It was 20 Years Ago Today – Kurt Cobain and In Utero

ff780c1a-e800-4bbd-83c5-179eb3b3fb7d-300x300It’s twenty years since Nirvana released their third album In Utero, two decades during which the Seattle trio’s reputation and influence have showed no sign whatsoever of dimming.  Next month, Universal release In Utero – Deluxe Edition, a three CD and one DVD box set comprising not only the original album but also a mass of bonus tracks rounding up b-sides, compilation appearances, demos and live material.  Ahead of that, however, we roll back to a night in early August 1993, with In Utero still the source only of wild speculation and career-ending conspiracy, to find Kurt Cobain has gone walkabout.

Nothing serious.  We hope.  We met at a downtown Seattle hotel as arranged; made our way to a restaurant he chose on Capitol Hill; sat and ordered our meals, and then Kurt leaped up to announce “I just need to go and do something…” and off he trotted.  We spend thirty minutes watching his chicken dinner congeal on the plate, and then Chris Novoselic departs as well.  Which means, it’s the first interview Nirvana has given in ten months, and I’m talking antique clocks and Patsy Cline with Dave Grohl.

Cobain finally returns an hour, an hour-and-a-half, later.  Luke, the Geffen press officer charged with nursemaiding the evening’s proceedings, looks cheerful for the first time since we sat down, but that’s more than can be said for Cobain.  First he apologizes for his absence (“sorry, I had to see my chiropractor”); he inspects, then rejects, his still chilling meal; and finally he notices that Novoselic is absent.

“Where’s Chris?”

He went home

“Why?”

He was waiting for you…

“..and he thought I wouldn’t be back, ‘Fucking Cobain the junkie pissing off to score’.  I was feeling like shit, I needed to relax. I had a fucking massage. And even if I hadn’t, what business is it of his? Have I ever missed a show, or missed an interview, or not done anything I said I would do, because of anything else? Chris really pisses me off sometimes.

“You know, I run into him backstage at gigs sometimes, and he pretends he doesn’t know me, or doesn’t want to know me. It’s like ‘Oh shit, the junkie; if we don’t look his way, he may be too stoned to see us.’ All this crap. I cannot understand his fucking attitude.  I know I shouldn’t be saying this in front of a journalist, but…”

Nirvana have a new album coming.  In Utero has not been released; has barely even been heard outside of a handful of strictly regulated promo cassettes.  But already the grapevine is adamant.  They screwed up.  They deliberately screwed up.

Charged with recording a mega-billion selling follow-up to the biggest album of the decade so far, the two-year-old Nevermind, they instead turned to noise’n’nastiness maestro Steve Albini, and taped an impenetrable din packed with titles like “Rape Me,” “Tourettes,”  “Serve The Servants,” ”Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” and, most ironic of all, “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.”  Allegedly about the kind of songs that label and management wanted them to write.  Allegedly.  And already, Cobain is sick of hearing the stories.

A. “People don’t want to listen.  We didn’t actually need to make a record, we could have just put out a press release saying ‘this is what it’s called, these are the songs, and they’re all about…’ and we’d get the same reviews. I know a lot of people want to see us fail, particularly journalists, and that’s fair enough. Maybe they’re jealous, maybe they’re jaded, maybe they simply don’t like us. What upsets me is that they go about it in such an underhanded fashion.  Before he worked with us, everyone said Albini was a genius.  Now he’s slipping and fading and getting too clever, and it’s not just one writer saying it, it’s a lot. Maybe I really am paranoid, but I don’t think it’s Albini they’re getting at, really. They’re just setting the stage for hammering us.”

Q. In Utero feels a lot more cohesive than Nevermind… it flows really nicely

A. “I hope so!  When I listen to an album, I listen to it as a solid body of work, 40 minutes in a life, rather than ten four-minute excerpts. There’s always songs I like more than others, but the point is, they all have their place on the album, and if they don’t, then the album doesn’t work. Not as an album.  So we worked really hard to make In Utero sound like an album, with a beginning, a middle and an end.  For instance, we were going to do ‘Verse, Chorus, Verse’ [the song originally suggested as the album’s title track], but it didn’t fit with what we wanted…  but we did include ‘Tourettes,’ even though it isn’t that good a song, but it fit the mood.  And originally the album started with ‘Rape Me,’ but then we moved it because it has a similar intro to ‘Teen Spirit’, and if people have to say we’ve just repeated Nevermind, we’d rather they don’t get that chance straight away.”

Q. And what about people who complain that you haven’t just repeated Nevermind?

A. “Hopefully, they won’t listen to it.  But why would they even want that?  I have albums I love by bands I love but when they bring out a new one, I want to hear something new, because otherwise I’m just buying the same thing again which is a waste of everyone’s time.”

Q. Audiences like familiarity…

A. “Then let them buy… I had to promise to stop saying things about other bands, the other Seattle bands because… I promised, but you asked, and there are groups who have come along, they’ve seen this thing that the media call ‘grunge’ and they think they can do it, and everyone else hears them and says ‘ah yes, it’s grunge,’ and a lot of them are making the same record over and over.  Pearl Jam could never write a song like ‘Territorial Pissings’, but maybe they wouldn’t want to.  I wouldn’t want to write ‘Jeremy’.”

Q. So do you feel any responsibility for Grunge?

A. “None, it was just some journalist stuck for a word and he used that, he could have called it anything but he came up with grunge… I don’t want to talk about labels because some of them mean something, ‘punk rock’ means something because it’s an attitude more than a musical thing.  Grunge isn’t an attitude, it’s not even music, it’s a zip code.”

Q. How about for your fans?

A. “What, responsibility?  No.  They make their own choices, they live their lives, and if they happen to like our records, then thank you, but I don’t have any responsibility for them and I wouldn’t want to. I know you can’t pick your audience, but I’d rather not have one than be stuck with people whose very existence goes against everything I believe in.”

Q. The album has already been described as…

A. “Commercial suicide!  But if we’d done Nevermind with Steve, then gone to Butch Vig for this one, people would have said the same thing.  I can honestly say that only one person in the entire Geffen organization, at least among the people we worked with, had anything to say against the album. Gary Gersh, who was our A&R man [before he quit to become president at Capitol] didn’t like it for various sonic reasons. But he heard the album before it was mastered, and it’s at that stage – although I only found this out when we actually did it – that a lot of those problems can be sorted out. Which is basically what Albini said to begin with.”

Q. At the same time, you asked Scott Litt (of REM fame) to remix “Heart Shaped Box”… and apparently that pissed Albini off.

A. “That’s not what happened.  We’d been having problems with the song, or Chris had, there was a solo that he really hated and he kept on about it until finally Dave and I said ‘okay, let’s do something about it,’ and Geffen were okay with us doing it, so Chris called in Scott Litt.  That’s all.”

Q. And Albini?

A. “Albini had a contract with us, his standard contract, that said when  the album was finished, that’s it, it was finished.  But it wasn’t carved in stone, so I called him up and said ‘listen…’ and he was ‘fine, go ahead.‘  He had no problem.  So I did some extra backing vocals, Chris took off the solo and that was it. But then someone who knew about Albini’s contracts saw that we’d done this post-production and again, off they went.”

Q. Are you looking forward to taking the album on the road?

A. “Right now everything is locked into the flow of the new album and tour.  We’ve been told not to make any plans for at least the next year… America, Europe, back to America, back to Europe.  I make plans but I keep them to myself because every time I open my mouth and say ‘we should do… this,’ someone will have a good reason why we can’t.”

Q. What sort of plans?

A. “Something I want to do, and we’re going to, maybe on this tour coming up, I want to have a short acoustic set during the live show, us with acoustic guitars, maybe some strings, doing the songs that… I could see us… we’re talking with MTV about maybe doing something for Unplugged later in the year, I’d like that because people seem to miss the fact that not all our songs are shrieking punk-rock monsters, they think we’re just this loud screaming noise and I want them to see the other side, although they probably won’t pay any attention.”

Q. You think people really do have it in for the band?

A. “Do I have to answer that?  We’re not Michael Jackson or Marlon Brando or Frank Sinatra, we’re not superstars, we’re just a reasonably good band who had a big hit record, and people are behaving like we’re models or Hollywood stars, we’re getting articles in places that bands never get written about, I go to the store and we’re on the front page of the tabloids at the checkout, ‘Kurt this,’ ‘Nirvana that,’ my wife is on the front page, my daughter.  We woke up one morning and instead of people saying ‘congratulations, your new record is a hit,’ they’re saying ‘I just read you’re an escaped child abuser smack head war criminal’.”

Q. At the same time, people could say you didn’t go out of your way to change perceptions.

A. “Let me tell you something.  One of the reasons we signed with DGC was because we believe in what David Geffen stands for, which is a very left-wing, very caring, very honest outlook. He’s said that at his age [he was 49 at the time], he doesn’t even know what alternative music is, but his whole outlook is alternative.

The downside of that is that he doesn’t have the muscle to protect his artists in the same way as, say, certain east coast labels with underworld connections.  I asked him, I went to him when all this shit started happening and asked if there was anything he could do to stop it, because I know other people can and do, I found that David didn’t do things that way. We just had to weather the storm.”

Q. And did you?

A. “We reacted badly. Of course we reacted badly. Somebody takes a photograph and maybe I’m blinking, they don’t say ‘oh, bad picture, I caught him blinking’ like they would with anybody else, they say ‘it’s Kurt nodding out.’  They get the tiniest piece of information and they twist it to say what they want.

“You know that saying ‘a little information is dangerous’?  People hear something, a fraction of the whole story, and they write their entire article about it.  Look, we have one of the best contracts any band has ever had, or so I’m told.  We have complete control over what we do, and what we release, which literally means that if we handed in a 60-minute tape of us defecating, DGC would have to release it and promote it. A journalist hears that and says ‘ah, that’s what they’ve done because Cobain is a junkie,’ and so on.

“But there’s one thing he ignores, which is the fact we wouldn’t do that because that’s not why we’re a band. Forget the fans, forget the success, forget all the bullshit.  When I was a kid listening to Black Flag and Sonic Youth and saying ‘I want to be like them,’ it wasn’t so I could make records that sounded like shit, it was so I could make records that could maybe stand in the same room as them.

“I used to dream about going out on tour with Sonic Youth, that would have been the best thing for me, the reason why I started doing this in the first place, you know what I mean?  Now Geffen are saying maybe they will support us, and I’m saying ‘no no no,’ and it’s not that I’m scared they’ll blow us off stage, because I know they probably will. It’s the fact that without Sonic Youth’s example, there’d probably be no Nirvana.”

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com 

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