On the eve of the release of In Utero, the hungrily-anticipated successor to their planet-rogering Nevermind, Q meets Nirvana and delves into Kurt Cobain’s curious world of heroin abuse, acute paranoia, wilful self-destruction, shoulder-shrugging nihilism and child-like love. “I wish I could have taken a class on becoming a rock star,” he confesses to Phil Sutcliffe. “It might have prepared me for this.”
IT’S AROUND MIDNIGHT. KURT COBAIN sits forlorn at the head of a long, empty table in a Manhattan hotel conference room. “It’s impossible, it’s not worth it,” he says in one worn-out sigh. “I think if this book comes out, there just won’t be a band any more.
“This book” is the notorious, though still unpublished, Victoria Clarke and Britt Collins version of the Nirvana story. Since last autumn, rumours of its contents have moved Cobain and his wife, Hole singer Courtney Love, to counter-attacks ranging from legal pressure to threatening answerphone messages (“If anything comes out in this book which hurts my wife, I’ll fuckin’ hurt you!”).
A few minutes earlier, Love had interrupted the interview in some distress, clutching her stomach, as if that was where the hurt was, and asked for a private word with her husband. She’d been checking through proofs of the book supplied to the band that evening by the prospective publishers, who are so alarmed by the prospect of litigation that they have offered Nirvana not only a preview but various options on right of reply and text approval too.
As is well-known, the most vexed area of the Clarke-Collins investigations concerned Love and Cobain’s flirtation with heroin, which probably began in late 1991 and went critical when she found she was pregnant the following January. Love says that after doctors confirmed the baby would be unharmed if she quit at once, she entered a detox clinic and stayed straight from then on. Their daughter, Frances Bean, was born, normal and healthy, on August 18 last year. However, an article in September’s Vanity Fair quoted Love — falsely, she swears — as admitting she’d carried on shooting up for two months after the positive pregnancy test — a line Clarke-Collins were alleged to be pursuing through concerted efforts to obtain confidential medical records.
It’s not just a matter of the Cobains’ “good name”. A Los Angeles court took the Vanity Fair piece as prima facie evidence to remove Frances from their home for some weeks (she was placed in Courtney’s sister’s care) and then, until March this year, compelled the couple to continuously prove they were fit parents via the indignity of supplying regular urine samples to confirm that they hadn’t resumed drug-taking. These were the memories revived by reading the book proofs.
“I’m just in a haze right now,” says Cobain in his slow-motion Northwestern drawl. “For the last six months there have actually been a few positive articles written about Courtney. We thought the curse had lifted. Now this. I can’t decide whether I like playing music enough to put up with the shit that’s written about us, especially the shit that’s written about somebody I totally love.
“I wish I could have taken a class on becoming a rock star. It might have prepared me for this. Those women have gone out of their way to try to destroy two other people’s lives. Or they’re so numb they thought it wouldn’t bother us.”
Looking up from contemplation of the smudged red varnish on his fingernails, he gives the reserved hint of an ironic laugh, which is all the public merriment he permits himself. “The strange thing is I used to be an extremely negative person,” he says. “My attitudes and opinions have only got more optimistic in the last couple of years and that’s because of having a child and being in love. It’s the only thing I feel I’ve been blessed with. That’s the life I want. For years, that’s the life I was searching for. I wanted a partner. I wanted security. I wanted a family. Everything else is totally irrelevant. I know it seems as if I’m a complainer…”
KURT COBAIN, NOW 26, IS A CAREER put-upon-artist, constantly offering cues and clues to connect his difficult life with his roaring, howling yet somehow listener friendly music.
His apprenticeship in angst was served after what one of his new songs mocks “that legendary divorce”: idyllic childhood in the remote timber-trade town of Aberdeen, Washington state, shattered at eight when his parents split and he began shuttling from mother to father to aunts, uncles and grandparents (an experience obviously not unconnected with the heartstopping primal screams of “Please don’t go!’ from a child to his mother on the 1988 Sub Pop single, ‘Sliver’).
What’s ultimately unfathomable is that, although Cobain had no family background nor education in any of the arts, after a few years he began to put his feelings into painting, sculpture, poems and music — in addition to vandalism, drug-taking and all-round obnoxiousness, that is.
Furthermore, he revealed a natural aptitude for the lifestyle of the tormented artist. In his teens, he actually offended the very last relative or friend who would put a roof over his head, and for a time lived on the street — as if tiny Aberdeen were an alienating metropolitan hell. He slept out in cardboard boxes on people’s porches or the river bank, as recalled in ‘Something In The Way’: “Underneath the bridge/The tarp has sprung a leak . . . And I’m living off of grass/And the drippings from the ceiling”.
Looking back with his strong instinct for candour as well as Art, Cobain has acknowledged that he wasn’t entirely the victim of circumstance; in part, he was experimenting with himself, playing a rather arduous role in a boho romance to see what emerged.
However, from his teens, there had always been one aspect of his suffering that was utterly involuntary – frequent, excruciating and unexplained stomach pain. Although it was often dismissed as psychosomatic, purging emotional traumas through his creative endeavours afforded no relief and it was this plain physical agony, by Cobain’s account, which eventually led him to adopt another of the stock images of the artist: the strung-out addict teetering on the brink of self-destruction.
According to Michael Azzerad’s authorised yet vivid and startlingly honest Nirvana book, due out in October, on tour in Europe and with Nevermind running riot in album charts everywhere, Cobain decided his stomach pain had become so constant and unbearable that he would try heroin as an anaesthetic. He insists he persuaded Courtney Love to share the highs and the habit, not vice versa as has often been mooted.
For him, though, it got out of hand. It did kill the pain but, says Azzerad, he also recognised a compulsion to take the experience all the way to the pits of addiction. While he detoxed at the same time as his wife, for him it didn’t take. He went back to the drug and could not finally accept the “cure” until his baby was about to be born. In early August, ’92, he entered a Los Angeles hospital where, days later, in another wing, Courtney went into labour. She gave birth with her husband at her side – vomiting and semi-comatose with withdrawal symptoms.
Maybe that’s when he stopped playing the game of art with his life. He cleaned up. Within a few months, a doctor suggested that his stomach pains might be caused by trapped spinal nerves. Subsequent treatment and exercise relieved the former soul-destroying eruptions. Thus, to the surprise of many, Cobain came to record the follow-up to Nevermind in rather good shape.
Yet if, after all, Nirvana’s main man wasn’t going to take romantic artistry the whole way and actually self-destruct, the people at their record company, Geffen subsidiary DGC, realised they could now move on to worrying about the new album. In particular, there was the art-purism-fuelled and commercially suicidal tendency towards “back to the roots” American noise-punk – as in catastrophic unlistenability –– when all any sensible executive (or, indeed, fan?) could wish for was a facsimile of the sound that made the universally acclaimed, unimpeachably pulverising Nevermind sell nine million worldwide.
The appointment of Steve Albini as producer just about put the tin lid on the panic, for had he not been a member of the very horrible Big Black, the unspeakable Rapeman? Had he not produced the cochlea-crunching Pixies, the timpani-trashing Breeders? Yes, it was that Steve Albini.
“I HAPPEN TO LOVE STEVE Albini,” SAYS DAVE Grohl, 24, Nirvana’s ever upbeat drummer. “He really prides himself on being the biggest dick you ever met in your life and he does a good job of it. He’s also an incredibly intelligent producer.”
Had the record company tried to stop Nirvana using him?
“No. We didn’t say ‘We wanna’, we said ‘We’re gonna’,” says Grohl. “After Nevermind, we had the power. Our A&R man at the time, Gary Gersh, was freaking out. I said, Gary, man, don’t be so afraid, the record will turn out great! He said, Oh, I’m not afraid, go ahead, bring me back the best you can do. It was like, Go and have your fun, then we’ll get another producer and make the real album.”
Certainly DGC could afford to contemplate the loss. Two weeks in Pachyderm, an outback Minnesota studio — Nirvana’s choice — cost, Cobain maintains, $17,000. Peanuts. And the sessions went without a hitch.
Albini’s style of recording was exactly what Nirvana had hoped for to capture the true essence of the sound which, they felt, had been smoothed and prettified on Nevermind. First, he festooned the room with mikes to catch every nuance of each instrument (four or five for the snare drum alone). Then he blasted through, first-taking almost every song. In a fortnight, Nirvana walked away with cassettes of the album, In Utero, three very happy men.
Which is when the rumours set in: initially, that the album had indeed been rejected by DGC as a mass market impossibility. Then the story shifted tack — partly because Steve Albini had joined the fray with dark, non-specific hints that his work was being adulterated — to suggest that Nirvana had bowed to label pressure and heavily re-recorded or remixed, cravenly dumping “alternative” integrity for commercial gain.
What was it all about?
“The truth is, Steve Albini is very paranoid. I’ve never worked with so many people I respect as I do now at DGC,” says Kurt Cobain, former scourge of “corporate rock whores”. “Some of them didn’t like the record and told us so. Some of them loved it. Either way, we did what we wanted because our contract gives us 100 per cent artistic control.”
It was all smoke and no fire then?
“Those tapes we took away from the studio sounded very different when we played them at home,” says Cobain. “For three weeks, none of us could work out what was wrong and we didn’t know what the fuck we were going to do. Then we realised it was that the vocals and the bass weren’t loud enough. The mixing we’d done with Steve Albini was so fast it was ridiculous, about one hour per track. We decided to remix two songs, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘Scentless Apprentice’, with Scott Litt (R.E.M.’s producer). The rest we were able to improve during mastering. That took care of it. We’re totally satisfied now.”
“This album sounds like Nirvana!” Grohl enthuses. “Nevermind‘s only flaw was that it had no flaws. Play it alongside our live tapes and it’s a sharp, thin thing compared to this big boom, this rumble, this khhhhhsss (a fair impression of megawatt static issues from the back of his throat). In Utero is boom and rumble, man!”
So that’s all right, then, at least until the reviews come in. The album isn’t the easy-listening option.
Except that when Nirvana made their concert comeback with a short-notice gig at the Roseland dance hall in New York, they threw another curveball. Live, for an hour, the scattering of songs from In Utero fitted seamlessly with the Nevermind material — a familiar, incendiary roar, nothing outlandish. The masses moshed, the industry enclosure bobbed and grinned.
But then on came the lady cellist. Nirvana pulled up stools and played a five-song acoustic set, including ‘Polly’ and ‘Something In The Way’ from Nevermind and a Leadbelly song called ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. Then they walked off. In silence. Launching their “new campaign”, a multi-platinum band had actually made their audience forget to want an encore. When, after five minutes of shuffle and mutter, Nirvana did come back with a full — on electric ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and the feedback workout ‘Endless Nameless’, it was hardly by popular demand.
They surely had put a different complexion on the evening, though — white, in the case of DGC faces who came fearing they would be confronted by a wall of impenetrable noise and went away terrified by acoustic ballads.
“I’M GLAD TO HAVE THAT SHOW BEHIND US,” SAYS bass player Chris Novoselic, 28, very quietly because he’s hungover. “I’d been kinda anxious about it, but we really flowed. And we pulled off the acoustic set, even though I was a little disturbed at the way they writhed around while we did it, like, Guys, gym class is Monday morning!”
Novoselic and Grohl both conduct their interviews in the hotel lobby during the afternoon while they’re waiting for Cobain to come down for a photo session. They’ll wind up waiting for two hours. The frontman always apologises profusely to his “co-workers”, as he puts it, and even to journalists for these delays, but always does it again.
On the whole, the famously tall bassman, Cobain’s fellow Aberdonian and faithful friend since 1985, copes with this small frustration and many greater ones in the life of Nirvana by striving to retain a “cohesive” personality: “I like to be congenial. Nice.” But he admits that his alternative tactic when the going gets too fraught is to beat a retreat.
Last year when fame came charging over the hill, when his dear pal Cobain lost himself in heroin and Novoselic and his wife, Shelli, ended up not coming to his wedding because of a row over their disapproval of the drug, when there were even disputes about songwriting royalties, Novoselic’s reaction was to withdraw to Seattle and “tinker on a motorcycle”.
Grohl had similar instincts. The last to join the band (in late ’90) but close to Cobain, having lived with him for eight months when he moved from Washington DC to Washington state, he has developed a very bleak view of the music industry: “It’s so full of arrogant people, people who have no shame, people without a shred of decency, people who are just out for fuckin’ money, money. money. That’s why I refuse to deal with it; it’s too much of a headache.”
Compared to Novoselic’s restorative contemplation of his motorcycle, Grohl was hyperactive during Nirvana’s lay-off, but he was escaping into normality too: spending time with his fiancee in Seattle, his mother in North Carolina; driving back across America by motor bike and truck: touring the States for a fortnight with his previous band, Scream — humping their own gear into CBGB’s and the like — until only three days before Nirvana’s comeback at Roseland.
While Grohl could take a break from the phenomenon of “the band who saved rock” with the basement-level combo of his teens, Novoselic was looking inside to recover the particular free and provocative spirit he brought to Nirvana when he formed it with the far less outgoing Cobain.
“Oh, I wouldn’t dwell on trying to be provocative,” he says, “but I guess I’ve always been politically aware, at least, going back to when I was 17 and spraying slogans on the walls. I suppose those attitudes are still there in what blurts out of our mouths against sexism, racism, or about Bosnia. My favourites were slogans like ‘Nixon Killed Hendrix’ or ‘God Is Gay’. In Aberdeen that one was good enough for the authorities to paint it over the next day (and it made the lyrics of ‘Stay Away’ on Nevermind).
For me, the point is to do anything spontaneously — open the car door and I’ll hop in. That’s what happened with that “controversy” at the end of Saturday Night Live last year when we were all kissing one another. It wasn’t planned. When we finished playing, I just looked at Kurt and Dave and started chompin’ them. It was funny. But they cut it out of the repeats.”
At last, Cobain appears, Courtney Love at his side. Unaccountably, he’s wearing a woolly cardigan and a sheepskin-lined leather flying helmet with poodle earflaps. But when someone reminds him it’s 90F New York outside rather than midwinter Aberdeen, rational revisions are made to the incipient outburst of rock star eccentricity. The centrally-heated headgear is ditched, the cardy removed and he asks Love to give him her nice cerise striped blouse, which she does without question.
AROUND MIDNIGHT IN THE CONFERENCE room, Cobain’s still wearing the blouse as he chomps on a tuna and mayonnaise sandwich, abstemiously bought from a nearby deli rather than room service. “The acoustic set was a very last-minute idea,” he says. “I’d never done anything like it. It was strange because I could hear people talking louder than I could hear the band. Very rude. I mean, even if I don’t like a band that much I’d still have enough respect not to do that. But I guess that’s New York for you.
“I don’t want to react in such an extreme way as maybe U2 have by turning their show into a kitsch vaudeville act and be so sarcastic about the whole idea of being a rock’n’roll star that it becomes a sick joke.”
Surprisingly, though, Cobain reckons that, to some degree, In Utero represents a softening of his attitude to communication with Nirvana’s audience. He claims to have given up on complaints about the conspicuous multitudes of “jocks” — translation: “macho knuckleheads” — who like his band. In fact, to make it easier for them, he says he’s become more straightforward on the lyrical front.
However, this is a welcome development for all who like to know what a song’s on about. Nevermind purveyed many a stimulating image; ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit”s “I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us”, for instance, has gathered laurels as a pithy summation of post-Reagan-Thatcher era ’90s sourness. In general, though, Cobain’s writing has seemed a matter of banging images together with six-inch nails rather than crafting the smooth dovetail joints that might have made his meaning clear (or forced him to work out exactly what it was).
The handsome face, carved lean by hard luck and trouble and years of not eating his greens, breaks into an almost boyish confessional grin.
“I’ve always painted abstracts,” he says. “I love dreams that don’t make sense. I’d much rather watch a film that doesn’t have a plot. Most of my lyrics don’t connect because I’ve taken lines from lots of different poems of mine and put them together. I’ll make up a theme well after the fact, oftentimes while I’m being interviewed.
“But there are a few more obvious subjects on this album than on the last. ‘Scentless Apprentice’ has a story based on a book I can’t stop reading called Perfume, by Patrick Susskind. In ‘Rape Me’, I was trying to write an anti-rape song in a very bold way. What I’ve realised is that in order to get your point across, you have to be obvious. That’s how most people want songs to be. They need it thrown right in their face.”
So it can’t be coincidental that In Utero is full of images relating to babies and childbirth from the title onwards? This must be an album about Kurt Cobain becoming a father.
He grins, “No, it is coincidental. I’ve always been fascinated by reproduction and birth. I’ve been painting foetuses for years and making foetus dolls out of clay. There’s just something glorious about pregnancy. I’ve got so much respect for women because they bear children. They seem the more sacred humans to me.
“Seahorses interest me, you know. The female carries the babies first then transfers them to the male who actually gives birth. Shared pregnancy.”
It sounds as though you think we should try to go the same way?
“I think so. I think we’ll get there.”
© Phil Sutcliffe, Q, October 1993