Advertisement

COVER STORY : Storming Back From the Brink : The pressures of success nearly did in Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Now, after a break--and with a new album--he’s set to rock again. But don’t expect the elder statesman of grunge to be a role model or anything

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic</i>

As Kurt Cobain walks into the living room of his rented house, he’s made an odd choice in clothing. The most important new voice in American rock in years is wearing a black thigh-length thrift store dress over flannel longjohns.

“Wearing a dress shows I can be as feminine as I want,” he says, in a jab at the macho undercurrents that he detests in rock. “I’m a heterosexual . . . big deal. But if I was a homosexual, it wouldn’t matter either.”

As one of rock’s most celebrated figures, it’s easy now for Cobain to make such statements.

Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album, which has sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide since its release in late 1991, reflected the anger and alienation of young rock fans in a way that has led critics to hail Cobain, 26, as the voice of a new generation.

Advertisement

Even Beavis and Butt-head, the hopelessly moronic head-bangers on MTV, think Cobain (and all other Seattle rockers) is cool.

But there was a time--back in high school in nearby Aberdeen--when it was difficult for Cobain to express himself so freely.

In those days, he felt alienated from the other kids, most of whom didn’t understand why he wanted to paint rather than play sports or why he dreamed about getting out of Aberdeen someday instead of joining the other boys in thinking about taking over their fathers’ jobs at the timber mill.

So, Cobain isn’t just being provocative for provocative’s sake when he wears a dress or includes a pro-gay reference in a song. He feels deeply about the issue because he was frequently tormented by teens and adults in his hometown because he didn’t seem manly enough. He also was appalled by the misogynistic attitude of most of his male peers in the tough logging town.

Advertisement

It’s easy to see how Cobain was an easy target back then. He looks so frail physically and is often so withdrawn when he speaks that it’s hard to picture him standing up to a bully’s onslaught.

Yet there’s a deep-rooted intensity in Cobain that suggests an underlying fearlessness--even recklessness--in the support of his beliefs.

Further waving a red flag at rock’s homophobic contingent, he includes in the band’s upcoming album the line, “What else should I say / Everyone is gay.”

On the point, he adds, “I respect people who promote the way that they feel sexually.”

Cobain pauses, as if thinking back to those long-ago days in Aberdeen.

“Yeah, you know, there were a lot of Beavises and Butt-heads back there,” he says finally. “The only difference is they weren’t as clever as the guys on TV.”

It’s past 1 a.m. in the house about 15 minutes from Seattle’s downtown and Cobain has been talking since early evening about the pressures that could have destroyed him following the massive success of the group’s landmark “Nevermind” album.

“We couldn’t comprehend what was happening and we didn’t handle things very well . . . ,” he says, referring to late 1991 when the trio’s major-label debut sold a million copies in six weeks--remarkable considering the band’s record company expected sales of 200,000 tops.

Advertisement

“We had grown up admiring punk bands and thinking all those groups on the pop charts were embarrassing . . . and suddenly we were one of those bands,” Cobain adds. “So, we thought we’d better screw this up and we tried for a while.”

Igniting rumors of drug and alcohol abuse, the band caused chaos during appearances on British TV shows and was often surly and sarcastic during interviews in late ’91. It also thumbed its nose at the mainstream fans who were turned on to the band by MTV. There were even whispers that they were making a follow-up album so raw it would be unlistenable--a perverse joke on the group’s huge new audience.

The media attention on Cobain was especially intense because the album, which included the anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” combined the radical independence of the Sex Pistols with traces of the melodic grace and craft of Lennon and McCartney.

Adding to the media furnace over Nirvana was Cobain’s February, 1992, marriage to flamboyant punk star Courtney Love. The couple was widely characterized as the John & Yoko or the Sid & Nancy of the ‘90s, depending on your generational touchstone and the darkness of the tales heard about them.

The most incendiary public moment was a summer ’92 profile in Vanity Fair, which suggested Love knowingly took heroin while pregnant. Both Love and Cobain have furiously denied that, though the magazine stands by its story. Their daughter Frances is now almost a year old and apparently in good health.

Even before that article, Cobain had withdrawn, turning down tour offers so lucrative that the inactivity prompted additional speculation about serious personal problems, including a possible nervous breakdown.

The pressure was so bad, Cobain says now, that he thought often of quitting the band, but the closest he got was a series of late-night messages on Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic’s answering machine.

During the long interview in the living room of his rented lakefront home on this cool, cloudy night, you get a disarming sense of his and Love’s curious, eclectic tastes by looking over the collection of books and records in the house.

Advertisement

Hundreds of albums are strewn on the floor of the otherwise bare den, from Patti Smith and Love Battery to Led Zeppelin. A ‘50s novelty LP titled “How to Belly Dance for Your Husband” rests next to a Husker Du CD.

The dining room table is filled with stacks of books--from Charles Bukowski poetry to a campy book by former film star Arlene Dahl titled “Key to Femininity.” A copy of teen-oriented Tiger Beat magazine is next to a volume by existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett. The band’s MTV Video Award stands as a bookend by the phone.

Cobain describes the long layoff after “Nevermind” as essential. The young musician, who suffered from severe stomach pains during the months of extensive touring after the release of the album, says the time off helped him regain his physical and emotional health.

The trio went with record producer Steve Albini early this year into a Minneapolis studio that’s a favorite of Albini’s to record the most eagerly awaited album in American rock since Guns N’ Roses’ twin “Use Your Illusion” collections in 1991. The album, titled “In Utero” (“In the Womb”), is due Sept. 21.

In the interview, Cobain touches on everything from reports of drug addiction (true at one time, but no longer) to the nervous breakdown (false). But Cobain focuses in the calm of the morning hours on the factors that enabled him to avoid being another rock casualty.

“I have become a lot more optimistic,” Cobain says, sitting with bassist Novoselic. (Drummer Dave Grohl was out of town.) “Once something like marriage and a baby happens to a person, you find a lot of strength that you didn’t know you had.

“I still feel anxious doing interviews because I think the media beat us up pretty bad before, but I want our fans to know that I’m proud of this record . . . that it’s not some kind of joke. Music is too important to me to do that. In fact, there was a time when music was all that was important to me.”

Kurt Donald Cobain’s story is a familiar one in rock--a teen-ager growing up without much self-worth or hope until he finds in rock ‘n’ roll something to believe in.

When Cobain talks about the dreariness of life in Aberdeen, he sounds like Bruce Springsteen talking about growing up in dead-end Freehold, N.J., or Axl Rose telling about life as a restless, repressed teen-ager in Lafayette, Ind.

Compounding matters for Cobain was an unstable home life. His parents divorced when he was 9 and he spent his formative years being shuttled back and forth between relatives until none would take him. He sought refuge in the homes of friends’ parents or, for a while, under a bridge.

“I was a seriously depressed kid,” he says of his early adolescence. “Every night at one point I’d go to bed bawling my head off. I used to try to make my head explode by holding my breath, thinking if I blew up my head, they’d be sorry. There was a time when I never thought I’d live to see 21.”

Cobain is five years past 21 now and he channeled all those times of despair and rejection in Aberdeen into his music.

What makes him such a compelling artist is that he combines a questioning intelligence with irreverent, street-kid sensibilities. There’s sweeping imagination and craft in Nirvana’s music, but there’s no sense of affectation.

Life wasn’t always difficult for Cobain. He remembers his early years as sunny and upbeat.

“Up until I was 9, I felt I could become a rock star or astronaut or the president,” he says wistfully, his daughter’s toys scattered on the living room floor around him. “I had total freedom and a lot of support and love from my family--at least on my mom’s side.”

Cobain’s life changed dramatically, however, following the split-up of his father, an auto mechanic and tally man at the lumber mill, and his mother, who worked mostly as a secretary.

“I was embarrassed and I became really detached and quiet,” says Cobain, still speaking softly. “My mom would take me to school and I wouldn’t even look kids in the eye. I knew everyone knew that I only had one parent. That isn’t probably a big deal in a big town, but it is in a small town.”

But other forces were also darkening Cobain’s world. Constantly moving from house to house, Cobain became increasingly depressed. He couldn’t relate to the kids at school or what he characterizes as the anti-cultural attitudes in the town.

“I started getting in trouble, vandalizing, rebelling,” he says now, recalling the days when he often turned to alcohol and pot to escape the hurt. “I was never a bad kid . . . I was just disgusted and at that age, I couldn’t figure out why. The school counselor would tell me, ‘Try to fit in with people, dress the way they do, attend the dances, get into sports.’ That was always the big thing: Get into sports and your life is perfect.

Instead of sports, he found music.

The Beatles were Cobain’s first musical favorites, a love he picked up in elementary school from his mother. As he got older, he leaned toward harder, more aggressive sounds--bands as powerful as Led Zeppelin and as flashy as KISS. They are pleasures he shared with other kids in Aberdeen.

By the time of junior high, however, Cobain felt so cut off from his peers that he wanted something of his own--something that mirrored his independence and isolation. He found it in punk.

“The intensity, the aggression, the hatred ,” he says now, recalling the appeal of the punk recordings by bands such as Los Angeles’ Black Flag with words that reflect his own anger and alienation at the time. “You could hear a lead singer just scream at the top of his lungs. I felt that way. I wanted to die. I wanted to kill. I wanted to smash things.”

Cobain’s first hero and role model was Buzz Osbourne, a budding area musician who was a couple of years ahead of him in school. Osborne headed a band called the Melvins, which wasn’t technically a punk group at the time but was close enough to obsess Cobain.

The older boy also helped Cobain in another way: He introduced him to Novoselic, triggering in 1986 the start of Nirvana. (Returning the favor, Cobain produced four tracks on the latest Melvins album, which will be released Sept. 21 by Atlantic.)

Novoselic is a Gardena, Calif., native whose parents moved to Aberdeen in 1979, where he became as depressed as Cobain. He became so despondent, in fact, that his parents sent him to Croatia for a year during high school to live with relatives.

Cobain and Novoselic enlisted the first of several drummers and started practicing--hoping someday, maybe, to get a record on some small independent label. At first, however, they were just thrilled to be making music. They supported themselves through food stamps, sleeping on porches and working at odd jobs, including (for Cobain) being a chimney sweep at a nearby hotel.

The group, which built a reputation in the Tacoma-Olympia area, was eventually signed by Sub Pop, the Seattle label that was the home of a new punk ‘n’ metal form of rock they called grunge. The group’s first album, 1989’s “Bleach,” was recorded for less than $700, but it caused enough of a stir for major labels to get into a bidding war over Nirvana.

Seeing that Sonic Youth, the hugely influential alternative band, had been able to make the move to a major label without sacrificing its integrity, Nirvana--which now included drummer Dave Grohl--signed with Geffen Records’ DGC label, where the band became roster-mates with Sonic Youth.

Gary Gersh, who is now president of Capitol Records, worked closely with the band at DGC.

“What attracted me to them was the quality of the songs,” Gersh said in a separate interview. “Kurt is a singular voice and that is a rare thing.”

But even Gersh was astounded when the album zoomed into the national Top 10, knocking Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” out of the No. 1 spot in January, ’92. He also saw the mounting pressures--and the band’s sometimes unorthodox reactions.

One of Nirvana’s most colorful performances was at last year’s Reading music festival in England. There had been rumors for months that the band wasn’t going to be able to perform because Cobain was on the verge of dying from drugs.

So, Cobain dressed in a hospital robe and had a friend roll him on stage in a wheelchair. After struggling to get to the microphone, he sang the first few bars of “The Rose,” the mournful title tune from the Bette Midler movie about a self-destructive rock star, and then fell to the ground, pretending to have passed out.

Gersh wasn’t worried about the public antics or sarcastic interviews. “To me, it was rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “It was just Nirvana’s way of dealing with their own success.”

But he did see some troubling signs.

“What I did start to notice was that Kurt and the guys literally couldn’t go outside of their hotel without being mobbed. I could see where going from an underground band to adulation overnight took its toll.”

Speculation over the band’s future and Cobain’s drug use was so bad by September, 1992 that Cobain took advantage of a performance on the MTV Video Music Awards to send a message to his fans. Referring to the drug rumors, Cobain looked into the camera after accepting a best new artist award and said, “It’s really hard to believe everything you read.”

But the rumors persisted and Cobain broke a lengthy press silence when he spoke to The Times that same month to deny he was still taking drugs.

Sitting in a Hollywood apartment with his wife and 4-week-old baby, Cobain said, “I don’t want my daughter to grow up and someday be hassled by kids at school . . . I don’t want people telling her that her parents were junkies.”

Cobain seemed overwhelmed at the time, a bit wounded from all the pressures. He said he has used drugs, including heroin, but never as much as has been reported in the rock press.

There was something vulnerable and hesitant about Cobain at the time that made you wonder if he could really muster the strength to re-enter the rock ‘n’ roll wars. The recording process was complicated when notebooks filled with Cobain’s poetry--he says he pulls lines from the poetry for his lyrics--and tapes containing guitar riffs he had worked out for the album got destroyed when the water pipes in the Hollywood apartment broke.

Whatever the problems, the new album reasserts the energy and urgency of “Nevermind” without simply recycling it.

And the events of the last three years have added a new layer of commentary--including a sometimes wry sensibility. In the opening line of the new album, he screams: Teen-age Angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old.

Cobain may be more confident now, but controversies still flare up. One surfaced in May when underground record producer Albini claimed that Geffen Records had pressured the band into polishing up some of the album tracks because the company didn’t think it was commercial enough.

The band was so angered that it took out a full-page ad in the music trade Billboard to defend the record company. Gersh, who was the link between Geffen and the band, also denied any ultimatum.

Gersh said he gave the band his opinion of the album, just as he does on any project, and the band ended up remixing a couple of tracks. “But I made it clear from the beginning that we’d put out the record regardless,” he says. “Never did anyone at the record company say this isn’t coming out. That’s nonsense.”

More recently, the Cobains made news in Seattle when police responded in July to a domestic violence call and took Cobain into custody briefly after finding firearms in the house, but Cobain had a permit for the weapons and no charges were filed.

During the interview, he spoke warmly of his wife, Courtney Love, saying the relationship gives him the security and love that he lacked as a teen.

“She is stronger than me,” he says of Love, who was on tour in Europe. “If I had been attacked in the media as much as she was last year, I probably still wouldn’t have been able to even start picking up my guitar yet. All I can do is be supportive and try to defend her.”

How does Aberdeen feel about Nirvana these days?

There doesn’t appear to be a lot of interest in the new album in the band’s hometown, where many boarded-up downtown stores underscore the economic hard times of the area.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, none of the dozen teen-agers questioned on downtown streets said they were going to rush out and buy the collection. They didn’t look upon Cobain as any local hero or inspiration--the way young people in Freehold looked at Springsteen in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Kevin Kogin, 25, is assistant manager of Aberdeen’s main record store and he wasn’t surprised when told about the local teen-agers’ indifference.

“There was a lot of interest when the ‘Nevermind’ album came out because of the Aberdeen connection,” he says, standing by the counter at the Disc Jockey Record Shop in the South Shore mall. “But the novelty wore off and a lot of people were offended by some of what he said.

“But you know what? It was true. I don’t hate this town, but I understand what Kurt felt because Aberdeen is a hard place to be if you don’t fit in.”

Anticipation is much greater in Seattle.

“I think a lot of people were wondering after Albini’s comments if Nirvana had changed and was going to make a more polished, palatable second album . . . just to live up to the sales expectations,’ ” says Jonathan Pont, who writes for the Rocket, a Seattle rock magazine.

“But I’ve heard the new album and it’s obvious that it didn’t happen. I was very surprised. If anything, it’s more urgent . . . more like their roots than ‘Nevermind.’ ”

Whatever, Cobain doubts “In Utero” will come close to the “Nevermind” sales.

“When you are talking about 10 million people buying an album, there’s something more than music involved,” he says. “Most people just walk into Tower Records and look at the list of what’s selling and they just pick one of those. It’s just what is popular at the time and for a while, that was us.”

But the band is planning its most extensive U.S. tour ever in support of the album. Cobain worries that the stress of touring could cause a return of his stomach problems, but he says he has been in good health for months now, ever since he started taking medication and exercising nightly.

The tour, which will concentrate on 5,000-capacity venues rather than arenas, will begin Oct. 18 in Phoenix and extend through the end of the year, with Southern California dates in late December.

At the end of the night, Cobain grimaces when the question of role model--or spokesman for a generation--is brought up. The concept, he says, seems too self-conscious, too contrived. As a writer, he says, he’s interested in expressing his own inner feelings, not in penning slogans or rules to live by.

But what about being spokesman or an influence simply by example?

It’s easy to point to Cobain’s influence. Excited by Nirvana’s mix of musical urgency and eloquence, young rock fans sought out other new, alternative Seattle voices with a frenzy that made scores of veteran rock groups obsolete overnight.

It didn’t matter that these other “alternative” bands--including Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soul Asylum--weren’t in Nirvana’s league creatively or that they weren’t all really new or some even from Seattle. Just as their disenchanted parents looked for new political voices in the early ‘90s, young rock fans, too, sought new leaders.

Thanks largely to Nirvana, young America was not only caught up in the music of Seattle, but also embraced the grunge anti-fashion fashion, complete with flannel shirts and granny dresses.

Cobain smiles at the idea of being responsible for the grunging of America. But he’s not about to take a bow.

“Sometimes you wonder if anything has changed,” he says. “Just because everyone starts wearing flannel shirts doesn’t mean they think about the world any differently. If we had changed things, you’d hear a lot better music on the radio, wouldn’t you?

“I can’t deal with all that . . . the future of grunge in America and all that. All I can do is worry about our band . . . and keep from becoming another rock ‘n’ roll cartoon.” But can’t Cobain imagine his personal saga resonating with young people around the country who must feel as helpless and lost as he once did--kids who don’t fit in at school and who have been told again and again that they are worthless?

Cobain’s glare softens as he considers the question.

“Well, you do learn things and and one of them is that happiness has nothing to do with validation from other people,” he says. “The important thing is being happy with yourself . . . finding something that is important to you and sticking with it no matter what anyone says.”

He pauses, as if listening to his own words--and realizing it’s not as simple as it sounds.

“The truth is you’ve got to really be tough because there are all kinds of forces that are always trying to get you to do things their way . . . trying to tell you that you are throwing your life away if you don’t follow their advice,” he adds finally.

“I remember, back when I was moving always between relatives, that I lived with my dad again for about a week and in that week he made me pawn my guitar and join the Navy.

“I took the tests and I guess I scored pretty high because two nights in a row this recruiter came over and tried to get me to sign. I remember going downstairs trying to decide what I should do with my life and I came to the realization that I’d better go back and get my guitar. To them, I was just wasting my life. To me, I was fighting for it.”


Advertisement