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The Dark Side of Kurt Cobain

by Kevin Allman (from The Advocate 2/93)

It's 4 o'clock on a cold Seattle afternoon, and Kurt Cobain, the lyricist-guitarist-lead singer of Nirvana, is sitting in a downtown hotel room, playing with his 5-month-old daughter, Frances, while his wife, Courtney Love-lead singer of her own band, Hole-applies her makeup. At the moment, the Cobains (including the baby) are on the cover of Spin magazine-which has named Nirvana as Artist of the Year-and the band's new album, Insecticide, is due out within the week. The Nirvana media machine should be in high gear.

But, no.

What's surprising is what's not in the Cobains' room: no entourage, no groupies, no publicists, and no signs of the high life-in any sense of the term. Cobain, in fact, is wearing a pair of fuzzy green pajamas. And he and Love are in Seattle for the sole reason of trying to speed the deal on a modest house they've been trying to buy. The only concession to Cobain's being what he mockingly calls "a rock icon" is the pseudonym under which he has registered, Simon Ritchie.

It's a joke-Ritchie was the real name of Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistol who died from a heroin overdose-and it shows that the Cobains have a sense of humor about being tagged by the press as a modern-day Sid and Nancy. If the Cobains are being reclusive these days, they explain, it's not because they feel they've been strung up-by the media, which they feel have painted them as a pair of junkies without a cause. "Everyone thinks we're on drugs again, even people we work with," says Cobain resignedly as Love paints on a perfect baby-doll mouth. "I guess I'll have to get used to that for the rest of my life."

While Cobain, 24, is quiet and thoughtful, Love is tailor-made for the media attention, blessed and cursed with what seems as an almost genetic inability to censor herself. Within the first five minutes of The ADVOCATE's arrival, she is spinning a story about an ex-flame and his lingerie fetish: "He had to wear nylons to have sex-not just any nylons but flesh-colored nylons. And he couldn't buy them, he had to find them." Listening, cobain smiles, holding Frances by her arms, walking her across his lap. He is-at least for the moment-not feeling beat up.

Getting beaten up, though, is a recurring theme in Cobain's life. In his hometown of Aberdeen in rural Washington, he was branded a "faggot" from an early age. It was a title he eventually embraced and threw back in his tormentors' faces-just for the hell of it. In 1985 he was even arrested when he and friend Chris Novoselic spray painted HOMO SEX RULES on the side of a bank.

Four years later, Cobain, Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl released the first Nirvana album, Bleach, on a small Seattle label Sub Pop Records. Recorded for $606.15, it was a blast of pure punk rock that earned them a reputation in Seattle and drew the interest of several major labels. Their major-label debut, Nevermind, was released by DGC in September 1991-and by the end of the year, Nevermind (fueled by the inescapably catchy "Smells Like Teen Spirit") had come from far left field to sell 3 million copies and top critics' best-of-the-year lists. Last January cellular phones all over the record industry were crackling when Nirvana hit number one-toppling U2, Metallica, and Michael Jackson from the top of the chart. Punk rock was suddenly a commodity, and the term grunge, denoting flannel shirts, ripped jeans, dirty hair, and especially anything Seattle-based, entered the lexicon. Soon record executives were spending weekends in Seattle, trying to find the "next Nirvana," and models cropped up on Paris runways sporting haute grungewear.

But even as Nirvana went from playing club dates to selling out 40,000-seat arenas, the band still didn't play by the rules. They spurned an offer to tour with Guns N' Roses, further fueling already rampant industry rumors that Cobain and his then pregnant wife had a big problem with heroin. Last April, when Rolling Stone put the band on its cover, Cobain showed up for the photo session in a T-shirt that read CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK. And an unflattering profile of the Cobains in September's Vanity Fair dropped the two into the world of glossy journalism with a jolt when Love confirmed to writer Lynn Hirschberg that she and Cobain were indeed using heroin in the early stages on her pregnancy.

While not denying the heroin use, both Cobain and Love insist that they have been misquoted and misunderstood. They maintain that the interview was given early in the year, and at the time the article appeared (the same month Love gave birth to Frances), both had been clean for several months. "When I first talked to her [Hirschberg], I had just found out that I was pregnant, and I had done some drugs in the beginning of my pregnancy, and that's what I told her," says Love.

Equally misunderstood, to Cobain, is Nirvana itself-particularly the fact that the band appeals to many of the same hard rock fans who pack Guns N' Roses concerts. But while Axl Rose san derisively of "immigrants and faggots" in his song "One in a Million," Cobain closed his song "Stay Away" by howling "God is gay!" and Nirvana defiantly cavorted in dresses in the video of their hit single "In Bloom." Last year Nirvana traveled to Oregon to perform at a benefit opposing Measure 9, a statewide ordinance that would have amended the state constitution to prohibit protections for gays and lesbians. And when they appeared on Saturday Night Live, Cobain and Novoselic made a point of kissing on-camera.

In person, Cobain is the antithesis of a preening guitar cocksman: He's small, pale, soft-spoken, and articulate. Prejudice infuriates him: he spits out the words "homophobe" and "sexist" with the same venom he reserves for the word "spandex." Particularly upsetting to him was an incident last year in Reno, when two men raped a woman while chanting a Nirvana song. On the liner notes for Insecticide, he vented his frustration in a blunt statement to Nirvana fans: "If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us-leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."

Despite Cobain's wish that people "leave us the fuck alone," both he and Love seem determined not to surround themselves with a glass bubble of security precautions and stereotypical rock-star trappings. Before this interview-the only one the band's lead singer says he plans to do for Insecticide-Cobain set down no conditions regarding the questions that could be asked, nor did he bother to notify his record company that the interview would be taking place. (Love, in fact, insisted that the mutual friend who arranged the meeting put The ADVOCATE in direct contact with the couple: "Gay people can have our phone number")

Back in the hotel room, Love goes out and leaves Cobain to his interview, but she's wary enough to come back twice: "I'm worried about what they're going to write," she finally blurts. Still, her need to trust overwhelms her protectiveness. While she leaves for the third time, she says, "it's a gay publication, Kurt, so don't forget to tell them about the time you stole your tights out of your mother's drawer." Cobain smiles; she laughs and sighs, "I guess I have that effect on men. Bye." And then she's gone for good, pushing Frances's stroller out the door.


You two don't seem like Sid and Nancy.
It's just amazing that at this point in rock-and-roll history, people are still expecting their rock icons to live out these classic rock archetypes, like Sid and Nancy. To assume that we're just the same because we did heroin for a while-it's pretty offensive to be expected to be like that.

Does it hurt worse when they say bad things about Courtney?
Oh, absolutely. What they said about me is not half as strange as what they've said about her. She doesn't deserve that. She sold 60,000 records, and all of a sudden she's found herself as commercially popular as me, and she's just in a punk rock band. Just because she married me, she's subjected to being as popular as an actress or something.

Who do you trust now?
Uh-no one? [Laughs] I've always kind of kept myself purposely naive and optimistic, and now I've been forced to be really paranoid. Judgmental. Really defensive all the time. It's been hard for me to change my attitude.

You're here in this hotel room. Can you go out?
Yeah. The other night we went shopping at a second-hand store and bought some fuzzy sweaters and some grungewear.

Real grungewear, not the designer kind?
Not Perry Ellis. [Laughs] We were driving around in our Volvo, after buying some grungewear and we realized that we're not necessarily as big as Guns N' Roses, but we're as popular as them, and we still don't have bodyguards. We still go shopping, we still go to movies and carry on with our lives.

I've always been a paranoid person by nature anyhow, and now I have all these people so concerned with what I say and what I do at all times that it's really hard for me to deal with that. I'm dealing with it a lot better than I would have expected. If I could have predicted what was going to happen to me a few years ago, I definitely wouldn't have opted for this kind of a life-style.

Would it be cooler to have stayed in Seattle and not been on the cover of Rolling Stone?
Yeah. Well, I chose to do that-although it was a hell of a fight. We were on tour in Australia, and I had completely forgotten that I had promised to do the Rolling Stone piece. And that day, they called and said "Are you ready to do the photo shoot?" And it was like, "No, I really don't want to do this." I had so much pressure from my management and the band members-they wanted to do it, and I just agreed. On my way there I just decided, "I'm going to write something on my shirt that's offensive enough to stop getting our picture on the cover." This way I could say that I actually played along with it and still didn't get picked to be on the cover. I wasn't necessarily challenging Rolling Stone, saying, "You suck" and "We don't want to have anything to do with you, but we'll still use you for our exposure."

Rolling Stone sucks, has always sucked, and still sucks just because they have a hip band on their cover. We're not as cool and hip as everyone thinks. Having us on the cover isn't going to make Rolling Stone any cooler. Ever since this band has been popular, I've always thought of us as just a '90s version on Cheap Trick or the Knack. They had two sides of appeal that made them kind of a cool band-a commercial side and kind of a new-wave side. We have that.

Everything you do seems to get analyzed. You can't even say or do anything off-the-cuff.
Yeah, I still have the same views I've always had. When I used to say things to my friends, I didn't expect to be taken so seriously. Now I have to learn to detour my thoughts and what I say in order to stop someone from saying I'm a hypocrite. That was the Rolling Stone debate: "Corporate magazines suck, but you're still on the cover." Well, of course! It's a joke. Get over it.

People should take things rock stars say with a grain of salt because there's no one in rock and roll right now who's a relevant example of a spokesperson for anything. They do have an influence on people, and I think there's a new consciousness that's really positive among rock stars, like Rock the Vote. They're trying to make people aware, but I really can't think of anyone who's really schooled enough to be political to the point that would be required for a rock star. If Jello Biafra [former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys] was a big international star, it would be really cool. But he's not on a major label, and he doesn't write commercial enough music to use that as a tool.

Does it make you laugh when people take apart all your songs, and try to figure out what you're saying?
Oh, yeah. At the time I was writing those songs, I really didn't know what I was trying to say. There's no point in my even trying to analyze or explain it. That used to be the biggest subject in an interview: "What are your lyrics about?" [Laughs] I haven't written any new lyrics, that's for sure. We have about 12 songs for our new album we're scheduled to record in February, and I don't have any lyrics at all. Within the past year, notebooks and poetry books I've had lying around have either been destroyed or stolen. So I don't have anything to go back on at all. It sucks.

The past year I haven't been very prolific at all. A few months ago we went on tour to Europe, and before we went I took two of my favorite guitars and all my poetry books and writings and two tapes that had guitar parts I was going to use for the next record, and I put all this really important stuff in our shower, because we've never really used our shower before. And the roommates upstairs had a plumbing problem, so when we came back, everything was destroyed, I don't have anything to go back on at all. It's pretty scary.

I read the liner notes you wrote on Insecticide. I've never seen somebody on a major label say, "If you're a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, we don't want you to buy our records."
That's been the biggest problem that I've had being in this band. I know there are those people out in the audience, and there's not much I can do about it. I can talk about those issues in interviews-I think it's pretty obvious that we're against the homophobes and the sexists and the racists, but when "Teen Spirit" first came out, mainstream audiences were under the assumption that we were just like Guns N' Roses.

Then our opinions started showing up in interviews. And then things like Chris and I kissing on Saturday Night Live. We weren't trying to be subversive or punk rock; we were just doing something insane and stupid at the last minute. I think now that our opinions our out in the open, a lot of kids who bought our record regret knowing anything about us. [Laughs]

There is a war going on in the high schools now between Nirvana kids and Guns N' Roses kids. It's really cool. I'm really proud to be a part of that, because when I was in high school, I dressed like a punk rocker and people would scream "Devo!" at me-because Devo infiltrated the mainstream. Out of all the bands who came from the underground and actually made it in the mainstream, Devo is the most subversive and challenging of all. They're just awesome. I love them.

Maybe there'll be a Devo revival soon, like the Village People revival.
I saw the Village People two years ago in Seattle! They were so cool. They still had the same costumes.

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I met Kurt in 1986 during a telephone call. I was introduced to him by Andrew Wood.  Kurt and I continued to talk on the telephone until the week he died in 1994.  I started a blog to journal my memories of our shared conversations. 


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Ain't Got No how What waTchamacalliT

Cobain worked at the Lamplighter Restaurant in Grayland, on the south beach of the ocean, for a time and later as a janitor at Weatherwax High School - earning enough to rent an apartment in June 1985 at 404 N. Michigan Street in Aberdeen.

Shortly thereafter, on July 23rd, 1985, Cobain was arrested for vandalism when he was caught writing "Ain'T goT no how waTchamacalliT" on an alley wall of the Seafirst Bank Building at Market and Broadway. That fall, homeless again, Cobain moved into the Lamont Shillinger residence at 408 W. First Street in Aberdeen. On May 18th, 1986, apparently intoxicated, Cobain was arrested for trespassing after he wandered onto the roof of an abandoned building at 618 W. Market Street. Source: Aberdeen Museum of History



Cobain was friends with a gay student at his school, sometimes suffering bullying at the hands of homophobic students. That friendship, along with his small stature, led some to believe that he himself was gay. In a February 1992 interview with The Advocate, Cobain claimed that he used to spraypaint "God is Gay" on pickup trucks around Aberdeen. In the accompanying article, writer Kevin Allman noted that Cobain was arrested in 1985 for spray-painting "HOMO SEX RULES" on a bank. Allman, Kevin. "[The Dark Side of Kurt Cobain]". The Advocate. February 1992. However, Aberdeen police records show that the phrase for which he was arrested was actually "Ain't got no how watchamacallit." Cross, Charles. Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. Hyperion, 2001. ISBN 0786884029

In the Advocate interview, Cobain admitted that he thought he was gay while in high school. He later stated, "I'm definitely gay in spirit, and I probably could be bisexual. But I'm married, and I'm more attracted to Courtney than I ever have been toward a person, so there's no point in trying to sow my oats at this point. If I wouldn't have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle." When Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live in January of 1992, Cobain and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic jokingly "made out" during the cast and crew farewells as the credits rolled. (Cobain and Novoselic bobbed their heads back and forth wildly as if in rapture; Novoselic and Dave Grohl subsequently repeated the gesture.) The segment was cut from the show on further airings, replaced by the closing credits from the rehearsal taping (which lacked Cobain), and never aired again.

Mug Shot

Mug Shot Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain is a monkey mugshot; taken on May 25, 1986 after Cobain’s arrest for spraypainting “Ain’t got no how watchamacallit” on the side of a local Seafirst Bank Building (now Bank of America) in Aberdeen, Washington.

In a 1993 interview with The Advocate, Cobain claimed that he was “gay in spirit” and “probably could bebisexual.” He also stated that he used to spray paint “God Is Gay” on pickup trucks in the Aberdeen area. However, Aberdeen police records show that the phrase for which he was arrested was actually “Ain’t got no how watchamacallit”. One of his personal journals states, “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.

Advocate

Advocate