Howl: An Interview With Kurt Cobain
Jon Savage: Tell me about your background.
by John Savage
part one of two
Kurt Cobain: I was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1967, and I lived between Aberdeen and Montesano, which was 20 miles away. I moved back and forth between relatives' houses throughout my whole childhood.
Did your parents split up when you were young?
Yeah, when I was seven.
Do you remember anything about that?
I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason. I was ashamed of my parents. I couldn't face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.
Have you made up with them now?
Well, I've always kept a relationship with my mom, because she's always been the more affectionate one. But I hadn't talked to my father for about 10 years until last year, when he sought me out backstage at a show we played in Seattle. I was happy to see him because I always wanted him to know that I didn't hate him anymore. On the other hand, I didn't want to encourage our relationship because I just didn't have anything to say to
him. My father is incapable of showing much affection, or even of carrying a conversation.
I didn't want to have a relationship with him just because he's my blood relative. It would bore me.
So the last time I saw him, I expressed that to him and made it really clear that I just didn't want anything to do with him anymore. But it was a relief on both our parts, you know? Because for some years he felt that I really hated his guts.
You can't duck it.
That's what I've done all my life, though. I've always quit jobs without telling the employer that I was quitting; I just wouldn't show up one day. I was the same in high school - I quit with only two months to go. I've always copped out of things, so to face up to my father - although he choose to seek me out - was a nice relief.
Have you ever written about this stuff at all? The lyrics on Serve The Servants sound autobiographical.
Yeah. It's the first time I've ever really dealt with parental issues. I've hardly ever written anything that obviously personal.
What was it like when you were growing up?
I was very isolated. I had a really good childhood, until the divorce. Then, all of a sudden, my whole world changed. I became antisocial. I started to understand the reality of my surroundings, which didn't have a lot to offer. Aberdeen was such a small town, and I couldn't find any friends that I was very fond of, or who were compatible with me, or liked to do the things that I liked. I liked to do artistic things and listen to music.
What did you listen to then?
Whatever I could get a hold of. My aunts would give me Beatles records, so for the most part it was just Beatles, and every once in a while, if I was lucky, I was able to buy a single.
Did you like the Beatles?
Oh, yeah. My mother always tried to keep a little bit of British culture in our family. We'd drink tea all the time! I never really knew about my ancestors until this year, when I learned that the name Cobain was Irish. my parents had never bothered to find that stuff out. I found it out by looking through phone books throughout America for names that were similar to mine. I couldn't find any Cobains at all, so I started calling Coburns. I found this one lady in San Francisco who had been researching our family history for years.
So it was Coburn?
Actually it was Cobain, but the Coburns screwed it up when they came over. They came from County Cork, which is a really weird incidence, because when we toured Ireland, we played in Cork and the entire day I walked around in a daze. I'd never felt more spiritual in my life. it was the weirdest feeling and - I have a friend who was with me who could testify this - I was almost in tears the whole day. Since that tour, which was about two years ago, I've had a sense that I was from Ireland.
Tell me about your high school experience. Were people unpleasant to you?
I was a scapegoat, but not in the sense that everyone picked on me all the time. They didn't pick on me or beat me up because I was already so withdrawn by that time. I was so antisocial that I was almost insane. I felt so different and so crazy that people just left me alone. I wouldn't have been surprised if they had voted me Most Likely To Kill Everyone
At A High School Dance.
Can you now understand how some people become so alienated that they become violent?
Yeah, I can definitely see how a person's mental state could deteriorate to the point where they would do that. I've gotten to the point where I've fantasized about it, but I'm not sure. I would opt to kill myself first. But still, I've always loved revenge movies about high school dances, stuff like Carrie.
When did you first hear punk rock?
Probably '84. I keep trying to get this story right chronologically, and I just can't. My first exposure to punk rock came when Creem started covering the Sex Pistols' U.S. tour. I would read about them and just fantasize about how amazing it would be to hear heir music and be a part of it. But I was like 11 years old, and I couldn't possibly have followed
them on the tour. The thought of just going to Seattle - which was only 200 miles away - was impossible. My parents took me to Seattle probably three times in my life, from what I can remember, and those were on family trips.
After that, I was always trying to find punk rock, but of course they didn't have it in our record shop in Aberdeen. The first punk rock I was able to buy was probably Devo and Oingo Boingo and stuff lie that; that stuff finally leaked into Aberdeen many years after the fact.
Then, finally, in 1984 a friend of mine named Buzz Osbourne made me a couple of compilation tapes with Black Flag and Flipper, everything, all the most popular punk rock bands, and I was completely blown away. I'd finally found my calling. That very same day, I cut my hair short. I would lip-sync to those tapes - I played them every day - and it was the greatest thing. I'd already been playing guitar by then for a couple of years, and I was trying to play my own style of punk rock, or what I imagined it was. I knew it was fast and with a lot of distortion.
Punk expressed the way I felt socially and politically. There were so many things going on at once. It expressed the anger that I felt - the alienation. It also helped open my eyes to what I didn't like about metal bands like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. While I really did enjoy, and still do enjoy, some of the melodies those bands had written, I suddenly realized I didn't like their sexist attitudes - the way they just wrote about their dicks and having sex. That stuff bored me.
When did you start to think about sexism? Was it an outgrowth of your interest in punk?
No, it was before that. I could never find any good male friends, so I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot, and I just felt they weren't being threatened equally and they weren't treated with respect. I hated the way Aberdeen treated women in general - they were just totally oppressed. The word 'bitch' and 'cunt' were totally common, you'd hear them all the times. But it took me many years after the fact to realize those were the things that were bothering me. I was just starting to understand what was pissing me off so much, and in the last couple of years if high school, I found punk rock and it all came together. I finally understood that I wasn't retarded, you know?
Did you ever have trouble with people thinking you were gay?
Yeah. Even I thought I was gay. Although I never experienced with it, I thought that might be the solution to my problem. I had a gay friend, and that was the only time I ever experienced real confrontation from people. Like I said, for so many years they were basically afraid of me, but when I started hanging out with this guy, Myer Loftin, who was known to be gay, they started giving me a lot of shit, trying to beat me up and stuff. Then
my mother wouldn't allow me to be friends with him anymore because she's homophobic.
So did you stop?
Yeah. it was real devastating because finally I'd found a male friend I could actually talk to and be affectionate with, and I was told I couldn't hang out with him anymore. Around that same time, I was putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. He played a big role in that.
Your lyrics contain some provocative gay references, in particular the like, 'Everyone is gay' from All Apologies. Is that a reflection of that time?
I wouldn't say it was a reflection of that time. I'm just carrying on with my beliefs now. I guess it is [provocative] in a commercial sense, because of how many albums we've sold.
It's very unusual to find bands talking about those kinds of things, particularly in the format that you're using, which is basically male rock.
Yeah, but I think it's getting better, though, now that "alternative music" is finally getting accepted, although that's a pretty sad term, as far as I'm concerned. But at least the consciousness is there, and that's really healthy for the younger generation.
Have you had any problems from the industry or fans because of your gay references?
Never. Pansy Division covered Teen Spirit and reworked the words to Smells Like Queer Spirit, and thanked us in the liner notes. I think it said, "Thank you to Nirvana for taking the most pro-gay stance of any commercially successful rock band". That was a real flattering thing. It's just that it's nothing new to any of my friends, because of the music we've been listening to for the last 15 years.
I suppose things are different now. If you watch MTV, they have these 'Free Your Mind' segments in the news hour, where they re post on gay issues and stuff like that. Pretty much in subtle ways they remind everyone how sexist the wave of heavy metal was throughout the entire Eighties, because all the stuff is almost completely dead. It's dying
fast. I find it really funny to see a lot of those groups like Poison - not even Poison, but Warrant and Skid Row, bands like that - desperately clinging to their old identities, but now trying to have an alternative angle in their music. It gives me a small thrill to know that I've helped in a small way to get rid of those people - or maybe at least to make them
think about what they've done in the last 10 years. Nothing has changed, really, except for bands like Soul Asylum who've been struggling in the bars forever, and now they have their pretty faces on MTV. Still, they have a better attitude than the metal people. I think it's healthier. I'd much rather have that than the old stuff.
The track that first got me into Nirvana was On A Plain. But what's it about?
Classic alienation, I guess. Every time I go through songs I have to change my story, because I'm as lost as anyone else. For the most part, I write songs from pieces of poetry thrown together. When I write poetry it's not unusually thematic at all. I have plenty of notebooks, and when it comes to a time to write lyrics, I just steal from my poems.
Do you put them together very quickly?
Usually right before I record the vocals! Sometimes, I finish the lyrics months before we go into studio, but for the most part, 90 percent of them are done at the last minute.
Is that how the songs on In Utero were written?
A little less so. There are more songs on this album that are thematic, that are actually about something rather than just pieces of poetry. Like, Scentless Apprentice is about the book, Perfüme, by Patrick Süskind. I don't think I've ever written a song based on a book before.
Did you just read much when you were a kid?
Yeah, just whatever I could get. I went to the library a lot, and I skipped school a lot, especially during high school, junior high, and the only place to go during the day was the library. But I didn't know what to read, it was just whatever I found. During grade school I would read books by Susan E. Hilton [Authour of 'The Outsiders' and other works about teen angst and alienation]; I really enjoyed those. I read a lot in classes too, when I went to school - just to stay away from people so I didn't have to talk to them. A lot of times I'd even just pretend to read, to stay away from people.
When did you start to write?
I was probably about 14. Junior high. I never took it very seriously. I've never kept personal journals, either. I've never kept a diary, and I've never tried to write stories in the poetry; it's always been abstract.
The plan for my life, ever since I can remember, was to be a commercial artist. My mother gave me a lot of support in being artistic - she really complimented my drawings and paintings. So I was always building up to that. By the time I was in ninth grade I was taking three commercial art classes and planning to go to art school. My art teacher would enter my paintings and stuff in contests. But ultimately; it wasn't what I wanted to do. I knew my limitations. However, I really enjoy art and still like to paint.
I've always felt the same about writing, as well. I know I'm not educated enough to really write something that I would enjoy on the level that I would like to read.
When did you first visit England?
Did you enjoy it?
Yeah. Especially the first time. We also went through the rest of Europe, but by the seventh week I was ready to die. We were touring with TAD. It was also eleven people in a really small Volvo van, with all our equipment.
You mean twelve, with Tad...
Fifteen! Depending on whether his stomach was empty or not. He vomited a lot on that tour.
When did you first realize that things were starting to break for the band?
Probably while we were on tour in Europe in '91. We'd finished the Teen Spirit video and they started to play it while we were on tour. I got reports every once in a while from friends of mine, telling me that I was famous. So it didn't affect me until probably three months after we'd already been famous in America.
Was there one moment when you walked into it and you suddenly realized?
Yeah. When I got home. A friend of mine made a compilation of news stories about our band that appeared on MTV and the local news programs and stuff. It was frightening. It scared me.
How long did it continue to scare you?
For about a year and a half - up until the last eight months or so. Until my child was born, I would say. that's when I finally decided to crawl out of my shell and accept it. There were times I wanted to break the band because the pressure was so intense, but, because I like this band, I felt like I had a responsibility not to.
Was that around the time of your summer 1992 European tour?
Yes. It was when the band started to really fail me emotionally. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we were playing these outdoor festivals in the daytime. There's nothing more boring than doing that. The audiences are massive and none of them care what band is up on stage. I was just getting over my drug addiction, or trying to battle that, and it was
just too much. For the rest of the year I kept going back and forth between wanting to quit and wanting to change our name. But because I still really enjoy playing with Kris and Dave, I couldn't see us splitting up because of the pressures of success. It's pathetic, you
know? To have to do something like that.
It's weird. I don't know if, when we play live, there is much of a conscious connection between Kris and Dave and I. I don't usually even notice them; I'm in my own world. On the other hand, I'm not saying it doesn't matter whether they are there or not, that I could
hire studio musicians or something.
I know it wouldn't be the same. For me, the original band is you and Kris and Dave.
I consider that the original band, too, because it was the first time we had a competent drummer. And for some reason, I've needed a good, solid drummer. There are loads of bands I love that have terrible drummers, but a terrible drummer wasn't right for this music. At least, it isn't right for the music that I've written so far.
You haven't really been on the road for a year, not since the Nevermind tour.
I've been recuperating.
( part one | part two )