Fifteen years ago today, Kurt Cobain’s body was found at his house outside of Seattle. He had been threatening to commit suicide — had tried it, even — and now he’d succeeded. The leader of one of the best and biggest bands of the ’90s went out on a shotgun blast, in a fog of heroin. A terrible waste, but that was the way he wanted it.
His death wasn’t a complete surprise, really. The lyrics that Cobain wrote for [url id=”http://www.mtv.com/music/artist/nirvana/artist.jhtml”]Nirvana[/url] — the cloud of feeling in which he cloaked his simple song structures — came from a place you were sometimes glad you were only visiting. In a business in which most of what passes for emotion is just another pop calculation, the feeling in Kurt’s songs was real. He was apparently amazed, or appalled, by the wealth and fame they brought him. (Although he wasn’t so oblivious to these things that he didn’t renegotiate the three-way split with his bandmates to reflect the fact the he was the songwriter, and deserved a larger cut.)
They were a great band in any case. But they dealt with their stardom — their sudden, huge renown — mainly by ignoring it. They had no entourage, no hangers-on, no parade of retainers. 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. Cobain hated the traditional rock-star pose — which was why he had such contempt for Guns N’ Roses. He had no interest in giving anybody a hard time.
This is how cool they were. In December of 1993, MTV was getting ready to pre-tape a big New Year’s Eve concert in Seattle. Nirvana was one of the bands on the bill, but the headliner was Pearl Jam. Come the day of the show, though, Pearl Jam flaked out and withdrew. In desperation, MTV approached Nirvana and asked the band to step in and save the show, to headline it. This was a huge imposition — essentially, the channel was asking the band to play all night. Nirvana said they’d think about it, and they did. They thought about it for maybe 10 minutes, and then they said, sure.
Or consider this, a story from one of their tours. MTV News had been lobbying to come out on the road with the band, shoot a concert, do an interview. The group was cordial about it, but the answer was 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 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 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.)
Unfortunately, the money people at MTV were dubious about shelling out for an interview with an obscure Japanese punk-pop band. So we had to crawl back to Nirvana and beg them to rethink their no-more-press decision, just this once, and agree to do an interview with us. That way we could get production money — no question there — and fly out and do the Knife, too, and everybody’d be happy. Nirvana thought about this for about 10 minutes too. Then they said, sure.
Cobain loved Shonen Knife and he loved the Vaselines, too, bands like that. But he wasn’t an alt-rock snob. He loved everyone from David Bowie to Leadbelly. He said he’d come across Leadbelly’s name in reading an interview with William Burroughs. (Burroughs, the Beat author and heroin laureate, was one of Kurt’s idols, perhaps 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 pioneer Bill Monroe. Cobain found this interesting, apparently — or maybe irritating, I’m not sure. 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 …?”
A 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 disappeared behind his door and that was the last time I saw him.
After his death I wondered whether he and the rest of Nirvana ever realized the powerful emotional effect their music (and their titanic live shows) had on people. Possibly not. “It really took a while,” Dave Grohl later said, “like a year and a half or more after everything happened, that I realized, like, ’Wow, we really did kinda make a difference.’ ” It’s too bad Kurt Cobain never had that realization — or, if he did, that it wasn’t enough to keep him interested, to keep him alive. He’s still missed.
Editor’s note: This is a revised version of an article published by MTV News in 2004.