In Bloom — The Musical Legacy of Kurt Cobain
Nobody teaches you how to be a Rck Star. Say you’re a sweet kid with a Beatles fixation, like Kurt Cobain, aged six, in Aberdeen, Washington, USA, 1973. You see John Lennon on TV and you want to be him. Why? Is it something in his eyes? Are you bewitched by the crowd’s reaction — more people than you’ve ever seen in your life, screaming for him? Does that make you feel good? Or is it Lennon’s detachment from all the hysteria that attracts you?
When you hear the Beatles speak do you understand John’s Liverpudlian sarcasm? Paul is happy and eager to please. But you want to be John, the one who seems to mistrust acclaim, the one who shrugs, who sneers, whose mischievous, almost cruel, intelligent eyes strike a chord in your six-year-old soul. What is it? What do you see? Is it something to love? A way to be? A premonition?
A couple of years later you’ll discover that the Beatles split long ago and so you’ll never get to see them play. You’re upset by the news. But it’s only a kid’s dream gone west. Your parents’ divorce this same year will really shake you loose. You’re eight years old.
Eighteen years on, when the world is hanging on everything you say, as if you were a Beatle, you’ll tell a friend, “It took me years to realise that the divorce wasn’t my fault.” And years to get over the realisation that the world is “basically f***ed-up”. Perhaps you never really did.
Nobody teaches you how to be a rock star. But if you were growing up in the Seventies you had Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Rolling Stones as role models and their way to be stars was all groupies, roadies and coke, Rollers in swimming-pools and demolished Holiday Inns, immature japes with guns and booze and money to burn.
Guns N’Roses lived like that in 1987. Fame had arrived big-time after the release of Appetite For Destruction. The title told the story: old-school stardom at its most base. It clicked but it seemed lame, the antics were laboured, the values questionable and old fashioned. GN’R didn’t mean anything, they were just another bunch of kids who’d wanted to be rock stars — excess all areas, outrage while-u-wait. Rebellion by the rules. Would rock music every again shock us with its reality, as it had when it was young? Would it thump us in the guts once more with a passionate lust for something other than merely being a star? Punk had tried that, hadn’t it? But Guns N’Roses and MTV and the rise of powerful new corporate labels like Geffen were just like punk never happened. Rock would never matter again would it?
In spring 1987 Kurt Cobain, Chris (later Krist) Novoselic and Melvins drummer Dale Crover enter a studio with Jack Endino to record a demo.
Sub Pop had never signed a band from a demo before. But ‘Love Buzz’ got under Jonathan Poneman’s skin so bad he had to put it out; 1,000 copies were pressed late in 1988. Listening to it now it’s hard to imagine what he saw in the fledgling band. It’s a cover version of a dumb pop tune by Dutch group Shocking Blue. Kurt’s voice is nothing like the phlegmy growl that would make his name, it’s light and clear and relishes singing “Can you feel my love buzz” over and over. But that insouciance, that unconcern about being a momentous debut does have charm.
Live shows of the period were also unfocused. Everett True recalled witnessing the first gig with Jason Everman as second guitarist. “Their set was prophetically chaotic, disappointing even,” he wrote in 1992. “But even so there was a palpable sense of menace lurking just beneath the surface.”
You can’t underestimate the impact of danger as an ingredient in a band’s success. Very few have it. Those that do are utterly compelling to impressionable rock fans, like flames for a moth. Word spreads about Nirvana very quickly. Sonic Youth, newly signed to Geffen, rave about them to anyone who’ll listen after they do a short tour together.
Nirvana (Cobain, Novoselic and, on most tracks, drummer Chad Channing) record Bleach for Sub Pop in early 1989 (cost $606) with cash borrowed from Jason Everman (who isn’t on the album). All through the tours that follow (with Tad and Mudhoney) reports imply Nirvana are blowing the headliners offstage. They are not like other rock bands, but careless, uncontrived, full of pent-up stuff.
THE music that was born in Seattle at the end of the Eighties and given the unappetising label “grunge” has changed rock’n’roll for ever. Put a kink in fashion history too.
It was surely just a matter of time before something stirred somewhere which attempted to clear the pall of apathy that hung heavy over youth culture in the late Eighties. For the entire decade Britain and the States had been ruled by conservative governments preaching materialism, survival of the richest, fittest and cutest. For leaders who felt comfy in high office, these policies had the neat side-effect of diverting attention away from politics while people concentrated on living the perfect lifestyle.
By the time Guns N’Roses were lording it across arena stages there was absolutely no sign of the political imperative in music that had existed in the middle of the previous two decades. Anyone who felt disaffected by society was unlikely to turn to rock’n’roll to have their say.
But the Seattle bands felt unconnected to the rest of the US. According to Tad Doyle, frontman of Tad, “It’s an isolated microcosm, not affected by any New York or Los Angeles trends.” Rather than reflect the “golden age” that Reagan wanted every citizen to believe in, the Seattle bands stuck with the notion that the world was “basically f***ed up”. And the music they devised embodied that apathy even as it tore into it.
“Nirvana’s music hasn’t caused people to think differently, but its success with the masses is symbolic of the change of heart within the very fabric of youth,” wrote Gina Arnold last year in her book Route 666: The Road To Nirvana.
“My world, the independent world of the Eighties, for all its supposed liberality, was essentially apolitical: it was white, it was sexist, it was cruel. Yes, it rebelled against conformity and greed, but it also reflected the whole era’s selfishness in its ultimate dismissal of responsibility and kindness. The subsequent success of campaigns like Rock The Vote and Rock For Choice, and the eventual election of President Clinton, are proof that [this] generation has changed some of its focus.”
Sometime the Eighties it became uncool to be overt. The punk explosion had dealt in primitive political absolutes from “No future for me” and “Get pissed, destroy” to “I want a riot of my own”. Punk’s snotty pronouncements seemed untenable in the mid-Eighties. Even so, every other rock band going namechecked the Pistols as a major influence. Kurt had been fascinated by the British punks too, mainly through reading about them in Creem magazine. But it was the American second wave of Flipper, Black Flag and Scratch Acid that inspired him. These were bands that oozed punk, not so much through what they said but how they behaved, how they faced the world.
The first punk groups had been liberated by the rediscovery of a basic language: a few chords; a stark, unglamorous appearance; the shock value of stating the truth, talking about street reality rather than silly love songs or Tales From Topographic Oceans. Bands like Black Flag, Big Black and Hüsker Dü took that re-minted language as a given and drove it deeper into the marrow of their music so that it was the guitar playing, the drum fills, the mixes of their records that were nihilistic, not just the sentiments. The tone had become the text.
“I wish the Seattle scene had more political power,” moaned local journalist Charles Cross when Nevermind hit. “Nirvana has a forum and I wish they had a message.”
But “No future” was taken for granted by Seattle kids growing up thousands of miles from the major cities where yuppiedom and Eighties values were the law.
“Aberdeen was a very isolated town, real scary,” Chris Novoselic told The Maker in an early interview. “Leaving it opened our eyes to a lot of things. It was a helltown. A big city for lumberjacks. If they see something different they get dangerous.”
“For ages I thought I might be homosexual,” Kurt told us in 1992. “because I didn’t like the cheerleader type of girl or want to hang out with the jock boys. I chose to live the life of a recluse. I didn’t hang out with anyone else because I couldn’t handle their stupidity.”
Out there there’d have been no point in forming a Seventies-style punk band to bluntly state that the world was “basically f***ed”, instead it felt like time to call up all those who knew it to be the case. Like tapping on the pipes to communicate with the poor sod in the cell next door. You didn’t need words. The noise was all it took to tell someone they were not alone. F*** fighting for your right to party like the rock stars of the past, what about your right to exist?
“There are Aberdeens everywhere,” stated Kurt at the height of Nirvana’s fame.
Grunge as designed by Nirvana and their peers was music you understood in the pit of your stomach. With it came a reappraisal of the ideal that something you, a nobody, had started — be it a band, a label, a venue or a fanzine — could thrive in parched, abandoned out-of-the-way places, in the sun-starved shadow of corporate America. (References to a need for the sun keep cropping up in Kurt Cobain’s songs, especially on ‘In Utero’: “The sun is gone but I have a light”, ‘Dumb’: “In the sun I feel as one” — “All Apologies”.)
The implications of this modified punk ethos — as championed by the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth and practised by Kurt’s beloved K Records and acts like Beat Happening and Daniel Johnston — are that you seize your own nourishment and grow the way you want. Instead of “No future!” it yells “I deserve a future too!” Which needn’t imply aspirational drive or a yearning for fame and fortune, but simply escaping the crushing weight of convention. Surviving like the flower that grows up through a concrete slab.
“Punk changed my whole attitude to music,” Cobain said of this inspiration. “From wanting to be a star I decided that all I wanted to do was play rhythm guitar in a band.”
Which sums up the shock Cobain faced when huge stardom hit. He was just tapping on the pipes and was deafened by the response. It’s one thing feeling crushed by convention or at odds with the world, it’s some serious head f*** to be crushed by something you’ve created.
You send out a signal and suddenly the stampede’s on for your soul.
1991 was, according to Sonic Youth, “The Year Punk Rock Broke”. Seattle, Sub Pop, Nirvana at Reading, rap and rock on the bill together at Lollapalooza. A funky new awareness everywhere. Nevermind was all it took to make it explode.
DGC only pressed 40,000 copies when it was released in October. Its subsequent success wasn’t merely down to shrewd marketing but to genuine word-of-mouth excitement. Oh, and MTV playing the video to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ every quarter of an hour. In December it sold 370,000 copies and Bleach (which had cost only $606 to record) sold 70,000. Only months before this would have been unthinkable. Sure, it had a recognisable Beatley feel that radio programmers could understand (a couple of US critics even compared Nirvana to the Police!), but the album’s ragged edge had been missing from the lives of American kids, most of whom didn’t even know until they heard it.
“There are all these celebrities like Mick Jagger whose songs and images signify a particular set of values,” wrote Gina Arnold. “I feel I know what Mick Jagger or George Michael is doing, but not Kurt Cobain. The things he speaks and writes about are revealed not in language but in nuance and gesture, in the shriek of his animal voice and the rattle of his bad guitar. Behind his strange eyes there is a peculiar self-containment, a terrible privacy of purpose that has managed to intrigue everyone around him since the day he first took the stage.
“It’s a mysterious thing this celebrity of Kurt’s. It’s so unlike the celebrity of everyone who’s come before him. Divorced from all the standards of American achievement, good looks or coherence or even lyrical intelligibility, Kurt stands, in a way, for the possible elevation of the ordinary man to the circles of the blessed. No wonder the mere mention of his name evokes such awe.”
Nirvana weren’t alone, but they quickly came to represent the moment that rock changed forever. Within months the phrase “rock music” would cease to instantly summon up Poison, Def Leppard or Van Halen. It would mean Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. What was once the “alternative” was now the template. Rock became a howl of genuine pain for the first time in a generation. Courtney Love noted ruefully at the time that there’d soon be a “spate of mini-Nirvanas in every town” and that every band from here on in would be labelled “post Nirvana”. She was spot on.
A few weeks ago Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails entered the US charts at Numbers One and Two. Neither record bears much resemblance to the primped, crimped soft metal that typified American music only two years ago. Love or hate the result, it was Nevermind that made that possible.
No one has made a record so primal and yet so instantly approachable as Nevermind since. One ecstatic woman, interviewed as she bought the album on the day it topped the Billboard charts for the second time said, “I haven’t felt like this about music since Lennon died.”
Full circle. The former obsessive Lennon fan was now the greatest, most reluctant rock star of his generation.
Nobody teaches you how to be a rock star. Nobody gives instruction in what to do when 10 million people own a sliver of your soul. The stampede doesn’t stop. And fame cures nothing. Perhaps it’s thrilling at first. But what’s it like to see your modest ideals ripped out of your hands as a thousand bands start up in the race to repeat what you’ve achieved?
“The drama of Nirvana,” wrote Gina Arnold last year, “is going to be in its quiescence, in watching the fallout of the things it has symbolised, the injection of fuel into the moribund music industry and the infusion of teen spirit into the hearts and minds of American youth.”
Kurt, you didn’t dream up grunge all by yourself, but you were its sexiest most electric ambassador. And grunge became a “look”, a lifestyle, a new version of the American dream you tried to shake off. And the stampede doesn’t care if you didn’t intend it that way, does it?
So, no one teaches you to be a rock star, especially if you never planned on being one in the first place. And, I suppose, no one teaches any man how to be a father or a husband or, for that matter, a man. In fact, no one teaches any of us how to live. Why do we assume that famfous people have some kind of talent for living that the rest of us aren’t privy to? They don’t, do they, Kurt?
Maybe you learnt one thing about being a rock star. Blowing out your brains was the most old-fashioned, rock star exit you could have made. That was playing the old rules, Kurt. The rules your music helped rewrite.
You let the rock machine eat its talented young yet again, you poor bastard, and reassured the crowd that made you famous that fame isn’t worth it. Proving that a great rock star could be modest, gentle, feminine and unpretentious, shook the way we think about rock stars.
If you’d stayed sane and alive it would have really blown our minds.
NIRVANA’S LIFE AND TIMES
February 20 Kurt Donald Cobain born
Kurt’s parents, Wendy and Donald Cobain divorce. Kurt goes to live with his father in a trailer park.
Kurt moves back in with his mother in Aberdeen, Washington.
Kurt is given his first guitar.
Kurt leaves home, living in the library by day reading books by Salinger, Tolstoy and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sleeping on friends’ floors by night. Gets a job cleaning hotel room fireplaces. Gets the sack for sleeping in the rooms.
Also this year he is introduced to Chris Novoselic by mutual friend Buzz. Chris (born Krist Anthony Novoselic, May 16, 1965 in Compton, California) decides he want to form a band when he hears Kurt playing ‘Spank Thru’.
Employed as a life guard in charge of 30 kids at the YMCA. Later in the summer Kurt is arrested in Aberdeen on vandalism charges.
Kurt records a demo with Dale Crover, drummer of the Melvins.
Novoselic joins Cobain and Crover to record a demo with producer Jack Endino. Nirvana is born.
November: Sub Pop issue Sub Pop 200 triple LP compilation which includes ‘Spank Thru’.
December: Nirvana’s debut single ‘Love Buzz’/ ‘Big Cheese’ is released.
Jason Everman lends Kurt $600 to record Bleach. The final costs are $606.17. Dale Crover is on two tracks, the rest feature full-time drummer Chad Channing. Jason Everman joins as second guitarist. Although he doesn’t play on the album his picture appears on the sleeve.
June: Bleach is released.
July: Everman quits to play bass with Soundgarden.
August: Bleach issued in UK by Tupelo.
October 23: Tad and Nirvana start their first British tour at the Newcastle Riverside.
February: Tupelo issue ‘Blew’/’Love Buzz’/’Been A Son’/’Stain’ 12-inch EP.
March: Butch Vig appointed to produce next album.
May: Nirvana tour American east coast.
June: Chad Channing is sacked. “I felt like I’d just killed somebody,” says Kurt. Rumours suggest J Mascis will replace him.
Waterfront release a Kiss tribute album which includes Nirvana’s cover of ‘Do You Love Me’.
October: Temporary drummer Dan Peters of Mudhoney, is sacked for not being “heavy enough”. David Eric Grohl, born in Warren, Ohio, January 24 1969 and formerly of DC hardcore band Scream, is appointed permanent replacement. Nirvana tour UK with L7 supporting.
November: Imaginary records’ Velvet Underground tribute includes Nirvana covering ‘Here She Comes Now’.
December: Tupelo issues ‘Silver’ /’Dive’/’About A Girl'(Live)/’Spank Thru(Live)’ EP.
January4: Nirvana sign with Geffen records.
March: Nevermind sessions continue. Five-month-old Spencer Elden is photographed by underwater cameraman Kirk Weddle for the cover artwork.
June: Kurt apparently meets Courtney Love at a Butthole Surfers show.
August: They meet again at Reading Festival. Offstage, during Iggy Pop’s set, Kurt sympathises with Courtney after Mudhoney’s Mark Arm throws cooking oil at her: “I would never have picked on you in highs school.” Courtney is charmed. However, she is going steady with Billy Corgan.
September 24: Nevermind issued in the US and the UK.
November: Nirvana appear on The Word. Kurt dedicates the song to Courtney Love, “the greatest fuck in the world”. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ issued in UK. Peaks at Number Seven.
December: Nevermind reaches US Top 10.
January: Kurt and Chris French kiss live on US TV. Hormoaning six-track CD issued in Japan. Nevermind knocks Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the US Number One slot.
February 24: Kurt and Courtney marry in Hawaii. A female non-denominational minister conducts the ceremony.
March: ‘Come As You Are’ released in UK.
June: Rumours that Kurt has been killed in a car smash. Dates in Ireland go ahead. Kurt collapses with “mystery virus” after Belfast show.
July: Kurt returns home to find that notebooks containing songs for the next album have perished in a flood at his home. “Nirvana to split” rumours gather momentum.
August 17: Kurt hospitalised with stomach problems.
August 19: Courtney gives birth to Frances Bean Cobain.
August 30: Nirvana headline Reading festival.
September: Nirvana banned from performing ‘Rape Me’ on MTV awards show. The band win two categories for ‘Teen Spirit’ video.
December: ‘In Bloom’ single issued in Britain. Incesticide rarities album released worldwide. Steve Albini appointed producer for next album.
January: ‘Oh The Guilt’/’Puss’ joint single with Jesus Lizard issued on Touch & Go.
February 14: Basic tracks for album are begun.
February 17: Basic tracks finished.
April: Album working title is announced as I Hate Myself And I Want To Die. Nirvana headline benefit for Bosnian rape victims of the San Francisco Cow Palace.
August: Pat Smear, ex-Germs guitarist, joins Nirvana for their US tour. ‘Heart Shaped Box’ single released.
September 8: Kurt and Courtney appear on stage together for the first time at a show in Hollywood. They play ‘Penny Royal Tea’ and Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’.
September 13: In Utero released.
November: The song ‘I Hate Myself And I Want To Die’, removed at the last minute from In Utero, is released on the album The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience.
December 6: ‘All Apologies’/’Rape Me’, Nirvana’s final single, is released.
January: Nirvana confirmed to headline Lollapalooza IV. The AIDS charity No Alternative album released in UK. It includes an excellent unlisted track by Nirvana, ‘Verse Chorus Verse’.
February: Nirvana’s projected spring UK dates sell out in a day. The Maker reviews the Paris show of February 14. Nirvana’s final European gig is in Marino, Italy just before Kurt’s 27th birthday.
March 4: Kurt Cobain goes into a coma for 20 hours after overdosing on Roipnol and champagne.
March 26: Kurt is reported to be “restored to full health and looking forward to touring the UK.” Nirvana promise to “give their British fans the show of their lives.”
April 8: Kurt Cobain found dead in his Seattle home by electrician Gary Smith. A suicide note was recovered nearby.
© Jim Arundel, Melody Maker, 16 April 1994