- 05 Apr 23
29 years ago today, Kurt Cobain died tragically at his home in Seattle, Washington. To mark his anniversary, we're revisiting Peter Murphy's classic Nirvana cover story – featuring recollections from Butch Vig, Greil Marcus and the late Mark Lanegan.
Originally published in Hot Press in 2002...
January 1992. You could say the Visigoths were at the gate; a motley rabble of redneck barbarians in layers of plaid shirts, torn jeans, thermal underwear, woolly hats and army boots, most of them long haired and devil-bearded, some shaven-headed and body pierced. Most, like the Screaming Trees’ Connor brothers or Tad Doyle, looked like they came from the heart of dark mountain hollers, carrying chainsaws and axes.
Inside pop’s gated mansions, the high born kings and queens – Michael and Mariah, plus their court jester hairspray metal acts and pet eunuch boy bands – drained the last of the champagne and got ready for the sacking of Rome. The outgoing ascendancy had grown fat on the spoils and was ill prepared for freak weather. This spring would be a harsh one, with the northeastern winter extending itself all over America, and Europe too.
The walls were about to come down, not to the sound of trumpets, but the monolithic lurch of a four-minute mid-tempo eruption called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by a Washington State trio called Nirvana. In the second week of January, that band’s second album and major label debut Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top spot. ‘Teen Spirit’, its flagship track, hit the music industry like an asteroid, one of those singles that has the JFK factor – most rock ‘n’ roll fans born between 1965 and ’75 will never forget where they were when they first heard it.
It wasn’t even as if the song was anything radically new. ‘Teen Spirit’ was more like a hunk of found outsider’s art, pieced together from bastardised chunks of ‘Louie Louie’, Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’, The Pixies whisper/scream kinetics, and the gothy sub-aquatic overtones of Kurt Cobain’s guitar, which hinted at the teenage mordancy of The Cure or Joy Division. The lyric was vague and ambiguous but seemed to mean something to every freak on the block, suggesting adolescent angst, racial dispossession, AIDS and sexual guilt all in one eight word line (“a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”). It was wry and funny and serious as cancer (“I feel stupid/And contagious”).
But like ‘My Generation’ or ‘Anarchy In The UK’, the words were secondary to the feeling brought on by a vocal performance that sounded like the noise a rape victim makes after the gag comes off. Cobain’s yowl wasn’t Hubert Selby Jr’s scream looking for a mouth – it was a scream that found a mouth after a decade of looking. It was an unholy sound, one that had come all the way down from Edward Munch and Francis Bacon, from Battleship Potempkin and The Shout, from Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and Whitman’s barbaric yawp. His voice had the ingrown ache of Lennon’s ‘Mother’, or Paul Westerberg in ‘Unsatisfied’, or Hank Williams’ ‘I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive’. Ralph J Gleason called it “the yarragh”, an Irish word for a vocal tic Cobain might have been handed down from his old man Don, a first generation Irish immigrant. It was a scream, Cobain said, that emanated from the very point in his abdomen that gave him the stomach pain he inherited from his mother Wendy, a complaint he would medicate with heroin, the burning nausea he saw fit to mention in his suicide note.
Whatever the source, it was a sound that would Doppler out until it hit critical mass, then turned back in on its creator, before he quelled it with a shotgun blast in April 1994. But even after that, the echoes could be still be heard in bands like And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and At The Drive-In.
“It’s like listening to a raw nerve that’s been exposed,” says Butch Vig, producer of Nevermind. Exactly ten years after that album first topped the Billboard charts, Vig sits here in a Notting Hill Gate pub in London, on a break from doing promotion for ‘Cherry Lips’, Garbage’s paean to JT LeRoy. The echoes still carry – LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things could be described as the literary equivalent of ‘Teen Spirit’.
“At the time it stuck out so bad and was so refreshing to hear something that real and that passionate,” the producer continues. “I remember Madonna was huge at the time, C&C Music Factory, this slick dance music, much like what’s out there now and has always been. And a lot of the rock bands were like, the hair metal bands. And it was so different because I think that his passion and rage and confusion and how he felt as a person came across in his music. You could hear something real in Kurt’s voice, it wasn’t done to death, it didn’t have a homogenised sound to it. You could go right inside and feel the scraping of his vocal cords. And it sorta put a torch under what was going on around it and burned it all out. It opened up a whole new space.”
It was a space that would soon be filled by a host of unlikely chart acts. Before Nevermind the Seattle bands were the scum of the earth, but somehow Nirvana managed to alchemise their leaden sound into gold. The word was grunge. Over the next couple of years, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins would all score number one albums in the US, while Sonic Youth, Screaming Trees, Hole, The Breeders, L7 and scores more would be thrust into the alien glare of the mainstream.
From this end, Nevermind’s success looks like an act of civil disobedience by a record buying mass sick to the back teeth of candy floss. Cobain’s deadpan whatever/nevermind delivery perfectly caught the emerging slacker zeitgeist, but the band’s disruptive energy also woke up boomers raised on ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Satisfaction’. Plus, the singer’s angelic looks, his anti-homophobic stance and the feminine hypersensitivity of his lyrics guaranteed a fanbase that cut across gender and sexual preference. Mind you, Nirvana picked up a fair few frat boys too, something that would give them ample subject matter for satire in a song like ‘In Bloom’.
But if Nevermind was the kind of ten million selling flashfire record company executives have wet dreams about, they could take little credit for it. Initially, David Geffen’s DGC label thought it might do a couple of hundred thousand at best, and the promotional budget was respectable but modest. In practice, the record sold 200,000 in its first few weeks of release, even before MTV picked up on the ‘Teen Spirit’ video and mainstream radio began programming the album across all formats.
However, the portents were there for anyone prepared to look.
For a start, Billboard had changed to the new Soundscan system that logged actual sales and gave less weight to radio play. Also, the release of Nevermind coincided with the start of college year, when the increasingly influential college stations were looking for new acts to champion. Plus, once the ball started rolling, Nirvana were a huge money-spinning prospect for DGC, given low recording costs and royalty rates compared to, say, Axl Rose and pals. Also, consider that one of the biggest grossing tours of the summer of 1991 was Lollapalooza, hatched by Janes Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, featuring a bill that included Ice T, Henry Rollins and the Butthole Surfers.
Besides, oversimplified sketches of the American ’80s often accentuate the negative, ignoring the underground networking that allowed bands like REM to grow from a cottage industry to a stadium band. Nevermind might’ve been a lightning strike, but the thunderheads had been gathering since 1980. Amerindie was a subterranean labyrinth of DIY labels, college radio stations, fanzines and safe houses, a community spirit where bands slept on fans’ floors, shared vans and did their best to subvert rock star feudalism by multi-jobbing. Behind the saturation marketing of Bruce, Prince, Madonna and U2, some folks were drafting an alternative map of America. From Black Flag driving force Greg Ginn’s SST label, the Slash and the Paisley Underground scenes in LA to the Butthole Surfers in Texas; from The Pixies in Boston to the Dischord hardcore scene in Washington DC and The Replacements and Husker Du in Minneapolis.
And then of course, Sub Pop.
Set up by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt as a conceptual cross between Motown and SST in 1986, the Seattle label provided a way station for just about every Northwestern band on the way to world domination – or otherwise. Green River was a seminal Sub Pop act, later splitting into Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. The latter were thought to be Seattle’s great white hope, but split after flamboyant lead singer Andy Wood died of a heroin overdose. Key members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard later met a San Diego surfer by the name of Eddie Vedder and formed Pearl Jam. From 1986-9, Sub Pop put out records by Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Tad, and of course Nirvana, plus one off deals for Dinosaur Jr, Steve Albini’s Rapeman and Thin White Rope.
Poneman and Pavitt had come up the usual college radio/fanzine/cassette release route, but were smart enough to create an identity for the label early on, favouring in-house studios and producers like Jack Endino, employing their own art directors and designers, hatching schemes like the Sub Pop singles club, forging a strong visual sense largely defined by photographer Charles Peterson’s live shots of sweat, guitars, skin and hair flying. They also made the smart move of flying over Melody Maker journalist Everett True to hype the scene in Britain, thus gaining an important inroad into Europe.
Yet they were no financial geniuses. By the time they signed Nirvana, the label were only two steps away from going belly-up, resulting in a substantial delay between the recording of Nirvana’s debut Bleach in 1987 and its release the following year, and even then distribution was limited, a frustration which proved crucial in the band’s eventual defection to DGC/Geffen.
So why the North-West? Mudhoney’s Mark Arm summed up the sound of Seattle and its environs as the product of two ‘I’ words: Isolation and Inbreeding. To that he might have added Inclemency (as in weather) and Intemperance (as in booze and pot). Grunge at its best was effectively amplified backwoods music, chainsaw distortion meets Hank Williams howl meets the ghostly folk of Leadbelly. As Chris Eckman of Sub Pop act The Walkabouts points out, “David Lynch filmed that television series Twin Peaks 45 minutes from Seattle, and I think he tapped into something that goes on out in these little small towns. Y’know, there tends to be kind of an idyllic surface to things, but once you start to dig underneath it can be fairly bizarre.”
Sub Pop often exploited the backwoods angle to the hilt, particularly with publicity shots of the girthsome Tad. But if this was blatant shtick, it had roots in reality. These guys looked less like rock gods than hillbillies with attitude.
“We really did,” admits Mark Lanegan, then lead singer with Ellensburg, Washington’s Screaming Trees, and also a friend of and collaborator with Kurt Cobain. “That’s the kind of place we come from, just this little valley of a farming, logging, cattle ranching community. So literally we did come out of the woods. I grew up in a really isolated place, but there was a good record shop in my town run by an old hippy guy, so while I was listening to punk rock – the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Damned, stuff like that – at the same time I was listening to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins. And classic rock, Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, all of it at once.”
Kurt Cobain was brought up in the North-Western town of Aberdeen, located halfway up Washington’s coast. The region’s biggest industries had once been prostitution and lumber, but by the time Cobain came of age it was literally a country of stumps, one of the most heavily logged areas on the planet. As the economic slump hit the lumber industry and available logging lands were depleted, the whole area became a ghost town. By 1991, Aberdeen’s suicide index was roughly twice the national rate, there were high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, and the median household income in this town of 17,000 was $23,000 per annum.
Cobain came from a broken home, and like Henry Rollins and Courtney Love, was prescribed Ritalin for hyperactivity as a child. There was a history of suicide in the family – two of his great-uncles shot themselves when he was a boy. Shunted around various relatives, he found refuge from the rednecks of Aberdeen by absorbing himself in his own grotesque art (pictures of diseased vaginas, exposed organs, the kind of graphic imagery that would later inform In Utero), plus heavy rock records. When Buzz Osborne of local punk legends The Melvins brought him to see Black Flag, he found his holy grail. In 1986 he teamed up with Chris (later Krist) Novoselic, a blow-in from California, and the two together fumbled around with various early incarnations of Nirvana, going through a whole slew of drummers, settling on Chad Channing for their debut album Bleach.
Bleach typified the Sub Pop sound: slack-stringed bass, filthy metal riffs, the odd blast of ’60s stoner rock. It was the product of a rain-saturated climate that meant there was little to do but stay in, drink beer and jam along to Kiss, Sabs and Blue Cheer records. The fact that many of the area’s youngsters were the offspring of migrating hippies meant that there wasn’t as strict a demarcation between metalheads, punkers and hippies as existed in, say, New York or LA.
Writing about Nirvana in 1993, the late Bill Graham observed that, “Small-town outsiders frequently believe more intensely in rock myths. Swallowing dreams whole, they can lack the worldliness, agnosticism and chameleon habits of Big City scenemakers. Kurt Cobain’s version of punk could be nothing but fundamentalist.”
Mark Lanegan: “I remember we would go on SST tours which were notoriously long and you hit everywhere relentlessly. And everywhere we would hit we would try and guess if the (other) band (on the bill) today was gonna sound like REM or U2 – inevitably it would be one or the other. Although we liked that stuff, musically I felt like we had more in common with old school punk rock or some of the obscure late ’60s bands like the Elevators and the Stooges. And then there was this whole Aerosmith/Black Sabbath part as well, which I think was influenced by what was going on in Seattle at the time, guys like Green River were really carrying that flag. So where we were from, we were cool, but everywhere we went we were not. We had waist-length hair!”
The Washington bands were the end result of a lineage of noisy Seattle acts like The Sonics, The Wailers, The Galaxies, The Ventures, Paul Revere And The Raiders, and its most famous sons Jimi Hendrix and The Kingsmen (in 1985 the latter act’s garage classic ‘Louie Louie’ narrowly missed becoming the state song). Later, after a Ramones show in the late ’70s at the Olympic Hotel, dozens of podunk punk acts formed and split, closely followed by mid ’80s bands like U-Men, Malfunkshun and The Melvins, direct predecessors of the Sub Pop lot.
That was the sound. The attitude was just as important, a kind of terminal caffeine and beer fuelled slacker sarcasm. It’s worth noting that Seattle also spewed up arch satirists like Gus Van Sant and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. There, ladies and gentlemen, is where you’ll find the DNA for Nirvana: raw noise and sardonic wit.
Mark Lanegan: “There was a severe cynicism around Seattle, which is where we all ended up, but it was towards the rest of the world. It was a sort of a fuck-the-world attitude, here’s what’s cool. It’s sorta the kind of place where you just wait around looking for some reason to go out. And if there’s any slight excuse to fight . . . well, y’know, it’s a northern city. And if there’s no defined battleground you turn on each other.”
One early Nirvana characteristic is often overlooked – they were merciless pisstakers, leading journalists up the garden path with elaborately fabricated biogs that cast them as beret-wearing boho poets.
“Kurt Cobain once told this hilarious story about how the Seattle grunge scene actually got started,” Greil Marcus recalls. “He said that in fact all the people in the scene were really into gourmet cooking, and they would have these elaborate banquets where everybody would come over to somebody’s apartment and cook and try to outdo the other person with the most complex or the most arcane dishes they were fixing. And when they had to wait around while something was in the oven they’d just pull out guitars and start making music and so it stumbled into this. Of course, he was just making the thing up on the spot, but the whole idea of this grunge scene coming out of some effete food club – absolutely wonderful.”
In April 1990, Nirvana showed up at Smart Studios in Madison to begin work on sessions intended to become a second Sub Pop album, but which actually ended up being shopped around by the band as demos for a major label deal. Sub Pop settled on Butch Vig as a producer, impressed by a resume that included dozens of indie productions for labels like Twin/Tone, Touch And Go and Amphetamine Reptile, particularly his ambitious work on Killdozer’s 12 Point Buck record (laughingly referred to by Touch And Go as their White Album).
Vig recalls his first encounter with the band.
“They pulled up in the quote-unquote Sub Pop Van, which I think every Sub Pop band got to take out for like six weeks and go around the country in. It was so fuckin’ beat up. And they were poor as hell; they didn’t have any money, probably hadn’t done any laundry or washed their clothes in a couple of weeks. They were a motley crew, tired looking (but) very friendly. Chris was the most effusive and just very outgoing, and Kurt – and this pretty much defined his personality in time to come – walked in and was very articulate, just looking at the board and asking me questions. And all of a sudden, he just sat in the corner and wouldn’t say anything. And I kept going, ‘Kurt, you want some tea or some coffee, you want me to get some beer, you guys hungry?’ or whatever, and he wouldn’t even respond to me. And finally Chris came up and said, ‘Kurt’s really moody, he’ll get over it’ and went back to restringing his bass or whatever.
“Kurt would just do these bi-polar 180s,” he continues. “He could be so charming and so articulate, and then he would just change and totally go into his own shell and not say anything, and so you think, ‘He’s pissed at me or upset about something’. But it had to be always something internal he was dealing with, because it wasn’t like we had an argument. His chemistry would change. It was difficult to deal with him, I had to be able to catch him at periods he was ‘on’ in order to motivate him, to get him to redo a vocal take or check the tuning on his guitar, just so he felt motivated and part of what we were doing. I think with him the extremes just dictated his life.”
While Vig was aware of Nirvana’s underground buzz, he wasn’t exactly bowled over with Bleach, apart from ‘About A Girl’, which tickled the self confessed pop geek’s Beatles sensibilities. However, he was much more impressed with the band’s newer material, songs like ‘In Bloom’, ‘Lithium’, and ‘Pay To Play’ (later ‘Stay Away’).
“To me Kurt’s songwriting had grown in leaps and bounds from what he’d done on Bleach,” he says. “He wasn’t avoiding melody as much as I think he tried to do early on. I think coming from the punk thing it was not cool to sing melodies.”
In Madison, the band recorded six songs in five days. The acoustic Smart version of ‘Polly’ eventually made it onto Nevermind. Based on the true story of a 14 year old girl from Tacoma, Washington, abducted on the way home from a concert and tortured for days until she managed to escape, the song took half an hour to record on an AKG 414 microphone and a twenty dollar junk shop nylon five string guitar.
“I was struggling just to get mikes up because Kurt wanted to do it quickly,” Vig recalls. “He would just start playing and then when he was done he would say, ‘That’s it’. I realised it was a great take, but I’m thinking from an engineering point of view, ‘He’s obviously gonna make that aspect of my life difficult, (but) the performance is so good we should just leave it’. At one point I was like, ‘Maybe we should check the tuning’ and he was like, ‘Well, I’ve never tuned this guitar!’”
Consequently ‘Polly’ sounds like a Harry Smith ballad or Library of Congress recording, albeit by way of punk rock rape/murder songs like Husker Du’s Diane and X’s ‘Johnny Hit And Run Paulene’. It suggests the laconicynicism with which the teenagers treat their friend’s murder of a girl in Tim Palmer’s 1986 film River’s Edge. Had that movie been made a couple of years later, Sub Pop and not Slayer would’ve surely provided the soundtrack.
‘Polly’ also prophesies the mutated Neil Young backwoods vibe of 1994’s posthumous Unplugged In New York, territory Kurt had previously explored with Mark Lanegan on the latter’s 1990 solo album The Winding Sheet, which included a version of Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. Nirvana’s Unplugged version of that song would feature one of Cobain’s most terrifying vocal performances.
“Kurt and I both had a love for the kind of spookier blues stuff,” Mark Lanegan confirms. “ I can’t say what he’d be doin’ now but I know that he loved that stuff and it somehow informed what he did. Some of the stuff on The Winding Sheet I sort of wrote with him, we were just in the same room as each other really, and all that stuff came out in various forms, although I never credited him! Really we were just pals, we showed shit to each other.”
“Kurt had all these sides to him in terms of music that I think were very ambitious and he was reluctant to bring out,” reckons Butch Vig. “I still think where he came from, the punk roots, he had a hard time letting himself get that sensitive. He kept saying, ‘Don’t make me sound like a sad fuck folk singer’. And I said, ‘Kurt, the lyrics are so intense and gorgeous, it’s not’. One of the little things I had Chris sing on the intro to (‘Territorial Pissings’): ‘C’mon people now everybody get together’ (a snatch of The Youngbloods’ ‘Get Together’), that was a total joke ’cos they were always talking about how lame some of the ’60s and ’70s folk singers were. That was after Chris had had about a half bottle of Jack Daniels. He sort of staggered in by the mike and sang it in one take and I went, ‘That’s perfect, that’s it’.”
Between the Smart demos in spring of 1990 and the beginning of the Nevermind sessions the following summer, three major changes occurred: the band signed to Gold Mountain management, DGC bought them out of Sub Pop’s contract, and Dave Grohl replaced Chad Channing.
Vig: “Kurt called up and left a message on my voicemail saying, ‘I’ve got the greatest drummer in the world!’ and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, great, I’ve heard that before’. And as it turns out, well, if not the greatest, they got one of the best.”
Various producers were touted for the album, including Scott Litt (REM), Don Dixon (The Smithereens) and even long time Neil Young associate David Briggs, with Vig mooted as an engineer. But when Dixon had to bow out because of contractual difficulties, Butch got the hot seat.
“I was scared shitless,” he says. “I had talked to the band and they were interested but Geffen wanted to work with a big name producer. They (the band) didn’t like David Briggs, they said he was drunken pot smoking hippy, they didn’t like a lot of people for whatever reason.”
DGC and Gold Mountain agreed to let Nirvana work with Vig, with the proviso that they record in LA where the label could keep an eye on them.
Vig heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ live for the first time during a short pre-production stint in a North Hollywood rehearsal room.
“It fuckin’ blew my doors away,” he says. “We set up in this big room and Kurt had a Mesa-Boogie stack that he had been using live, it was super loud, even more painful when the guitar was clean, so sharp sounding. We didn’t put any mikes on the drums they were still so loud in the room, and when Dave kicked in that first beat: dudda-da-dudda-da-dudda-da-duuum, it was like a bombshell dropped. And they played it so fucking intense, and I started pacing around thinking: “I-gotta-get-this-on-tape-I-gotta-get-this-on tape-I gotta-get-this-on-tape”, and I sketched some notes. They ran through another one and again it was so intense and so tight and just so powerful, I was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, let’s just move on to something else’. I felt like if they kept playing it I would ruin it, it sounded so good at that moment.”
The band moved into Sound City studios in the suburb of Van Nuys in the San Fernando valley, 16 miles west of downtown LA, a slightly down at heel facility with a rich history of clients like Tom Petty, Foreigner and Fleetwood Mac. Once the band began tracking, Vig realised he would have to utilise every psychological trick in the book in order to get the best out of his charges.
“Kurt and Krist had no patience,” he says, “Kurt particularly, he just wanted to play the song get it out of the way and move on. If he would’ve had his way we would’ve done the record in like, three days.”
In fact, the producer reckons he rarely got more than three or four vocal takes from Cobain.
“He would just go full on,” he remembers. “I mean, if he was singing something quiet like ‘Something In The Way’ that was the opposite, he sang that so under his breath, almost whispered, you wouldn’t even know he was singing, he’d be completely drowned out by the ambient noise we’re hearing in the room right now. But I knew back to when we’d done the Nevermind demos that I had to get it quick, because he would sing so hard he’d blow his voice out after a couple of takes and that was it for the day. He wasn’t going to sit around and do guitar solos or whatever, so . . . the actual moment of recording each day, I had a small window to get them to play, and then usually when they would leave I could go through the tracks.”
Talking to Vig, one gets the impression that Nevermind’s pop elements had to be coaxed from Cobain with the Beatles used as bait. The band were impatient to get another record out (it’d been four years since the recording of Bleach) and left to their own devices they might’ve undersold the material with hasty performances and a sludgy mix. Vig took to hoarding every vocal pass for later use in double tracking and generally petitioning the singer’s Lennon fetish. He recalls Cobain coming in one morning after a mushroom binge waxing beatific about The White Album. Not only did this provide common ground for the singer and producer but it later proved crucial in the record crossing the over-25 barrier.
“A lot of times I started to get Kurt to double track his voice on a song,” Vig recalls. “He would go, ‘That’s cheating’, until I told him that that’s what the Beatles did: ‘You hear how great John Lennon’s voice sounds? That’s double tracked.’ But he was very resistant to it, he just thought it was fake. And yet when he heard the playback he’d go, ‘That’s cool, that’s awesome’.”
Certainly, the fire in Cobain’s belly remains undiminished throughout Nevermind, particularly on the album’s secret track ‘Endless, Nameless’, recorded as a kind of sonic tantrum when seven or eight attempts to nail ‘Lithium’ failed. Luckily, Vig had just put up a new reel and let the tapes roll.
“I was scared watching Kurt sing ‘Endless, Nameless’,” he testifies, “I mean, it’s like he was going to blow his head up he was screaming so hard. There was so much rage coming out of him at that point. I don’t think it was even so much because they’d fucked up ‘Lithium’, I just think things were pent up inside him and it was like we opened up the floodgates. Kurt sang so fuckin’ hard he totally strangled his larynx, he blew his vocal cords out, and in the middle of the song he smashed up his left-handed Mosrite. I mean it was incredibly intense, I just went, ‘Holy fuck’, it was like he wanted to kill somebody he was so pissed off. And when it was done the sweat was pouring off his face, and the guitar just dragged off him and he staggered out of the studio into the control room and just plopped down on the couch and didn’t even say anything, just stared straight ahead. And I hit the Stop button and said, ‘Well I guess that’s it for today’s recording session’ and immediately called several people I knew about trying to find a left-handed Mosrite.”
Ever the pragmatist, Vig set up a click track for Dave Grohl the next day – a first for the drummer – and they nailed ‘Lithium’ in one take.
By the time the band had finished tracking, they were running overtime and Vig was forced to go straight into mixing without a break. It was not, he admits, an ideal situation. He had the band at his back throughout the process, with Kurt in particular intent on a lo-fi bass-heavy sound (“He kept coming up and doing weird things to the board, and it was a struggle for me to have the band there”). The resulting mixes were muddy, and Vig was relieved when the label and management suggested they pick a fresh mix engineer. Kurt settled on Andy Wallace because of his work with Slayer. Vig neglected to tell the singer that Wallace had also done a mix for Madonna.
Andy Wallace’s mixes gave the songs a clarity and sheen that made for a beautiful contradiction with the rawness of the performances. The result was a record that sounded slick enough to get played on the radio while retaining an unnatural intensity. Nevermind was the first punk record to make sense on CD. The band loved it, until it made them superstars, and at which point their punk conscience led them to renounce it. Did the about-face upset Vig?
“It did a little bit because I knew when they finished it that they were happy with it,” he admits. “I mean Kurt was ecstatic how the songs had turned out and how his voice sounded. I remember seeing them in Chicago around the week the album came out and they played a show at The Metro which holds around 1200 people and I had gone down to the soundcheck. And I remember Kurt came up and gave me a huge hug and said, ‘The record’s great, we’re really happy with how it turned out’.”
Vig realised something was up with Nevermind when he began getting approached by industry insiders asking to hear the tapes. When a boom box playback of the album brought a 4th of July barbecue in Madison attended by the Pumpkins and various local musicians to a standstill, Butch knew something was up.
“Everybody was sort of crazy for it,” he recalls. “That’s when I knew there was something starting to take on a life of its own with the record.”
There’s an old music business adage which holds that all major US rock ‘n’ roll records are made under a Republican government. Nevermind was released into a welter of Gulf War apprehension in September 1991.
It entered the Billboard chart at 144. Then 109. Then 65. Then 35. Then top ten. Then number one. It stayed in the top three until April, eventually going ten times platinum. Whatever about the record’s socio-political impact, there’s no doubt that it also had a seismic effect on any band to the left of U2. The kind of rivalry that spurred The Beatles, The Stones and The Beach Boys onto greater heights now applied to Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. This was a new game, the stakes were higher and Butch Vig somehow became a player, lumbered with the unenviable tag of The Phil Spector Of Grunge, going on to produce the Smashing Pumpkins second album (he’d already done Gish), Sonic Youth, L7 and Soul Asylum before forming Garbage.
“Because Nevermind had just exploded, everybody kept saying to Billy and me, ‘Siamese Dream is gonna be huge’,” he says. “And a couple of times we postponed the start of the record. I’d meet him in Chicago or wherever and they’d play some songs in rehearsal and we’d get in the car and ride around and he’d play me a song and stop it halfway through and then put another one in. He wouldn’t give me anything. I think – no, I know – he started feeling this immense pressure and he needed to up the ante in terms of the songs and what we were going to do sonically. On and off he pushed the record back four, maybe five months before we went in the studio. I think he realised the bar had been raised, not just for them as a band but for everybody connected to that scene, and because I was attached to it, everybody thought I had figured some magic thing out, and so I was getting tapes from bands that didn’t sound remotely like the Pumpkins or Nirvana and they thought that I could somehow transform their artist into that sound. It was ludicrous in some ways.”
It all reached new levels of silliness when Grunge fashion made Vogue. JC Penny was charging $80 dollars for flannel shirts. Cameron Crowe based his movie Singles in Seattle, with cameos from Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains. Grunge-lite bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Silverchair (Hansen meets Nirvana) and Bush began scoring hit albums.
Nirvana’s love affair with the mainstream peaked in the spring of 1992. After that, Kurt married Courtney Love, became a father, sank deeper into heroin abuse, and inter-band relationships grew fraught. Kurt and Courtney’s relationship with the press reached its nadir when an unflattering Vanity Fair piece provoked LA social services to take temporary custody of their daughter. And in February of 1993, Nirvana went into Pachyderm studios 40 miles south east of Minneapolis to make the brutalising and reactionary In Utero with Steve Albini.
“I knew that there was no way that they were gonna call me,” says Vig. “I remember getting calls from Kurt during Siamese Dream and he wanted me to produce the Hole record (Live Through This). Kurt kept saying, ‘You gotta produce Courtney’s record’, but he didn’t say anything about working on the next Nirvana record. And I was a little bit bummed ’cos I wanted to work with them again, but I knew the record got so huge that he had to distance himself from it, didn’t want it to sound the same way, he just needed a different angle on it.”
On April 1st 1994, Kurt Cobain disappeared from a California rehab clinic and went back to Seattle. Four days later, he barricaded himself into his home, wrote a suicide note, took a large dose of heroin and shot himself with a 20-gauge shotgun.
Within five years, the Screaming Trees and Soundgarden had split, the Smashing Pumpkins were on their last legs and Pearl Jam had mutated into a sort of Seattle Grateful Dead, sounding all the better for it. Dave Grohl went onto form a successful power pop combo called Foo Fighters and Krist Novoselic dabbled with the poorly received Sweet 75. Courtney Love embarked on a respectable acting career and released a sorely underrated third Hole album called Celebrity Skin in 1999. Last September, talk of a ten year anniversary Nevermind box set was scuppered by a court case between the remaining Nirvana members and Love over the rights to a number of unreleased Cobain tunes (some speculate Love is holding onto the songs for leverage in her ongoing litigation against Universal). One track entitled ‘You Know You’re Right’, recorded in Seattle in January 1994, is said to be a sure fire hit.
Nirvana fans may never get to hear it and decide for themselves.
It’s all over. Bar the scream.