Nirvana: The Boys Are Back In Town

Go ahead. Hate this band, it’s the cool thing to do. The punk rockers hate them because they’ve “sold out”; the mainstream hates them because they’re “too punk.” And the rumor mill continues to grind them down. Dave Thompson leaves his expectations at the door and finds NIRVANA confident that they can rise above both reputation and expectation with their new album In Utero.

KURT COBAIN split within minutes of our meeting, before I even had time to raise his legendary gander. Chris Novoselic gave him 30 near-silent minutes, then he walked out as well. Which means that for the first interview Nirvana has given in ten months, I’m talking antique clocks with the band’s drummer.

Dave Grohl blew into Seattle this afternoon on the last leg of the briefly reformed Scream’s American tour. Historically irrepressible, the stage is all his, and he’s reveling in his freedom, enthusing about the Virginia restaurant where he went with his dad, to see the tables on which Patsy Cline once waited, and the deaf drawling owner’s famous roomful of clocks.

If Nirvana’s success means anything to Grohl – who, just weeks before his upcoming marriage, admits he’s never been happier than he is today – it’s that he can now indulge his passion for expensive timepieces, just as Novoselic was able to fulfil his dream of owning a farm, and Cobain…we’ll get to Cobain later, as soon as he gets back to us. Right now, his chicken dinner is cold and congealing in front of his empty seat, and it reminds Grohl of something.

“This guy in Spain was killed when a boulder fell down a hill and hit him in the back. What was funny about it was that he was having sex with a chicken at the time. He was lying there, with a boulder on his back, and a chicken crammed into his crotch.”

Much later, he and Cobain will adapt the same idea for a fantasy dream-date with Playgirl. “We’ll call it ‘Down on the Farm with Nirvana’,” prompts Grohl, and Cobain snaps back, “We’ll have Mexican fighting cocks, with razor blades strapped to their feet, stuffed in our underwear.”

Past Nirvana interviews – and in the first year after Nevermind there were more than enough – have done the band few favors. Abrupt, uncooperative, rude, disinterested…in the dreary, grim bars where journalists drown their memories of the Interview From Hell, Nirvana haunts even the bravest, somewhere between Lou Reed’s “I was a Teenage Death Dwarf” phase circa 1974, and anything ever said by Paul Weller. “We recently watched a video of our old interviews,” Grohl confesses. “We really were horrible, weren’t we?”

They’ve upset their friends, vindicated their foes, and as they prepare to release their third album Grohl sincerely believes, “The punk rockers hate us because they think we’ve sold out; the mainstream hates us because they say we’re too punk” And I hate you because two-thirds of the band has walked out and I’ve not even turned on the tape recorder yet!

Todd Rundgren coined the term, but Kurt Cobain has made it his own: The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect. He courted fame not by words but by being, and not until it was too late did he learn just how many age-old equations he fulfilled. Personally, I found him immensely likeable, but the qualities I admire in a person are not necessarily the right ones for America’s first Punk Superstar. Not unless they can be “revised” somewhat.

So his natural shyness has been translated as indifference; his modesty as paranoia; his honesty, arrogance; his intelligence, pretension. And when a San Francisco journalist clocked those pinprick pupils and skin so sallow that it defied definition…oh look, mommy, we’ve got another junkie pop star to play with.

But Cobain is adamant, “I have never been fucked up in front of a journalist.” And though he neither denies nor confirms his much-rumored drug habit, he blames most popular misconceptions squarely on the network of physical agonies to which his flesh is heir.

Most have already been documented – a stomach ailment which may or may not be an ulcer, may or may not be psychological, may or may not be stress; a back problem which has dogged him on and off for years; and a pharmacists utopia of sidebar syndromes, most of which are down to his own attempts to subvert the original problems. Grohl buys clocks, Novoselic buys farms, and Cobain buys cures and consultations.

And if a little voice should whisper in the back of your mind, “methinks he protests too much,” obscuring an obviously addled physique behind a veil of medical incompetence (“Doctors just want to take my money and stick their fingers up my ass”), he can answer that as well. He’s talking about it because he’s genuinely relieved to find someone who doesn’t simply recommend a couple of Mylanta. “People don’t seem to realize, I passed that point years ago.

Only the artist within him has found a use for his pain. While Nirvana’s immediate future is “locked into the flow of the new album and tour,” Cobain is adamant that one day, MTV viewers will suffer as much from his stomach as he does. “I had an examination where they anesthetized my neck,” he explains, “then slid a tiny camera on a stalk down my throat, and made movies of my insides. It’ll make a great video.”

The tensions unleashed by Cobain’s lifestyle, real or perceived though that lifestyle may be, are partly the reason for Nirvana’s low-key relaunch. They’ve already ridden the media-go-round, and it’s true that you’d have to be either dead, or imprisoned in a third-world cell block, not to be aware there’s a new Nirvana album imminent. The belated bluster which kept Nevermind moving once the first million marker was passed, is conspicuous by its absence. Barring a few favorite fanzines, they are giving just a handful of interviews this time around, and it’s with this in mind, perhaps, that Cobain finally returned to his now cold chicken dinner.

“I went to see my chiropractor,” he says by way of excuse – and then he notes Novoselic’s absence.

“Where’s Chris?”

He went home


He was waiting for you…

“..and he thought I wouldn’t be back, ‘Fucking Cobain the junkie pissing off to score’.” Cobain’s blue eyes flash fiercely, and he demands to know his crime. “I was feeling like shit, I needed to relax. I had a fucking massage. And even if I hadn’t, what business is it of his? Have I ever missed a show, or missed an interview, or not done anything I said I would do, because of anything else? Chris really pisses me off sometimes.”

Feigning confidentiality, Cobain leans towards his ever-vigilant chaperon, the Geffen PR man charged with keeping the bandwagon rolling, then raises his customarily low-key voice to almost vulgar heights.

“You know, I run into him backstage at gigs sometimes, and he pretends he doesn’t know me, or doesn’t want to know me. It’s like ‘Oh shit, the junkie; if we don’t look his way, he may be too stoned to see us.’ All this crap. I cannot understand his fucking attitude,” on and on, as the press officer squirms, and then he delivers the punchline. “I know I shouldn’t be saying this in front of a journalist, but…” And is it my imagination, or does one eye flick a wink in my direction? Like you never used to wind up your babysitter.

Certainly the tiff is forgotten by the time Nirvana have reunited two hours later, rehearsing for the still-secret New York showcase they’ve lined up for the following Friday.

In Utero, the album which – depending on its immediate reception – is either going to embarrass or embellish Nevermind, dominates the set, both in terms of material and arrangements. Unlike its predecessors, Nevermind and BleachIn Utero sounds like it was conceived as an album, rather than a clutch of great songs thrown together. Echoing that principle, but enlarged to incorporate elements of the band’s past repertoire, the live show follows suit.

Cobain, whose eyes grow brighter the more excited he gets, leans forward and whispers, “That’s it exactly.” Later, Novoselic admits they spent almost as long getting the songs in the right order as they did recording it (“two weeks”).

‘Rape Me’, a song which has been around since the MTV awards last fall (when the band were forbidden at the last moment from performing it on camera), was the original album opener, “but we moved it because it has a similar intro to ‘Teen Spirit’, and if people have to say we’ve just repeated Nevermind, we’d rather they don’t get that chance straight away.”

‘Heart-Shaped Box’, the first single (and deservedly, obviously, so), comes third, again to avoid comparisons with the past – ‘Teen Spirit’, of course, opened Nevermind with a bang from which lesser albums would not have recovered. And at the other end, the show ends with ‘No Apologies’, almost an epic, almost a requiem, and certainly an effectively shattering climax. Add the cynically titled, but (perhaps, equally cynically) strangely apposite ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’, and the rest of ln Utero just falls into position.

It was to preserve this sense of unity, Cobain admits, that ‘Verse, Chorus, Verse’, a song once touted as the album’s scheduled title track, was left unrecorded, while ‘Tourrets’, a minute and a half of high-octane bellowing which even he concedes “isn’t that good a song” made the grade because “it fit the mood.”

“When I listen to an album,” Cobain enlarges, “I listen to it as a solid body of work, 40 minutes in a life, rather than ten four-minute excerpts. There’s always songs I like more than others, but the point is, they all have their place on the album, and if they don’t, then the album doesn’t work. Not as an album.”

Under those criteria (and several more besides), In Utero succeeds beyond all reasonable expectation, and Nirvana know it. The question is, as Novoselic puts it (once apologies for earlier are out of the way!). “Will the average 14-year-old mall rat know it as well?”

I can’t figure out if it’s a defense mechanism or what, but individually and collectively, Nirvana have all but divorced themselves from their “fame,” at least on a personal level. It was not Nirvana who broke through two years ago, it was ‘Teen Spirit’ and Nevermind. The fact that they got sucked into the maelstrom as people was simply an unavoidable side-effect. Without exception, they sincerely believe that the last two years of “alternative” history were a phenomenon which was waiting to happen, and Nirvana was simply the lucky first contender.

“We came along at a time of great change, politically and socially,” Novoselic continues, a time when America as a whole was awkwardly shifting its feet, and contemplating the legacy of thirteen years of Republicanism – musical and political.

“Suddenly all the people who’d been waving yellow ribbons during the Gulf War were wondering what it was for, how things had changed because of it. And when they found they couldn’t answer those questions, they got angry.”

If you want to delve into it deeply, Nirvana was the herald which spelled a President’s downfall, the symbol of a country collectively shrugging off an increasingly unpalatable past, and its vulgarly vacuous furniture (Clinton out-polled Bush. Nirvana out-sold Guns ‘N Roses), and embracing a future it had once never considered.

A future, mind you, not the future. Already the signs of wholesale decay are returning, and while Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl agree that Nevermind did open doors for the country’s indie underground, there was a point when they should have been closed again. “Bands who, previously, would have been considered heavy metal or soft rock or jazz or whatever, are being marketed as ‘alternative’ because that’s what record companies believe they can sell,” Novoselic complains, and considerably more good-naturedly than past comments would have you believe (Nirvana Slam Jam!), he cites Pearl Jam as one example.

“They’re a great hard-rock band, but to pretend they’re something else, to call them ‘alternative,’ is ridiculous.” Ordinarily, he continues, bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam would have no more in common than the New York Dolls and the Doobie Brothers did twenty years back. Today, they’re in direct competition, and that’s not only musically outrageous, it’s morally wrong as well. If Pearl Jam are alternative, what does that make Aerosmith? And where does that leave Stone Temple Pilots?

“A friend had a Stone Temple Pilots t-shirt made up.” Grohl irreverently interrupts. “He found a picture of their singer in another band years ago, with a Flock of Seagulls haircut. And on the back, he printed a quote from their press bio about how the members met at a Black Flag gig.”

He roars, and I venture a theory of my own, that the hapless San Diegoians are actually a Pearl Jam parody band: Stone Gossard. Temple of the Dog, they’ve covered all bases. If only I could figure out the Pilots…

Novoselic pounces. “Jet City, of course!” Seattle is the home of Boeing.

It was this basic dilemma, the common sense (but less commonly utilized) ability to differentiate between marketing slogans and musical slogging, Cobain explains, which lay behind many of Nirvana’s less “diplomatic” remarks of a couple of years back – particularly those about Pearl Jam. Though he still insists that Vedder and Co. “could never write a song like ‘Territorial Pissings’,” (Cobain’s own proudest achievement), he also acknowledges that they probably wouldn’t want to, either.

The story of Nirvana’s initial breakthrough, how ‘Teen Spirit’ was intoxicating MTV before the band’s label, DGC, had even opened the promotional budget box, is one of rock’s hoariest legends. It was as if (and sales figures back me up) the gods suddenly decided Nirvana would break the sound barrier, and there was nothing we mere mortals could do to stop them.

With no prompting, Nevermind received unanimously good reviews – and by “prompting,” I don’t mean record company pressure and free vacations and blank checks; I mean peer pressure, the sassy street sense that convinces the world that this band will make it, regardless of whether they actually sell any records. In September, 1991, Nirvana was just another local cult, the latest alternative morsel to drop down Geffen’s gullet. By October, they were U2 and Springsteen, Presley and the Pistols, rolled into one snarling bundle.

Cobain had even stopped dreaming about supporting Sonic Youth on tour, and was worrying about the day they would have to support him. Geffen have already hinted at the possibility, and so far Cobain has resisted. But for how long can he keep it up? “It’s not that I’m scared they’ll blow us off stage, because I know they probably will. It’s the fact that without Sonic Youth’s example, there’d probably be no Nirvana.” It’s like the “alternative” labeling; some things are simply morally wrong.

“A lot of people,” Grohl remarks with just a hint of bitterness, “look at us and wonder what we’re complaining about. ‘Money, fame, groupies, the world at your feet… I wouldn’t have any problems with that.’ What they don’t understand, what they’ll never understand unless it happens to them, is the way it changed everything overnight.”

Cobain will confirm his thought later that evening, likening the experience to waking up one morning to discover that local TV has named you as an escaped Nazi child killer. The first you know about it is when the firebombs land on the bedpread. “Of course we reacted badly!”

And now they’re reaping the rewards.

In Utero has been described as the year s most eagerly awaited album, up there with Belly, Suede and (oops!) Pearl Jam. But awaited by whom? The pick-up trucking, flannel-shirted mob which thrust ‘Teen Spirit’ to the top and then wrote Nirvana letters saying, “Hey dude, you rock!” or the rubber-necking press vampires eagerly awaiting another superstar pratfall?

“I know a lot of people want to see us fail, particularly journalists,” answers Cobain, “and that’s fair enough. Maybe they’re jealous, maybe they’re jaded, maybe they simply don’t like us. What upsets me is that they go about it in such an underhanded fashion.”

Check out the U.K. music press, he declares, and you’ll find that suddenly In Utero producer Steve Albini is no longer the flawless genius he was once deified as. Instead, he’s “slipping,” or “fading,” or “getting too clever,” and it’s not just one writer saying it, it’s a lot,” Cobain smiles wanly. “Maybe I really am paranoid, but I don’t think it’s Albini they’re getting at, really. They’re just setting the stage for hammering us.”

There again, he agrees that Albini’s recent coupling with PJ Harvey wasn’t the smartest collaboration on earth, and while the new album from Seattle’s Silkworm, which Albini completed shortly after In Utero, dismisses any fears Rid of Me may have unleashed, still there’s a nagging doubt that Albini isn’t exactly arm-in-arm with mainstream America.

“Commercial suicide!” yelps Cobain, and he brightly observes, “if we’d done Nevermind with Steve, then gone to Butch Vig [Nevermind‘s actual mastermind] for this one, people would have said the same thing.”

But it’s not what people say that matters, is it? It’s what your label says, and from all accounts…

“Did you see that story in NME about me working on something with Henry Rollins?” Novoselic pipes up, seemingly irrelevantly.

Yeah, I thought it sounded exciting.

“So did I. Pity it isn’t true.”

“We have one of the best contracts any band has ever had, or so I’m told,” Cobain continues. “We have complete control over what we do, and what we release, which literally means that if we handed in a 60-minute tape of us defecating, DGC would have to release it and promote it.

“But I can honestly say that only one person in the entire Geffen organization, at least among the people we worked with, had anything to say against the album. Gary Gersh, who was our A&R man [before he quit to become president at Capitol] didn’t like it for various sonic reasons. But he heard the album before it was mastered, and it’s at that stage – although I only found this out when we actually did it – that a lot of those problems can be sorted out. Which is basically what Albini said to begin with.”

But still Nirvana wound up remixing two songs (‘No Apologies’ and, significantly, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’), with Scott Litt of – wait for this – R.E.M. production fame at the helm. Losing your religion, boys? Or just your balls?

“I’d been listening to Automatic for the People, and I really liked what Scott did with it,” explains Novoselic (whose MOR credentials were already confirmed by his presence at an admittedly brilliant Leonard Cohen show in Seattle two weeks before). “At the same time, there were a couple of things I didn’t like on our album, so when we got the chance to take it back into the studio, I called Scott along.”

According to Novoselic, the original mix on ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ was marred, even scarred, by an effects-laden solo which carved through the song, and set his flesh crawling whenever he thought of it. “The band would say something, how great the album was, and it was like – Yeah. Shame about that solo, though’.”

Finally, Cobain and Grohl agreed it could go, and this is where things go awry. It’s now common knowledge that the band and Albini had a contractual agreement which stipulated no work could be done on the album once Albini declared it finished. It’s less widely known, apparently, that Albini happily waived that stipulation the moment Cobain asked him about it.

There was no dispute, no problem, and all down the line, no bad feelings. Cobain added a few backing vocals to one song, Novoselic wiped the solo on another, and everyone was happy. It was as simple as that.

But the story was twisted, the twisting was leaked, and before anybody knew it, another dagger quivered in Nirvana’s back: the boys who cannot keep promises – and make “fuck you” sounding records as well. Why else, we’ve all seen it written would they have brought Albini aboard in the first place? The fact is, In Utero makes parts of Nevermind sound muddy, and if ‘Penny Royal Tea’ isn’t the best Kinks song Ray Davies never wrote, then the bastards did an album I never heard.

“We’ve been hit with the most amazing shit,” says Grohl, with the Albini controversy only half on his mind. “And nearly all of it is lies.” The rest is opportunistic greed.

It started with the emergence of another Nirvana, an obscure English psychedelic duo whose day had passed before Cobain even picked up a guitar. From the depths of an obscurity so deep that even vinyl fetishists fear to tread there, the delightfully named Patrick Campbell-Lyons suggested that our Nirvana somehow detracted from his, and because it was easier to pay up than make him prove it in court, Nirvana U.K. got their cash.

So did one of Grohl’s former “business associates,” who celebrated winning a $35,000 breach-of-contract suit by sending the drummer a free copy of his fanzine and the plea “let’s not let this come between us.” And then, of course, there’s Killing Joke, whose claim that Nirvana lifted their ‘Eighties’ for the intro to ‘Come As You Are’ seems scarcely more credible than my conviction that ‘Teen Spirit’ started life as Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’.

Wriggling out of the woodwork, everyone wants their pound of flesh, but while Grohl quietly muses, “When all this is over, I’m going to become a lawyer,” Cobain continues, seriously, “One of the reasons we signed with Geffen was because we believe in what David Geffen stands for, which is a very left-wing, very caring, very honest outlook. He’s said that at his age [he’ll be 50 next year], he doesn’t even know what alternative music is, but his whole outlook is alternative.

“The downside of that is that he doesn’t have the muscle to protect his artists in the same way as, say, certain east coast labels with underworld connections.”

No less than ‘Teen Spirit’ rewriting the Top-40 rule book, the pregnancy of Mrs. Cobain – Courtney Love – was also a defining moment in American cultural history. In the war of self-mythologizing words which is waged between Star and Star-spotters, the gloves have been taken off many times before, and both sides bear the financial scars. But Kurt ‘n’ Courtney aren’t Roseanne and Oprah, and were neither equipped, expecting, nor, in truth, even worthy of the firestorm dumped at their doorstep, the moment news broke of the forthcoming birth.

The pictures of crippled crack babies which accompanied reports on the expectant mother; the bellowed revelations of the couple’s drug use, and the living hell it could wreak on the unborn child; the suggestions that before she’d even had the kid, Love was an unfit mother – all this had nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll, nothing to do with stardom, and nothing to do with concern for the baby. It was gutter journalism with the sewers overflowing.

But when Cobain contacted Geffen to see if some screws could be tightened, or some heavies sent ’round to kick tabloid butt’, “I found that David didn’t do things that way,” he says. “We just had to weather the storm.” Weather it, and watch while Nirvana’s public profile slipped even deeper into the abyss.

Is it any wonder that one of the most affecting cuts on In Utero is called ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’. Not only is the song ostensibly a lament for the pre-war Hollywood actress who was forced into retirement by ill-health, but also an indictment of the self-appointed star machinery which brought on her sickness in the first place – and which is still going strong today. Kurt Cobain, too, might one day need to take his revenge…

Ten months out of the business have done little to rehabilitate Nirvana; if anything, the passing of time has strengthened the mettle of those who would lead the backlash. Grohl sniggers as he says it, but he knows it’s horribly true. “We really are the band people love to hate.”

Part of it is over-use; the crankier the band members got, the more public speeches they were forced to give. Part of it, too, is familiarity. Two years ago, Nevermind sounded the clarion call to arms, redefining the market’s understanding of what is and isn’t “commercial.” But while others hopped the bandwagon all the way to the bank, Nirvana sulked and pouted, and stuck out Insecticide, a Frank Zappa-like Beat the Boots compilation of warm-ups and left-overs.

But most of all, it’s fear; fear that, love them or loathe them, Nirvana are genuinely capable of living up to the promises which have been made in their name. They may not do it this week; they may not even do it this year – they are still developing, and though all three musicians insist that the only pressures brought to In Utero were those they applied themselves, there’s no denying that the Nevermind hoopla has stunted their growth a little – or at least, given some of the latest song titles their maturity.

‘Rape Me’ might be amongst the best songs in their set, but unless they change its title soon, it ain’t gonna get much radio play – a sorry fate for a serious subject, and one which Cobain should have realized himself. ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’, too, seems doomed to be hoisted on its own sneering petard and again, that’s a shame.

But Cobain remains optimistic, confident that Nirvana can rise above both reputation and expectation. He talks excitedly of introducing a short acoustic set into the live show, “because people seem to miss the fact that not all our songs are shrieking punk-rock monsters.”

He has stepped out of the band set up to record with William Burroughs (The ‘Priest’ They Called Kim on Tim Kerr Records), and while Grohl – half-jokingly, half-resignedly – remarks that Nirvana is essentially the end of his life, that “I could be 43 and an English teacher, and I’d still be Nirvana’s drummer.” For Cobain, this is only the start.

It takes the boozy bellowing of a couple of flannel-wrapped headbangers to bring him back to earth, and he stares for a moment in horrified fascination. I wonder if he’s thinking the same thing as me…

As we were driving to the restaurant, the radio reported a French medical survey which suggests that hemorrhoid sufferers are more dangerous drivers than drunks. A study of the motorists who caused major accidents revealed that while 32 percent had been drinking, 67 percent had hemorrhoids.

“What they don’t say,” Cobain observes, “‘is how many of the drunks had hemorrhoids, and what can be done to stop them driving. Imagine having to spend every day looking at assholes!”

Remembering Cobain’s Incesticide liner notes, and the “wastes of sperm” who raped a girl while singing Nirvana’s ‘Polly’; remembering, too, Novoselic’s disgust when he realized “there are people buying our records who actually supported the Gulf War”; then looking across at the metalheads opposite, lost in their world of dudes-who-rock and chicks-who-ball, it suddenly dawns on me that that’s exactly what Nirvana do. They spend every day looking at assholes, And maybe that’s what makes them so crazy.

“I know you can’t pick your audience,” Cobain mutters. “But I’d rather not have one than be stuck with people whose very existence goes against everything I believe in.”

Slightly paraphrased, the lyrics to his own ‘In Bloom’ come to mind: “They’re the ones who like all the pretty songs, and they like to sing along…but they know not what it means…”

“They really don’t, do they?

© Dave ThompsonAlternative Press, October 1993

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