Next week marks the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, but Danny Goldberg says he’s only recently come to terms with the tragedy. “There was a long period of time where just thinking about it and getting into it this deeply would have been too painful for me,” the Nirvana co-manager tells Rolling Stone.
A couple years ago, during the 2017 holiday season, Goldberg decided he was ready to tell his story and put together a book proposal. “The circumstances inside my head and my availability to focus on it came together,” he says. “I like the distance.”
The result is Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain, a poignant memoir that spans the three-and-a-half years that Goldberg knew the late musician. In the book, he recalls when he began managing the band just before Nevermind made them international superstars. He describes in rich detail his close relationship to Cobain — both professionally and personally — and how he and his former wife, lawyer Rosemary Carroll, went to great lengths to shield Cobain and Courtney Love from the media. When recounting the phone call that delivered the news of Cobain’s suicide, he sums up his grief in one sentence: “I will never completely get over the sadness and anguish I felt at that moment.”
Goldberg spoke with Rolling Stone about the writing process, his favorite memories of Cobain and how he thinks his memoir will add to the musician’s legacy.
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Why have you waited 25 years to tell your story?
The first decade after he died, that was just something I tried not to think about. Then over the last several years, it was in my mind that I might want to tell this story because I thought that the image of Kurt had been more focused on his death than on his life. I just thought that I could paint a different portrait based on what I think about when I remember him.
I also noticed that you chose to focus only on the years you worked with him.
I just wanted to tell what I knew about and write my story. I wasn’t trying to write a biography of Kurt. I think other people have covered his early life well and I didn’t see adding anything to that. I was trying to really capture the fiber and emotion of what I knew about. I did research a lot and interviewed 40 people and read a zillion things about him, but it’s all within a time period of when I was involved and in the context of my own memories. That’s what seemed like the right book for me to write.
What other Kurt biographies do you like?
I like Michael Azerrad’s writing about him — in Rolling Stone and in the book Come as You Are and the interviews he used for that film About a Son. I like Everett True’s book quite a lot. And I think Charles R. Cross did a good job with his book. Those are the three that I have the most respect for.
What do you think other books fail to capture about him?
I just felt that in the aggregate, his image was too much overwhelmed by his death and that my own memories of him are more about his creativity, how sweet he was, [his] sense of humor and, more to the point, I think what fans really care about is the music. The compassion and brilliance and kind of mysterious qualities of the music, which he did when he was alive. Who was the person that did that? I just felt there was room for a different kind of portrait through a different lens. And the one thing about it: I worked with him. It’s a little different from being a journalist.
How do you feel about Montage of Heck?
I certainly respect it as a sincere artistic effort and I know that Frances and Courtney were involved with it and I respect that enormously. It’s their legacy. But for me, I felt it was a darker portrait than the one I think of. I think there was a disproportionate focus on darkness and a lack of focus on his creativity, his sense of humor and other aspects of him. I feel it’s incomplete.
Your book opens with a teenager asking to take a photo with you. Does that happen often?
It happens all the time, still, to this day. Young people come here for a job or an internship, or I meet people who are sons or daughters of friends of mine. Somehow they find out that I had a background with Nirvana. Over the years, things like that have happened a lot. I just liked starting it with that particular kid because he was at Occupy Wall Street, and I think Kurt would have liked that, that kids at Occupy Wall Street were moved by what he did. But by no means is that the only young person. There are people I see wearing Nirvana t-shirts that probably were not even alive when Kurt died. There’s something about the music that he wrote and sang that transcends generations. That’s a rare thing. There are other artists have done it, but very few.
What’s your favorite memory of Kurt?
The thing I remember most about him is his smile. It’s not like an anecdote. The thing about working with somebody famous is you end up telling stories so many times, they develop a certain plastic quality, even though they really did happen. So I cherish the memories that I wrote about; there’s a number of them in the book that mean a lot to me. But when privately just thinking about him, it’s more this sort of look in his eyes that he would get of such sweetness, at the same time mixed with a sardonic humor that really brings him back to me.
You mention at times that your memory is a bit hazy. What was the most difficult thing to recall?
Just details. It’s not just of him that my memory is hazy. My memory of my entire life is hazy. I have certain moments that are like a highlights reel inside my head. I remember certain conversations or certain moments with tremendous clarity as if I had video tape of them. And then other things I look back at … I was living my life, there were 24 hours in every day, and a lot of things I just don’t remember. I find it to be an imprecise part of my brain. That was part of the advantage of talking to other people, not only getting some of their thoughts, but it triggered some of my own memories.
So it comes and goes. It’s not like I was taking notes during all those years. There were a few memos that I found in my files that brought back certain specific interactions that I shared in the book. So it’s a sincere attempt to be as accurate as possible, but I still look at it as an impressionistic portrait, not a literal one.
Did you ask to speak with Dave Grohl?
I made an inquiry through his manager and never got a response. I didn’t kill myself trying to get to other intermediaries or nagging. I have incredible amount of respect for Dave Grohl. I mean, look at what he’s accomplished not only in terms of success, but handled his career with great integrity and dignity. But I wasn’t that close to him. I was trying to capture a particular three-and-a-half-year period of time, and I was much closer to Kurt.
The dynamics of the band and the people were around them such that John Silva [co-manager of Nirvana] ended up becoming closer to Dave and Krist when I was closer to Kurt, especially after Kurt and Courtney got together. I just had an ability to connect with Courtney and recognize what that relationship was right away at a time when some other people didn’t. And that made Kurt closer to me, ‘cause I was kind of getting where he was.
So I mean, Grohl is incredibly talented and I always knew he was. But I didn’t spend anywhere [near] as much time with him. In terms of the fact that it’s my kind of story, I would have loved to have talked to him. Most people were happy to do it, but there were a handful that I would have loved to have talk to, but just chose not to. There were a few people that didn’t want to, whether it’s old wounds or they just have chosen … It’s just one of those things.
Krist is quoted in here quite a lot.
Krist has always been somebody I stayed in touch with personally. We share a lot of political views and interests and he’s just the greatest guy. Although, we never talked about Kurt after Kurt died until I spoke to him for this book. It was just one of those subjects we both stayed away from. It was quite a revelation to me to get him to open up about some of this. He’s a very forthcoming guy. So that meant a great deal to me to talk to him.
What is your relationship with Courtney like these days?
Over the years, there’s been periods where we talked more and periods where we didn’t talk at all. But over this last year, I’ve been back in touch with her. She talked to me a couple times for the book and answered a number of other questions by texts and so on and I was very much appreciative of her. I love her. Again, complicated person. There’s a lot of ups and downs, but I have been in touch with her over the last year and it’s meant a great deal to me.
She’s also writing a book right now.
She’s working on a memoir. I’m sure it will be incredible — she’s one of the smartest people I know and has had an extremely interesting life, not just the time with Kurt. I will be the first person to buy it.
How long did it take you to write this book?
I didn’t have much of a choice, because the publisher definitely wanted it out around the 25th anniversary of his death. It was seven or eight months of just intense focus to get it done in time.
I’m sure reliving these memories wasn’t exactly easy.
It’s a roller-coaster. Some of them really made me feel more alive and some of them bummed me out. Obviously he was prone to depression and had drug problems and killed himself. Of course those are sad things. But I also really enjoyed reconnecting with some people about their memories and the process of trying to say what I wanted to say. But it was a catharsis to it. It’s definitely a subject that I put in the corner of my mind that I had to really deal with nakedly in order to do the book.
Did it bring back any feelings of regret?
I absolutely believe nobody knows why people kill themselves and there’s no glib, easy answer why he or anyone else does so. For all the psychiatrists and priests and rabbis and yogis that exist in the world, 50,000 Americans each year kill themselves.
But I still … what if I had invited him to stay with us for a few days? Maybe that would have been a good idea. Maybe if I had … spent X amount more hours trying to find other kinds of therapists that knew something about artists. Of course, if you’re unfortunate enough to have been close to someone who did this to themselves, you go over things in your mind. But I do feel that ultimately people who do this do it, it’s not the people around them who do it.
Do you think anything could have saved him?
I don’t. I think a lot of people loved him. Nobody will ever know — you can’t go back and test out hundreds of hypotheticals. I think anybody who knows somebody who killed themselves would give the same answer. There is a mystery to why some people do it and some don’t.
Do you find yourself still listening to Nirvana?
On and off. I’ve listened a lot over the last year, ‘cause just hearing his voice just really brought me back to certain subtle elements of his soul and personality that really helped me remember who it is I’m writing about. I’m still doing that in the last few weeks now that I’m starting to talk about the book. Just to stay in the zone and not get that disconnected. There have been periods where I didn’t want to listen, but most of the time I think he created a lot of great music in a few years and they’re one of my favorite bands.
How do you think this book will add to Kurt’s legacy?
I hope it adds a little more focus on his talent and brilliance and the parts of him that really created his legacy as an artist, so that overall the focus when people think about him is a little bit more on his talent and a little bit less on how he died.