NIRVANA- In the Court of King Kurt
Face, September, 1993
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It seems like a long time ago now since Nirvana first arrived. In autumn '91 they released their second album and their first Geffen product, "Nevermind". It was followed closely by "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The single became an anthem for a pissed-off generation who'd known little else other than the oppressive, right-wing administrations of Reagan and Bush. It was on the radio in the US constantly; MTV rotated the video relentlessly. "Nevermind" hit the top of the American charts in January '92. And then the rumours started. And they've never really stopped.
Kurt Cobain is dead. He's hooked on heroin. He's addicted to cough medicine. Kurt marries Courtney Love in Hawaii (true) and rumours abound that she wasn't keen on inviting the other two members of Nirvana and their partners. The couple visit detox clinics. They announce they're having a child (true) and the drug talk escalates; Kurt has a tummy ache and discovers stomach ulcers brought on by a bad diet and manic touring (could be). Courtney is rushed to hospital a month before the baby's due with womb problems while on the road with Nirvana in Spain. The now oft-quoted Vanity Fair article on Courtney Love goes on the stands: the Nineties Sid and Nancy are scrutinised at length. Courtney is reported as talking frankly about taking heroin in early months of pregnancy. Despite everything, Frances Bean is born in August: does she have one head or two? Is she featherlight or average weight?
While Nirvana and Guns N' Roses continue a war of words (the former disgusted by Axl's penchant for dodgy lyrics and comments) and trouble brews with Victoria Clarke and Britt Collins' unofficial biography, talk of the follow-up to "Nevermind" starts. "It'll be crap," someone comments. "I want it to be crap," someone quotes Kurt as responding. Opinions from all quarters on the state of the new album appear everywhere; the story of Geffen fmding it "unreleaseable" even makes it to American current affairs magazine Newsweek. In direct response to Jeff Giles' report, the band take out a full-page ad in Billboard to tell their side of things.
More horror stories: Kurt buys some guns, tries to choke Courtney in their Seattle home and ends up in jail for a few hours.
Oh, and in that two-year period, Nirvana, world famous rock band, released a few singles ("Come As You Are", "Lithium", "In Bloom") and made a few classic, humorous videos. They also recorded "In Utero", their third album. It should confound many critics. It may not (happily) be "Nevermind Part II", it may not capture a moment as that album did, but it has the same sparks of genius. The rough and raw feeling from their first album, "Bleach", is captured but tempered by melody. Kurt Cobain's primal scream is as ungracious and rasping as ever but there are also some beautiful goosepimple songs. And a handful of people-friendly singles.
AS SOMEONE ONCE OBSERVED, a celebrity is someone who works hard all their lives to become well-known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognised. The success of "Teen Spirit" and the media explosion of the grunge phenomenon, both in music and on the catwalk, brought instant fame to Nirvana, who were g iven the grunge crown. "Teen Spirit" transcended any one genre of music even though it was essentially a rock record; Jeremy Healy played it alongside house and garage records in London clubs, and now most people in their teens or twenties have an anecdote to tell about when they first heard it. "Maybe it's the same as Kennedy being assassinated," drummer Dave Grohl suggests drily at one point.
As the charismatic but elusive frontman, Cobain is usually the one wearing the shades. We are in New York for three days of press mayhem. Courtney is sitting in the hotel lobby with Frances Bean, who is passed around for everyone to hold. She is way more trusting of strangers than her parents are, smiling happily at anyone who picks her up. Courtney talks non-stop about anything and everything. Conversation gets round to the possible B-sides of "Heart-Shaped Box", the first single from "In Utero"; one may be called "Moist Vagina". Courtney dismisses any suggestion that it is about her and refers to it as a "D-side". Kurt later explains it's about the way bodies are compared, "as though it's relevant to say one pair of breasts is nicer than any other". Courtney jokes about how Kurt wants to arrange to meet some journalists at a crack house. He doesn't like their magazine.
After some time, Kurt Cobain appears from nowhere. He wanders towards us slowly, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a pink and white cardie, dark shades with white frames, his hair falling over his face. His red nail varnish is badly chipped. He looks like that rare thing: a natural rock star. He asks of no one in particular: "You been waiting for me?" and no one in particular responds. He's not listening anyway; Frances Bean is the focus of his attention. Their hotel lobby is the meeting place for the three days of promotional duties, and Kurt is not merely often but always late for interviews and photo sessions. Subjecting people to his waiting game doesn't seem to be an ego thing as much as a time thing: his body clock is tuned into the small hours. Catch him after midnight and he's Mr Accessible.
AS COBAIN'S NOT UP FOR any interviews yet, I talk to the Other Two. Drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Chris Novoselic are articulate and opinionated and have their own slant on things, but they're not Kurt Cobain. "People like to get a lot of time with Kurt," explains Grohl. "But when we first started doing interviews, he wouldn't really say anything, even though people would try to direct questions at him. Nobody would get Chris' bizarre sense of humour and I'd just occasionally interject with smartass comments. Interviewing us was a fucking nightmare. "
Grohl (the youngest at 24 to Cobain's 26 and Novoselic's 28) is almost the boy-next-door type, the regular nice guy. He is fanatically punctual when it comes to turning up for interviews, maybe not as much out of respect as wanting them out of the way. He's simply into the music and having a blast. It's not cool in New York, but he's promoting a multi-layered look of two pairs of shorts over long johns. He doesn't feel the heat, he claims, because he was brought up in Washington DC where it was "fucking hot as shit". When we meet, in the sterile environment of the hotel's conference room, he's just finished talking to his photographer fiancee on the internal phone, and ends their murmurings with an unabashed "I love you".
Grohl, who joined the band in 1990, tries to keep a firm grip on the fame thing, but he's still evidently puzzled by all the hysteria. He's more excited about his mum coming to New York for their gig than he is about hearing a line of journalists telling how great his record is. "What's the big fucking deal? We're just a band, it doesn't seem like it should be any big deal. But to a lot of people it is." He pauses, doodles on the paper table mat and sighs. "I'm kinda proud of being the drummer in Nirvana, because we've done lots of good things, we've shaken things up a little bit. It took me a while to realise that. Everyone kept on telling us: 'You guys really ruffled the sheets of the music industry.' I found it hard to believe 'cause, you know, how could three fucking losers from Nowheresville make a dent in rock'n'roll... it doesn't seem to fit."
Shades are an unnecessary accessory for the drummer boy; he doesn't get hassled that much. Only when "Teen Spirit" had reached saturation point and people would come up to him and say: "Hey man, if I hear that fucking song again, I'm gonna kill somebody. " He grins as he recounts the tale. "I'd just say: 'Look, you know, I'm not the programmer of any radio station. "' The only occasion he'll admit to losing his rag is around the time of the unofficial biography fuss. "It seemed like that book was a lot more important than making a new record. I ended up pretty angry because whose business is it what we do outside of the band? Who gives a shit?"
When we meet up again the next morning in the hotel lobby (Kurt's still snoozing), Grohl is even more hyperactive than usual. He's excited and nervous all at once about the prospect of their "secret" gig that evening at the 4,000-capacity Roseland. Coffee is ordered, but after waiting for 20 minutes Dave becomes impatient and goes walkabout, taking my tape machine with him and talking into it Agent Cooper style. He records a five-minute spiel in a croaky, stonehead DJ take-off. "Well, here we are at the New Music Seminar '93 and the hot ticket for tonight: Nirvana and Jesus Lizard. An alternative spectacle, something not to be missed. The phenomenon of [stumbling)... Nirvana is revealed on stage. Yes, a band that has become the godfather of grunge as we know it. Grunge: '92's coined term. G-R-U-N-G-E. That Sound From Seattle, that crazy mix of Stooges meets Black Flag. Yes, that's grunge and that's tonight at Roseland with the Jesus Lizard, one of the most unprecedented freak-out bands..."
DADDY COBAIN IS NO LONGER running around the studio making Frances Bean gurgle. He's taken off the Tigger suit in favour of a dress and some bold black eyeliner and is being photographed on the roof. Frances Bean is also there in her pushchair, wrapped in a big white woolly jacket. She's with her 21-year-old nanny, Cali, who looks as though he should be in the band rather than looking after the baby. Kurt's been posing for various photographers all afternoon and the most animated he gets is when he stands on a piece of glass without his sneakers on.
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