DISPATCHED BY THE OBSERVER newspaper to cover the unstable lurchings of the latest rock mega-phenomenon on the eve of their third album release, punk maven/culture scribe Jon Savage encountered Nirvana in New York in July 1993, and found mainman Kurt Cobain excited about the group’s forthcoming In Utero album, open about his tangled roots, and honest about the impact of drugs and fame on his fragile psyche. It was among the last significant interviews he granted before his death in April 1994. Like many would-be Nirvana interviewers through 1993 and ’94, Savage stumbled into disarray, with Cobain proving hard to pin down for a formal grilling (he was to overdose the day after the interview). But as the pair talked, they found themselves on the same page. Cobain had read Savage’s punk bible England’s Dreaming and liked it, and Cobain’s feelings about punk would prove some of the most touching revelations of the interview.
“I was trying to play my own style of punk rock, what I thought it would be.” Kurt Cobain
“I was always trying to find punk rock,” Cobain told Savage, “but of course they didn’t have it in our record shop in Aberdeen [WA]. I probably bought Devo and Oingo Boingo and stuff like that, that finally leaked into Aberdeen many years after the fact. Then finally [Melvins frontman] Buzz Osborne in 1984, who’d been a friend of mine off and on between Montesano and Aberdeen, made me a couple of compilation tapes. Black Flag and Flipper, everything, all the most popular punk rock bands, and I was completely blown away. I finally found my calling.
“That very same day, I cut my hair and I would lip-sync to those tapes. I’d play them every day, 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, what I thought it would be. I knew it was fast, and had a lot of distortion. There were so many things going on at once. It expressed the way I felt socially and politically. It was the anger that I felt, the alienation.”
Some of Cobain’s quotes would appear in Savage’s contemporary Observer report, printed as Sounds Dirty: The Truth About Nirvana, but many of the quotes in MOJO’s “director’s cut” did not, and there’s fascinating light cast in many a corner of Cobain’s story.
There’s the gay friend Kurt had at school (“I even thought that I was gay. I thought that might be the solution to my problem”) who was banned from the Cobain house by his mother. Nirvana’s acquisition of fame (“I wanted to break it up, I wanted to quit”), and the singer’s drug use (“I just decided that if I’m going to feel like a junkie every fucking morning… then I may as well take a substance that kills the pain”).
Heartbreakingly, Cobain talks about having come through a period of doubt, and feeling much more positive: “My mental state and my physical state have improved almost 100 per cent. I’m really excited about touring again.”
That Nirvana were able to pull as great a record as In Utero out of this period of chaos and confusion is perhaps the last flaring proof of their greatness. But within 9 months the singer would be dead and Nirvana no more.
Read Jon Savage’s full Kurt Cobain interview in the latest MOJO magazine. The Super Deluxe reissue of In Utero is released on September 23.