar gets trashed
during the final chord. What you see is what you get...which just
might be the cornerstone of Nirvana’s success.
advantage of live television," the drummer points out, "although
TV station floor managers in England flip us out. They’re
so uptight. They’re all running around like chickens with
their heads cut off, ‘Ohhhhhh nooooooo. . . what are we
gonna dooooooo?! We’d decide, ‘Let’s send these
people to the hospital, put em in straightjackets.’ So we’d
blow the roof off the place. Then we’d see em at a pub afterward,
and they’re drunk and going, ‘Ish gr-rrreat whassh
you guys played. Never head a band so wunnerful... ’"
A band of
the people? A band that’s all things to everyone? Not quite...
though Nirvana’s goal has always been, Grohl recalls, "to
shake things up with songs you could sing to, but not be your
average pop sing-along band."
began on Nevermind he goes on, "We went into our rehearsal
space every day for months. We came up with so much stuff where'd
we’d go, ‘God! This is the best thing we’ve
ever done!’ Then we’d forget how to play it. So many
songs got thrown away until we finally said, ‘Maybe we should
start recording them on a cassette.’ So we’d record
them on a cassette, then lose the cassette..."
‘89 debut, Bleach, fared well under the wing of Seattle’s
tiny Sub Pop label. Due to the success of Nevermind, Bleach is
enjoying a second wind as it climbs the Billboard chart. But even
after it became crucial, career-wise, to move to a more global
company, "We were wary of having other people make decisions,"
Grohl admits. "Even suggestions were a threat. We decided
that DGC was the only label worth a shit. They might even be worth
two shits. They knew where we were coming from."
newer fans totally understand where the band’s coming from
is another matter. As Grohl notes, "Everybody and their brother
knows ‘Teen Spirit,’ but we get people in the front
row who look puzzled if we play anything off Bleach. We had a
strong underground following before Nevermind. That’s how
we thought it would stay. We looked at Sonic Youth and saw them
jumping into the major market. We thought, ‘It worked for
them, so maybe it’ll work for us.’ We had no idea
it would get this insane.
Fame at last.
Dave Grohl says grimly. "Our first big dose was when we found
out we were going to be on the cover of a major magazine. We thought,
‘Jesus, that means our faces are going to be on every newsstand
and in every 7-Eleven in the country.’ Now, it sounds cool.
But to have every serial killer in America staring at your picture
as they’re paying for a six-pack? I mean, think about it.
Kurt Cobain was the dour, brilliant leader of Nirvana, the multiplatinum
grunge band that defined the sound of the 1990s. Last week he
BY BRUCE HANDY
Reported by Lisa McLaughlin/New York, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles
and Dave Thompson/Seattle
The last weeks of Kurt Cobain's life were filled with turmoil
and anguish - and gossip. Rumors floated through the music industry
that the singer-songwriter's band, Nirvana, was breaking up; that
Cobain, who had survived a tranquilizer-induced coma just six
weeks earlier, had suffered another overdose. The stories seemed
to be justified when the group unexpectedly backed out of headlining
the Lollapalooza tour this summer.
it turns out, was that Cobain, who claimed to have overcome an
addiction to heroin, was indeed abusing unspecified drugs. A record-industry
source told TIME that two weeks ago Cobain's wife Courtney Love,
front woman for the group Hole, gathered doctors and friends together
in Seattle, the couple's home, to try to scare Cobain into dealing
with his problem; Nirvana's managers even threatened to drop Cobain
from their roster unless he got cleaned up. The intervention seemed
to work, for Cobain checked into a California treatment center.
But according to a missing-persons report filed by his mother,
he fled early last week. Seattle police periodically checked Cobain's
house, finding no traces of the singer.
an electrician visited the house to install a security system.
When no one answered the front door, he walked around the house,
peering through windows. He thought he saw a mannequin sprawled
on the floor, until he noticed a splotch of blood by its ear.
When police and the coroner broke down the door, they found Cobain
dead on the floor, a shotgun still pointed at his chin and, on
a nearby counter, a suicide note penned in red ink, reportedly
ending with the words "I love you, I love you," addressed,
a source said, to Love and the couple's 19-month-old daughter
dead at 27. The news came as a shock to millions of rock fans,
and MTV pre-empted its usual programming for hours of J.F.K.-like
mourning, with a somber Kurt Loder playing the Walter Cronkite
role. Given Cobain's talent and influence, however, the reaction
was understandable. Nirvana came from the music-industry equivalent
of nowhere, with a rough-edged first album recorded for a chiselly
$606. The next, Nevermind, released 2 1/2 years ago, contained
a series of crunching, screaming songs that also had catchy melodies,
part punk, part Beatles. Selling almost 10 million copies and
knocking Michael Jackson's Dangerous from the top of the charts,
the album fibrillated the psyche of a generation. It also launched
the commercial vogue for grunge and made Seattle famous for something
other than cappuccino, rain and bad professional sports. Before
long, equally abrasive Seattle groups like Pearl Jam (a Nirvana
rival), Mudhoney and Alice in Chains joined Nirvana high on the
charts. The New Liverpool, Rolling Stone called the city in early
1992 (launching searches for the New Seattle).
at the center of it all, the John Lennon of the swinging Northwest,
a songwriter with a gift for searing lyrics as well as seductive
hooks, a performer with a play of facial expressions so edgy and
complicated that they rivaled Jack Nicholson's.
If the loss
of an oddly magnetic, brilliant musician was jolting, though,
the manner of his death was not entirely unexpected. Cobain spoke
so openly on the subjects of drugs and depression and suicide
that writers searching for easy obituary ironies didn't have to
look very hard. Cobain himself even began joking about it; a song
called I Hate Myself and I Want to Die was recorded but dropped
from the last album. "It was totally satirical, making fun
of ourselves," Cobain told a reporter earlier this year.
"I'm thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic
who wants to kill himself all the time. I thought it was a funny
Love, an alternative-rock
star in her own right, was in Los Angeles at the time of Cobain's
death but reportedly flew to Seattle Friday morning. While talking
to the pop-music critic Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times
early last week, Love broke into tears describing her husband's
recently fragile condition. "I just don't ever want to see
him on the floor like that again. He was blue," she told
Hilburn, recalling Cobain's overdose in Rome last month. "I
thought I went through a lot of hard times over the years, but
this has been the hardest." A source who had been close to
Cobain confirms what now seems obvious: the European incident,
labeled an accident at the time, was an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
"You don't take 50 pills by accident," notes the source.
Two weeks after returning to Seattle from Rome, Love had to call
police when Cobain locked himself in a room along with some of
the guns he enjoyed keeping around the house; police removed four
weapons that day, including a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
in the depressed logging town of Aberdeen on Washington's Pacific
coast, Cobain had, by his account, a relatively happy childhood
until his parents, a cocktail waitress and an auto mechanic, got
divorced. He was only eight at the time, and he claimed the traumatic
split fueled the anguish in Nirvana's music. He shuttled back
and forth between various relatives, even finding himself homeless
at one point and living under a bridge. His budding artistry and
iconoclastic attitude didn't win him many fans in high school;
instead, he attracted beatings from "jocks and moron dudes,"
as an old friend once put it. Cobain got even by spray-painting
QUEER on his tormentors' pickup trucks.
and reformed a series of bands before Nirvana finally coalesced
in 1986 as an uneasy alliance among Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic
(a hometown friend) and eventually drummer Dave Grohl. Cobain
married Love in 1992, when the band was first peaking on the charts,
when she was already pregnant with Frances Bean, and when both
parents had already developed heroin habits (Love claims to have
kicked hers immediately after finding out she was pregnant). "It's
a whirling dervish of emotion, all these extremes of fighting
and loving each other at once," is how Cobain described the
marriage last year, proudly showing off nasty fingernail scratches
on his back.
It was Nirvana's
unexpected stardom that seemed to eat at him. He appeared unusually
tortured by success, even in a profession famous for containing
people who are tortured by success. "He was a very bright,
sweet, generous and caring individual, perhaps a little too sweet
and sensitive for the business he was in," says Michael Azerrad,
author of Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Danny Goldberg,
the former head of Nirvana's management company who now runs Atlantic
Records, says, "In all the years I knew him, he had very
mixed feelings about being on this planet." Goldberg remembers
another of the band's handlers once asking the singer why he was
moping. "I'm awake, aren't I?" Cobain replied.
the usual torments of the underground poet moving into the mainstream,
and was worried that his band had sold out, that it was attracting
the wrong kind of fans (e.g., the guys who used to beat him up).
True, he liked the money that went with mall-rat adulation. But
in interviews he exuded a pain beyond standard-issue superstar
whining. He said his heroin use was a kind of self-medication
for stomach pains, but what he really seemed in search of was
of this would have happened had he not been famous," insists
Daniel House, a friend of Cobain's and the owner of an independent
record label in Seattle. "When Nirvana started catching on,
he was kind of bewildered. His music was so personal, it amazed
him when people came out in droves to hear it."
there, though, because Cobain conveyed meaning and even beauty
in his harsh recordings. His lyrics could be sour, occasionally
frightening if opaque. Take these simultaneously blase and acerbic
lines from the group's biggest hit, Smells Like Teen Spirit: "And
I forget just why I taste/ Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile/
I found it hard, it was hard to find/ Oh well, whatever, never
mind." Cobain's sometimes fierce, sometimes weary growl,
the sometimes convulsive, sometimes grating guitars, the very
loud drums: all of it communicated anger, maybe loathing, definitely
passion, no matter how inchoate.
was the same perennial, youthful fury captured by the Sex Pistols,
before they too self-destructed, and by the Who, before Pete Townshend
survived to purvey nostalgia to Broadway theatergoers. Youthful
nihilism may not be new, but no artist invents all his materials;
it's what he does with them that counts, and Cobain wrote great
rock songs as he explored a familiar theme with genius.
a journalist visited a home he and Love were renting before they
moved into the house in which Cobain would end his life. He had
decorated one of the walls with this graffito: NONE OF YOU WILL
EVER KNOW MY INTENTIONS. It could serve as his credo as well as
his epitaph. "Guess we won't be getting the deposit back
on the house," he joked.
Grohl and Krist Novoselic interviews
By David Fricke.
concert was in Toronto, at the Opera House, on September 20th.
The last gig was a homecoming soiree in Seattle on Halloween,
at the Paramount Theatre, with Mudhoney and Bikini Kill. In those
six weeks, singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic
and drummer Dave Grohl of Nirvana released their first major-label
album, Nevermind; played another twenty-nine shows across North
America; and were profoundly forever changed. Nirvana's next and
last three years together would be a Molotov cocktail of euphoria,
terror, paranoia, triumph, depression and unrealized possibility
(they would make only one more studio album).
But this tour
was all of that, compressed into a whirl of days. A critically
well regarded underground punk band, playing clubs with capacities
often in the low hundreds, Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl walked
offstage every night into total surreality, caught between the
oily fawning of a rude, hungry industry and the blind adoration
of mobs drunk on the chorale of Cobain's ironic smack at slacker
ennui, "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Between Toronto and
Seattle, Nirvana became public property at hypersonic velocity;
they never recovered. Novoselic and Grohl are still here to talk
about it, with a distance that has allowed humor and wonder to
show through the regret and dark, blank spots. "It's so hard
to remember everything," Grohl admits. "I wish I'd kept
a journal. I wish I'd taken pictures. I felt as confused then
as I do now about the whole thing."
too much: On April 8th, 1994, his body was found in a room over
the garage of his Seattle home. Exhausted by his life, Cobain
died by his own hand. He was twenty-seven. "I called Kurt
'The Windmill,'" says Novoselic, "because he would say
something, then five minutes later he'd completely contradict
himself. And he would laugh; because he knew he did it. There
would be times when he really wanted to be a rock star, and there
were times when he hated it. He just couldn't figure it out.”
“He was living in this tiny apartment in Olympia, WA by
himself. He was always cranking out art: this new painting, this
new sculpture, and some weird collage. He liked to be left alone.
Then he got sucked out of there, and he was put on this pedestal."
But that was not where his songs were written, not where they
came alive. Whatever the fall '91 tour became by the end- sensory
overload, a crush of love, irreversible rock history- Nirvana
repeatedly proved their heart and worth in performance. And it
was in playing every night that they found the last reliable pleasure
left to them as a band. "Playing those songs was almost meditation,"
Grohl contends. "You would lose yourself, although you were
still in control." He recalls, "listening to live tapes
and seeing everybody's grins. There was a conscious effort to
please ourselves- and then maybe everyone else."
Novoselic agrees: "That was what kind of band we were, man.
We were into playing. If a rehearsal or a show was not so good,
we were concerned about it. I really liked playing with Dave.
I loved playing with Kurt. I miss playing with them. I lost a
friend. I also lost a band." One measure of how good Nirvana
aspired to be was how little they toured in early and mid-'91-
at least compared with their long-term raids between '88 and '90,
when they were the hot guns at Sub Pop Records. Grohl became Nirvana's
fifth drummer (if you count the comings and goings of the Melvins'
Dale Crover) in September 1990. "When I joined the band,"
Grohl says, "I came from a hardcore band [Scream] that toured
as much as possible, six to eight months a year, because we didn't
want to come home and get day jobs. When I joined Nirvana, there
was no touring for the first eight months. All we did was rehearse
and write songs. I thought, 'What have I joined?'” Why did
Nevermind take so long [to make]? “To get it totally right,"
Novoselic insists. Nirvana's 1989 album, Bleach, was essentially
a studio document of the band's barbed live blur (and recorded
for virtual peanuts: $606.17). Nevermind was made taut, thick
and sleek, to come out of radios like a chrome fist. But Novoselic
points out that "we played every song off of Nevermind live.
We were just playing them more aggressively."
released music of this tour is scant: a few songs from Halloween
at the Paramount Theatre, scattered across B sides; a 1992 promotional
interview CD; and the 1996 live compilation, From the Muddy Banks
of the Wishkah. Grohl and Novoselic do not rate the Halloween
show highly; they recall being distracted and overwhelmed by the
sense of event, and by the camera crew filming the concert. Some
of the pair's clearest memories are, in fact, extra musical: the
bloody melee between Cobain and a vicious bouncer at the foot
of the stage in Dallas; hanging out at R.E.M. guitarist Peter
Buck's house after playing at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia.
were in transcendent form that year, and their shredded-metal
majesty - the glam slam and soft-loud whiplash in Cobain's songs;
the sour serrated arc of his voice; Grohl and Novoselic's high-speed
interplay - leaps off the Wishkah numbers, taped at the tail end
of '91 in Europe and California: "Drain You," "Been
a Son," "Lithium," a still fresh and feral "Teen
Spirit." "They knew they had something wonderful and
special," says Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who saw
"a bunch" of Nirvana shows that season. (The two bands
had previously shared bills together.) "When they did that
headlining tour, they were so innately powerful in a way that
was completely un-jaded."
Yet not unfocused.
"We would photocopy a set list and stick with it," claims
Novoselic. The favored opener was "Aneurysm," a pneumatic
sizzler from the B-side of "Teen Spirit." The last blast
would be the '89 EP track "Blew" with, Novoselic notes,
"a freak out at the end where things would get smashed up."
At the Metro in Chicago, Grohl and Cobain totally demolished the
drummer's already hideously battered kit - as an excuse to get
the tour manager to buy Grohl a new one. "There was no music,"
Grohl says. "The audience watched for fifteen minutes as
Kurt and I were bouncing the shells, trying to splinter them,
trying to get rid of this set and handing it to the audience."
But Grohl insists that: "as much as we had a love of bands
that just made noise, like Flipper and Scratch Acid, we also felt
obligated to perform. Kurt never wanted things to sound bad."
could not find a way to feel good about his windfall. Instant
fame and public recognition of his gifts came at a devastating
price: his self-esteem. "The mainstream came and grabbed
us," says Novoselic. "I'm a pretty easygoing guy and
have a lot of patience. But Kurt wasn't. Kurt despised the mainstream.
That's what 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was about - the mass mentality
of conformity." When the Mainstream came for Cobain, "he
felt ashamed - for everybody." So for those six weeks in
the fall of 1991, Nirvana roared across America as if their lives
and sanity depended on it. Because they did. "When we got
together, we totally rocked," Novoselic declares in proud
memory of his band. "And that's what we did. That's all we