Stepping offstage at Hollywood's Club Lingerie, Kurt Cobain looks like he's just gotten out of bed.
By Pleasant Gehman.
As Courtney swings back to the dressing room with her pal Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Kurt hangs close to the stage to watch Seven Year Bitch in action. He seems oblivious to the stares and whispers he's generating, but then it’s nothing new for him, not anymore. Since the release of Nevermind and Nirvana’s unprecedented rise to stardom, Kurt and his bandmates — bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl have had to learn to deal with this sort of reaction when they appear in public. It wasn't easy. One day they were just another scruffy underground combo, and the next every radio station in the world was playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It all happened without record-company hype, and their sudden popularity pretty much changed the way major labels, radio and MTV looked at bands in terms of commercialism and potential. Seattle, their adopted hometown, became a mecca for every kid with a flannel shirt, long hair, a guitar and a head full of clichéd dreams.
Everybody wanted the latest dirt on them, and everything they did was subject to intense scrutiny. Imagine the pressure. Controversy arose left and right—around the venues the band chose to play, things they said in interviews ("You know, when people write about you, everything gets screwed up," Novoselic says with a shrug) and the allegations, made last year in Vanity Fair, of drug abuse during the first trimester of Courtney’s pregnancy. At times things seemed to be spinning out of control. So they pulled back for awhile, out of the public eye, to regroup and build their strength.
Now, with the release of their new album, In Utero, the whole circus is set to begin again. This time around, though, Kurt’s more prepared. It used to bother him, all the attention, it used to scare him, but he’s getting used to it. He’s stepping back into the limelight with a record he’s proud of—"l know there’s no ‘Teen Spirit’ on it, and maybe it’s not as consistent as Nevermind, but we achieved the sound we’ve always wanted, and I’m really happy with it—and a baby daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, he’s even prouder of.
"She’s amazing!" Kurt says, dreamily. "One of the best things that ever happened to me, and very stabilizing." He pauses for a moment, then adds with a smile, "But don’t ... um ... make it seem like I’m all rich and married and settled. I mean, I am, but....
"Everything was really crazy for awhile" Cobain admits, reflecting on more-hectic times. "Everything happened so fast that we were scared of losing the people who had supported us in the beginning. I think that, for awhile, there was a general misunderstanding that we didn’t like our audience, when we were really just trying to describe how we felt at the time. When I became a father, a lot of my priorities changed. I talked about it, and things got misconstrued—a lot of things did. We were really confused, and I think that somehow it translated into, ‘We don’t like metal kids in our audience.’ That’s ridiculous! We were scared, hopeful and even defiant, because everything happened so quickly."
Nirvana’s history is familiar to most: In 1987 Cobain and Novoselic joined forces, gigging in the Tacoma, Washington, area. They recorded a few tunes with producer Jack Endino, which were passed along to Sub Pop Records, who released the tape as a single late in 1988. In 1989 Sub Pop released B/each, which had been recorded in three days on a $600 budget. Nirvana worked hard, touring constantly for a couple of years, and then began to think about making the move to a major label. They shopped a demo that eventually turned into the bulk of Nevermind, and a bidding war erupted. Geffen won, buying out the Sub Pop contract. Nevermind was expected to sell a couple of hundred thousand copies—maybe. What happened next shocked the hell out of everyone.
"Anyone who even thought a thing like that would have happened was full of shit," said Mark Kates, Geffen’s director of alternative music, in a candid interview late last year.
It was indeed phenomenal. Picture Cobain last year at this time, after an insane schedule of gigging, touring, rehearsing, taping television shows and filming videos. He’s lying on the floor of Nirvana’s rehearsal studio, surrounded by his breakfast—a 7-Eleven hot dog, a Kernel Crunch ice cream bar, a bag of Doritos, a Cup o’ Noodles, a large Hershey Bar and a soda—reading the Star because there’s a story on him in it. From the peeling paint on the walls to the mangy carpet to the report of Cobain’s exchange of words with Axl Rose in the tabloid, the whole scene is nothing short of surreal. Nirvana is just about to release Incesticide, their collection of demos and older songs, and the fans, grunge-hungry and dying for more, are rabid for it.
Flash forward to the present. With In Utero, it’s almost as if Nirvana has something to prove. Backlash seems inevitable, and, indeed, a controversy had tongues wagging before the record was even released, when reports circulated that Geffen wasn’t happy with the final mixes, and that Scott Litt (known for his work with R.E.M.) had been called in to remix the single "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies." Steve Albini, In Utero’s producer, known for his heavy-handed, uncompromising sound, alleges that the rumors came from Geffen, but Kurt downplays the whole incident. He also nixes the idea that the title of the album came from his daughter’s influence on his life, à la the Chili Peppers’ Mother's Milk and the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl.
"I’ve always been completely fascinated with medical stuff,’ he explains, ‘I collect models, charts and books. I probably would’ve wanted to be a doctor! I just think the name sounds good.
"I wrote about 70% of this record after everything started happening," he says, referring to Nirvana’s climb to fame, "and now that it’s been recorded and released, I’m relieved from all the anxiety and anticipation."
The 12-song In Utero definitely reflects a lot of what Cobain and the band have been through, from the disillusioned first lines of "Serve the Servants" on through "Rape Me" and "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," the story of an actress from Washington State, who, in the 1930s, was considered a subversive because of her involvement with the Communist party and her unwillingness to play by the rules of the major movie studios. Eventually Farmer was committed to a mental institute, tortured in the name of treatment and lobotomized. The band is tight on the album, threatening, and Cobain’s voice has grown more tortured, anguished and confused.
"I’ve been married for a while, and I have a beautiful baby, but there are still things going on in the world that piss me off!" he says.
Misogyny is one of them. Cobain is a confirmed feminist. "Pennyroyal Tea" (an herbal tea that is supposed to induce abortion) is a wrenching, agonizing song that deals with choices and consequences. In Cobain’s spare, open-to-interpretation words, a multitude of meanings can be found, and this might be one reason for Nirvana’s continued success. All the songs on In Utero have Nirvana’s unmistakable stamp—Grohl’s pounding drums, Novoselic’s heaving bass, Cobain’s nasal, hurt whine and those classic Nirvana chord progressions. From the hit-and-run of "Dumb" (an older song, Kurt says) to the babble of "Tourette’s" to the AM-radio-friendly "Heart-Shaped Box," this record is familiar when it chooses to be— without resorting to clichés or "formula" rifts—and at the same time manages to challenging listeners without alienating them.
Because Cobain wanted a little help reproducing the songs live, Nirvana is adding a new guitarist for the tour.
"For the past six or seven months I’ve been racking my brains, because we wanted to add a second guitarist," Kurt says. "We were thinking about the guitarist from Scratch Acid or maybe White Zombie, and then, all of a sudden, one day I stood up on the couch and screamed, ‘Duh!’ Everyone went, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘We should get Pat Smear,’ and everyone went, ‘You’re right!’"
Pat Smear is an L.A.-based guitar whiz who’s played with everyone from Hole to Celebrity Skin to Nina Hagen to MOR chanteuse Belinda Carlisle. He’s perhaps best-known, though, for his work with the Germs, the seminal Los Angeles punk band that recently released a career retrospective on Slash Records. [For a review of this disc and Smear’s solo album, see this month’s Ear Candy.] Pat’s aggressive guitar style was a huge influence on Cobain, and it seemed logical to involve him in the band.
"From the very beginning, it was perfect!" Kurt enthuses.
"As soon as we started playing together, I knew it was gonna work," says Smear. "They made me feel really comfortable. They were so nice. I heard all the rumors about the album—that it sounded like the Monkees or whatever—but it’s great playing with them. I love it." He pauses for a moment. "You know, it’s pretty weird, but I don’t really realize the magnitude of this, because I’ve known Courtney forever, and I’m still keeping my day job. I’m a clerk in a record store, but in my free time I fly to Seattle and play with Nirvana! Yeah, right!"
"He’s a totally nice guy, and it’s going to be such a relief to have him play with us," Kurt says. "It will really take a lot of the pressure off me live."
Nirvana plans to tour with pals like the Breeders, Hole, Tad and Sonic Youth, who took Nirvana under their wing early on for a European jaunt.
Cobain’s been getting into photography lately—he took the pictures for the "Heart-Shaped Box" single— and he’s also thinking of doing a full-length spoken-word record with literary legend William Burroughs, whom he recently worked with on a collaboration entitled "The Priest, They Called Him" on the Tim/Kerr label. There may also be a collaboration with his wife.
"I’m so much more at ease now," Kurt says, happily. "I don’t enjoy being a rock star, but I’m at least appreciating the positive points of it. I’m kind of looking forward to moving beyond playing four-chord guitar rock, I want to stretch and try something new, but without turning into a prog-rock band or anything— even though that’s what usually happens.
"I dunno," he says brightly, a tone of silliness creeping into his otherwise serious voice, "maybe we’ll just turn into the Butthole Surfers!"