It is the 20th anniversary of 'Nevermind'. The celebratory rerelease is out on 26th September, and the NIRVANA exhibition is running in London until this Sunday, 25th. PIPPA LANG recalls the day she interviewed tbe Seattle band when the album was first released in 1991, and remembers the day Kurt died three years later
"I hope to God we're not still around in twenty years' time…"
There was a splodge of red dye in his dirty blonde hair. Can't remember which side of his head it was on, because it didn't matter at the time. I probably wondered, vaguely, what'd happened to the rest of the bottle, but that was all.
Uppermost in my mind was the fact I'd just walked into a brick wall. A subdued, disconnected and decidedly awkward atmosphere, Kurt, Dave and Krist appeared to have retreated into their own detached shells. What the hell had happened? Hello?
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Twenty-four-year-old Kurt was sitting on the settee in Geffen Records' 'interview room' with his head in his hands, shabby overcoat hanging open, crumpled t-shirt and ragged jeans sending their own message of unassuming impertinence: I'm not a rock star, what am I doing here?
Dave Grohl was fiddling with the stereo, Krist Novoselic just gazing out the window.
As I discovered later, the previous interview had not gone well, the journalist stomping out after losing patience with these three uncommunicative components of Nirvana, whose second album had unexpectedly turned them into heroes for a generation hungry for a new messiah.
I sat down opposite Kurt and looked around the room, gauging the mood. Hmm. Not good. I had not a clue how I was going to get these three to read off the same page. But I would persevere. After a few minutes of suffering the sullenness, all I could think of to say was:
"Okay, guys. How about you interview me?"
Kurt's head snapped up, as if waking from some kind of reverie, and gave me a tired smile:
"Oh sorry, okay, let's do it…"
Dave and Krist roused themselves from their respective trances and, thank God, joined Kurt on the settee.
We talked about many things, but what struck me most was their bewilderment about the mass attention focussed on them. Kurt couldn't understand why so many people were suddenly probing his life and analyzing his lyrics, some of which will never be entirely understood, for good reason:
"A lotta the lyrics I wrote just because they sounded good together."
(Yep, that's called 'alliteration', emphasis on the sound of words more than their meaning.)
But most significantly, he said, shaking his head:
"I hope to God we're not still around in twenty years' time… Can you imagine still playing the same songs, being a 44-year-old bloated man?
"The most exciting time for a band is right before they become really popular. Every time I look back at the best times in this band, it was right before 'Nevermind' came out…"
I'd first been made aware of Nirvana by James Sherry, my then-colleague at Metal Hammer, our 'grunge kid' at the time - who now heads up Division PR, the company responsible for spreading the word about the rerelease of 'Nevermind' and this week's exhibition. (See details below)
Kurt even stayed at James' once upon a time, so it is right and proper that he should be a part of this 20th anniversary 'memorial'. James also brought a lot of the Sub-Pop bands to the UK's attention, that label being prime mover in the great spillage of grunge that Nirvana precipitated.
But I first heard 'Nevermind' in LA, after visiting Geffen's office to interview John Kalodner (the man who discovered Aerosmith). I'd stuck the pre-release tape in my hire car's tape player and blasted it out as I cruised down Sunset Boulevard, thinking 'life is goood'.
But as I played and replayed the tape, I was struck by this strange, disorientating music. It wasn't the music of this time - glamrock or heavy Metal or rock, per se… Bravely discordant, drawn from a disconsolate heart that was about to be broken (into) by a world full of strangers.
I drove past the Whisky A-Go-Go and the Roxy, the LA rock'n'roll haunts, looking at the spandex and gravity-defying hair, and thinking 'this is all going to change soon…'
. Yep, hair Metal is back now, but at least Nirvana proved you don't have
to spend hours in front of a mirror to make an impact. (Mind you, as Rival Sons' Robin Everhart recently said, even flannel shirts and ripped jeans became a fashion statement.)
Reading Festival 1992
After 'Nevermind''s unprecedented 'triumph', I saw them live three times. The disparity between the 200-capacity Bristol Bierkeller gig on 4th November '91 and the one at the Kilburn National only a month later was palpable. The first gig was lively, exciting, dangerous (I seem to remember one of them getting clunked over the head with a guitar); the second a sloppy performance, with a bunch of straight industry types hanging round the back of the venue, not particularly interested in the gig, but intent on 'being there' to see this 'phenomenon'.
The following year, at Reading Festival, the vibe was terrible: Kurt rolled onstage in a wheelchair, ripping the piss out of rumours about his health, and embarrassing us all by asking us to shout, en masse: "We love you Courtney!" because he knew so many people hated her just for being his wife.
And after that, the rumours, the stories…more dissection of lyrics and lives…and then:
Fastforward to Thursday 7th April 1994, and I remember exactly when I found out Kurt had died, and where I was. A late night at Metal Hammer, and we were putting the latest issue to bed, when the phone rang. Joe O'Neill (sadly deceased PR for Def American Records):
Shock, horror, a hasty rejig of our next issue, and many phone calls, first to the people who would be most affected. Top of the list: James Sherry, who instantly had to get off the phone.
We all know what happened after that. The discovery that he'd shot himself, the conjecture that someone else had shot him, more scrutiny, analysis and 'blah blah blah' - and Kurt's elevated status alongside Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Moon in the Great Gig In The Sky.
So. Two things have always stood out for me about his death, just little things, like the lyric from 'Come As You Are': 'I don't have a gun'
, to which I always retort, "yes you bloody did!" Okay, it wasn't his gun, but even so…
That, the splodge of red hair dye and Kurt's desperate hope that Nirvana wouldn't be around in twenty years' time.
Well, he got his wish - he doesn't have to play 'the same songs' over and over again, because they're being played anyway, but entirely without his involvement. Take Evile's cover of 'Lounge Act', out now as part of Kerrang!'s special anniversary issue commemorative CD, for example…
I reckon he'd love it. Better than singing 'Teen Spirit' at 44 methinks.
'Nevermind' rerelease details:
Nirvana Exhibition details: