Kurt Cobain: Tribute to a Reluctant Guitar Hero
By Chuck Crisafulli.
The music world suffered a tremendous and untimely loss this April when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain took his own life at the age of 27. The guitarist, singer, and songwriter was a troubled and fragile soul, but he was also an inspiring and talented artist, and his small, powerful legacy of work will no doubt continue to shape the sounds of rock for years to come.
A few weeks before his death, while the band was still on their last tour in Europe, Cobain agreed to answer some interview questions for Fender Frontline. Understandably, Kurt wasn’t all that eager to submit to interviews at the time, but the idea was to get away from prodding him about any of the more sensational rumors swirling about the band and to just let him speak frankly about his music. He graciously consented. He was also beginning to experiment with special hybrid ‘Jag-Stang’ guitars -half Jaguar, half Mustang- that he had helped design, so he was asked about his experiences with the new instrument.
Even the most jaded chart-watchers are going to have to concede that Nirvana made some thrilling sounds in its short history. Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero hold up as potent, original works that, at their finest moments, deliver all the exhilarating thrills that rock and roll is supposed to. It is unfortunate and deeply saddening that Cobain chose to leave us so soon. He will be missed.
CHUCK: Nirvana has become a Big Rck Story, but the music still seems to be the most important part of the story. How proud are you of the band’s work?
KURDT: It’s interesting, because while there’s a certain selfish gratification in having any number of people buy your records and come to see you play – none of that holds a candle to simply hearing a song that I’ve written played by a band. I’m not talking about radio or MTV. I just really like playing these songs with a good drummer and bass player. Next to my wife and daughter, there’s nothing that brings me more pleasure.
CHUCK: Is it always a pleasure for you to crank up the guitar, or do you ever do battle with the instrument?
KURDT: The battle is the pleasure. I’m the first to admit that I’m no virtuoso. I can’t play like Segovia. The flip side of that is that Segovia could probably never have played like me.
CHUCK: With Pat Smear playing guitar in the touring lineup, has your approach to the instrument changed much?
KURDT: Pat has worked out great from day one. In addition to being one of my closest friends, Pat has found a niche in our music that compliments what was already there without forcing any major changes. I don’t see myself ever becoming Mick Jagger, but having Pat on stage has freed me to spend more time connecting with the audience. I’ve become more of a showman. Well maybe that’s going too far. Let’s just say that having Pat to hold down the rhythm allows me to concentrate on the performance as a whole. I think it’s improved our live show 100%.
CHUCK: On In Utero and in concert, you play some of the most powerful “anti-solos” ever hacked out of a guitar. What comes to mind for you when it’s time for the guitar to cut loose?
KURDT: Less than you could ever imagine.
CHUCK: Krist [Novoselic] and Dave [Grohl] do a great job of helping to bring your songs to life. How would you describe the role of each player, including yourself, in the Nirvana sound?
KURDT: While I can do a lot by switching channels on my amp, it’s Dave who really brings the physicality to the dynamics in our songs. Krist is great at keeping everything going along at some kind of even keel. I’m just the folk- singer in the middle.
CHUCK: You’re a very passionate performer. Do you have to feel the tenderness and rage in your songs in order to perform them?
KURDT: That’s tough because the real core of any tenderness or rage is tapped the very second that a song is written. In a sense, I’m only recreating the purity of that particular emotion every time I play that particular song. While it gets easier to summon those emotions with experience, it’s a sort of dishonesty that you can never recapture the emotion of a song completely each time you play it.
CHUCK: It must be a very odd feeling for Nirvana to be performing in sports arenas these days. How do you get along with the crowds your attracting now?
KURDT: Much better than I used to. When we first started to get successful, I was extremely judgemental of the people in the audience. I held each of them to a sort of punk rock ethos. It upset me that we were attracting and entertaining the very people that a lot of my music was a reaction against. I’ve since become much better at accepting people for who they are. Regardless of who they were before they came to the show, I get a few hours to try and subvert the way they view the world. It’s not that I’m trying to dictate, it’s just that I am afforded a certain platform on which I can express my views. At the very least, I always get the last word.
CHUCK: Do you see a long, productive future for the band?
KURDT: I’m extremely proud of what we’ve acomplished together. Having said that however, I don’t know how long we can continue as Nirvana without a radical shift in direction. I have lots of ideas and ambitions that have nothing to do with the mass conception of “grunge” that has been force-fed to the record buying public for the last few years. Whether I will be able to do everything I want to do as a part of Nirvana remains to be seen. To be fair, I also know that both Krist and Dave have musical ideas that may not work in the context of Nirvana. We’re all tired of being labeled. You can’t imagine how stifling it is.
CHUCK: You’ve made it clear that you’re not particulary comfortable being a “rock star”, but one of the things that tracks like Heart-Shaped Box and Pennyroyal Tea on In Utero make clear is that you’re certainly a heavyweight when it comes to songwriting. You may have job sometimes, but is the writing process pleasurable and satisfying for you?
KURDT: I think it becomes less pleasurable and satisfying when I think of it in terms of my “job”. Writing is the one part that is not a job, it’s expression. Photo shoots, interviews… that’s the real job part.
Source: The Fender Frontline Interview, February 1994