Nirvana: Inside the Heart and Mind of Kurt Cobain

How is Kurt Cobain enjoying success as the leader of the world's first triple-platunim punk-rock band? Don't ask

April 16, 1992
nirvana cover 1992
Nirvana on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

For now, Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain and his new wife, Courtney Love, live in an apartment in Los Angeles's modest Fairfax district. The living room holds little besides a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier, a stringless guitar, a makeshift Buddhist shrine and, on the mantel, the couple's collection of naked plastic dolls.

Scores of CDs and tapes are strewn around the stereo – obscurities such as Calamity Jane, Cosmic Psychos and Billy Childish, as well as Cheap Trick and the Beatles. "Norwegian Wood'' drifts down the hall to the dimly lit bedroom, where Cobain lies flat on his back in striped pajamas, a red-painted big toenail peeking out the other end of the blanket and a couple of teddy bears lying beside him for company. The surprisingly fragrant Los Angeles night seeps through the window screen.

He's been suffering from a long-standing and painful stomach condition – perhaps probably an ulcer – aggravated by stress and, apparently, his screaming singing style. Having eaten virtually nothing for over more than two weeks, Cobain is strikingly gaunt and frail, far from the stubbly doughboy who smirked out from a photo inside Nevermind. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who smashes guitars and wails with such violence – until you notice his blazing blue eyes and the faded pink and purple streaks in his hair.

Cobain had abruptly canceled an earlier interview, partly because of the anti-Nirvana letters that recently dominated Rolling Stone's Correspondence page and partly because the magazine borrowed the title of the band's hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit'' for a headline on the recent Beverly Hills, 90210 cover.

Then he came around. "There are a lot of things about Rolling Stone that I've never agreed with,'' says Cobain in a gentle growl one or two steps up from a whisper. "But it's just so old school to fight amongst your peers or people that are dealing with rock & roll, whether or not they're dealing with it in the same context that you would like to. There are a lot of political articles in there that I've been thankful for, so it's really stupid to attack something that you're not 100 percent opposed to. If there's a glimmer of hope in anything, you should support it.

"I don't blame the average seventeen-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout,'' Cobain adds. "I understand that. And maybe when they grow up a little bit, they'll realize there's more things to life than living out your rock & roll identity so righteously.''

All I need is a break and my stress will be over with,'' says the twenty-five-year-old Cobain. "I'm going to get healthy and start over.''

He's certainly earned a break after playing nearly 100 dates on four continents in five months, never staying in one place long enough for to have a doctor to tend to his stomach problem. And he and his band mates, bassist Chris Novoselic (pronounced nova-SELL-itch) and drummer Dave Grohl, have had to cope with the peculiar position of being the world's first triple-platinum punk-rock band.

Soon after the September release of Nevermind, MTV pumped "Teen Spirit'' night and day as the album vaulted up the charts until it hit Number One. Although the band's label, DGC, doubted the album would sell over more than 250,000 copies, it sold 3 million in just four months and continues to sell nearly 100,000 copies a week.

For Nirvana, putting out their first major-label record was like getting into a new car. But the runaway success was like suddenly discovering that the car was a Ferrari and the accelerator pedal was Krazy Glued to the floorboard. Friends worried about how the band was dealing with it all.

"Dave's just psyched,'' says Nils Bernstein, a good friend of the band members' who coordinates their fan mail. "He's twenty-two, and he's a womanizer, and he's just: 'Score!''' Novoselic, according to Bernstein, had a drinking problem but went on the wagon this year so he could stay on top of his exploding career.

But rumors are flying about Cobain. A recent item in the music-industry magazine Hits said Cobain was "slam dancing with Mr. Brownstone,'' Guns n' Roses slang for doing heroin. A January profile in BAM magazine claimed Cobain was "nodding off in mid-sentence,'' adding that "the pinned pupils, sunken cheeks and scabbed, sallow skin suggest something more serious than mere fatigue.''

Cobain denies he is using heroin. "I don't even drink anymore because it destroys my stomach,'' he protests. "My body wouldn't allow me to take drugs if I wanted to, because I'm so weak all the time.

"All drugs are a waste of time,'' he continues. "They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self-esteem. They make you feel good for a little while, and then they destroy you. They're no good at all. But I'm not going to go around preaching against it. It's your choice, but in my experience, I've found they're a waste of time.''

Cobain brushes off speculation that he's finding fame difficult and dismisses rumors that he'll soon break up the band because it has become too big. "It really isn't affecting me as much as it seems like it is in interviews and the way that a lot of journalists have portrayed my attitude,'' he says. "I'm pretty relaxed with it.''

But people who know him say otherwise. Choosing his words carefully, Jack Endino, producer of the band's debut album, Bleach, says, "When I saw them in Amsterdam a few months back, it seemed like they were a little grouchy and . . . under pressure, let's put it that way.'' "Kurt is ready to strangle the next person who takes his picture,'' adds Bernstein.

Fame rubs against Cobain's punk ethos, which is why he refused a limo ride to Nirvana's Saturday Night Live appearance. "People are treating him like a god, and that pisses him off,'' says Bernstein. "They're giving Kurt this elevated sense of importance that he feels he doesn't have or deserve. So he's like 'Fuck you!'

"Chris and Dave have had to pick up a lot of Kurt's slack,'' Bernstein continues. "Chris and Dave were close before, but now they're inseparable.''

"Just to survive lately I've become a lot more withdrawn from the band,'' Cobain confesses. "I don't go party after the show; I go straight to my hotel room and go to sleep and concentrate on eating in the morning. I'd rather deal with things like that. Our friendship isn't being jeopardized by it, but this tour has definitely taken some years off of our lives. I plan to make changes.''

Stress has gotten to Cobain before. He had an onstage breakdown at a 1989 show in Rome, near the end of a particularly grueling European tour. Says Bruce Pavitt, co-owner of Sub Pop Records, Nirvana's first label: "After four or five songs, he quit playing and climbed up the speaker column of speakers and was just going to jump off. The bouncers were freaking out, and everybody was just begging him to come down. And he was saying, 'No, no, I'm just going to dive.' He had really reached his limit. People literally saw a guy wig out in front of them who could break his neck if he didn't get it together.'' Cobain was eventually talked down.

If he can stand the heat, Cobain, extremely bright and unafraid to take provocative stands, may emerge as a John Lennon-like figure. The comparison with Cobain's idol isn't frivolous. Like Lennon, he's using his music to scream out an unhappy childhood. And like Lennon, he's deeply in love with an equally provocative and visionary artist – Courtney Love, leader of the fiery neo-feminist band Hole.

Cobain and Love were married on February 24th in a secluded location in Waikiki, Hawaii, after Nirvana's tour of Japan and Australia, with only a female nondenominational minister and a roadie as a witness.

"It's like Evian water and battery acid,'' Cobain says of the couple's chemistry. And when you mix the two? "You get love,'' says Cobain, smiling for the first time. Exhausted and bedridden, Cobain is still so smitten that he can proclaim: "I'm just happier than I've ever been. I finally found someone that I am totally compatible with. It doesn't matter whether she's a male, female or hermaphrodite or a donkey. We're compatible.'' Whenever Love walks into the room, even if it's to scold him about something, he gets the profoundly dopey grin of the truly love struck.

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