Jon Pareles
Kurt Cobain
Krist Novoselic
Publisher Title Transcript
The New York Times Nirvana, the Band That Hates to Be Loved Yes

Nirvana rolls into new York City tonight as the great alternative-rock success story. Its first album for a major label, "Nevermind," has sold nearly nine million copies since late 1991; its new one, "In Utero," zoomed directly to No. 1 when it was released in September. Nirvana's concert tonight at the 7,000-seat New York Coliseum sold out immediately.

But if ever a band was ambivalent about reaching a mass audience, it is Nirvana. In a song from the new album, "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" -- music-business jargon for a recording that gets played on radio stations and sells well -- Kurt Cobain snarls, "I do not want what I have got" and agonizes, "What is wrong with me?"

What's wrong with him is that he writes songs all sorts of people can like. And ever since "Nevermind" lodged in the Top 10, Nirvana has been trying to remain a band of punk underdogs rather than a pop commodity. Ask Mr. Cobain about "In Utero" hitting No. 1 on release (it has since slipped a few notches), and he says: "I don't have high hopes of staying up in the charts. Meat Loaf is so obviously more talented than I am." In fact, prosperity and its discontents nearly tore apart the band.

On a sunny late-summer afternoon in Seattle, Mr. Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl -- the guitarist, bassist and drummer of Nirvana -- were reluctantly doing advance promotion for "In Utero." Dressed in thrift-shop shirts, fraying jeans and sneakers, the three musicians didn't act like limo-level rock stars. Lunch was micro-waved burritos at a 7-Eleven. Eventually, the band members decided to take the visitor to the city's emblematic Space Needle.

On line for the express elevator, a teenager approached, lugging a large video camera. "Uh, um, is it O.K. if I take your picture?" he asked Mr. Cobain. The guitarist scowled; his blue eyes narrowed. "I'll kill you," he said; the teen-ager cowered. Then Mr. Cobain's face relaxed into a broad smile. "Sure, go ahead," he said.

That teenager with the camera is both Nirvana's livelihood and its nightmare. The band had hoped to reach a market of intelligent iconoclasts, people who distrust bands that are too popular because if so, they must be too easy to take. "When the album first started getting heavy play, I think we were mostly concerned with losing those college kids," Mr. Cobain said of "Nevermind." "For some reason, that didn't happen to us."

Looking back, he now thinks "Nevermind" sounds too "clean." "Ugh," he said. "I'll never do that again. It already paid off, so why try to duplicate that? And just trying to sell that many records again, there's no point in it."

In July, Nirvana confirmed its allegiance to the college crowd with its first New York show since 1991. The band played Roseland Ballroom as part of the New Music Seminar, the annual convention and showcase where the rock underground meets the business. To start the set, Mr. Novoselic intoned, "Alternative rock, the sound that's sweeping the nation!" The concert ended with Mr. Cobain alone on stage, kneeling with his guitar by an amplifier, creating a torrential squall of feedback.

The new album, too, is drenched in guitar noise and sounds much rawer than "Nevermind." To produce "In Utero," Nirvana chose Steve Albini, known for the low-budget blasts of bands like the Pixies and Big Black. Mr. Albini, who had once dismissed Nirvana as "unremarkable," asked for only a $100,000 fee -- not a percentage of the royalties, like most other producers -- but refused to allow any Geffen Records staff to visit the sessions. All the vocals, Mr. Cobain said, were recorded in a single seven-hour marathon; "Nevermind" took days.

The songs on "In Utero" alternately lash out -- "Go away, get away, get away," Mr. Cobain howls in "Scentless Apprentice," based on the Patrick Suskind novel "Perfume" -- and tear at themselves.

MR. COBAIN DOESN'T LIKE explaining his lyrics, which he says he assembles from spiral-bound notebooks of bedtime jottings. "It's just thumbing through my poetry books and going, 'Oh, there's a line,' and writing it down. That's all I do.

"None of my poems are coherent at all," he continued. "They have no themes whatever. They're not based on anything. It's just a bunch of gibberish. I mean, I try to have relations to some of the lines, and there's a lot of double meanings, and in certain senses, they do relate to something, but it's always changing. But when I say 'I' in a song, it's not me, 90 percent of the time."

Yet when pressed, the songwriter admits he can be found in his songs. Mr. Cobain, 26, and Mr. Novoselic, 28, both grew up in Aberdeen, Wash., a logging town of 16,800 on the western end of the Olympic Peninsula.

To his family, Mr. Cobain was a dead-end kid. A verse in "Serve the Servants" from "In Utero" says: "I tried hard to have a father/ But instead I had a Dad/ I just want you to know that I/ Don't hate you any more." Behind it, he acknowledged, is his own story.

His parents, Don and Wendy Cobain, were divorced when Kurt was 7 years old. He frequently skipped school, smoking marijuana and often heading for the town library. After reading through the local selection, he started using the state's inter-library loan system. "The library never kicked me out, though they knew I was under age," he said. "It was the only place I could hide."

Both he and Mr. Novoselic recall getting "swats" in school: corporal punishment with a paddle. At the urging of the principal, Mr. Cobain dropped out, played his guitar, hung out. "When I was 17, I got kicked out of my mom's house," he said. "I was living on the streets and I called my dad, and he said I could come back to stay for a few days, on a trial basis. When I did, he had me take the test for the Navy, and he had me pawn my guitar. He had the recruiter come to the house two nights in a row.

"I was really trying to better myself and do what my parents wanted me to do. But I smoked some pot and magically came to this realization that I don't belong here -- especially not in the Navy. So I just packed up my stuff and left, walking past the recruiting officer, and I said, 'See ya.' "

In person, as in his songs, Mr. Cobain ricochets between opposites. He is wary and unguarded, sincere and sarcastic, thin-skinned and insensitive, aware of his popularity and trying to ignore it. Before agreeing to do an interview, he had demanded clippings by the interviewer, particularly on music by "women and minorities," said a Geffen Records staffer. But he's not exactly politically correct; he owns, he said, "an M-16, a few revolvers and one Beretta."

By mixing punk, heavy metal and good pop tunes, Nirvana altered the pop-music landscape with "Nevermind." "There is a pre-Nirvana and post-Nirvana record business," says Gary Gersh, now president of Capitol Records, who signed the band to Geffen. "'Nevermind' showed that this wasn't some alternative thing happening off in a corner, and then back to reality. This is reality."

But in 1992, the band nearly self-destructed. According to Michael Azerrad's exhaustive, new biography, "Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana," Mr. Cobain began using heroin regularly in late 1991 -- at first, he has said, to relieve debilitating stomach pain.

He had also begun a romance with Courtney Love, the brash lead singer of a Los Angeles band called Hole. They were both injecting heroin at the end of 1991 when Ms. Love became pregnant; they were married in February 1992. But she kicked the habit, she has said, soon after she found out. He continued on and off until August 1992, when their child Frances Bean Cobain was born.

An article in Vanity Fair implied that Ms. Love had taken heroin well into the pregnancy. Two weeks after the baby was born, using the article as evidence, the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services forced the couple to surrender the child to Ms. Love's sister. Although the Cobains soon regained custody, county officials continued to monitor them until March 1993.

Still, Mr. Cobain said, the title of "In Utero" doesn't refer to the allegations of Ms. Love's drug use during pregnancy. "I just liked the way it sounded," he said. The album's tone is by turns wrathful and miserable, the lyrics full of images of sickness and decay. The album's back cover, a collage of rubber fetus dolls, orchids and models of bodily organs, suggests the aftermath of a massacre.

When "In Utero" was released, the national Wal-Mart chain refused to sell it, apparently due to that image (although the chain's spokesman claimed it was for lack of consumer demand). So did Kmart, which stated that the record "didn't fit within our merchandise mix."

"One of the main reasons I signed to a major label was so people could buy our records at Kmart," Mr. Cobain said. "In some small towns, Kmart is the only place that kids can buy records."

Clearly, Nirvana still makes some people uncomfortable. But can a band remain an underdog with millions of fans? "I think we look ridiculous already," he said. "I don't want to have a long career if I have to put up with the same stuff that I'm putting up with. I'm trying it one last time, and if it's more of a pleasant year for us, then fine, we'll have a career. But I'm not going to subject myself to being stuck in an apartment building for the next 10 years and being afraid to go outside of my house. It's not worth it. I would gladly give up music for my life. It's more important."

Mr. Novoselic added: "We were fools. But on the other hand, look where we are."

© Jon Pareles, 1993