LIVE NIRVANA INTERVIEW ARCHIVE July 25, 1993 - New York, NY, US
- The Stud Brothers
- Kurt Cobain
|Melody Maker||Dark Side Of The Womb: Part 1||Yes|
|Melody Maker||Dark Side Of The Womb: Part 2||Yes|
At bloody last! After months of speculation, controversy, title-changes, track-swapping, and the Steve Albini-inspired melodramatics over whether Geffen would even put it out, NIRVANA are finally set to release 'In Utero', the follow-up to 'Nevermind'. So what's it like? Is it just a tame re-run of its 10 million-selling predecessor? Or is it a provocative noise fest, a sonic punk blast designed to piss off everyone except their hardcore fans? THE STUD BROTHERS tracked down a tired and emotional KURT COBAIN in New York for the answers to these questions and more in the first part of an exclusive in-depth interview.
"My A&R man called me up one night and said 'I don't like the record, it sounds like crap, there's way too much effect on the drums, you can't hear the vocals.' He didn't think the songwriting was up to par. And having your A&R man say that is kind of like having your father or stepfather telling you to take out the trash.
"I was kind of hurt by it on a personal level, because I wanted him to like it, and it was surprising to hear so many negative things about it. And he wasn't alone in his opinion. A few other people—our management, our lawyers—didn't like the record either."
He sounds distant, ghostly, and he looks unsettlingly strange. Sitting at the head of a huge conference table in New York's Omni Berkshire hotel, the top of Kurt Cobain's dangerously thin frame is wrapped in a rib-huggingly tight pink nylon shirt. His pale blue eyes, pinprink pupils dancing paranoiacally from left to right, are heavily, sluttishly made up. His mouth, bearing the remnants of scarlet lipstick, seems both vulgar and sensual. The beard doesn't help much. Kurt's fingernails, painted crimson, are chewed down to neurotic cuticles.
He's also tired, immensely tired.
When he settles a little, his eyelids close to reptilian half-moons. Kurt has spent three days doing The British Press. Or, rather, three afternoons, since he rarely surfaces before two pm, and three nights.
He's also spent about the same length of time dodging the press, largely, we think, on the advice of his wife, Courtney Love, who's made a mental blacklist of hacks deemed unsound and told Kurt to avoid them.
Kurt delays them, fights with Courtney, then meets them and apologises profusely for having kept them waiting for the last 48 hours.
We're talking to him about "In Utero", Nirvana's third album.
"In Utero", originally titled "I Hate Myself And I Want To Die", generated controversy almost before it was even written. Many in the music industry had convinced themselves that the pressure on the singer to follow up the 10-million-selling "Nevermind", coupled with Cobain's alleged drug problems and the (supposedly) even more pernicious influence of his wife, had left him creatively void.
Given this, pop pundits speculated that "In Utero" would be a petulant punk cop-out, an album designed to excuse its lack of sales, an album that would lose them their fan-base as quickly as "Nevermind" had gained it. It would be The Beastie Boys all over again.
This idea was lent some credence when, earlier this year, the album's producer, Steve Albini, gave an interview to the Chicago Tribune wherein he claimed that Nirvana's label, Geffen, had put pressure on the band to "clean up" tracks recorded by him. A month later, he repeated these allegations in the international publication, Newsweek.
Kurt Cobain responded by telling Newsweek, Melody Maker and anyone else who cared to listen (which was everyone) that, though the band did indeed intend to remix some tracks from the album, it had nothing to do with pressure from the record company.
In May, Albini, in an interview with Melody Maker, adopted a more conciliatory tone. "Right now," he explained. "we have national and international publications writing news stories about rumours of people's opinions. All of that, to me, marks irresponsible journalism. From now on, people should just speak to the band."
Which is what we're doing now. And, from what Cobain's saying—A&R men, lawyers and management saying the album was crap—Albini sounds like he had a point.
"No, no," says Cobain, wearily. "The whole thing was Steve's fault. He initiated the whole problem by convincing himself that people were out to get him, to discredit him. He's a paranoid person in general. He's told me a lot of terrible stories about how he's been f***ed around by major labels, how they've insisted on remixing the stuff he's done, so it's understandable. But he really had no reason whatsoever to be as paranoid as he was.
"Basically, he heard from me—about a week after we got back from recording—that my A&R man had said he didn't like the record. But the thing to understand is that it never went beyond that, just these people expressing their opinion. There was no hint or threat, no suggestion came from any of these people that we should re-record.
"Obviously, though they never said it, they wanted us to re-record, or at least re-mix, but at that time I couldn't really say much to anyone because I wasn't sure myself what I wanted to change on the album.
"The first time I played it at home, I knew there was something wrong. The first whole week I wasn't really interested in listening to it at all, and that usually doesn't happen. I got no emotion from it, I was just numb.
"So for three weeks Chris and Dave and I listened to the record every night, trying to figure out what was wrong with it, and we talked about it and decided the vocals weren't loud enough, the bass was inaudible and you couldn't hear the lyrics. That was about it.
"We knew we couldn't possibly re-record because we knew we'd achieved the sound we wanted—the basic sound was typical Steve Albini, which was the sound we wanted really bad. So we decided to remix two of our favourite tracks, just as a litmus test, and we left it at that because to remix any more would've destroyed the ambience of the whole thing."
"We decided to take a chance on mastering, which we really didn't understand. We thought it was the last stage in the process where you just take the tapes in and run them through a machine that allows you to cut it onto a record, or whatever. So we went to the mastering plant and learned that you can actually take the vocals right out if you want to. It's amazing, it's practically like remixing."
"So that's what we did ,we just gave the bass more high-end so you could hear the notes, turned the vocals up, maybe compressed it a little, and that did it, cured everything. As soon as we'd done it, we knew we'd made the right decision, it was over. And now I wouldn't change anything on it, I'm 100 per cent satisfied."
The two tracks remixed (by Scott Litt, who produced the last four R.E.M. albums) were "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies"—both potentially enormous singles. The remastering of the album was carried out by the band themselves. As Cobain admits, remastering is "practically like remixing".
Can't he understand why Albini is angry?
"I don't think he's angry any more. I just think he was trying to protect himself before he had any evidence that he was being f***ed with. Like I say, it's understandable because he's told me some really nasty stories about what's been done to him. But, still, I can't help but resent him for jumping the gun."
This is all somewhat surprising given that Cobain was fully aware of Albini's "difficult" reputation. Cobain actually said of him: "He's made a career out of being anti-Rock Establishment." Blast First supremo, Paul Smith, one of Albini's closest friends, remembers walking down a street with him once in Chicago—"Within two blocks, three people had yelled, 'F*** you, Albini!"' Reasonable pragmatists do not front bands called Rapeman.
If the biggest band in the world invites a man like Albini to produce their album, they surely don't have to be mystics to realise that at some point, in some way, he's gonna f*** with them.
"Well, I don't really think that necessarily follows," says Cobain. "I've always respected him as a producer, mainly, probably solely, because of the Pixies record and the Breeders record. I found him to be surprisingly pleasant when we showed up in Minneapolis, didn't find anything wrong with his personality. I just think he worked too fast for our tastes, especially when mixing. He wanted to mix a song in an hour. He has this theory that if something you transfer onto tape isn't immediately satisfying to you there's no point remixing, you might as well throw it away and start again. I don't know why he's so against mixing but he is, and we're not used to working like that anymore.
"With our first record, we had to work that fast and we were lucky to achieve that sound, which turned out to be unique."
Have you spoken to Albini since?
"No," he says, firmly. "I don't have any desire to talk to him again."
"In Utero" is not a difficult album. In fact, even the recent Melody Maker preview of it exaggerated its peculiarities, If anything, Cobain's songwriting is moving towards the more considered and melodic.
Some songs—notably "Rape Me", "Serve The Servants" and "Dumb", each of them simple, compelling and extraordinarily mellifluous—would sound as effective framed by the delicate timbre of an acoustic guitar as they are electrified. On the album's final track, "All Apologies", the warm tones of a cello are even audible.
Of course, as with "Nevermind", there are out-and-out punk tracks. Some are very effective, like the primal "Scentless Apprentice", others are not much more than a (rather dull) blast of bile, like "Very Ape" and "Tourette's".
Overall, it's a more refined album than "Nevermind" in that the songwriting's more sophisticated, though it lacks the crystalline clarity producer that Butch Vig afforded its predecessor. Like "Nevermind", "In Utero" is not a particularly radical album. Its subversive qualities will be largely dictated by the number of people who buy it.
So was there ever a temptation, as was rumoured, to record something more contentious?
"Not so much," says Cobain. "Obviously there was a lot of pressure on us to come up with 'Nevermind II'. But I can't consider that to be pressure, it was just what a lot of people expected. The only reason I would've put out a really aggressive, raw album would have been to piss people off, to get rid of half of our audience and more"
Why would you want to do that?
"Because at the time we weren't comfortable with our audience."
Are you more comfortable now?
"Yeah. But it took me two years to recuperate from that."
Following the success of "Nevermind", Cobain, bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dove Grohl spent unhealthy amounts of time deriding their new audience, dismissing them as jock meat-heads. At the time, it struck many as ungrateful and, more to the point, actually seemed to miss the point.
Surely one of the great things about Nirvana was that they recorded an indie album that went mainstream and, in doing so, proved that the great record-buying public, far from being congenitally conservative, were in fact open to new ideas. Nirvana proved that things didn't have to stay the same, musically at any rate.
Do you regret saying any of those things now?
"Yeah, I do. I do, but the point we were trying to get across was never stated in the right way. I was upset about finding myself having to play in front of really rude, sexist jerks. I'd never had any desire to play to people like that and I never expected to have to.
"It's all very well saying, 'Well, you signed to a major, so you should expect that' But we'd seen Sonic Youth put out an album on the some label and they'd barely got a larger audience, they were playing the same clubs, the same smaller venues, and we thought it'd be the same for us. I think it was a matter of us not realising how commercial we really were.
"You know, a person can say a lot of stupid things when they're going through stressful times in their life. I don't regret the majority of things I was trying to convey, but they didn't really translate right. And there were a handful of things I can remember that I really do regret us saying.
"Like when Chris said, 'For the most part, heavy metal kids are just stupid.' I couldn't say that. I was a heavy metal kid at one time. That's just way too insulting, it's too extreme a thing to say. You have to elaborate on things like that, or not say them at all."
Attendant to Nirvana's derisory remarks about their new fans was Cobain's apparent guilt about his new-found success.
In the interviews he gave after "Nevermind" took off, he filled unseemly column inches whinging about the indignity of being recognised in the street and the appalling amounts of money that'd been foisted upon him.
To those who've never stood onstage, with 50,000 people hanging on their every word, or received million dollar royalty cheques, this sound a little odd, not to say offensive.
Is there nothing you enjoy about it at all?
"I enjoy the opportunity to try to affect the jock-type people, but that was an opportunity that came to us after the fact, without us even really wanting it. But I do enjoy it now."
But you don't exactly seem to enjoy the wealth.
"I enjoy the wealth because it means we can afford a nanny, which is extremely helpful. Especially the nanny we've found, this 21-year-old guy from California who was a friend of Courtney's and has become one of my best friends. He takes great care of our baby, which is great to know. And it's great to know that if my car breaks down I can take it into the shop and not have to scrape around for money to get it fixed.
"But I'm not nearly as wealthy as people think. I know it's to be expected that people think I am wealthy, they'll think, 'You sold 10 million albums, so that's 10 million dollars.' But it's not. I made a million dollars off that record. Over 300,000 dollars went on taxes, there were legal problems and medical bills because we didn't get insurance in time. I found myself spending all that money, all at once, all in that one year. I also bought a house, too."
Are you honestly saying you've got nothing left?
"Well, I do now because a little bit more royalties have come through and we got the advance for this new record. And also in the last year I've gotten a bit more of a percentage on the songwriting royalties. I get a little bit more than Chris and Dave do because I write 99 per cent of the songs. I just felt entitled to it, you know?
"At the time, when we were signing contracts and stuff like that, it was always divided equally and that was fine. But I never realised I would became a millionaire and then, all of a sudden, need money. It's a ridiculous situation really."
Until recently, all band profits were split evenly between the three members. Did Chris and Dave mind this new arrangement?
"Well, we didn't agree on it right away. It took a bit of convincing on my part. I still believe in all-for-one, one-for-all, you know. We're a group, we're a three-piece. Chris and Dave are equally as important as I am as far as the persona of the band goes, in the way we're perceived. We're perceived as a band. But I had written 99 per cent of the songs and many were the times I've Chris' bass away from him and shown him what to play, and sat behind Dave's drumkit and shown him what to play, stuff like that. I don't enjoy being in that sort of dictatorship position, but I came up with the songs at home and introduced the songs to the band and I could be asking for a lot more.
"I've been blown away by stories of how other bands split their percentages. Like, Perry Farrell in Jane's Addiction got 90 per cent of everything, just cos he's the lead singer. But he didn't write all the songs. I know the bass player and guitar player wrote a lot of the music, 50 per cent or more.
"In The Pixies, Frank Black had those people on commission, you know. So when I found out about things like that and I found myself needing money, I didn't feel guilty about asking for a higher percentage. And, anyway, it's only in one area of payment, just the songwriting credits. We still split the touring money, and royalties off the record, and stuff like that. It's only an extra few thousand dollars a year or something. But it was a touchy subject at the time. I felt really guilt about it. I just feel I'm entitled to it."
Cobain's capacity for guilt rates as positively Catholic. "In Utero" appears to be riddled with it.
"Penny Royal Tea" reads like a bitter rejection of money. "I Hate Myself And I Want To Die", which may not appear on the finished album, kind of speaks for itself. As does "Rape Me". Real sackcloth and ashes stuff.
Like we say, "In Utero" is riddled with guilt.
Well "All Apologies" for one. Unless you're being heavily ironic.
"That's a very, very sarcastic song."
What about the line, "I do not want what I have got", from "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter"?
"I just thought that had a nice ring to it. Also, it's kind of a pisstake on Sinead O'Connor. I dunno, I just wish things weren't token so literally. Really, after all the shit I've had to read about me—and especially my wife—in the last year and a half, I should've put out a really hateful record. I should've used every chance I had to attack people. I wanted to, I feel that strongly about it, but there's just no point. I'm already known as a cry-baby whiner."
It's true that "In Utero" isn't as lyrically direct or brutal as Cobain threatened it would be. Was that deliberate?
"Yeah. I did take a few shots at the media and some of the other things that've happened to us. But, for the most part, I made sure not to complain. I really tried not to."
But on "Heart-Shaped Box" the chorus goes "Hey/Wait/I've got a new complaint".
"That's just me giving an example of how I'm perceived. People don't realise that I'll say something and it'll be quoted in an article, then it'll be taken out and used in another article in a different place, and then again, and then again. I'll only have said it once but it looks like I'm complaining all the time. People also don't realise that in all the interviews before 'Nevermind' come out, and in the first few months afterwards, we had different perspectives on what our band was. We just went into it very blindly. We didn't realise how many interviews we were doing, just knew that we were exhausted every night after talking for hours on end.
"So suddenly, there's a stack of magazines, all with us on the cover, all with incredibly similar articles, the same f***ing story over and over, because we were always asked the same questions, over and over for four months. So I guess it's understandable that people thought we were totally pissed off about our audience, that we hated everything, corporations, everything."
So, Cobain the whining anarchist millionaire was a media fabrication.
Do you still whinge about stuff?
"Only when I'm asked about it, usually."
So you're a natural whiner?
"No, not at all," he smiles. "Courtney and I just talk to each other about it. She has a pretty good idea how the media works and stuff. I've never really paid attention to it. No, I'd never think of boring my friends complaining about shit like that. I don't complain about anything as much as I used to. In the last year or so, I've become a lot more optimistic about everything.
"Having a wife and child can obviously change your perspective on things. Like, two years ago I never thought about the future, not at all. But now I have this huge responsibility to my family and it's probably more pressure than I've ever had dealing with this band. Now I'm thinking about not leaving the child in the car, not even for a second, in case someone snatches her, all kinds of things like that.
"In the last year and a half, even before we found out Courtney was pregnant, I've started to evolve a little bit from being a completely negative bastard, pretending to be punk rock and hating the world, and saying clichéd things like, 'Anyone who brings a child into the world at this point is completely selfish.'"
Did you plan to have the child?
"We wanted to have a baby. We definitely wanted to have a baby."
So it was a conscious choice.
"Yeah. Definitely." He pauses. "But not at that time. It happened too soon. I really wish it could have waited. But, then again, I don't know if we'd have had Frances. Every sperm is different, and I'm really glad we had Frances. I'm totally happy about my family situation."
Are you a doting father?
"Oh yeah, embarrassingly so. I'm always making noises and acting the fool. It's really fun though, it gives me an excuse to do that again. And it's great to have Frances around. We took her to the photo shoot today and it took my mind off the monotony of having to stand in front of the camera. Every few seconds, I would look over to Frances and make fart noises to make her smile."
There are references to childbirth and children on "In Utero".
He looks genuinely puzzled.
Well, there's the title to begin with, and the smell of babies stuff in "Scentless Apprentice", and you mention the umbilical cord in "Heart-Shaped Box". Were you thinking about Frances when you wrote those songs?
"Probably. Actually, "Heart-Shaped Box' might've been one of my pieces of poems. I know a lot of the words to that song are from poems. It's just another of those songs that are pretty much wordplay. I didn't have any specific idea."
Ignoring the lines that appear to have an explicit meaning—about guilt, childbirth, the media, etc—or rather, reading them as a stream of consciousness, "In Utero" appears extremely abstract, almost as if the lyrics were a series of cut-ups.
"Yeah, absolutely. Almost all my lyrics have been cut-ups, pieces of poetry and stuff."
So they're not intended to mean anything.
"No. And the pieces of poetry are token from poems that don't usually have meaning in the first place. They were cut-ups themselves. And often I'll have to obscure the pieces I take to make them fit in the song, so they're not even true pieces of poem. But this is the first record where I've written at least a couple of songs thematically.
"'Scentless Apprentice' is one. And 'Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle' is about her, about the way she was exploited in her life."
The lyric for "Dumb" seems peculiarly direct, a song about life's simple, silly little pleasures. Like "I think I'm dumb/Or maybe just happy." Is it intended to reflect that new-found optimism you've mentioned, or should we be reading it ironically?
"That's just about people who're easily amused, people who not only aren't capable of progressing their intelligence but are totally happy watching 10 hours of television and really enjoy it. I've met a lot of dumb people. They have a shitty job, they may be totally lonely, they don't have a girlfriend, they don't have much of a social life, and yet, for some reason, they're happy."
Are you ever envious of them?
"At times. I wish I could take a pill that would allow me to be amused by television and just enjoy the simple things in life, instead of being so judgmental and expecting real good quality instead of shit. The song's not about me, but it has been. And just using the word 'Happy' I thought was a nice twist on the negative stuff we've done before."
So this has a negative tone, too—you've just hidden it?
"Yeah," he laughs.
He leans back in his chair. Sitting at the top of the conference table, a table that's played host to Donald Trump and Mario Cuomo, and whose vast expanse is littered with bottles of Perrier and frosted jugs of fruit juice, dressed like he's dressed (a smeared She-Male), he makes it look like the revolution really has happened. A revolution of some sort anyway.
With NIRVANA's long-awaited 'In Utero' due for imminent release, THE STUD BROTHERS meet KURT COBAIN in New York and in the final part of their exclusive interview talk to him about the doomed actress, Frances Farmer, press harassment, drugs, pubic humiliation and suffering. And they also survive a typically fraught encounter with his wife, the redoubtable Courtney Love.
Twenty minutes before we're due to meet Kurt Cobain, his wife, Courtney Love, appears. She sits down with us in the hotel foyer and begins to talk, her voice a nervous, neurotic quiver.
First, she talks about some drug dealers she once knew and their aborted attempt to smuggle something illegal into somewhere heavy. From this she leaps with headspinning speed to her favourite subject—herself—and the treatment that she and her husband have suffered at the hands of a callous, endlessly intrusive media.
This leads inevitably to a protracted rant about Nirvana's unofficial biographers, Britt Collins and Victoria Clark. A copy of their manuscript has recently fallen into Courtney's hands and, from the sounds of it, she and Kurt have been giving it their undivided attention. According to Courtney, the book is muckraking and mendacious, a collection of truths the authors had no business uncovering and half-truths they had no right to invent. We suggest she sues. No point, says Courtney.
Anyway, she adds, she doubts they'll find a publisher for it. Weird. If the book's as hot as she makes out, we'd imagine publishers would be knocking down doors.
Then it's back to the media.
It takes us a while to realise what she's doing—telling journalists how much she loathes their profession, how essentially dishonest it is. What does she expect from us:—guilt, apologies, sympathy?
Then we're on to "Shadowland", William Arnold's biography of the Hollywood starlet, Frances Farmer, whose increasingly bitter confrontations with her mother, studio bigwigs, the press and the courts saw her ending her days as an impoverished, lobotomised cleaner in a hotel.
Kurt 'n' Courtney named their baby after her.
An hour later, we're sitting in the hotel conference room with Kurt Cobain. Nirvana's new album, "In Utero", is for the most part lyrically abstract, sometimes indecipherable, often open to wild and pointless speculation. There are, however—according to Cobain—at least three songs with a theme, even a message. Among them is "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle". The song is easily one of Nirvana's finest, boasting an explosive chorus—Cobain doing what he does best, managing to combine gentle compassion with righteous anger.
So why was Frances Farmer such an inspiration?
"Well, you know, I'd read some books about her and I found her story interesting. She was a very confrontational person."
"That's not what I got from the books I read. Actually, I did from two of the biographies I read about her, but there was one, 'Shadowland', the best one, written by this PI from Seattle who researched it for years, and I didn't get that impression from that one. She was obviously a difficult person, and got more and more difficult as the years went on, as people started to f*** with her more and more.
"I mean, she was institutionalised numerous times and, in the place in Washington where she ended up, the custodians had people lining up all the way through the halls, waiting to rape her. She'd been beaten up and brutally raped for years, every day. She didn't even have clothes most of the time.
"Courtney especially could relate to Frances Farmer. I made the comparison between the two. When I was reading the book, I realised that this could very well happen to Courtney if things kept going on. There's only so much a person can take, you know?
"I've been told by doctors and psychiatrists that public humiliation is one of the most extreme and hardest things to heal yourself from. It's as bad as being brutally raped, or witnessing one of your parents murdered in front of your eyes or something like that. It just goes on and on, it grinds into you and it's so personal.
"And the Frances Farmer thing was a massive conspiracy involving the bourgeois and powerful people in Seattle, especially this one judge who still lives in Seattle to this day. He led this crusade to so humiliate her that she would go insane. In the beginning, she was hospitalised—totally against her will—and she wasn't even crazy. She got picked up on a drunk driving charge and got committed, you know. It was a very scary time to be confrontational."
Though nothing could excuse what was done to her, even the most reverent accounts of Farmer's life don't attempt to deny that she was on extremely difficult person, that her much-vaunted independence often amounted to a ruthless self-interest that left her indifferent to the suffering she caused. So she was no martyr.
But Farmer—beautiful, arrogant, creative, destructive and destroyed—does appear impossibly glamorous, especially from the safe distance of a few decades.
Is that what drew you to her?
"No. No, not at all"
The song, especially if Geffen have the good sense to release it as a single, may succeed in glamorising her.
How would you feel about that?
"I'd feel bad about that. I just simply wanted to remind people of tragedies like that. It's very real and it can happen. People can be driven insane, they can be given lobotomies and be committed and be put in jails for no reason. I mean, from being this glamorous, talented, well-respected movie star, she ended up being given a lobotomy and working in a Four Seasons restaurant.
"And she hated the Hollywood scene, too, and was very vocal about it, so those people were involved in the conspiracy, too. I just wanted to remind people that it happened and it has happened forever."
Most of your songs are, in one way or another, about suffering. A popular liberal notion is that suffering ennobles. Do you think there's any truth to that?
"It can, it can. I think a small amount of suffering is healthy. It makes your character stronger."
Do you think you've suffered on a large or small scale?
"What do you think I think?"
"I've suffered on a large scale but most of the attacks haven't been on me, they've been on someone I'm totally in love with, my best f***ing friend is being completely f***ing crucified every two months, if not more. I read a negative article about her every two months."
Why read it? Why torture yourself?
"A lot of the time I can't escape it because Courtney gets faxes of articles from the publicist all the time. But also it's a form of protection. It enables you to remember who has f***ed you and to make sure you never deal with those people again. And another reason we like to read it is that we can learn from the criticism, too. If I never read any of the interviews I did, I'd never be able to say 'Jeez, that was a really stupid thing to say. I'd better try to clear that up.'"
Kurt describes Courtney as media-literate. She isn't. Often she's media-hungry. More often overly image-conscious. An hour ago, in the hotel foyer, she approached us and, unsolicited, offered us tales of drug-smuggling and, when it came to that book—that bloody book—bitter refutations of things we had no idea she'd been accused of.
Other journalists with us in New York warned us that any conversation with Courtney would turn into an endless discussion/monologue about Courtney/the media and would most likely be followed by calls to our hotel rooms.
A month ago, a hack in Seattle approached Courtney in a club and asked to interview her and her husband. Courtney asked him what his politics were, he replied, "Left wing", and was promptly invited to her home. He was even given a sneak preview of "In Utero".
The interview subsequently appeared as an NME cover story, much to the annoyance of Nirvana's publicists and record company, Kurt and, remarkably, Courtney.
Kurt, haven't you and your wife both contributed to the press you've had, both good and bad?
"Yes, I think both Courtney and I have said too many things at times, or said some unnecessary things. We're just learning like everyone else. But I think it is unhealthy to read all this negative stuff and I do try to ignore it as much as I can. There's a lot of times when Courtney'll say, 'OK, here's another one', and start reading it and I'll just walk out of the room. It affects me only because it affects her more.
"She's not made of stone, she's not what's been written about her, she has emotions and feelings like everyone else and it really upsets her. And she's also constantly combating this stuff, trying to clear it up.
"We're so naive about it that when someone writes something about us we have called up the editor and talked to him, tried to find out what's going on in his mind, why he would do that. It's interesting, too, just to see what kind of a bastard this guy actually is. We did that after this one particular magazine article. We knew the journalist, we knew they never wrote some of that stuff. It was the editor. And that's one of the saddest things, that journalists probably have less control over what gets printed than most rock bands do over their record company.
"It was interesting when we phoned that particular editor, not to attack anyone, just to start a conversation in a casual and friendly way, just to find out what kind of a person he is, to study someone that evil, such a f***ing dick. He has no respect, no regard for anyone's f***ing feelings."
The latest chapter in the painful but compelling Kurt 'n' Courtney saga involves Kurt being arrested for wife-beating. Unsurprisingly, this was the subject of intense media scrutiny. However, to the chagrin of many a hack, the story has a very dull, controversy-free explanation.
Chris Novoselic, Nirvana's bassist, explains it best…
"That was a f***ing bunch of bullshit. They were cranking music in their house and a neighbour called the cops, and I think they got in a fight. There's this law in Washington, and I went through it with my parents, that's called the Domestic Violence law. It says that if the cops show up somebody has to go to jail, whether anything happened or not. That's the law—the cops couldn't have any discretion. And Kurt had to go to jail. So that's that."
Indeed, the only extraordinary thing about the story is that it reached the press at all. The reason's simple. Many journalists would say that, since Cobain's made his living out of the public, he's become public property.
Kurt, you've probably heard this many times before.
"No, I've never heard it put that way."
Do you understand that point of view?
"Absolutely not. I draw the line at the record store or the gig. People can like our record or hate it, throw it away or trade it in for something else. And that's where it ends."
When you were younger though, and really into music, you must have had posters on your wall.
"I had posters on my wall. Mostly to show off that I was really into music."
But weren't there also pop stars that you were really curious about?
"I'm not lying about this, I had absolutely no desire to find out what kind of person any of these rock stars were. I don't think I ever read through a whole article in Creem magazine after I got my first subscription when I was 12. I never finished one because I just didn't care, I just liked the music."
You must be fairly unique then, because what are known euphemistically as "human interest stories" sell enormous quantities of newspapers and magazines. Editors and journalists merely respond to public demand, and the public or the record-buying public at any rate, are demanding that your privacy be invaded.
"But what is that?" asks Cobain, clearly outraged. "Who made that rule? And it is a rule and it means it's gonna go on forever. I'm baffled by it, I'm not interested in that shit."
But you were interested in the life of Frances Farmer, in her personal life.
"That's true… I don't know how I'm gonna get myself out of this…" He allows himself a long pause. "I'm not obsessed with her as an artist, that's not what drew me to it. It's the tragic story. And, hopefully, in telling that story to other people I can make them see that it's a reality, that it can happen to anybody.
"I don't know, I just think there should be stricter libel laws. I'm not opposed to investigation, people coming up with proof and facts. If I have done something, then it's fine for people to say so. But I'm a musician. I think politicians, in their professional lives, should be scrutinised every step of the way. But politicians aren't musicians, politicians have a huge responsibility."
And you don't think you have a huge responsibility.
"I have a responsibility to not promote a negative lifestyle. If I choose to live my life in a negative way which may influence kids to do what I do, then I have no problem telling kids how lame it is to act that way.
"I never went out of my way to say anything about my drug use. I tried to hide it as long as I could. The main reason was that I didn't want some 15-year-old kid who likes our band to think it's cool to do heroin, you know? I think people who glamorise drugs are f***ing assholes and, if there's a hell, they'll go there. It's really bad karma."
Do you really think that a kid could be so impressed by a star's negative lifestyle that they'd take it up themselves?
"Oh, they do, absolutely. I saw this movie, 'Over the Edge' [Tim Hunter's cold account of a group of suburban teenagers who trap their parents and teachers in a school hall and attempt to burn it down]. I remember leaving that theatre and almost everyone who was in there came running out screaming their heads off and breaking windows and vandalising and wanting to get high. It totally affected them and influenced them.
"It may not have been the intention of the person who made the movie, and it is a great movie, but that's what happened. It happens a lot, with movies and music, and the people who are affected by it are usually not-very-evolved people in the first place."
So do you think Nirvana is a positive or negative band?
"Well, at the beginning we were…" he pauses again, "not negative, but we did address dark and negative issues. I mean, we're not The Staple Singers but I could never see myself singing about Satan or glamorising drug use or anything like that. I just couldn't do it. I mean, I don't use cuss-words on my albums, not because I don't want a sticker on my record but because there's just no point. It's been done a million times and I don't personally need to use that kind of language in my lyrics. I think I have cussed a few times where it was necessary, but I think for the most part we're pretty positive.
"I think the only reason we ever had a reputation for being a negative band was because of the articles written about us, addressing the drug use and stuff.
"Like, we've been accused of inciting people to drop out of society. But if we do that, it's not in a lazy way. I mean, I've always thought of us as attacking that Slacker stuff. But we have pointed out things about society that's not good and I know some people don't like that, they think it's dangerous. And I think that's why they f*** with us."
Which isn't true.
The reason people f*** with Kurt and Courtney and Nirvana is because rock'n'roll is only ever rock'n'roll when it offers the exquisite possibility of scandal and controversy. Cobain, the millionaire punk rocker, riddled with drugs and guilt and married to an angst-ridden peroxide blonde who may or may not be Lady Macbeth, is infinitely more exciting and newsworthy then an impecunious farmboy from Washington State who just wants to play his guitar.
The reason people f*** with Nirvana is because people are—sometimes in a grotesquely insensitive way—attempting to mythologise the band.
For the two billion of us who aren't in Nirvana, it's a rollercoaster ride with a brilliant, brilliant soundtrack.
For Nirvana, it's different.
For Kurt, it's very different.
For Courtney, it's the f***ing Twilight Zone.
It's not easy being a living legend.
And living legends seldom learn to live with it.
© The Stud Brothers, 1993