Better Dead Than Cool

Option - Jan/Feb, 1992.

Punk Philosophers Nirvana

By Gina Arnold.


Saturday afternoon at McDonald's is the same the whole world over. From New Jersey to Bangkok, their parking lots are full of sullen teens in beat-up mavericks, screaming children, and the obligatory Baptist church choir on its way to a sing-off or something equally out in the sticks.

Saturday afternoon at McDonald's on Dairy Mart Road in San Ysidro, California, rebuilt on a new site after the famous massacre of the summer of 1984, is an exception. Around about three o'clock its lot is often peopled by the members of some of the coolest rock bands in America. They're on their way across the U.S. border to Tijuana for gigs at Iguana's, a three-tiered nightclub in a turista shopping mall. Sometimes, when I'm down in San Diego writing a story on a band, I go to the parking lot of McDonald's and catch a ride with them over the border.

That lot was where I first met up with Nirvana. Trailed by a square yellow truck that was serving as the equipment van for headliners Dinosaur Jr. (J Mascis always drives separately, breezing in at midnight about three minutes before his set), Nirvana pulled into the lot one hot afternoon in June. They were an hour late, because of the freeway traffic up in Orange County, and still looked half asleep. When their manager pushed me unceremoniously into their dirty, smelly van, no one even looked up to ask who I was. I glanced around disconsolately at the pizza crusts, candy wrappers, cooler full of warm water, and crushed cans; the graffiti all over the inside walls, and the pair of grotty high-top sneakers tied so that they hung out the crack of a window, presumably because they smelled so bad. The seats had been ripped out and replaced by the kind of torn plaid sofa you might see out on city sidewalks ... the kind even halfway houses have rejected.

I sat down gingerly on one of the seats, surrounded by baleful stares; the atmosphere was positively forbidding. The only person who wasn’t near comatose was David Grohl, Nirvana’s fifth drummer in as many years, who managed a semi-friendly "hi." Then, as we pulled out of the parking lot, I reached up nervously and turned my black baseball cap around, Sub Pop style, so the white K label insignia faced backward. There was a slight stir from the back seat, as 24-year-old guitarist and singer Kurdt Kobain sat up and widened his eyes. "Where’d you get that cap?" he asked.

"Made it myself with Liquid Paper," I replied. He didn’t answer. Then suddenly, very shyly, he thrust his arm under my eyes. On the back of the forearm was a tattoo of the K logo, a crude heraldic shield with a hand-lettered "K" inside. From then on, it was smooth sailing.

This was supposed to be a story on Dinosaur Jr., but since J Mascis can’t talk, and since Nirvana pretty much blew Dinosaur off the stage at most of their shows together, the editors and I switched allegiance. After all, when I first heard Nirvana’s debut Bleach, I had thought, "This band is kind of like the Pixies crossed with Soul Asylum." When I saw them play Tijuana that night back in June, I thought, "No, this band is the Pixies times Soul Asylum." In the two years since Bleach. Nirvana has sapped up so much power they positively glow. On stage, they throw it off in enormous bursts, leaning over their guitars with the weight of their fury, and finally smashing the instruments to the ground, or hurling them at each other. It’s as if Nirvana’s guitars are possessed.

One night I saw Kobain leap on bassist Chris Novoselic’s shoulders, forcing Novoselic to the floor ... yet both were still playing. Another time, Kobain leapt spontaneously into the crowd, which held him upright, their arms around each of his legs as he screamed the song without the benefit of a microphone, and continued playing his guitar. Nirvana’s fervor is infectious.

What makes them not just good, but great ... better than their grungy Sub Pop brethren like hometown pals the Melvins, or other college radio alternative bands, such as Smashing Pumpkins or Urge Overkill, who play more melodic guitar rock ... is their complete lack of affectation. And their songs. On their latest album, Nevermind (DGC), it’s clear this is the first band to cross grunge with the excitement of pure, unadulterated rock’n’roll; melody with noisy static, Black Sabbath, and soul. Their songs are more intuitive than articulate, but their lyrics certainly aren’t dumb. "On A Plain," "Lithium," "Drain You," and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" paint a pristine picture of a frenzied search for meaning among kids who have been given no tools for contemplation whatever ... except, of course, electric guitars.

Kobain told me his favorite books are by philosphers ... "Bukowski, Beckett, anyone with a ‘B"’ ... and that he once tried to tackle Nietzsche, but didn’t understand a word of it. Still, you can’t tell me the guy who wrote, "Love myself/Better than you/Know it’s wrong/But what can I do," didn’t absorb the tenets of Man and Superman, even if Novoselic jeers at the notion. "Oh yeah," laughs the 26-year-old bassist, "we’re pocket philosophers." Adds Kobain, defensively, "Well... blue-collar ones, maybe."

Nirvana hails from Aberdeen, Washington, a town of almost 19,000 on Grays Harbor, about 100 miles southwest of Seattle. Kobain and Novoselic had been friends there since high school. The embodiment of small-town stoners ... the American equivalent of the kids in England who back in ‘77 angrily declared they had "no future" ... the two discovered punk after giving up on mainstream hard rock (Kobain’s first concert was Sammy Hagar; Novoselic’s was the Scorpions.) Six years ago, they had typical small-town jobs: Novoselic was a housepainter, and Kobain was a fireplace cleaner at an ersatz Polynesian hotel.

Their story begins in 1983, when Novoselic first heard punk rock on a compilation tape made by his friend Buzz, who today plays with the Melvins. "Buzz was the punk rock guru of Aberdeen," says Novoselic. "He’s the guy who spread the good news around town, but to only the most deserving, ‘cause a lot of people in Aberdeen would discount it. I tried to turn people on to it, but they’d be, like.., one guy I know, I remember, he goes, ‘Ah, that punk rock stuff, all it is, is: Want to fuck my mom! Want to fuck my mom!’ And then I listened to Generic Flipper and it was a revelation. It was Art. It made me realize it was Art. It was valid. It was beautiful. ‘Cause I gave things validity, like, ‘Is it as good as Physical Graffiti?’ And it was suddenly, like, ‘Sure it is ... if not better."’

Another of the "deserving" people Buzz gave a tape to was Kobain. "I’d met Buzz probably around the same time you met Buzz," Kobain says, glancing over at Novoselic. "One night I went over to the Melvins practice before they were the Melvins and they were playing, like, Jimi Hendrix and Cream, stuff like that. I was really drunk and I thought they were the greatest band I’d ever seen. It was really awesome, and it was right around that time Buzz started getting into punk rock."

You can learn volumes about Nirvana by just hearing Kobain howl "I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned" behind the band’s wall of noisy rock ... more, perhaps, than from actually talking to them. Still, I had a burning desire to find out if the only reason Kobain got that "K" tattooed on his arm was because both his names begin with K, rather than for the hip indie label. "Oh no!" he says, aghast. "Not at all. That’s not it at all. I really like the K label a lot and I admire what Calvin [Johnson, K’s proprietor] is doing. They’ve exposed me to so much good music, like the Vaselines, who are my very favorite band ever. They reminded me of how much I really value innocence and children and my youth ... of how precious that whole world is. I like to watch little kids. I think they’re great."

Kobain’s identification with how children behave and think is made evident on Nirvana’s 1990 Sub Pop single, "Sliver," in which the song’s protagonist is a 3-year-old. "I do love kids," he says, again. "I know that sounds weird, but I do. I have a little sister who’s four years old. And I was a lifeguard, and I taught pre-school kids how to swim, and I worked at the YMCA and did daycare, and I babysat during my teenage years. Which was all kind of a strange thing in Aberdeen, because mostly males don’t babysit that much and sometimes when I was sitting and the lady’s date would come over, he’d have this weird reaction when he saw me ... like it wasn’t right or something."

Those parents might be even more worried if they ever heard "School," on Bleach, with its "No recess!" chorus, and lines like, "You’re on acid again," or "Floyd the Barber," wherein Kobain wails, "I’ve been shaved." But when they start seeing Nirvana’s videos on MTV, maybe they’ll be reconciled to it. As is the case with many of the best rock bands, all this rock’n’roll brilliance couldn’t come from more unlikely guys. They’re the type of self-described "negative creeps" ... sly, weasel-faced, introverted, and witty ... that Sean Penn immortalized with his Jeff Spicoli character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You get the feeling they’ve slam-danced harder than kids in their audiences ever have.

Nirvana’s music comes from the kind of obsessiveness and determination that saw the band, in its early days, travel up to Seattle time and again in a "van" that was really a Volkswagen with its seats torn out, packed up with tiny amps, an old Sears trap set, and cymbal stands that were converted from old high school music stands. Their early equipment, according to Chris, consisted of the Melvins’ second-hand scraps. It’s the kind of obsessiveness that comes from the genuine misfit status that growing up on the outskirts of Aberdeen will give a kid with a brain: a craziness that can’t be faked. Kobain and Novoselic didn’t form Nirvana just because they wanted to ... they formed the band because they had to. "I just can’t believe anyone would start a band just to make the scene and be cool and have chicks," says Kobain, in earnest. "I just can’t believe it."

Unlike many grungy white-boy college rockers of the ‘90s, Kobain and Novoselic are of pretty humble stock. They take great pride in the fact that they even graduated from high school. The two met in Aberdeen, the suicide capital of Washington, and the rainiest spot in an already very rainy climate. Both were attracted to people on the edge ... misfits, outcasts, strangers with candy. But everything has changed. Geffen’s DGC label signed them to a reported $400,000 deal after they’d only released one previous album, Bleach, on Sub Pop.

A month has passed since my Mexico roadtrip with Nirvana, and now the band is lounging by the pool of the elegant Beverly Garland Hotel in North Hollywood. It’s a sunny July day, and Nirvana is waiting for studio time to mix some of the final tracks for Nevermind.

The contrast never ceases to amaze, even embarrass, Kobain and Novoselic. "The main thing is that we’re just as happy playing our music now as we were when I was cleaning fireplaces in Aberdeen," says Kobain, looking furtively around the hotel pool. "There’s still the same excitement, so the level of success we're on doesn’t really matter to us. It’s a fine thing, a flattering thing, to have major labels wanting you. But it doesn’t really matter. We could be dropped in two years, go back to putting out records ourselves, and it wouldn’t matter. ‘Cause this is not what we were looking for. We didn’t want to be staying at the Beverly Garland Hotel. We just wanted people to get the records. And we did do it on an independent level. That’s the beauty of it."

Kobain clearly longs for the old days, when he was able to spend more time with his indie mates, such as the Melvins and other Sub Pop and K bands. In fact, when he had to miss K’s International Pop Underground Convention this summer in order to play the Reading Festival in England, he was genuinely disappointed. His eyes light up when he describes the early music of his pals. He talks as enthusiastically about the Melvins as he does about his own band. "They started playing punk rock and had a free concert right behind Thriftways supermarket where Buzz worked, and they plugged into the city power supply and played punk rock music for about 50 redneck kids," Kobain says. "When I saw them play, it just blew me away. I was instantly a punk rocker. I abandoned all my friends, ‘cause they didn’t like any of the music. Then I asked Buzz to make me that compilation tape of punk rock songs and got a spike haircut."

Novoselic explains: "Punk rock kind of galvanized people in Aberdeen. It brought us together and we got our own little scene after a while. Everybody realized ... all the misfits realized ... that rednecks weren’t just dicks, they were total dicks. And punk rock had this cool political, personal message. You know what I mean? It was a lot more cerebral than just stupid cock rock. Dead Kennedys, MDC... Remember? We were never exposed to any radical ideas; all the ideas came from, like, San Francisco or Berkeley."

Kobain wanted to start a band right then. "I got an electric guitar and was really into it, but I couldn’t find anyone in Aberdeen to be in a band with. I was lucky to find Chris at the time." After rehearsing for a while, the duo’s pre-Nirvana band "sounded exactly like Black Flag," Kobain says. "Totally abrasive, fast, punk music. There were some Nirvana elements ... some slow songs, even then. And there was some heavy, Black Sabbath-influenced stuff. I can’t deny Black Sabbath. Or Black Flag."

For a while, Kobain and Novoselic called themselves, ironically, Skid Row. Their first drummer, Kobain recalls, was "this stoner guy ... but he had a drum set." Nirvana had lots of problems starting out, and didn’t seem like a legitimate band; or, as Kobain says, "as legitimate as we wanted it to be. We’d play these parties. One of the best was in this town called Raymond, and all these rednecks were there, but they moved into the kitchen. They didn’t like us at all. They were scared of us. We were really drunk, so we started making spectacles of ourselves, playing off the bad vibes we were giving to the rednecks ... you know, jumping off tables and pretending we were rock stars." To top it off, he says, "Chris jumped through a window, and then we played Flipper’s ‘Sex Bomb’ for about an hour. Our girlfriends were hanging on us and grabbing our legs and doing a mock lesbian scene. That started freaking out the rednecks."

Kobain thinks for a second. "It was such a great vibe," he says. "I mean, we were totally wigging the rednecks out! And that was the idea of punk rock in the first place ... to abuse your audience. What better audience to have than a redneck audience."

During that period, the closest cool places to play were in the state capital of Olympia or in Tacoma, 70 miles away. Nirvana started getting booked in Olympia immediately because the clubs there relied entirely on local acts. But no one came to their shows. "There was one show we did at the Central Tavern in Seattle," Kobain recalls, "where nobody came. We didn’t even play. We just loaded up our stuff and left."

Drummer Grohl, who has been silently sunning himself by the pool for nearly an hour, suddenly looks up with tired eyes. "Really?" he asks. "Nobody came at all?" Kobain grins: "Not one single person ... except Jon and Bruce."

The Bruce in question is Bruce Pavitt, who by that time, 1987, had already started Sub Pop, the label he named after a column he wrote in Seattle’s monthly music rag, The Rocket; Jon is Pavitt’s partner, Jonathan Poneman. Nirvana had raised enough money to hire another drummer and record a demo all in one day. Poneman heard it, liked it, and offered to put it out as a single. It was Shocking Blue’s 1969 song "Love Buzz," which Kobain says he heard randomly on an album he picked up at a garage sale. It was an inspired choice, but one both Kobain and Novoselic deny having any special knowledge of; in fact, they deny having any special knowledge of any obscure ‘60s and ‘70s music. To top it off, they swear up and down that their favorite bands include Devo and the Cars as much as the Vaselines and the Melvins. (Indeed, a Devo cover will appear on a Peel Sessions album Nirvana recorded last year.)

When Nirvana started working on Bleach, says Novoselic, "We didn’t know anything about Sub Pop. We just loved playing. It’s just so totally fun. It was the most important thing in my life at the time. It was awesome." Yeah, but wasn’t it a pretty big deal for a tiny po-dunk band like Nirvana to put out a record? "We were excited, yeah," shrugs Kobain, "but after a while the excitement kind of left because it took over a year for it to come out. We waited for Sub Pop to get enough money to put it out and we ended up paying for the recording ourselves ... $600. Still, when we go on tour, kids come up to us in flocks, going, ‘Where can we get the record. We can’t find it.’ That’s the only reason we decided to go with a major; it’s just the assurance of getting our records into small towns like Aberdeen."

Kobain seems to have a problem with the major label thing. He’s personally a strong believer in the indie ethic, yet says, "What were we gonna do? Stay on Sub Pop? You couldn’t even find our last record I And we were under contract to them. Somebody had to have the money to get us out of the deal. We ended up giving them $70,000 to get out of the contract." Still, Nirvana is not ungrateful to Sub Pop. "The Sub Pop hype thing helped a lot ... you know, the Seattle sound thing," Novoselic says. "We just kind of got caught up in it." Adds Kobain, "In England, we were very popular. It’s kind of an unusual thing for a band that’s as young as us to have gone over there so soon, and Sub Pop did that for us."

The reported $400,000 advance DGC gave Nirvana has been blown way out of proportion, if you ask Novoselic. "Taxes, production, stuff like that, ate it all up," he says, not even mentioning the money Sub Pop got for releasing the band. "We could actually have signed for a lot more elsewhere, but we didn’t want to be that much in debt." Apparently, Sub Pop had been talking about signing a deal with CBS after Nirvana’s first tour abroad, but it fell through.

"It was all very up in the air," Novoselic continues, "so our lawyer started sending our tapes around and we started to get wined and dined." He smiles and pans the pool area. "And here we are today at the beautiful Beverly Garland Hotel."

The last of my conversations with Nirvana took place while I was in Olympia, attending the International Pop Underground Convention. The Nirvana guys were down in Los Angeles preparing to go to England to perform at the Reading Festival. Kobain was depressed because he couldn’t be in Olympia to perform with a side project he has with his girlfriend. [!!!] Ironically, the band was back at the Beverly Garland, gloomily getting ready to make a video ... hardly the most appropriate creative outlet for such an energetic rock band.

Novoselic said he’d been picking up bad habits lately ... "like alcoholism" ... and suggested the band should make a made-for-TV movie, "to show everyone what a bore it all is." He yells to Kobain: "Who will play you?" A faint response comes back: "Ernest Borgnine. Who’ll be you?" Novoselic laughs: "Someone tall ... Kareem Abdul Jabbar?"

You can see it now: the love, the camaraderie, the letdowns, the triumphs... The Nirvana Story. In a melodramatic voice, Novoselic improvises dialogue for his movie: "‘I’m in this band, too, and what I say goes!’ We’ll throw wine goblets through the window. And then there’ll be the love part: ‘Baby, I’m sorry I’ve got to go out with the band.’ Us on stage ... ‘Booooo,’ and we’re getting shit thrown at us. It’ll be directed like an ABC After School Special: ‘You know I love you, baby, but I’ve got to put the band before anything.’ ‘Yes, I understand, but you’ll live in my heart forever.’"

Kobain gets on the phone to stop this silly fantasy. "And then at the end," he says, "our manager will come by and go, ‘You guys have been dropped. You’re broke.’ And the last line is: ‘Hello... Give me Sub Pop."’ ·