Rene Walczak
Kurt Cobain
Publisher Title Transcript
Propaganda Reaching Nirvana Yes

"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 Metallica.

"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 Sabbath."

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