This is what Nirvana singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain thought of institutional honors in rock and roll: When his band was photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time, in early 1992, he arrived wearing a white T-shirt on which he'd written, CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK in black marker. The slogan was his twist on one coined by the punk-rock label SST: "Corporate Rock Still Sucks." The hastily arranged photo session, held by the side of a road during a manic tour of Australia, was later recalled by photographer Mark Seliger: "I said to Kurt, 'I think that's a great shirt ... but let’s shoot a couple with and without it.' Kurt said, 'No, I'm not going to take my shirt off.'" Rolling Stone ran his Fuck You un-retouched.
Cobain was also mocking his own success. At that moment, Nirvana – Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl – was rock's biggest new rock band, propelled out of a long-simmering post-punk scene in Seattle by its incendiary second album, Nevermind, and an improbable Top 10 single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Right after New Year's Day 1992, Nevermind– Nirvana's first major-label release and a perfect monster of feral-punk challenge and classic-rock magnetism, issued to underground ecstasy just months before – had shoved Michael Jackson's Dangerous out of the Number One spot on Billboard.
For the next two years, Nirvana – and particularly Cobain, its grainy, searing voice and enigmatic songwriter – led and defined the early 90s alternative-rock uprising. Like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Like a Rolling Stone," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a Year Zero hit. A titanic blast of dry jest and anthemic anxiety promoted with a kinetic, mosh-pit-party video, the song changed the sound and future of rock in an instant, unleashing a generation's pent-up energy and severing the extended, conservative grip on hair metal, synth-pop, and the Reagan-Bush 80s. Nirvana came fully armed for their moment, too, with the compelling despair and fighting bliss of the Nevermind grenades "Come as You Are" and "In Bloom." Later, in 1993, there was the raw emotional crisis of In Utero, while eerily gorgeous ballads like "Dumb" and "All Apologies" revealed the great pop drive in Cobain's savaging introspection.
But that T-shirt summed up a powerful resentment. Cobain hated the crush of celebrity and mistrusted the sudden, rapt attention of his mainstream audience.
"There was always punk-rock guilt," Grohl said years later. "Kurt, in some way, felt guilty – that he had done something that so many people latched on to. The bigger the shows got, the farther we got from our dream, our ideal." That, Grohl claimed, was "remaining comfortable and confident in the underground, where we had always expected to be."
We can't know what Cobain would have of Nirvana's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Struggling with heroin addiction and profoundly unhappy in his stardom, Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home, a suicide, on April 8, 1994. He left a wife, singer Courtney Love of Hole; a young daughter, Frances; two shattered bandmates; and a stunned world. Like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, Cobain was only 27 when he died.
"There's the icon, and then there's the person," Novoselic said of his friend in 2001. "I don't think I ever knew the icon." The bassist, originally from California, met Cobain in high school, in the hard-up logging town of Aberdeen, Washington. They started Nirvana in 1987, going through five drummers – making their debut album, Bleach (1987) with Chad Channing – before enlisting Grohl, a veteran of Washington, D.C.'s hardcore community, in 1990.
Cobain "was deified because of people's connection to the music," Novoselic contended. But songwriting was "an exorcising thing for him. And he had really high standards. If he wanted people to hear it, you knew it was in good condition."
"I never wanted to sing," Cobain said of his initial ambitions when we spoke in October 1993, during Nirvana's In Utero tour. "I just wanted to play rhythm guitar – hide in the back and just play. But 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."
And Cobain knew when he was good. "If I was smart, I would have saved most of the songs off Nevermind and spread them over a 15-year career," he cracked. "But I can't do that. All the albums I ever liked were albums that delivered a great song, one after another: Aerosmith's Rocks, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks..., Led Zeppelin II, Back in Black by AC/DC."
Cobain and Nirvana now follow all of those famous bands into the Hall of Fame. "The whole fame thing – yeah, he didn't know what to do," Novoselic admitted. But, he added, "artistically, he knew exactly what he was doing."
Kurt Donald Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, in Hoquiam, Washington, and grew up in nearby Aberdeen, the older of the two children. His father, Donald, an auto mechanic, and mother, Wendy, divorced when Cobain was 8, a split that still haunted him on In Utero. "I tried hard to have a father/ But instead I have a dad," he said in "Serve the Servants."
Cobain found solace and purpose in music, learning guitar by playing along to AC/DC's "Back in Black" and listening intently to the Beatles. Nevermind co-producer Butch Vig recalled watching Cobain play John Lennon's "Julia"on guitar one day during the sessions. "He had that innate melodic sensitivity," Vig said, noting that Cobain also "tried sometimes to squash that. That's not a very punk-y thing to do, to sing gorgeous melodies.... He would say, 'Is this too much?' – even on 'Teen Spirit.'"
Cobain discovered punk in his late teens, through a thundering Monsanto, Washington, band called the Melvins. He was such a fan he became their roadie for a time. In turn, their drummer, Dale Crover, played in Cobain's early stab at a band, Fecal Matter, then in an embryonic Nirvana with Cobain and Novoselic. Crover, who replaced original drummer Aaron Burckhard, was on Nirvana's first studio session: demos of 10 songs all written or co-written by Cobain, taped in Seattle 1988.
Novoselic, who was born May 16, 1965, to Croatian parents in Compton, California, described Cobain's composing: "He never liked literal things." Cobain typically wrote in soft-loud seesaws – dark, often creeping riffs in the verse, followed by big-chorus fireworks. (He derided his own formula with a song titled at one point, "Verse Chorus Verse.") But the lyrics had a slippery candor – unfiltered confessions and jarring confrontation, expressed in sly entendres and jump-cut language – that came out in his other art: homemade collages and bizarre videotape montages in which he reordered images and debris from popular culture. Cobain's driving impulse in everything, Novoselic said, was "build your own world."
The Pacific Northwest was a punk-rock nation unto itself long before the major-label gold rush triggered by Nevermind. In the early and mid 60s, the biggest stars in the region, aside from the Beatles, were homegrown Nuggets heroes like the Sonics, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Wailers (who cut a seminal rock version of Richard Berry's "Louie Louie"), and the Kingsmen (who had the hit in 1963). What became known as "grunge" – a local brand of thunder, speed and brawl rooted in both Black Sabbath and Black Flag – was officially on record by 1986, on the complication LP Deep Six.
In November 1988, Sub Pop Records, the scene's nerve-center label, released Nirvana's first single, "Love Buzz," a scouring fuzz cover of a 1969 oldie by Dutch pop-psych group Shocking Blue. "For a few years in Seattle, it was the Summer of Love," Cobain said in 1993. "To be able to just jump on top of the crowd with my guitar and be held up and pushed to the back of the room and then brought back with no harm done to me – it was a celebration of something that no one could put their finger on."
Bleach was made during that utopia – in 30 hours with producer Jack Endino for $606.17 – and issued by Sub Pop in June 1989. (Guitarist Jason Everman, briefly in the band that year, was shown in the cover photo and listed in the album credits but did not play on the record.) Still, in his fuzz bullet, "School," Cobain was seething about the cracks and cliques surfacing among the Seattle bands. He also turned from grunge orthodoxy in "About a Girl," written about a failing relationship, and recorded in stark folk-rock tones that evoked the Beatles' Rubber Soul and recent R.E.M.
"There was this total rock-godhead thing going on," Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore said in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview, remembering the first time he saw Nirvana live in 1989. Moore also recognized the pop logic in Cobain's songs and Nirvana's visceral execution “something Kurt really picked up from the Pixies and R.E.M." Cobain openly acknowledged his inspirations. "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," he said in 1993 of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" – and, he added, smiling, "trying to rip off the Pixies."
Grohl – born in Warren, Ohio, on January 14, 1969, and raised in Virginia – was originally a guitarist and turned to drums in high school. He toured and made albums with the Washington, D.C., hardcore band Scream until Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne put him in touch with Cobain and Novoselic. The Nevermind sessions, in Van Nuys, California, were the first time Grohl had worked in a professional studio.
"We had been rehearsing those songs for months," Grohl said in 2001. "We weren't so concerned with making sure all of us were playing perfectly. It was more about really coming together as a unit, to make a noise that grooved." Cobain, he pointed out. “was kind of a drummer himself. When he would play guitar or write songs, if you looked at his jaw, he would be moving [it] back and forth. It was like he was playing the drums with his teeth. He heard in his head what he wanted from a rhythm."
Nothing was the same for rock or Nirvana after Nevermind. "It was so fast and explosive," Cobain said of that whirlwind. "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." Grohl later described that period of extremes – the hit singles and TV appearances; Cobain's drug use and rehab; the birth of Frances and the harsh tabloid focus on Cobain's marriage to Love – as "walking through a minefield."
In Utero was Nirvana's rude, deliberate overreaction to pop glory and the studio-manicured force of Nevermind. The band made In Utero with producer Steve Albini, a punk legend for his work with the Pixies and his own cult bands Big Black and Rapeman. The basic tracks were cut live – as many as four a day – and Cobain sang most of his vocals in a single seven-hour session. That immediacy suited the contempt and irony loaded into songs like "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" (Cobain's shot at grunge mania) and "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" (an obvious joke at his own expense).
But In Utero was also the result of obsessive, patient craft: "Dumb," "All Apologies," and the magnificent tension of "Pennyroyal Tea" were all written by Cobain back in 1990. And when he had second thoughts about the mixes on In Utero, Nirvana went into studio again, this time with Scott Litt, to do additional work, among other things, the suspense and fury of the album's first single, "Heart-Shaped Box."
Novoselic has called In Utero "my favorite Nirvana album. You can hear the band in there. And it was a diverse record. We weren't beating the idea to death. That album is a testimony to Kurt – his artistic vision and how strong it was."
There would be one more: Nirvana's extraordinary acoustic performance on November 18, 1993, in New York, for MTV Unplugged. With an expanded touring lineup that included guitarist Pat Smear of the Germs, Nirvana revisited hard, distortion-laden songs like "Come as You Are" with a bold quiet, while treating the soft distress of "Polly" and "Something in the Way" with an enriched buoyance. Cobain also sang a new, definitive treatment of Lead Belly's chilling lament, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night."
Everything was done in one take. MTV aired the show on December 16, 1993; four months later Cobain was dead. The album of that concert, issued in November 1994, was Nirvana's first posthumous release.
It is hard to ignore the coincidence: Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the 20th anniversary of Cobain's passing. "It's easy to remember him being sad," Grohl said in 2001. "But the things I like to think about are his happiness and how much he loved music, whether he was sitting in a living room, playing an acoustic guitar, or playing at the Off Ramp in Seattle."
"It was real." Novoselic insisted. "[Cobain] would say to himself, 'What is good music? What is good art? Does it have passion?' No pretense, no grandiose concepts – that's what moved him."
Then Kurt Cobain – and Nirvana – moved the world. – David Fricke