By Jon Savage
The interview you are about to read transpired late on the evening of Thursday, July 22, 1993, arranged as part of Nirvana’s U.K. press campaign for the then soon-to-be released In Utero (DGC). In contrast to their almost total silence in the American media, Nirvana had five U.K. interviews and photo shoots slotted into their brief stay in New York, culminating with a showcase concert at Roseland on the evening of the 23rd. This would have been an unusually grueling schedule for even the most unflappable of groups. But then, hardly anything associated with Nirvana was usual.
The affable, straight-ahead presence of Chris (now Krist) Novoselic and Dave Grohl notwithstanding, the atmosphere surrounding Nirvana at the time was strongly reminiscent of the feeling that accompanied the Sex Pistols in 1977. Here, too, was a group-the hottest group of the moment-who were about more than just music, and who were refusing to play the game. Judging from the hysteria that greeted their return after a year of silence, Nirvana acted as a kind of psychic lightning rod: a focus for everyone’s fears, hopes, loves and hates. Few knew where they were coming from, nobody knew what they would do.
Much of this pressure rested on Kurt Cobain, who just to keep things interesting was at once charming, arrogant, vague and unpredictable. Getting him to sit down for the interview was hard. I managed to pin him down backstage after an extraordinary Melvin’s show we both attended. “Do I have to do this now?” he asked me. “Yes,” I replied simply and that was that. We subsequently adjourned to my room at the New York Palace hotel, where once he relaxed, Cobain was intelligent, cogent and as candid as he could be, given his situation.
The interview seemed to provide Cobain with an oasis of calm in the middle of the madness. I warmed to him, and wanted to believe what he said. My ultimate feeling confirmed by the Roseland show the next night was that here was a person and a group poised on a knife edge between considerable, positive power and self destruction. Here is a record of that pivotal moment.
GUITAR WORLD: Tell me about your background.
KURT COBAIN: I was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1967, and I lived between Aberdeen and Montesano, which was 20 miles away. I moved back and forth between relatives’ houses throughout my whole childhood.
GW: Did your parents split up when you were young?
COBAIN: Yeah, when I was seven.
GW: Do you remember anything about that?
COBAIN: I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason. I was ashamed of my parents. I couldn’t face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.
GW: Have you made up with them now?
COBAIN: Well, I’ve always kept a relationship with my mom, because she’s always been the more affectionate one. But I hadn’t talked to my father for about 10 years until last year, when he sought me out backstage at a show we played in Seattle. I was happy to see him because I always wanted him to know that I didn’t hate him anymore. On the other hand, I didn’t want to encourage our relationship because I just didn’t have anything to say to him. My father is incapable of showing much affection, or even of carrying on a conversation. I didn’t want to have a relationship with him just because he’s my blood relative. It would bore me.
So the last time that I saw him, I expressed that to him and made it really clear that I just didn’t want anything to do with him anymore. But it was a relief on both our parts, you know? Because for some years he felt that I really hated his guts.
GW: You can’t duck it.
COBAIN: That’s what I’ve done all my life, though. I’ve always quit jobs without telling the employer that I was quitting; I just wouldn’t show up one day. I was the same in high school-I quit with only two months to go. I’ve always copped out of things, so to face up to my father although he chose to seek me out-was a nice relief.
GW: Have you written about this stuff at all? The lyrics on “Serve the Servants” sound autobiographical.
COBAIN: Yeah. It’s the first time I’ve ever really dealt with parental issues. I’ve hardly ever written anything that obviously personal.
GW: What was it like for you growing up?
COBAIN: I was very isolated. I had a really good childhood, until the divorce. Then, all of a sudden, my whole world changed. I became antisocial. I started to understand the reality of my surroundings, which didn’t have a lot to offer. Aberdeen was such a small town, and I couldn’t find any friends that I was very fond of, or who were compatible with me, or liked to do the things that I liked. I liked to do artistic things and listen to music.
GW: What did you listen to then?
COBAIN: Whatever I could get a hold of. My aunts would give me Beatles records, so for the most part it was just the Beatles, and every once in a while, if I was lucky, I was able to buy a single.
GW: Did you like the Beatles?
COBAIN: Oh, yeah. My mother always tried to keep a little bit of British culture in our family. We’d drink tea all the time! I never really knew about my ancestors until this year, when I learned that the name Cobain was Irish. My parents had never bothered to find that stuff out. I found out by looking through phone books throughout America for names that were similar to mine. I couldn’t find any Cobains at all, so I started calling Coburns. I found this one lady in San Francisco who had been researching our family history for years.
GW: So it was Coburn?
COBAIN: Actually it was Cobain, but the Coburns screwed it up when they came over. They came from County Cork, which is a really weird coincidence, because when we toured Ireland, we played in Cork and the entire day I walked around in a daze. I’d never felt more spiritual in my life. It was the weirdest feeling and I have a friend who was with me who could testify to this I was almost in tears the whole day. Since that tour, which was about two years ago, I’ve had a sense that I was from Ireland.
GW: Tell me about your high school experience. Were people unpleasant to you?
COBAIN: I was a scapegoat, but not in the sense that people picked on me all the time. They didn’t pick on me or beat me up because I was already so withdrawn by that time. I was so antisocial that I was almost insane. I felt so different and so crazy that people just left me alone. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had voted me Most Likely To Kill Everyone At A High School Dance.
GW: Can you now understand how some people become so alienated that they become violent?
COBAIN: Yeah, I can definitely see how a person’s mental state could deteriorate to the point where they would do that. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve fantasized about it, but I’m sure I would opt to kill myself first. But still, I’ve always loved revenge movies about high school dances, stuff like Carrie.
GW: When did you first hear punk rock?
COBAIN: Probably `84. I keep trying to get this story right chronologically, and I just can’t. My first exposure to punk rock came when Creem started covering the Sex Pistols’ U.S. tour. I would read about them and just fantasize about how amazing it would be to hear their music and to be a part of it. But I was like 11 years old, and I couldn’t possibly have followed them on the tour. The thought of just going to Seattle which was only 200 miles away was impossible. My parents took me to Seattle probably three times in my life, from what I can remember, and those were on family trips.
After that, I was always trying to find punk rock, but of course they didn’t have it in our record shop in Aberdeen. The first punk rock I was able to buy was probably Devo and Oingo Boingo and stuff like that; that stuff finally leaked into Aberdeen many years after the fact.
Then, finally, in 1984 a friend of mine named Buzz Osborne [Melvins singer/guitarist] made me a couple of compilation tapes with Black Flag and Flipper, everything, all the most popular punk rock bands, and I was completely blown away. I’d finally found my calling. That very same day, I cut my hair short. I would lip sync to those tapes I played them every day and it was the greatest thing. I’d already been playing guitar by then for a couple of years, and I was trying to play my own style of punk rock, or what I imagined that it was. I knew it was fast and had a lot of distortion.
Punk expressed the way I felt socially and politically. There were so many things going on at once. It expressed the anger that I felt the alienation. It also helped open my eyes to what I didn’t like about metal bands like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. While I really did enjoy, and still do enjoy, some of the melodies those bands have written, I suddenly realized I didn’t like their sexist attitudes the way that they just wrote about their dicks and having sex. That stuff bored me.
GW: When did you start to think about sexism? Was it an outgrowth of your interest in punk?
COBAIN: No, it was before that. I could never find any good male friends, so I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot, and I just felt that they weren’t being treated equally and they weren’t treated with respect. I hated the way Aberdeen treated women in general they were just totally oppressed. The words “bitch” and “cunt” were totally common, you’d hear them all the time. But it took me many years after the fact to realize those were the things that were bothering me. I was just starting to understand what was pissing me off so much, and in the last couple of years of high school, I found punk rock and it all came together. I finally understood that I wasn’t retarded, you know?
GW: Did you ever have problems with people thinking you were gay?
COBAIN: Yeah. Even I thought that I was gay. Although I never experimented with it, I thought that might be the solution to my problem. I had a gay friend, and that was the only time that I ever experienced real confrontation from people. Like I said, for so many years they were basically afraid of me, but when I started hanging out with this guy, Myer Loftin, who was known to be gay, they started giving me a lot of shit, trying to beat me up and stuff. Then my mother wouldn’t allow me to be friends with him anymore because she’s homophobic.
GW: So did you stop?
COBAIN: Yeah. It was real devastating because finally I’d found a male friend who I could actually talk to and be affectionate with, and I was told I couldn’t hang out with him anymore. Around that same time, I was putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. He played a big role in that.
Source: Guitar World, July 1993
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