With Nirvana’s long-awaited “In Utero” due for imminent release, The Stud Brothers meet Kurt Cobain in New York and in the final part of their exclusive interview talk to him about the doomed actress, Frances Farmer, press harassment, drugs, pubic humiliation and suffering. And they also survive a typically fraught encounter with his wife, the redoubtable Courtney Love.
Twenty minutes before we’re due to meet Kurt Cobain, his wife, Courtney Love, appears. She sits down with us in the hotel foyer and begins to talk, her voice a nervous, neurotic quiver.
First, she talks about some drug dealers she once knew and their aborted attempt to smuggle something illegal into somewhere heavy. From this she leaps with headspinning speed to her favourite subject , herself , and the treatment that she and her husband have suffered at the hands of a callous, endlessly intrusive media.
This leads inevitably to a protracted rant about Nirvana’s unofficial biographers, Britt Collins and Victoria Clark. A copy of their manuscript has recently fallen into Courtney’s hands and, from the sounds of it, she and Kurt have been giving it their undivided attention. According to Courtney, the book is muckraking and mendacious, a collection of truths the authors had no business uncovering and half truths they had no right to invent. We suggest she sues. No point, says Courtney.
Anyways, she adds, she doubts they’ll find a publisher for it. Weird. If the book’s as hot as she makes out, we’d imagine publishers would be knocking down doors.
Then it’s back to the media.
It takes us a while to realise what she’s doing , telling journalists how much she loathes their profession, how essentially dishonest it is. What does she expect from us: guilt, apologies, sympathy?
Then we’re on to “Shadowland”, William Arnold’s biography of the Hollywood starlet, Frances Farmer, whose increasingly bitter confrontations with her mother, studio bigwigs, the press and the courts saw her ending her days as an impoverished, lobotomised cleaner in a hotel.
Kurt and Courtney named their baby after her.
An hour later, we’re sitting in the hotel conference room with Kurt Cobain. Nirvana’s new album “In Utero”, is for the most part Ö lyrically indecipherable, often open to wild and pointless speculation. There are, however , according to Cobain , at least three songs with a theme, even a message. Among them is “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”. The song is easily one of Nirvana’s finest, boasting an explosive chorus , Cobain doing what he does best, managing to combine gentle compassion with righteous anger.
So why was Frances Farmer such an inspiration?
“Well, you know, I’d read some books about her and I found her story interesting. She was a very confrontational person.”
Selfish, maybe. “That’s not what I got from the books I read. Actually, I did from two of the biographies I read about her, but there was one, “Shadowland”, the best one, written by this PI from Seattle who researched it for years, and I didn’t get that impression from that one. She was obviously a difficult person, and got more and more difficult as the years went on, as people started to fuck with her more and more.
“I mean, she was institutionalised numerous times and, in the place in Washington where she ended up, the custodians had people lining up all the way through the halls, waiting to rape her. She’d been beaten up and brutally raped for years, every day. She didn’t even have clothes most of the time.
“Courtney especially could relate to Frances Farmer. I made the comparison between the two. When I was reading the book, I realised that this could very well happen to Courtney if things kept going on. There’s only so much a person can take, you know?
“I’ve been told by doctors and psychiatrists that public humiliation is one of the most extreme and hardest things to heal yourself from. It’s as bad as being brutally raped, or witnessing one of your parents murdered in front of your eyes or something like that. It just goes on and on, it grinds into you and it’s so personal.
“And the Frances Farmer thing was a massive conspiracy involving the bourgeois and powerful people in Seattle, especially this one judge who still lives in Seattle to this day. He led this crusade to so humiliate her that she would go insane. In the beginning, she was hospitalised , totally against her will , and she wasn’t even crazy. She got picked up on a drunk driving charge and got committed you know. It was a very scary time to be confrontational.”
Though nothing could excuse what was done to her, even the most reverent accounts of Farmer’s life don’t attempt to deny that she was on extremely difficult person, that her much-vaunted independence often amounted to a ruthless self-interest that left her indifferent to the suffering she caused. So she was no martyr.
But Farmer “beautiful, arrogant, creative, destructive and destroyed” does appear impossibly glamorous, especially from the safe distance of a few decades.
Is that what drew you to her?
“No. No, not at all”
The song, especially if Geffen have the good sense to release it as a single, may succeed in glamorising her.
How would you feel about that?
“I’d feel bad about that. I just simply wanted to remind people of tragedies like that. It’s very real and it can happen. People can be driven insane, they can be given lobotomies and be committed and be put in jails for no reason. I mean, from being this glamorous, talented, well-respected movie star, she ended up being given a lobotomy and working in a Four Seasons restaurant.
“And she hated the Hollywood scene, too, and was very vocal about it, so those people were involved in the conspiracy, too. I just wanted to remind people that it happened and it has happened forever.”
Most of your songs are, in one way or another, about suffering. A popular liberal notion is that suffering ennobles. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
“It can, it can. I think a small amount of suffering is healthy. It makes your character stronger.”
Do you think you’ve suffered on a large or small scale?
“What do you think I think?”
“I’ve suffered on a large scale but most of the attacks haven’t been on me, they’ve been on someone I’m totally in love with, my best fucking friend is being completely fucking crucified every two months, if not more. I read a negative article about her every two months.”
Why read it? Why torture yourself?
“A lot of the time I can’t escape it because Courtney gets faxes of articles from the publicist all the time. But also it’s a form of protection. It enables you to remember Ö and to make sure you never deal with those people again. And another reason we like to read it is that we can learn from the criticism, too. If I never read any of the interviews I did, I’d never be able to say “Jeez, that was a pretty stupid thing to say. I’d better try to clear that up”
Kurt describes Courtney as media-literate. She isn’t. Often she’s media hungry. More often overly image-conscious. An hour ago, in the hotel foyer, she approached us and, unsolicited, offered us tales of drug smuggling and, when it came to that book , that bloody book , bitter refutations of things we had no idea she’d been accused of.
Other journalists with us in New York warned us that any conversation with Courtney would turn into an endless discussion/monologue about Courtney/the media and would most likely be followed by calls to our hotel rooms.
A month ago, a hack in Seattle approached Courtney in a club and asked to interview her and her husband. Courtney asked him what his politics were, he replied, “Left wing” and was promptly invited to her home. He was even given a sneak preview of “In Utero”.
The interview subsequently appeared as an NME cover story, much to the annoyance of Nirvana’s publicists and record company, Kurt and, remarkably, Courtney.
Kurt, haven’t you and your wife both contributed to the press you’ve had, both good and bad?
“Yes, I think both Courtney and I have said too many things at times, or said some unnecessary things. We’re just learning like everyone else. But I think it is unhealthy to read all this negative stuff and I do try to ignore it as much as I can. There’s a lot of times when Courtney’ll say, “OK, here’s another one”, and start reading it and I’ll just walk out of the room. It affects me only because it affects her more.
“She’s not made of stone, she’s not what’s been written about her, she has emotions and feelings like everyone else and it really upsets her. And she’s also constantly combating this stuff, trying to clear it up.
“We’re so naive about it that when someone writes something about us we have called up the editor and talked to him, tried to find out what’s going on in his mind, why he would do that. It’s interesting, too, just to see what kind of a bastard this guy actually is. We did that after this one particular magazine article. We knew the journalist, we knew they never wrote some of that stuff. It was the editor. And that’s one of the saddest things, that journalists probably have less control over what gets printed than most rock bands do over their record company.
“It was interesting when we phoned that particular editor, not to attack anyone, just to start a conversation in a casual and friendly way, just to find out what kind of a person he is, to study someone that evil, such a fucking dick. He has no respect, no regard for anyone’s fucking feelings.”
The latest chapter in the painful but compelling Kurt and Courtney saga involves Kurt being arrested for wife-beating. Unsurprisingly, this was the subject of intense media scrutiny. However, to the chagrin of many a hack, the story has a very dull, controversy-free explanation.
Chris Novoselic, Nirvana’s bassist, explains it best…
“That was a fucking bunch of bullshit. They were cranking music in their house and a neighbor called the cops, and I think they got in a fight. There’s this law in Washington, and I went through it with my parents, that’s called the Domestic Violence law. It says that if the cops show up somebody has to go to jail, whether anything happened or not. That’s the law , the cops couldn’t have any discretion. And Kurt had to go to jail. So that’s that.”
Indeed, the only extraordinary thing about the story is that it reached the press at all. The reason’s simple. Many journalists would say that, since Cobain’s made his living out of the public, he’s become public property.
Kurt, you’ve probably heard this many times before.
“No, I’ve never heard it put that way.”
Do you understand that point of view?
“Absolutely not. I draw the line at the record store or the gig. People can like our record or hate it, throw it away or trade it in for something else. And that’s where it ends.”
When you were younger though, and really into music, you must have had posters on your wall.
“I had posters on my wall. Mostly to show off that I was really into music.”
But weren’t there also pop stars that you were really curious about?
“I’m not lying about this, I had absolutely no desire to find out what kind of person any of these rock stars were. I don’t think I ever read through a whole article in Creem magazine after I got my first subscription when I was 12. I never finished one because I just didn’t care, I just liked the music.”
You must be fairly unique then, because what are known euphemistically as “human interest stories” sell enormous quantities of newspapers and magazines. Editors and journalists merely respond to public demand, and the public or the record-buying public at any rate, are demanding that your privacy be invaded.
“But what is that?” asks Cobain, clearly outraged. “Who made that rule? And it is a rule and it means it’s gonna go on forever. I’m baffled by it, I’m not interested in that shit.”
But you were interested in the life of Frances Farmer, in her personal life.
“That’s true… I don’t know how I’m gonna get myself out of this” He allows himself a long pause. “I’m not obsessed with her as an artist, that’s not what drew me to it. It’s the tragic story. And, hopefully, in telling that story to other people I can make them see that it’s a reality, that it can happen to anybody.
“I don’t know, I just think there should be stricter libel laws. I’m not opposed to investigation, people coming up with proof and facts. If I have done something, then it’s fine for people to say so. But I’m a musician. I think politicians, in their professional lives, should be scrutinised every step of the way. But politicians aren’t musicians, politicians have a huge responsibility.”
And you don’t think you have a huge responsibility.
“I have a responsibility to not promote a negative lifestyle. If I choose to live my life in a negative way which may influence kids to do what I do, then I have no problem telling kids how lame it is to act that way.
“I never went out of my way to say anything about my drug use. I tried to hide it as long as I could. The main reason was that I didn’t want some 15-year-old kid who likes our band to think it’s cool to do heroin, you know? I think people who glamorise drugs are fucking assholes and, if there’s a hell, they’ll go there. It’s really bad karma.”
Do you really think that a kid could be so impressed by a star’s negative lifestyle that they’d take it up themselves?
“Oh, they do, absolutely. I saw this movie, “Over the Edge” [Tim Hunter’s cold account of a group of suburban teenagers who trap their parents and teachers in a school hall and attempt to burn it down]. I remember leaving that theatre and almost everyone who was in there came running out screaming their heads off and breaking windows and vandalising and wanting to get high. It totally affected them and influenced them.
“It may not have been the intention of the person who made the movie, and it’s a great movie, but that’s what happened. It happens a lot, with movies and music, and the people who are affected by it are usually not-very-evolved people in the first place.”
So do you think Nirvana is a positive or negative band?
“Well, at the beginning we were” he pauses again, “not negative, but we did address dark and negative issues. I mean, we’re not The Staple Singers but I could never see myself singing about Satan or glamorising drug use or anything like that. I just couldn’t do it. I mean, I don’t use cuss-words on my albums, not because I don’t want a sticker on my record but because there’s just no point. It’s been done a million times and I don’t personally need to use that kind of language in my lyrics. I think I have cussed a few times where it was necessary, but I think for the most part we’re pretty positive.
“I think the only reason we ever had a reputation for being a negative band was because of the articles written about us, addressing the drug use and stuff.
“Like, we’ve been accused of inciting people to drop out of society. But if we do that, it’s not in a lazy way. I mean, I’ve always thought of us as attacking that Slacker stuff. But we have pointed out things about society that’s not good and I know some people don’t like that, they think it’s dangerous. And I think that’s why they fuck with us.”
Which isn’t true.
The reason people fuck with Kurt and Courtney and Nirvana is because rock ‘n’ roll is only rock ‘n’ roll when it offers the exquisite possibility of scandal and controversy. Cobain, the millionaire punk rocker, riddled with drugs and guilt and married to an angst-ridden peroxide blonde who may or may not be Lady Macbeth, is infinitely more exciting and newsworthy then an impecunious farmboy from Washington State who just wants to play his guitar.
The reason people fuck with Nirvana is because people are sometimes in a grotesquely insensitive way attempting to mythologise the band.
For the two billion of us who aren’t in Nirvana, it’s a rollercoaster ride with a brilliant, brilliant soundtrack.
For Nirvana, it’s different.
For Kurt, it’s very different.
For Courtney, it’s the fucking Twilight Zone.
It’s not easy being a living legend.
And living legends seldom learn to live with it.
Source: Melody Maker – August 28th, 1993