Ashirtless, disheveled Kurt Cobain pauses on the backstage stairway leading to Nirvana‘s dressing room at the Aragon Ballroom, in Chicago, offers a visitor a sip of his après-gig tea and says in a drop-deadpan voice, “I’m really glad you could make it for the shittiest show on the tour.”
He’s right. Tonight’s concert — Nirvana’s second of two nights at the Aragon, only a week into the band’s first U.S. tour in two years — is a real stinker. The venue’s cavernous sound turns even corrosive torpedoes like “Breed” and “Territorial Pissings” into riff pudding, and Cobain is bedeviled all night by guitar — and vocal — monitor problems. There are moments of prickly brilliance: Cobain’s sandpaper howl cutting through the Aragon’s canyonlike echo in the tense, explosive chorus of “Heart–Shaped Box”; a short, stunning “Sliver” with torrid power strumming by guest touring guitarist Pat Smear (ex-Germs). But there is no “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and when the house lights go up, so does a loud chorus of boos.
According to the Cobain press myth — “pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic,” as he quite accurately puts it — the 26-year-old singer and guitarist should have fired the soundman, canceled this interview and gone back to his hotel room to sulk. Instead, he spends his wind–down time backstage, doting on his daughter, 1-year-old Frances Bean Cobain, a petite blond beauty who barrels around the room with a smile for everyone in her path. Later, back at the hotel, armed with nothing stronger than a pack of cigarettes and two minibar bottles of Evian water, Cobain is in a thoughtful, discursive mood, taking great pains to explain that success doesn’t really suck – not as much as it used to, anyway – and that his life is pretty good. And getting better.
“It was so fast and explosive,” he says in a sleepy, gravelly voice of his first crisis of confidence following the ballistic success of Nevermind. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. If there was a Rock Star 101 course, I would have liked to take it. It might have helped me.”
“I still see stuff, descriptions of rock stars in some magazine — ‘Sting, the environmental guy,’ and ‘Kurt Cobain, the whiny, complaining, neurotic, bitchy guy who hates everything, hates rock stardom, hates his life.’ And I’ve never been happier in my life. Especially within the last week, because the shows have been going so well — except for tonight. I’m a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am.”
Cobain took some long, hard detours to get there over the past year. The making of In Utero, Nirvana’s long–awaited studio follow — up to Nevermind, was fraught with last–minute title and track changes as well as a public scrap between the band, its record label, DGC, and producer Steve Albini over the album’s commercial potential – or lack thereof. Cobain’s marriage to punk-noir singer Courtney Love of the band Hole – dream fodder for rock gossips since the couple exchanged vows in February 1992 — made headlines again last June when Cobain was arrested by Seattle police for allegedly assaulting Love during a domestic fracas. Police found three guns in the house, but no charges were filed, and the case was dismissed.
Last year, Cobain also made a clean breast of his long-rumored heroin addiction, claiming he’d used the drug — at least in part — to opiate severe, chronic stomach pain. Or as he puts it in this interview, “to medicate myself.” He’s now off the junk, and thanks to new medication and a better diet, his digestive tract, he says, is on the road to recovery.
But the roots of his angst, public and personal, go much deeper. Born in the logging town of Aberdeen, Wash., Cobain is — like Nirvana’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and a high percentage of the band’s young fans — the product of a broken home, the son of an auto mechanic and a secretary who divorced when he was 8. Cobain had early aspirations as a commercial artist and won a number of high-school art contests; he now designs much of Nirvana’s artwork. (He made the plastic-fetus collage on the back cover of In Utero, which got the record banned by Wal-Mart.) But after graduation, Cobain passed on an art-school scholarship and took up the teen-age-bum life, working as a roadie for the local punk band the Melvins (when he was working at all) and applying himself to songwriting.
“I never wanted to sing,” Cobain insists now. “I just wanted to play rhythm guitar — hide in the back and just play. But during those high-school years when I was playing guitar in my bedroom, I at least had the intuition that I had to write my own songs.”
For a long time, after Nirvana catapulted from junior Sub Pop-label signees to grunge supergods — they won the Best Band and Best Album trophies in our 1994 Critics’ Poll — Cobain could not decide whether his talent was a blessing or a curse. He has finally come to realize it’s a bit of both. He is bugged that people think of him more as an icon than a songwriter yet fears that In Utero marks the finish line of the Nirvana sound crystallized in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Cobain remains deeply mistrustful of the music business but says he has done a complete U–turn on his attitude toward Nirvana’s mass punk-wanna-be flock.
“I don’t have as many judgments about them as I used to,” Cobain says, almost apologetically. “I’ve come to terms about why they’re there and why we’re here. It doesn’t bother me anymore to see this Neanderthal with a mustache, out of his mind, drunk, singing along to ‘Sliver.’ That blows my mind now.
“I’ve been relieved of so much pressure in the last year and a half,” Cobain says with discernible relief in his voice. “I’m still kind of mesmerized by it.” He ticks off the reasons for his content: “Pulling this record off. My family. My child. Meeting William Burroughs and doing a record with him.”
“Just little things that no one would recognize or care about,” he continues. “And it has a lot to do with this band. If it wasn’t for this band, those things never would have happened. I’m really thankful, and every month I come to more optimistic conclusions.”
“I just hope,” Cobain adds, grinning, “I don’t become so blissful I become boring. I think I’ll always be neurotic enough to do something weird.”