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Monday, April 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
1991 interview offered look into mind of a rising rock star
By Patrick MacDonald
It was Oct. 23, 1991, shortly after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released as a single. "Nevermind," the album it came from, had been out for a month but had not yet charted. The single was mainly what I wanted to talk about, because it was the best rock song I'd heard in years. Neither one of us knew then, of course, that it was about to profoundly change his life, and the history of rock 'n' roll.
Nirvana was just back from a European tour, opening for Sonic Youth. Cobain said he was stuffing himself at his mom's because hers was the only food he could keep down. He explained that he suffered from stomach pains "every day of my life" and had seen doctors for it since the age of 9. After being sent to psychologists and psychiatrists, he said, he refused any more tests. "They thought it was in my head," he said, "but it's in my stomach."
"This is kind of a recuperation period," he explained. "Mom's feeding me after I came home from Europe."
He said the tour had been fun, despite his pain.
"We destroyed a few dressing rooms, lit off fire extinguishers and did the typical cliché rock 'n' roll antics."
His best memory?
"We played in Nuremburg where Hitler held his youth rallies."
Getting to "Nevermind," I wanted to know how he came up with such challenging, artful lyrics.
"We practice the music a lot before I figure out how the wording should sound," he said. "Then I take out my poetry and other writings." He said he carried a notebook with him at all times and wrote down whatever came to mind ideas, observations, couplets, dreams, fantasies, drawings.
"I never really sit down to write a theme for a song. I very rarely write about one theme or one subject. I end up getting bored with that theme and write something else halfway through the rest of the song, and finish the song with a different idea."
"I consider it pop music another style of pop music, just more abrasive. It's still typical repetitive structure. It has a guitar solo in the middle, and I usually repeat lyrics over and over again to where I consider it catchy enough to be considered pop music."
I asked what "Teen Spirit" means.
"What do you think it means?" he replied. I said I thought it was about a party, with sketches of people there.
"Hmmm, interesting," Cobain said. "But that's not what it's about.
"It's basically just about friends. The friends that I have now, in a way. We still feel as if we're teenagers because we don't follow the guidelines of what's expected of us to be adults. We still screw around and have a good time. It also has a kind of a, like a, teen revolutionary theme to it, too."
I asked where the title came from.
"Well, my friend and I were in my bedroom, drunk," he says, laughing. "We're having a real fine time talking about all kinds of revolutionary things, and we ended up destroying my bedroom. We ended up throwing my art supplies all over, and paint, and breaking the mirror and tearing my bed up. It was a lot of fun.
"And so we were writing all over the wall with paint, and my friend wrote 'Kurt smells like Teen Spirit,' and I took that as a compliment, and what she actually meant by it was that I smelt like this deodorant that is for teenagers called Teen Spirit. She's seen that on television, and I guess I stunk that night."
I noted how good I thought the single was. "Are you ready for a hit single?" I asked.
He laughed and said, "That's not gonna happen."
We talked about the songs on "Nevermind." He said "Polly" and "Breed" were written before "Bleach," the first Nirvana album, was released in June 1989 by Sub Pop.
He said "Lithium" was "just a story I made up."
"That was one of the songs I actually did finish while trying to write it, instead of taking pieces of my poetry and other things.
"Whenever we write a song, we like to play it live to see how it goes over. It's kind of risky because bootlegs are being made of our band now, and so a lot of the songs we've recorded and a lot of the songs that we've played live have come out on bootlegs.
"I really don't mind the live stuff, but when somebody gets ahold of a demo, or something that I've done on a two-track or a boom box, and they aren't necessarily finished songs, I don't really like that, especially when they take it upon themselves to title the songs without knowing the real titles. They've given us some really ridiculous titles. And there're quite a few songs I never wanted anyone to hear."
I asked about his habit of wearing dresses on stage.
"My transvestite period. The only reason I wear a dress is because it's comfortable and I look pretty.
"But I've got a new thing now. Every once in a while I wear an inflatable love doll. I cut the hands and feet off, slit the back and climb inside."
I was impressed that Cobain was pulling my leg, but I didn't let on that I knew. He probably hoped I would print the "sex doll" story as truth. But I didn't even use it.
I was impressed, too, that Cobain was so articulate about his own work. Few artists I've interviewed could step away from their own material and analyze it like he did.
But I was most impressed with the music, especially "Teen Spirit." Time has not dulled its effect. It's still one of the best songs in the history of rock, and nothing since has come close.
And no one has come along since Cobain who is as great an artist or who has (to use one of his favorite words) revolutionized popular music. Sad to say, Kurt Cobain was the last great rock star.
Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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