This weekend marked 20 years since the death of Kurt Cobain. In this week's magazine, Mary Anne Hobbs recounts meeting the musician to write Nirvana's first ever NME cover feature, and the lasting impression he left on her.Here's that feature in full, first published on November 23, 1991 - back when Krist Novoselic was known as Chris and the band were days away from life-changing stardom...
Nirvana. You probably barely recognise the name. Yet, by the time this page is ink on your fingertips, Nirvana will have sold 1,000,000 copies of their new LP.
The singer is Kurt Cobain. He is sullen, stooping, slit-eyed and Bic-shy. Grub on a string, if you will. He carries a medicine bottle in the pocket of a filthy drape and very few baffles in his throat.
We are in AJ Barratt's freezing Brixton studio. Cobain is hunched into a tight foetal position, with his back to the NME photographer. The singer's PR jives at him with a piece of sugar-free gum. This odd and uncomfortable manoeuvre is clearly meant as some sort of silent appeal.
"I'll do the f---ing pictures, OK?" snaps Cobain. "I just want to be left alone."
Nirvana's second LP 'Nevermind' is as important and iconoclastic and brilliant as Primal Scream's 'Screamadelica', Teenage Fanclub's 'Bandwagonesque' and Ice-T's 'OG: Original Gangster'. Moreover, 'Nevermind' scaled the Billboard US Top Ten in six weeks. And Nirvana are not being allowed to forget it. The band have suddenly found themselves diving on the media trapeze between a thousand grinning interviewers, whose common opening gambit is: "Hi! So, why did you decide to call the band Nirvana?"
In less than two months 'Nirvana: US underground collegiate contender', have become 'Nirvana: American rock phenomenon of 1991'. And suddenly the whole world wants to pluck at their jumper. Their PR tells me that Slash and Axl have been asking nicely to play with the band. Also, that the band are now attracting an unhealthy quotient of squirming herpes-couriers offering backstage sexual services. Life is getting scary for Nirvana. And 'Big Shitty Sticks' (for beating off The Vermin) will no doubt be the top of their Christmas list.
Bear in mind that this is not a group who have had their label Geffen Records' marketing machine blowing gaskets on their behalf. There were no tanks in Piccadilly Circus delivering 'Nevermind' to Tower Records. Our only consistent reminder of Nirvana's existence has, in fact, been Loz of Kingmaker, who has worn their shirts at almost every bogshed venue in the UK. Yet more Americans are now beating gums over 'Nevermind' than Michael Jackson's upcoming 'Dangerous' LP. And that's a properly researched FACT.
Nirvana come from Aberdeen, Washington – Twin Peaks in real life. The type of town where 16-year-old youths have been caught abducting new-born babies for satanic sacrifice. The band signed to Seattle's Sub Pop label and released their debut 'Bleach' LP in 1989. It was a vital, impressive statement of intent, single parented by Sonic Youth.
Sometime Sub Pop-affiliated groups Soundgarden and Mudhoney have been considered Nirvana's contemporaries. Soundgarden are quite furious, but their singer sounds like the son of Kiri Te Kanawa – as if somebody's playing voodoodoll with his whelks. Mudhoney, meanwhile, might be dubbed the Senseless Things of the sonic Seattle scene.
Nirvana were Sub Pop's glittering prize, and they well knew it. Last year, Sub Pop planned to use the band as fat maggot bait in negotiating a corporate finance deal for the label. Nirvana, in turn, decided to cut out the middle man and signed directly to Geffen for $250,000. Toffee money by comparison to the $4 million that The Stone Roses are reported to have extracted from the Geffen coffers.
Then 'Nevermind' happened.
"I'm not sure how our original fans will cope," says bass player Chris Novoselic. "When I was in junior high school, my family moved away from Los Angeles to screwy, bumf--- Aberdeen. I had these bands that were dear to me, Led Zeppelin and Devo, when everybody else was into Kenny Rogers. Three years down the road all these people that I considered to be infidels, the unenlightened, were listening to Led Zeppelin. I remember feeling angry that all those people were grabbing hold of my sacred cow. But that's the way things go. I'll still listen to those bands."
1991 was a bleak and piss-poor year for American rock before the release of 'Nevermind'. And it's laughable now to think that Geffen Records made an initial pressing of just 40,000 copies of the LP, currently one of the USA's fastest-selling records.
But how did that happen? How indeed. Here's my theory: the 'Nevermind' LP is a meeting point for all manner of rock enthusiasts; those who like the power ideal of Metallica but can't stomach their lack of melody; Pixies fans still searching for 'Doolittle II' who feel that Black Francis is starting to fudge it; the grown-up Ned's appreciation society; even neurotic adolescents with shattered illusions of Guns N’ Roses – Most Dangerous Rock 'n' Roll Band In The World (ha!).
'Nevermind' is utterly compulsive and supremely durable. It's a record which will traverse all squabbling and snobbish rock factions – the hardcore, the subversive and the shambling clubs. Perhaps (dare I say it, rock lads?) because, with 'Nevermind' Nirvana have cut the masturbatory element out of hard, insane guitar music. Instead, the record haemorrhages with an almost female sense of calamity and vulnerability and sweet, sweet abandon.
There has not been such a fluent American rock release since Jane's Addiction's 'Ritual De Lo Habitual'.
Following the photo session, we split into two cars. The band's Glaswegian road manager, Alex, cuts a shape with a crisp fiver. This will be our driver's incentive to beat the band vehicle 'cross town to the Bayswater Embassy Hotel. We lose, damn it.
The hotel is a sterile affair, newly renovated. The bar area resembles a motorway service station powder room. A legion of executive chins drop into complimentary bowls of peanuts as Nirvana settle themselves.
Kurt, Chris and drummer David Grohl are defensive people once a tape recorder has been pushed in their face. There are valid reasons for this. Nirvana are mad as fuck about one journalist they had considered a friend who literally stowed away on their tour bus, then reported them as delinquent, TV-trashing cretins.
"How the fuck are we supposed to comment about that?" asks Kurt drily. "There was one time we had a blow torch and an arc welder and some stolen dynamite. The FBI was trailing us. Lucky we never had a fast Cadillac or we'd have shaken those bastards off," mocks Chris.
"Sure we break things. We break things all the time, but that's just us compensating for the frustration of being on the road. That ain't poetry. And it's not what the band's about."
Onward, to another contentious issue. Nirvana include a song about rape on 'Nevermind', titled 'Polly'. This fact surfaced in recent interviews, wholly devoid of examination, thus suggesting that Nirvana might indeed be a foul, violent and despicable breed.
"Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth. And it happens every few minutes," Kurt hisses. "The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.
"I was talking to a friend of mine who went to a rape crisis centre where women are taught judo and karate. She looked out the window and saw a football pitch full of boys, and thought those are the people that should really be in this class."
"That song 'Polly', it's a true story," says Chris. "It's about a young girl who was abducted. The guy drove her around in his van. Tortured her. Raped her. The only chance she had of getting away was to come on to him and persuade him to untie her. That's what she did, and she got away. Can you imagine how much strength that took?"
Nirvana are very in touch with women's rights. Chris tells me that one of the greatest performances the band has ever given was at a recent Pro-Choice benefit in Los Angeles, in support of campaigners fighting for women's abortion rights.
"They're trying to stop abortion in America." Chris exclaims. "America is a fucking police state. It's an awful place. Education is so bad. People are so spoiled. They have VCRs, cheap gasoline, and 40 channels and they're not going to rock the boat. Nobody cares that the USA is completely fucking over the Third World.
"Personally, I'm looking forward to total economic collapse. They're putting so many band aids in the economy right now. Bush is pumping money into the banks, but it won't be long before they go down. And when that happens it's going to make the '30s look like a fucking holiday."
Nirvana discuss their loathing of the bigoted, lethargic, transmission-frazzled, materialistic, American condition at length. But it's an attitude that's tricky to properly validate when your ass has been bought and paid for by The (Geffen) Man. And his singular objective is to jettison it through MTV channels into the rock hyperbowl, alongside the label's stuffed centrepiece, Guns N' Roses, for fat cash returns.
"We'll do something to fuck it up, I know we will," shrugs Kurt. "I'm sure that once Guns N' Roses started becoming really successful, Bush had them checked out, and they weren't articulate enough to be a threat to anybody."
"I think I drank a little too much last night," says Chris cheerfully. "I was so sick this morning. I was throwing up, like… foam. Everywhere. I felt like I was a human extinguisher."
We are at The Word, Channel 4's music TV show. Nirvana's waiting room comes complete with ensuite bidet for nervous guests. Their rider consists of three cans of Top Deck shandy. Nirvana wonder why anyone bothers to manufacture Top Deck. I explain that 'the kids' are big on shandy, because it's well 'ard to manage a splash of beer in your lemonade at age six.
Oddly Terry Christian is claiming a personal triumph at securing Nirvana for The Word: "I got 'em on the show, dint I? I like a bit of metal. But mainly Manchester stuff. Used to have some credibility in Manchester before I started doing The Wurd, dint I? But yeah, Nirvana. Bangin' band."
Nirvana are the blister on the butthole of the programme. Kurt swears on air and the main with the bleeper button screws up. Their current single 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is delivered in stone cold ugly style. Two minutes 41 seconds through a guaranteed clear four-minute slot, The Word begin to roll their credits. Suddenly the tiny Geffen promotions lady acquires a thirst for blood.
Nirvana themselves couldn't give a sod about one minute 19 seconds of poxy air time. "It isn't worth a scrap," agrees the band's agent. "Let's face it, when you're joy-riding in the US Top Ten, your independent communication skills are evidently pretty efficient."
And herin lies the crux. Nirvana have made a more profound impact on America with 'Nevermind' than Guns N' Roses did with 'Appetite For Destruction'. And they're running all the grotesque 'smack and fanny' barons out of town. In 1991, all great commercial rock successes bar one, in the US, have been the product of a corporate engineering feat. The fantastic truth about Nirvana's new-found fortune is that there was no prior plan, no strategic media message, no radio ass-kissing, no trading fine Colombian… erm, beans, for favours. Nirvana have made it simply on the magnificent quality of their sound-bytes.
Nirvana's "sun is up and wheels are down". And one million clued-in kids now rooming with 'Nevermind' are (re)discovering just how vital and exciting rock music really should be. Bon Jovi, and the crippled Old Guard twits will never walk again.
Read Mary Anne Hobbs' personal reflections on the week she persuaded NME's editor Danny Kelly to put Nirvana on the cover at xfm.co.uk/nevermind.
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