Nirvana: Inside the Heart and Mind of Kurt Cobain

Page 2 of 4

I have thought about it, and I can't come to any conclusions at all,'' says Cobain of Nevermind's phenomenal success. "I don't want to sound egotistical, but I know it's better than a majority of the commercial shit that's been crammed down people's throats for a long time.''

Nevermind embodies a cultural moment; "Smells Like Teen Spirit'' is an anthem for (or is it rather against) "Why Ask Why?'' generation. Just don't call Cobain a spokesman for a generation. "I'm a spokesman for myself,'' he says. "It just so happens that there's a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times because I'm just as confused as most people. I don't have the answers for anything. I don't want to be a fucking spokesperson.''

"That ambiguity or confusion, that's the whole thing,'' says Nevermind producer Butch Vig. "What the kids are attracted to in the music is that he's not necessarily a spokesman for a generation, but all that's in the music – the passion and [the fact that] he doesn't necessarily know what he wants but he's pissed. It's all these things working at different levels at once. It's not real cut and dried. I don't exactly know what 'Teen Spirit' means, but you know it means something and it's intense as hell.''

Cobain agrees the message isn't necessarily in the words. "Most of the music is really personal as far as the emotion and the experiences that I've had in my life,'' he says, dragging on a cigarette, "but most of the themes in the songs aren't that personal. They're more just stories from television or books or movies or friends, more so than mine. But definitely the emotion and feeling is from me.

"Most of the concentration of my singing is from my upper abdomen, that's where I scream, that's where I feel, that's where everything comes out of me – right here,'' he continues, touching a point just below his breastbone. It just happens to be exactly where his stomach pain is centered.

When Nevermind hit number one, Cobain was "kind of excited,'' he says. "I wouldn't admit that at the time. I just hope that it doesn't end with us. I hope there are other bands that can keep it going.''

Although Cobain is thrilled when underground bands infiltrate the mainstream charts, he's outraged by others who are riding the coattails of the alternative boom. His favorite target is Pearl Jam, also from Seattle, which he accused of "corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion'' in a recent Musician magazine interview. "Every article I see written about them, they mention us, and they're baiting that fact,'' says Cobain, sitting up cross-legged on the bed. "I would love to be erased from my association with that band and other corporate bands like the Nymphs and a few other felons. I do feel a duty to warn the kids of false music that's claiming to be underground or alternative. They're jumping on the alternative bandwagon.

"I don't know what I did to him; if he has a personal vendetta against us, he should come to us,'' says Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament, who says Cobain barely even said hello when they did a recent minitour together. "To have that sort of pent-up frustration, the guy obviously must have some really deep insecurities about himself. Does he think we're riding his bandwagon? We could turn around and say that Nirvana put out records on money we made for Sub Pop when we were in Green River – if we were that stupid about it.''

Cobain is happier to reel off a list of some of the bands he does like: the Breeders, the Pixies, R.E.M., Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, Beat Happening, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Flipper. Then there's his beloved Captain America, a ramshackle pop group from Scotland. "Eugene and Frances Kelly are the Lennon and McCartney of the underworld – or the Captain and Tennille,'' says Cobain.

For the members of Nirvana, plugging fellow underground musicians is one of the few consolations for the pressures of fame. When the band played Seattle's Paramount Theater for its big homecoming show last Halloween, its opener was Bikini Kill, a confrontational female-led band from nearby Olympia that came out in lingerie with SLUT written across their stomachs. Novoselic is toying with the idea of a "punk-rock MTV'' featuring underground bands.

Helping out fellow alternative types strengthens the community that made Nirvana's own success possible. "It's a question of inclusion,'' explains Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman, "it's a question of being able to be included. Egalitarian revolution – that's what makes them a punk-rock band.''

It's fitting that Nirvana bumped Michael Jackson off the Number One spot on the pop charts. Besides a fondness for small children and animals, Cobain and Jackson have little in common – Jackson claims it doesn't matter if you're black or white, but when Cobain hears such saccharine platitudes, he screams. Jackson's music is Eighties-style ear candy, while Nirvana makes grass-roots music for the Nineties. There's no glamour in Nirvana, no glamour at all, in fact.

Novoselic and Cobain come from rural Aberdeen, Washington, a hundred miles southwest of Seattle, where Novoselic's mom runs Maria's Hair Design. A depressed logging town, Aberdeen has seen better days – namely, during the whaling era in the mid-nineteenth century, when the town served as one big brothel for visiting sailors, a fact that Novoselic has said makes residents "a little ashamed of our roots.'' Pervasive unemployment and a perpetually rainy, gray climate have led to rampant alcoholism and a suicide rate more than twice the already high state average. The local pawnshop is full of guns, chain saws and guitars.

One of the more popular bars in town is actually called the Pourhouse, which is where two young men about Cobain's age, Joe and James, sit down for a pitcher of beer – each. Joe is out of work because his leg is broken. "I tried to fly off a house,'' he explains.

"Yeah, I know the Cobain kid,'' says James. "Faggot.''

"He's a faggot?'' asks Joe, taken aback. Recovering quickly, he declares: "We deal with faggots here. We run 'em out of town.''

This is where Cobain and Novoselic grew up. That's why they kissed each other full on the lips as the Saturday Night Live credits rolled. They knew it would piss off the folks back home – and everybody like them.

"I definitely have a problem with the average macho man – the strong-oxen working-class type,'' Cobain says wearily, "because they have always been a threat to me. I've had to deal with them most of my life – being taunted and beaten up by them in school, just having to be around them and be expected to be that kind of person when you grow up.

"I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be,'' Cobain continues. "Just watch a beer commercial and you'll see what I mean.''

Of course, Cobain was miserable in high school. Surrounded by hard-drinking metalheads whose only prospects were unemployment or risking life and limb hacking down beautiful centuries-old trees, Cobain was a sensitive sort, small for his age and uninterested in sports. "He was terrified of jocks and moron dudes,'' recalls Cobain's old friend Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin.

"As I got older,'' says Cobain, a fan of Beckett's, Burroughs's and Bukowski's, "I felt more and more alienated – I couldn't find friends whom I felt compatible with at all. Everyone was eventually going to become a logger, and I knew I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be some kind of artist.''

"If he would have been anywhere else,'' says his mother, Wendy O'Connor, "he would have been fine – there would have been enough of his kind not to stick out so much. But this town is just exactly like Peyton Place. Everybody is watching everyone and judging, and they have their little slots they like everyone to stay in – and he didn't.''

A friend of Cobain's half-joked that Nevermind sold to every abused child in the country, and maybe that's not far from the truth – the divorce rate soared to nearly fifty percent in the mid-Seventies, and all those children of broken homes are becoming adults. Including Kurt Cobain.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

More Song Stories entries »