Sounds Dirty: The Truth About Nirvana

SITUATED ON 51st Street and Broadway, in the heart of the old entertainment area, Roseland is a New York institution. In the 1920s it was the city’s largest dance hall — “the downtown headquarters for such urban dance steps as the Lindy and the Shag”, according to a contemporary guide — but the formerly plush decor has been stripped and painted black for tonight’s more brutal conditions of entertainment.

The dance floor is a war zone: a simulated war zone, to be sure, but still not for the faint-hearted. Hundreds of young men ricochet off each other at high speed in the moshpit, creating flows and eddies that take on a life of their own. And then, by a combination of individual effort and group will, one of them will crest on the surf of this human tide, splaying his body out in pure abandonment before disappearing again. It’s a communal, physical release.

This is Nirvana’s first New York show for almost two years. Expectation is high: this group arouse curiosity and passion like few others. Since their second album, Nevermind, went to the top of the US charts in January 1992, they have found themselves in a situation similar to that which the Sex Pistols experienced in 1977: to some, they are rock prophets, standard bearers for a generation; to others they are, as their drummer Dave Grohl drily summaries, “cynical slacker little funckin’ punk jerks”.

Although they are exceptionally successful, Nirvana are not quite as successful as some other artists on the Billboard chart. As Nevermind faded out of the top 200 in July this year, 13 acts had sold more records, including Garth Books, Kriss Kross, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men and Michael Bolton — the country, R&B, rap and rock that the staples of American pop. But Nevermind and its breakthrough single, ‘Smell Like Teen Spirit’, have come out of left field to create a culture and aesthetic impact that goes far beyond statistics.

Nirvana stir up deep emotions. Most obviously, Nevermind has changed America music: music media like MTV are now full of post-Nirvana groups like Pearl Jam, Soul Asylum and Stone Temple Pilots, who play that mixture of rock, metal and punk now known as “alternative”. (Two years ago it would have been grunge, but following Perry Ellis’s autumn 1991 collection, grunge has entered the language of fashion: the anti-fashion of sloppy T-shirts, flannel shirts and old Levi’s that poverty-stricken bohemians and students have worn for years suddenly became high style.)

Nirvana have also been seen in sociological terms: as defining a new generation, the twentysomething “slackers” who have retreated from life; as telling unattractive home truths about a country losing its empire and hit by recessing as representing the final, delayed impact of British punk on America.

They have also shocked people by trashing male gender codes: kissing each other on the national network show Saturday Night Live, appearing in dresses in the video for their single ‘In Bloom’, doing pro-gay benefits. We may be more used to this in Britain, but America is a country with much more machismo in its popular culture. A sensational appearance on last year’s globally broadcast MTV awards, where they smashed their equipment and mocked rock competitors Guns N’ Roses, sealed their status as America’s bad boys.

Nirvana have become an issue in America they have attracted all the hospitality and scapegoating that goes with this territory. A September 1992 Vanity Fair article, which alleged that singer Kurt Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, had taken heroin during Love’s early pregnancy (an allegation hotly supported by the writer of the article, Lynn Hirschberg, and even more hotly denied by Love and Cobain), crystallized the couple’s ascent, or rather descent, into celebrity. Suddenly, the stories were about Kurt ‘n’ Courtney — the 20-something Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon — rather than Nirvana the group. As Cobain now admits, “it affected me to the point where I wanted to break up the band all the time”.

When American groups are successful, they tour constantly to keep their records in the charts. As Nevermind went on to sell 4 million copies in America (double platinum in the UK; 9 million world-wide), Nirvana withdrew. In the vacuum caused by their disappearance, the rumours flew: Cobain was dead; they were splitting up; they were recording a new album so unlistenable to that no one would buy it. Kurt ‘n’ Courtney were hardly out of the news or the gossips columns: threatening unoffical biographers on the telephone and in person; being arrested for domestic unruliness in Seattle; fulfilling the media demands of punk couplehood.

By doing nothing, Nirvana have become mythic figures, a process that will be accelerated by three Nirvana-related books this autumn. This is a lot of baggage for anyone to carry, let alone three scruffs from the hinterlands of America. As they reappear in the public eye with an album called In Utero – “in the womb” — the group are surrounded by an atmosphere of high tension, a magnetic charge which both attracts and repels.

Nirvana take the Roseland stage with everything to prove — straight into a sequence of crunching numbers: ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Lithium’, ‘School’. Most alternate quiet, almost whispered verses with wild choruses which crackle like a power surge. The audience goes mad, cheering alike old favourites and new songs — the punning ‘Penny Royal Tea’ (named after a concoction used to induce abortions) or the pathologically personal ‘Heart Shaped Box’ (‘I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black…’).

Nirvana are famed for leaping around on stage, even smashing their instruments, but tonight they don’t do much except play hard and accurately. Bass player Chris Novoselic dominates stage left with all his six feet seven inches but, despite his lack of mobility, or in fact because of it, it is Cobain who holds your attention. He hunches into the microphone and croons, growls and then screams from the pit of his stomach. You might think this was just a teenage tantrum, but then you watch the group’s control, you hear the Beatle-esque tunes and the smart, elliptical lyrics, and you realize that Nirvana are serious.

Just when you think that they’re relaxing into the home run, something extraordinary occurs. Cobain leaves the stage for a couple of minutes. He reappears with a female cellist, who sits centre-stage, a dramatic contrast to all the boys moshing in front of her. The group start an acoustic song, ‘Polly’ — the story of a rape victim who outwitted and escaped her captor. It’s a harrowing lyric, and Cobain sings it very quietly. Too quietly: the audience ignores him.

When it becomes clear that Nirvana are not going to rock, an abyss opens between the group and the audience: you can hear it as the buzz from the crowd threatens to drown out the acoustic instruments. Suddenly, Nirvana look vulnerable, but each song is more harrowing: ‘Dumb’, where sarcasm masks deep hurt; or ‘Something in the Way’, based on Cobain’s experience of sleeping rough. Then they begin Leadbelly’s ‘Where You Gonna Sleep Tonight’, which Cobain sings with all the keening notes of a Childe ballad Appalachian-style.

‘Where You Gonna Sleep Tonight’ has that quality of desolation which haunts the most powerful American rock, from Leadbelly to Bob Dylan to Neil young to R.E.M. As Cobain circles round the lyrical repetitions, his voice becomes more and more racked (‘When you feel bad in America,’ Cobain tells me, ‘it’s like losing your stomach’), and he pushes the word so hard it’s as though he’s trying to vomit them out. Then it’s suddenly over: the group leave an audience nonplussed into an eerie silence. It takes a while before the calls for an encore become persistent.

Push me, pull you. Nirvana do encore, with ‘Smell Like Teen Spirit’, but follow it with several minutes of deliberate feedback by Cobain, who remains onstage long after Novoselic and Grohl have left, crouched in his own world. As an industry showcase, it’s unprecedented; in America , success demands uniformity and repetition of what made you great. It’s a total punk rock show: a bitter, dogged stand-off between the group’s insistence on doing what they want and the audience’s expectations of what they should do.

The sleeve of Nevermind shows a baby swimming under water towards a dollar bill on a fish hook. The intended meaning is clear: the loss of innocence, the Faustian contrast that usually comes with money. Take it, but if you do, you’re hooked for life. It’s a parable of Nirvana’s current dilemma: they’ve taken the bait, but the contradictions of their success are threatening to tear them apart.

How can the members of Nirvana retain their integrity, which is very important to them, in a situation which demands constant compromise? How can they sing from the point of view of an outsider now that they’re in a privileged position? How can they suffer relentless world-wide media exposure and still retain, in Grohl’s words, “the spontaneity and the energy of some thing fresh and new” that has marked their career?

Kurt Cobain materializes in the lobby of a smart midtown hotel. It’s a quiet entrance, but an entrance nevertheless: for all his fragility, Cobain is very much the star when he needs to be. He is of medium height and painfully thin. His grab of baggy patched jeans, woman’s acrylic cardigan and shredded red and black jumper — exactly like the one worn by the Beano’s Dennis the Menace — would cause him to be thrown out in any other circumstances.

It’s the day before the Roseland concert. Dave Grohl and Chris Novoselic have already passed through on their way to the appointment for which Cobain is somewhat late. This is in character: Grohl is a straightahead 24-year-old, the son of an Irish/American family, who wears layers of ripped causal clothes and had the physique and stamina of the sportsman he was before punk took over his life at 15. “Let’s do it,” he says when we go to talk; he is the youngest of the three, and his precision and fire give Nirvana much of their attack. He would not be habitually late.

Nor would Novoselic, but for a different reason. A tall, rangy man, dressed in black, who handles his size with care, he is the bottom of the group — the bridge between Grohl’s energy and Cobain spaciness. The Los Angeles-born son of Croatian immigrants, he has the air of someone who has fought his demons: his teenage conversion to punk rock has matured into thoughtful application of his political beliefs. It was Novoselic who arranged Nirvana’s last major show, a multi-artist benefit for Bosnian rape survivors, after visiting what had been his mother country.

If Grohl and Novoselic are definitely in the world, Cobain tunes in and out: “You haven’t been waiting for me, have you?” he asks the assembled company. “If you have, shout at me.” But everybody is resigned to the fact that when you do anything with Kurt Cobain, you have to wait. This is partly due to the nocturnal time that many musicians keep, partly due to the fact that, like it or not, much of the pressure that surrounds Nirvana comes to rest on Cobain’s frail shoulders.

His response, in public at least, is simultaneously to court and to flee attention. This is a quite understandable human trait and does not denote insincerity. At first, he mumbles and is vague. His straw-coloured hair is shoulder length, centre-parted, and falls over his beard: together with the white 1950s sunglasses – the sort which people wore in the UK during the punk days – it means that you can hardly see his face. When you finally see his eyes, you understand why. They are of a starting blue sensitivity.

When you prise him away from the mania of his situation, Cobain is courteous, intelligent, quiet. Nirvana’s success has meant validation for this German-Irish 26-year-old from Aberdeen, 180 miles away from Seattle in America’s North- West. Whereas once he might not speak for days, now thousands hang on his lyrics and public pronouncements; where once he was an outcast, attacked on his home streets, he can now flaunt his difference in the eyes of world, and be loved for it. He has also learned that if you’re loved, you’re hated, and that if you provoke, you get a backlash.

The three members of Nirvana were all born between 1965 and 1969, a fact reflected in their name, a sarcastic comment on hippie pieties: in some ways, they are acting out the freedoms and failures of that time. All three are the children of divorced families. “A lot of people have this theory that we cling together because of that,” Dave Grohl says. “We all basically grew up with our mothers, although Chris and Kurt went back and forth.”

Cobain was the youngest of the three at the time his parents divorced, and it hit him hard. “It was when I was seven,” he says. “I had a really good childhood and then all of a sudden my whole world changed, I remember feeling ashamed. I became antisocial and I started to understand the reality of my surroundings, which didn’t have a lot to offer. It’s such a small town that I couldn’t find any friends who were compatible. I like to do artistic things, I like to listen to music. I could never find any friends like that.

“I felt so different and so crazy that people just left me alone. They were afraid. I always felt that they would vote me ‘Most Likely to Kill Everyone’ at a High School dance. I could definitely see how a person’s mental state could deteriorate to the point where they could do that. I’ve got to the point where I’ve fantasized about it, but I’d have always opted for killing myself first.”

The three were born into an environment where pop was the way of interacting the world. As the youngest, Dave Grohl was entranced by the first American response to English punk music: the new wave of groups like the B-52s and Devo.

Novoselic “listened to hard rock radio like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, then I wasted good years of my life listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard.”

Cobain grew up with the Beatles, graduating to the American rock/pop of the day at high school: Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin. “My mother always tried to keep English culture in our family,” he says. “We drank tea all the time.” Much later, he immersed himself in the English Gothic of Joy Division: “I’ve always felt that there’s that element of Gothic in Nirvana.”

Sometime in the mid-1980s, the Aberdeen outcasts met. “I saw that Kurt was enlightened,” says Novoselic. “I liked him because he was funny, he was an artist, he was always drawing stuff. He was always Bohemain, for sure, but always had trouble with rednecks. I think that was just his bad luck. One time this redneck just held him down and tortured him.”

“For a long time I had no male friends that I felt comfortable with,” says Cobain. “I ended up by hanging out with girls a lot. I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Women are totally oppressed in small towns like Aberdeen. The words bitch and cunt were totally common; I mean, you’d hear them all the time. It took me years to realize that these were the things that were bothering me.

“I thought I was gay. I thought that might be the solution to my problems at one time during my school years. Although I never experimented, I had a gay friend, and that was the time I experienced real confrontation with people. I got beaten up. Then my mother wouldn’t allow me to be friends with him any more, because she’s homophobic. It was devastating, because finally I’d found a male friend who I actually hugged and was affectionate to. I was putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and he played a big role.”

All three were empowered by punk, as it slowly filtered from Britain through the US. Whereas in Britain punk groups were guaranteed major label attention until the mid-1980s instead, a network of independent labels and indeed national media attention, in America they were shut out after a disastrous Sex Pistols tour and the coincidental rise of disco: just after the Sex Pistols broke up on the West Coast in January 1978, the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever went to the first of its 24 weeks at America’s number one.

Funk’s commercial twin, new wave, had limited but significant success in the early 1980s, but the pure stuff went underground, burrowing through America, city by city, like a termite. Each major city had its own scene: Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis. Few groups from this culture had any major label and clubs developed similar to the one that had fueled the growth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s.

Cobain had read reports of the Sex Pistols’ US tour. “I’d just fantasize about how amazing it would be to hear this music and be part of it. But I was 11; I couldn’t. When I finally heard American punk groups like Flipper and Black Flag, I was completely blown away. I found my calling. There were so many things going on at once, because it expressed the way I felt socially, politically, emotionally. I cut my hair, and started trying to play my own style of punk rock and guitar: fast, with a lot of distortion.”

Cobain started Nirvana with Novoselic in 1986. He’d always written — thoughts, scraps of poetry — and they became lyrics. The group played locally in Seattle and Olympia, a college town that was home to a particularly thoughtful punk scene. This was based around the group Beat Happening, who ran their own club, set up their own label and recorded songs like ‘Bad Seeds’. “A new generation from the teenage nation”, they sang: “this time let’s get it right”. In 1987, this generational rhetoric was charming but absurd: nobody thought like that any more. In 1992, it seemed like prophecy.

In the last years of the 19th century, Seattle had been an important transit point for the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska. The city bore for many years the legacy of this boom-or-burst phenomenon. Nearly 100 years later, another gold rush occurred when the major record labels and national media descended on Seattle. What they found, and have since placed in the main-stream of American pop, was a form of music where, as Novoselic says, “people had outgrown hard-core and were rediscovering rock — Blue Cheer, the Stooges.”

By 1987, two young college graduates, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, had a Seattle label up and running, Sub Pop, which released records by local groups like Mudhoney, Nirvana and Soundgarden. They were good at marketing books, slogans, and wanted a word to describe, half mockingly, half seriously, the noise that these groups made. It wasn’t punk exactly, although it was steeped in punk attitude and politics; with the gut-wrenching downer pace of heavy metal and the tuneful tension of rock, it was … grunge.

Sub Pop released Nirvana’s first single, ‘Love Buzz’, in 1988. Their first album, Bleach, was recorded a year later for just over $600. Dave Grohl joined in 1990 — the final focusing of the group. By this time, the American music industry was beginning to take up punk groups: the signing of New Yorkers Sonic Youth to DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen, had made waves, and it was DGC A&R man Gary Gersh who finally signed Nirvana in 1991. A bidding war put the advance up to £287,000, and the group went in to record Nevermind with producer Butch Vig.

By the time Nevermind was released, Nirvana were being handled by industry insiders: management by John Silva of Gold Mountain, record company by David Geffen — a highly privileged position. Nevermind made everything else the Seattle group had sound like a demo: although Cobain now disavows the record as “too slick”, Vig’s production gave Nirvana a power and a clarity which enabled people to fully hear what was going on. Even with such a strong team and such a strong product, Nirvana were not expected to sell more than about 250,000 records: Nevermind sold over a million within six weeks of release.

Success brought Nirvana more problems than it solved. “It didn’t anticipate at all,” says Novoselie. “I didn’t know how to deal with it.” “We were touring constantly,” says Cobain, “so I didn’t realize what had happened until about three months after we’d become famous in America. It just scared me. I was frightened for about a year and a half: I wanted to quit. It’s only after the birth of my child that I decided to crawl out of my shell and accept it.”

Nirvana should have been on top of the world but instead they freaked out. Part of the problem had to do with the culture from which they came, which had celebrated the outsider — ‘Loser’, read an early Sub Pop T-shirt slogan and which was fiercely anti-major label, pro-independent. One of Nirvana’s first acts on joining Geffen Records was to print a T-shirt which read ‘Flower-stuffin’ ‘ketty-pettin’ baby-kissin’ corporate rock whores’.

The group’s unnecessary agonizing about “selling out” and “corporate rock” ducks the more serious problem of how they can retain their strong ideals. Exposure to the mass market tends to iron out subtleties and ironies, as Nirvana have found to their cost. Nirvana are pro-gay, pro-feminist. Cobain’s initiation at the attitudes of some of his new fans spilled over in the sleeve does for the past-success compilation, Incesticide: “I have a request for our fans,” he wrote. “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different colour or women, please do this one favour for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

“As a defence, I’m neutered and spayed,” Cobain sings, and, indeed, he presents a view of men that runs against the macho self-image of a country where the ethic of youth, health and personal self-improvement is still strong. He presents himself, like Morrissey once did, as old, ugly, still ill.

Rock requires personal authenticity, and Cobain embodies what he sings. “My body is damaged from music in two ways,” he says. “I have a red irritation in my stomach. It’s psychosomatic, caused by all the anger and the screaming. I have scoliosis, where the curvature of your spine is bent, and the weight of my guitar has made it worse. I’m always in pain, and that adds to the anger in our music. I’m grateful to it, in a way.

“My stomach was so bad that there were times on our last tour where I just felt like a drug addict because I was starving. I went to all these different doctors but they couldn’t find out what was wrong with me. I tried everything I could think of: change of diet, pills, stopped drinking, stopped smoking. Nothing worked, and I just decided that if I’m going to feel like a junkie every morning, vomiting every day, then I might as well take the substance that kills that pain. That’s not the main reason why I took heroin, but it has more to do with it than most people think.”

Self-destruction haunts youth culture aesthetics: the myth of ‘Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse’ that runs from Thomas Chatterton through to James Dean and Sid Vicious. The grunge generation was not immune: patterns of local drug supply meant that heroin was easily available and, cloaked in the loser ethic, many Seattle groups succumbed.

“I’d taken heroin for a year and a half,” Cobain says, “but the addiction didn’t get in the way until the band stopped touring about a year and a half ago. But now things have got better. Ever since I’ve been married and had a child, within the last year, my whole mental and physical state has improved almost 100 per cent. I’m really excited about touring again. I’m totally optimistic: I haven’t felt this optimistic since my parents got divorced, you know.”

For the whole of the 20th century, America has thought of itself as among other things, a young country. In this, the person of the child — from foetus to late adolescence (which, post-baby-boomer, can last until the mid-forties) — has become of prime importance. Out of this has come the youth culture which has colonized the world.

Now that America is in a crisis of recession, corruption and indeed social cohesion, the child and the teenager have become sites of struggle: the intense abortion battles, star revelations of child abuse, teen suicides, teen violence. Whether consciously or not, Nirvana have slipped into this national obsession, with their album concepts and messages from within the emotional front line.

Nirvana sing as traumatized children who have been empowered by the freedoms within popular culture. Their courage and talent have made them beacons for anyone who has felt the same way but have also placed them in the eye of the storm. Their growing pains are intense and are conducted in public: In Utero is a dark record, finely poised between self-destruction and optimism, and the Roseland show makes it quite clear just how much they are struggling.

Before the racked finale, however, Cobain does a wonderful thing: “Ye-eh-eh-eh,” he shouts over five notes during ‘Lithium’, and, as the roaring crowd back him up all the way, the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

© Jon SavageThe Observer, 15 August 1993