(The Boys Are Back In Town)
Alternative Press, October, 1993
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 flew 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 fulfill 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 EverPopular 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 pharmacist's utopia of sidebar syndromes, most 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.
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 Bleach, In 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 sattering climax. Add the cynically titled, but (perhaps, equally cynically) strangely apposite "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," and the rest of In 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 highoctane 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?"
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