Kurt Cobain came from a small town. Aberdeen was nowhere, a place where a mixed-up kid like Kurt could never aspire to anything more than being just another reject pumping gas. But Cobain was different.
Retreating from his grey existence and a broken family, he secluded himself in his bedroom. Here he practiced guitar, wrote songs and dreamed of becoming famous. Cobain wanted it and he needed it too. Which is why when Kurt made music, he aimed it for the biggest audience he could.
Cobain’s vision was spurred by punk’s ideals, but this alone was not enough. To be valid it needed to be the kind which had broken through to him. Queen, ABBA, the Beatles and KISS; to change lives Nirvana needed to reach out like the best and brightest of those which had come before and further still.
Kurt couldn’t afford to think in half measure. Nor could he remain nestled within the comforting bohemia which had given him punk, riot grrrl, K Records, and the Olympia scene. For his dream to become reality, Cobain needed to push his art to as many people as he possibly could – without compromise.
Danny Goldberg’s new memoir Serving The Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain doesn’t just tell the songwriter’s story. It reveals his mission.
Danny Goldberg didn’t know Nirvana’s songwriter, guitarist and vocalist in these formative years. He came later, meeting Kurt when he was 23. Goldberg was 40, a jaded industry vet with a mortgage to pay and a management company to run.
Having written for Rolling Stone in the ‘70s and served as Vice President of Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records, Goldberg was no punk. But in a strange way, he and Cobain connected. Both believed in rock ‘n’ roll.
Quickly placing Kurt within rock’s context, Goldberg saw Cobain and his band as a bridge between the counterculture of the 1960s and the American punks of the 1980s. But more importantly than that, he knew Kurt would sell records. Cobain could write a killer chorus.
And so, Goldberg came into Nirvana’s life as one of the band’s two managers. What he found upon arrival was that Kurt and his childhood friend Krist Novoselic were already making good on their ambition. Debut album Bleach had performed respectably, and the band had recently recruited virtuosic drummer Dave Grohl. They were readying themselves to jettison Sup Pop for a major label and preparing for the record that would become Nevermind.
Nirvana were reaching for bigger things and it didn’t take long for them to grab them. As they did Cobain and Goldberg grew close. But Danny’s relationship with Kurt lay within the grey gulf between arm’s-length business transaction and parent figure that many managers often find themselves. Danny admits a number of times in the course of his recollections that he only ever saw parts of Cobain. Other elements, like the root of his genius and the source of his darkness, were obscured.
What he did know and still believes is that Kurt was a savant, an individual gifted in a way that others weren’t. This was not just evident in Cobain’s art but also his insight into and cunning manipulation of his band’s public personae. Kurt understood that rock was theatre.
In the time Cobain and Goldberg were together Nirvana deftly navigated the politics of success. It wasn’t easy. Nirvana had entered the arena in a period where the cultural influence of MTV, heavy metal and commercial radio were at their peak. While these towering institutions dominated popular taste, Cobain readily subverted them.
Nirvana’s music was key. As Goldberg puts it, “[Nirvana’s] music worked for fans of punk, commercial alternative, metal, mainstream rock and pop. This had been Kurt’s plan all along.” As idealistic punks cloaked as a corporate rock band, Nirvana were often at odds with industry mechanisms and business custom, yet as Goldberg notes they were always willing to seize every inch of opportunity and exposure the world could offer them. Providing it didn’t tarnish their reputation.
Whether you colour it as miraculous, lucky or just plain canny, Nirvana could do things that would have blown the credibility of contemporaries apart. Danny chronicles how Kurt achieved this, deconstructing and reconstructing Nirvana and his own public image throughout Nevermind’s rise to chart-topping success.
Cobain knew spectacle, he imitated Morrissey on Top of the Pops, wore a t-shirt reading ‘Corporate Magazines Still Suck’ to his Rolling Stone cover shoot, snubbed Axel Rose, and showed up to MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball in a dress. All of these events were integral in the group’s conquest of the mass audience, but they also ensured Nirvana’s outsider status remained intact. Nirvana’s media presence was public performance on a grand scale.
Goldberg takes no credit. Nirvana, he believes, would have made it whether he was standing there with them or not. He was just along for the journey. In jockeying Nirvana to the top he found rare insights into the role of manager, stardom and what it actually takes for an artistically idealistic musician to claim success on such a massive scale.
And in this regard, Kurt didn’t stumble blindly. Much of Nirvana’s success came from Kurt’s calculations. He was a planner. But for all his meticulous scheming he could not account for the fact that once he had found his way in, there was no way out. Cobain wanted to be the biggest, but he also wanted to operate free from the trappings accompanying such massive success. This was an impossibility.
At the height of his fame, Goldberg sketches out how every aspect of Kurt’s life was scrutinised. His marriage with Courtney Love, drug use and the birth of his daughter Frances Bean were of no exception. Elements of Kurt’s life became the focal points of a media uproar. Still, much of Kurt’s intoxicating cocktail of innocence and idealism remained in place.
Until one day it didn’t. As the group’s songwriter and as an uncompromising artist, Kurt was a figure with the final say in all of Nirvana’s creative and commercial dealings. Goldberg suggests that this was a large part of his undoing. Kurt could outthink the rest of the world but when this proclivity for thinking collided with his drug addiction and the pressures of fame, it created something truly horrific.
The impotence and terror of Goldberg’s experience comes to fore in the book’s final chapters. Danny’s account makes clear just how quickly it all went south. After overdosing on Rohypnol and champagne in Rome on March 3rd 1994, Kurt was never quite the same. Krist Novoselic confides to Goldberg that he believes Cobain’s brain was somehow damaged. Whatever the truth, his decline was rapid.
In the weeks that followed Rome, Kurt continued to shut people out. Even the presence of daughter Frances couldn’t raise a smile. Kurt no longer trusted the intentions of anyone but himself.
Alienated from those closest to him and with a mind disfigured by drugs, Kurt shot himself faceless April 5th, 1994. He had united culture in a way few others could even have dreamt of since the Beatles. In the end it had meant nothing.
Self-destructing in such a spectacular fashion, Kurt never got the chance to pull himself together and get to the next album. This might have been solo or, as Danny suggests, recorded with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. Goldberg also reveals that he was hard at work convincing Kurt that he could carry on with Nirvana much the same as his hero Neil Young had with Crosby Stills Nash. But there’s a problem here more immediate and concerning than what Kurt might have done had he continued his troubled life. It’s his mental health.
There is an unsettling gravity to the way Goldberg quotes the words of Nirvana’s label head David Geffen in his response to Danny’s news of Cobain’s declining health: “There are some people who just can’t be helped no matter what you do.” It’s an easy notion to accept – but does part of a reader’s brain not cry out in alarm that this came from the man leading an organisation which was reaping millions from this artist’s pain?
Are views like these outdated? Why does the myth of the ‘tortured artist’ time and time again cast drug related deaths likes these as a kind of necessary sacrifice? Unlike Geffen, Goldberg never truly washed his hands with Kurt, although he does admit to becoming exasperated with his own efforts to help. He even shares that he felt like he walked away from Kurt for a final time following a conversation where Cobain invoked the example of junkie literary figure William Burroughs as the model for the life he intended his own to follow.
Danny’s resignation and regret is sincere. And that’s moving. But this kind of sentiment swims all too comfortably alongside the disquieting notion that when it comes to conflicted intellects like Kurt’s, the music industry is simply a place where vulnerable personalities like his simply cannot get out of alive. Goldberg rails off a long list of heroin casualties and these places the author in a disturbingly orthodox mindset. Weighing tragic deaths of fragile icons down with such inevitability rings out as problematic. At a time where culture is unpacking the tortured genius maybe it’s time to take another stab at reconfiguring this train of thought.
This may be a little harsh. Goldberg is no villain. He, along with many others, recognised that Kurt was unwell and led efforts to encourage Kurt to help himself. But others indulged Cobain, and nobody could control him. It was always Kurt who held the final say. What’s chilling about reading Goldberg’s account is that even with fame, fortune, a host of caring people on his payroll, access to medical professionals, a loving family and millions of dollars in the bank, nothing could save Cobain’s troubled soul.
Goldberg sums up his view as something akin to this; Kurt had a disease no one knew how to cure. You might want more but that’s it. Kurt was a self-conscious outsider who bought out of it at age 27. The last rock artist who was a public figure. A kid from nowhere who threw himself at popular culture for a few brief years and somehow managed to crack its wall.
The world of today is much more accommodating to many of the ideals Cobain stood for, but could the continuation of Nirvana have taken us here sooner? Nirvana reignited rock’s culture and renegotiated its ideals. Could Kurt have pushed it even further? To pose any such question would be slipping into the kind of pointless conspiracy which already hangs far too heavily upon Cobain’s final moments (despite its stupidity, the conspiracy still hangs so heavily over the artist’s death that Goldberg devotes pages of his book debunking it).
Goldberg paints an interesting picture of the man he knew but this portrait, along with those of other notable chroniclers who were close to Kurt like Jerry ‘Everett True’ Thackery or Michael Azerrad are, necessarily and like Cobain’s own life, incomplete. All that’s left is a dusty reputation, the music and pictures of a pretty face with a blue watery gaze.
Nirvana’s legacy scatters endlessly. The dream of a boy from nowhere and who came from nothing but wanted everything, Nirvana became many different things to many different people. They weren’t just icons for Generation X. Nevermind was bought by millions. Not some small cross-section of society but the masses. Smells Like Teen Spirit hit kids, baby boomers, others outside and more between.
Which makes Cobain a cultural force too big and complex to unpack or understand in a single sitting. And this feeds into the only real weakness of Goldberg’s account; that Kurt’s narrative has been so endlessly retold and rehashed that when it winds down to the story’s grand conclusion, Danny doesn’t have that much more to say. He can talk about intimate moments and the big picture of what it all has meant, but he can’t illuminate the tragedy of Kurt’s suicide any more than any other well-informed fan-believer.
Kurt could no longer deal with the reality of fame and drugs. He Died. That was it. Drag isn’t it?
Serving The Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain is out now.