Thirteen Ways of Looking at Nirvana

Photo by Charles Peterson

1. A friend’s East Village studio somewhere in July 1989. Nirvana, who had slept on the floor, are pissed, especially the quiet blond one in the sweater, Cobain. The show the night before, with Helmet at the Pyramid, had not gone well, although ironically, half of New York will later claim to have been present. Glass shatters. A paperback, Rilke I think, soars across the room. The cute guitar player, Jason somebody, threatens to quit. Nobody seems to object. The band breaks up. My friend starts to cry. Another hot afternoon in the indie-rock summer.

2. Raji’s, in Hollywood, February 1990. Nirvana is all at once the best band I’ve heard in my life, deep metal riffs repeated as relentlessly as beats on a hip-hop record, washes of guitar white noise, Cobain bellowing punk koans in a rasp that seems to fragment into chords, like Sonny Rollins overblowing a saxophone, like a Tuvan throat singer — like a skinny kid unaware of anything but the stink of his own noise, unaware that voices can be blown out like overstressed amps. “I’m a negative creep, I’m a negative creep, I’m a negative creep, and I’m stoned.” Did we pogo? Yes we did.

3. A Fluid show, at a loft near downtown. I am for some reason in the back of the room with the suits, who seem bewildered that they are not attending Jam Nite at the Whisky instead. The one with whom I am the friendliest eventually discovered the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and ’N Sync, although at the time, everybody was worrying about who was going to get to sign Rhino Bucket. The Fluid are kind of great, but nobody talks about anything but Nirvana, about whom there is a buzz. A deal is about to happen. The number I hear repeated is less than some music executives happen to spend each year on wine.

4. In Sonic Youth’s 1990 video for “Dirty Boots,” a stage-diving teenage girl wears a Nirvana T-shirt. This is to say, Nirvana is being used as a cool credential by the band that is possibly the coolest in the world at the time. Somehow, this seems significant.

5. Nirvana, opening for Dinosaur Jr. at the Palladium in June 1991. Scrubbed of the comforting haze of guitar feedback, Cobain’s out-of-tune vocals, unfocused harmonies and what sound like serious Monkees aspirations are exposed in a most unflattering way. This will later be understood as Nirvana’s awkward adolescence, the year the band loses its baby fat, but at the time, the compulsory school figures of Northwest pop are just excruciating.

6. 1991 is a very good spring for wildflowers. On the car stereo the demo version of Nevermind plays, the prerelease Sub Pop version with the supple Butch Vig production but without the iron-fist-in-a-lubricated-condom remix of Andy Wallace. The tape is so extraordinary that I forget where in the Sierras I am actually supposed to be going, rushing through seas of lupines and California golden poppies until long after dark.

7. August 1991. Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, an hour’s drive from Olympia along a road threaded through clear-cut forests. Building-high drifts of peeled logs line the windy, deserted harbor. A sign outside the Elks Lodge announces a spotted-owl barbecue. A diner invites tourists to Eat Like a Logger. I look for but cannot find the famous bridge that Cobain was supposed to have slept under, and I feel not unlike a Dylan fan making a pilgrimage to Hibbing. Mostly, there is the wind.

8. Later August 1991. A cleanly perfect show at the Roxy. Cobain is bemused by the fact that everybody present seems to know all the words to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” although Nevermind won’t be released for another month. On the way out of the club, a woman with a ring in her nose recruits extras for the next day’s video shoot. Teenage extras.

9. January 1992. “Darling, it’s Kiii-iirk from Me-tallll-ica,” yells Courtney Love. Cobain appears from the next room, wearing a moth-eaten fuzzy sweater, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Love is several months pregnant. On an easel in the next room is a half-finished painting of the female reproductive tract. Cobain has spent the afternoon straightening up the sprawling Fairfax-area apartment, a place of well-worn books, Atomic Age couches and Cobain’s runic paintings on the walls. When Cobain gets off the phone, the couple will paw through the new British music tabloids, which at the moment seem to be all about them. Sprawled on the clean living-room floor, surrounded by newsprint, they are happy and famous and in love.

10. The thing about Cobain is his amazing ability to be all things to all people, a perfect vessel for every conceivable idea about rock & roll. To the proponents of the Great Man Theory, he is that Great Man; to the proponents of the Scene Theory, he is the front man for Seattle. Hipster first-album freaks adore Bleach; artistic-growth types dote on In Utero. The sweetness of his smile appeals to Tiger Beat readers and to motherly New Yorker subscribers. Rednecks like him as well as Olympia feminists; metalheads as well as punx. As puzzling as this is to any of us, it was apparently twice as puzzling to him.

11. Summer 1993. NA becomes not so A, if you know what I mean. Half of Silver Lake wears Cobain’s misery around its neck like a gold medallion. He has a perpetual stomachache. He is not a happy rock star.

12. March 1994. Seattle. I help Doug Pray conduct the interviews for his documentary Hype! We talk to Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Tad, Melvins, Soundgarden, Jack Endino, Young Fresh Fellows, the Walkabouts, the Fastbacks, the Sub Pop guys — hell, everybody — but Nirvana is tantalizingly out of our reach. Cobain ODs in Rome. The interview is postponed.

13. April 1994. Cobain’s death is confirmed a few hours after my own mother passes away. For some reason, I agree to write a long Cobain obituary for Spin, which I finish in a delirious weekend of grief. I haven’t read it since, but I understand it is very sad.


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