Memories of Nirvana, Grunge Scene: A Reporter's First-Hand Account
In the mid-1980s, I bought lattes daily at Seattle’s Raison d’etre Cafe from two baristas with delusions of rock star grandeur. Only they weren’t deluded. In 1987, they formed Mother Love Bone, which scored the biggest contract the Seattle scene had seen until that moment. That’s when my billionaire employer sold the magazine I worked for and moved to a houseboat built around a flamenco dance floor (her post-publishing passion), so I moved to New York and worked at Entertainment Weekly, while Mother Love Bone made a masterpiece (“Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns”) heard in two Cameron Crowe movies (Say Anything and Singles).
Unfortunately, Seattle was lousy with heroin. My friend, Babs Babylon, nightlife columnist for The Urban Spelunker, said, “When I moved to Seattle, I couldn’t figure out why I always had plenty of forks and knives, but my spoons kept disappearing.” Mother Love Bone’s barista/singer Andy Wood OD’d on heroin in 1990. ER workers told his girlfriend that if she hadn’t been delayed ten minutes getting home from a special after-work meeting, he might have survived. He would have been Kurt Cobain’s rival.
Soon Wood’s barista/bassist/artist friend Jeff Ament helped find a replacement singer, Eddie Vedder, and Pearl Jam took off. Homesick, I often visited Seattle and crashed with my friend Lance Mercer, who coincidentally was Wood’s and Ament’s friend, a big Seattle rock photographer. When his toddler daughter Mackenzie costarred in Green Apple Quick Step’s MTV grunge video and the crew bribed her with Fig Newtons to get a good performance, I prevented her from eating all the Fig Newtons in sight.
But in 1992, the world’s appetite for grunge was unstoppable, so EW kept sending me to Seattle. I interviewed a blissed-out Vedder right after he’d riskily climbed the walls of the 1,400-seat Moore Theatre during 1992’s MTV video shoot, then crowd-surfed the balcony, passed from palm to pal. He said you could feel the strong hands and weak ones, male and female, as you surfed along, feeding on fans’ energy. Then he posed for an immortal Mercer photo, leaped into the audience, banged his leg badly, and finished the show in agony and ecstasy.
Vedder chronically took risks. I’m told he mailed a light bulb from the top of the Space Needle to a Rolling Stone reporter. He was under intense pressure to prove his grunge cred, because he was filling Wood’s shoes, Cobain and many Sub Pop people were snottily putting his band down, and Seattle’s grunge elite was more puritanical than Cotton Mather (though funnier – when Pearl Jam members performed as Lords of the Wasteland, Mark Arm’s band sarcastically dubbed itself Wasted Landlords). My friend whose job was to give bands $100,000 in exchange for putting an Anheuser-Busch poster on their stage couldn’t find a Seattle outfit that would take the money.
What was cool? Taking chances. I asked Sub Pop czar Jonathan Poneman to name the single great grunge moment. He said, “The early Green River show in Tacoma with Mark Arm where he climbed the PA stack and grabbed hold of a loose swinging fluorescent light.” Green River was named after a Creedence Clearwater guitar lick, a Northwest soda brand, and the Green River Killer. “They’re menacing and fizzy and bubbly all at the same time,” said Poneman, all bubbly himself because Nirvana had just brought him from the brink of bankruptcy to vast imminent wealth. At the Green River show, he said, “You really thought these thin chains holding up the light would snap and Mark would die. It’s not often you go to a show where you actually consider the possibility of a singer dying in front of your very eyes. And it was a great rock and roll show.”
For his first year of fame, Vedder often wore a helmet offstage. He feared psychic assault more than a fall from a great physical height. He wears it slow-dancing with Cobain in Crowe’s new film Pearl Jam 20.
The Pearl Jam haters were being jerks, but I loved Nirvana, too. Their songs were more concise than Pearl Jam’s guitar debating society graced by Vedder’s growl, and Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic came from Aberdeen, the big Southwest Washington town near the tiny ghost town I come from, Deep River. Cobain declined an EW interview, but a Seattle Times friend sent me a transcript of his 1991 interview with Cobain explaining his hit single: “’Teen Spirit,’ it’s basically just about… friends… 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 kind of a, like a, teen revolutionary theme to it too.”
I discovered that Nirvana wasn’t really from Seattle, it was from the weirdly utopian subterranean pop culture of nearby Olympia, Washington, which idealized a politically progressive world of eternal childhood, pure and free of inauthenticity. To this day, there’s an underground spring that constantly flows out a pipe in an Olympia parking lot, and people drive up to fill up local purity by the bottleful. Nirvana’s music and videos (overseen by Cobain, a visual artist too) are pure like that spring.
He got drunk with his friend Kathleen Hanna, spray-painted slogans on an antiabortion clinic, and awoke to find she’d written “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his bedroom wall. “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.” The ultimate stink in grungeland was inauthenticity. “Maybe Kurt Cobain will be singing ‘Teen Spirit’ when he’s 40 or whatever,” said Poneman, “but I think these characters are enjoying playing the media game.”
No, they weren’t. After Courtney Love’s devastating 1992 Vanity Fair interview, she led Nirvana in a phone-message assault on UK writers Britt Collins and Victoria Clarke’s bio in progress for Hyperion, called Nirvana: Fudge Packin, Crack Smokin, Satan Worshippin Motherfuckersafter the band’s t-shirt slogan. It was retitled Flower Sniffin', Kitty Pettin', Baby Kissin' Corporate Rock Whores, then cancelled after the fracas, though I’ve read every word and it’s innocuous. Courtney urged Collins and Clarke to phone her and renounce their book. A friend sent me the fascinating half-hour answering-machine tape, and I phoned the Cobains. He accused me of trying to hurt his wife. “False,” I said. “False?” he said. “Put her on,” I said, and he did. I let Courtney air her fierce views in EW.
I’ve heard an earful from Courtney since, and interviewed at length her father, sister, mother-in-law, friends and colleagues. She has voiced disagreement with my long piece on her mother’s memoir.
She used to phone me from airplanes with fascinating stories about her astounding, eminent family, herself, and other celebs she dished on. “She could be like the editor of Us Magazine,” Nirvana drummer/singer Dave Grohl told me in 1992. I spurned my agent’s attempt to get me a six-figure book contract to write about her, but wound up writing about her and Nirvana for Slate, People, Seattle Weekly, and others, just because it’s interesting. My reward was tiny fees and Danny Hellman’s 1992 cartoon of me as Satan on the cover of the New York Press, writing Nirvana magazine articles read by drooling ghosts.
Courtney demanded to speak with me while performing onstage at Seattle’s 2010 Bumbershoot festival -- I wasn’t there -- and again last month when she read my Poetry Foundation essay about Cobain’s journal. I’m happy to talk with her, but she never calls. I’m OK either way, though what I’d really like to hear is another album.
Many grungesters were allergic to the press. “You feel like you’re under a microscope,” Grohl told me in 1992. “We’re not the kind of band that’s used to this or the kind that really wanted it.” Vedder didn’t get it that just because he refused to talk to Time Magazine, they could still run his picture on the cover and a write-around story about him. Courtney is mad that it wasn’t Cobain on the cover, even though he wouldn’t talk to them either. Everyone wants to own the story of his or her life, especially ones who aspire to change the world with musical storytelling.
The world changed. Vedder became a film composer, and please start calling him Ed – he’s a grown man. Courtney did intermittently brilliant work onscreen and on record. As Amazon.com’s Bestsellers Editor, I helped make Charles R. Cross’ Cobain bio a New York Times Bestseller, and joined The Hollywood Reporter last Halloween. Pearl Jam became like the Grateful Dead without the sloppiness, an eternal draw. Victoria Clarke moved to Dublin with the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan and does books and gardening yoga video. “Britt is married to a hot young Italian filmmaker, edits a green mag, and also freelances [for The Guardian],” she emails. Foo Fighter Grohl bloomed like George Harrison after the Beatles. Novoselic did distinguished work with Flipper and others, became a Seattle Weekly writer (as has Duff McKagan), spurned a fair chance to become Washington’s Lieutenant Governor, moved to my old Washington ghost town, and was inducted as Master of the Skamokawa Grange by my uncle. At a recent Wahkiakum County Fair, he produced spirited teen Southwest Washington punk bands, and told funny stories. In nearby Astoria, he tried and failed to play the guitar part for a Nirvana song on the video game Rock Band, even though he’d helped to write it. “A kid grabbed it away from me and nailed it on the first try,” Novoselic told the crowd.
Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean is 19, apparently healthy and just fine. My photographer friend Lance Mercer published books and got a gig in Nepal. His daughter Mackenzie Mercer’s band The Young Evils opened for the Vaselines (made famous by Nirvana) and for Pearl Jam. When she covers Kim Wilde’s “The Kids in America” the crowd eats it up like Fig Newtons. It’s comforting to know that the kids still are all right.