No music writer in the world was closer to Nirvana than Melody Maker‘s Everett True, who saw them perform on over 70 occasions, interviewed them at length many times and is generally credited with having introduced them to UK fans.
His book Nirvana: The True Story is an incisive re-evaluation of a band that has been repeatedly misrepresented, and it takes issue with existing biographies on the band. A personal friend of many of the stars of grunge, True knows all the stories behind the myths and in Nirvana: The True Story his fly-on-the-wall reportage opens up the group as never before. He tells what happened to Cobain in Olympia, Seattle and elsewhere, offers an eyewitness account of how Kurt first met Courtney and comprehensively covers the music, the parties, the live dates, the friends and the drug dealers surrounding the grunge explosion.
The highlight of the following extract is the infamous encounter between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose of Guns N’Roses at the 1992 MTV Music Awards.* * * * *
AFTER READING, Nirvana returned to the US – Kurt returned to detox, this time at Exodus at Marina Del Ray, and Kurtney agreed to submit urine samples for drug testing as part of their ongoing battle to have Frances Bean returned. Kurt wrote Courtney several rambling, self-hating letters from hospital, despising himself for being so stupid as to become an addict, denying that he ever was an addict, blaming everything on his stomach, covering his letters with candle wax and blood. Sometimes, he was poetic – “I’m speechless, I’m toothless. You pull wisdom from my tooth. You give me girth and dentures and fangs” – and sometimes, he was pleading. The treatment worked, albeit temporarily – Kurt shifted his dependency onto other drugs, barbiturates. It wouldn’t last long.
On September 8, Kurt was talked into signing a waiver releasing him from hospital for MTV’s Video Music Awards. No one who was cool gave a shit for them, but Nirvana’s management were concerned there’d be a knock-on effect if this band that MTV had so slavishly championed over the past year didn’t show up – Nirvana were nominated for four awards – so Kurt reluctantly agreed to attend.
Some people felt Kurt was being hypocritical in his public distaste for MTV – Danny Goldberg, for one. “Kurt had a strong sense of achievement,” his former manager says. “He kept careful track of how many times Nirvana videos were played on MTV compared with Pearl Jam when there was that rivalry going on, for example. MTV wanted him to do an awards show but he hated the whole idea of MTV – but if he’d wanted to say no, no one could’ve made him do it. He hated having to suck up to MTV but didn’t want to pay the price for not sucking up to them. It’s not like he accidentally became famous. He carefully planned it out. But the self-imposed pressure to maintain success didn’t make him happy. A lot of artists find the baggage accompanying fame weird and uncomfortable.”
Even at the rehearsals for the awards, controversy engulfed Nirvana. Kurt wanted to play the haunting ‘Rape Me’. MTV were outraged – the station wasn’t about innovation or spontaneity, but consolidation. They wanted a hit, nothing less. Plus, the executives felt the song was somehow directed at them, even though it was written in late 1990.
MTV refused point blank to let Nirvana perform the song. Nirvana refused point blank to perform. So MTV started getting heavy with the band: first, they threatened to boycott Gold Mountain’s other acts such as Sonic Youth and Beastie Boys. Next, they threatened to fire Amy Finnerty, an employee that Nirvana liked.
“There was this weird standoff where, all of a sudden, they realised MTV might have them in a headlock,” explains Earnie Bailey. “My feeling was, ‘Do you really think that they would blacklist you like that? Are you convinced that they would try to take out the biggest non-industry band in the world?'”
In the event, a totally scouring version of ‘Lithium’ was played, Kurt choirboy cute in his cropped blonde hair, cardigan and Daniel Johnston T-shirt, kids tentatively stagediving off the stage (probably prompted by an MTV exec, ever mindful of the need for the illusion of rebellion and chaos). First, though, Kurt nearly gave MTV kittens as he sung the opening lines of ‘Rape Me’ accompanied by desultory strumming, Krist flashing the devil sign. As engineers raced across to the control truck to switch to a commercial, Kurt launched into the new single, feverish and mischievous. MTV might have got their way but Nirvana had scored a tiny moral victory. It was a great performance.
At the song’s end, Krist hurled his bass into the air and it hit him square on the forehead, concussing him as he staggered off stage. Kurt clambered over the drums while Dave, almost demented, grabbed the mic and shouted, “Hi Axl, where’s Axl, hi Axl?”
Dave’s improvised speech was a reference to an incident that had happened minutes before, involving the pompous Guns N’ Roses singer and his LA hair rock band. Bad blood had been simmering for months, ever since Axl Rose had requested Nirvana play his 30th birthday party in the wake of Nevermind, and Nirvana had treated the request with the scorn it deserved. Next, Guns N’ Roses tried to get Nirvana as their opening band for their 1992 spring tour – what were they thinking? Guns N’ Roses were a trad rock band that stood for everything Kurt – and more particularly – his adopted hometown of Olympia despised. Why the fuck would Nirvana be interested in associating with them? As Kurt later explained to gay magazine, The Advocate, “Ever since the beginning of rock’n’roll there’s been an Axl Rose. And it’s just boring, it’s totally boring to me.”
Still, Axl was a fan; and rebuffed, decided to take the high moral ground, publicly dismissing Kurt from onstage in Florida a week before the Music Awards as a “fucking junkie with a junkie wife. If the baby’s been born deformed,” he ranted, “I think they both ought to go to prison.” The fact that Axl had clear feelings of inferiority towards Kurt and Nirvana was betrayed by his very next sentence: “He’s too good and too cool to bring his rock’n’roll to you, because the majority of you he doesn’t like or want to play to…”
So when Axl and his girlfriend, model Stephanie Seymour, bumped into Kurt and Courtney backstage, fireworks followed – “Hey Axl,” Courtney called out, spotting the pair. “Will you be the godfather of our child?” Rose ignored her and turned to Kurt, who was cuddling Frances: “You shut your bitch up or I’m going to knock you to the pavement.” Deadpan, Kurt turned to Courtney and said, “Shut the fuck up, bitch”. There was a momentary silence as people figured out what he was doing and then snickers of laughter could be heard. Trying to save her partner’s face Seymour turned to Love and asked, “Are you a model?” Courtney immediately fired back, “No. Are you a brain surgeon?” Axl and Stephanie stormed off, humiliated.
“That Axl throw-down was one of the funniest things I ever saw,” chuckles Janet Billig. “Axl had no comeback at all.”
“My first US show with Nirvana was the MTV Music Awards,” states Earnie Bailey. “I was in the food tent in the middle of a football field, right before their performance. Right in front of me is [mawkish female trio] Wilson Phillips, behind me is Elton John, and we’re all holding paper plates. Everyone’s sporting the big hairdos and shoulder pads and then there’s us, Nirvana, and we look like the ones emptying the trash: T-shirts and tennis shoes. People were looking at us almost frightened, like we were people to watch out for.
“I sat down on a plastic cooler because most of the seats were filled up,” the guitar tech continues, “and a woman came in and asked if she could sit down next to me. It was Annie Lennox. And I thought, ‘Wow, I’m sitting on a cooler with Annie Lennox, eating my lunch’. And that’s when the whole scene with Axl and his girlfriend played out in front of us. It was nuts.
“At the actual taping, Krist near knocked himself out and we couldn’t find him afterwards. We were worried he’d done himself harm. So I went looking for him out at our trailer – I figured he was probably there duct taping his head back together – when Kurt came in, laughing his ass off. He told me he’d spit across the keys of Axl’s piano as he left the stage. So we’re laughing about that, watching the ceremony on TV, when these two pianos come up and Kurt goes, ‘Oh fuck, I spat on Elton’s piano by accident’.”
Guns N’ Roses’ behaviour helped put Kurt’s simmering feud with Pearl Jam (who were also present) into some perspective. Later that evening, Kurt grabbed hold of Eddie Vedder and slow-danced with the Pearl Jam singer to the strains of Eric Clapton singing ‘Tears In Heaven’. “You’re a respectable human even if your band does suck,” Kurt told him. For, as Kurt explained afterwards, “There are plenty of other more evil people out there in the world.”
“I think that was the show where [Courtney’s half-sister] Jamie was pretty focused on having Danny [Goldberg] introduce her to Whitney Houston,” laughs Rosemary Carroll. “She was very excited at Whitney’s presence. To her, that was a real star.”
For their Best Alternative Music Video Award, Nirvana sent up a Michael Jackson impersonator to accept the plaudits, relinquishing his ‘King of Pop’ nomenclature for the ‘King of Grunge’. A nonplussed audience failed to applaud. “A lot of it had to do with the fact they’d taken Michael Jackson off the top of the charts [with Nevermind],” explains Billig. “But no one got Kurt’s joke.”
Guns N’ Roses weren’t quite finished, however:
“At one point Krist and I were walking out from the main building to our trailer and [Guns N’ Roses bassist] Duff McKagan approaches us,” recalls Bailey. “He’s got several body guards with him, and one person in his entourage was videotaping, like he’s making a Guns N’ Roses movie. Duff comes up to Krist and announces, ‘I hear you’ve been talking shit about my band’ and Krist tells him that he hadn’t said anything about his band. But Duff keeps going on about it and so Krist says flat out to him, ‘Obviously, you’re trying to provoke me into a fight so you can film it for your Guns N’ Roses fan movie, and I could easily kick your ass but then you’d have four of your bodyguards kick the shit out of me – so let’s walk over behind these two buses there and it’ll be you and me. I’ll be more than happy to take you on’. And Duff was like, ‘No, right here, right now’. And there’s no way… I mean Krist is like Paul fucking Bunyan [legendary giant lumberjack], and Duff was very thin and smelled like he was liquored up. So nothing happened. We walked on, laughing at how absurd it was.”
“During the MTV Awards, we stayed at the Hyatt House on Sunset,” reveals Earnie. “It was wild. [Legendary Fifties wild man rocker/preacher dude] Little Richard lived on the top floor – and Dave ran into him at the bar. We were up at the pool that Zeppelin had haunted. Barrett [Jones, drum tech] and I flew out immediately afterwards. He and I took a taxi straight to the airport and headed for Portland to set up for the ‘No on 9’ benefit.”
The show was a protest against Oregon State’s Initiative 9, an attempt by conservatives to limit homosexual rights. Helmet, megalithic punks Poison Idea and spiky all-female Portland group Calamity Jane were also on the bill, with Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra MC-ing. But even in Portland, Nirvana couldn’t escape Guns N’ Roses fans: “I said something about Guns N’ Roses from onstage,” Kurt told The Advocate. “Nothing nasty – I think I said, ‘And now, for our next song, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ [Guns N’ Roses’ phenomenally successful ballad]. But some kid jumped onstage and said, ‘Hey, man, Guns N’ Roses plays awesome music, and Nirvana plays awesome music. Let’s just get along and work things out, man!’
“And I couldn’t help but say, ‘No, kid, you’re wrong. Those people are total sexist jerks, and the reason we’re playing this show is to fight homophobia in a real small way. The guy is a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side. I’m sorry that I have to divide this up like this, but it’s something you can’t ignore. And besides they can’t write good music.'”
The next night, Nirvana played the 16,000-seater Seattle Centre Coliseum with Helmet and Fitz Of Depression – the same venue that Krist had been thrown out, April 1991. It was another benefit, this time to fight a Washington State music censorship bill: an innocuous enough cause, but Kurt started to receive death threats for his pro-gay and pro-choice stances. The management brought a metal detector in, and he was warned he’d be shot if he stepped on stage.
“It was a great show,” says Rocket journalist Gillian G Gaar. “The entire floor was a big moshpit and the fans were just leaping around, leaping around, leaping around. I was thrilled to be a part of it. It was the first time since [female-fronted AOR chart group] Heart that I’d seen a Seattle band that was that popular.”
“I recall them smashing up their instruments at early Vogue shows when they couldn’t afford to, and I was in such awe,” says Rob Kader. “You could tell that it was unplanned and spontaneous – and it felt right. Later on, it felt like they were going through the motions. They’d always switch to a cheap Mexican or Japanese strat beforehand. That Coliseum show was the last time I saw them smash up their gear where it felt true and spontaneous.”
Kurt’s dad showed up, alongside Kurt’s half-brother Chad: Don bluffed his way past security by showing his driver’s licence, and there was an awkward moment backstage where Don confronted the son he hadn’t seen for seven years. Also present was Wendy, Kurt’s mom, and Kim, Kurt’s sister, plus Courtney and Frances Bean – neither of whom Don had met before. Eighteen years had elapsed since Wendy and Don had divorced, and the reunion wasn’t friendly – both sides sniped at each other about their age. Kurt told his dad to shut up, and Kim and Wendy soon left. Many folk suspected that Don was only making contact because he was after money, but Kurt was cool about it – or so he told British journalist Jon Savage in 1994.
“I was happy to see him because I always wanted him to know that I didn’t hate him anymore,” he said – echoing a line from ‘Serve The Servants’, the first song on In Utero: “I just want you to know that I/Don’t hate you anymore.”
“On the other hand, I didn’t want to encourage our relationship because I didn’t have anything to say to him. My father is incapable of showing much affection, or even of carrying on a conversation. I didn’t want to have a relationship just because he was my blood relative. It would bore me.”
“That show had an incredible destruction scene at the end,” smiles Earnie. “It began when Kurt approached the amp cabinets that were in front of my work station, so I cleaned up all my stuff, and sure enough he toppled these two top cabinets over onto what would have been my area, and then he went over to a second bank of amps and tipped them over front ways on top of the guitar and then climbed back on top of the cabinet and rocked the cabinet on top of the guitar and got it to make these amazing sounds by squishing the cabinet on the strings… and just when you think the guitar is finished, it’s not, he’s got a long way to go with it. He dismantled it slowly, over the course of what seemed like about 15, 20 minutes – and it was still plugged in. It was awesome. They systematically threw every drum at Kurt, and Kurt was handling his guitar like a baseball bat.”
It was time for Kurtney to return to Seattle. They kept their LA apartment for a while, but purchased a house in the country, in Carnation, 30 miles outside Seattle, for $300,000. The house needed a lot of work done to it – “I don’t think anyone spent a whole lot of time there,” comments Rosemary Carroll – so the couple spent the last few months of 1992 moving from one four-star Seattle hotel to the next, with their entourage in tow. Wherever they went, they left cigarette burns in the sheets and the carpets.
“I went to that house once,” comments Michael Lavine. “He was there, and Kevin Kerslake and Courtney. Nothing was there. It was empty, with a Hotwheels circuit in the middle of the floor, boxes of stuff from Europe, pictures and underwear, and the kitchen covered with junk food. That was it.”
“I saw Star Pimp at the Colour Box in October 1992,” recalls James Burdyshaw. “Kurt and Courtney were there, trying to look inconspicuous… well, he was trying to look inconspicuous. I was in line for a beer and she was right in front of me, checking out the crowd, like ‘Oh, nobody I really care about is here’. I said hello to Kurt – ‘Remember me? James? I was in Cat Butt’, and he was like, ‘Oh yeah! How are you?’ All of a sudden, the nice guy came back. We talked for a good 15 minutes, and I said that I’d heard he had a farm, and he goes, ‘Well, we don’t have any sheep or cows or anything like that, but we own some property.’ He was real soft-spoken and then Courtney gives him a dirty look and he says, ‘I gotta go now’. I shook his hand, and that was it.”
Nirvana: The True Story by Everett True, Omnibus Press (636pp, available in hardback at £19.95)
© Everett True, Nirvana: The True Story (Omnibus), 2006