Bush: Nirvanawannabes

Steve Albini is working on their next album, and their lead singer is pals with Courtney Love. Does that make them a band to ridicule or one to reckon with?

Bush (L-R) Robin Goodridge, Dave Parsons, Gavin Rossdale and Nigel Pulsford on boat in 1996. Credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

I'm going to jump him. I swear to God!" announces a barely legal girl in a Breeders T-shirt as she and her friend rush the stage at New York's CBGB. They're hanging from the walls tonight, these young women, risking life and limb in the hope that Gavin Rossdale of Bush will just once flutter his delicate eyelids their way. Rossdale is quite the genetically engineered mid-'90s pop star, from his casually disaffected pose to his grainy, yearning voice to his enviable cheekbones and matted locks. "Gavin," notes Bush manager Dave Dorrell, "is a musician cursed with a model's face — if that's a curse."

Bush hit the stage with an instant reminder of the other reason the band's debut album, Sixteen Stone, has soared to triple-platinum status and spawned a string of five MTV-friendly singles. From the vertiginous opening riff of "Machinehead," the band hammers home an arsenal of heavy, Seattle-inspired hooks with a kind of fearsome precision usually witnessed in venues 10 times this size. Roch critics have covered the band with a level of opprobrium not seen since the Stone Temple Pilots were made the whipping boys of the alternative nation some seasons back. There are, however, few discouraging words at CBGB as Bush bask in the adoration of a few hundred fans grateful to be witnessing an arena-level band in so intimate a setting. By the time the band lashes into its cover of the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant," the show has turned into a full-tilt bacchanal. There's something subtly wrong, though, about this reading of the punk anthem: The carefully replicated groove is a little too comfortable, and where Johnny Rotten railed against the world through splintered teeth, Rossdale's sullen tones speak of privilege both social and musical; the world accepts him. Rossdale, you might think, has as much right to be singing "Pretty Vacant" as he does to be singing it here at the birthplace of punk rock. Then again, he sure is pretty.

The Saturday Night Live after-show parties of today may not compare with the classic throw-downs of the 70s, but a certain giddiness attends this evening's bash at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. There's a feeling among the revelers that SNL is recovering from the doldrums of recent years. As evidence of Saturday Night Live's new teeth, take tonight's sketch in which cast member Molly Shannon delivered a vicious, accurate impression of an off-the-rails Courtney Love. The imitation was even ballsier given that Love's name has been frequently linked with the lead singer of this evening's SNL musical guests, Bush.

Shannon was at Bush's afternoon rehearsal earlier today, giggling over Rossdale with SNL booker Marci Klein (the daughter of designer Calvin Klein). The comedian is also at this after-show party, checking out Rossdale from a discreet distance, when in walks Courtney Love herself. The first lady of pain is accompanied by a spaced-out-looking Evan Dando, who instantly takes to the near-empty dance floor and executes several perfect cartwheels to the tune of "Flashdance … What a Feeling."

Dando and Love end up at Rossdale's table, where they proceed to stand on chairs, throw outrageous poses and generally make spectacles of themselves. The black-haired, gothically attired Love seems to be suffering from a cold, as she later appears drowsy, occasionally raising a nasal inhaler to her nose. As the evening wears on, Dando goes outside and broods alone on MoMA's balcony in the freezing cold, while Love and Rossdale huddle together in deep conversation.

Since they're completely visible from the dance floor, the fair pair are the party's main attraction. When Rossdale momentarily steps away, SNL's Shannon approaches Love, perhaps to apologize for ridiculing her. (Shannon needn't have bothered; Love didn't arrive until the skit was over.)

Rossdale will later insist that their relationship is strictly platonic, that the Hole leader is one of several close female friends. "With my Mum leaving [Gavin's parents divorced when he was 11, and his father assumed custody], I tend to have very strong friendships with women," he says. "I always think they're gonna leave. Not that I whine or go to a fucking therapist, but it has a distinct effect on the way I operate, a distinct effect on the way I am.

"Courtney is one of the last stars, a consummate superstar," Rossdale continues. "She's one of my favorite people, completely brilliant. I have to be around people I can feed off, have a rapport with, go somewhere with. It's impossible not to relate to someone that creative, that tuned in, that vulnerable. Her knowledge of music is incredible — you have to be smart, you have to be in accelerated gear just to hang."

In the face of the already circulating rumors about himself and Love, Rossdale affects nonchalance. "I don't care about that stuff, I just get on with it," he says. "If you think of someone as your friend, why would you be swayed by someone sitting behind a laptop?"

These laptop drivers have given Rossdale more to worry about than just gossip, almost unanimously portraying him and his band as a bunch of lightweight Anglo arrivistes feeding off a scene with decade-deep underground roots. According to this view, R.E.M., Sonic Youth and the Pixies did not slog around the '80s college circuit in unheated vans to make the world safe for a bunch of MTV confections like Bush (or, for that matter, Candlebox, Better Than Ezra, Collective Soul, Sponge and Silverchair).

Of course, consorting with Kurt Cobain's widow seems unlikely to reduce the frequency with which the names Nirvana and Bush appear in the same sentence, even if it does gain the band a peculiar notoriety. "A lot of people want to guard Kurt Cobain's estate, and I appreciate that, but what we're doing isn't a crime," Rossdale insists. "I hope there's something of Nirvana in Bush, in the same way that there was a massive element of the Pixies in Nirvana. That's why I loved Nirvana so much, because I loved the Pixies so much. 'Gouge Away,' by the Pixies, was the blueprint for 'Teen Spirit' — Kurt was never uptight about that. And, yes, we may use some of the same dynamics, but I know I have my own thing.

"The criticism of us is built on a fear of what people didn't predict, of something that might actually be worthy of their attention," adds Rossdale, whose detractors include ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. "I probably have more criticisms [of our music] than people who don't like us, but even if we stop tomorrow, there's 3 million people who've bought this album, and 3 million people can't be complete morons. People feel stuff — even if they connect with one phrase, they connect with it. So maybe there is something real about us."

Gavin Rossdale may be a natural-born rock star, but music was not his first career choice. As a teenager he tried out for a top London soccer team, Chelsea, and he played semipro ball until he followed his nobler instincts. "I couldn't bear not hanging out with girls and taking drugs, to be honest," says Rossdale, reputedly an elegant midfielder in his day. "There'd be fights in the bath after every single training session, ludicrous macho stuff. The great Brazilian player Socrates said there were three reasons he could never play soccer in England: He smokes, he drinks, and he thinks. In England there are no beautiful footballers, just this thug ethic." (Rossdale's soccer career was effectively ended when an opponent's elbow split his lip during the first week of recording Sixteen Stone.)

Born in 1967, Rossdale spent his teenage years living with his doctor father and older sister at the genteel end of North London's Kilburn district. He now seems bashful about his comfortable background, reluctantly admitting that he attended Westminster, the same posh high school that spawned Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. Within a year or so of graduating, Rossdale had transformed himself into a regular party animal, haunting voguish mid-'80s London clubs like Taboo and Cafe de Paris, where his self-described "American teenager" look (jeans, T-shirts, sneakers) contrasted sharply with the pirate outfits and zoot suits more commonly worn by club kids at that time. "I went from hanging around with skinheads and maniacs at school to knowing these flamboyant, amazing people," Rossdale recalls. "It was a brilliant time, but I couldn't get it together back then — I was too wasted."

In a curious echo from that era, Boy George's 1995 autobiography, Take It Like a Man, identifies Rossdale as the boyfriend of another London night-life fixture, drag queen/one-hit-wonder Marilyn. "That's George's take — he doesn't know me," Rossdale responds with a shrug. "There's a queue of people going to their lawyers about stuff in his book. I hope he manages to sell some books by putting my name in there."

With fellow club-goer Sasha Puttnam (the son of Chariots of Fire movie producer David Puttnam), Rossdale formed his first band, Midnight, which released a couple of ineffectual pop singles. At that point a long-term career in music seemed unlikely. "We got signed way too young in the mid-'80s, when everyone was throwing all this money around," Rossdale says. "We weren't developed, and we didn't deliver. So as far as the A&R community in London was concerned, I was soiled."

After his stint with Midnight, Rossdale tried to re-establish himself with a variety of halfhearted bands, but there were no takers for this shopworn singer. "My life was too safe in London," says Rossdale, "so I thought going to America would help my career. When I got there I came to the conclusion that there was nothing to my life: an irrelevent band, no one I was with personally, no family ties."

When he arrived in California in 1991 for a six-month stay, Rossdale relied on indulgent friends to provide him with accommodations, occasionally breaking up two- or three-night sleepovers by checking himself and his little black bag into cheap motels. The high point of this period was seeing Nirvana at Los Angeles' Roxy club. The lowest point, he recalls, "was staying with the love of my life, an ex-girlfriend of five years, and her boyfriend [Jake Scott, who would later direct the video for Bush's "Comedown"]. Talk about low self-esteem! If you can get through that, you can get through anything."

Rossdale scraped together a living by working as a production assistant on music videos. "I remember standing on Zuma Beach at 6 in the morning, after we'd been working all night on a Kirsty MacColl video. I was shimmying this mylar sheet with a friend of mine, and we just looked at each other like 'What the fuck are we doing?' The shoot finished at 8, and I had nowhere to go. I was in a friend's car and just drove up the coast and ended up sleeping in the car."

On the other end of that mylar sheet was Shawn Mortensen, who would next see Rossdale in 1995, when Bush performed at the outdoor Weenie Roast sponsored by Los Angeles' KROQ. "When Bush came on, the crowd just lost it," says Mortensen, by then an established magazine photographer. "I was like 'What is this — instant rock star, just add water?' And I can understand why people would think that, but it's not based on anything of merit — just because he wasn't supporting the Minutemen doesn't mean he wasn't working his ass off. He was playing rock when people in London were all listening to acid jazz — so I'm sure it's all bittersweet for him."

Responsibility for Gavin Rossdale's bittersweet success lies with one of the oddest couples in the rock business. The first half of the pairing is Bush's manager Dave Dorrell, a wry, wiry Londoner whose résumé" is virtually a history of British youth culture since the beginning of '70s punk. As a teenage fanzine writer, Dorrell befriended members of the Sex Pistols, then put in a stint in the early '80s as a writer at the British music weekly the New Musical Express. He went on to work as a DJ, first at the goth wellspring the Batcave, then at hip dance clubs; the turntable maestro was approached by MTV Europe to do sound collages, turning one of them into "Pump Up the Volume," a worldwide hit for M/A/R/R/S in 1988.

Though Dorrell knew Rossdale from the mid-'80s London club scene, they never talked about working together until 1991, when the former, by then an established remix specialist, was in Los Angeles to remake the ’70s hit "Nutbush City Limits" with Tina Turner, and Rossdale was working as a video assistant. "We seemed destined to work together," says Dorrell of Rossdale. "When I next saw Gavin in London, he had the basis of 'Comedown' using a Billy Cobham drum loop — it seemed to fuse elements that excited me because of my musical history." Dorrell began to flit between Bush shows at London rock dives and his own DJ gigs at prestigious clubs in the North of England, occasionally supplementing his income with free-lance youth-culture consulting to the advertising industry. Even now that Bush has handsomely lined his pockets, this unkempt 33-year-old looks more like an urchin than a high-powered manager. He's as likely to wear the same rave-logo sweatshirt three days running as he is to walk into Los Angeles' Maxfield and try on a $600 Prada sweater.

Dorrell's laconic style contrasts sharply with that of Rob Kahane, who signed Bush and helped break them in America. Kahane is a small, dapper 40-year-old with a well-trimmed beard and a brisk, deadly serious manner. He explained Bush's success to Entertainment Weekly by offering his opinion that Rossdale "had a look which was very favorable for marketing and selling records."

Kahane managed George Michael throughout the singer's British court battle with Sony but they parted company soon afterward, Kahane's ears ringing with Justice Jonathan Parker's admonishments that he was a "thoroughly unreliable and untrustworthy witness ... [motivated] to an unacceptable degree by self-interest."

Kahane had his own label and a distribution deal with Disney's ill-starred Hollywood Records when he met Bush in 1993 and heard what would become Bush's first five singles, including "Everything Zen." Just as Sixteen Stone was completed in early 1994, disaster struck: Disney executive Frank G. Wells, a Kahane supporter, was killed in a helicopter crash. After his death, other executives at Hollywood deemed Bush's album unacceptable and pitched the band members into career limbo, forcing them to work menial jobs to survive.

Then, Interscope Records rescued the album as it had previously done with Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Shortly before the end of 1994, Kahane sent an advance copy of the album, sans photo or info, to a friend at L.A.'s influential KROQ station, which instantly added "Everything Zen" to its playlist. Before long it was hello, America — and goodbye to day jobs and an uncaring British public.

"Should I fly to Los Angeles/Find my asshole brother?"
— "Everything Zen"

Rossdale's brother is neither an asshole nor a resident of Southern California, but the singer is obliged to revisit the City of Angels on the homestretch of Bush's victory lap of America. The London quartet is returning at the behest of KROQ to headline both nights of the station's annual Almost Acoustic Christmas, an impressive bill of post-alternative chart toppers playing short, just-the-hits sets. They're all here tonight, a veritable Buzz Bin's worth of talent: Oasis, Silverchair, Goo Goo Dolls, Garbage, Lenny Kravitz and Alanis Morissette.

In the Universal Amphitheater's VIP area, Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, Alicia Silverstone, Sinéad O'Connor and Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan rub shoulders with record executives and their Urban Outfitted daughters as Silverchair go through the motions on a large video monitor. Backstage is a less classy affair: Shuttling between the Oasis and Bush dressing rooms are sometime Courtney Love associate Amanda de Cadenet; pudgy porn superstar Ron Jeremy ("I'd never met anyone who's in adult movies," Rossdale will later enthuse); the station's '70s glam survivor, Rodney Bingenheimer; and the king of all virtual stars, Kato Kaelin. The fleetingly employed talk-radio host braves the glazed stares of Oasis' Gallagher brothers and their high-decibel Beatles tape before making his presence felt in Bush's dressing room.

"Did you see that fucking freak?" someone asks as soon as Kaelin leaves the room.

"See him?" jokes Bush guitarist Nigel Pulsford. "I just bought a gram off him."

Even wearing his brothel creepers, Pulsford is the shortest member of Bush. He also has the most impressive memory, quoting obscure rock biographies as readily as he can the band's countless bad reviews and journalistic slights. The musician's sensitivity to criticism may stem from his previous history with King Blank, a little-loved outfit signed to the British indie label Beggars Banquet. According to the 30-year-old Pulsford, who has a shaven head and a blond goatee, King Blank's chances of fame were blighted by "too many drugs and drinks, not enough gigging.

"We had," he adds rather wishfully, "loads of credibility, but you have to be professional to succeed."

Rossdale recognized in Pulsford not only a determination to grasp at fame and an appetite for hard work but also a shared musical language. "When he mentioned the Pixies, I knew that was it," says Rossdale.

One English record executive has a different recollection of first seeing the pair in action. "They weren't what they are today — they were a little like the more commercial side of INXS," he says of Future Primitive, Rossdale and Pulsford's first venture together. "But I'll say this for Gavin: He wasn't going to be held back by people in London who resented his looks or his money or his history."

Even with bassist Dave Parsons (formerly of the glampunk pariahs Transvision Vamp) and drummer Robin Goodridge completing the lineup, few could have predicted that Bush would storm the American charts with a close relative of the Seattle sound. Or that the band (named in part after the Shepherd's Bush section of London) would soon serve as slave to the grip-and-grin — or, as Pulsford would have it, the "wank-and-thank" — circuit of American media promotion. "We've done all that now," growls the guitarist, "so we can start doing things on our own terms. Of course we've done schlocky things, and now we've got to start saying no."

Just down the corridor, Goodridge sits on a flight case, clutching his drumsticks and reflecting on the band's current situation. Goodridge's resemblance to Rossdale is often remarked upon, but on closer inspection the similarity is mostly tonsorial. Goodridge's weathered face would look like Rossdale's if the singer had taken a few more of those soccer knocks.

Goodridge's visage is perfectly matched by his roaring good humor and a throaty laugh born of some serious rock & roll indulgence. Born in 1966, Goodridge joined a local punk outfit at age 13 and, after qualifying as an electronics engineer, climbed gradually to playing sessions in London; he heard of Bush through Dorrell, for whom he did a studio job. "I did one of those classic Keith Moon things at one of their gigs in London," says Goodridge. "I got drunk and went backstage to tell them what I thought of their drummer. I think I scared Nigel."

Goodridge clinched the job by presenting the band with a copy of If 60s Were 90s, by his band Beautiful People, which he describes as "a club record with fuck-off guitar." (The guitar belonged to James Marshall Hendrix, courtesy of sampling permission from the Hendrix estate.) Although Bush quickly jelled as a musical unit, it wasn't until the members toured together that they discovered a common bond beyond the fact that all but Pulsford were brought up by single parents. "It turned out we all had older brothers or sisters who were punks, and that we were all brought up on the same records," says Goodridge.

Of all the Bushmen, Goodridge has the most detached take on the band's phenomenal rise. "Kids split their dollars up between whatever's available, and we weren't competing with many of the major bands," he says, citing 1995 absentees like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. "We understand that. Plus, I think we're quite good live, and we've gone out there and done over 160 shows this year. Right now, though, I'm feeling a bit weak, a bit vulnerable. We need to get back to just the four of us, have some conversations. We need to get back and put the armor on."

As a low-key set from Alanis Morissette ends and Bush fever takes hold, Goodridge excuses himself. He, Pulsford and quiet-man bassist Parsons sit out the opener, "Glycerine," on the drum riser, ceding the stage to Rossdale, who's accompanied on this song by a string section. Two giant video screens flank the stage, and as the camera caresses the smooth planes of the singer's face, hundreds of screams drench the auditorium. Rossdale's necklace shimmers under the stage lights, which frame his face with a hazy, angelic glow, and the light streaks in his dirty brown hair lend him a certain earthy glamour. As "Glycerine" ends on Rossdale's pained, sustaining note, the crowd's screams rise to meet him; the whole band steps forward for "Comedown," and the song's driving, "Livin' on a Prayer"-style bass line instantly prompts mass dancing in the aisles.

In the middle of "Little Things," Bush's most heavily Nirvana-influenced song, Rossdale unaccountably breaks into a chant of "we love Sonic Youth." If this is an attempt to bond with the audience, it is highly misguided, because after practically ignoring Sonic Youth while they were onstage the previous night, the crowd cheered heartily when they left the stage. Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters were at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas, too, as were Perry Farrell's Porno for Pyros, both the type of alterna-hero that Bush can only gaze at enviously across a yawning credibility gap. If there's one thing that can persuade these alternative hard-liners to mingle with the bubble grungers on a stage strewn with giant playroom toys, it's a good cause — in this case, pandering to the nation's most influential radio station.

Bush's cover of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" adds another surreal note to the proceedings. To the My So-Called Lifers in the audience, the song is nothing more than a radio oldie, just as alternative icons like Perry Farrell and Thurston Moore mean no more to them than, say, Lenny Kravitz. Maybe this explains why Bush are reviled by holier-than-thou critics: They are just another sign that the alternative-rock revolution of the last few years has trickled down to — gasp! — actual teenagers.

Bush end their set with the strangest gesture of the night, a halfhearted pass at the Eagles' "Hotel California" with choppy guitar and Sting-like vocals. Amid scattered cheers the band stops abruptly. "Never trust a hippie!" Rossdale sneers, quoting Johnny Rotten. Deflecting baffled looks from the assembled Southern California teens, the band launches into its pounding, crowd-pleasing hit "Everything Zen."

During the KROQ event, word leaks out about the producer who's been tapped for Bush's sophomore album, to be recorded this summer. It's none other than Steve Albini, legendary curmudgeon and revered arbiter of indie-rock aesthetics. The disbelief surrounding this revelation is voiced by former MTV spokes-slacker Lewis Largent, who, minutes before Bush take the stage, asks Rossdale if he's gone completely insane.

"How wrong is it? It's so wrong," says the singer in a quiet corner of a post-gig party at the Chateau Marmont hotel. "I know it's crazy, but if it isn't right, we won't put it out. I'm not an idiot desperate for credibility. Detractors will say we want him because of Nirvana [Albini produced In Utero], but look at everything else the guy's done: Big Black, the Pixies and the Jesus Lizard. Rapeman I wasn't so keen on...."

Contacted at an Alabama recording studio, Albini denies that there is any perversity in his decision to produce such an unfashionable band. "Irony has replaced personality in so many aspects of music," says Albini, who's quite aware of the disdain heaped on Bush this past year. "So, no, this isn't some kind of keep-'em-guessing ploy. If anything, this is going to cause me trouble.

"Bush is so far outside my sphere of contact that the only way I could go on is by spending time talking to Gavin. And he is interested in music for all the same reasons as the people I normally work with. In my years doing this job I have learned to separate style from substance, and it was the substance of Gavin as an individual I was impressed with. And musically, this band has far more variation, texture and density than their contemporaries.

"If you can deduce anything from Bush's year in the American popular sphere," Albini continues, "it's that people genuinely like them. Something like Candlebox was fluffed into existence and disappeared instantly."

This unlikely alliance conjures up the piquant scenario of Albini, who refuses to take royalties for what he regards as a "day laborer's job," working for Rob Kahane, a man regarded in many quarters as the epitome of music-business careerism. When apprised of Kahane's alleged misconduct in the George Michael/Sony case, Albini replies: "I don't know who you're talking about. But in music-business terms, that [sort of behavior] is called being a good businessman, and it's actively encouraged. Anyway, at this stage the band could make their album without asking anyone's permission; they could pay me out of their own pockets if they wanted to."

Rossdale puts it more concisely: "[Kahane] knows to keep the fuck away."

The morning after the KROQ show, Rossdale is holed up alone in a Chateau Marmont bungalow. Kinky fashion photographer Helmut Newton is staging an elaborate photo shoot by the hotel's pool, but Rossdale has more pressing matters on his mind; he is tired, he misses his longtime girlfriend, and worst of all, he has just heard that a New York Daily News gossip column has declared Courtney Love and him an item. Dwelling lasciviously on Love's alleged purchases at an upscale lingerie store, the gossip item reports that Love and Rossdale were sighted "making out" in the lobby of the Paramount after the SNL party.

"I can see why people can't handle it," says Rossdale as his phone rings off the hook. "This trip has shown me that you have to be tough as nails. Everybody gets everything wrong about you. I mean, working hard is definitely a relief after years of not working, but I'm burned now. I'm quite edgy. I'm not sure what the next year holds. It's all a bit overwhelming, and I just need to chill out at home. I wasn't born yesterday, but I didn't realize how cutthroat it was."

When he gets back to England, Rossdale plans to finish writing the next Bush album, rehearse for the next tour and find somewhere to live. It is perhaps a measure of Rossdale's relative unworldliness that an answering machine is also on his shopping list. Despite all Bush's suspicious name-dropping and gestures of alternative-rock correctness, they seem to be sincere; they may even escape the built-in obsolescence that's endemic among bubble-grunge bands.

If nothing else, Bush, and Gavin Rossdale in particular, can reflect on a remarkable success. After all, how many would-be British soccer stars get to flirt with Courtney Love, record with Steve Albini and get dissed by indie-rock royalty? And where else except in the United States could a musician, considered washed-up in London at 25, get swept into the heady company of Kato Kaelin, Ron Jeremy and Lewis Largent? "Yeah," Rossdale says as he dunks a tea bag. "America has got it all."