Goodybe 'Teen Spirit', hello to the strange, anxious, visceral realm of 'In Utero'! Presenting the latest NME world exclusive, an insight into the domestic and creative life of rock's most enigmatic couple, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love - plus a world-beating preview of the follow-up to 'Nevermind'. While the music industry nervously anticipates the reaction to the new record, NME's Seattle correspondent, Brian Willis goes on a lunatic midnight mission to befriend Kurt 'n' Courtney, gets invited in for muffins and tea and is treated to a private airing of the planet's most eagerly awaited LP of 1993. So, here we are now, entertain us!
By Brian Willis.
The Off Ramp is the kind of club you find by accident. Tucked away from the rest of the city and situated next to the freeway, from a distance it looks like a pimple on a model's face. A long squat building dwarfed by silvery skyscrapers, it stands firm as the shadow of this slick city shadow looms over it with outstretched hands, threatening to squeeze this blatant little blemish off the face of Seattle.
The only indication of life is a small neon sign with a couple of naked women on it and the unambiguous words 'LIVE ENTERTAINMENT’. But the venue generates enough of a racket to compete with the heavy trucks trundling up and down Interstate Five. In fact, the noise soon overtakes those motorised monsters, flips them off and roars ahead of them. This is Seattle, after all.
And inside the Scene section of this afternoon’s Seattle Times, squeezed into the bottom left-hand corner of a page, there’s a small story that’s driven me here tonight. It concerns a ruckus at Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s house over some guns of his and the fact that they were jamming rather loudly in their garage. A neighbour complained. The cops arrived. They arrested Kurt. He spent three hours in jail and was released on $950 bail.
The police report stated that he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife - which Courtney denied. She claimed the argument started over the presence of guns in the house, but only after police asked them if there were any weapons on the premises. Kurt had recently bought three guns and Courtney didn’t want them in the house. The fact that the story broke nearly a month after the incident happened gives you a peep into the city of Seattle itself.
Seattle has more rock stars per square inch than anywhere else in the States right now. It’s no longer a city ... it’s a sound. As a result, the local press treat their rock glitterati with a certain amount of, well, respect. Nirvana, Pearl Jam. Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and the whole Sub Pop brood are responsible for busloads of wannabe slackers arriving here in search of the Holy Grunge. It’s a city of contradictions, too: on the one hand clean, white and middle class; on the other, the home of a dirty, post-punk music scene that desperately wants to be seen as redneck and trashy.
And while Nirvana were once the talk of the town, lips are now twitching about Engine Kid, another local power trio. Recently signed to Seattle indie C/Z Records, rumour has it their fate was decided over a bowling match between the C/Z staff and their equivalents at the mighty Sub Pop. C/Z won, obviously, and Engine Kid’s first single, Astronaut’, is just Out, a controlled, dynamic song that gives a sleepy nod in the direction of Slint, Codeine and Neil Young. Next, they’re on their way to Chicago to record their first album with — yep —Steve Albini. Small world, I guess...
Which brings us back to Nirvana, and that already much-discussed new album produced by Albini. Rumours have been flying around about its nature for months now, from the original stories of Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl making a resolutely uncommercial ‘punk’ record, to claims that Geffen had rejected Albini’s rough’n’ready work, to the news that Scott ‘REM’ Litt had been roped in for remixing and cleaning-up duties, right to the incontestable news that it’ll be released on September 13.
Considering all the stories nailing Courtney as a Grade A pain in the arse and Kurt’s often, ahem, erratic behaviour, I’m beginning to wonder whether trying to talk to them for the NME - to find out the truth about the new album and that arrest incident - is such a good idea. Basically, I’m getting paranoid.
But I digress. The Off Ramp’s jammed tonight, a sell-out, which forces Courtney to demand, "How many of you are here because of the story in the Seattle Times?" No comment. So she tears into ‘Teenage Whore’, and the crowd surge forward, flailing around following Courtney’s dictates. There’s no riot, though, just one woman being gently carried out of a side door by two bouncers. She tells everyone "My favourite band is Echo And The Bunnymen" - and means it - and ‘Beautiful Son’ is a definite highlight, but overall this is just a warm-up for Hole on safe territory, a mere flexing of muscles. Right at the end Courtney shouts, apropos nothing, "Frances Bean’s birthday is the same day as Madonna’s and Dan Peters (of Mudhoney)." And that’s it.
A few minutes later, The Off Ramp’s spilling its patrons on to the street and into the drizzle. Chris Novoselic towers above the crowd and dives into a cab. There’s Selene Vigil of 7 Year Bitch and Kat Bjelland’s husband, Stuart Gray of Lubricated Goat, but no sign of my targets.
Then Eric, Hole’s guitarist, comes out of the club carrying some of his gear. Cautiously approaching, I ask him if he could tell Courtney someone from the NME would like to talk to her. Obligingly, he disappears back inside. I wait.
After a few minutes he’s back, saying Courtney wants to take a look at me. We go backstage, past Kurt who is talking to some woman, and into a small back room where Courtney sits. She is dressed in a pink slip, white tights, white high-heel shoes and what looks like a mock fur coat. She looks tired and doesn’t seem to notice me. I’m momentarily lost for words, but fortunately Eric isn’t, shouting "Here’s the guy from the NME!"
It’s then that Courtney perks up. She turns her head in my direction and stares. I’m about to stutter "Hello", when a young woman sticks her head round the door and says, "It's time to go, Courtney."
I'm even more nervous now; will the story end here, so near and yet so far? My reverie's interrupted, though, by a polite voice: "What are your politics?" It's Courtney. She's walking past me towards the exit, without waiting for the reply, but I manage to draw level with a few quick steps. Politics, politics...
Before I can even think of an answer, she's asking another question: "What are the last three bands you've listened to?"
"The Fall's new album 'Infotainment Scan'."
Her face lights up. "I saw The Fall in 1982, in Manchester." The ice’s broken.
By now we’re outside in the car park, where Kurt’s waiting with a small group of people in the drizzle. Courtney goes up to him and explains that she wants to speak with me. He gives a quick glance in my direction. Like a fool, I smile. He suggests they give me their phone number, and we can talk later in the day, but Courtney tells him it won’t take too long. She wants, it seems, to ‘sort it out’ now. So Kurt agrees, a little reluctantly; it’s gone 2am, after all.
So Kurt gets into his family Volvo, when Courtney announces she wants to travel in my car. I explain that it’s parked a couple of streets away, but she doesn’t care, and we start walking. Along the way, though, Courtney wises up and stops, wanting to see some ID, a passport or something. She says I could be anyone, another Ted Bundy, another dangerous crazy ... and she’s right.
In January 1989, Bundy was fried in the electric chair in Strake, Florida for the murder of three young women. Before execution, he admitted to taking the lives of at least 35 more women from coast to coast ...and he lived in Seattle! And he picked up his prey in very similar circumstances, no doubt. It’s decided, sensibly, that I’ll fetch the car and meet her back at The Off Ramp.
Five minutes later I’m back at the club, parking the car in front of Kurt’s Volvo. Courtney asks me to write my name, license number and telephone number on a piece of paper ...which I do, and hand to a patient Kurt as he sits behind the wheel of his car smoking a cigarette. Straight away, Courtney puts her head through the open window and gives her dutiful husband a passionate kiss on the mouth that lasts a very, very long time. Perhaps it just might be a way of disproving the paper’s fight story before a journalist, but it certainly looks like love.
Anyway, everything seems to be settled, so we head towards my car, a 1966 Volkswagen Bug that looks its age. Courtney stops, stares at it for a second, then exclaims loudly, "Oh my God, it’s Ted Bundy’s car!" Shit ...Bundy used to pick up victims in a tan Volkswagen. I’m finished.
She slowly turns on her heels and walks back towards the only car left in the parking lot, containing members of Adickdid, the band who’d opened for Hole earlier. Once again, the interview looks doomed. But wait... Courtney’s coming back with a woman from the other car and says she’ll accompany us on our strange trip. But there’s another problem; the car only has three seats. The front passenger seat is gone, missing in action. I suggest Courtney takes a backseat, but she’s other ideas: "I’ll sit in the front, the rest of you can get in the back."
I begin to panic - yet again; there is, after all, no bloody front seat. But Courtney, without so much as a second thought, plonks her arse down on the metal floor of the car. In front of us, Kurt’s tail-lights dim as we finally hit the road, shaking and rattling.
Normally, to get remotely close to the most (in)famous rock ‘n’ roll couple of the ‘90s takes weeks of pained negotiations through a chain of press officers, managers, personal confidantes and personal prejudices. And now one’s a few yards ahead, amiably leading me to his home in the middle of the night, and the other’s happily slumming it sat next to me in a very unglamorous wreck of a car. For a pair so legendarily unapproachable, things tonight could almost get intimate...
Twenty-five minutes later, after a short pit-stop to pick up some cigarettes, we arrive at the home of Kurt, Courtney and Frances Bean. Their home is a modern, two-storey house with a view overlooking Lake Washington, perched in an affluent neighbourhood that mainly houses executives from Boeing and Microsoft. The kind of neighbours, in fact, who call the cops when they hear loud music.
We stop the car at the mail box, where Courtney’s psychic usually parks, and head inside. The first thing that strikes you is the amount of space. High ceilings stretch upward, over split-level and sparsely furnished rooms. In the main room there’s an antique couch with its back against one wall, facing a big television set. From the corner of the room I can glimpse a table full of naked baby dolls looking back at me with big sad eyes.
Kurt hasn’t arrived yet so we go into the kitchen, leaving the front room where a big playpen rests, surrounded by Frances Bean’s toys. I relax ... a little. The kitchen’s becoming a hub of activity, as the girls from Adickdid wander in and out, and Courtney asks if we’d like a drink. She puts the kettle on, warms the teapot and drops four Tetley’s teabags in. I’m beginning to feel almost a part of the family.
Then she grabs a stack of baby photos from the kitchen counter and thrusts them into my hands. While she pours hot water into the teapot and I flick through the family snapshots, she’s cottoned on to my Irish roots and is talking about the time she spent a term at Trinity College, Dublin, when she lived near St Stephen’s Green and often visited Bewley’s Coffee Shop.
Kurt arrives and goes upstairs while she’s busy putting some English muffins into the toaster. Happy as a lark, she’s decided she wants to play the new Nirvana album, so we go upstairs in search of Kurt, past the room where Frances Bean lies sleeping. Kurt claims the album’s in the CD player, but Courtney can’t find it. He lends a hand and, after a few moments, says, "Oh, it’s in the cassette player."
It is. While Courtney changes, Kurt talks about the Leonard Cohen show he’d been to before the Hole gig, mentioning that Cohen’s name is in one of the songs on the new album. He looks well and relaxed, comfortable in blue jeans, shirt and barefoot, his glasses gone. I’m standing in their bedroom, where there’s another TV, more antique furniture in the shape of a massive wooden dresser, and a walk-in closet that holds more shoes than Imelda Marcos ever dreamed she’d own. A pile of ornate jewellery looks lonely in the middle of the bathroom floor. Kurt seems at ease, and I’m wondering if anyone is going to believe a word of this.
Courtney returns, so we head back downstairs and, after a little difficulty trying to get the tape deck to work, myself and Courtney sit cross-legged on the floor. An avalanche of records surrounds us; Sub Pop singles of the month, Kleenex, Opal, Mudhoney, even Suede is here, PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid Of Me’ is on the turntable, and a few books are scattered on the carpet; John Steinbeck, Jean Paul Sartre, William Burroughs’ Queer. Kurt grabs a book by Leonard Cohen, looks at us bemusedly and retreats upstairs. Courtney lights a cigarette. And, with cups of tea in hand and a big plate of muffins and marmalade in front of us, we wait for someone to press the ‘Play’ button on the tape deck...
The album is called ‘In Utero’, meaning within the womb — not yet born. For Kurt, it represents a trip back to the womb and, listening to it, it’s obvious he’s done some deep soul-searching, with cathartic and at times manic results. The lyrics are personal, often ambiguous, and even playful. If ‘Nevermind’ was a record with a mood dictated by external events during recording — by the horror and tension of the Gulf War — then ‘In Utero’ is much more inward-looking, the product of emotional turmoil and enormous pressure. Perhaps, in that way, it’s the classic follow-up to an unexpected success.
A number of the songs, to that end, deal with a lot of issues and reflect some of the experiences Kurt has had over the last two years: drugs, marriage, his wife, his child, love, success, stardom, fame and everything in-between that influenced his life. If Freud could hear it, he’d wet his pants in anticipation. In spite of the title, ‘In Utero’ showcases a significantly older and more experienced Cobain, who’s taken the time to delve into the dark recesses of his soul, dug around a bit and lived to tell the tale. Everything, his own raw material, has been used to create an album pregnant with irony and insight. 'In Utero' is Kurt's revenge.
"Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I'm old and bored." The fist words of the first track, 'Serve The Servants', are a fair indication of what's to come. Kurt refused to have it remixed, refused to tamper with its jab at 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', the song that propelled the band to fame, fortune and, perhaps, misfortune too. Next, 'Heart-Shaped Box', set to be the fist single, which is a ballad that goes out to the ones he loves. "She eyes me like a Pisces, when I am weak," he sings. "I've been stuck inside your heart-shaped box / I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black / Meal eating orchids forgive no-one just yet / Wrap myself in angel hair and baby breath." Personal? Sure. Maybe it's the work of a happily married father, the introvert to Courtney's extrovert. Right now, it seems like the perfect balance.
But what about the sound? Well, it still has the trademark Nirvana sound of ‘Nevermind’. The opening slow bass, the drums that build upward until it all comes crashing down are still there on a couple of tracks, almost in an attempt at self-parody. It lacks the raw production qualities of ‘Bleach’, but still has a noise level that can move from quiet to the blare of an impending storm warning.
Steve Albini’s left his mark, too — even if the overall sound is a smoother job than ‘Rid Of Me’. And given his past life on Rapeman, perhaps the track ‘Rape Me’ is a touch ironic. Anyway, it’s a blistering rant, with an intro uncannily similar to ‘Teen Spirit, that’s probably the most immediate song on ‘In Utero’ and a possible later single, during which Kurt fights to be heard over the guitars, and ends up screaming "RAPE ME! RAPE ME! RAPE ME!" An instant classic.
Courtney leans towards me and whispers, "There’s a song on the album about Frances Farmer getting her revenge on Seattle (Titled, aptly, ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’). Kurt believes that when Mount St Helens erupts again it will be Frances getting her own back on the city. The song is so feminine. Men don’t often write poetry equating women with nature." Farmer was from Seattle, and the tormented actress was placed in a mental institution by a Seattle judge for so-called anti-social behaviour. Mount St Helens is a volcano about 100 miles south of Seattle who last blew her top in the early ‘80s. Little Frances Bean is named after the actress.
‘Tourette’s’ again sees the singer spectacularly unhinged, in a song named after the French doctor who first diagnosed the syndrome of losing control over what you say and end up swearing nonsensically (The same doctor and syndrome, incidentally, that inspired ‘Symphony Of Tourette’ on the recent Manics album). The track’s a real wall of noise, hammered home by three simple lyrics; "Shit, piss, fuck". ‘Penny Royal Tea’, meanwhile, was co-written with Courtney and was played on last autumn’s European tour. "It’s about a method of inducing abortions," she explains. "It’s been around for years. I’m going to record a version of it for my album, too."
My ears buzz and my head aches. It’s powerful stuff, the sort that makes you feel embarrassed, prying, as if you’re tapping into someone else’s confession. But the tape keeps rolling, and I keep listening intently. Kurt’s voice blasts out of the speaker: "What is wrong with me?! Blanket acne‘d cigarette burns! Take it once and taking turns! If you need anything don’t ask me." The song’s punky, provisionally titled ‘What Is Wrong With Me’ and is about drug addiction. The last track’s called ‘All Apologies’ (previewed at the Reading Festival last year). A relatively pretty little thing where Kurt warbles - yes, warbles - "What else can I say?! Everyone is gay!" There are a couple of B-side tracks, one of them titled ‘Moist Vagina’... Enough said.
After all the rumours, both record company and fans will breathe a collective sigh of relief when they hear ‘In Utero’. This is emphatically not an unmarketable album; Albini’s production is nowhere near as murky as usual and, while there’s nothing quite as outstanding as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, there are ‘Lithium’s in abundance. Ultimately, imagine the schizophrenic light and shade of ‘Nevermind’ with the full-tilt grunge-outs of ‘Bleach’... That’s ‘In Utero’.
The tape comes to a halt. Silence. It’s Sam. Kurt speaks: "We were just on the news, on MTV. They were talking about the story in the Seattle Times and how Hole have just started their world tour in Seattle at The Off Ramp," he says with a smile and a hint of irony. "They even played some of the William Burroughs stuff, but the guitar just sounded like 'gurrr'."
What's this? A sense of humour from the man who wanted to call the Nirvana album 'I Hate Myself And I Want To Die'? He walks into the kitchen and puts some bread into the toaster. I follow. As we wait for it to pop up, I ask how much of the album has been remixed.
"Just two; ‘Penny Royal Tea’ and ‘All Apologies’. Both were remixed by Scott Litt."
He’s buttering the toast now. Does he plan to continue living in Seattle?
"Yeah. There are just two places in the world where I’d live, Seattle or Scotland."
What part of Scotland. I enquire, thinking maybe Aberdeen.
Kurt looks at me as if it’s one of the strangest questions he’s ever been asked. "I don’t know, probably Edinburgh."
Before he can take a bite of his toast, I ask about one of the pictures currently being considered for the cover of 'In Utero' - a woman with a pair of wings and her arms held out. You can clearly see the different organs of the body; the heart, rib-cage, veins, the works.
"It's not a picture, it's a model," Kurt corrects. "It's in some museum but there may be some legal hassles over it. I’m not really sure."
Later I find out the model was originally in the Smithsonian Museum Of Science, is known as Brunnhilde: The Transparent Woman and is used by children to learn about different parts of the female anatomy. If you want to see where the heart is, for example, you push a button and it lights up on the body. Kurt added the wings.
Time to leave. The birds are singing outside, and Courtney is almost asleep on the couch. But she’s still alert enough to talk about the Seattle Times story ... after all, it's partly why I'm here. "We were jamming in the garage, Kurt was on drums, and a neighbour called the cops. Six cops arrived and we started arguing when they asked us if we had any guns in the house. Kurt said no and I said yes, and we began to fight, so the cops arrested Kurt. I don't want guns in the house, maybe one but not three. We hardly ever fight —no-one could ask for a better husband. He went on the cover of The Advocate (a national US gay and lesbian magazine). He’s a feminist."
Kurt is sitting at the dining room table with four slices of toast and a cup of hot chocolate. I thank him for the tea, the album... shit, the everything.
"No problem. Sorry about all the stuff at the beginning..."
No apologies are needed. When I leave, he’s dipping his toast into the hot chocolate, looking out of the window as the sun rises over the lake. For someone who's been through so much shit in the past two years, whose name's being dragged through acrimony once again, who's about to release a record the whole rock world's desperate to hear and be faced with astonishing attention and pressure, Kurt Cobain's a remarkably contented man.