Kurt Cobain On 'MTV Unplugged'

The Sad Rest of Kurt Cobain

Nick Soulsby’s interview book for completists is not meant to entertain -- it's a 500-page death march.

Kurt Cobain killed himself a little while after Spring Break when I was in eighth grade. It was the most impactful death in my life up to that point, both because I was naively unaccustomed to the sudden idea of suicide and because he was Jesus to my generation. My friends sat around on the gym floor, moping during our useless study hall, calculating how our combined allowance could possibly get even one of us to the funeral half way across the country in Seattle.

We speculated that he was assassinated, that his suicide note was a sham. We often got a good laugh out of our matchy-matchy looks when we would accidentally wear the same Nirvana t-shirts on the same day. Cobain’s death affected us the way I imagine Buddy Holly’s death by plane crash took the wind out of teenage sails in 1959.

As a band, Nirvana symbolized the wretched tension of opposites that I felt as an artist and a human. On the one hand, they collapsed a decrepit image of what rock ‘n’ roll should be with a revolutionary new sound. On the other hand, they propped up an industry that capitalized on their music with unadulterated commercialism. They were sell-outs full of soul, holding on loosely to both punk and pop.

In eighth grade, we knew that. We knew that they ran into the arms of horror laughing, that they spoke to us on the pages of magazines out of the corner of their collective mouth. We liked the profiles, but trusted no one to tell us who Cobain was. So as much as we enjoyed secondhand revelations, we gobbled up interviews with far more gusto. We wanted the tea leaves right from Cobain’s mouth for us to interpret ourselves.

Out there in the suburbs, the fanzines passed us by. This was before the world wide web; 14-year-olds were not on the internet. We just drooled over Teen Beat and Rolling Stone, maybe somebody had a copy of Melody Maker. We had a sneaking suspicion that these pages were not where the action was. I never got to see Nirvana live. I was never near a show, never had an money, and never would my parents approve. Like a shooting star, Nirvana was the brightest thing in my universe for four or five years, and then they were just gone. So much about this band remains a mystery to all of us.

It’s not a bad idea — it even seems promising — to be sitting here 20 years later clutching at Cobain on Cobain: Interviews & Encounters, edited by Nick Soulsby. Spoiler alert: even after reading this book, Cobain remains a mystery.

I read this anthology of interviews in three days, but I do not recommend it for binge reading. Above all else, the effect of Cobain on Cobain is an education in journalism, not on the interviewee. Soulsby has compiled primarily international sources and arranged them chronologically into 11 sections of the band’s lifespan with titles like “underground darlings”, “sullenness”, and “damage control”. Many of these interviews were conducted in a foreign language using an English translator, or the interview was held in English then translated to the publication’s language and now translated back to English again for this anthology. There is a dearth of new material made available in English for the first time and much is undoubtedly lost in translation. But some humor is also gained; for example, the amusing verbiage of “Nirvana was programmed to play” at such and such a venue.

Humor is of foremost importance to the band, and readers can easily see how constantly they were forced to rely upon joking around as an antidote to the pressures of fame and the scrutiny of the media. One interview lamented a desperate need for notations within the article that would connote answers given in sarcasm. I came away feeling even more badly for the bandmates. The majority of these interviews are for small zines run by teenagers or college kids with very little professional experience or instinctive interviewing acumen. Since these are pre-internet, source material was hard to come by and most interviewers were compelled to rehash the few known qualities about the band.

Whether reading their answers in 1989 or in 1994, the questions come with only subtle changes. Tell us about the Seattle / Sub Pop music scene. Tell us the philosophy behind the name Nirvana / the album title options / this lyric. Tell us your pop / punk / grunge influences and about what’s wrong with music / kids / society today. Tell us about destroying your instruments. Tell us about the band opening for you on this tour and about what you think of our city. Tell us how you feel about success and show us the drugs.

At first, the answers convey genuine effort and the kidding around grows organically out of topics of conversation. Not very gradually, the joking becomes a reflexive act and a distancing maneuver, born from the frustrated, fatigued boredom of not being able to move beyond these few lines of questioning. By the end, jokes replace answers in order to deflect real emotional connection and even avoid questions altogether.

At first, all three band members do interviews together. Then Cobain’s individual superstar status rockets him to the front of all publicity, such that he begins declining any interview that isn’t a cover story. Over and over again bassist Krist Novoselic steps in. Novoselic protects Cobain from having to give a serious answer, then from having to give any answer, then sits down for interviews that Cobain is too sick to give.

In fact, one of the biggest surprises of this collection was the ways Novoselic is really at the helm of the band so often, steering the leaky ship into comparatively calmer waters. Throughout their years of press, Novoselic was consistently portrayed as jokester in chief, but actually, he regularly got beyond the jokes to offer serious insider analysis of the music business and well-informed political opinions. He did not indulge in gossip and was not afraid to get ornery with interviewers who persisted in poking around for dirt.

I came away feeling like Novoselic was really the glue holding things together, that he had realistic expectations for what the band would amount to and that those expectations were coupled with a determination that truly sprung from a love of the art more than the money. He shows an intellect, a political will, and a gift for surrealism that is unmatched by his bandmates.

Now, with our hindsight view of Dave Grohl now as a gregarious elder statesman of rock, it seems easy to expect that Grohl would make numerous and charming appearances in this anthology, but in fact he is barely there. As Nirvana’s fifth try for a drummer, Grohl at first diplomatically fielded nothing but brief inquiries into how he’s fitting in. In the interviews, he keeps quiet or echoes whatever is said by Cobain or Novoselic.

Grohl doesn’t emerge as his own person until near the very end of the collection, rarely giving his own opinions until he’s clearly won the title of drummer permanently most associated with the band and equally clearly in it together with Novoselic against a snooping press on behalf of Cobain. Likewise, readers may expect more intrusion from Courtney Love. She actually only appears for a handful of quiet background noises, sometimes coming into the room in profile details but rarely inserting herself into the conversation. Grohl and Novoselic do not discuss Love, nor do they entertain questions about Cobain’s troubled home life. It’s an absence that looms larger as Cobain shows furious paranoia and increasing retreat from the media.

One of the best but also the saddest things about this collection is the pile of band recommendations that accumulated over the course of the interviews. Bands approved by Nirvana include: Mudhoney, Melvins, The Raincoats, Shonen Knife, Buzzcocks, the Beatles, Devo, Black Flag, Blue Cheer, Breeders, Calamity Jane, Flipper, Germs, Sonic Youth, Jesus Lizard, R.E.M., the Pixies, the Stooges, Shocking Blue, Patti Smith, Soundgarden, and the Vaselines. Nirvana has mixed feelings about: Alice in Chains, Dead Kennedys, Cheap Trick, Fugazi, Tori Amos, Metallica, the Knack, the Sex Pistols, and Weird Al Yankovic. Bands Nirvana strongly disapproved of include: Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Van Halen.

The sadness creeps over me as I consider those bands that Nirvana expressly called out at any opportunity. Even as Cobain preached empathy and humanitarianism, he spat so much vitriol at Axl Rose and Eddie Vedder. He accused Rose of personifying Hollywood’s evil, corporate idea of rock music and Vedder of simply writing bad music that coasted on the coattails of the grunge scene Cobain himself created. He accused many musicians of having nothing to say, of being puppets of the music industry, while at the same time refusing to explain the lyrical significance or musical composition of any of his own songs, and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in a homemade t-shirt that said “Corporate Magazines Still Suck”.

Meanwhile, I’ve got tickets to the Guns N’ Roses “Not In This Lifetime” tour, ready to watch Rose breathe new life into an act that hasn’t been seen since 1993. Cobain would exit this world thinking that Guns N’ Roses were toast, but actually here’s Axl Rose still rollerskating uphill to great effect.

Of course, Pearl Jam is stronger than ever, having ten studio albums to Nirvana’s three and celebrating their 20th anniversary with a documentary full of gusto. Springsteen is still boss and Bono is the world’s most philanthropic musician. Bon Jovi could run for governor of New Jersey and Van Halen has been on a more of less constant “reunion” tour with David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar for the past 20 years. None of these people are fading away, and I encountered Nirvana’s harsh words for them piling ever higher as I turned pages that marched me inexorably toward the conclusion. You know, “the conclusion”. Because reading all of Cobain’s interviews is not unlike watching Titanic; the ships sinks and Cobain kills himself.

The last thing in the anthology is Cobain’s most publicized piece of writing, his suicide note. Though I’d read it a hundred times as a kid, I’d forgotten one of its final sentences where Cobain quotes Neil Young in saying that it’s “better to burn out than to fade away”. Young is himself still crushing it after all these 50 years and I wonder if, when he read Cobain’s suicide note, he felt any twinge of horror at seeing himself quoted in such a circumstance. In 1993, Novoselic has this exchange with a French reporter under the title of “Hell, It’s Other People” (486-7):

Reporter: Why, then, did you change the title of the [In Utero] album, which was I Hate Myself and I Wanna Die?

Novoselic: I didn’t like that sentence and I said to Kurt: “What if a twelve-year-old kid shoots himself in the head on a farm in Nebraska after listening to the album?” That happened to Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne, too. These irresponsible idiots had problems because of their stupid songs. But we’re not stupid enough for that. I found the title very negative — too predictable, too. We read so many stupid things in the news: “Nirvana wants to kill themselves! Nirvana is preparing a suicide album! With Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain would kill himself!” I didn’t want the band to add to it. Humor is sometimes taken the wrong way.

Novoselic is now over 50. He lives on a farm in Washington, works on his leftist political activism. He went back to college and also got married. Grohl waited six months after Cobain’s death, then formed the Foo Fighters. They have eight studio albums and just celebrated 20 years together. When Nirvana was inducted by Michael Stipe into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the first year of their eligibility in 2014, Cobain had been dead for 20 years. His band was inducted alongside Springsteen’s E Street Band, and maybe if he’d made it to age 50, sharing the stage with them wouldn’t have bugged him. Shortly before the induction, the remaining members of his band won a Grammy for writing a song with Paul McCartney. In 1989, Cobain told a reporter, “I like the Beatles, but I hate Paul McCartney” (5).

So, that’s all pretty funny. Even at their most fun and most funny, Nirvana are just barely pleased enough with themselves for not getting too freaked out by their whole situation. In junior high, I felt that Cobain spoke to me and for me. But these pages emanate a fierce melancholy and elucidate an ugly set of paradoxes that my full-throated, thrashy teenage fandom never picked up on. By the time it was over, I even felt somewhat guilty for reading this, for giving my participation to the journalistic endeavors that ultimately cost Cobain so much.

This is a 500-page death march, not any kind of joy ride alongside our teenage heroes. Soulsby’s thorough interview compendium simply cannot lift the veil. Cobain on Cobain is a dizzying repetition of stacks on stacks on stacks of Cobain’s hollowed-out sentiments — the words of a man who could not lift the veil on himself, ironically, despite longing all his short life for precisely this type of authentic connection. The fangirl in me was disappointed (here I am, now entertain me); the functioning adult human in me should have known better.