KURT COBAIN has found that being a professional rock musician is not quite what he imagined when he was banging out his raunchy punk rock songs all alone is his bedroom in Aberdeen, Washington.
“It’s become a job, whether I like it or not,” he says. “It’s something that I love doing and would always want to do, but I have to be honest – I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as I used to when I was practicing every night, imagining what it would be like. It’s nothing like what it was like the first couple of years of actually playing front of a few people, loading up the van and going to a rock show to actually play. The privilege of that just can’t be reproduced after doing it for 10 years. The same feeling is not there.”
The first round of more than 25 hours of interviews with Kurt took place in February. They began very late at night, after Kurt would return from rehearsals for Nirvana’s new album, In Utero, lasting until four or five in the morning.
Our conversations were extremely frank. “I’m caught,” Kurt says, referring to his widely publicized problems with heroin, “so I may as well ‘fess up to it and try to put it in a little bit more perspective. Everyone thinks I’ve been a junkie for years. I was a junkie for a really small amount of time.”
Kurt is eager to set the record straight. There have been so many rumors about him, his wife Courtney Love and even his infant daughter Frances Bean Cobain that he figures the best way he can cut his losses is just to tell exactly what happened. His tales are sometimes self-serving, full of rationalization and self-contradiction, but even his distortions are revealing about his life, his art and the connections between the two.
Kurt and Courtney, then his girlfriend, began doing heroin together in Amsterdam for two days around Thanksgiving of 1991 during the tumultuous Nevermind tour. “It was my idea,” says Kurt. “I was the one that instigated it. But I didn’t really know how to get it, so Courtney would take me to the place where we might have a chance of being able to find it. We only did it twice on the whole tour.”
Ongoing, unexplained stomach pain had been driving Kurt insane on the European tour, making him chronically irritable and antisocial. “I was so angry with my body that I couldn’t deal with anyone socially,” he says. “I was just totally neurotic because I was in pain all the time. People had no idea I was in pain and I couldn’t complain about it 24 hours a day.”
He says the pain made him suicidal, so he chose his poison. “If I’m going to kill myself,” he says, “I’m going to kill myself for a reason instead of some stupid stomach problem. So I decided to take everything in excess all at once.”
In early December, Kurt returned to Seattle after the tour and Courtney was still in Europe with her band Hole. “I was determined to get a habit,” he says. “I wanted to. It was my choice. I said, ‘This is the only thing that’s saving me from blowing my head off right now. I’ve been to 10 doctors and nothing they can do about it. I’ve got to do something to stop this pain’.” He also admits there was the simple pleasure of getting high, but that wasn’t the point.
“It started with three days in a row of doing heroin and I don’t have a stomach pain,” he says. “That was such a relief. I decided, ‘Fuck, I’m going to do this for a whole year. I’ll eventually stop. I can’t do it forever because I’ll die.’ I don’t regret it at all because it was such a relief from not having stomach pain every day. My mental state just went totally up. I healed myself.” Except for a long and profound relapse when he detoxed, the mysterious stomach pain has largely disappeared.
When Courtney came home to Los Angeles from her tour with Hole later in December, Kurt called and said, “Let’s live together.”
They bounced from hotel to hotel, doing what Courtney calls “bad Mexican L.A. heroin.” Kurt would do the lion’s share of the drugs. Courtney never quite got the hang of injecting drugs, so Kurt would often shoot her up “whenever she’d beg me hard enough.” She already had a dark little scar on the inside of her elbow from when other people had botched injections.
Just after Christmas, Nirvana set off on a brief tour with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That tour is when Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic finally admitted to himself that Kurt was heavily into heroin. “He looked like shit,” Chris says. “He looked like a ghoul.” Chris knew he couldn’t do anything about it. “I just figured it’s his fucking trip, it’s his life, he can do whatever he wants.”
The first press to acknowledge the heroin rumors was a January 1992 profile in BAM magazine which claimed that Kurt was “nodding off in mid-sentence,” adding that “the pinned pupils, sunken cheeks, and scabbed, sallow skin suggest something more serious than fatigue.” Soon, an item in the industry tip sheet Hits was hinting that Kurt was “slam-dancing with Mr. Brownstone,” Guns N’ Roses slang for doing heroin.
A lot of people around them struggled to understand why Kurt and Courtney were doing this to themselves. “It’s like this,” says Courtney. “‘Hey, you know what? I just sold a million fuckin’ records and I got a million bucks and I’m going to share it with you and let’s get high!'”
So there was an element of just wanting to get high. “There might have been in her eyes,” says Kurt, who still maintains that he basically did heroin for its analgesic properties.
In the midst of all this, the unthinkable happened. Nevermind hit number one on the Billboard album charts the week of January 11, 1992. Nevermind also topped the charts in Belgium, France, Ireland, Israel, Spain, Sweden and Canada. Meanwhile, the band was being wooed by Guns N’ Roses and Metallica to appear on their joint U.S. tour that summer. Despite some very high-level pressure, Kurt and the band refused. They’d never be caught dead playing with Guns N’ Roses.
The band went to New York to tape a live set for MTV and to play Saturday Night Live on January 11. By then, Kurt and Courtney had been doing heroin long enough to begin to get addicted. “I remember walking into their hotel room and for the first time, really realizing that these two are fucked up,” says drummer Dave Grohl. “They were just nodding out in bed, just wasted. It was disgusting and gross. It doesn’t make me angry at them, it makes me angry that they would be so pathetic as to do something like that. I think it’s pathetic for anyone to do something to make themselves that functionless and a drooling fucking baby. It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s do a drug that knocks us out and makes us look stupid.'”
“I went up to his room and Kurt came to the door in his underwear and Courtney, all I saw was a little piece of hair sticking out from underneath the covers,” says Kurt’s mother. “There were five deli trays, room carts with old food. I said, ‘Kurt, why don’t you get a maid in here?’ And Courtney says, ‘He can’t. They steal his underwear’.”
There was at least one thing to be grateful about. “Thank God those two didn’t do cocaine,” says Dave, “because they’d be the biggest fucking assholes in the world.”
Courtney found out she was pregnant sometime around Saturday Night Live – whether before or after is unclear. Kurt and Courtney hadn’t been using birth control, even though Courtney was mainlining heroin. Courtney calls that “a morality issue” and insists that she knew she’d quit if she discovered she was pregnant. “I was an idiot – what can I say?” she says now. “But I’m not immoral.”
They had wanted to have a baby, but sometime in 1993, and certainly after they had finished with their dalliance with heroin. In the meantime, they thought maybe they’d get a little capuchin monkey. When they found out Courtney was pregnant, Kurt was ready to insist on an abortion because he assumed, like everyone else, that the baby would be born retarded or deformed. Courtney never even considered it. “We should breed,” she thought. “It’s better than buying a monkey.”
They consulted a birth defects specialist who informed them that heroin use, especially if confined to the first trimester, was virtually harmless to the fetus if the mother’s withdrawal wasn’t too traumatic (there is a slight chance that the child may experience mild learning disabilities later on in life, however). Amazing but true. “But tell that to a middle-American housewife,” says Kurt. “You can’t expect anyone to believe it.”
“I didn’t have a baby to stop doing drugs,” says Courtney, “but I knew that if I would continue to do drugs my career would go to hell and I wouldn’t give a shit and I’d be one of those junkies that I’ve seen at N.A. meetings with track marks on their hands and neck.”
They entered the strange world of chemical dependency medicine. Various doctors competed for their business, as if they were another celebrity trophy to put on their wall. It was just like a bidding war.
Kurt knew he had to detox for Nirvana’s Australian tour, so he and Courtney decided to detox together. A doctor checked them into a Holiday Inn and prescribed them various drugs to tide them through the three-day withdrawal period.
Kurt says detoxing was easy. “It wasn’t a heavy drug addiction at all,” Kurt says. “I’d only been doing it for a month straight and I’d just started to get addicted, probably that week that I got off of them. Withdrawals were nothing. I just slept for three days and woke up.”
But Courtney has a different take. “That was a sick scene because you get diarrhea and lots of sleeping pills and it was just vomiting,” she says.
“That was gross. That was a sick scene if ever there was a sick scene.” As Kurt admits, “The bathroom didn’t smell very good.”
By the time of the ‘Come as You Are’ video shoot, Chris and Dave hadn’t seen Kurt since Saturday Night Live. They had heard secondhand that Kurt was going through detox. In Dave’s words, “It was not something to be talked about.” It was just two days before they were to leave for Australia.
People in the band’s inner circle began wondering if going on tour at that point was the right thing to do. “Everybody knew that it wasn’t,” says Dave. “Kurt knew that it wasn’t, I knew that it wasn’t, Chris knew that it wasn’t. Maybe we didn’t know within the first two days of the tour, but after a week and a half, sure, everybody knew.”
During the Australian tour, Kurt’s stomach problem flared up worse than it had in years. The first few days, Kurt felt fine. Then suddenly, he was in intense pain. He was vomiting constantly and couldn’t eat.
One day, Kurt says he was sitting on the steps of a hotel, wincing with pain, and Chris’ wife Shelli walked up to him and said, “Kurt, I just hate to see you doing this to yourself. I can’t stand to see you hurting your body like this.”
“I just wanted to fucking punch her in the face because, like everyone else, she just assumed that I was doing drugs,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘You fucking people have no clue how much pain I’m in all the time. It’s from a natural thing that’s in my body.’ I couldn’t believe it. I’ll never forget those words because it just defined everyone’s attitude toward me. Every time that I wasn’t even doing drugs, they suspected that I was. They still do.”
He finally went to a “rock doctor” who had a picture of himself with the Rolling Stones on his office wall. Kurt told the doctor his stomach history and the doctor replied, “I know what your problem is.” “I think I’m going to get some kind of stomach medicine and the doctor just assumes that I’d just recently gotten off of heroin and I’m going through detox and I’m on tour,” says Kurt, “so I’d better do what Keith Richards would have done and take methadone. It’s called Physeptone in Australia, so I thought they were just stomach pills.”
The Physeptone miraculously took away the stomach pain. Kurt couldn’t wait to tell his doctor about these great new pills.
Kurt and Courtney got married in Waikiki, Hawaii, on February 24, 1992. At Courtney’s insistence, the couple had already worked out a prenuptial agreement. “I didn’t want Kurt running away with all my money,” Courtney jokes (presumably).
Dave and his friend and drum tech Barrett Jones had both brought girlfriends to Hawaii, but Kurt and Courtney didn’t want them there. “They all came from Seattle and they were all going to come back and say, ‘We were at Kurt and Courtney’s wedding!’ and lie about things,” says Courtney. Besides, Kurt thought he might cry at the ceremony and wanted it to be as private and small as possible.
“Shelli and Chris were being really shitty to us and they thought I was doing all these drugs and I’m in Japan – how could I be doing any drugs?” says Courtney (then again, Kurt did have some Physeptone). Kurt had a crew member summon Chris up to his hotel room, where Kurt informed Chris that he didn’t want anyone at the wedding who didn’t want them to get married – meaning Shelli. Chris said if his wife wasn’t going, he wasn’t going either.
By the time they got to Hawaii, Kurt had run out of Physeptone and convinced a friend to bring him some heroin so he wouldn’t start detoxing while he was there. Kurt was even high on heroin at his own wedding. “I wasn’t very high, though,” he explains. “I just did a little teeny bit just so I didn’t get sick.”
Back home in their Los Angeles apartment, Kurt did his best to avoid tempting Courtney by shooting in a locked closet in an extra room down the hallway where he kept his heroin and his needles and his spoons and his rubbing alcohol.
“I didn’t find myself just sitting in the house and nodding off and sleeping,” Kurt says. “I was always doing something artistic. I got a lot of paintings done and wrote a lot of songs.” Artistically, it was a fertile time for Kurt – he painted a lot and wrote many of the songs which appear on In Utero. “I did all my best songs on heroin this year, he says. But he was falling out of touch with the band.
They barely spoke for five months, even at rehearsals. Chris would rant at Dave or Shelli, “Kurt’s a fucking junkie asshole and I hate him!” Chris was angry with Kurt, he says, “probably because I felt like he left me. I was really concerned and worried about him and there was nothing I could do about it.
“I don’t know how much heroin Kurt was doing because I never saw him,” Chris says. “I never went to his house. I saw him high a few times, but never really a fuckin’ mess. I never saw that. That’s just what I heard or what I assumed. He was down in L.A. I’d never go down to L.A., I’d never go to his house. I didn’t want to go. Because I was afraid of what I might see. A lot of my perspective was secondhand.”
Dave wasn’t as affected as Chris was by it all. “We do depend on each other for certain things, but for the most part, we’re really removed from each other – far removed,” Dave says. “As close as we may seem sometimes, it’s not like bosom buddies. We’re friends but we’re not best friends or even great friends. As far as us getting together and playing music, it never really affected the band. When it started affecting the band’s reputation, I got a little more upset.
“It’s weird, because there are so many people that work with the band that don’t really have anything to do with me,” Dave says. “Basically, all I do is I walk up onstage and I play drums. And then afterward, I go home. There’s just so much that goes on that I don’t even know about. In a lot of ways that can be a blessing, but on the other hand it makes you wonder about your importance.”
Kurt didn’t want to go out on tour again and have his stomach act up, and besides, he wanted to be with Courtney throughout her pregnancy. Chris, for one, didn’t care. “We toured for three years,” he says. “The tour just seemed like a lot more pressure, anyway. Before, we were just vagabonds in a van, doing our thing. Now you’ve got a tour manager and a crew and it’s a production. You’ve got schedules and shit. It used to be an adventure. And now it’s a circus.”
Gradually, the ice broke between Kurt and Chris. “Kurt and I would have these cool talks,” says Chris. “Every once in a while we’d call and talk and I’d really feel better about a lot of things. You don’t talk for a while and you just sit around and all these ideas pop into your head and you start believing them.”
Later, a video sonogram revealed a normally developing baby (a picture of Frances In Utero graces the insert of the ‘Lithium’ single). “Oh God, it was incredible,” Kurt says, suddenly aglow. “It was one of the most amazing things. It wasn’t just a picture – it was a video, so you could see her moving around. It was the first time we realized she was a living thing. You could see her heart beating.” While he was watching the footage, Kurt swears he saw Frances give heavy metal’s familiar forefinger-and-pinky Satan salute.
Then came a bitter dispute over publishing royalties that came the closest to breaking up the band that anything ever has. Like everyone else, Kurt didn’t expect that Nirvana would sell millions of records. To avoid a potentially divisive situation in which he would have gotten an overwhelming slice of a very small pie, leaving the other two rather poor, he agreed to split royalties for music writing equally with Chris and Dave, even though he writes, by his estimate, 90 percent of the music. “I write the songs. I come up with the basic idea, and then we work on it as a band,” says Kurt. “Most of the time that I’m asking Chris and Dave their opinion, it’s just to make them feel a part of the band. I always have the ultimate decision.”
But once the album took off so phenomenally, Kurt changed his mind and asked for a more representative publishing split – not, he says, because of the money, which is relatively negligible (Kurt says the difference comes to about $150,000). “I realized how much more pressures are on me and how deserve a little bit more because I’m the lead singer, all these perspectives are being written about me, I have to take all that pressure,” says Kurt. “And I have to deal with the pressure of writing the songs. I don’t care if someone else gets the credit for it but I should at least be financially compensated for it.”
Dave and Chris had no qualms with that. and it does seem reasonable – Chris and Dave would still make plenty of money. But when Kurt asked for the new arrangement to be retroactive to the release of Nevermind, they erupted. Kurt, they argued, was virtually taking money out of their pockets. The uproar lasted only one week in March, but it nearly split the band.
“Chris and I were just like, ‘If this is any indication of how much of a dick Kurt is going to be, then I don’t want to be in a band with someone like that’,” Dave says. Meanwhile, everyone with a vested interest in the band was urging Chris and Dave to back down.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Let him have this one because the band will break up. You guys could make 15 million dollars next year. Just let him have this one’,” Dave says.
On the phone one day, Kurt said to Dave, “I can’t believe you guys are being so greedy.”
“Whatever,” Dave replied disgustedly, and Kurt hung up on him.
“At the time, I was ready to fucking quit the band over it,” says Kurt. “I couldn’t believe that [they were] giving me so much shit about this.” Kurt eventually got his retroactive split – 75 percent of the music writing royalties. The bad feelings still simmer.
Except for the methadone he took on the summer tour, Kurt did heroin for months, for almost the entire pregnancy. Meanwhile, he was having to do more and more just to get the same kick, eventually working up to a $400-a-day habit. He couldn’t get up any higher because that was the maximum his bank’s cash machine would dispense in one day. With the baby imminent, Kurt checked into Cedars-Sinai on August 4 to detox, spending a total of 25 days there.
Courtney spent more time with her guitarist Eric Erlandson in order to stay away from Kurt. She would occasionally go to the nursery at Cedars-Sinai and look at the babies to strengthen her resolve to stay clean. While Kurt was detoxing and Courtney was waiting for the baby to be born, a profile of Courtney appeared in Vanity Fair.
The piece described Courtney as a “train-wreck personality” who isn’t particularly interested in the consequences of her actions. It strongly hinted that she had introduced Kurt to heroin, although that was not the case. Writer Lynn Hirschberg quoted various unnamed “industry insiders” who “fear for the health of the child,” without mentioning whether these industry insiders had done any studies in teratogenic medicine.
But far more damaging was one quote in the piece. After a description of how she and Kurt went to Manhattan’s Alphabet City to score during the Saturday Night Live visit, Courtney added, “After that, I did heroin for a couple of months,” which meant that she had done heroin long after she knew she was pregnant. Courtney vigorously protested that she had been misquoted; Hirschberg maintained that she had the tapes.
If Nevermind was a success because the band was in the right place at the right time, the Vanity Fair piece found the Cobains at the wrong place at the wrong time. “I wouldn’t have thought that I could be dwarfed or squashed or raped or incredibly hurt by a story in that magazine,” Courtney says. “But the power of it was so intense. It was unbelievable. I read a fax of it and my bones shook. I knew that my world was over.”
Meanwhile, Kurt was detoxing and, once again, in enormous pain. Unable to eat, he was placed on an IV and got weaker and weaker for a time, then rallied. His rehabilitation was slowed by the fact that he was occasionally given morphine to kill the stomach pain. He saw a battalion of gastrointestinal specialists who took X-rays, upper GIs, lower GIs, CAT scans, etc. He was weak. He was ready to snap. “He’d been crying for weeks,” says Courtney. “It was nothing but crying. All we did was cry. It was horrible.”
Gradually, it dawned on Kurt what the Vanity Fair story was doing to his and Courtney’s reputation. “One day I snapped out of it and realized how awful it was,” he says. “It was definitely affecting our livelihood and our image and everything to a real extreme.” And since the Vanity Fair piece was based largely on unnamed “inside sources,” they had to deal with the profound disappointment and paranoia that arose from the fact that some of their most trusted friends and associates had betrayed them.
“We’d already been turned into cartoon characters by then and it justified everything – all the lies and rumors that had been going around,” says Kurt. “I just found it amazing that someone could get away with something like that, that she couldn’t go to jail for it or get busted somehow or sued. I thought we’d be able to sue her, but it’s a matter of having the millions of dollars to fight in court with [Vanity Fair publisher] Condé Nast, who would support her.
“I just decided, ‘Fuck this, I don’t want to be in a band anymore. It just isn’t worth it. I want to kill [Hirschberg]’,” Kurt says. “‘As soon as I get out of this fucking hospital, I’m going to kill this woman with my bare hands. I’m going to stab her to death. First I’m going to take her dog and slit its guts out in front of her and then shit all over her and stab her to death’.” He was too weak to do that so he says he considered hiring a hit man, then calmed down a bit and thought about asking David Geffen to pull some strings to get Hirschberg fired or else he’d quit the band. None of this ever happened.
Kurt still gets scarily angry when the subject of Hirschberg’s story comes up. “She’d better hope to God that someday I don’t find myself destitute without a wife and a baby,” he says. “Because I’ll fucking get revenge on her. Before I leave this earth, she’s going out with me.”
On the morning of August 18, 1992, Courtney began to go into labor. She stunned her doctors by picking up her IV and slamming out of the room. She marched over to Kurt’s room, clear across the hospital, and screamed, “You get out of this bed and you come down now! You are not leaving me to do this by myself, fuck you!” She came back to find that the hospital security force had “gone apeshit.” Kurt was still groggy from a dose of sleeping pills and in extreme pain, but managed to get himself down to the delivery room.
At 7:48 in the morning, Frances Bean Cobain was born. She weighed seven pounds, one ounce and according to the Cobains she was perfectly healthy.
Kurt didn’t witness his own daughter’s birth. He had passed out. “I’m having the baby, it’s coming out, he’s puking, he’s passing out, and I’m holding his hand and rubbing his stomach while the baby’s coming out of me,” says Courtney. “It was pretty weird,” she says, laughing darkly.
“I was so fucking scared – it was probably a classic case of what the typical father goes through,” says Kurt, who was still hooked up to an IV and in the midst of rehab. “I was just so weak and sick and afraid that something was going to happen to Courtney or the baby.”
A press release from Gold Mountain, Nirvana’s management company, a few days later aimed to refute all the speculation about Frances. “The infant is in good condition, is feeding well and growing at the normal rate expected for a newborn,” the statement said, adding, “The vicious rumors that Frances was suffering any withdrawals at the time of birth are completely false, and in fact, she has not suffered any discomfort since delivery.”
Tarnished reputations turned out to be only the beginning of the Vanity Fair controversy.
Even Kurt and Courtney’s lawyer, Rosemary Carroll, believes that the Vanity Fair article prompted the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services to begin taking action against them. The agency must have seen the Vanity Fair piece (both Carroll and the Cobains claim it was stapled to the top of the report on them). The story was so well publicized that the agency could not ignore it, even though Courtney had allegedly detoxed almost immediately after learning she was pregnant.
Two weeks after their daughter was born, Kurt and Courtney were forced to surrender custody of Frances to Courtney’s sister Jamie. For a month after that Kurt and Courtney were not allowed to be alone with their own daughter.
Kurt genuinely believes it was a conspiracy. “It was all a total scam,” he says. “It was an attempt to use us as an example because we stand for everything that goes against the grain of conformist American entertainment. It was a witch hunt. Social Services literally took the Vanity Fair article and Xeroxed it and then took that pee test that Courtney took in the first trimester of her pregnancy and used that as an excuse to take our baby away.
No one knew this was happening except for a very close inner circle of the Nirvana organization. It seemed hopeless – doctors, government agencies, the press all were against them. At one dark moment, Kurt and Courtney took out Kurt’s handgun and considered taking their own lives.
“It was just so humiliating and it just felt like so many powerful people were out to get us that it just seemed hopeless,” says Kurt. “It didn’t seem like we’d ever win. It was amazing. We were totally suicidal. It’s not the right time for a woman trying to get rid of the hormonal problems of just having a baby and me just getting off of drugs and just being bombarded with this. It was just too much.” But in the end, they put down the gun.
The next day, the band flew to England to headline the closing night of the 1992 Reading Festival. The English press was running with rumors that the band was breaking up because of Kurt’s health. Kurt says the rumors were completely unfounded. “No, it was classic, typical English journalism,” he says wearily. “Sensationalism. I have absolutely no respect for the English press. They make me sick. I thought I’d never say anything racist in my life, but those people are the most snooty, cocksure, anal people and they have absolutely no regard for people’s emotions. They don’t think of other people as humans at all. They’re the coldest people I’ve ever met.”
Days later, Nirvana played the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards show. The band didn’t want to go onstage to accept the award for Best Alternative Music Video, so it was Kurt’s idea to have a Michael Jackson impersonator come up and accept for them. “I wanted it to be used as a reminder that I’m dealing with the same thing,” says Kurt. “All rock stars have to deal with it. It’s the fault of the fans and the media.”
The band didn’t have any other celebrity impersonators prepared when they won their second award, for Best New Artist, and Kurt initially refused to go up to the podium, but friends and associates convinced him that if he didn’t go up, people would talk. “I was just kind of nervous up there,” Kurt says. “When we played, I didn’t look out in the audience and realize how big it was. And once I got up there, I realized millions of people are watching and it’s a really big place and these lights are really bright and I don’t want to be here, this is really stupid. I just wanted to leave right away.”
Kurt managed to thank his family, his label and the band’s “true fans.” Then he paused a moment, fixed the camera with a soulful gaze, smiled and said, “You know, it’s really hard to believe everything you read.” Chris spoiled the moment by bellowing into the microphone, “Remember Joseph Goebbels!” but Kurt had made his point, even though most people in the audience had no idea how much it meant to him.
But the day was far from over. Also on the bill was Pearl Jam, whom Kurt had been skewering in the press for months, although he jokingly denies there had been a full-blown feud. “No, I just happened to express my feelings toward their music, that’s all,” he says with a little smirk.
But it wasn’t just their music – Kurt felt that the band was a bunch of hypocritical sellouts. Two members of Pearl Jam – Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament – had been in Green River, the first band to put out a record on Sub Pop. Kurt’s friend Mark Arm had quit the band and formed Mudhoney because he felt that it was going in an overtly commercial direction, largely because of Ament, who was among the first of the early Sub Poppers to openly declare he wanted to be a professional musician.
“I know for a fact that at the very least, if not Stoney, then Jeff is a definite careerist – a person who will kiss ass to make sure his band gets popular so he can become rich,” Kurt claims.
And Jeff Ament was also a jock, an all-state basketball player in his native Montana.
“Jocks have completely taken over music,” carps Kurt. “That’s all there is nowadays, muscular bicep Marky Mark clones. It’s pretty scary. And just to get back at them, I’m going to start playing basketball.”
Pearl Jam had assumed the look and some of the sound of “grunge rock,” or just enough to ride the commercial wave. In the January 1992 issue of Musician, Kurt had declared that the members of Pearl Jam were going to be “the ones responsible for this corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion.” “I would love to be erased from my association with that band,” Kurt said of Pearl Jam in Rolling Stone. “I do feel a duty to warn the kids about false music that’s claiming to be underground or alternative. They’re just jumping on the alternative bandwagon.”
But by that time, he had decided to at least forgive Pearl Jam’s fey but immensely likable singer, Eddie Vedder. “I later found out that Eddie basically found himself in this position,” says Kurt. “He never claimed to be anybody who supports any kind of punk ideals in the first place.”
Vedder was standing around the backstage area at the MTV Awards show when out of the blue, Courtney walked up to him and slow-danced with him as Eric Clapton played the elegiac ‘Tears in Heaven’. Kurt walked over and butted in. “I stared into his eyes and told him that I thought he was a respectable human,” Kurt says. “And I did tell him straight out that I still think his band sucks. I said, ‘After watching you perform, I realized that you are a person that does have some passion.’ It’s not a fully contrived thing. There are plenty of other more evil people out in the world than him and he doesn’t deserve to be scapegoated like that.”
Which is where Axl Rose comes in.
Backstage, Courtney spotted Rose and called him over to where they were sitting with Frances. “Axl, Axl!” she said. “Will you be the godfather of our child?” With several bodyguards looming behind him, Rose leaned over, his face reddening beneath a thick layer of makeup, and pointed his finger in Kurt’s face. “You shut your bitch up or I’m taking you down to the pavement!” he screeched. The Nirvana entourage exploded in laughter, except for Kurt, who made as if he was about to hand Frances to Courtney so he could stand up to Rose. But instead he glared at Courtney and said, “Shut up, bitch!” and they all exploded some more.
Rose’s then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour broke an awkward silence by innocently asking Courtney, “Are you a model?”
“No,” replied Courtney. “Are you a brain surgeon?”
When the band returned to their trailer, waiting for them was the formidable Guns N’ Roses entourage, veritable sides of beef. Kurt dashed into the trailer to make sure Frances was all right while Chris was surrounded. They started pushing him around. Guns bassist Duff McKagan wanted to personally beat Chris up, but a crowd began to gather and the confrontation dissolved.
Perhaps the enmity comes from the fact that the two bands are competing for roughly the same vast audience of frustrated, damaged kids. “I don’t feel like I’m competing at all,” Kurt says. “I’ve said in public enough times that I don’t give a fuck about his audience.” But Kurt and Rose hate each other with an almost brotherly intensity, as if they’re flip sides of the same coin. “We do come from the same kind of background,” Kurt says. “We come from small towns and we’ve been surrounded by a lot of sexism and racism most of our lives. But our internal struggles are pretty different. I feel like I’ve allowed myself to open my mind to a lot more things than he has.
“His role has been played for years,” says Kurt. “Ever since the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, there’s been an Axl Rose. And it’s just boring, it’s totally boring to me. Why it’s such a fresh and new thing in his eyes is obviously because it’s happening to him personally and he’s such an egotistical person that he thinks that the whole world owes him something.”
Still, Kurt admits Nirvana could learn a thing or two from Guns N’ Roses. “They fuck things up and then they sit back and look at what they fucked up and then try to figure out how they can fix it,” he says, “whereas we fuck things up and just dwell on it and make it even worse.”
The Nirvana hype machine managed to get a story in Spin magazine, a fluffy interview with Kurt and Courtney by Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman which neglected to reveal that Poneman had a substantial financial stake in his subject’s latest release (as the last remnant of the buyout deal, Sub Pop got a cut of the Nirvana compilation Incesticide). Of course, the real point of the story was the cover shot. Although the headline trumpeted “Nirvana: Artist of the Year,” the cover featured a heavily airbrushed Cobain family portrait with Mom and Dad proudly cradling a perfectly normal-looking baby. It was aimed directly at Children’s Services.
The public didn’t know it, but the battle to have free and clear custody of Frances still raged on. Frances now lived with Kurt and Courtney, but the couple had to submit to regular urine tests and a social worker had to check up on them periodically to make sure they were raising their child in an acceptable manner.
On March 23, 1993 came good news. After months of legal battles, it was finally decided that none of the allegations made against Kurt and Courtney in Family Court were legally valid. The Cobains had already won legal custody of their daughter, but now, the Department of Children’s Services would not supervise Kurt and Courtney’s care of Frances any longer – no more humiliating urine tests, no more checkup visits from social workers, no more costly legal fights. The nightmare was over.
Kurt says he and Courtney spent a million dollars in 1992 – $80,000 went to personal expenses, $380,000 went to the taxman; they also bought a relatively modest house for $300,000. “The rest of it was because of Lynn Hirschberg,” he says, referring to the legal bills they piled up in their efforts to keep Frances and defend their name. “That bitch owes me something.”
At the start of the third week in February, the band traveled to Minnesota to record their new album with producer Steve Albini. Kurt had wanted to record with Albini ever since he first heard Big Black, an incendiary, tremendously influential Chicago trio on Touch & Go Records that combined nasty guitar textures, bilious, nasal vocals and the incessant pounding of a drum machine to induce visions of urban rage and paranoia. Albini went on to a thriving, even legendary, career recording various bands like Helmet, Superchunk, PJ Harvey and even EMF, as well as countless underground heroes, such as the Jesus Lizard and Tar.
But Kurt was particularly after the drum sound he had heard on two Albini projects – the Pixies’ epochal 1988 album Surfer Rosa and the Breeders’ excellent 1990 album Pod. It’s a natural, powerful sound produced with canny microphone placement rather than phoney-sounding effects boxes. It reminded Kurt of the drum sound on Aerosmith’s 1976 Rocks album.
This was the man who once told a friend that he thought Nirvana was just “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox.” “I thought they were an unremarkable version of the Seattle sound,” Albini admits. “I thought they were typical of the bands of this era and of that locale.”
It’s an opinion he still holds, so one wonders why Albini would take the assignment. The way he puts it, it was a mission of mercy. “This is going to sound kind of stupid,” he says, “but in away, I sorry for them. The position they were in, there was a bunch of big-wig music-industry scum whose fortunes depended on Nirvana making hit records. It seemed obvious to me that fundamentally they were the same sort of people as all the small-fry bands I deal with. They were basically punk rock fans, they came up from an independent scene and it was sort of a fluke that they got famous.
“It seemed that they understood doing things the way I do them and would appreciate making a record like that,” Albini continues. “But if I didn’t do it, they weren’t going to be allowed to make a record like that by the record company or by anyone else who worked with them. Any other producer that would work with Nirvana, for a start, would rob them, would want to get a lot of money out of them. And they’d probably be banking on making a hit record, in which case he would be making a record that he thought fit the mold of the hit singles record, not a powerful, personal punk rock record, which is the sort of record I got the impression they wanted to make.”
In addition to a $24,000 studio bill, Albini’s fee was $100,000, but unlike virtually any other producer, Albini refused to take points (a percentage of sales) on the album. “I just think that taking points on an album is an immoral position – I cannot do it, I think it’s almost criminal,” says Albini. “Anyone who takes a royalty off a band’s record – other than someone who actually writes music or plays on the record – is a thief.”
Albini didn’t want the album to sound anything like Nevermind. “It sounds like that not because that’s the way the band sounds,” he says, “but because that’s the way the producer and the remix guy and the record company wanted it to sound.”
Kurt finished writing most of the lyrics within days of recording his vocals, culling most of them from notebooks full of poetry. Booking themselves in as “The Simon Ritchie Group” (Sid Vicious’ real name), Nirvana recorded and mixed the entire album in two weeks at Pachyderm Studios, located about 50 miles south of Minneapolis in the middle of the Minnesota tundra. The spacious wood-paneled main room where they set up the drums had a large window that looked out onto the snowy Minnesotan winter. The Neve mixing board had been used to make AC/DC’s Back in Black.
The band had made it abundantly clear to their label and managers that they didn’t want any interference with the recording. Nirvana now had enough clout that Geffen wouldn’t dare reject the album – or would they? “If they do, they know we’ll break up,” says Kurt. “Fuck, we made them 50 million dollars last year.”
Although it was ostensibly a low-budget project, Albini says Nirvana was not above typical indulged rock star behavior. Albini says that when Kurt began having trouble tuning his guitar, they wanted to fly in their guitar tech Ernie Bailey. “When you’ve got millions of dollars, maybe you go a little crazy and start doing stuff like that,” says Albini.
But once they actually started recording, it went very quickly and they completed all the recording – basic drum, bass and guitar tracks, guitar solos and vocals – in about six days. Kurt says they could have done the whole album in a week if they had really wanted to. They recorded bass, drums and guitar all at once and kept virtually everything they laid down. Kurt added another guitar track to about half of the songs, then added guitar solos, then vocals.
Albini was pleasantly surprised by all three band members. “Kurt is actually quite normal,” Albini says. “He’s been through a lot and you can tell that it’s beaten up on him. He’s kind of sallow and a little bit somber and melancholy but I think he’s melancholy because he’s in a situation that he thinks is not as pleasant as it should be, considering all the attributes – he’s got a lot of money, he’s famous, he’s in a successful, popular rock band, so things should be going fairly easily for him and they’re not. That’s a dichotomy that he’s uncomfortable with and I think he’s coming to accept it.
“He is an intelligent guy – he doesn’t come off that way. He plays dumb occasionally to try to get people to trip themselves up. Also I think he thinks it cool to be naive and dumb. But I think he’s an intelligent guy and he’s handled it better than most people. I think he recognizes that most of the players and movers and shakers in the music scene are real pieces of shit.
“Probably the easiest guy to deal with of them all was Dave Grohl. For one, he’s an excellent drummer, so there’s never any worry whether he’s going to be able to play. His playing was rock solid and probably the highlight of my appreciation of the band was watching Dave play the drums. He’s also a very pleasant, very goofy guy to be around.”
Albini respected Chris as well. “If he listens to something and he doesn’t like it, he will say that he doesn’t like it but he’s adult enough that he can say, ‘Well, this is the sort of thing that might grow on me. I’ll let it sit there for a while before I veto it’.” Albini also feels that Chris has to do a fair amount of “mopping up.” “Like if Kurt doesn’t know how to plug in his guitar and tune it, for example, and Chris does, he doesn’t make a big deal about it,” Albini says. “Chris will just run in there and take care of it.”
The idea was to go for a natural sound. “The last Nirvana album, to my ears, is sort of a standard hack recording that has then been turned into a very, very controlled, compressed radio-friendly mix,” says Albini. “That is not, in my opinion, very flattering to a rock band.”
The all-important drum sound was achieved with virtually no electronic chicanery – just a lot of microphones placed around the room to pick up the room’s natural reverberance. “Dave Grohl’s an amazing drummer,” says Albini. “If you take a good drummer and put him in front of a drum kit that sounds good acoustically and just record it, you’ve done the job.”
Kurt’s vocals also had few effects. “On the last album, there was a lot of double-tracked vocals and stuff, which is a hack production technique to make vocals sound ‘special’,” Albini says. “It’s been done so much over the last 10 years that to me, that now sounds ordinary. That’s now a standard production trick. To hear just the sound of a guy singing in a room – which is on the new album, it’s just one take of Kurt singing in a room – that sounds so different from what else is out there that it sounds like a special effect.”
In Utero gets back to basics in a way that isn’t as forced and obvious as the “Unplugged” trend. Nirvana recorded the follow-up to a quadruple platinum album in two weeks on a vintage 24-track analog board. “We didn’t make a raw record to make a statement at all, to prove that we can do whatever we want,” Kurt insists. “That’s exactly what we’ve always wanted to sound like.” Kurt covers himself, though, because even the most “new wave” songs have hooks – the spiraling ascending riff on ‘Scentless Apprentice’, the wrenching, Zeppelinesque breaks in ‘Milk It’.
A little over a week into the recording, Courtney flew in, basically because she missed Kurt. Albini says she tried to butt in on the proceedings, but he won’t say exactly what the problem was. “I don’t feel like embarrassing Kurt by talking about what a psycho hose-beast his wife is,” says Albini, “especially because he knows it already.”
“The only way Steve Albini would think I was a perfect girlfriend,” Courtney replies, “would be if I was from the East Coast, played the cello, had big tits and small hoop earrings, wore black turtlenecks, had all matching luggage and never said a word.”
Eventually, Courtney and Dave got into a huge spat, but no one will talk about it.
During the recording, Kurt drew a simple but evocative caricature of the band on a drum head. “When you see Kurt do something like that, you think about the way Kurt writes songs, Dave says. “They’re so simple and so to the point and so right. Something that would take me an hour to explain, Kurt would sum up in two words. That’s something he has that I’ve never seen in anyone else.”
They also used their spare time to make prank phone calls and record them for later delectation. Albini called Eddie Vedder and pretended to be legendary producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T Rex, etc.). “Your voice really speaks to me,” said Albini, who offered to get Vedder in with “a real band” to do some recording. Vedder bought it, but said he’d rather just make a home recording and sell it for five bucks a throw.
They called Evan Dando of the Lemonheads on tour in Australia and told him that Madonna was on the line, and to please hold. Dando bought it hook, line and sinker, growing more and more anxious the longer he waited on hold. “I’m going to start beating off!” he says at one point on the tape. Finally Albini, saying he’s Madonna’s assistant, tells Dando that Madonna will have to call back.
The capper was a call Dave made to Nirvana’s manager John Silva to fill him in on how the project was going – “Things are going really bad,” Dave says solemnly. “Chris was throwing up blood last night…”
To celebrate the completion of the record, they had a listening party and sat around and smoked cigars, except for Kurt, who stuck to his trusty Winston Lights.
So what does Albini think of In Utero? “I like it far more than I thought I was going to,” he allows. “I like this record way more than I’ve ever liked a Nirvana record. I find myself listening to it of my own free will, occasionally. I think it’s a far better record than they could have made under any other circumstances. Is it one of my top 10 favorite albums of all time? No. Is it in my top 100 albums? Maybe.”
But Kurt’s expressions of pain, which once tapped into the mass consciousness so perfectly, may now be less relevant. Just when the country is starting to feel optimistic again, here comes Kurt with a huge sack of woe. And the cause of his pain is no longer something that everyone can relate to. Most people are not familiar with the sensation of being publicly pilloried because of their drug use. It remains to be seen if Kurt has translated his personal experience into a universal feeling, as he has done in the past.
The lyrics aren’t as impressionistic this time – they’re more straightforward. Virtually every song contains some image of sickness and disease. Over the course of the album, Kurt alludes to: sunburn, acne, cancer, bad posture, open sores, growing pains, hangovers, anemia, insomnia, constipation, indigestion. He finds this litany hilarious. “I’m always the last to realize things like that, like the way I used guns in the last record,” he says. “I didn’t mean to turn it into a concept album.”
The music reflects some powerful opposing forces in Kurt’s life: the rage, frustration and fear caused by his and Courtney’s various predicaments and the equally powerful feelings of love and optimism inspired by his wife and child. In Utero takes the manic-depressive musical mode of Nevermind to a whole new extreme. The Beatlesque ‘Dumb’ happily coexists beside the all-out frenzied punk graffiti of ‘Milk It’, while ‘All Apologies’ is worlds away from the apoplectic ‘Scentless Apprentice’. It’s as if Kurt has given up trying to meld his punk and pop instincts into one harmonious whole. Forget it. This is war.
Amazingly, Kurt denies it to the bitter end. “I don’t think of it as any harsher or any more emotional than the other two records,” Kurt says. “I’m still equally as pissed off about the things that made me pissed off a few years ago. It’s people doing evil things to other people for no reason. And I just want to beat the shit out of them. That’s the bottom line.
“And all I can do is scream into a microphone instead,” he adds, laughing at the futility of it all.
© Michael Azerrad, Musician, October 1993