Still six years away from making himself an immortal celebrity martyr, Kurt Cobain lived with his girlfriend in a tiny $137.50-a-month apartment, shaping the organized confusion that was his life and art.
Excerpted from the book Cobain Unseen by Charles R. Cross
By early 1988, Chad Channing joined Nirvana as drummer, and things began to solidify for the band. With the Sub Pop deal — little more than a handshake promising minimal recording costs to cut a single — and a handful of shows in Seattle, they seemed to have momentum, or so Kurt Cobain, age 20, argued. In his journals, he wrote several bios for what he called “our little band,” revising them as soon as he had any new nugget of good news. Still, the breaks came slower than he would have liked, and it wasn’t until November of 1988 when Sub Pop finally released the “Love Buzz” single. Even that glorious occasion was fraught with complications for Kurt, as the reviews were not the unqualified raves Kurt had hoped for. The single was only issued initially as part of a subscription club, and several reviewers despairingly noted that it was a cover of a Shocking Blue song, an odd choice for a debut.
During most of 1988, Kurt waited: for Sub Pop to act, for the band to get more shows, for the new lineup to jell, or for Tracy Marander, the girlfriend he had moved from Aberdeen to live with, to come home from work. He spent most of his time by himself in their Olympia apartment watching television, making mix tapes or writing songs. When Tracy complained that he’d written songs about everything but her, he took his first stab at crafting a love song. While listening to Meet the Beatles, he sat in his bathtub and wrote out an argument he’d had with Tracy the week before, turning the dialogue into a song.
Around the same time, Kurt wrote “Negative Creep,” which was more typical of the period. Most Nirvana songs were structured around guitar chords, rather than driven by lyrics, and “Negative Creep” had only ten lines, though each was repeated three times. Other than the chorus of “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more,” repeated twenty-seven times, few of the lyrics were decipherable. Kurt went into the recording studio without having completed the song, and once the tape was rolling, he ended several couplets with a screaming whine that was fast becoming his vocal trademark and the signature of the band’s sound. The songs were undeniably catchy, but their meanings were a mystery even to Kurt’s bandmates.
Though Kurt was writing at a faster pace than ever before, Sub Pop’s financial problems held up the recording of a real album. He had expected his band to have two albums out already, and all Sub Pop had done was issue the single. Frustrated, Kurt began to send out demo tapes to other labels. With one package, Kurt included a handwritten bio that noted Nirvana was “willing to compromise on material. Tour any time forever. Hopefully the music will speak for itself. Please reply.” He had previously railed against compromise, but the long delay had made him increasingly desperate.
In December 1988, Sub Pop finally managed to budget for recording costs, and the band cut their first album with producer Jack Endino. Kurt debated a number of titles including Mandatory Breeding Laws, All Humans Are Stupid, and Ashamed to Be a Human. The one he liked best was Too Many Humans, which reflected his pessimistic view of overpopulation. Sub Pop axed that idea, so Kurt decided to name it Bleach. On tour for the single, Kurt had seen an AIDS prevention poster with the line, “Bleach Your Works.” Kurt had not experimented with hard drugs at this time, and he found the line humorous. For a design, the group decided to use a band photo Tracy had taken, but to print it in negative. The cover was also meant to be a play on “Negative Creep,” but few would have gotten that joke.
BLEACH WAS RELEASED ON JUNE 15, 1989, whereupon the band undertook their first tour of the United States. Over the next three years, a season did not go by without Nirvana hitting the road. Their lives became structured around tours and shows, and it was the income from touring that kept them alive. College radio had picked up a few of the songs from Bleach, and though their first few tours lost money, they soon began to sell enough T-shirts to make a small profit.
To Kurt, making money on his music was sweet justice. He was still primarily living off Tracy, but now he had a few extra dollars for his own whims. When he wasn’t touring, he stayed at home and watched television or worked on a variety of art projects. He’d begun to haunt Olympia’s many thrift stores, and he started to buy anything weird and cheap that struck his fancy. He had a particular fascination with board games, which he could usually buy for less than a dollar. He wasn’t interested in Sorry! or Scrabble, but if the game was a knockoff of a bad TV show, he’d buy it. The castoffs of sixties culture became his fixation: He bought an Archie Bunker board game, an Adam-12 game and an A-Team game. He became a curator of the absurd debris of American pop culture. He bought a cheap tapestry of Elvis and then doctored it by putting makeup in the style of Alice Cooper on Elvis’s face; he then rechristened it “Elvis Cooper.” The band hung the Elvis Cooper tapestry behind them during some shows, and it became a hit with their then-tiny audiences. Everything Kurt created or bought was abnormal in a way or was soon made that way through his doctoring.
Kurt’s interest in painting re-emerged that summer, and since he couldn’t afford real canvas, he often used the backs of these old board games. He found that the stiff cardboard held acrylic paint well. He also occasionally bought cheap framed paintings at the thrift store and then repainted the canvases or altered them in some way. Sometimes he’d simply take the store-bought painting and paint words over it.
He gave Tracy several of the original paintings he created that year. One was of a skeletal, alienlike being looking forlorn — Kurt told Tracy it was a self-portrait. Another was of convicted murderer Charles Manson. “He didn’t paint happy-looking flowery stuff,” Tracy observed.
One of his neighbors who admired his paintings offered to pay Kurt to re-create a dream she’d had. “How much do you charge?” the neighbor asked him. He had no idea, but he told her for ten dollars he could buy a canvas. She gave him the money and then described the dream, which was of a woman eating a dead animal. It took him a few days, but he captured her vision. It helped that most of Kurt’s paintings were already ethereal and dreamlike, and that flesh-eating creatures were part of his oeuvre. The same neighbor once discovered him painting in the garage and noticed that the work glistened. She asked him what created the varnish effect. He matter-of-factly told her he’d masturbated and applied his semen as a final coat. “My seed is on this painting,” he announced as drily as if he were describing a shade of color.
Sexuality remained a theme at the center of his art. He would search thrift stores for old medical texts, and then cut out anatomy pictures to create a collage. He decorated his refrigerator with pictures of diseased vaginas interspersed with photos of meat clipped from newspaper ads. If a headline appeared in the newspaper that had a double entendre (such as “Trojans beat Beavers”), he would clip it out and add it to the ever-evolving work. Collage was his favorite art form, and newspaper and magazine clippings were applied to anything flat he could find — a canvas, the refrigerator or the wall.
Kurt also experimented with animated collage in the form of video editing: When Tracy bought a VCR, it became Kurt’s favorite household appliance. He liked to tape clips from MTV, but mostly he filled countless inexpensive VHS tapes with late-night commercials and scenes from sixties reruns. He imagined that one day these video collages would be valuable. He recorded them all on economy mode, however, so even when he tried to play them back, they were distorted.
Though the VCR had been a bonding addition to their household, by late 1989, the relationship between Kurt and Tracy began to show strains. He was often gone touring,and while she truly was the biggest supporter Nirvana had — both financially and moralewise — living with Kurt wasn’t easy for her. One of the other things they had in common was their love of animals, and their pets included turtles, rats, cats and a rabbit. Kurt had nicknamed the apartment the “Animal Farm,” and one visitor noted that it smelled “like a vivisection lab.” Their menagerie required much care, and Kurt frequently was lax in cleaning their many pet cages; this and his other housekeeping lapses became relationship issues.
Tracy was a relatively straightforward woman and liked girlie things. Kurt’s interest in femininity, however, was more confined to the porcelain dolls he collected or the stolen statues of the Virgin Mary he looted from cemeteries. For her birthday that year, he gave her an Iron Butterfly album. It wasn’t just any album, though; he’d painted an image of Batman on it and tied to it a naked Barbie doll with a noose around its neck. To Kurt, this was romance.
Another issue between them was simply how much stuff Kurt had acquired on his thrift-store jags. “He had this clutter thing,” remembered Krist Novoselic, Kurt’s friend and Nirvana bandmate. “His whole house was cluttered, and there were things everywhere.” Tracy urged him to clean up, and repeatedly left him notes suggesting he do so. He ignored them, for the most part, and instead brought home more stuff. They had moved to a larger apartment in the same converted house, but Kurt quickly had packed the larger space with his ever-growing treasury.
NIRVANA’S FIRST TOUR OF EUROPE COMMENCED around the same time, compounding the stress at home in late 1989, but also giving Kurt a distraction. Nirvana found, much to the band members’ surprise, that they had a following in Europe. The British music tabloids were always looking for a new star to tout, and Sub Pop’s Mudhoney was the 1989 model of the year. While most of the early press on the Seattle grunge scene contained only anecdotal coverage of Nirvana, and many times it was unflattering reporting, calling them “hicks,” there was enough ink on Sub Pop that fans came to see Nirvana out of curiosity. They were improving as a live unit, and Kurt’s new songs were better at getting the crowd dancing or at least tapping its feet.
Kurt’s widening interest in blues and folk music proved that the “butt rock” — the AC/DC and Black Sabbath — he’d grown up on was now being supplemented by the albums he’d found in Olympia thrift shops or those borrowed from friends. His interest in Leadbelly reflected a notable move away from the punk stylings of the Melvins, an Aberdeen band of which Kurt was a huge fan — where lyrics were an afterthought at best — toward traditional folk-song craft with a dominant narrative voice. What a song was about suddenly mattered to Kurt in a way it had not before, and his own writing mirrored this shift.
When he had been in Aberdeen, Kurt had found music mostly by happenstance — he’d hear it on the radio or hear another band covering a Zeppelin song. But in Olympia, Kurt began to explore a wider spectrum of music. He also sought out the advice of others, and there were many in the Olympia music community who were quick to suggest other albums he needed to explore. He lived next to Slim Moon and Dylan Carlson, and both were astute rock aestheticians who greatly influenced what Kurt discovered, as did Calvin Johnson who ran K Records. And as Kurt’s record collection grew, it included albums by popular acts like the Beatles, Cheap Trick, The Knack, Devo, and Leonard Cohen, but also less obvious choices like the Vaselines and the Pixies. As Kurt’s record collection expanded, so did his own musical style.
In the fall of 1989, Kurt took a handful of the new songs into the studio to record with producer Steve Fisk. The five tracks they cut over three days represented a remarkable leap in Kurt’s songwriting prowess. “Polly,” in particular, was the most sophisticated song Kurt had yet attempted. It was another twisted love song, but this time was written from the voice of a sexual deviant who kidnaps a young girl and tortures her. The criminal feels empathy for his victim but also displays a sociopathic detachment: “I think she wants some water to put out the blowtorch.” Kurt wrote the song after reading a clipping in the newspaper of a similar real-life incident; the song represented one of the first times he’d reached outside his own imagination for source material.
Another of the five songs recorded that fall, “Been a Son,” reflected Kurt’s own family history. The song ostensibly tells the story of how Kurt believed his father would have preferred a more masculine son. The central character is female, so it is not clear whether Kurt wrote the song about his sister, Kim, or whether the lyrics, “she should have died when she was born,” were more a statement of his own self-hate. But regardless of the inspiration, there was no mistaking the venomous anger. The song was a clear indication that Kurt had begun to use lyric writing as a form of therapy and release. Anger — at his parents, his health problems and his own inner shame — became one of his most powerful motivators and part of his inspiration. Over the next year, Cobain’s music would become more focused and, not surprisingly, would show a new level of fury.