On their recent European tour, Seattle’s masters of chaos, Nirvana, managed to set their tour bus alight, upset the Pogues and The Ramones, piss into Ride’s champagne bucket and almost get dropped from their label. Everett True joined ‘the only band around at the moment who know what rock’n’roll is all about’ on their current US tour and witnessed hotel rooms trashed, venues incinerated and anarchy reign supreme.
IT ENDS with a knock on my door at eight in the morning.
Two obscenely aggressive security men storm into my hotel room, wanting to know if I’m hiding a phone anywhere. Seems one went missing the previous night after Kurt from Nirvana took exception to a painting hanging in Chris’ room and threw it out the window. Shelves, tables, sheets, glasses, mirrors followed – and then, a quick trip to Kurt’s room for more of the same. The televisions stayed, however (have you ever tried lifting one of those fuckers?). All of this culminated in a rather prompt departure from Washington DC the next morning, before the journalist even manages to rise.
My clothes are covered in vomit, someone’s using the back of my head as a pinball machine, there’s a barbecue happening at the end of my bed and the cats in the back alley are so fat and complacent you can use them as footballs. Just another day on the road with Nirvana.
Two days earlier, Monty, Nirvana’s long suffering tour manager, was picked up for questioning in Pittsburgh at two in the morning (just after David Letterman). The show earlier that night had ended with some harsh words spoken between band and club and later someone attempted to set the place alight – piling up cushions, seat covers and carpets in the dressing room downstairs and dowsing them in petrol – and The Man figured Nirvana might know something about it.
“That was a classic case of coked-out Pittsburgh mafiaso promotion,” Kurt assures me later. “That club was the type of place that would have John Cafferty And The Beaver Brown Band, Huey Lewis And The News and all those other professional bar bands. What’s rock’n’roll to them?”
Nirvana had nothing to do with it: not this time. Kurt had merely smashed some bottles in the toilet and thrown a couple of things around. But, fair do’s, Nirvana have certainly been responsible for their fair share of trouble in the past.
“When we were in Europe,” says Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s charismatic and perpetually tired singer, backstage at DC’s infamous 9:30 Club, “we nearly set the tour van alight.” Around us, various members of the Nirvana entourage, including drummer Dave Grohl and his cool mom, chow down on the 9:30’s infamous “pizza rider”.
“You see, no one knows it, but those Sonic Youth kids, they’re wild,” he continues, gleefully. “They were instigating violence and terrorism throughout the entire European festival tour. Their (and Nirvana’s) manager, also. He antagonises people and leaves us to take the rap, beating us up, tearing our pants, conking Chris (Novoselic, bassist) over the head with a bottle, turning beetroot red when he’s drunk. He’s wild.”
Kurt is one of those people for whom the words “butter”, “melt” and “mouth” were invented. He looks angelic. Yet last time I saw him, backstage at Reading, he had one arm in a sling after leaping backwards into Dave’s drum kit, and the previous time, his manager was sent a bill for God knows how much, after the band completely destroyed an LA apartment.
Yes, Nirvana like to wreck stuff: Chris usually finishes a set by throwing his bass 20 feet into the air (and occasionally catching it). In Pittsburgh, Kurt rammed his guitar straight into the snare drum out of sheer frustration; in DC, he ran off the stage 10 minutes before the end to take a breather, it was so damn hot, before rushing back on to destroy the drums. New York’s Marquee was blessed with an encore that was just bass, drums and Kurt screaming melodically from somewhere within the audience, he’d fucked his guitars up so bad – and it still sounded as if there were six guitars playing.
Nirvana have a $750 equipment allowance per week. And Kurt hates cheap guitars! They live the classic rock’n’roll lifestyle (rampant vandalism) because it’s the only lifestyle they know. And because it’s fun. And, along the way, they’re responsible for some of the most invigorating rock music of the Nineties.
One listen to their new album, Nevermind, confirms this. I’m up to about 230 and still of the opinion there’s no better record this year. That’s what honesty does for you. Songs like the terribly open ‘In Bloom’, ‘Drain You’ and mind-numbingly fine single ‘Teen Spirit’ (something to do with a girl sitting alone in a room, or is that the aching lament ‘Come As You Are’? Fuck knows, fuck cares) are my life. No exaggeration.
All I have to do is hear the opening strummed acoustic chords to ‘Polly’ (a disquieting tale of rape) or the all-out melodic, self-centred attack of ‘On A Plain’ and my mind flips. One note from Kurt’s torturously twisted, magically melodious scream on ‘Stay Away’ and my heart beats at my chest and makes a try for the heavens. Works every time.
Meanwhile back in the real world…
“Yeah, I lit the curtains in our tour van on fire while we were doing an interview,” Kurt says. “This was a few hours after some other destruction. This representative from MCA gave us a gift, a wastepaper basket full of candy and magazines, with a little note welcoming us to Germany.
“The gift had been in the dressing room for two hours, while we’d been doing our set and eating our dinner. During this time, Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) had written ‘Fuck you’ underneath the woman’s signature on the note. So we saw this and thought, ‘Gee, that’s kinda peculiar, but we can make good use of the sweets’.”
Kurt is a complete candy freak. (Does anyone else buy those little wax bottles you drink about 1cc of pop out of?)
“So we met the rep, thanked her and Chris proceeded to get drunker and drunker,” he continues. “He shot off a fire extinguisher, ripped up the magazines and threw the candy all over place and destroyed the whole room, Sonic Youth’s dressing room, too. Classic rock’n’roll angst.”
So the band went outside, the MCA woman came back, saw the note, assumed Nirvana had written it and threw a fit, threatening to drop them from the label.
“By this time,” Kurt goes on. “We’d been doing interviews in the van for about and hour and I lit the curtains on fire, and we opened the door and this bellow of smoke came into her face. She thought we’d set the van on fire. The rumours were a bit exaggerated when they finally got back to MCA to the extent that we’d assaulted the woman and destroyed the club and completely burned out our van.”
Rock’n’roll, eh kids? There ain’t nothing like the real thing.
The left-handed singer/guitarist then tells me about another time in Belgium where they swapped round all the name-tags in the chic cafeteria tent, so the party of 12 Ramones and friends ended up sitting at a table for four and Shane MacGowan was left on his own.
“He was being spoon-fed Gerber’s baby-food, because he couldn’t chew,” comments Chris maliciously. “So we gave him a plate of apples!”
“There were about 30 of us sitting in a party with Sonic Youth,” the singer adds. “Someone throws a carrot-stick and someone throws a grape. Then someone else throws back some dressing and it turns into a huge food fight. We completely wrecked the food tent, but it was a lot of fun and if there had been televisions there, we would have wrecked them too.
“We snuck into Ride’s trailer and stole their champagne,” he continues. “This guy who was with us, video-ing the tour, peed in their champagne bucket. We stole all their flowers and candy too.”
Isn’t this all rather rock’n’roll? Isn’t this all opposed to what Nirvana are about? I thought you were meant to “hate the average American macho male” (not my quotes). I thought you’d abhor such boorish behaviour as the province of prats like Axl Rose and his ilk.
“Well, no one actually does this stuff anymore,” Kurt says. “They’re too scared. But that isn’t our point. We only do it cos we’re bored and we want to have fun. And we do – real sincere fun!”
“I think the alcohol has a lot to do with it, too,” Dave adds.
But doesn’t this sort of behaviour just lead meek Limey journalists like myself to assume you’re just a bunch of redneck no-good delinquents?
“We’re not boasting about it,” Kurt retorts. “You asked us.”
I asked you? Me?
“Yes, you did,” he replies. “You started the whole fucking thing!”
“But at the same time, who fucking cares?” Dave asks. Dave woke up this morning on his mom’s couch to the strains of ‘Teen Spirit’. It was being used as background music for an advertisement for antique cars. He thought that was kinda cool. “It’s all entertainment,” he adds. “The people who’d call us stupid rednecks, whatever, are the people who give us that champagne to pee in, are the people who put on those shows.”
“Champagne,” Chris says disgustedly. “Like if there was a fifth of whiskey there, I’m going to drink champagne!”
“Ride should have had that fucking champagne,” Dave sneers. “Make them stop staring at their fucking feet the whole time, goddamn it!”
So how much do Nirvana love rock’n’roll? Let’s find out.
“Rock’n’roll?” asks Dave perplexed.
“When they asked Jesus how much he loved the world, they nailed his hands to the cross – ‘This much!'” Chris comments.
C’mon guys. Let’s talk about rock’n’roll, for fuck’s sake – Sammy Hagar, Van Halen, Warrant or whatever their damn names are!
“They’re not even worth slagging,” Kurt replies, aware that I’m trying to wind him up. “Let’s just say I don’t want to be associated with 99 per cent of rock’n’roll bands.”
“The Youth, the ‘Honey, The Breeders, the Cross, the Knife, the Nails, Fugazi – they’re the bands we like,” explains Chris (the Knife being one Shonen Knife, the three-headed pure punk pop goddess from Japan).
Do you provide an alternative to heavy metal?
“Oh, we’ve been called an alternative band before,” Kurt sneers. “But we eat meat so I think we’re disqualified: chili dogs, corn dogs, Jimmy Dean Sausage Breakfast.”
“When I first joined this band,” Dave comments, “I was living on Kurt’s couch and there was an AM/PM convenience store right down the street where you could get three corn dogs for 99 cents. I lived on them for a year.”
“It kept him regular too,” Kurt adds. “I knew when to avoid the bathroom, nine in the morning and 12 at night. He had to walk through my bedroom to get to the bathroom.”
“That’s right,” Chris agrees. “I actually took a shit in your backyard once, because I didn’t want to stink up your whole house. It was really pleasant: warm and wet. Sweet!”
So I ask Kurt if he thinks he’s developing a rock star complex. It seems like an appropriate question.
“We talked about that,” he replies evasively. “I can’t remember what I said.”
Yeah. You were saying sometimes you can’t work out what the matter is.
“What did I say? Can you remember?” he asks pitifully, sounding like Courtney Love momentarily.
It’s something to do with wanting to weed out certain elements of your audience. (If I wrote how many metal bands Nirvana have turned down as support slots, we’d be in litigation for a decade.)
“That’s true,” Kurt confirms. “The people who scream ‘Naked of Creed’ throughout the entire show, even after we’ve played it, and who talk really loud during songs like ‘Polly’. Like, last night, that exact type of people were the ones yelling, ‘Sell out’ after we played because we didn’t do an encore, because we didn’t sign autographs. But what could be more rock’n’roll than that?”
We also had a conversation a few days earlier, in that weird street in Philadelphia where every other building was a witchcraft store, where you said how little making music means to you anymore.
“That’s partly true,” Kurt replies. “That’s because if we ever had any conscious goals, we’re already gone past them. We now have guaranteed distribution, we’ve gone up to a pretty high level on the underground circuit and that’s all we ever wanted.
“We’re not going to be proud of the fact that there are a bunch of Guns N’ Roses kids who are into our music. We don’t feel comfortable progressing, playing larger venues.”
You mentioned how people in Olympia ostracise you, for not being “pure” enough, now that you’ve signed to a major label. We spoke about the bullshit this industry gives up and you even had an inspired rant against “rockers” like Hagar and Halen in the van between NYC and Pittsburgh when there was nothing else to do but scarf junk food and flip through copies of Sassy.
Hell, you even told me something of your past in Olympia or wherever it was you grew up, how you would get bored out your skull and go round and break into people’s homes, trash them, not steal anything, just trash them, graffiti the walls, break up the furniture, smash the adornments – anything for a thrill, the buzz. Sounded pure Jimmy Dean to me. You mentioned the buzz you get from the after-effects of your trouble-making, the exhilaration of being confronted by a truck-load of angry officials.
As I watch him fall asleep at a moment’s notice, I wonder, how can this cherub-faced misfit, this sulky boy be responsible for such brutal, poignantly touching music?
“I’m disgusted with having to deal with the commercial side of our band at the moment and as a reaction, I’m becoming more uptight and complaining more. And it feels like I’m adapting a rock star attitude,” Kurt says. “But I still feel guilty about it, because I’m bumming people’s days.”
So we’re talking your classic white middleclass liberal guilt complex here, right?
“What?” Dave asks affronted. “The only guilt that I have is that I’m bumming other people’s fun,” Kurt explains. “I’m not pleasant to be around in those situations and I’m concerned that my band-mates might be having a bad time.”
Why are you doing this right now?
“Because I’m under contract,” the singer responds. “Because I’m in fear of having to go to court if I were to leave the band.”
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
“I’d be a street musician, definitely. That’s my goal in life.”
© Everett True, Melody Maker, 2 November 1991