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"THE DARK SIDE OF KURT COBAIN" by kevin allman
first featured in The Advocate, february 9, 1993.
it's 4 o'clock on a cold seattle afternoon, and kurt cobain, the lyricist-guitarist-lead singer of nirvana, is sitting in a downtown hotel room, playing with his five month old daughter, frances, while his wife, courtney love - lead singer of her own band, hole - applies makeup. At the moment, the cobains [including baby] are on the cover of SPIN magazine - which has named nirvana as artist of the year - and the band's new album is due out within the week. The nirvana media machine should be in high gear. But, no.
what's surprising is what's not in the cobain's room: no entourage, no groupies, no publicists, and no signs of the high life - in any sense of the term. Cobain, in fact, is wearing a pair of fuzzy green pyjamas. And he and love are in seattle for the sole reason of trying to speed the deal on a modest house they've been trying to buy. The only concession to cobain's being what he mockingly calls "a rock icon" is the pseudonym under which he registered, 'simon ritchie.'
It's a joke - ritchie was the real name of sid vicious, the sex pistol who died of a heroin overdose - and it shows that the cobains have a sense of humour about being tagged by the press as a modern-day sid and nancy. If the cobains are being reluctant these days, they explain, it's not because they're strung out but because they feel they've been strung up - by the media, which they feel have painted them as a pair of junkies without a cause. "everyone thinks we're on drugs again, even the people we work with" says cobain resignedly as love paints on a perfect baby-doll mouth. "i guess i'll have to get used to that for the rest of my life."
While cobain, 24, is quiet and thoughtful, love is tailor-made for media attention, bessed and cursed with what seems an almost genetic inability to censor herself. Within the first five minutes of THE ADVOCATE's arrival, she is spinning a story about an ex-flame and his lingerie fetish: "he had to wear nylons to have sex - not just any nylons but flesh-coloured nylons. And he couldn't buy them, he had to find them." Listening, cobain smiles, holding frances by her arms, walking her across his lap. He is - at least for the moment - not feeling beaten up.
Getting beaten up, though, is a recurring theme in cobain's life. in his hometown of aberdeen in rural washington, he was branded a "faggot" from an early age. It was a title he eventually embraced and threw back in his tormentor's faces - just for the hell of it. in 1985 he was even arrested when he and friend chris novoselic spray-painted "HOMOSEXUAL SEX RULES" on the side of a bank.
Four years later, cobain, novoselic, and drummer dave grohl released the first nirvana album, bleach, on a small seattle label, sub pop records. [though chad channing was the drummer for their debut.] recorded for $606.12, it was a blast of pure punk rock that earned them a reputation in seattle and drew the interest of several major labels. Their major-label debut, nevermind, was released by DGC in september 91 - and by the end of the year, nevermind [fuelled by the inescapably catchy smells like teen spirit] had come from far left field to sell 3 million copies and top rock critics' best-of-year lists. Last january cellular phones all over the record industry were crackling when nirvana hit number one - toppling U2, metallica and miceal jackson from the top of the charts. Punk rock was suddenly a commodity, and the term grunge, denoting flannel shirts, ripped jeans, dirty hair, and especially anything seattle-based, entered the lexicon. Soon record executives were spending weekends in seattle, trying to find the "next nirvana" and models cropped up on paris runways sporting haute grungewear.
But even as nirvana went from playing club dates to selling out 40 000 seat arenas, the band still didn't play by the rules. They spurned an offer to tour with guns'n'roses, further fuelling the rumours that cobain and his then pregnant wife had a big problem with heroin. Last april, when ROLLING STONE put the band on it's cover, cobain showed up for the photo session in a shirt that read "corporate magazines still suck." And an unflattering profile of the cobains in september's VANITY FAIR dropped the two into the world of glossy journalism with a jolt when love "confirmed" to writer lynn hirschberg that she and cobain were indeed using heroin in the early stages of her pregnancy.
While not denying the heroin use, both cobain and love insist that they have been misquoted and misunderstood. They maintain that the interview was given early in the year, and at the time the article appeared [the same month love gave birth to frances] both had been clean for months. "when i first talked to her [hirschberg] i had just found out i was pregnant, and i had done some drugs in the beginning of my pregnancy, and that's what i told her" says love.
Equally misunderstood, to cobain, is nirvana itself - particularly the fact that the band appeals to many of the same hard rock fans who pack guns'n'roses concerts. But while axl rose sang decisively about "immigrants and faggots" in his song "one in a million", cobain closed his song "stay away" by howling "god is gay!" and nirvana defiantly cavorted in dresses in the video of their hit single "in bloom." Last year nirvana travelled to oregon to perform at a benefit opposing measure 9, a statewide ordinance that would have amended the state constitution to prohibit protections for gays and lesbians. And when they appeared on Saturday night live, cobain and novoselic made a point of kissing on-camera.
In person, cobain is the anti-thesis of a preening guitar cocksman: he's small, pale, soft-spoken and articulate. Prejudice infuriates him, he spits out the words "homophobe" and "sexist" with the same venom he reserves for the word "spandex." Particularly upsetting him was an incident last year in reno, when two men raped a woman while chanting a nirvana song. On the liner notes for incesticide, he vented his frustration in a blunt statement to nirvana fans: "if any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different colour, or women, please do this one favour for us - leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."
Despite cobain's wish that people "leave us the fuck alone", both he and love seem determined not to surround themselves with a glass bubble of security precautions and stereotypical rock-star trappings. Before this interview - the only one kurt says he plans to do for incesticide - cobain set down no conditions regarding the questions that could be asked.
Back in the hotel room, love goes out and leaves cobain to his interview, but she's wary enough to come back twice - "i'm worried about what they're going to write" she finally blurts. Still, her need to trust overwhelms her protectiveness. When she leaves for the third time, she says, "it's a gay publication, kurt, so don't forget to tell them about the time you stole tights out of your mother's drawer." Cobain smiles, she laughs and sighs. "i guess i have that effect on men. Bye." And then she's gone, pushing frances' stroller out the door.
You two don't seem like sid and nancy.
It's just amazing that at this point in rock history, people are still expecting their rock icons to live out these classic rock stereotypes, like sid and nancy. To assume that we're just the same because we came from the underground and we did heroin for a while - it's pretty offensive to be expected to be like that.
Does it hurt when they say bad things about courtney?
Oh, absolutely. What they say about me is not half as strange as what they've said about her. She doesn't deserve that. She sold 60 000 records, and all of a sudden she's found herself as commercially popular as me, and she's just in a punk rock band. Just because she married me, she's subjected to being as popular as an actress or something.
Who do you trust now?
Uh - no-one? [laughs] i've always kind of kept myself purposely naive and optimistic, and now i've been forced to be really paranoid. Judgemental. Really defensive all the time. It's been hard for me to change my attitude.
You're here in this hotel room. can you go out?
Yeah... the other night we went shopping at a second-hand store and bought some fuzzy sweaters and some grungewear.
Real grungewear, not the designer kind?
Not perry ellis [laughs again] we were driving around in our volvo, after buying some grungewear, and we realized that we're not necessarily as big as guns'n'roses, but we're as popular as them, and we still don't have bodyguards. We still go shopping, we still go to movies and carry on with our lives.
I've always been a paranoid person by nature anyhow, and now i have these people so concerned with what i say and do that it's really hard for me to deal with that. I'm dealing with it a lot better than i expected. If i could have predicted what was going to happen to me a few years ago, i definetly wouldn't have opted for this kind of lifestyle.
Would it be cooler to have stayed in seattle and not been on the cover of rolling stone?
Yeah. Well, i chose to do that - although it was a hell of a fight. We were on tour in australia and i had completely forgotten that i'd promised to do the rolling stone piece. And that day, they called and said "are you ready to do the photo shoot?" and i was like "no, i really don't want to do this." I had so much pressure from my management and the band members - they wanted to do it and i just agreed. On my way there i decided i was going to write something on my shirt that's offensive enough to stop getting our picture on the cover. This way i could say that i actually played along with it and still didn't get picked to be on the cover. I wasn't necessarily challenging rolling stone, saying "you suck" and "we don't want anything to do with you, but we'll still use you for our exposure."
Rolling stone sucks, has always sucked and still sucks because they have a hip band on the cover. We're not as cool and hip as everyone thinks. Having us on the cover isn't going to make rolling stone any cooler.
I read the liner notes you wrote on incesticide. I've never seen somebody on a major label say those things.
That's been the biggest problem that i've had being in this band. I know there are those people out in the audience, and there's not much i can do about it. i can talk about those issues in interviews - i think it's pretty obvious that we're against the homophobes and the sexists and racists, but when "teen spirit" first came out, mainstream audiences came under the assumption that we were just like guns'n'roses.
Then our opinions started showing up in interviews. And then things like chris and i kissing on Saturday night live. We weren't trying to be subversive or punk rock, we were just doing something insane and stupid. I think now that a lot of our opinions are out in the open, a lot of kids who bought our record regret knowing anything about us. [laughs]
Now that you've got a baby, how are you going to teach her about sexism, homophobia and things like that?
I think that just growing up with courtney and i will be a good enough example that hopefully she won't be prejudiced. You have to admit that most of the reasons a person grows up hating these things is because their parents taught them to. she might get confused, but i'm not worried at all.
Now's your chance to say anything you'd like to say.
I always clam up when that question is asked. Maybe i'll just fumble and stutter and end up saying "don't believe everything you read." I always knew to question things. All my life i never believed most things i read in history books and a lot of things i learned in school. But now i've found i don't have the right to make a judgement on someone based on something i've read. I don't have the right to judge anything. That's the lesson i've learned.
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