[Kurt Cobain’s] aim for Nevermind’s material was to sound like The Knack and the Bay City Rollers getting molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath. – Wikipedia
Unfortunately, Nirvana became too big too quick,” Dave Grohl said. “Bands are like families that go through uncomfortable growing pains, and if it happens all at once, it’s just too much to handle.”
Dave Grohl had grown up in Virginia and was a devotee of the Washington, D.C punk scene. He first played guitar, learning songs by bands like Bad Brains and Circle Jerks. He later switched to drums and played in the D.C. band, Scream. He cited John Bonham as a major influence and had Bonham’s three-rings (Led Zep IV) symbol tattooed on his wrist.
It was actually guys from the Melvins that first got Kurt and Krist to hear Dave’s drumming. They loved his playing and desperately wished he’d leave Scream and join them. Dave liked their sound and decided to audition with them. And that was it. “We knew in two minutes he was the right drummer,” said Krist. “He was a hard hitter. He was really dynamic. He rocked.”
At the urging of Sonic Youth – who loved Nirvana – the band moved over to work on David Geffen’s label. They got back in the studio with Grohl and knocked out the rest of their second album, now called Nevermind, recording through spring of 1991. The label’s expectation was that the album would sell around 250,000 copies, maybe even go gold.
The thing you have to realize is that there was nothing really commercial about so-called “grunge.” Music of the ’80’s had had a lot of synths and hair bands and no one really expected a unit as hardcore as Nirvana would ever go mainstream. What no one seemed to realize is that the world – a generation – was hungry.
Kurt and Hole frontwoman Courtney Love started getting together just before the recording of Nevermind. According to Come as You Are, “Courtney chose to express her attraction by punching Kurt in the stomach. He punched her back, then he leaped on her and they began wrestling.” Courtney said it was a mating ritual for dysfunctional people. They got married in early 1992 and their daughter Frances Bean was born in August of that year.
Courtney, in my reading, wasn’t the problem. Courtney/Kurt were toxic. However, if you watch Montage of Heck, the documentary on Kurt’s life, it’s pretty clear they loved each other. Courtney thought that he was the cutest guy ever, kissing his picture like a lovesick teenager. “I’ll make myself miserable,” Kurt said of Courtney, “to make you happy.” You are, he wrote to her – incurable romantic that he was – “the greatest fuck of all fucks.”
Released in September 1991, Nevermind started getting airplay on the college station circuit. But it was MTV putting the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in heavy rotation that really made the difference. (‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’, a friend from Bikini Kill graffitied on his apartment wall. He didn’t even know it was deodorant.) The video, which showed the band playing live to a crowd of overzealous fans, was played seemingly around the clock on MTV.
The scenes of kids going nuts and trashing equipment are real. They’d been hanging around all day and were pretty pissed off. BTW, if you want to see 1,200 musicians playing “Teen Spirit” to 15,000 people in an Italian auditorium, click here. You will never again need any other entertainment. I guarantee it will blow you the fuck away.
And then the album sold. And it sold. And it sold. Nirvana toured Europe in late 1991 and by early 1992, Nevermind replaced Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous at number one. (Instead of the 250,000 records they expected to sell, the album has now sold some 30,000,000 copies). And Nirvana was in the bigtime, ready or not. Here’s maybe my favorite Nirvana song, “In Bloom.”
And I think, as to the guys being ready for fame, maybe not. Because from my reading of it, these were mostly just a bunch of small-town guys who were comfortable playing their songs for their crowd, typically people they could hang out with. But now they were attracting the kind of people Kurt hated, like “jocks, frat numbskulls and metal kids.” In hindsight, it just seems to me that he would have been better off and happier playing in Seattle or Olympia the rest of his life.
And now all the inevitable “fame/rockstar/cover of Rolling Stone” bullshit started to happen. Kurt was the main songwriter, and as the (not wanted by him) “spokesman for a disaffected generation,” decided he wanted 75 percent of songwriting royalties retroactive to the release of Nevermind. This did not go down well with the other guys and the band came close to breaking up.
Naturally. the label wanted a follow-up. Kurt thought that the production of Nevermind was too, well, produced. He wanted a natural, more organic sound. And he, to some extent, got that on In Utero. But once he got it – ever the perfectionist – he started to reconsider the lusher sound of Nevermind.
Despite initial concerns by the label about whether or not In Utero was “releasable”, i.e. commercial enough, release it they did in late 1993 to great critical acclaim. Lacking a “Teen Spirit,” it still sold pretty well currently at some 15 million copies.
Here’s “Rape Me,” from a performance at Seattle’s Paramount. Kurt tells you what it’s about. But he said it could also be seen in the light of all the negative media coverage he and Courtney got:
In that same year they did an MTV Unplugged session, even covering David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” (A lot of their fans think it’s a Nirvana song.) Nirvana were by now the preeminent band in America if not the world, but they also opened up the flood gates to other Seattle bands such as Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. (Interestingly, Kurt didn’t think Pearl Jam were authentic. He was just a super-super critical guy, hardest, I think, on himself.)
And then, of course, from here on, it all goes to shit. I will quote Wikipedia which pretty much, I think, nails the rest of the story: “In early 1994, the band embarked on a European tour. Nirvana’s final concert took place in Munich, Germany, on March 1. In Rome, on the morning of March 4, Courtney found Cobain unconscious in their hotel room and he was rushed to the hospital.
A doctor from the hospital [advised] in a press conference that Cobain had reacted to a combination of prescribed Rohypnol and alcohol. The rest of the tour was canceled. In the ensuing weeks, Cobain’s heroin addiction resurfaced. An intervention was organized, and Cobain was convinced to admit himself into drug rehabilitation.
After less than a week in rehab, Cobain climbed over the wall of the facility and took a plane back to Seattle. A week later, on Friday, April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head at his Seattle home.” Thousands of fans converged in Seattle and around the country. To them, Kurt was their John Lennon in, unfortunately, too many ways.
There were signs all along that Kurt was eventually gonna do this. In the sometimes disturbing Montage, Cobain describes sitting on a railroad track as a teenager, waiting for the train to come down. At the last minute it switched tracks.
And the seeds of this attitude seem to be very much in the rejection he got in Aberdeen, being shunted from house to house. He was perhaps too sensitive to every really get over it. Krist said he hated being humiliated and would fly into a rage.
Or maybe it was being famous. Or having stomach problems. Who knows? It just seems to me people kill themselves when the battery is completely run down and there’s no hope of recharging it. Kurt always wanted to die. Just took him 27 years to get around to it.
Epilog: Nirvana is considered to be one of the most influential bands ever. My son was born not too long before Kurt killed himself and he is one of their biggest fans. He, in fact, read these posts before I published to see if I caught the band’s essence.
Krist Novoselic kicked around for a while, then formed a band called Eyes Adrift. They broke up in 2003 and Krist retired from the music business (sort of). Every now and again he pops up and in November 2016 he said he was writing music. But he seems to mostly enjoy being politically active these days. (Nirvana was, like the Clash, a people’s band).
Dave Grohl apparently never got the memo that said that drummers are just supposed to explode Spinal Tap-like or just go fuck off somewhere and drum. No, he had to go and form Foo Fighters which has become another great band and Grohl has gone on to become a fucking FORCE to be contended with. He is on the voting committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. General consensus is that it was his influence that got Bad Brains nominated for the 2017 class.
Of Kurt Cobain, Lars Ulrich stated that “in 1991 there was a kind of shift in rock music in America — it was shifting away from all the hair bands in L.A. And with Kurt you felt you were connecting to the real person, not to a perception of who he was — you were not connecting to an image or a manufactured cut-out. You felt that between you and him there was nothing — it was heart-to-heart. There are very few people who have that ability.” Patti Smith wrote a song about Kurt in 1996 called “About a Boy.”
As to accolades for Nirvana, go look at Wikipedia sometime. The list is as long as your arm. They have sold over 75 million records worldwide and in 2005, the Library of Congress added Nevermind to the National Recording Registry, which collects “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” sound recordings from the 20th century.
Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (by Michael Stipe) in 2014.
Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Michael Azerrad. Broadway Books, Montage of Heck (Kurt Cobain documentary).