It's June 1991, mere months before the revolution, and Kurt Cobain is wrestling with what then seemed like a preposterous dilemma
"I don't see Nirvana getting as big as Metallica or Guns N Roses," he says backstage at a Hollywood Palladium gig supporting Dinosaur Jr. The clamour of the evening's openers, a caustic, mostly female, grunge-noise called Hole, is echoing all around as they soundcheck.
"There's just no way those people would like us," Kurt stresses. "And we're not gonna shut up about some of our ideas, no matter how cliched they are. I just can't accept that mainstream macho-dickhead attitude. I wouldn't be comfortable having that many people in my audience every night that are like that, and there's nothing I'm doing about it. "It's almost unfair. It's like ripping them off and not caring about your audience. I really care about our audience. I know that they have pretty much the same views that we do." The little band that almost no one had heard of from Aberdeen,Washington, were already big news at Geffen, the label that had just signed them for a reasonable $275,000.
No one was more excited by the prospect of bringing the SubPop hair-shock to the mainstream than Cobain - he just wanted to be as big as, say, Sonic Youth, maybe the Pixies. "I think that as many people in the world as possible should hear punk rock," he admits, changing his tune. "It really doesn't matter if it's being exploited or not. I guess it's better to try and compromise rather than saying, 'Fuck the oppressors and fuck everything that's gluttonous and everything that we disagree with'. Let's just try to work together and do something with it."
Kurt scampers off to watch Hole. In retrospect, if all seems somehow apocryphal, strange and ironic.Just a year and two months later, Nirvana haven't just 'made it', they've MADE IT. Not just big, but REALLY BIG. In the US, four-times Platinum big and climbing, with God knows how many copies of the brilliant 'Nevermind' sold worldwide without the usual shameless self-promotion, baby-kissing, et al. Smells like a success story.
They were the band i deemed "most likely to" by SubPop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, when they had just a single out and were just another name among the Seattle underground which would also spawn Soundgarden, Mudhoney, etc. Since then, they've overtaken the likes of Metallica, U2 and Guns N' Roses in the charts and on MTV, devoured magazine front covers, and turned down tours with everyone from Rush to Axl and co. They've even been parodied by Weird Al Yankovic and had their own comic book.
Maybe it was something everyone was waiting for and no one had gotten right till then. That's what Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore thinks."Nobody really did anything, they just put the record out. They were on tour with us at the time," the lanky guitarist recalls. "It was what people were waiting for, the best of Metal meets the best of REM. It's been building up through the years, from REM to Husker Du to Black Flag. Nirvana came along and delivered the goods - they made the Cars album, the Knack album, for punk rock. It was very pop but very honest and very authentic of the whole American punk rock ethic."
Something that Bon Jovi with his hard-rock swaggercandy or the idiosyncratic Guns N' Roses weren't. Blame it on Nirvana making a great record, one that was instantly pop-friendly yet uncompromisingly eerie, challenging, thrilling,trrifying. Nirvana's label only pressed up 40,000 copies to begin with. So much for lofty expectations! "Let's face it; Geffen and thier management were basically smoking cigars with thier feet on the desk when it all went up!" Thurston sniggers.
Not even a year ago, was rock so fresh and invigorated with a flood of new band like the Afghan Wigs, Wool,Surgery, Polvo, Cell, Big Chief, Therapy?, Superchunk and virtually anyone with a loud guitar and a shred of indie credibility being offered outrageous major label deals and being touted as 'rock's new hope'? Ask Page Hamilton, guitarist for New York noisters Helmet, whose name is still being bandied about by A&R men as 'the next Nirvana' and who netted a cool seven-figure deal with Interscope after a bidding war involving every major label going and absurd quantities of cashola. Hamilton: "We were talking to a few labels right around the time the Nirvana record came out - then everything exploded. We should send them a thank-you card, maybe a fruit basket!"
Cut to the present. It's a Lollapalooza Summer and underground stalwarts like Sonic Youth Rollins Band, L7 and Babes In Toyland are more prominent than ever before. Even the mind-rattlingly unaccessible Melvins have recently inked a deal with Atlantic, with fan and roadie Cobain rumoured to be taking a hand in the writing of their next album! It's a new punk nation rising, and Nirvana are largely to blame.
"The doors are wide open," Moore reckons. "Nirvana going multi-Platinum changed the outlook of almost every A&R geek in corporate labeldom was getting cassettes from all these major labels of records for him to remix to sound more 'alternative'. it was such horrible shit. He was like, "We should keep the vocals and have you guys play on top of it." Sugar's Bob Mould, one of the pioneering voices in this fairy tale of grunge, who blazed the trail for the tuneful trio with his band Husker Du, ' finds the whole 'post- Nirvana' climate ludicrous. "Nirvana touched a nerve, MTV jumped on it. MTV made 'em, simple as that. Is it gonna happen again? I doubt it," reckons Mould, who opted to sign Sugar with Creation, a strong indie, rather than jumping on the 'post-Nirvana' major label gravy train.
"I think you're gonna see a lot of labels go under, absolutely and completely under," Mould sighs. "A lot of these custom labels that are attached to majors are gonna be the first to go. What's going on now isn't healthy, and I don't think it's a secret how much a few of these bands that are putting their first records out on majors right now have got for their deals.
"I'm appalled. I'm appalled that they would take that kind of money knowing that they would probably never make it back."How is the Helmet record doing? Is it gonna sell a million? The whole Nirvana thing is both a blessing and a curse. It opened the door for a lot of bands, but most of the bands aren't ready for it."
Ironically, when the storm of fame, fortune and umpteen record sales hit, it was the ability to give that sort of exposure to the scene that spawned them that so excited Nirvana."That's the most flattering part of it, being able to take some totally great bands along with us," Kurt reasoned on the band's last UK tour. "Bands like the Melvins, Shonen Knife, Captain America, Urge Overkill, some really great bands."
"The big corporate ogres have finally realised that a lot of these bands are a viable commodity, so there's plenty of incentive for them to cash in," believes Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic. "Besides, the old guard could only be around for so long. That's always been the nature of rock 'n' roll - to progress and let new things come in. Major labels and rock radio have denied it for so long, they finally have to give way. "Imagine if Black Fiag sold a million records - like they should have," Novoselic continues, excited by the prospect. Imagine what kind of social value that would have! It just seems like things are really consistent in the mainstream with Tv and music; it's all become kind of sterile. People would be less inclined, less doped up, because they've been fed such shit by the media for so long."
Since the gold rush, the media's been both friend and adversary to Nirvana, turning them into something they never intended or particularly wanted to be pop stars."You're constantly being told you're number so-and-so with a bullet on AOR radio and blah, blah, blah," groans drummer Dave Grohl. "What are you supposed to do? Jump up and down and clap your hands?" "What's really funny are the meet-and-greets backstage after a show," adds Cobain. "They're just hilarious, because all the record and DJ geeks come back and say, 'Hey, you beat out Metallica on the requests the other day'. "How am I supposed to react to that? What am I supposed to say- 'That's exactly the reason I wrote that one song!'?"
Dave: "It doesn't even matter. All this is like an extra-curricular activity that's my favourite catch phrase at the moment."
Since then, it's all gotten stranger - particularly for the three individuals at the centre of it all.
Live dates have been sparse, just a few European shows to make up for gigs the band had to cancel late last year due to Kurt's ill health.
Dave Grohl has been recording a tape of solo material, highlighted by a chaotic speed jam entitled 'Weenie Beanie'.
Chris has been involved with various grassroots groups in Seattle area, while Kurt is currently residing in LA with wife Courtney Love of Hole. The two tied the knot at a small service in Hawaii in February this year and are currently awaiting the birth of their first child. Of course, there's trouble in paradise, with the flood of malicious stories that have plagued Nirvana, particularly Kurt Cobain, since the band's rapid rise. Drugs? The scurrilous Sid and Nancy-style tales of binges and experimentation, exacerbated by a recent story about Love in Vanity Fair magazine. Who gives a shit, really?
Cobain has denied that he is a heroin addict. He's just never been among the healthiest of people anyway.
"It's quite astounding that Nirvana achieved a certain visibility; there's been a massive amount of people who felt that they had to take a stand on them," says Reuben Radding, a long-time friend of Dave Grohl's who played in the DC Hardcore band Dain Bramage with the drummer, and still remains in contact.
"Either they're pro or con but in a very adamant way, people who otherwise would never have thought about them or cast an opinion.
"They would have otherwise been just another rock band to these people, but because of their visibility everyone felt they had to make some kind of moral choice. I find it very curious.
"I look around and I see lots of people either defending them, who would never thought of defending them, who are doing it because they've become a current event more than a band it seems people see someone attain a successful level and they don't trust that.
"But that's also true of the guys in the band. They seem to be the same way, yet they're also in the strange dichotomy of being there. That's not lost on them."
So where next? This week, Reading. Tomorrow? All indications point to Nirvana returning to the studio, pronto, to record the followup to 'Nevermind'. Demoed material is reported to find the band straddling the melodies that made them a household name with the grunge of their first album, 'Bleach'.
No, they aren't about to self-destruct. Will they continue to be the object of Michael Jackson-esque derision and speculation? Will they make an album that no one even gets? Who cares? Nirvana just seem more set to get back to the business of just being in a band.
Thanks to MOLE for this interview.