Cobain started life as a sunny child. "He got up every day with such joy that there was another day to be had,'' recalls his mother. "When we'd go downtown to the stores, he would sing to people.'' Cobain's intelligence was apparent early on. "It kind of scared me because he had perceptions like I've never seen a small child have,'' his mother continues. "He had life figured out really young. He knew life wasn't always fair. Kurt was focused on the world – he would be drawing in a coloring book, and the news would be on and he was very attuned to that, and he was just three and a half. He knew all about the war.
"He had make-believe friends, too,'' O'Connor says. "There was one called Boda – he blamed everything on him. He had to have a place at the table – it just became ridiculous. One day his uncle Clark asked if he could take Boda with him to Vietnam because he was lonely there. And Kurt took me aside and whispered in my ear: 'Boda isn't real. Does Clark know that?' ''
But Cobain's parents – a secretary and an auto mechanic – divorced when he was eight, and "it just destroyed his life,'' says his mother. "He changed completely. I think he was ashamed. And he became very inward – he just held everything. He became real shy. It just devastated him. I think he's still suffering.'' A bit of a "juvenile,'' as he puts it, Cobain was shuffled from his mother to his father, uncles and grandparents and back again.
Cobain listened to nothing but the Beatles until he was nine, when his dad began subscribing to a record club and albums by Led Zeppelin, Kiss and Black Sabbath began arriving in the mail. Then Kurt began following the Sex Pistols' American tour in magazines. He didn't know what punk sounded like, because no store in town stocked the records, but he had an idea. "I was looking for something a lot heavier, yet melodic at the same time,'' Cobain says, "something different from heavy metal, a different attitude.''
Cobain idolized the Aberdeen band the Melvins and drove their tour van, hauled their equipment and watched over 200 of their rehearsals, by his estimate. Melvins leader Buzz Osborne became his friend and mentor and took sixteen-year-old Cobain to his first rock show – Black Flag. According to erstwhile Melvins bassist Matt Lukin, "He was totally blown away.'' It was about this time that Cobain moved from drums to guitar.
"I don't think he had a hell of a lot of friends,'' Lukin recalls. "He was always trying to start bands, but it was hard to find people who wouldn't flake out on him.'' Osborne introduced him to Novoselic, a shy youth so tall (he's six foot seven) that he bumped his head on the beams in Cobain's house. Cobain formed a band with this kindred spirit two years his senior. They went through names like Ed, Ted, and Fred; Skid Row; and Fecal Matter before settling on Nirvana. Nerves and crummy equipment hampered their live attack, but Nirvana slowly developed a powerful sound, becoming very popular in neighboring Olympia, where they would play wild parties at Evergreen State College.
Meanwhile, Cobain's mother kicked him out of the house after he quit high school and played in bands instead of getting a job. Homeless, Cobain slept on friends' couches. At one point, he lived under a bridge in Aberdeen, an arrangement chronicled in Nevermind's "Something in the Way.''
A vandal with a cause, Cobain loved to spray-paint the word queer on four-by-four trucks, the redneck vehicle of choice. Other favorite graffiti included GOD IS GAY and ABORT CHRIST. In 1985 Novoselic, Osborne and eighteen-year-old Cobain wrote HOMOSEXUAL SEX RULES on the side of an Aberdeen bank (Osborne swears it said, QUIET RIOT). While Osborne and Novoselic hid in a garbage dumpster, Cobain was caught and arrested. A police report lists the contents of his pockets: a guitar pick, a key, a beer, a mood ring and a cassette by the militant punk band Millions of Dead Cops. He received a $180 fine and a thirty-day suspended sentence.
"He is really a very angry person,'' says Sub Pop's Bruce Pavitt, "so he makes dramatic gestures that piss people off.'' But Cobain is also sensitive, and sensitive people are often the angriest. "Exactly,'' says Pavitt. "That's the key.''
Cobain took jobs as a janitor at a hotel and at a dentist's office (where he dipped into the nitrous) and moved in with Matt Lukin, who was then with the Melvins. Just to freak the neighbors, Cobain made a satanic-looking doll and hung it from a noose in his window. He kept some pet turtles in a bathtub that he put in the front room. Then he realized there was no way to drain the water, so Lukin, a carpenter, simply cut a hole in the floor. The foundation eventually became waterlogged, leaving the rickety shack teetering.
In a demo session with producer Jack Endino, one of the patron saints of the Seattle grunge scene, Cobain and Melvins drummer Dale Crover finished ten songs in one afternoon. Impressed, Endino played the tape for Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman. (Two cuts wound up on Bleach, and later this year Sub Pop will release a collection of Nirvana rarities.)
At a Seattle coffee shop, Poneman met Cobain, who was awed by Sub Pop because it boasted one of his favorite bands, Soundgarden. Novoselic showed up a bit later. "Chris was drunk and belligerent,'' recalls Poneman, "and just didn't give a flying fuck about it – 'Okay, you want to put out our records, that's cool.' And then he'd insult me.'' Poneman signed Nirvana anyway.
A year and two drummers later, in October 1988, Sub Pop released the single "Love Buzz''/"Big Cheese''; Bleach was released in June 1989, recorded for the princely sum of $606.17. (Jason Everman didn't actually play on the album, although he was credited as a guitarist because he bankrolled the recording. "We still owe him the $600,'' says Cobain. "Maybe I should send him off a check.'')
Bleach sold slowly at first, but after a few months critical raves and effusive praise from indie kingpins Sonic Youth eventually helped Bleach to sell 35,000 copies, very impressive for an indie release. (The album's sales exploded in the wake of the success of Nevermind.)
But by this time, Bleach drummer Chad Channing was history. Osborne knew Dave Grohl from sharing bills with Grohl's band, Scream. After Scream's bassist quit, Grohl called Osborne in desperation, and Osborne hooked him up with his old buddies in Nirvana. "Chris and Kurt liked Dave because he hits the drums harder than anybody,'' says producer Butch Vig.
In August 1990, Nirvana recorded six tracks with Vig for a planned Sub Pop album. Bleach was very good, but Cobain had returned to the studio with songs that were a quantum leap past anything he'd done before.
Meanwhile, Sub Pop had begun talking to major labels about a distribution deal. Figuring that if they had to be on a major label, they might as well choose it themselves, the members of Nirvana began shopping the Vig demos. Only a major could afford to buy Nirvana out of their Sub Pop contract, and major distribution would get their punk to the people. "That's pretty much my excuse for not feeling guilty about why I'm on a major label,'' says Cobain. "I should feel really guilty about it; I should be living out the old punk-rock threat and denying everything commercial and sticking in my own little world and not really making an impact on anyone other than the people who are already aware of what I'm complaining about. It's preaching to the converted.''
A bidding war broke out among a handful of labels. Nirvana signed to DGC, the label run by entertainment magnate David Geffen, a subsidiary of giant MCA and the home of Guns n' Roses and Cher. The band received $287,000 in advance money.
The group approached R.E.M. producer Scott Litt and Southern pop maestro Don Dixon, but neither wound up taking the job, and the band chose Vig to produce instead. During rehearsals for the album, one song really stuck out. "As soon as they started playing 'Teen Spirit,' '' Vig says, "it was awesome sounding. I was pacing around the room, trying not to jump up and down in ecstasy.''
Nevermind was recorded last spring for $135,000, including living expenses, mastering and even Vig himself (he has since renegotiated his deal). Slayer producer Andy Wallace mixed the album. Vig knew something was up when all sorts of people started asking him for advance tapes; now he's besieged with offers to produce bands and "make them sound like Nirvana.''
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