Aftergiving birth to the surprise hit of the year, the guys from Seattle fight the demons of fame
By Chris Mundy
Blood is pouring onto the floor of Nirvana’s dressing room. To make matters worse, the source of the bleeding-a fan with a hole in his mouth where his front tooth used to be - has gone into shock and is convulsing uncontrollably.
Only a few minutes earlier he was just one in a stupefied throng of 900 fans in Ghent, Belgium, fanatically watching the carnage. Nirvana lead singer-guitarist-instigator Kurt Cobain followed a headfirst dive into the crowd by clawing his way back onstage and systematically spitting on members of the audience standing in the first three rows. Bassist Chris Novoselic pulled a Perry Farrell-style full-frontal strip before trading places with drummer Dave Grohl, who played the bass while lying on his back in the middle of the stage. Cobain then took violent offense with the drums, wielding his guitar like an ax and splintering the kit like firewood. Next stop, a Marshall amp, which Cobain stabbed repeatedly with the neck of his guitar before he and Novoselic put the finishing touches on their instruments by smashing them together five times, the final impact shattering the bass and sending hunks of lumber into the crowd, striking the aforementioned fan flush in the face. The show, at this point, was over, Nirvana having done nothing if not put danger back into rock & roll. Cash from chaos. Nevermind the Sex Pistols ... Oh, well, whatever, nevermind.
Backstage, Novoselic is kneeling next to the convulsing fan, trying to console him, as paramedics strap him to a chair and wheel him away. The band’s tour manager is shrieking about finding equipment for the rest of the tour. Grohl has walked back into the empty hall, found the dislodged tooth, intact, in front of the stage and is making plans to turn it into a piece of jewelry. And Cobain is wandering through the wreckage. "Hey, everybody," he says repeatedly. "Why so glum?"
Explosions of all sizes have followed Nirvana, the most monstrous being the clamor over the band’s latest offering, Nevermind. The follow-up to a striking Sub Pop debut album, Bleach, the trio’s major-label coming-out is simultaneously the year ‘s most passionate release and startling success story. A relentless barrage of thundering, fuck-you grunge-pop anthems, Nevermind has already sold over a million and a half copies since DGC Records’ initial shipment of only 50,000 records on September 24th. But along with the overnight rise from the Seattle underground has come intense media scrutiny, pressure and, in turn, minor detonations like the Belgium show.
"That was the low point of the tour;" says Novoselic, two days later in Amsterdam. "It wasn’t rock-star posing. A lot of what happened had to do with alcohol and with some really weird tension in the air. The whole course of events just couldn’t be stopped. We were just on the train and wherever it took us, we went. We’re dealing with an extreme business here, so reactions are extreme."
Extreme records, it turns out, also spring forth from extreme individuals, and for Nirvana the world is seen through the eyes of Cobain, whose misanthropic view seems to inspire his remarkable gift. While Grohl handles road pressures with laid-back ease and Novoselic continually interjects a skewed sense of humor, Cobain rarely speaks to anyone surrounding him, usually curling up and turning his back to a crowd or mutely staring with the frightening intensity of a cornered animal. Having already shunned the New York Times and the L.A. Times, he at first refused to be interviewed for this article, changed his mind, then failed to surface two other times, in one instance hiding in a locked hotel room.
"When I joined the band, I lived with Kurt for eight months," says Grohl, 22. "When I first got there, he had just broken up with a girl and was totally heartbroken. We would sit in his tiny, shoe-box apartment for eight hours at a time without saying a word. For weeks and weeks this happened. Finally one night, we were driving back in the van, and Kurt said, You know, I'm not always like this.’ And I just went, ‘Whewww.’"
Raised by his mother, Cobain, 24, grew up in a trailer park in the redneck logging community of Aberdeen, Washington, about a hundred miles from Seattle, where, he has said, he never had a childhood friend and steadily developed a hatred for the macho, guns-and-booze posturing around him. By the time he and Novoselic, 26, joined forces in 1987, borrowing a PA and four-track recorder from Cobain’s aunt, the silent mistrust and pure punk ethic were firmly rooted. "The most anti-authority guy in the band is Kurt," says Novoselic "The most anti-authority guy I know is Kurt. He’ll be the one to walk up to people and scream, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ A lot of times I’ll understand the reason behind things, even if I don’t agree with it. Kurt’s the guy out there yelling at the top of his lungs."
Focused frustration and blind rage come through loud and dear on Nevermind. Vacillating from being shimmery and hypnotic to brutally assaultive, the songs are brief flashes of violence and retreat - classic pop shrouded in amplified fuzz and elements of danger. If guitars could talk, Cobain’s would scream, melodically and irreverently, "What are you looking at?" And Grohl - who, as the group's fifth drummer, has finally given the band the propulsion it has always promised - bludgeons his drums like they owe him money. Grohl, who had previously played with the Washington, D.C, hardcore heroes in Scream, has helped solidify the band’s dynamic despite growing up far from the Seattle scene.
"Before I auditioned for the band, I talked to them on the phone, but I'd never met them," says Grohl. I'd seen them once backstage at a Melvins show, and I found them quite amusing. There was Chris, this big tall guy jumping all around, and then there was Kurt, sitting in the corner like he was taking a shit. He was sitting there, legs crossed, not even looking at anybody."
With Grohl in place and two years of gigs between Bleach and Nevermind, the startling collection of songs for the new album began taking shape. The entire disc cashes in on the promise of Bleach and the fantastic single "Sliver?’ Nevermind careens through Cobain’s world, from the subdued, then violent wail of "Lithium" to "Polly," the unnervingly stark acoustic rendering of a rapist tormenting his victim. More than sounding like us versus them, Nevermind sounds like me versus you. "A big factor has been a lot of political and social discontent;" says Novoselic. "When we went to make this record, I had such a feeling of us versus them. All those people waving the flag and being brainwashed, I really hated them. And all of a sudden, they’re all buying our record, and I just think, 'You don’t get it at all.’"
Yet another misunderstanding surrounding Nirvana is that the band plays, or even embraces, heavy metal - a myth perpetuated by reams of rave reviews from metal mags and an appearance on MTV’s Headbangers Ball, for which Cobain arrived wearing a dress, stating, "I'm dressed for the ball."
"Metal’s searching for an identity because it’s exhausted itself; so they’re going to latch onto us, says Novoselic "We’re not metal fans. There’s a lack of insight into anything higher on any level." Grohl agrees. "It’s the attitude that sets it apart," he says. "When you think of heavy metal, you think of sexist innuendos and pseudo-Satanism." Novoselic concurs. "A lot of heavy-metal kids are just plain dumb," he says. "I'm sorry. We’re heavy, but we’re not heavy metal."
Nirvana’s roots can be fairly easily traced to a stormy marriage of punk and pop. All three members are unabashed about admitting to pop childhoods (the CD of choice on the Nirvana tour bus is Abba's Greatest Hits), and all would be quick to tell you that strains of their music can be traced back to Liverpool. "When it comes down to pop, there’s only one word - the B word," says Grohl. "Beatles. We might as well just play fucking Beatles covers for the rest of our careers." Says Novoselic "They started it, they did it best, they ended it."
But while Nevermind nods at the melody of pop past, it's not likely that many Top Forty hits will contain squalls of feedback or a singer screaming like he's exorcising a lifetime of demons. And it’s less likely that a check of the charts will reveal titles like "Territorial Pissings" and "Drain You" or a song featuring Cobain shrieking: "I'm a negative creep. I'm a negative creep, and I’m stoned" (from Bleach’s "Negative Creep"). In the melt and marriage of their influences, Nirvana comes off sounding like the Sweet fronted by Jeffrey Dahmer.
The personalities of the two albums - Nevermind's blistering tunefulness and Bleach’s menacing immediacy - stem, in part, from the reality of the band's surroundings. "Bleach was recorded for $600 on eight tracks," says Novoselic. "We recorded in three days, hacked it in, hacked it out? The sense of urgency shows through. On Nevermind we were lucky to record in this studio from the Seventies. It was like a time machine. It was like an old pair of corduroys that was starting to wear out. Just like a studio Abba would have recorded in. We’d just stagger in late, then get intense with it."
The staggering intensity of public reaction, however, has thrown Nirvana into a tailspin. Since vaulting into the Top Five and going platinum in a matter of months, the band has been deluged with interview requests and promotional appearances, making band life a twenty-four-hour-a-day job. At an Amsterdam radio appearance, the production crew requested a gaggle of tunes from Nevermind. Without responding, the band played a Leadbelly cover and composed a new song on air, Cobam stopping at the beginning to say, "Wait a minute, I have to think of some words for this." Outdistancing the likes of Guns n’ Roses, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton and Metallica on the Billboard charts, it seems, has cast overwhelming shadows of doubt over Nirvana’s self image as underground, antimainstream operatives.
‘We wanted to do as good as Sonic Youth," says Novoselic. "We totally respect those people and what they’ve done. We thought we’d sell a couple hundred thousand records at the most, and that would be fine. Next thing you know, we go Top Ten. I wish we could have a time machine and go back to two months ago. I’d tell people to get lost." Grohl echoes the fact that Sonic Youth - whom Nirvana was opening for just a few short months ago - is the band’s measuring stick for integrity. "We can relate to Sonic Youth because we’re from the same school," says Grohl. "People ask us why they didn’t sell 500,000 records, and my only answer is that people are fucking stupid."
So, the good and bad news for Nirvana is that it is the first of the slew of indie bands that made the jump to a major label - from Sonic Youth to Dinosaur Jr to Firehose - to triumph in the mainstream, in large part due to the fact that it is the first band to deliver the goods. At a critical juncture of rock’s resurgence, hard rock and metal have garnered mass appeal but are no longer unnerving. Nirvana delivers intimidation in spades. From the video images of Cobain snarling to the album’s out-of-focus inside photo of his giving the finger - telling everyone who buys his record to fuck themselves - Nirvana has taken fans to an edge they seldom inch toward. And at the same time, the songs are familiar enough to offer an air of safety, however uneasy, that other bands can’t provide. You can actually hum the damn things.
The band now hopes that, once it has leapt into the mainstream, it might just gain the opportunity to subvert from within. "Our justification for all the attention we're getting is that, maybe, a lot of other underground bands will get noticed," says Novoselic. "That’s the only way we can deal with it."
With commercial rock success, however, comes commercial rock recognition. "Everyone is always asking if I'm afraid of the band’s success going too far," says Grohl. "That doesn’t really make any difference. I just don’t want to be David Grohl of Nirvana for the rest of my life. It’s like the kid who got caught masturbating in the bathroom of high school. That’s the only way he’s ever known."
The band members’ main dissatisfaction with their public portrayal is the media depiction of them as rock brats simply mirroring the nihilism they rail against, rather than concentrating on their sincere efforts to focus attention on such problems as sexism and repression. "There’s this saying, ‘What’s the value of preaching if man isn’t redeemable?’" says Novoselic. "I go back and forth on that, but basically, we’re total optimists. We don’t have any agenda. We can yell, ‘Revolution,’ and we can yell, ‘The middle class is fucked, go downtown and smash all the windows.’ But then what? There’s no agenda. All we are saying is ‘Be aware.’ There’s a lot of information out there. Use it."
Then again, this is still a band that got kicked out of its own record-release party. "No one wants to be under someone else’s control," says Grohl, before Novoselic jumps in quickly. "It’s, like, I have this hash and I'm going to have to give it away when we leave Amsterdam," he says. "There’s nothing wrong with it. I’m not going to hurt anybody. Authority and the whole policeman mentality is just fucked. I’ve been arrested before. I’ve had police come to my house. So many cops are just dumb."
Now as Nevermind remains rooted in rock's elite Top Ten and the video for its first single, the snarling anti-anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit," continues to log hours and hours of MTV airplay, the band remains slightly blinded by the spotlight and amused that the single’s revulsion of teen apathy is being construed as a youthful call to arms. "I'm looking forward to being older," says Novoselic. "I've got everything going against youth that I possibly can. I’m married. I'm losing hair. I heard somebody say that Nirvana is against the old generation. That’s not right. We’re just against the old guard."
Onstage in Amsterdam, the Belgium show two days forgotten, Nirvana is relentless - occasionally giving the hysterical crowd a chance to catch its breath just before punching it in the throat again. Novoselic bobs up and down barefoot across the stage as Grohl clubs his drums with the subtlety of a boot to the groin. Cobain, regular guitar out of commission, sports one with a sticker that reads "VANDALISM: BEAUTIFUL AS A ROCK IN A COP’S FACE" as he dives at a cameraman who is trying to film from the edge of the stage. The only explosion tonight is Nirvana erupting into the fiercest set in rock & roll, Cobain shrieking the final lines of "Territorial Pissings," the band’s bile-spewing antisexism rant, and then leaping over the drums, into Grohl’s aims, to be carried offstage. End of show. End of story. Enough said. "Any good review," says Grohl, "should just say, 'They got up onstage, they played fifteen songs, and they left. It was loud. People were slam-dancing. I went home with a headache. Nirvana.’ What more is there to say?"