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"KURT COBAIN'S WELL-TEMPERED TANTRUMS" by l.a. kanter
first featured in guitar player, february 1992
it's a Saturday night at san francisco's warfield theatre, and an impatient crowd is waiting for nirvana. An anticipatory buzz charges the air. Even before the trio takes the stage, an enormous mosh pit forms, whirling to it's own internal anti-logic.
Finally, the curtain rises and nirvana kicks into a scorching, punked-out cover of the vaseline's "die for you." the crowd's pent-up tension erupts in one desperate exhalation of energy. The pit's tidal motions become positively oceanic, as the crowd surges forward and all three tiers of the hall begin to bounce.
Guitarist kurt cobain checks it out from behind his scraggly blue bangs. He appears unimpressed, even bored. He turns his back on the audience and tears into a blistering, out-of-key solo, ending with a passage of noisy sustained feedback that pushes the crowd even higher. All night long cobain remains aloof, ambivalent. Finally, at the conclusion of the band's encore, the ultra-frantic "territorial pissings," he rips his guitar off his chest, flings it into the drum kit and marches off the stage, his amp feeding back behind him.
The next morning i turn on mtv to see nirvana's super-cynical "smells like teen spirit" sandwiched between - no kidding - videos by mariah carey and paula abdul. Kurt cobain hasn't seen the video yet, at least not on mtv, and he isn't looking forward to it. in fact, the very idea that his band is appearing alongside such mainstream successes elicits a long, slightly pained groan from the guitarist.
"We've been lucky enough not to see mtv," he says, a dry, sarcastic tone creeping into his voice. "we're not really aware of exactly how much hype is going on. We've been told about it by a lot of people - mainly our friends making fun of us."
Cobain is in the enviable position of having his attitude and profiting from it too. After all, nirvana's major-label debut, nevermind, went gold in only six weeks after it's release - an unlikely feat from a group still fresh from the underground. The band's tight hybrid of punk rock energy, grinding metallic riffs, and catchy pop songcraft, has hit it big, propelling the album into the top 10.
To be sure, nirvana's sound is neither new nor revolutionary. Bands like dinosaur jnr have worked similar turf for years without half the acclaim. Similarly, nirvana's dynamic range recalls that of the pixies, both groups move eloquently between spare bass-and-drum grooves and shrill bursts of screaming guitars and vocals. But what makes nirvana's ambivalent anti-anthems so intriguing is the multitude of contradictions that they embody and embrace. The songs are fuelled by an uneasy co-existence of apathy and rage, boredom and titillation, innocence and profundity. They move with surprising logic between dirge and groove, singing and screaming, melody and noise.
Kurt's guitar work is rooted in the same contradictions. He alternates between extremes of restraint and overkill with astonishing ease. Dry strumming exists alongside fat, agressive power chords, haunting lines explode into major-key choruses, smoothly melodic lead lines turn into furious power drill attacks. Snaking inside the deep, muscular grooves of bassist chris novoselic and drummer dave grohl, cobain is just as likely to use his guitar for quick bursts of punctuation as for dense walls of sound.
Nonetheless, there are few extended solos on nevermind, far fewer than on the bands debut bleach. "i didn't feel there was a reason to have many solos on this album," says cobain. "it all depends on what i feel is needed for each song. There are some songs that just shouldn't have a solo, just some fills that remind you of the melody. What solos there are are a bit out of it, a bit weird and strange."
On nevermind's first single, "smells like teen spirit," for example, kurt's brief solo is a near-masterpiece of restraint. You keep expecting him to take off into typical upper-register runs, instead, he remains note-faithful to the melody throughout the eight bar phase, driving an already catchy melody even deeper into your brain.
Contrast that with his solo on "breed"..."that solo is really out of key," says the guitarist. "in fact, i can't play it live until i learn it. but i'm too lazy to learn it." call this laziness or negative capability, but the furious, tossed-off quality of cobain's work befits the energy and immediacy of nirvana's songs - something carefully planned just wouldn't work. "i never practice solos," claims kurt. "for every guitar solo i've ever recorded, i've always just played what i wanted to at the time and then just picked out the best takes."
On nevermind, cobain had quite a bit of freedom to pick and choose. While bleach was recorded in less than a week for $600, nirvana stretched out on nevermind, taking one month and spending about $20,000 before finishing. The production by butch vig makes nirvana sound not so much produced as edited, the sprawling mania of bleach is still there, but all the unnecessary baggage has been carved away, leaving a series of carefully honed, tightly focused musical statements. "we think along the same lines, on the same level," says cobain of vig. "so every suggestion he had, there was no conflict at all. A few songs were'nt finished so he helped us with arrangements, cutting them down to the average three-minute song."
Cobain, not surprisingly, has a typically punk attitude about his equipment. "i guess i've never considered musical equipment very sacred," he says. He's probably broken 300 guitars - a casual attitude indeed for someone who claims his left-handedness makes it difficult to find instruments he enjoys playing.
"i've resorted to japanese-made fender stratocasters, because they're the most available left-handed guitar," explains kurt. "i like guitars in the fender style, because they have small necks." An interesting note is that he always plays "polly" on a $20 pawnshop guitar.
in fact, cobain harbours a rather twisted fascination for crappy equipment. "my favourite guitar in the world is the fender mustang," he maintains. "they're really small and almost impossible to keep in tune. They're designed terribly. If you want to raise the action, you have to detune all the strings, pull the bridge out, turn three little screws under the bridge, and hope that you've raised them the right amount. Then you put the bridge back and tune all the strings. If you screwed up, you have to do the whole process over again.
But i like it, he continues. "that way things sound fucked-up, and i stumble onto stuff accidentally. I guess i don't like to be that familiar with my guitar."
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