Getting to know Kurt in “Cobain on Cobain: Interviews and Encounters”

Photo: Kurt Cobain, 2/20/1967–4/5/1994

By Tim Walker

Kurt Cobain, 2/20/1967 – 4/5/1994.

You hear his name and you picture his face, forever young. Flannel shirt. Unkempt hair. Haunted eyes. A rock star who should have been on top of the world, who had achieved incredible success as a musician, whose every utterance was eagerly awaited, yet who was so desperately unhappy that he saw suicide as his only option.

Now, 23 years after his tragic death, the world is left with relatively little work from the man whose band, Nirvana, had such a tremendous influence on the course of popular music in the 1990s. Three studio albums—Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero, all of which have sold in the millions of copies. A handful of live albums, compilations and some private notebooks which were published posthumously. And now “Cobain on Cobain,” a collection of interviews edited by Nick Soulsby, released in 2016 from Chicago Review Press.

“I confess I don’t feel there was a gulf between the public and private Cobain,”  Soulsby says. “In many ways what makes him such a fresh presence at the time is he’s the antithesis of the posing egotists who had been ruling rock music. He’s a very honest individual, surprisingly revealing in a quiet and unshowy way. Cobain wasn’t ever in the music business because of a desire to be a celebrity—he wanted to share his music but not necessarily his whole life with the media and with the public. That’s where the conflict is—it’s between privacy and revelation. He finds that answering questions leads to more questions—but staying quiet causes questions too. If he doesn’t say what’s happening then someone else will. I was delighted we put his own public writings in the book; he wrote to the fans directly on four occasions—in two sets of liner notes, in an advert for Billboard magazine, then in his suicide note. He essentially comes to feel that the only way he can convey the truth is if he does it himself—that he can’t necessarily trust others to translate his words to the wider audience. Ultimately, contrary to what people might think, being a celebrity isn’t a nice experience.”

Nick Soulsby’s newest book is a collection of interviews with Cobain, alone and with Nirvana, which were published in magazines and fanzines all over the world during the course of Nirvana’s rise from raw underground punk act to one of the most successful bands on the planet. Along with the interviews, the aforementioned liner notes, and Kurt’s suicide note are also included. Looking back on it now, and reading the many interviews while keeping in mind that the writers, like Kurt, had no idea he’d be dead at 27, I found many of his comments and attitudes to be humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and above all, enlightening.

The titles of several of the pieces, many of them direct quotes from Cobain himself, read like a collection of smartass quotes from a prankster who was thoroughly enjoying himself, always at the journalists’ expense. “It’s the Classic Punk Rock Rags-To-Riches Story.” “I Have No Desire To Become Any Better of a Guitar Player.” “Accept Me, General Public, Because I Need the Cash.”

“Ultimately, as time marches on,” continues editor Soulsby, “any historical personage becomes over-simplified; a caricature. If I had a desire with this book, it would be to restore some of the complexity, some of the humanity, to Kurt Cobain. It’s seeing him not as one thing or another, but as a guy who is delighted to see his band doing well, excited about going on tour, witty and humorous when he’s comfortable—that these brooding sad-eyed posters are only the tiniest fragment of the real Cobain.”

“What would Kurt be doing now,” I ask Soulsby, “if he’d lived? Would Nirvana have done a 20th Anniversary Nevermind Tour, playing the songs in order, with the Pixies as an opening act?”

“If Pixies, Swans, and all the other once-upon-a-time legends are able to have their resurrection, then I see no reason why Nirvana shouldn’t. I can’t imagine the guy ever stopping playing music but what people sometimes forget is that he was a true artist; that his art was as important to him as his music. That he was writing so much—that it wasn’t just writing in order to make pop-punk songs. I was stunned by the visceral reaction to the ‘Montage of Heck’ soundtrack—people acted like this wasn’t Kurt Cobain’s music. It was. He was a guy who found it fun to do weird tape collages, to mess with his vocals, to attempt spoken word pieces—he had a broad artistic vision and was willing to experiment. He wasn’t just some safe creator of comfortable songs. MTV Unplugged, I think, made a lot of people think of him as a singer-songwriter and to underappreciate his DIY urges, his wild musical taste, his less acceptable urges. I thought it was great to break the mold and the increasingly safe mainstream image of Cobain wide open again. I think he’d be laughing his ass off at people being so precious. I hope that’s what he’d be doing if he had lived—laughing, smiling … And still surprising and shocking people sometimes.”

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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