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Members include Kurt Cobain (grew up in Aberdeen, WA; son of Wendy O'Connor [a cocktail waitress]; married Courtney Love [a singer], February 24, 1992; children: Frances Bean), guitar and vocals, Dave Grohl (from Washington, DC), drums, and Chris Novoselic (from Aberdeen; wife's name, Shelli), bass. Cobain and Novoselic attended the Grays Harbor Institute of Northwest Crafts. Addresses: Record company-- DGC, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Three Seattle musicians who play what has become known as "grunge" rock seemed an unlikely bet for acceptance into the rock and roll establishment. Decidedly punkish in their musical style--albeit at a slower pace than was the hallmark of punk rock--strident in their lyrics, and unapologetic of their calculated-to-offend offstage personalities, the group nonetheless went from the "underground" status of their initial release, Bleach, to mega-stardom with their first major-label effort, Nevermind, within the space of a few years. The latter, featuring Kurt Cobain on guitar and vocals, Chris Novoselic on bass, and David Grohl on drums, jumped to the Number One spot on the Billboard rock chart and was cited in many music critics' Top Ten lists just months after its release.
Cobain and Novoselic grew up near Seattle, in Aberdeen, Washington, a secluded logging town 70 miles southwest of Seattle known largely for its overcast climate. Cobain's youth was often chaotic--he lived in a trailer park with his cocktail waitress mother after the breakup of his parents' marriage. Before his parents split up, Cobain's mother recounted in Rolling Stone, he "got up every day with such joy that there was another day to be had. When we'd go downtown to the stores, he would sing to people." After the divorce, though, Cobain's personality underwent a transformation. "I think he was ashamed," his mother continued, "and he became very inward--he just held everything."
Until the age of nine, Cobain listened mostly to the Beatles. Then his father introduced him to heavier fare--Led Zeppelin, Kiss, and Black Sabbath. He started playing drums and hanging around with an Aberdeen group called the Melvins. Melvins leader Buzz Osborne took Cobain to a Black Flag concert, where he got his first taste of hard-core punk. Cobain was awed; he began to experiment with the guitar and tried to form a band. "I learned one Cars song and AC/DC's 'Back in Black,'" he told Elle. "And after that I just started writing my own. I didn't feel it was important to learn other songs because I knew I wanted to start a band." After repeatedly failing to get a group together, Osborne suggested that Cobain hook up with Chris Novoselic, a tall, shy Aberdeen kid two years older than Cobain.
According to Nirvana's record company press biography, Cobain and Novoselic had met at the Grays Harbor Institute of Northwest Crafts, where they were apparently "gluing seashells and driftwood on burlap" and making mobiles of macaroni. Like Cobain, Novoselic had moved around a lot as a kid--they felt they were both misfits in a way. They further shared an appreciation for the hard-core music that was generally shunned by their heavy metal-loving peers. A tape of the San Francisco punk band Flipper cemented their commitment to the genre. "It made me realize there was something more cerebral to listen to than stupid cock rock," Novoselic told Elle. Exhibiting total rebellion against what they saw as the red-necked, macho establishment of their hometown, they spray painted the phrases "God is Gay," "Abort Jesus," and "Homosexual sex rules," on cars and bank buildings. For one offense Cobain was arrested and fined.
Cobain's mother kicked him out of the house after he quit high school. Homeless, he slept on friends' couches and even briefly found lodging under a bridge. By 1987, however, he and Novoselic were beginning to gain a reputation as Nirvana and were a hit at parties at Evergreen State College in Olympia.
With the help of Melvins drummer Dale Crover, the trio began to record, finishing ten songs in one afternoon taping session. The resulting demo was submitted to Sub Pop, Seattle's then-underground label, the directors of which signed them to a record contract right away. In 1988, after changing drummers, the band recorded Bleach in six days for $606.17. The album moved slowly at first, but eventually sold 35,000 copies between its debut and the release of the band's second effort, which caused a surge of Bleach sales.
After Bleach, Nirvana began looking for yet another drummer, this time settling, in the fall of 1990, on Dave Grohl of the Washington, D.C., band Scream. This lineup returned to the studio to find that the Nirvana sound had improved significantly. When Sub Pop sought a distributor for the upcoming second album, a bidding war ensued among record labels interested in buying Nirvana out of their Sub Pop contract. The group eventually signed to DGC, home of giants Guns 'n' Roses and Cher, for $287,000. Rumors persisted, however, that the label had shelled out up to $750,000 to obtain the trio. Cobain commented in Spin that those reports were "journalism through hearsay," adding that "the numbers kept getting bigger so that a lot of people believed that we were signed for a million dollars."
The group had mixed feelings about signing to a major label; they feared they would be labeled "sellouts" for trading their underground status for the promise of big money. But the opportunity to get their music heard by a larger audience--and thus spread their message to the mainstream--mitigated these concerns. Nirvana released Nevermind in the spring of 1991; the record took three weeks to record and earned the trio $135,000. Producer Butch Vig instinctively felt that the unintelligible, but mesmerizing, cut "Smells like Teen Spirit" would be a hit, even before it was completed in the studio. "It was awesome sounding," he told Rolling Stone. "I was pacing around the room, trying not to jump up and down in ecstasy."
Vig's prophecy came true: The Nevermind single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" soared to Number One after only a few months of airplay. The accompanying video, featuring a somewhat sinister high school pep rally--Cobain has said the song is about teenage apathy--complete with tattooed cheerleaders, a bald custodian, writhing fans, and pointedly unkempt band members, received heavy rotation on MTV. "Smells" earned perhaps the ultimate tribute when it was lampooned by rock parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose own video was entitled "Smells Like Nirvana." And yet the most distinguishing aspect of Nevermind may have been that, as New York Times contributor Karen Schoemer pointed out, "Nirvana didn't cater to the mainstream; it played the game on its own terms.... What's unusual about [the album] is that it caters to neither a mainstream audience nor the indie rock fans who supported the group's debut album...." Calling the release "one of the best alternative rock albums produced by an American band in recent years," Schoemer continued, " Nevermind is accessible but not tame. It translates the energy and abandon of college rock in clear, certain terms."
In performance, Nirvana pays homage to angry punks past--dating as far back as the mid-1960s guitar destruction of then-"mod" Pete Townshend, leader of Britain's the Who--by smashing their equipment onstage; Cobain has estimated that he's probably destroyed around 300 guitars. This behavior seems to please Nirvana's legions of fans, who throng to their shows in anticipation of such antics.
Despite Nirvana's rapid climb to the top, Cobain and company have tried to keep a balanced attitude. They rejected a limousine ride to their Saturday Night Live performance because they didn't want to be treated like stars. Cobain has of late refrained from drugs and the standard rock-star revelry, partially in deference to a recurring and painful stomach ailment. When questioned about the band's success, Cobain revealed in Elle "Well, it's a fine thing and a flattering thing, but it doesn't matter. We could be dropped in two years and go back to putting out records ourselves and it wouldn't matter to us, because success is not what we were looking for.... We just want people to be able to get the records."
by Nancy Rampson
Group formed by Cobain and Novoselic, 1987; Grohl joined after succession of several drummers; played in clubs in Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle, WA; signed with Sub Pop Records, 1988, released Bleach, 1989; toured Europe as opening act, 1989; signed with DGC record company, 1990, released Nevermind, 1991; toured the U.S., 1991.
Triple platinum award, for Nevermind.
- Elle, April 1992.
- Guitar Player, February 1992.
- Newsweek, January 27, 1992.
- New York Times, January 8, 1992; January 13, 1992; January 26, 1992.
- People, December 23, 1991.
- Pulse!, March 1992.
- Rolling Stone, November 28, 1991; February 20, 1992.
- Spin, January 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a David Geffen Company press biography, 1991.
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