Nivana on tour

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.

That’s 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 sides.

Sure, the 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 rock map.

But it’s 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."

Nirvana’s 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.

"We take 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."

Before work 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..."

Nirvana’s ‘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."

Whether Nirvana’s 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.

"Yeah," 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. That’s scary."


TIME inteview

Kurt Cobain was the dour, brilliant leader of Nirvana, the multiplatinum grunge band that defined the sound of the 1990s. Last week he killed himself.

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.

The truth, 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.

Last Friday, 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 Frances Bean.

Kurt Cobain, 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).

Cobain was 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 title."

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.

Growing up 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.

Cobain formed 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.

He suffered 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 psychic equilibrium.

"None 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."

They were 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.

His subject 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.

Last year 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.


Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic interviews

By David Fricke.

The first 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."

Cobain remembered 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."

Officially 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.

But Nirvana 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."

Cobain, however, 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 could do."

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