Everlasting Nirvana: A remembrance on the 25th anniversary of Kurt’s death by former manager Danny Goldberg

[There will be plenty about Kurt Cobain over the next few days. Here’s something from frequent contributor Gilles LeBlanc. – AC]

*FULL DISCLOSURE* Back in the early 1990s, the (much) younger and Doc Martens-wearing version of myself confesses he was completely caught up in all the clamour surrounding Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. When grunge’s spiritual leader died, a part of me did too; I’ll even go as far to say that I haven’t listened to music with the same excitement since. Maybe I’ve been searching for some kind of conclusion these past 25 years, and subconsciously thought devouring content such as the 2015 documentary Montage of Heck and new book Serving the Servant by former band manager Danny Goldberg would provide some much-needed answers.

This isn’t the first instance someone has broached the controversial subject of Kurt Cobain’s life, albeit never to such a personal extent. Goldberg wasn’t just an administrator to Kurt’s creative affairs; he also became a trusted friend and fatherly figure to the frustrated, artistically talented Aberdeen native who found fleeting acceptance in punk rock, only to have that blow up out of any kind of control, with solace coming in the form of harder and harder narcotics, leaving those that cared for him most helpless on the sidelines. As tough a pill that may be for some to swallow, there’s the Kurt Cobain legend in a nutshell.

One aspect of Goldberg’s Serving the Servant that I loved when not shedding tears reminiscing about Cobain was how he gives an insider’s retrospective as why Nirvana – with their grimy-sounding murky drone on Bleach – was seemingly chosen over all other bands to lead the alternative rock charge. A big reason why we still talk about them so reverentially all this time later is because of how they successfully married angst-ridden underground sentiments with mainstream accessibility on 1991’s Nevermind. Sure, they owed a lot of their loud-quiet-loud dynamic to the Pixies, but I’ve honestly lost count of how many “next big thing”s have tried in vain to rebottle Nirvana’s lightning from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and other tracks off that now-classic album. On the one hand, Cobain’s dishevelled look and screw the world attitude were a perfect fit with disenchanted Gen-Xers, although he was also a pop music-appreciating careerist; a music nerd before it was cool to refer to yourself as one. The Nirvana legacy, no matter how short-lived, has never felt dated, and is arguably more relevant in 2019 than it’s ever been.

Nirvana achieved the lofty status of “biggest band in the world”, leaving the former Fecal Matter founder sick to his stomach (literally), addicted to heroin, and despising what he had become. What Cobain loathed most however was how testosterone-fuelled jocks like the ones who used to bully him would proclaim how Nirvana kicked ass and was always their favourite. It’s probably why Cobain specifically sought out producer Steve Albini to make In Utero as abrasive a record as possible…not to mention sincere via gender-bending lyrics in “Heart-Shaped Box” and especially “Rape Me”. Cobain’s enduring belief in women’s rights would be acknowledged at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony by way of multiple females fronting the revived entity. Goldberg told me in an email Q and A that he doesn’t feel right trying to imagine which artists Kurt would admire if he was still alive, except to say he is sure that they would have personal sincerity and a vision in their work. Also, any political figures would be opposed to misogyny and homophobia. So no, Cobain would not be a Donald Trump supporter.

Unfortunately, we don’t need a spoiler alert to know the Kurt Cobain story doesn’t end well. His chaotic existence carried onto the live stage, resulting in nervously memorable shows where anything could potentially happen. Just ask anyone who was lucky enough to have seen Nirvana in the brief period they were with us. I would know, I cherish my ticket stub from Toronto’s since-transformed Maple Leaf Gardens. The interaction between bandmembers could be funny as hell one night, destructive the next. They took a quantum leap forward when Dave Grohl was installed as the permanent drummer. Cobain had the smarts to get a major label deal, but Grohl’s beastly pounding was the secret weapon that drove Nirvana to unthinkable heights. As an admitted superfan, all I’ll say is the absence of direct quotes from him in Serving the Servant is noticeable, especially considering Krist Novoselic contributed liberally. Goldberg was quick to remind me his association with Nirvana ended when Kurt died, that he had no involvement at all with any of the posthumous products but does think the surviving members did an excellent job putting together things such as the With the Lights Out box set.

The circumstances surrounding those last few days still remain a mystery – rumours over whether the band was breaking up, Kurt divorcing Courtney – Goldberg doesn’t really address them, and maybe it’s for the best. Cobain ultimately didn’t want to be defined by screeching guitars; he definitely changed that perception, to hell with what anyone thought. Thanks now to Serving the Servant, we know he had the capacity to love…and was loved in return. If Goldberg ever had another chance to talk to Kurt Cobain again, he would simply yet powerfully tell him “I love you.” There really is no excuse for anyone not to read Serving the Servant, available at bricks and mortar as well as online bookstores like Chapters.Indigo.ca.

BONUS: Goldberg talks about the final (and failed) intervention with Kurt in March 1994.

BONUS BONUS: I’ll be conducting a live interview with Danny as part of a book signing event in Toronto on April 23. Details here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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