Nirvana: ‘In My Head, I’m So Ugly’

In the frankest and most comprehensive interview he’s given since Nevermind blasted Nirvana into the rock super league, Kurt Cobain talks to EVERETT TRUE in Los Angeles about the calming influence of his marriage to Courtney Love, being ripped off by the corporate machine, paranoia, being misunderstood as a moody, pissed-off neurotic, rock ‘n’ roll sexism and the bands next album.

FOR LOGISTICAL reasons this interview took place in Kurt Cobain’s LA apartment during the second week of June, a couple of weeks before his band’s short tour of Europe.

The day’s cloudy, the room dim and slightly messy. Scraps of diaries containing lyrics and ideas from both Kurt and his wife Courtney Love plus a couple of guitars and amplifiers, litter the main room. A few weird-looking stick dolls, made by Kurt for use in a future video, nestle next to multi-coloured bird feathers and jars full of flowers.

In the front room, where Kurt lounges in an armchair, looking studious in his ‘geek’ glasses and short, bleached hair, a Patti Smith record plays quietly in the background. A small kitten darts about, tigerish. Courtney, several months pregnant, is asleep in the bedroom with her TV tuned quietly to daytime MTV.

Earlier, Kurt had shown me the video to Nirvana’s new single, ‘Lithium’, on the same TV set. Compiled from live footage of the band at last year’s Reading Festival, a gig in Seattle and a show in Rotterdam where he first romanced Courtney, it’s breathtakingly ferocious. Live videos usually suck, this one doesn’t. Work it out for yourself.

As you join us, Kurt’s been telling me how, the older he gets, the more affinity he feels for feminine people.

“I was always more of a feminine person when I was young, I just didn’t know it,” he says, taking a sip of strawberry tea. “Then, when my hormones started swinging around and I started getting facial hair, I had to let off my male steam somewhere, so I started smoking pot and listening to Black Sabbath and Black Flag. It took the Pixies to put me back on the right track and off the whole macho punk rock trip.”

The trouble with punk was that it thought it was cool to put down women. I could never relate to that. Here was this movement which was supposed to be right-on, but it excluded over half the people I knew.

“Definitely,” he agrees. “That was something I realised later, cos I didn’t experience punk in the Seventies. There was this live record, Night Of The Living Dead Boys, where Stiv Bators was spewing off about how some girl was sucking his cock while he was on stage. That was the common accepted thing.”

Watching Headbangers Ball on MTV, nothing seems to have changed. Music, especially metal, still reinforces all the scummiest aspects of being a male.

“It might be getting a little better because of bands like Soundgarden, who are obviously metal,” says Kurt. “They have a good, healthy attitude, and maybe others will follow them. Even Pearl Jam, who were obviously cock rock poseurs down on the Strip last year, are preferable.”

The singer pauses, struck by a thought.

“You know, there’s an LA band called Love Buzz (title of the first Nirvana single), and their first album is called Grunge. I want to get that album real bad,” he laughs.

Does feminism have any bearing on your life? Courtney has gone on record as stating that she views herself as a feminist. What does a statement like that mean to you?

“It means women controlling their own lives, and me not standing in their way by being a male,” Kurt responds. “It’s not so much of an ideal as a sense. It doesn’t seem like there’s such a thing as a recognisable feminist movement like there was during the Seventies, more a collective awareness. It’s in the way you live your life.”

What would you say the main differences between having a masculine and feminine outlook are? Kurt carefully considers his words before replying.

“Being aware of not offending women and of not supporting racist acts,” he offers. “But not so you become paranoid that you can’t feel comfortable in a woman’s presence. Sexist jokes are harmless as long as you’re aware of them, but I also know a lot of people who put on this pretend macho redneck act 24 hours a day …they use the redneck lingo and spew out sexist quotes … and then they claim that they’re simply trying to remind you that’s how rednecks are. I’ve noticed that if someone does that for too long they turn into a redneck.”

That was one of my main bones of contention with Sub Pop a couple of years back, that they didn’t realise they were turning into the people they aped.

“Absolutely,” Kurt agrees. “That’s the main reason I never got along with very many people in the Sub Pop world.”

It was funny for a while, but then you started wondering whether they meant it and whether that even mattered. Dwarves (West Coast scum punk band who give interviews about shoving various items of furniture up pregnant women’s orifices) are a good example of that.

“I kind of respect people who go out of their way to act like an asshole when they’re really intelligent, though,” Kurt counters. “It’s a nihilistic statement, like saying there’s no point in trying to be a human any more because things have gotten so out of hand. It’s a very punk rock attitude, but I also think it’d be boring to be Johnny Rotten after all these years. I’m not talking about sexism, but that kind of negative attitude when you’re no longer able to appreciate passion or beauty.”

You’ve retained certain aspects of the punk attitude, though.

“Of course,” replies Kurt. “Because, even though Black Flag were too macho, I still love the music.”

You’ve talked in recent interviews about how you want to help to build up the underground network of alternative bands so that they become better-known, by name-dropping other bands like Bikini Kill and Sebadoh.

“Yeah.” Kurt sighs, heavily. “That’s one of the few good things we can do, except for pleasing people with our music. The corporate side of our image is so exploitative, it’s one of the only ways we can retain our dignity. One of the main things I regret about the success of this band is… this crap.” He brandishes a copy of a Nirvana comic book and a Nirvana poster booklet. “We’re being totally raped by these people, we have no control over that stuff. They sell hundreds of thousands of those magazines and we don’t get a dime out of it, we don’t have any say-so in what pictures are used and what quotes are re-written.

“The comic book’s quite funny,” he adds, “but then you have to laugh, don’t you?”

Do you feel any responsibility towards the people who buy your records?

“Not until people started telling me that l did,” Kurt states honestly. “That, and the realisation that we have letters from nine-year-old kids coming in all the time. I can’t talk about smoking marijuana in interviews, l can’t talk about drugs. I can’t talk about things that’ll influence these kids, but I don’t want to be so aware of it that it stops me from saying anything.

“So when I am outspoken and I say nasty things about Pearl Jam,” he continues, “I get a lot of flak, and people condemn me and call me an asshole. There are so many people who hate my guts because I put down Pearl Jam. But what value do these people have in my life? I have to speak the truth, I have to tell them what I feel. I’m being honest and people aren’t used to that, especially in the metal world.”

But isn’t the problem that then someone like Inger Lorre can come along and claim that she too is telling the truth, totally abusing people’s credulity, so that they end up not knowing who to believe? It’s difficult for people to differentiate.

“I can see that.”

The phone rings. It’s someone from a radio station, wanting to know what type of music Kurt listens to. He tells them, “Adult-Oriented Grunge”. It rings again. It’s Corey from Touch & Go, seeking Kurt’s advice over a problem which has arisen with Kurt’s management over a projected joint Nirvana/Jesus Lizard single on his label. Kurt listens carefully and promises he’ll resolve the situation with his manager.

Despite reports to the contrary, Kurt looks a lot healthier than the previous times I’ve met him. I wouldn’t say that he glows, but he definitely radiates something …happiness in his new-found stability of marriage, perhaps.

I suggest to him, when he eventually comes off the phone, that he seems much more relaxed.

“Oh yeah,” he replies. “But that’s because when we last met (in October last year), I’d been on tour for five months, and I haven’t played for a while now. Plus, I was getting pissed off doing commercial radio station interviews with all these DJ voices and not having any idea who the fuck we were. How much exposure does one band need?”

Granted. At one point, around the start of this year, it seemed that you couldn’t pick up a British music magazine without Nirvana being on the cover, usually with a re-hashed or 10-minute interview inside.

“Right,” Kurt agrees. “I practically adopted the J Mascis Fifth Amendment, because I couldn’t deal with so many interview.”

He laughs.

“I don’t have narcolepsy.”

Who started that.

“I did. It’s the only defence mechanism I have.”

The phone rings again. It’s for Courtney, but we aren’t mean enough to wake her. Talk turn to Kurt’s recent marriage.

How much did meeting Courtney change you?

“Totally,” Kurt says, emphatically. “I’m not as much of a neurotic, unstable person as I was. I used to feel I was always alone, even though I had lots of friends and a band that I really enjoyed being with. Now I’ve found someone I’m close to, who’s interested in the things I do, and I really don’t have many other aspirations.”

Did you know who she was before you met her?

“Not really, no,” he replies. “I’d heard about her, though …some nasty rumours, that she was this perfect replica of Nancy Spungen.”

Kurt laughs again.

“That got my attention,” he remarks, maliciously. “Like everyone else, I loved Sid cos he was such a likeable, dopey guy. I’ve often felt that many people think of me as a stupid, impressionable person, so I thought that maybe going out with someone who was meant to be like Nancy would stick a thorn in everyone’s side, cos it’s the exact opposite of what they would want me to do.

“Courtney certainly helped me to put Nirvana in perspective,” he adds, “to realise that my reality doesn’t entirely revolve around the band, that I can deal without it if I have to. Which doesn’t mean I’m planning on breaking up the band or anything, but that the minimal amount of success I strived for isn’t of much importance any more.”

Has the success put any pressure on the band?

“I don’t know,” Kurt says slowly, considering his words. “Because of my reputation for being this pissy, moody person, I feel that everyone is expecting me to freak out and develop some kind of ego or quit the band. But there’s no way I’m going to do that. I still like playing with Chris and Dave, and I know our new songs are really good and I can’t wait to record the next album. And the album after that.”

To infinity?

“At least,” he laughs. “But I’d also like to have a side-project. When you’ve been working with the same people for a while there’s not much more you can do, even though I feel we have succeeded in coming up with some new styles. It’d be fun to play with someone else. But every time I do that, I end up regretting it. Because, if it sounds good, I wish that Nirvana had done it.”

Kurt starts flicking through the Nirvana comic, and pauses, struck by a sudden thought.

“People think I’m a moody person, and I think it’s lame that there are only two kinds of male lead singer,” he complains. “You can either be a moody visionary like Michael Stipe, or a mindless heavy metal party guy like Sammy Hagar.”

I tried to portray you as a mindless party animal type and you got annoyed.

“Oh, okay,” Kurt laughs. “I guess it is better to be called a moody visionary than a mindless party animal. I tried to become an alcoholic once, but it didn’t work.”

We wander through to the bedroom, to see if Courtney’s awake yet. Just. The box in the corner is still dribbling out MTV. Talk drifts on to how MTV totally controls the American rock world.

“I want to get rid of my cable,” Kurt declares. “I’ve done that so many times in my life, where I decide I’m not going to have television, become celibate. It usually lasts for about four months.”

I was just going to ask you about your fondness for smashing up guitars. Don’t you ever get bored with that?

“No,” replies Kurt. “I don’t do it nearly as much as everyone thinks I do. I just wait for a good time to do it …like when I’m pissed off, or if I want to show off in front of Courtney. Or if I’m appearing on TV, just to piss the TV people off. I have my guitar-smashing room in the back, where I practice four hours a day.”

Pause. Kurt’s building up for another rant.

“You know what I hate about rock?” he asks me. “Cartoons and horns. I hate Phil Collins, all of that while male soul. I hate tie-dyed tee-shirts, too. You know there are bootleg tie-dyed tee-shirts of Nirvana? I hate that. I wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed tee-shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia.”

Courtney overhears this last comment from her bedroom.

“Oh God, Kurt, how long have you been thinking about that one?” she castigates him, annoyed.

“Well, fuck,” he whines. “No one ever prints it.”

“It’s fifth grade!” Courtney yells. “It’s so boy!”

“Well ex-ker-use me!” Kurt shouts back, sarcastically.

Courtney’s up and about now. This means it must be time to close the interview soon, because there’s no way my tape can compete with the demands of Courtney Love in full flight. Sure enough, Courtney suddenly appears with a book written by her father … a road manager for The Grateful Dead in the Sixties … which includes postcards sent to him by Charles Manson. Weird. Then she produces the original lyrics to ‘Teen Spirit’, scrawled on a scrap of lined paper.

“Thought you might enjoy seeing these, Everett,” she announces blithely, oblivious to hubbies’ annoyance.

“Can Everett have this, Kurt?” she demands. He growls.

Time for one last question, then.

What’s the new album like?

“Like the tape you heard,” Kurt tells me.

Oh yeah, the tape I heard. It sounded like the melodies of Nevermind melded to the grunge of Bleach on a fast listen. It sounded pretty fucking awesome.

“We haven’t decided on a studio yet,” he continues. “I’d like to do at least 50 per cent of it on eight-track. Then, hopefully, it will be exactly like Bleach and Nevermind split down the middle (see, told you). It will definitely sound a lot rawer than Nevermind.

Any regrets, Kurt? Have you ever felt like turning the clock back and reclaiming the past?

“If I wanted to, I could,” the singer replies. “If, after this dies down, we started putting out records which were unpalatable to the general public, we’d eventually start playing smaller places and…”

You’d be the new Beastie Boys.

“Yeah.”

NEXT, ET meets Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl in Stockholm, and talks to them about the traumatic pressures of their success.

Chris Novoselic

For practical reasons, this interview took place the morning of the big Nirvana show in Stockholm, in the band’s hotel. The show two days ago in Oslo was slightly lacklustre, contrary and full of unanswered questions as to Nirvana’s role as a stadium rock band. Chris bounced, barely. In conversation, Chris is friendly, sincere and thoughtful. He’s more committed than ever to his humanitarian causes: actively fighting the new Washington anti-erotic music bill (the one which deems it illegal for shops to sell any record which might certain “erotic material” to minors), speaking up against whaling in Norway and taking part in “Rocking The Environment”. He gave up drink for three months at the start of the year because his raging moods coupled with Nirvana’s success made for a volatile combination (he, the man who once declared he got a cold if he missed a morning’s drinking). He’s still a firm vegetarian.

The noises you can’t hear are those of the hotel staff clearing away the remnants of breakfast. As you join us, Chris is talking about the pressures of success.

“People thought we’d self-destruct but we haven’t,” he tells me. “I kind of thought that, too, because we took off in such a fury. Our record came out, it was flying up the charts and we were flying in the stratosphere … I know I was, messed-up drunk Then we had a three month period where we chilled out, and everything was okay. I don’t know… it seems we’re a lot tamer right now, almost going through the motions. What we need to do is put out a new record, play some new songs.”

You were saying that the band are unable to play new songs live right now.

“That’s right, they’d get bootlegged in an instant,” Chris sighs. “But I don’t have a problem playing to large audiences, I’m not going to pull my hair out about being unable to play clubs anymore. We should have stayed with Sub Pop if that’s what we wanted, and kept playing the Astoria. I try to look at our role in the mainstream positively, like we’re helping integrate it.”

Do you think a lot of your audience is false?

“What, like we’re a fad?” he asks, worried. “I don’t know. I’m optimistic about people, to the point of being naïve. If they liked Nevermind, that’s cool, but the next record isn’t going to be like that. I see that record as being a litmus test to our audience. It’s going to be a good record but, in terms of mainstream appeal, it won’t have the glossiness of Nevermind. If we lose those people, that’s too bad, but they won’t give a shit because they’ll be satisfied watching Extreme, or whoever.”

You must have had a lot of people who used to know you, who now completely ignore you.

“Yeah,” Chris answers, softly “That’s too bad. We’re not into playing the role, like driving around in limousines, going to Grammy parties or playing MTV softball like Motley Crue, you know? We still operate on the same level – the only difference is that we sell a lot more records and play to a lot more people. But most of our old fans have stuck with us and understand what’s going on.”

How do you judge success?

“Peace of mind.”

The previous night, Nirvana had managed to escape the pressures of being a world-famous band on tour for a few brief hours. A bunch of us clambered up a hill, stood around on the top rolling a joint feeling for all the world like we were playing hooky from school, and then found a deserted adventure playground to let off steam in. Both Dave and Chris picked up on this as one of the happiest incidents in the last year-and-a-half of touring. Small things DO matter.

“I have this weird sense of liberation now,” Chris continues. “Did it take money to liberate me, or was it just that I got older? I’m not going to bust my ass for The Man ever again, that’s for sure, Even if I’m broke I’m not going to return to that mainstream culture … I’ll join a commune, go and get a thatched hut in the woods.”

Do you feel like you’re a spokesman for generation?

“I don’t know what our generation is about,” he replies. “I’ve never seen any identity to it.

“Everybody’s got rock ‘n’ roll, everybody’s got their own genre. The parents have got Mark Knopfler and Bruce Springsteen and Genesis, and the kids have Nirvana…it’s all rock’n’roll. Maybe I shouldn’t give those old fuddy-duddies the credence of calling it rock’n’roll, maybe it’s just entertainment. We try and give it some energy, some enthusiasm. I don’t know, man… I don’t know about leaders.”

Maybe you are leaders by default? That’s the only way anybody ever seems to get elected nowadays.

“Exactly. A society, by default.”

Dave Grohl

FOR LOGICAL reasons, the interview with Dave took place in the same room as the interview with Chris. Dave’s great. Having been thrust almost immediately into the Nirvana whirlwind upon leaving his old Washington, DC band, Scream (Dave joined shortly before the recording of Nevermind), he seems the one least affected by it all. Maybe it’s because he’s the youngest. Who knows?

We sit down a opposite each other and our eyebrows read, “so?” Dave leans forward and starts to speak.

Did the success fuck with your mind?

“Not as much as it fucked with everyone’s around us,” the drummer replies. “Everybody was so astounded at what had happened, they were going crazy. It fucks with me sometimes, when we’re driving out of a festival and people are banging on the windows and girls screaming. That stuff scares me, just because I don’t understand it. If anything, our success gave me a dose of humility, the realisation that we’re just as normal and fucked up as everyone else.”

You’re the only non-married member, though.

“And I plan on keeping it that way,” Dave quickly interrupts. “I can’t imagine marrying anybody, especially now. Why the fuck would anyone want to get married in the middle of such an insane situation? It’s crazy.” My lips remain sealed. “You never have time to do anything. You wake up, do a soundcheck, play, travel, barely eat. You don’t have time to have real lives.

“I’m still planning on having a life in a year or two,” he continues. “When I go back to school and shit. When I dropped out of high school, I was so stoned that I had no idea what I was studying. I was interested in graphic arts and commercial design but that doesn’t yank my crank anymore. A lot of people don’t think school’s important, but to me it is.”

He pauses, takes a sip of tea, and sighs.

“All of this just doesn’t make sense,” he adds. “When I was a kid, I always thought of movie stars and rock stars as famous. Famous was a picture in a magazine, or being on the nightly news or on the radio. But once it started happening to the band, it just destroyed that image… these three scrawny little losers come out and sell a bunch of records.”

It gives hope to all the losers, doesn’t it?

“Sure,” he replies. “And everybody’s a loser, one way or another. If fucking Michael Jackson’s a loser, all of us are. I don’t want to flatter myself by saying that our music inspired anyone, but it just goes to show that anyone can be in a band. Maybe that made a lot of kids feel good about themselves.”

Dave pauses again.

“I think Kurt has something no one else has,” he opines. “His way of writing simple, childlike, minimalist tunes that stick. But that just shows that you don’t have to be so accomplished to impress. Anybody can do Kurt Cobain, anybody can do Chris Novoselic… I dunno. None of us were cut out for this.”

Maybe that’s why people picked upon you. The last people who should have power are those who want it.

“Any musician would be lying if they said that they didn’t want people to appreciate their music,” Dave responds carefully. “But something on this scale is just too perverse and too bizarre to accept sometimes, especially for us.

“We definitely aren’t the ones who wanted this. I just don’t want this whole fiasco to ruin my life.”

© Everett TrueMelody Maker, 18 July 1992

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