-- by Kurt Loder
They were great, what else can you say, really? Their power came from their hearts, not just from their amps. And Cobain's words, the cloud of feeling in which he cloaked his simple song structures, came from a place you were sometimes glad you were only visiting, but were exhilarated to be visiting nonetheless. Their emotion was real, in a business — the pop-music business — in which most of what passes for emotion is just another calculation. Of course we miss them.
They dealt with their stardom — their sudden, huge renown — by ignoring it, pretty much. They had no entourage, no hangers-on, no parade of retainers to lick their boots whenever the whim arose. Showing up for an interview, they would just walk into the room, unaccompanied, bringing along their own beer, likely as not. They were funny; they were nice guys.
They had no attitude. Eddie Vedder, of Pearl Jam, would go on and on and on about how he hated rock stars, and how he wasn't a rock star, no way, and ... well, after a while, this became a new kind of rock-star attitude, one that was even more irritating than the usual sort of celebrity affectation for being slathered with such tiresome jabbering. Kurt Cobain was quietly contemptuous of rock-star excess and self-regard, but he didn't feel moved to pontification about it. (Although Guns N' Roses — veritable emperors of excess — really did seem to drive him a little nuts.)
They were so easy, so utterly down-to-earth. They had no interest in giving anybody a hard time. In December of 1993, for example, MTV was pre-taping a big New Year's Eve concert in Seattle. Nirvana was one of the bands on the bill, but the headliner was Pearl Jam. Not at all surprisingly, come the day of the show, Pearl Jam (an excellent group, don't get me wrong) flaked out. Maybe Eddie Vedder was having some sort of crisis of conscience, who knows? But they'd decided, out of nowhere, not to play. An enormous pain for all concerned. In frank desperation, the MTV producers approached Nirvana and asked the band to step in and save the show, headline it. This was a considerable imposition: Essentially, we were asking them to play all night. Nirvana said they'd think about it. And they did. They thought about it for, oh, 10 minutes or so. And they said, sure.
Maybe it wasn't a big deal for them because they were midway through a tour, and so they were playing at their peak — a lofty elevation, as anyone who ever saw them on a great night will know. At MTV News, we had been trying for some time to hook up with them: to come out on the road, shoot a concert, do an interview. We loved Nirvana like everybody else. The band was nice about it, but they said no. They'd done a ton of press at the beginning of the tour, and apparently couldn't bear to be asked one more question along the lines of what-is-this-grunge-thing? Who could blame them?
Sitting in New York, though, we were bummed. Then we thought, wait a minute ... there were two opening acts on the tour, and one of them was Shonen Knife. Shonen Knife was the all-time unlikeliest of rock acts: three burbly Japanese girls with drums and guitars who sang songs about ice cream and jelly beans and sounded like the Ramones might have sounded if the Ramones had sung songs about ice cream and jelly beans.
Perfect. We loved the Knife. We would fly out to wherever and interview the jelly-bean girls and, who knew, maybe pick up a couple shots of the Nirvana guys, too, on the fly. (Kurt Cobain really loved Shonen Knife. He would always come out from backstage to watch them play. "I cried every night," he said.)
So: great idea. The money guys at MTV certainly got a big kick out of it. We were kidding, right? Fly out to wherever to interview some Japanese band that, what, 50, 60 people had even heard of? Right.
Dismissed and dejected, we got back in touch with the Nirvana camp. We want to do Shonen Knife, we said, but it's the end of the year, budgets are tight, they won't fly us out. However, if Nirvana might possibly rethink its no-more-press decision, just this once, and agree to do an interview with us, we'd get the go-ahead and we could come out and do the Knife, too, and everybody'd be deliriously happy. Please? Please? Nirvana thought about this. Ten minutes passed. They said, sure.
* * * *
They cared so much about music. Not showbiz or record sales, especially, just music. Cobain seemed to love any cool act, however obscure, that made music with an insistent passion, that refused to be laughed off or slapped down, that would play on whether anybody else cared or not. He loved Shonen Knife and he loved the Vaselines. But he wasn't an alt-rock snob. He loved David Bowie, too. He even loved Leadbelly.
Leadbelly was a name Cobain said he had come across in reading an interview somewhere with William Burroughs. (Burroughs, the Beat author and heroin laureate, was one of his idols ... unfortunately.) He first recorded the Leadbelly song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" with his friend Mark Lanegan, of Screaming Trees, singing lead. (The track is included on Lanegan's 1990 solo album, The Winding Sheet.) And of course it was the last song he sang in the MTV "Unplugged" show Nirvana taped in New York in November of 1993. With its bleak lyric about a godforsaken place "where the cold wind blows" and "the sun don't ever shine," "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" must have resonated deeply in Cobain's troubled mind.
I had said or written somewhere that "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" was more commonly known as "In the Pines," and had been performed and recorded under that title by scores of people, chief among them, in my view, bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe. Cobain, a man possessed by a music geek's obsession with recondite detail, was interested in this assertion. I think he was a little miffed, actually. I remember standing in a corridor outside his hotel room one night, after the interview we finally did in December of 1993, discussing this subject at some length: "But the Leadbelly version is called 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night.' " "I know, I know, but the Bill Monroe version is called 'In the Pines,' and that's the title I've always heard and — hey, did you ever hear the Dave Van Ronk version? Great guitar player." "Yeah ...?"
And so forth, more or less. Finally, we arrived at the earth-shaking conclusion that, no matter what title was appended to it, it was the same damn song, so who cared? A geek truce was called. I apologized for having impugned his folk-blues expertise. He said, hey, it was okay. He spoke very softly, I remember. Then he said goodnight and he disappeared behind his door and that was the last time I saw him.
* * * *
I miss Kurt Cobain and Nirvana for the same reasons everybody else does. Apart from their music, which I think will live as long as there are ears attuned to hear it, and their live shows, which were titanic, they exuded something rare: a near magical musical power that can unite people in ecstasy or anguish, but in any case unite them, and maybe, make their lives seem a little richer and more exciting, more filled with possibility, a little more worthy of living. A sad irony in Cobain's case, of course, looking back.
I wonder if they completely appreciated the effect their music had on people. They may have been just too unassuming. "It really took a while," Dave Grohl once said, "like a year and a half or more after everything happened, that I realized, like, 'Wow, we really did kinda make a difference.' "