I met Kurt Kobain once..
You remember where you were when you heard, right? ‘They’ say you always do. There’s one, if not more, for every generation. JFK, Dr King, Elvis, Diana. I could go on through the Ledgers and the Winehouses. But you always remember where you were when you heard that awful news. Apparently. So ‘They’ say. The premature death of an icon can be a cataclysmic event for most. Whether people feel a kind of ownership of the artist or icon they’ve invested their time and money in or whether these strangers become extended family to those who feel disenfranchised from their own. There’s a dislocated, almost ‘safe’ immersion in grief that people can share in.
I met Kurt Kobain once. There. I said it. Call bulls**t on that claim all you like but first let me add a bit of colour to the story. It was the late 80’s. We were all about Sub Pop Records. Or whatever label Sonic Youth were on (it was Blast First). We Joined the singles club, poured over every release and, in the short periods I returned home to live at my parents and while they were at work, I would call the phone number on the back of the records and actually struck up a weird, long distance, PRE INTERNET relationship with the guy on the front desk of the Seattle label. Sorry about the phone bills, Mum & Dad.
Then, suddenly, Sub Pop Records came to town, or to be precise, The Capital City that was 200 miles away from my Merseyside home. But I’d get there if it killed me. It was called “Lamefest” and was a showcase for the best bands the emergent label had to offer. Mudhoney headlined, Tad was second on the bill and Nirvana brought up the rear. Bottom of the bill, in The Islington Powerhaus, a venue that held a few hundred at best/worst. Nirvana played early, slayed, and following their set, before Tad came on, Kurt walked up to the bar. I said, “Hey, Great set” (read as “errr….excuse….me…errr….that was…errr…great”). Maintaining the air of sophisticated cool I’d just created, I added, “You’ve got a great sound, like the Melvins doing the Beatles” (read as “errr…. I like your record…..like Melvins….bluerghhh), anyway, I think I must have come across pretty well. He acknowledged me with a second of polite small talk and walked off into the crowd to become the biggest rock star in the world. I pulled myself together and went to watch Tad.
That, self indulgent, anecdote out of the way. Do you remember where you were? Kurt Killed himself, and it was awful. But I remember where I was. Not when all these sad, early passings I’ve mentioned occurred. But where I was when I first heard the opening riff of “Negative Creep” by Nirvana. And it made me feel VERY alive.
But the record I’m discussing here is Nevermind, not their debut, ‘Bleach’. Sonic Youth signed to Geffen on the wake of The Alternative Revolution. Legend has it that they made it a stipulation of their contract that Nirvana signed too. It’s probably more accurate that Geffen were eager to take advice from their hip, louche new signing. It could have been a multitude of acts, most of whom signed to other majors and never quite made it. But it was this pair of ramshackle North Western punks that found their way into a multimillion dollar studio. Kurt, Unhappy with the drum sound he’d achieved on Bleach, said he wanted to find “the greatest drummer in the world”, Dave Grohl, of DC legends Scream, had previously impressed them and his sudden availability after Scream’s split seems almost karmic. The newly formed three-piece began recording what was to become their skewed sludge pop masterpiece with Butch Vig behind the desk.
Kurt’s writing was becoming more and more influenced by melody & harmony. His love of The Beatles has been well documented, but his writing was also becoming infected by the pop sensibilities of R.E.M & the ‘quiet/loud’ dynamics of The Pixies. All whilst maintaining an ear for a heavy, down tuned riff. Kurt certainly proved himself adept in his new style, probably first demonstrated on what was to be their last official release for Sub Pop, the single ‘Sliver’. Verse/chorus/verse composition mixed with a driving rhythm and hooky riffs. Where the lyric for ‘Sliver’ takes its cue from his memories of childhood insecurity and tells a simple story of being left in the care of his Grandmother, his writing for what was to become Nevermind took a more abstract turn. Kurt’s Lyrics became stream of consciousness combined with an acute sense of place and position. Every word screamed “I DONT BELONG HERE/I DON’T FIT IN”. Hitting exactly the right nerve of a generation who were unsure of their own future more so than any other.
It’s easy to see why the opening track, ‘Smells like…’ became such an anthem. From Its tongue in cheek attitude to the jock lifestyle (“Load up on guns, Bring your friends”), to its positioning of Generation X as the demographic to be reckoned with (“Here we are now, Entertain us”) it laid out a world where the geek DID inherit the earth. The cheerleaders of the video hammering home the cross/take over message. From there Nevermind doesn’t let up. Kurt’s new pop styling’s coupled with Vig’s production and, just as importantly, Slayer engineer Andy Wallace’s mixing brought a hard edged life to this nerd agenda.
In its more reflective moments, the album revealed stories among the rants. ‘Polly’ tells the, reportedly true, story of a girl who, after being kidnapped, managed to escape by allowing her tormentor to believe she was attracted to him, even sleeping with him. A show of phenomenal feminine strength that it’s easy to see would appeal to the quiet, withdrawn Kobain. And ‘Something In The Way’ gives us a telling snapshot of his life during a period of homelessness where the phrase “Underneath the bridge” literally means just that. It’s a description of where he would sleep at night.
I watched Kurt’s ensuing meltdown from an almost front row seat. I sat, agog, watching the now legendary appearance on Channel 4’s The Word (Kurt introduced a performance of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with a garbled statement about Courtney Love being “The best f**k in the world”), I was at the ramshackle, but inspired Reading set. I read, intently, of the stories of the band’s increasing disillusionment with the major label life and all its trappings. And I listened to their attempt to sabotage their own popularity by hiring noise rock enfant terrible Steve Albini to produce the follow up album. A move ultimately scuppered by Geffen bringing in R.E.M engineer Scott Litt to mix the LP, and by the fact it was just so damned GOOD……
It’s clear now Kurt was never ready for all this, in fact you could argue that he never even wanted it. With hindsight, his entry into the MTV/Rock Star elite was like throwing a house cat into a lion’s den. His upbringing, possible history of mental illness and hatred of authority became a recipe for disaster. But, like any true star, they’re always brightest just before they explode. And explode he did, in a series of unquestionably selfish acts, starting with his Class A drug abuse and culminating in him sitting alone, with a gun, in the attic space above the garage of the mansion that reflected everything he’d come to hate and mistrust about an industry that prostituted his first true love. His music.
In his suicide note, Kurt quoted another of his musical heroes, Neil Young.
“It’s better to burn out, that to fade away.”
It’s kind of ironic that Kurt’s history will overshadow the brief recording career of his band. Who made uncomplicated, driven and, ultimately, POPULAR music. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that his final, stupid act gave Nirvana a longevity and legend that brings it to a new generation.
Whatever you should have been, Kurt, no apologies were necessary.
Words by Phil Calvert