Sample Chapter:

Kurt Cobain

Please Change Your Mind

The Information Please Almanac, 1995

THE 1990s ROUNDED its mid-decade curve with pop audiences rehashing old questions about fame, integrity, and dinosaurs. For most rockers, the question was moot. Except for the obligatory noises about the hazards of touring, mainstream rock was aging comfortably (read: profitably). But for punk rock, which finally found its commercial triumph in the Seattle band Nirvana, the dilemma of fame may have been its undoing.

Within weeks of his suicide on April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain had taken his place in the pantheon his mother had warned him about: “that stupid club” of dead rock stars. And Cobain’s loss cast a shadow on the rest of 1994, right up through the release of Nirvana‘s Unplugged performance in December. Everyone from fans to newspaper columnists to network commentators spewed pieties about today’s price of fame. Neil Young, who had seen his share of waste, was moved to memorialize Cobain’s anguished “sacrifice” in “Sleeps with Angels” (his “Change Your Mind” could also be heard this way).

Nirvana’s saga stretched back to 1992 when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became punk’s first bonafide smash. It carried its album, Nevermind, past triple platinum, selling more than seven million units into 1995. Led by Cobain, a dirty blond with unruly bangs and a cackling voice that caught an epic exasperation, Nirvana’s alienated thrash was festooned with catchy melodies. The success of “Teen Spirit” ridiculed the superficial styles that had dominated popular music since the mid-’80s. “Here we are now, entertain us,” went the refrain, casting its audience as mummies buying shock therapy. The lyric was sarcasm on a stick; the sound was revenge drenched in hilarity.

But for Cobain, the whole process of becoming famous rubbed hard against punk’s anti-corporate integrity. And since he made the simplistic equation that popularity meant selling out, and the matter was quickly out of his hands, he spoke as if it was a tragic fluke of fate that so many had responded to his music. Cobain seemed to fear that too much popularity might turn him into a freak, into a grunge Michael Jackson. During its heady 1992–1994 reign, Nirvana worked up an excitement in pop that had been missing since the glory days of the Clash in the early 1980s. But behind every hope lay rumors of despondency, an air of desperation that the music couldn’t forestall. Cobain was in and out of drug rehabs, and his daughter Frances Bean was said to have been conceived while Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love of Hole, were using heroin. Disabled by a chronic stomach ailment, Cobain’s canceled shows earned him a professional reputation for being unreliable. There was enough goodwill (and cashola) to keep the machine churning, but Cobain took every opportunity to describe how much he hated stardom, how distanced he felt from listeners, and how the precious Seattle scene had been corrupted by unwelcome gate-crashers and corporate raiders.


The lyric was sarcasm on a stick; the sound was revenge drenched in hilarity.


Although discomfort with rock fame is hardly a new dilemma, part of what was charming about Cobain was the way he acted as if his quandary was original. There were times when it seemed all he really needed was a long sit-down with Pete Townshend, who had made such matters the stuff of great Who songs (and uneven rock operas) back in the 1960s and 1970s. The more commonplace comparison was to Beatle John Lennon, who complained about success just as he became the most famous man in the world in 1966 and compared The Beatles’ success to Jesus Christ.

Before the band’s final European stint in early 1994, Nirvana gathered in New York City to shoot MTV’s Unplugged. With the massive success of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged in 1992—it sold more than four million copies, making it the best-selling title of Clapton’s 30-year career—MTV’s forum had become a rite of passage for careerists. In the brief history of the Unplugged series, Neil Young was suddenly born-again, R.E.M. got even hipper (as if that were possible), and acts like Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and a reunited Led Zeppelin treated the “acoustic” format as a platform for the new rock “respectability” (read: aging process). Nobody asked self-reliant pioneers like Randy Newman or Richard Thompson to appear; Unplugged was about king-crowning, not star-making.

But Nirvana‘s Unplugged surpassed even “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the band’s finest moment. Mixing wariness about its massive audience with a belief in how far the music could redeem their situation, the set is now a modern classic. With Cobain mumbling an apology for opening with a sleeper (“About a Girl” from the band’s first album on Sub Pop), and moving through a sober cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” (a blueprint for Cobain’s cosmic despair), Nirvana made its venom compelling at the level of a whisper, and Cobain got even more out of his hushed growl than his considerable yammer. But there’s a fatalism to Nirvana’s Unplugged that’s hard to miss; by this point the jig was basically up. Four months later, Cobain overdosed in Rome and emerged from a coma requesting a milkshake. Shortly after his family got him into his final California rehab in March of 1994, Love called the police to their home when Cobain locked himself in a room with a gun. Talk of an American tour was put aside until Cobain could commit himself to the road with confidence. 

At the end of March, within a week after being admitted, Cobain escaped from rehab, spent a few days missing, and turned up dead in his Seattle guest house lying next to the shotgun he had swallowed. The cable man found him and called the local radio station before the police. MTV took on the story as if it were the Kennedy assassination. It broadcast its bank of Nirvana interviews and clips in heavy rotation, and interviewed Rolling Stone writers such as Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad and David Fricke, who trotted out the easy Lennon analogies. Thousands gathered for a public memorial in Seattle, and a shaken Courtney Love addressed Cobain’s fans, reading his suicide note aloud. 


Although discomfort with rock fame is hardly a new dilemma, part of what was charming about Cobain was the way he acted as if his quandary was original.


Most editors settled for the usual lame commentary about how fame had killed another angry young man, and didn’t even bother to dig up sudden-success showbiz precedents like the young comic Freddie Prinze, who shot himself in the flush of his sudden success at age 26 in 1977, or punker Ian Curtis of Joy Division, who hung himself in 1980. Instead, the Lennon comparisons resurfaced with a vengeance, never mind that Lennon had built an 18-year career and Cobain’s lasted barely three. Never mind that Cobain actively chose to leave behind a wife and a daughter whose legacy now included the statistical caution that children of suicides kill themselves as well. Cobain was sainted as the new pop martyr for Generation X, the generation that had resisted needing anything of the kind. A lavish, glossy memorial book appeared collecting Nirvana coverage from Rolling Stone. Everything the man had to say was suddenly drowned in the very media frenzy he had used as an excuse to check out.

As the dust settled, Cobain’s suicide, which was even more violent and resentful than most of his music, seemed less symptomatic of the cost of fame than of our culture’s blindness regarding addiction illnesses. The prevailing myth surrounding heroin users, drug addicts, and alcoholics continues to be that they are troubled arty types whose bad habits “force” them to self-destruct. That a growing self-help, sobriety culture had come of age in the late 1980s and crossed over into sitcoms like the John Larroquette Show and movies like When a Man Loves a Woman seemed irrelevant to most eulogizers. Cobain, the great misunderstood kid, was somehow more gifted and thus “sicker” than all the others. The subtext of most of the adoring commentary was that he was too good for this world. 

Nirvana’s Unplugged tells a different story: it’s the transparent, quietly riveting sound of a man set on killing himself, no matter how far the music transports him out of his isolation. (Key lyrics like “I swear I don’t have a gun,” from “Come as You Are,” still sting like blisters.) Broken up with asides to his band (“I didn’t fuck it up” Cobain marveled after “The Man Who Sold the World”), the set has the disjointed pace of a band finding its way for an audience intent on giving it all the room it needs to get there. Unplugged demonstrates how Cobain threw away an inestimable opportunity to snub convention and stand for something larger than the pettiness of showbiz.

Everything that happened in the wake of Cobain’s death seemed anticlimactic, and proof that the opportunity he abandoned was pretty well lost, at least for the time being. Pearl Jam ascended to top dog, acting as Nirvana’s heir apparent, although not a single song emerged from Vedder and Co. that came close to the hilarious disgust and resignation of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Serve the Servants,” or “All Apologies.” And whether you liked Pearl Jam or not, the band was not a punk act (though singer Eddie Vedder sought contact with punk roots on tour with forefather Mike Watt). Taking on Ticketmaster before Congress for excessive service charges and throwing in with the Hollywood elite for the animal-lover vote made Vedder seem like a man of causes, not ideas. Pearl Jam became America’s answer to U2 on a decade-delay tape loop, with Vedder aping Bono’s Last Good Man routine. When asked if Vedder had ever cracked a good joke, one fan responded indignantly: “No. Things are different these days…”

Three dinosaur rock tours defined the corporate pop machine and two of them seemed completely fossilized: Pink Floyd, behind a torpid comeback album called The Division Bell, and then a live set, Pulse, and the Eagles, with an inert stage act that made their tour slogan “Hell Freezes Over” seem all too descriptive. The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, upped the ante with a lavish arena show that outdid even their triumphant 1989 Steel Wheels jaunt. Mick Jagger seemed more famous and less troubled about it than ever. So did Barbra Streisand, whose CEO tour out-priced them all.

The comebacks continued, including such unlikely old hands as Television, Steely Dan, Traffic, and King Crimson. Nobody was holding their breath for Supertramp, but with radio formats probing the outer limits of cryogenics, and Kansas, Peter Frampton, hell, even Jason & the Scorchers among the hopefuls, Supertramp’s return is probably imminent. And the charts threw off more derivative piffle in Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” smash, which sounded like Rickie Lee Jones covering Cyndi Lauper. Rock wasn’t moving forward as much as it was repeating old orbits at varying altitudes. 

Which is not to say that fame didn’t ensnare some big fish. To the casual observer, Michael Jackson’s child molestation suit, which upstaged even the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow scandal, was only the hors d’oeuvre to the main course: the O.J. Simpson double murder case, which broke in June 1994. Just weeks before, Jackson’s payoff to his child-molestation accuser was announced by Johnnie Cochran, who parlayed the exposure into a seat on O.J.’s $10 million defense dream team.


As the dust settled, Cobain’s suicide, which was even more violent and resentful than most of his music, seemed less symptomatic of the cost of fame than of our culture’s blindness regarding addiction illnesses.


O.J. was clearly the best thing that could have happened to obscure Jackson’s reputed $15 million settlement from the public mind, but Jackson persisted. Months after collapsing from exhaustion and pharmaceutical dependency during a European tour, he married Lisa Marie Presley in a bizarre elopement in August 1994. This caused tabloid stupefaction: Compared to what O.J. was accused of doing, Jackson’s eccentricities, however abusive, seemed of a piece with Hollywood life. Now, as if he needed to regain the center of attention, Jackson acted as if getting married was part of the PR scheme of the century when, basically, few were left who cared.

Unexpectedly, the one act that resisted abandoning what Cobain had stood for and refused to let 1994 be defined by Cobain’s death, was Hole, led by Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love. Love didn’t play the widow with the finesse of a Yoko Ono, who straddled the line between grief as performance art and tasteless exploitation. Ending a two-year absence from the music business during which she married Cobain and had his child, Love released a prescient set of songs on an album she completed just before Cobain’s suicide called Live Through This. This was punk without the hilarity, but enough deadpan wisecracks to keep the ironies jumping. Love, a former stripper, could make a simple dress look like derision itself. “Go on take everything, take everything. I want you to,” Love sang in “Violet,” and it meant something different each time you heard it. Love’s punk didn’t revel in revenge fantasies, instead it piled on the petty insults until you began to appreciate her weary feminist taunts.

Then, in June 1994, just two months after Cobain died, Hole’s bassist Kristen Pfaff was found dead of a heroin overdose in her bathtub. Undaunted, Love hired Melissa Auf der Maur, a resourceful player and a vivid singer, and kept moving.

Hole began touring in Europe in August, just as the dinosaurs began straying offstage, and built its reputation with an unsteady persistence. Reports of odd on stage confrontations and offstage mishaps dogged the band. By the time it reached America, the resolute ironies of Live Through This had won over a lot of skeptics, and the album was selling respectably (peaking at number 55 on the Billboard charts). Earning her fame in spite of who she was, and what Cobain had done, Love made his death seem all the more wasteful for the music they might have made together. By New Years’ 1995, Love trounced the competition for Album of the Year in the Village Voice‘s annual critics’ poll, which tallies votes from upwards of 300 critics nationwide.

By May of 1995, when Courtney Love took the stage for her own Unplugged, the appearance was charged with passing-the-torch symbolism, and the world sat up to take notice. Sitting on a stool and running through her set matter-of-factly, Love’s manner seemed coy for a punk-rocker, but that may have just been her way of being nervous. By now her record had grown familiar, and her deadpan delivery only made her better lines leap out with greater force: “When you get what you want/And you never want it again…(again from “Violet”)”. Halfway through the set, Love introduced her defining cover, Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss).” Phil Spector produced the song for The Crystals back in 1962, pulled it defensively just after its release, and it resurfaced on the Spector box set Back to Mono almost 30 years later in 1991.

Love’s version wrought a wizened resolve from the song’s abject fear and antiquated sexism, and turned it into a kind of cleansing-away, as if to say “This is the dark ages where feminism and female rock started. This is chocolate cake compared to what I’ve been through.” (A similar cultural barometer of the season was Urge Overkill’s deliciously wry cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” a 1967 Neil Diamond hit, which Quentin Tarantino used as the score to Uma Thurman’s death dance in Pulp Fiction.)

When Love appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair soon afterward, and stirred up 1995’s Lollapalooza with fistfights and clothes-shredding dives into the audience, the concept of sellout was so remote it was never uttered. Instead, her success seemed merely the just desserts of a woman who had somehow danced her way through an avalanche.

Other big events of 1995 were greatest hits packages from two veterans: Bruce Springsteen, who reunited with his E Street Band and finally put out “Murder Incorporated” (a much-bootlegged Born in the USA song about the mob), and Michael Jackson on the rehab circuit. With his raucous appearance on Letterman, Springsteen prevailed; Jackson miscalculated: HIStory was a double CD with 30 tracks, half of which were greatest hits, begging the question of why a self-proclaimed “King of Pop” needed to hitch his new material to the stuff everybody already owned.

The most promising collaboration among heavyweights came in the summer, when Neil Young released Mirror Ball, his album with Pearl Jam, the result of jamming together at the 1995 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This seemed in character for Young, a relentless drifter, and hopeful for the band. It’s fun to think about Young coaching Vedder through the messianic undertones of “Piece of Crap.”


If 1994 began by immortalizing Cobain as the rock star who died for his dignity, it progressed to discover that he was just another talented addict who copped out.


Between dinosaur comebacks and Pearl Jam’s off-and-on road success backing Vitalogy, 1994’s ticket receipts were the largest in the history of music. Without all the dinosaurs, 1995’s live receipts dipped, but R.E.M., in its first tour in six years, returned as elder statesmen (ironic?) to play stadiums as if they were oversized garages. This was consistent with the general recoiling from mass adulation that Cobain’s suicide represented in its most extreme form. Suddenly, brands that deserved wider audiences, like Pavement (Wowee Zowee) and Guided by Voices (Alien Lanes and their upcoming album produced by Kim Deal of the Breeders), released fetchingly lo-fi CDs that betrayed an ambivalence toward fame bordering on pathological. Pavement’s inspired stream-of-consciousness method resisted packaging, and Guided by Voices’ brief, heady songs shrank the pop process into a series of fragments, pieces of ideas that refused to coalesce.

This gave the season’s true conquering heroine an edge: Courtney Love was a genuine songwriter, not just a widow, but a new brand of feminist who refused to play rock star as role model. Love stood apart not just from the punk rock tradition her husband enlivened, but also from the stream of girl acts like Babes in Toyland, Liz Phair, Belly, Luscious Jackson, and the Northwest Riot grrrl press phenom. 

If 1994 began by immortalizing Cobain as the rock star who died for his dignity, it progressed to discover that he was just another talented addict who copped out. Michael Jackson is at the opposite end of the spectrum, courting the coverage he supposedly desires; he’s addicted to his celebrity in a way Cobain detested. But neither’s self-destructive urges are heroic or enviable. Fame brings its share of unspeakable humiliations, but then, so do plenty of other jobs. For some real lessons on the price of fame and how healthy celebrity ambivalence can be, listen to Hole’s Live Through This, a landmark of rock feminism, survivalism, and how immersion in craft can see you through times of utter peril.