When ‘Nevermind’ Changed Everything
When Danny Goldberg started managing Nirvana in 1991, the band was just a promising underground act from Seattle. But, as chronicled in Goldberg’s upcoming memoir, Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain, things would change quickly and decisively. The book is a fascinating portrait of the life, music and inner workings of Cobain, who died 25 years ago next month, and who once said Goldberg was like a “second father” to him. In this chapter, Goldberg recalls in vivid detail the months and days leading up to Nevermind and the complex emotions the album’s world-changing success stirred in Cobain. [Find it here on Amazon]
There were some in the Seattle music world who had a sense of what was coming. Jennie Boddy remembers when she and Susie Tennant first saw Nirvana play the songs that would be on Nevermind at a Seattle club called the OK Hotel. “They played ‘Teen Spirit’ and ‘Lithium’ and all of our mouths were open. Susie was hyperventilating at how good they were. Even the guys who jumped into the mosh pit knew how good they were.”
A few months later she saw them again at the Off Ramp. “Grohl had recently become their drummer and it was even more amazing hearing him play the new songs. The band played a full set. Then they shut down the club at two a.m. and cleaned it out and then we all went back in and the band played for another couple of hours. Kurt was so happy.”
In January, when Nevermind would go to number one on the Billboard album chart, Geffen president Eddie Rosenblatt was asked by the New York Times to describe the label’s marketing strategy and he modestly answered, “Get out of the way and duck.” It was indisputably true that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had so much magic that it made everyone’s job a lot easier, and there is no question that the song would have been huge no matter who was or wasn’t involved with it. Nevertheless, the band and DGC did spend a lot of time and energy launching Nirvana’s major-label career in a particular way.
In marketing terms, the band wanted to keep its credibility with their early fans while also pulling in lots of new ones. A lot of the angst that artists went through with record companies and with the media was really related to the tribal differences within the rock audience. It was one experience to love an artist that only you and a few of your friends were into, and a very different one if they became popular and the kids at school whom you hated were suddenly humming their songs. On a personal level, Kurt wanted a success that was acceptable to all the facets of his inner teenager. He identified deeply with outcasts whose sense of self was wrapped up in being part of a small subculture, but he also embraced the joy of being part of a large audience who could come together around an anthemic chorus or a powerful riff.
At the time radio was the primary marketing tool for music, since hearing music is always more powerful than reading about it. Many of the college stations that reported to CMJ had been early supporters of Nirvana and played “Sliver” and tracks from Bleach. Connectivity to these young college DJs was a critical element in staying in touch with Nirvana’s punk rock fans. The DGC promo people knew without the band’s having to tell them that the marketing for Nevermind had to start at college radio.
For instance, the kids who appeared in the pep rally in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video were recruited through one such station, KXLU, a tiny commercial-free, listener-supported radio station affiliated with Loyola Marymount University near the airport in Los Angeles. KXLU was to the far left of the dial, and whenever I listened to it I felt as if I were being let in on a secret. They played indie rock you couldn’t hear anywhere else on the radio in Southern California in those days. In keeping with Nirvana’s desire to show they hadn’t forgotten where they came from, the band chose to visit the KXLU studio and premiere “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the day before other radio stations received the track.
Kurt was driven out to the station by the young promo man John Rosenfelder, a.k.a. Rosie. Krist and Dave rode with Sharona White, an assistant in the promotion department. Rosie recalls the band “joking around and throwing food at each other in between cars on the 405 freeway.” They did their first on-air interview for Nevermind that day and invited listeners to come to the video set for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the next day and be part of the filming.
But while staying connected with their indie fan base was important to them, one of the main reasons Nirvana wanted to be on a major label was to get exposure on commercial radio.
These stations were divided by format, designed to attract particular demographic groups that the station then offered to advertisers. Pop (or “Top 40”) radio stations focused mostly on preteens and young teens and much more on women than men. The various “rock” formats generally appealed more to older teenagers and college-age kids, mostly male. There was a cottage industry of programmers and consultants who claimed to have figured out what combination of records at any given time would result in the best ratings for the target demo in the geographical market covered by the signal of the station.
A lot of the limitations of the major labels derived from their dependence on corporate radio stations. No matter how much swagger some record company promo people had, they were supplicants when they dealt with broadcasters, who in turn were at the mercy of their listeners. Even those radio programmers who were also music freaks had to keep their eyes on audience research. Two or three bad quarterly ratings in a row and they were likely to be looking for another job. Advertisers paid rates based on those ratings, and the music stations that usually got the best results tended to avoid songs that might make some listeners change the channel. People who had the radio on in the background and didn’t even know the names of the artists they were listening to were just as valuable to advertisers as passionate fans who bought concert tickets. To artists and those of us who represented them, it often seemed as if the most apathetic music listeners had veto power.
The influence of audience research was the major reason that the top-rated rock stations in the majority of the country focused on bands with melodic pop songs, so-called hair bands like Poison and Skid Row whose popularity was further enhanced by MTV. Most MTV programmers got their start in commercial radio and were influenced by the same kind of research, although some of them realized that they could afford to have a broader and more diverse playlist because unlike radio stations, MTV had virtually no competition.
In several larger markets there were two or even three rock stations whose primary business agenda was to compete for male listeners between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. A handful of the stations were focused mostly on heavy metal, like Ozzy Osbourne or Pantera. Guns N’ Roses had become America’s biggest rock band by dominating both commercial rock and metal stations, while also having a hit on pop stations with “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
Although he emphasized the band’s punk credibility to college stations, Rosie was intent on convincing commercial programmers that Nirvana was in the rarefied category of “alternative metal,” which included bands like Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More, whose recent records were played on both formats. In their quest to gain a larger audience, the band didn’t mind if people at the label pitched them this way. But Kurt was also wary of doing too many interviews on these stations. There was a difference between metal media embracing his music and the appearance that he was sucking up to them.
A couple of months before Nevermind came out, Kates had gone to a Dodgers game with Silva, after which my partner played him a cassette of the Andy Wallace mixes of Nevermind in his car. “It sounded really big and I realized we probably could get it played on KNAC [an LA station that focused on heavy metal], and if we did, maybe it could be a gold album,” which in the nineties meant sales of five hundred thousand copies in the U.S. Rosie recalls, “I remember when Gersh played Nevermind for the DGC staff, he played it loud,” reinforcing his wish that the promo people work the record at metal radio as well as the college and indie rock stations.
These were the first hints at the record company that Nirvana might be a lot bigger than Sonic Youth. In addition to the commercial ramifications of this observation, it indicated that Nirvana’s album might create a very rare convergence of cultures. For the most part metal fans and punk fans were adversarial tribes.
The commercial category that was initially most relevant to Nirvana was “alternative rock” (sometimes called “modern rock”). Stations like KROQ in Los Angeles avoided metal and hair bands like the plague and played the most commercial of the songs that emerged from college radio. KROQ developed a substantial audience in Southern California for bands such as Depeche Mode, the Smiths, and the Cure, who weren’t being played on mainstream rock stations.
It was no surprise that the day after the KXLU premiere, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was played on most CMJ stations across the country, but it was exciting that the track was immediately added at several of the most widely listened-to commercial alternative rock stations as well, starting with WFNX in Kates’s hometown of Boston and immediately followed by KROQ in L.A. and 91X in San Diego. As much as Kurt, Krist, and Dave affected an ironic distance from music business hype, they were privately excited to have their music played on the big alt-rock stations that they and their friends often listened to.
The next week Silva and I sat in on a marketing meeting at DGC and Kates was vibrating with excitement. Typically, when a commercial radio station added a record they played it once or twice a night, waited for a reaction, and only considered increasing the rotation after several weeks. However, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was getting, in the parlance of radio promo, “heavy phones,” which meant a lot of people were calling to request the song. The feedback was so substantial that rotation had been increased to “heavy” on several important stations after just a few days. Farrell was getting reports that there were lists at many indie stores of fans who had preordered the album, which wouldn’t be available for a few more weeks. In those days such preorders were an extremely rare occurrence, especially for an artist with only one indie album behind them. Since he’d started at DGC, Kates had been wondering if he’d ever be able to work a record as big as those by the Cure or Depeche Mode and suddenly he had one that felt bigger.
Krist reflects with pride that there was very little advertising or other high-pressure marketing for Nevermind: “Later, when the internet became so popular, people would talk about the difference between culture that was ‘pushed’ by marketing and that was ‘pulled’ by people discovering it for themselves. We were pulled.”
The week after the single was released to radio stations, Silva got a call from Sonic Youth’s booking agent Bob Lawton, who had been at a Guns N’ Roses concert in New York City the night before. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had been played on the PA system before the show and the crowd cheered as soon as they heard the intro. We were psyched. New York didn’t even have a commercial alternative radio station but some of the fans must have heard the song on WDRE, a Long Island radio station with an alternative rock format. That was a very short time for a song to become familiar enough to get cheered in a situation like that. In any case we hadn’t thought that anyone who was a fan of Guns N’ Roses would be into Nirvana.
Despite these promising signals, most of the Geffen staff still saw Nirvana as another arty signing that would get a lot of press but was unlikely to be a breakout in terms of sales. To remedy this, the DGC team asked us to schedule a show at the Roxy, a venerable rock club on the Sunset Strip that was right across from the record company’s offices. They wanted the non-alternative execs at Geffen to see Nirvana perform so they could see for themselves the band’s unique power. This was in mid-August, right after Nirvana shot the video, and virtually everyone from the label came.
The Geffen people I spoke with decades later remember that concert as a peak moment in their careers. The Roxy holds five hundred people and it was packed, mostly with music business types, although there were some fans and musicians there as well. (Rosie remembers the singer from the metal band Warrior Soul moshing during “Breed.”) Nirvana was in their prime, tight and powerful. Afterward Kurt characteristically claimed he was worried that the show was a disappointment, lamenting that he had broken a guitar string. I gave the requisite, and in this case sincere, managerial assurance that it had been great.
I walked across Sunset Boulevard with some of the label execs. “I feel like I just saw the Who in London in 1964,” gushed Robin Sloane. Robert Smith looked at me pensively and said, “I’m thinking they might actually have a gold record.”
It was important to the band to be in Seattle on the day that Nevermind was released. Rosie was blown away by the way Nirvana rose to the occasion. “The week of release I was in Seattle and Susie Tennant and I went to KCMU and KISW. The band was very businesslike doing interviews. They were on time, they were funny.” On release day there was an appearance at Seattle’s Peaches record store and a record release party. Beforehand, wanting a break from promo mode, Nirvana went to Tennant’s house, which also served as her office. “I had a long living room. There were tons of Geffen CDs and they took them out and stacked them up like dominos. Dave and Kurt each put on one of my dresses. Then they’d run toward the stacked CDs and dive into them.” The first hit album that DGC had had was by the pop teen brother duo Nelson. Kurt grabbed one of Tennant’s lipsticks and defaced the Nelson gold record with it.
At the in-store, where fans overflowed onto the street, Nirvana played live. “It was a super-fun show,” Tennant remembers, “the first time most of the fans there heard the new songs.” Kurt had an additional agenda that day: “He was insistent on getting a Riot Grrrl fanzine into Peaches for them to sell there,” Tennant recalls admiringly. “It was supposed to be a day for Nirvana, about celebrating Kurt and the band, and he was taking care of his old friends.”
Jennie Boddy remembers that afterward Kurt looked out the window of the store and saw Sub Pop partner Bruce Pavitt sitting on the curb, his head in his hands, waiting for a cab. Kurt shouted down at him with bittersweet affection, “There is the daddy bird! We need to fly from the nest now!”
In the wake of the album release, it seemed like everything worked for the band even when they were being boisterous. They set fire to a sofa in the dressing room of a club in Pittsburgh but somehow avoided any adverse consequences. At the same time, Rosie recalls, “It seemed to me that Kurt had a critical view of everything that was going on, as if he had been thinking for years of what a poster should look like. The three of them seemed to enjoy each other’s company but when it came time to decide something, such as whether the mood of an interview should be jovial or serious, Kurt set the tone. If there was a food fight he threw the first slice of pizza.” (Several people I spoke to mentioned food fights. They never had one in front of me. This was the good news/bad news of being seventeen years older than Kurt was.)
Considering the bitter feelings that Kurt and Axl Rose would soon develop for each other, it is ironic that in the weeks before Nevermind was released, Rose was talking up Nirvana even though he had never met them. He can be seen with a promotional Nirvana hat in the “Don’t Cry” video. Another incongruous but useful endorsement came from the legendary former Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice, an icon in the metal world. His new band, Blue Murder, was signed to Geffen, and Appice was so impressed with his advance copy of Nevermind that he praised Dave Grohl in a column about drumming he wrote for Circus magazine.
By the end of the fall, KNAC, the metal station in Los Angeles, had seven tracks in rotation. Rosie recalls that “the program director of Z-Rock, a nationally syndicated metal station based in Dallas, initially worried that fans in pickup trucks who liked Van Halen wouldn’t relate to Nirvana. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ ended up being the most played track in Z-Rock’s history.”
Rosie, though only in his early twenties at the time, was in old-school promo mode, not always tuned into the sensitive line that Nirvana was walking. Part of Kurt loved that headbangers were playing his riffs on air guitar. He was proud of being able to rock. But another part of him knew that metal fans were overwhelmingly male and that few of them shared his feminist and gay-rights leanings, which left him with mixed feelings about the label’s metal push. One day when Nirvana was at the Geffen offices, Rosie surprised Kurt by putting him on the phone with the editor of the CMJ metal section and “Kurt clammed up and Silva said I’d steamrollered him.” Rosie was kept at a distance from Kurt for a while after that.
Every year there were a handful of rock bands that got a song played on both rock and pop radio, usually catchy rock ballads like Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” When Gersh and Silva and I had speculated about whether or not Nevermind had a song that would work on pop stations we had assumed that the best contender was “Come as You Are” because it wasn’t too loud and had melodic hooks. However, the reaction to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” quickly exceeded our wildest expectations. It’s an axiom of the record business to double down on something that you know people like.
I asked the Geffen pop promotion guy if he thought it was worth promoting the song at some adventurous pop stations. He condescendingly reminded me that pop radio at that time was playing danceable records like those of Paula Abdul and eschewed anything with loud guitars. I couldn’t even convince him to try to work the Top 40 stations in Seattle. The problem was solved shortly thereafter by Leslie Fram, who was the music director of Power 99, a pop station in Atlanta. She had noticed that alternative rock records were increasing in sales at local record stores and was looking for a record to play to see if the Top 40 audience in Atlanta was up for going in a new direction. Fram remembers, “I was dumbfounded when I heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’” The track did so well that she and her colleagues decided to change the format of the entire station to be more alternative leaning and started calling themselves 99X. Once a programmer said it was a pop song, the old-school promo guy became a convert. It didn’t hurt that many other pop stations copied 99X’s format. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a pop hit, going to number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The breakthrough into pop radio put Nirvana into a category all their own. Their music worked for fans of punk, commercial alternative, metal, mainstream rock, and pop. This had been Kurt’s vision all along. In his journals, those favorite-album lists regularly included ABBA and Black Sabbath as well as R.E.M. and Black Flag.
MTV was at its peak of influence on American musical culture. In late 1992 Kurt would tell an Argentine writer, “In the United States, MTV is like God; it’s very powerful. Everybody watches and listens to that channel.” Scott Litt, who produced R.E.M.’s biggest albums and who would work with Nirvana as an engineer on various projects, including MTV Unplugged, says, “MTV was so powerful, you didn’t say no to them. It was like pop radio in the fifties. If you didn’t play ball, good luck.”
Amy Finnerty had gotten an entry-level job at MTV in late 1989 and soon thereafter became friends with Janet Billig, who had taken her to the Pyramid Club in the East Village to see Nirvana when Bleach came out. “It was such an incredible show. It didn’t start till long after midnight and there couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty people there, but Kurt still broke his guitar at the end.” Afterward she went back to Janet’s apartment with the band, which is where she first met Kurt.
A few months later, when Nirvana had been flown to New York to meet with Columbia Records, she saw Kurt backstage at a concert and reintroduced herself. He said, “I can’t believe you know who I am; I’m just in a dumb little band.” Kurt and Krist teased Finnerty about working for “corporate” MTV and pretended that they were going to throw their beers at her, but they were just kidding.
In the summer of 1991, Finnerty was twenty-two years old and was still immersed in the same eighties punk culture that had inspired Kurt. The people programming MTV were all at least a decade older and were blind to it. With the zealous assurance of youth, she persuaded the higher-ups at MTV that she should attend the all-important “music meeting” that took place every Monday, where decisions were made about which music videos would be played and how often. “I was still low on the totem pole, but they realized that I was the only one in the demographic they were going for. The other people there had all been there for ten years and thought that artists like Phil Collins were what kids wanted to hear.”
The people at record companies who were championing “alternative” rock soon realized they had a new ally at MTV. In late summer Mark Kates told Finnerty to meet him at a listening party Geffen was having for the forthcoming Guns N’ Roses album at the Electric Lady studios in New York and promised that he would give her an advance cassette of Nevermind afterward. “I had nothing against Guns N’ Roses, but it was a double album and the party went on for a long time and all I kept thinking was I wanted it to be over so I could get that Nirvana cassette. I listened to it on my Walkman while I walked home afterward, and I knew it was gonna be huge.”
Music video submissions usually occurred on Friday to give the programmers the weekend to think about it. On the Friday that the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video came in, the Smashing Pumpkins were in Finnerty’s office, having crashed at her apartment the night before. She remembers, “We saw how incredible it was,” and as she walked Billy Corgan and the other Pumpkins around to meet various MTV execs, in each of their offices they were playing the video from “this other cool band.” By the end of the day, Finnerty recalls, “there was palpable excitement” in the hallways, and “people that I didn’t know were coming into my office to see the video.”
Prior to the Monday music meeting Finnerty met privately with her boss Abbey Konowitch and made the case for putting the Nirvana video into heavy rotation right away. “I said that if I was wrong and the record wasn’t a hit, they could kick me out of the music meeting. I put my job on the line.” Konowitch loved the passion but pointed out that there was only room to add one new video into “heavy” that week and MTV had also gotten a new Guns N’ Roses video that had to go first because the band was an established favorite with MTV viewers, but he promised that the Nirvana video would be moved up to heavy the following week.
On September 29, a few days after Nevermind was released, the video premiered on MTV on their alternative show 120 Minutes, after which it then went into “medium” rotation, which was exactly what they had done with Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” a year earlier before dropping it after a few weeks. Fearing a rerun of that pattern, I harangued people at Geffen about how we all had to pressure MTV to play the video in heavy rotation. I had no idea that thanks to Finnerty an increase in rotation the following week was already a fait accompli.
“Within a few weeks my life changed,” Finnerty recalls. Her status at the network skyrocketed and she was the liaison to Nirvana for the rest of their career. MTV was crucial to making Nirvana a mass-appeal artist, but once they became famous the band was among the small group of stars that attracted viewers to the channel, so the relationship became one of mutual exploitation. Kurt resented it when MTV pressured him, but he hated it when they ignored him. He regularly watched the channel himself and wanted Nirvana to be a big deal there, and he hated the part of himself that cared that much.
Kurt would insist on making three other videos for the Nevermind album and rarely turned down MTV when they wanted the band on one of their shows. A month after the album was released, for an appearance on the MTV heavy metal show, Headbangers Ball, Kurt wore a vintage canary-yellow ball gown. When the host Riki Rachtman asked him why, Kurt answered coyly, “It’s a ball, isn’t it?” Twenty years later the MTV website ran an interview with Rachtman in which he complained that getting answers from Kurt for his show was “like pulling teeth” and that Kurt acted like “he didn’t want to be there.” Displaying that sullen punk attitude on a heavy metal show was Kurt’s way of having his heavy metal cake and eating it too. He was determined to let old and new fans know that he detested macho attitudes but he still liked the idea that a metal show played his video. Finnerty and her bosses at MTV didn’t share Rachtman’s ire and understood what Kurt was doing.
When Kates and Smith had dreamed of having a gold record, they had envisioned that it would come after a year of methodical effort. The enthusiasm that the Roxy show generated at Geffen notwithstanding, the initial pressing was only around fifty thousand units, which was more than Bleach had sold but hardly an indicator that a runaway success was on the horizon. That initial shipment sold out of stores almost immediately, followed by massive reorders. Nevermind was certified gold (500,000 copies shipped) on October 12, a mere eighteen days after it was released. Boddy remembers, “Everyone in Seattle was so excited. Everything good that happened to Nevermind was happening to us. It was like, ‘Our team won!’” Kurt, Krist, and Dave were excited too but things were moving so quickly that there was an air of unreality to the accomplishment, and it seemed to me that the band was doing their best to ignore as much of the “success” as they could during these days.
I had no such inner constraint. I made up a song I sang to myself in the car: “I’ve got the biggest band, the biggest band in the land.” Jimmy Iovine, who had cofounded Interscope Records the previous year, was someone I was always trying to impress. “I really think this is going to be bigger than anything I’ve ever been involved with,” I said to him on the phone one day. Iovine supportively answered, “It reminds me of the Police.” I don’t know where I got the balls to respond, “I think it’s gonna be bigger than the Police.” I was out of control, but no matter how optimistic I got about the success of Nevermind, it kept exceeding my expectations.
Commercial radio and MTV were for the masses; the print medium was for the cult fans. On the last of the band’s trips to New York before Nevermind came out, Janet Billig took Kurt to Madison Square Garden, where Metallica was premiering their new album at a giant listening party. Kurt liked Metallica and had a good time, yet he was also brooding about how to stave off a possible press backlash to Nirvana’s forthcoming album. Echoing the spin he’d given Montgomery and Thurston, Kurt once again brought up “About a Girl,” reminding Billig that he’d always written melodic songs. He wanted people to know he hadn’t changed just because he’d signed to a major label, and he knew that Janet was a publicist who was regularly in touch with most of the journalists who covered the indie subculture and that she would give his spin to them. She remembers, “Kurt read everything. He was always into straddling between the indie and the mainstream rock worlds, and he pulled it off.”
Kurt needn’t have worried. Most writers who identified with punk rock recognized that Nirvana had made an album that retained and expanded their personal version of rock and roll and saw it as the triumph of the eighties punk culture they had long championed. It was also a huge validation of the Seattle rock community. Boddy remembers, “Critics all over rejoiced, even at Maximum Rocknroll and Flipside. They did not feel that the band sold out. Nobody felt that. Being a press person for Sub Pop, I’m telling you, nobody.”
Meanwhile I did what I could on a more mainstream flank. I had been friends with Bob Guccione Jr. since he had started Spin in 1985. Like me, he was a businessperson who was an emotional step removed from the punk culture he’d identified as an underserved audience his magazine could appeal to. When we had lunch at the end of the summer, he told me that he was going to put Soundgarden on the cover of their year-end issue. (At that moment, Soundgarden was still Seattle’s most popular new rock band.) I brashly told Bob that by the end of the year the biggest Seattle band was going to be Nirvana, not Soundgarden. Guccione’s young staff must have concurred, because he assigned Lauren Spencer to write what would be the band’s first cover story in a national magazine.
By the end of September Kurt knew how fast things were moving and wanted a different look for Spin than the PR shots that had been taken for the label a few weeks before. The day before the photo session the band visited WOZQ in Northampton and he asked a young woman who worked there to dye his hair blue, which is how he appeared on Nirvana’s first national magazine cover.
Many older rock critics saw Nevermind as a revival of American rock and roll that was about something. R.E.M. had been the last band that both commanded a mass audience and touched on deeper themes, but since they’d been around for almost a decade, their core audience was now mostly college age or older. Guns N’ Roses had added adrenaline to the teenage rock-and-roll world, but they lacked cultural depth. It seemed to many middle-aged critics that rock and roll had morphed into a louder version of shallow pop, but in late 1991 most of them saw the breakthrough of Nevermind as rock’s return to a level of cultural centrality that they feared had become irretrievably out of reach. Critics usually looked down on very popular artists and only a small fraction of the mass musical audience read reviews. Nevermind became one of the very few albums that had massive chart success and also placed first in the Village Voice’s highly respected Pazz & Jop poll, which tabulated the top ten lists of hundreds of American rock critics at the end of the year.
Kurt kept telling everybody that he had only wanted Nirvana to be as big as the Pixies. I’m almost certain that he was being disingenuous and that he had been thinking about how to react to success with the same intensity that he had brought to musical rehearsals. Notwithstanding whatever personal struggles he had with lurking demons, and as unprepared and sometimes repelled as he was by the personal experience of fame, as an artist Kurt was preternaturally well prepared and he always seemed to be thinking several steps ahead.
Just as he had figured out a way to uniquely transcend divisions in radio formats, Kurt endeavored to go beyond the pigeonholes that rock journalism had created. “People think I’m a moody person, and I think it’s lame that there are only two kinds of male lead singers,” he complained. “You can either be a moody visionary like Michael Stipe, or a mindless heavy metal party guy like Sammy Hagar.” Once he knew he was becoming famous, Kurt was determined to play both roles.
Silva and the band thought it was important that the first time Nirvana played each major market they return to a small club where they had appeared before. In the parlance of the business these were “underplays” and helped them remain connected to their core audience. Because “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had gotten such a quick reaction, the shows sold out immediately, even though the tour actually started in mid-September, a week before Nevermind came out. Montgomery recalls, “It was insanity. At every show there were more people outside who couldn’t get in than there were inside.” For those who had tickets, the trajectory of the record gave all the early shows a sense of instant rock-and-roll history, and the audience often worked themselves into a frenzy.
In St. Louis, security guards were getting rough with some kids who were rushing the stage. After trying to cool down the guards, always difficult in the middle of loud music, Kurt stopped the show and invited a bunch of the kids to stand on the stage while Krist earnestly explained to the audience that “anarchy only works if we all accept responsibility.”
In Los Angeles, where Geffen was headquartered and much of the media was based, we wanted to make room for more people to see them so an underplay didn’t make sense. October 27, a month after Nevermind had been released, Nirvana headlined at the Palace Theatre, which had 2,200 seats, the biggest place Nirvana had headlined up until that moment, and the show quickly sold out. The band had been consistently playing great shows and this was no exception. Backstage afterward, Eddie Rosenblatt told me that he had come with Axl Rose and asked if he could bring him into the dressing room to say hi to Kurt. When I conveyed this request, Kurt grimaced and said he really didn’t want to meet the Guns N’ Roses singer. I didn’t want to put Geffen’s president in an untenable situation, so I suggested to Kurt that he and I leave the dressing room and then I’d give Rosenblatt a couple of passes. That way it wouldn’t be like we were excluding them, just that Kurt couldn’t be found. Kurt nodded and I walked outside, delivered the passes to Rosenblatt, and asked if he and Rose could wait five minutes for Nirvana to “change clothes.” Then I went back in and grabbed Kurt and we ducked out a back door. Rosenblatt never gave me shit about it afterward so the charade worked on some level, but I doubt it left Rose with a great taste in his mouth.
Kurt and I stood in the corner of a corridor backstage where music business hangers-on walked by, not realizing that the slight guy in the shadows was the singer who had just given a classic and powerful performance, his sweat still drying. Kurt took this moment to tell me that he’d been concerned that a lot of the recent articles about Nirvana had emphasized his anti-misogynistic lyrics to such a degree that he was worried about coming across as being too serious and without a sense of humor. While he admired overtly political punk bands like Fugazi and the Dead Kennedys, he didn’t want Nirvana to be perceived that narrowly.
I always dreaded conversations with artists who were unhappy with how they were described in the media because it was extremely difficult to do anything about it other than be more selective about who they talked to in the future. I launched into a generic rap about the limited ability we all had to influence nuances like this.
Kurt’s response has always stayed with me because it was a moment when I had a glimpse of a level of calculation in his head I hadn’t previously known was there. He looked at me with that same patient look I’d seen in the office and gently interrupted, “I know, and I’ve been trying to think of why this is, and I think it’s because there is some political stuff in the press kit the label is giving to writers.”
He was a step ahead of me even in my supposed area of expertise. Since the official “bio” was the mostly fictitious parody, Geffen had added some earlier articles about the band, some of which focused on the anti-rape song “Polly.” I felt like an idiot for not thinking of this. “So, you want me to ask the label to remove those pieces?” I asked. He nodded appreciatively. “Yeah, that would be great.”
Those kinds of adjustments were easy. More complicated was the fact that, as of a couple of weeks earlier, a new person had entered Kurt’s life whose presence would be felt by everyone who knew him for the rest of his days.
From the forthcoming book SERVING THE SERVANT: Remembering Kurt Cobain by Danny Goldberg. Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Goldberg. To be published on April 2, 2019 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.