By Chris Morris
"I'm gonna get Black flag - the bars." guitarist Kurt Cobain says with a cackle. "It was such a popular thing for kids to do in the early '80s, to get the bars on their arms. I thought I’d wait until I was 25 to do it."
The pen-ink-and-needle job is a momentary diversion - another way to breakup another evening in another motel room that’s rapidly approaching squalor, in an atmosphere of escalating lassitude. Sending out for tattoos is, of course, the L.A. thing to do. But, as Cobain wryly suggests, it is also the punk rock thing to do. And Nirvana, all of a sudden, is the punk rock band of the moment.
A month earlier, the Washington state-based trio was one more highly lauded alternative rock act, with two singles, an EP and the album Bleach, all on the Sub Pop label. Two years’ worth of tours had elevated the band to demigod status among underground headbangers, but that buzz had yet to translate into national prominence.
Prominence came with a bang in September, when Geffen’s DGC Records issued Nevermind, Nirvana’s major-label debut. Music-industry handicappers gaped in awe as the album entered the Billboard chart at number 144...clambered its second week to number 109...vaulted to number 65...rocketed to number 35...and, in only its seventh week on the charts, blasted to number four, nipping at the heels of Guns N’ Roses’ heavily hyped Use Your Illusion I & II.
The record’s unexpected rise was fueled by MTV’s rapid rotation of the video for Nevermind’s first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song - a caustic anti-anthem about youthful apathy that boasts the sardonic hook line "Here we are now, entertain us" - was dressed by director Sam Bayer in flamboyantly anti-establishment colors, decked out with a mutant high school assembly that included slamming students, a thrashing janitor, tattooed cheerleaders and a bound-and-gagged principal. That, combined with burgeoning airplay at modern rock radio and album-oriented stations, sold 600,000 copies of Nevermind in five weeks. No mean feat, considering that it took R.E.M. four albums to attain that level; Faith No More hit similar sales after they had toured for a year behind their breakthrough, The Real Thing.
But Jonathan Poneman, co-owner of Sub Pop, the Seattle label that squired Nirvana and such high-profile alternative brethren as Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Tad to major attention, sees Nirvana’s popularity as a stroke of lightning. "There was the sort of grass-roots hype on this band I can only compare to when I was a teenager and people said Bruce Springsteen was the best performer in the world," he says. "These three individuals represent their generation. It’s a luck of timing: This band not only delivers the goods, they manage to capture the time."
Lounging around their hotel room waiting to be tattooed, the new representatives of their generation appear somewhat nonplussed by Nirvana’s success. "I just thought it would be like another successful independent record vibe," says Grohl, whose lantern jaw and long, lank brown hair make him look like the all-American headbanger. "I didn’t think it would be that much different than Bleach - just a progression."
Adds the pug-nosed Cobain, "I expected our core audience to buy our record within the first couple of weeks, and sales would decline after that. But after I realized that we were on MTV, I suspected we would sell a lot more."
"It’s sort of funny," Grohl continues, "because people look at the video like it’s some monumental statement. So many people think it’s the epitome of this rebellious high school teenage vibe."
Which begs the question: Won’t the video’s exuberant mosh-pit imagery obscure that song’s biting message? Might the legions currently flocking to Nirvana be missing the point?
"Definitely," Cobain agrees, with a touch of weariness. "Most of the new fans are people who don’t know very much about underground music at all. They listen to Guns N’ Roses; maybe they’ve heard of Anthrax. I can’t expect them to understand the message we’re trying to put across. But at least we’ve reeled them in - we’ve gotten their attention on the music. Hopefully, eventually, maybe that message will dig into their minds. I don’t really expect it to."
He pauses, then adds, "It attacks the audience we’re supposedly selling our product to. At the same time, it’s not malicious, it’s not meaning to put them down...." His voice trails off.
Grohl picks up the thread: "Maybe that’s one of the reasons we didn’t expect the record to go this well. We knew it was against the grain. I mean, the first thing that started freaking me out was playing shows and seeing sort of bi-level redneck logger guys in the front row. I had never expected that kind of audience."
"But it’s really selfish to judge your audience like that," Cobain counters. "Because, overall, I can tell from the expressions on everyone’s faces that they’re enjoying the music. Fuck the message, because it’s not half as important as the music in the first place. My mother likes our music. So if I can please her, or our relatives, or anyone who will hear our music on AOR radio who’s never heard our type of music before, that means we’re doing something right. Besides, we’re so similar to Aerosmith and hard-rock music, most kids who like hard-rock music now, who don’t know anything about underground music, are obviously going to like us."
The similarity between Nirvana and Aerosmith may begin and end with both bands’ propensities for loud guitars and snappy song hooks. Nirvana’s contemporary power derives not from ancien régime codpiece posturing or scarves dangling from mikestands, but rather from an abiding affection for the cacophonous revelations of early-’80s punk, an ironic and caustic take on adolescent and post-adolescent values in the ‘90s, and (perhaps most particularly) a will to transcend the cultural slag heap of their hometown environs.
Aberdeen, Washington, where Cobain and Novoselic grew up, borders the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles southwest of Seattle. "‘Twin Peaks,’" Cobain says with a wan smile, "without the excitement."
"It’s isolated," Novoselic observes, with his typically laconic manner. "It’s a wood-industry town, you know. They’ve been through a lot of hard times. When the economy goes down, less homes are being built, there’s less lumber going out. Things work in cycles - three-four years good times, three-four years bad times."
"There’s not a lot of enthusiasm among the people of this town at all," Cobain says. "People just don’t want to do anything. There’s a massive sense of depression and alcoholism. Also, the town, when it first was built, was a seaport, and it was mainly just a whorehouse. The sailors would come and screw the women. Eventually it turned into a little community. So there’s also this overall sense that we’re a little ashamed of our roots."
"It’s like the edge," Novoselic elaborates. "There’s Seattle, there’s Olympia, there’s Aberdeen, then there’s...China. No ideas are going through. There’s like a collective unconscious there. Just people in their houses, rained out, drinking a lot. A lot of drugs. There’s no white-collar, just a few bankers downtown, and lawyers. Public defenders and prosecutors. That’s the legal system. Maybe a few private lawyers doing divorce cases."
Cobain, the son of a machinist, and Novoselic, whose father worked in the logging business, met shortly after leaving high school in the mid-’80s, through a mutual friendship with Buzz Osborne, guitarist and singer for the Aberdeen-based punk band the Melvins.
"Buzz and Matt Lukin [now the bass player for Mudhoney] discovered punk rock," Novoselic explains. "They’d go to Seattle and catch all these cool shows and buy records. I told Buzz, ‘I play guitar,’ and he started turning me on to all these bands, like Flipper, MDC, Butt-hole Surfers. I thought it was really cool. Then I tried turning people on to it, but I’d just get all these closed-minded reactions. One guy said, ‘All that stuff’s just, "I wanna fuck my mom, I wanna fuck my mom."’ They were just so closed-minded."
"AC/DC or nothing," Cobain interjects scornfully.
To make some cash, Cobain and Novoselic started up a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band. Cobain played drums, Novoselic guitar. A guy named Steve played bass. "But then he cut his fingers off in a logging accident," Cobain adds, with a dark laugh.
Nirvana began to jell in the fall of 1986, after Cobain and Dale Crover, the Melvins’ drummer, recorded a demo, the fragrantly titled Fecal Matter, on a four-track machine owned by Cobain’s aunt, an aspiring country singer. Novoselic signed on as Nirvana’s bassist, Cobain took on full-time guitar chores and Aaron Burkhart became the first in a conga line of drummers. Armed with such eventual staples of the Nirvana repertoire as "Love Buzz," "Floyd the Barber" and "Spank Through," the band started playing in Aberdeen, "in this shitty old house," Novoselic recalls. "We’d play in front of five people. Everybody would be drunk and stoned."
"No one liked it," Cobain says. "But eventually we traveled to Tacoma and Olympia. Hopefully we could play in Seattle some day - that was our big goal."
The breakthrough came when Jonathan Poneman and his Sub Pop partner Bruce Pavitt asked the group to record a 45 for a limited-edition release (1000 copies) for the label’s singles club. "Love Buzz"/ "Big Cheese" was issued in December of 1988, and the group started getting stage shows in Seattle, many of them set up by Poneman and Pavitt. At times the response was underwhelming: "We played some kind of benefit show on a Sunday afternoon at the Central Tavern," Novoselic remembers. "We showed up, setup, and nobody was there. Nobody was there. So we left."
Still, Sub Pop was sufficiently encouraged to release their album Bleach, cut in late ‘88 with drummer Chad Channing. (Although guitarist Jason Everman’s name appears on the record, he doesn’t play on it; he was performing with the group onstage, and Cobain says his name was slapped on the jacket "to make him feel a part of the band.") Recorded for only $600 in a pure-grunge mode by producer Jack Endino, it features a number of tracks that prefigure "Smells Like Teen Spirit," reflecting the petulant outbursts of a generation gone dumb. "Would you believe it, it’s just my luck/No recess!" runs the chorus of "School," while "Scoff" features the shrieking refrain, "Gimme back my alcohol."
Following the album’s release in June of 1989, the band - including Everman - undertook their first national tour, minus the glamor. "We stayed at this one place in Texas," Cobain recalls, "out in the woods, next to a lake where there were signs all over the grass that said, ‘Beware of Alligators.’ We slept with baseball bats at our sides." Adds Novoselic, "We hacked up a baseball bat or something, put motor oil on it and tried to cook Cup-A-Soups. That’s how we lived. It was fun, though - we were a hardy bunch. What’s the word - youthful enthusiasm. It was Kerouwacky."
Everman was booted from the tour upon its conclusion in New York, while Nirvana played onward as a trio. Cobain claims the group did five American and European road stints behind Bleach. They were still making $100 a show in Europe in late 1989, crammed into a van with 11 tourmates, including the beefy Sub Pop band Tad. "We mainly survived off of the deli trays - cold cuts every morning."
The next year, Nirvana finally made its move toward the big time. The members were leery of signing a seven-album deal with Sub Pop, which at the time was contemplating a distribution deal (ultimately declined) with Sony Music. Encouraged by Soundgarden’s manager Susan Silver, the group flew to L.A., secured the services of an attorney and began getting courted by major labels - "MCA, Charisma, Capitol, Island, DGC, the whole ball of wax," as Novoselic puts it. DGC eventually won the nod, mostly because New York noisemeisters Sonic Youth, with whom Nirvana had toured, already had a home there.
Around the time of the signing, Cobain and Novoselic, who had been making do with fill-in drummers (including the Melvins’ Crover and Mudhoney’s Danny Peters), secured the services of Grohl, a member of the Washington, D.C. band Scream and no stranger to punk campaigns himself. With Scream, Grohl explains, "we were staying in this house in Laurel Canyon with three mud-wrestling girls for a week-and-a-half; we had two shows booked, and the guarantees were like for a hundred dollars a show. Then our bass player’s girlfriend wired him $800 over the telephone, and he disappeared. He flew back to D.C. - end of band."
On the advice of mutual friend Buzz Osborne, Grohl flew to Seattle to play with Nirvana: "All I really had was a suitcase and my drums, anyway, so I took them up to Seattle and hoped it would work. It did."
Nirvana cut Nevermind in early’91 with Butch Vig, producer of such sub-rosa bands as Killdozer and the Laughing Hyenas. The record was made as a pure punk-rock maneuver, loud and subversive. Mischievously, the group buried a bonus song "Endless Nameless" some 14 minutes into the last CD track (its feedback grind has probably awakened many an unsuspecting dozer). Some of the punk gambits are more elusive; the lovely acoustic ballad "Polly," for instance, documents a rape from the rapists dispassionate point of view.
Explaining his motives, lyricist Cobain says, "I think the reason ‘Polly,’ in particular, has such impact is because it could be considered a Top 40 song, a very simple, easy-listening song, with acoustic guitar and harmonies. But I decided to put some disturbing lyrics in, just to counteract that and make that the statement - that the song should not be that kind of song."
"Polly" was inspired by Cobain’s views on the oppression of women. Other songs, such as the almost equally unnerving "Lithium," are closer to home: "It’s another story that I made up, but I did infuse some of my personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling - very lonely, sick."
Beyond the irony-laced lyrics and the harpoon-sized melodic hooks of such stormers as "In Bloom" and "Stay Away," one carries away from Nevermind the blunt, ear-smoking punk-rock roil that is at the core of both the band and its music. Barely has such an infernally loud band scaled the charts so quickly. But Cobain suggests that such music - punk rock, underground, alternative, whatever you label it - will continue to gain commercial clout, the result of an unlikely rapprochement with standard-issue hard rock and metal.
"Seems like this hard rock and underground rock is fusing together and being thrown into this one melting pot. It’s being considered as almost the same thing. I’ve noticed a lot of the cock-rock bands - Poison, stuff like that - in interviews, and in the image they’re to portray with their new records, the tougher, meaner street bands, that they’re trying, not necessarily to jump on the wagon, but to make it seem as if they’re cool and hip - accepting it.
"So they’re role models, whether you like that idea or not, and the people who like their music are listening to what they have to say. And they’re listening to the new bands that they’re supporting, these supposed ‘alternative’ bands. There are a lot of really mainstream bands who sound just like Poison or resemble Poison very much, and they’re being promoted as alternative bands. I find that really offensive, you know. I think one of the biggest examples of that would be Pearl Jam. They’re going to be the first type of band to say that they’re ‘alternative’ and then accept the Poison bands as much as the Poison bands are going to accept them. They’re going to be the ones responsible for this corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion."
But isn’t Nirvana just as much a part of the corporate meatgrinder as any other hard-rock bands currently marketed by major record labels? "The only way I can describe ‘alternative’ anymore is ‘good music’," Cobain says. "I don’t care what it sounds like - I don’t care if it’s abrasive or clean or retarded. It doesn’t matter anymore. I mean, there are so many bad bands and so many bad songwriters out there that the only alternative to bad music is good music. And that’s very rare."
"What we’re doing does have a mission," Novoselic suggests. "And the mission is to break things open for other bands in the underground. Basically, to give people a chance to see there’s a lot of good music there."
Chris Novoselic plays "old 70s Gibson basses," uses an Ampeg 400T head driven through two 2X15 MESA/Boogie cabinets, and plucks Rotosound RS66 extra-long strings.
Dave Grohl pounds Tama drums ("not exclusively, because I haven't been asked to") and utilizes Remo heads, with an Aquarian head on the snare. He prefers cymbals "that can take a beating," usually Zildjians.
Kurt Cobain's instrument specs are somewhat out of the ordinary. "Well, I play whatever guitar is cheap. I prefer Fender Mustang's, but they're hard to find in left-handed versions. I play whatever I can find, whatever's cheap or whatever's left-handed. I have a MESA/Boogie preamp. I use four Crown 800-watt power sources. A Radio Shack burglar alarm. I use a Roland DS1 distortion box, an Electro-harmonix Small Stone.
"I use piano wire for guitar strings, 'cause it's a lot thicker," Cobain says with a straight face. "I buy it in bulk, in these big long tubes, and just cut it to the length of the guitar. They're thicker than the thickest guitar gauge that's available. I don't know what the thickness of 'em is anymore - I can't remember. I use a really thick E string, and then a smaller size A. A few of the others are guitar strings - I think I use Dean Markleys, because they're the cheapest."