- Rene Walczak
- Kurt Cobain
"My goal in life right now is to be a street musician," says Nirvana's
unproclaimed leader, Kurt Cobain, to an astonished music journalist.
"I just wanna travel to different cities and play music on sidewalks
and in subways."
Excuse me, am I hearing right? You are Kurt, aren't you? From the
fabulously popular band-of-the-moment, Nirvana? An irresistible
curiosity compels me to delve deeper into the reluctant superstar's
surprising sentiment. His seemingly irrational statement begins to
shape itself into a reasonable explanation of what this very hot
property, Nirvana, is all about.
"The whole commercial side of Nirvana is starting to disgust me,"
adds Kurt. "I feel like we're part of some grandiose marketing
machine, some kind of commercial gimmick. If I could get out of this
thing—leave the band—I would. But I'm under contract."
Simply unbelievable. But what a contract it is. Nirvana's latest album
NEVERMIND has scorched its way into Billboard's TOP 10 albums. The
furor surrounding this band has reached a fever pitch. The album's
first single/video "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has achieved the pinnacle
of commercial acceptance—heavy rotation on MTV. To the bewilderment
of many in the music biz, however, none of this seems to be very
important to Kurt and his bandmates, Chris Novoselic (bass) and Dave
Grohl (drums). They are apparently much more comfortable with the
artistic alternative scene of their past than they are with the
mega-metal-stardom pantheon of such giants as Guns N' Roses and
"I'm not proud of the fact that we have tons of MTV junkies and Guns
N' Roses lugheads at our shows now," laments Kurt. "These are the
kinds of people who are screaming out 'Do Teen Spirit' during
'Polly.' ["Polly" being a quiet, introspective acoustic piece about a
rape victim.] How are these pinheads going to appreciate the
subtleties of something like 'Territorial Pissings,' when they're
doing it themselves out in the hallways. It's about a violent female
revolution based on Valerie Solana's book, THE SCUM MANIFESTO. How
are these typical, macho American males gonna appreciate that?"
These are also the types whom Kurt is referring to in "Teen Spirit"—the grungy pop anthem chiding the complacency of the current Nintendo
generation, whose only major concerns seem to be how to impress the
opposite sex and when the next Gameboy cartridge will be available.
The message behind "Teen Spirit" is that there is no teen spirit. The
Lp's title, NEVERMIND, is meant to underscore this rampant apathy.
Even the album's cover (a baby under water being lured by a dollar as
bait attached to a fish hook) illustrates how a whole generation has
allowed itself to be bribed by consumerism run amuck. Taking all these
elements together, it's easy to empathize with Kurt's disenchantment
regarding the marketing end of the band's success—the gimmicks and
games that have to be played.
"We're not comfortable with the whole packaging of so-called 'rock n'
roll stardom'," says Kurt. "We don't like playing really large
venues. In fact, we've turned down a ton of offers to support various
'monsters of metal.' Let's just say I don't even want to be associated
with those kinds of bands. It's all clichés and calculated corporate
crap. The only reason we signed to a major label (Geffen's DGC) is
because they have better distribution and it gave us more money to
spend on proper production. It bothered us that people couldn't find
our records in stores. We've also gotten much better distribution in
Europe, where we have a pretty big following. Also, Geffen has never
tried to change us—musically or visually. I'm still wearing the same
old rags I did three years ago."
Nirvana sprang out of the same Seattle garage-music nursery (Sub Pop)
that spawned the likes of Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Their 1989 debut
album, BLEACH, caused quite a stir in the scum-rock underground.
Though Kurt describes the band's more recent music as "less angry and
aggressive" than the BLEACH material, there is a definite similarity
of style linking the two.
As the dominant songwriter in the band (in addition to being the
vocalist and guitarist), Kurt has the uncanny ability to mix melodic
pop sensibility with chaotic punk rawness. In Kurt's words: "It's the
Knack and Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black
With such a polyglot of influences, it's a real challenge trying to
predict where Nirvana might go with their next album, especially since
all eyes in the music-buying world will be watching intently.
"We won't really know what will happen until we actually start
recording," says Kurt. "Right now, we're too busy touring. We've
written some material, but until we actually arrange it, it's
difficult to know. We can go off in any direction—it depends on how
we feel. We just might come out with a Butthole Surfers or Sonic Youth
record—or maybe something folk—who knows." Both the Surfers and
Youth happen to be among Kurt's favorite bands. His personal tastes
remain very alternative, but where does he see Nirvana's place in the
rock universe, considering their new-found broad acceptance.
"Categories are pretty useless," says Kurt, "but being successful
doesn't mean you can't retain alternative sensibilities, take R.E.M.
for example. But let's face it, we enjoy eating meat too much, so
maybe that completely disqualifies us from being labeled alternative.
What self-respecting rule band these days would down as many chili
dogs as we do."
Kurt and company can gorge themselves on all the animal protein they
want, but it doesn't change the fact that they yearn for those simpler
days in the Seattle underground, when they could concentrate on their
craft without all the hoopla and unnecessary distractions.
"Even though we achieved whatever there was to achieve on the
underground level," explains Kurt, "it's really all we ever wanted.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not some ungrateful malcontent; it's nice to
have notoriety. But it would be refreshing someday to get back into
the independent scene and just become anonymous again. You know, get
away from it all and just do what we want."
Wouldn't it be really novel if that included strumming an old, broken
down acoustic guitar in some grimy, downtown subway station.
Also available on the Sub Pop label are Nirvana's BLEW Ep and "Love
Buzz"/"Big Cheese" maxi-single.
© Rene Walczak, 1991