Chapter 9

TOO MANY HUMANS

OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON


MAY 1988–FEBRUARY 1989

Too Many Humans

—The original title of Bleach.

Sub Pop Records had begun in the fall of 1987, issuing records from Green River and Soundgarden among their first releases. Twenty-eight-year-old co-owner Jonathan Poneman looked like a younger and more heavy-lidded version of Reuben Kincaid, the manager on “The Partridge Family” TV show, and his promotional schemes sounded straight out of Kincaid’s business plan, particularly his idea to send out groups in a Sub Pop van. Most bands on the label noted his shifty nature, and he was widely mistrusted. He had used a small inheritance to start the label, fantasizing it would be the Northwest equivalent of Stax or Motown. He had many strengths as a promoter— thinking small and operating within a budget were not among them.

Poneman’s partner, Bruce Pavitt, was a long-time fixture in the Northwest scene who had gone to Evergreen. In Olympia, Pavitt befriended many bands, started a fanzine called Subterranean Pop (later shortened to Sub Pop), and began to release cassette compilations. He discontinued the fanzine but between 1983 and 1988 wrote a widely read column in The Rocket, which Kurt studied with the rapt attention most boys only gave to the baseball box scores. Pavitt was the artistic visionary of Sub Pop, and he looked the part: With his crazy-man eyes, spooked expression, and penchant for unusual beards, he bore more than a passing resemblance to the mad Russian monk, Grigori Rasputin.

By 1988 Sub Pop was issuing a handful of singles and EPs every quarter, mostly by Northwest bands. These projects made little business sense, since the production costs of a single were almost as high as a full-length album, yet they retailed for much less. Sub Pop had little choice with a number of their bands—many were so green they hadn’t written enough material to fill a full-length album. From their inception the label was burning through their capital like an Internet startup, yet they had stumbled onto a small market niche: Indie singles appealed to record-collecting elitists, and in punk rock these connoisseurs were the taste-makers. By developing a cachet to their label—and by coming up with a consistent design identity for all their releases—they had bands clamoring to be on Sub Pop, if only to impress their friends. Like hundreds of other young musicians who were bad at math, Kurt had a grandly romantic concept of what it meant to record for the label.

Kurt’s youthful illusions were quickly dashed. The band’s first face-to-face business meeting with Poneman—at the Café Roma in Seattle— was just short of disastrous. Krist showed up swigging from a bottle of wine he hid under the table; Kurt started off shy, but became angry when he realized Poneman was offering them far less than the band wanted. It wasn’t so much a question of money—everyone knew there was little of that—but Kurt hoped to jumpstart the band by issuing a slew of albums, EPs, and singles. Poneman suggested they begin with a single of “Love Buzz” and see how it went from there. Kurt admitted “Love Buzz” was their strongest live song, but as a songwriter he felt it disingenuous for a cover to be his initial release. Nevertheless, at the end of the meeting, all parties agreed Nirvana would record a single with Endino producing and Sub Pop picking up the recording costs. To Kurt, the idea of having his own single out was the fulfillment of a dream.

Back in Grays Harbor, events transpired that threatened to derail that dream. Not long after the Vogue show, Dave Foster had the misfortune to beat up the son of the mayor of Cosmopolis. He spent two weeks in jail, lost his driver’s license, and had to pay thousands of dollars in medical bills. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for Nirvana, who were rehearsing for the upcoming recording session, so Kurt decided to fire Foster. How he handled this dismissal says much about how he dealt with conflict, which is to say he didn’t. Kurt had always been a bit afraid of Foster, who was shorter than Kurt but muscled like Popeye. Initially, the band brought back Aaron Burckhard, but when he ended up with a DWI in Kurt’s car, they again advertised for drummers. When they found one, Kurt wrote a letter to Foster: “A band needs to practice, in our opinion, at least five times a week if the band ever expects to accomplish anything.... Instead of lying to you by saying we’re breaking up, or letting this go any further, we have to admit that we’ve got another drummer. His name is Chad...and he can make it to practice every night. Most importantly, we can relate to him. Let’s face it, you are from a totally different culture. And we feel really shitty that we don’t have the guts to tell you in person, but we don’t know how mad you’d get.” Apparently, Kurt didn’t have the guts to mail the letter: It went unsent. Foster, of course, wasn’t from a “to-tally different culture” from Kurt’s—he was from the same culture, though it was a past Kurt sought to escape. Foster found out he was canned when he saw an ad in The Rocket for an upcoming Nirvana gig.

Kurt and Krist found Chad Channing at a show at the Community World Theater. “Kurt was wearing these big high-heel shoes, and wide, blue sparkle flare pants,” Chad recalled. What Kurt and Krist noticed about Chad was his gigantic North drums—the kit was the biggest drum set they’d ever seen, dwarfing Chad, who at five-foot six, with long hair, already looked a bit like an elf. Directness was not Kurt’s forte: Rather than ask Chad to join the band, he simply kept inviting the drummer to practices until it became obvious he was in the group.

After one of those practices, now scheduled back in Aberdeen above Krist’s mother’s hair salon so they could play all night, the Nirvana veterans decided to show their new drummer the local sites. Chad was from Bainbridge Island and, prior to joining Nirvana, had never been to Aberdeen. The tour was a shock, particularly the neighborhood Kurt grew up in. “It was like stepping into the south side of the Bronx,” Chad recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘holy crap.’ It was really bad. It’s probably the poorest section in all of Washington. All of a sudden you have this instant slum.”

Chad was more impressed when they drove by the gothic-looking Weatherwax High School. They also showed the drummer the five-story abandoned Finch Building; Kurt said he’d taken acid there as a teenager, though that could have been said for many of the sites in Aberdeen. They pointed out Dils Old Second Hand Store, where a 25-cent album bin stood next to a twenty-foot chainsaw. They went for a beer in the Poorhouse Tavern, where Krist seemed to know every other person. “It was redneck city,” observed Chad. “It was tons of dudes with Skoal behind their lips, and with Skoal caps on and neon pink T-shirts, and vans with mud flaps, and mustaches.”

When they left the tavern, the two natives planned to take Chad to a haunted house in the hills above the town. Krist pointed the van north and headed into what accounts for Aberdeen’s ritzy neighborhood: a hillside of majestic Victorian homes constructed by pioneer lumber barons. But at the top of the hill, Krist headed the van into the woods, and Kurt began to tell the story of Aberdeen’s haunted house, a place the locals called “the Castle.” He said people had gone in and never come out; one room had pictures of clowns painted on the walls in blood. As he talked, the hillside became heavily forested with trees overhanging the narrow road.

When they arrived at the Castle, Krist pulled into the driveway and killed the lights, but kept the engine running. In front of them was a structure that had been a three-story house before decay had caused it to crumble upon itself. There was moss on the roof, the porch had caved in, and whole rooms appeared to have been eaten away, most likely by small fires. In the darkness, and shrouded by tree limbs, it really did look like the ruins of a crumbled castle in some distant Transylvanian backcountry.

As the van idled, Chad wondered why neither Krist nor Kurt made a move to get out. They just sat there, staring at the house as they might look at an apparition. Finally Kurt turned to Krist and said, “Do you really want to go in?” Krist replied, “Nah, fuck it. I’m not going in there.”

As Chad recalled later, he urged them to venture in, since Kurt’s stories had made him curious: “I was all excited to check it out and see what was so scary. But when we got there, they just sat in the driveway, staring at the house, unable to move.” Chad thought it a dare for him, part of an elaborate hazing rite to test his courage. He had decided that no matter how frightening the house was—and it was plenty scary— he was not going to be too scared to go in. But when he looked at Kurt’s face, he saw real fear. “Well, people have died in there,” Kurt explained. In the fifteen minutes it had taken to drive from the tavern to the house, Kurt had told such convincing stories of the horror, he had begun to believe his own hyperbole. They turned around and headed back to town, and Chad’s tour of Aberdeen was over. Krist took Kurt’s dualism at its face value, but for Chad the fear in Kurt’s face was one of the first pieces of evidence he had that the bandleader was more complicated than he appeared.

With the new recording session scheduled for the second week of June, Kurt was filled with anticipation and excitement. He could talk about virtually nothing else during May, announcing the upcoming date to everyone he knew, and some he didn’t—like a new father overwhelmed with pride, he’d tell the mailman or the grocery store clerk. The band played a couple of gigs that month to get their sea legs with Chad, including a return visit to the Vogue and a party at the “Witch House” for Olympia musician Gilly Hanner. Hanner turned 21 on May 14, 1988, and a friend invited them as entertainment. “They were not like any Evergreen band,” she remembered. “Their sound hit you. You’d think, ‘I’ve heard this before,’ but you hadn’t. It was more rock ’n’ roll than most stuff of that era, without any noodling.” At the party, Kurt joined Gilly to sing a version of Scratch Acid’s “The Greatest Gift,” and Kurt played a version of “Love Buzz” on his back on the floor. At the time, “Love Buzz” was the best thing about their shows—Kurt was still struggling to settle into an original sound that was raw enough to appeal to his punk sensibilities and still displayed his increasingly complicated lyrics. Far too often the band’s shows turned into loud feedback sessions where virtually none of Kurt’s words could be heard above the din.

While Kurt’s expectations for the single grew, financial problems within Sub Pop almost doomed the project. One May afternoon Kurt picked up the phone, only to hear Pavitt asking to borrow $200. It was so laughable, it didn’t anger Kurt, though it incensed Krist, Chad, and Tracy. “We were shocked,” remembered Chad. “At that point we began to have our suspicions about those guys.” Kurt would have been more upset had he known Sub Pop had second thoughts about the band creatively. The label wanted one more look, so Poneman hastily arranged a show at the Central Tavern on June 5, a Sunday night. Jan Gregor, who booked the club, put Nirvana into the middle slot on a three-band evening. The night before the date, Poneman called Gregor and asked if Nirvana could be moved down in the line-up and go on first. Poneman’s explanation: “It’s a Sunday night—we don’t want to stay out that late.” When the band went on, there were six people in the audience. Chris Knab of KCMU was one of them: “Bruce and Jon were at the front of the stage, shaking their heads up and down. They must have seen something no one else could, because I thought they sucked.” This particular gig—and many to follow—was plagued by sound problems, which put Kurt in a bad mood and compromised his performance. Despite the crummy sound and the lackluster live show, Poneman and Pavitt decided to proceed with the single.

On June 11 Nirvana returned to Reciprocal for the session. This time producer Endino knew how to spell Kurt’s name, but the quick and easy studio experience of their first demo was not to be repeated. In five hours they finished only one song. Part of the problem came because Kurt had brought along a cassette of a sound collage he wanted on the single. The only way for this to happen, with the studio’s crude gear, was to hit the “play” button on the cassette deck at the correct point during the mixing.

The band returned on June 30 for five more hours, and did a final session on July 16 that consisted of three hours of mixing. In the end, the thirteen-hour stint produced four tracks: “Love Buzz”; a new version of “Spank Thru”; and two Cobain originals, “Big Cheese”—which was to be the B-side—and “Blandest.”

Sub Pop hired Alice Wheeler to photograph the band for the sleeve, and during the last week of August they drove to Seattle in Krist’s van to pick her up. Their first official photo session was so anticipated, they all took the day off work. Krist returned everyone to Tacoma, where they shot in several locations, including “Never-Never Land” at Point Defiance Park, and the foot of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Krist wore a short-sleeved dress shirt and towered over his two tiny bandmates in all the pictures. Chad wore a Germs T-shirt, a beret, and round sunglasses, which gave him the appearance of being the leader of the band. Kurt was in a light-hearted mood, smiling in most of the photos. With his long, girlish hair and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt reading “Live to Ride,” he looks too young to drive, much less be in a rock band. He had an outbreak of acne the week before, something he’d struggled with since high school and which gave him fits of self-consciousness. Wheeler told him she was using infra-red film, so his zits weren’t going to show. By the time the band drove back to Seattle, they had spent as much time on the photo session as they had in the studio.

In late August Kurt received another unusual phone call from Poneman, and like his previous conversations, he couldn’t help but feel he was being conned. Poneman informed Kurt that Sub Pop was starting a new subscription-only singles service, and they planned to use “Love Buzz” as the debut release in their “Singles Club.” Kurt could hardly believe his ears; discussing it later with his bandmates, he was outraged. Not only had the single taken months longer than planned, but now it wasn’t even going to be for sale in stores. It hardly seemed worth the effort. As a collector, Kurt appreciated the club idea, but he wasn’t interested in seeing his band be the test case. But since he didn’t have a contract and Sub Pop had paid for the recording, he also didn’t have much choice.

Not long after the April show at the Vogue, Kurt had gotten a phone call from Dawn Anderson wanting to interview the band for her Backlash fanzine. Rather than conduct the interview over the phone, Kurt offered to drive up to Seattle, making it seem as if he already had business there, which he didn’t. Though Kurt had waited for this moment for years—and had prepared for it with the fake interviews with himself he’d written as a youth—in his first press interaction, he became nervous and shy. Most of the hour interview ended up being about the Melvins, a subject Kurt seemed more comfortable with than his own band. Reading a transcript one could almost think he was a member of the Melvins, not Nirvana. “He idolized the Melvins,” observed Anderson, something that had been obvious in Grays Harbor for years.

But like the Sub Pop single, which again had been delayed in late August, the article sat on hold for a few months. With so many delays that he couldn’t control, Kurt felt like he was the only one in the world ready for his musical career. The Backlash article finally ran in September, and even Kurt was surprised to see that in Anderson’s 500-word story the Melvins’ name appeared twice as many times as Nirvana’s. “I’ve seen hundreds of Melvins’ practices,” Kurt said. “I drove their van on tour. Everybody hated them, by the way.” The piece was flattering, and it was helpful in plugging the upcoming “Love Buzz” single, yet when Kurt said, “Our biggest fear at the beginning was that people might think we were a Melvins rip-off,” a casual reader might have had a similar concern. Kurt explained their Vogue debut: “We were uptight....We felt like we were being judged; it was like everyone should’ve had score cards.”

The “score card” line in this first press interview reprised the imagery Kurt had put forth in his letter to Crover; he also used it in later interviews. It came from his divided self, the same self who said his name was spelled “Kurdt Kobain.” What his interviewers—and the fans who read these stories—never knew was that almost every word he uttered had been rehearsed: in his head with the band driving around in the van or, in many instances, actually written out in his journals. This wasn’t simply craftiness on his part or a desire to put forth the most marketable and attractive image—though despite all the punk ideals he spouted, he, like any other human being, was intrinsically guilty of this—but much of his forethought occurred instinctually. He had imagined these moments since he began retreating from the outside world after his parents’ divorce, spending all that time in his room writing in Pee Chee notebooks. When the world tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Mr. Cobain, we are ready for your closeup,” he had planned how he’d walk toward the cameras, going so far as to even rehearse the way he would shrug his shoulders, as if to give the impression he had only grudgingly acquiesced.

Nowhere was Kurt’s forethought more apparent than in a band bio he wrote that summer to send out with the Endino demo tape. He’d given the tape many titles, but the one used most often was “Safer Than Heaven”—what that meant, only Kurt knew. He wrote dozens of drafts of the bio, and each revision became more exaggerated. One of many examples read like this:

Nirvana is from Olympia, WA, 60 miles from Seattle. Nirvana’s guitar/vocalist Kurdt Kobain and bass[ist] Chris Novoselic lived in Aberdeen 150 miles from Seattle. Aberdeen’s population consists of highly bigoted redneck snoose-chewing deer-shooting faggot-killing logger types who “ain’t too partial to weirdo new wavers.” Chad Channing [drummer], is from an island of rich kid LSD abusers. Nirvana is a trio who play heavy rock with punk overtones. They usually don’t have jobs. So they can tour anytime. Nirvana has never jammed on “Gloria” or “Louie, Louie.” Nor have they ever had to rewrite these songs and call them their own.

Another, only slightly different, version sent to Touch and Go added the following downcast plea: “We are willing to pay for the majority of pressing of 1000 copies of our LP, and all of the recording costs. We basically just want to be on your label. Do you think you could PLEASE send us a reply of ‘fuck off,’ or, ‘not interested,’ so we don’t have to waste more money sending more tapes?” On the flip side of the tape, he recorded a collage that included snippets of songs from Cher, the Partridge Family, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Dean Martin, and another dozen disparate artists.

Kurt’s offer to pay a label to put out his record shows his increasing level of desperation. He drafted a letter to Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees asking for help (Lanegan was one of a number of his idols Kurt regularly wrote to in his journal, rarely mailing this correspondence). He wrote, “We feel like we’re not accomplishing anything.... It turns out our single will be out in October, but there isn’t much hope for an EP within the near future because Sub Pop is having financial problems, and the promise of an EP or LP within the year was just a bullshit excuse for Poneman to keep us from scouting other labels.” Kurt also wrote to his friend Jesse Reed, declaring the band was going to self-release their LP since they were so sick of Sub Pop.

Despite Kurt’s frustrations, things were actually going better with the band than they had in some time—though it could never be fast enough for Kurt. Shelli had broken up with Krist, which resulted in Krist having more time to practice. Kurt was happy to finally have two other bandmates who were as into the band as he was. On October 28 they landed their most prestigious gig yet, opening for the Butthole Surfers at Seattle’s Union Station. Kurt had idolized Gibby Haynes, lead singer of the Surfers, so the show was very important to him. Sound problems again derailed Nirvana from putting on their best performance, but the very fact that Kurt could now announce to his friends, “My band opened for Gibby Haynes,” was another piece of evidence to boost his self-esteem.

Two days later they played one of their most infamous shows, and one that turned Olympia’s heart. It was a party in Evergreen’s K-Dorm on the day before Halloween, and Kurt and Krist had made themselves up for the occasion by pouring fake blood on their necks. There were three bands who played before Nirvana: Ryan Aigner’s band the Cyclods, Dave Foster’s latest group Helltrout, and a new band fronted by Kurt’s neighbor Slim Moon called Nisqually Delta Podunk Nightmare. In the middle of Nisqually’s set the drummer punched Slim in the face and a fight ensued. It was such a wild rumble that Kurt wondered what Nirvana could possibly do to upstage such an event. He almost didn’t get the chance, as campus police showed up and shut the party down. Ryan Aigner stepped forward and convinced the officers to let Nirvana play, but they were told to be quick.

When Nirvana finally took the stage, or more accurately moved to the corner of the room acting as a stage, they played only a 25-minute set, but it was a show that was to transform them from Aberdeen hicks to Olympia’s most beloved band. Kurt’s intensity—something that had been lacking in other performances—found a new depth, and not a person in the room could take their eyes off him. “As reserved as he was when he was offstage,” remembered Slim Moon, “when he wanted to be on, he went all out. And on this one night, he played with an intensity that I had never seen.” They were the same songs and riffs the band had been performing for some time, but with the added attraction of a possessed lead singer, they were mesmerizing. He had, surprisingly, a confidence now in front of the microphone that he had nowhere else in his life. Kurt’s increased energy seemed to egg on Krist, who bounced around so much he smacked several members of the crowd with his bass.

But the coup de grâce was to come. At the end of their short set, right after they played “Love Buzz,” Kurt lifted his relatively new Fender Mustang guitar and brought it down to the ground with such violence that pieces shot through the room like projectiles from a cannon. He paused for five seconds, hoisted the remnants in the air, and held it there while eyeing the crowd. Kurt’s face appeared serene and spooky, as if you’d taken a Casper the Friendly Ghost Halloween mask and plastered it onto the body of a 21-year-old man. The guitar went up into the air, and, smash, it hit the floor once more. Kurt dropped it and walked out of the room.

He had never smashed a guitar before, probably never even thought about such an act, since guitars were expensive. “He never explained why he freaked out,” recalled John Purkey, “but he was smiling. There was a finality to it—it was like his own little private celebration. No one got hurt, but when he smashed the guitar, it was as if he didn’t really care if he hurt anyone. It was completely out of the blue. I was talking to him after the show and the guitar was laying there on the floor, and people kept grabbing pieces of it.” The Greeners now couldn’t get enough of Nirvana.

Three weeks later Kurt got a call from Sub Pop telling him the “Love Buzz” single was finally ready. He and Krist drove to Seattle to pick it up, and Sub Pop’s Daniel House recalled he insisted on hearing it on the office stereo: “We played it for them and I don’t think I ever saw Kurt happier.” Both Kurt and Krist were particularly happy about the inside jokes on the release: Kurt’s name was spelled “Kurdt,” forever confusing reviewers and fans, and there was a tiny message scratched into the run-on groove of the vinyl that read, “Why don’t you trade those guitars for shovels?” This was a line Krist’s father would frequently yell at them, in his broken Croat-inflected English, during their Aberdeen practices.

Guitars for shovels, guns for guitars, from Aberdeen to Sub Pop. It seemed like a blur, now that Kurt was holding his very own record in his hand. Here was the final tangible proof he was a real musician. Like his guitar that he used to take to school in Montesano even when it was broken, the outcome or success of the single mattered little: Its very physical existence was what he had strived for over many years.

The band kept almost 100 of the edition of 1,000 “Love Buzz” singles, and while still in Seattle, Kurt dropped a copy off at the college radio station KCMU. He had high hopes for the single, describing it to the station as “a beautifully soft and mellow, crooning, sleep jingle. Incredibly commercial.” He expected KCMU to immediately add the track to rotation, so he kept listening all day. Tracy had come up to Seattle to drive Kurt back to Olympia, and as they prepared to go home, the song still had not come on. As they drove south and reached the outer range of KCMU’s signal, Kurt simply couldn’t wait any longer: He ordered Tracy to pull over at a gas station. There he used a pay phone to call in and request his own single. As to whether the station’s DJ thought this odd—getting a single from a band and then having an apparently random listener request it two hours later—isn’t known. Kurt waited more than a half hour in the car, and then finally the station played “Love Buzz.” “He sat there hearing himself coming out of the radio,” Tracy remembered, “with a big smile on his face.”

Kurt began December 1988 in some of the best spirits of his life. The single had buoyed his mood and people were still talking about the KDorm show. When he’d go to the Smithfield Café or the Spar coffee shop, college kids would whisper to themselves when he walked in. People started to ask him to play their parties; they still weren’t offering to pay him, but they were asking. And The Rocket had given the band their first review, calling the single “one hell of a first effort.” The Rocket piece was laudatory but warned that with all the attention other Sub Pop bands were getting, Nirvana could be overshadowed, both in the scene and within their label. “Serious traces of musicianship leak through,” Grant Alden wrote. “Nirvana sit sort of at the edge of the current Northwest sound—too clean for thrash, too pure for metal, too good to ignore.” It was the first evidence of something Kurt suspected but couldn’t confirm without outside validation: The band was getting better.

Inside Sub Pop, where label-mates Soundgarden and Mudhoney were clearly the favorites, Nirvana’s stock went up. The “Singles Club” had turned out to be a smart marketing move after all—the first pressing of “Love Buzz” sold out, and though the band didn’t make a dime off it, it sounded impressive. There was other good news: Poneman and Pavitt had slated a remixed version of “Spank Thru” for the three-EP collection Sub Pop 200, the label’s highest-profile release so far. And Sub Pop now were interested in talking to Kurt about a full-length album. There was one big caveat: Since the label was broke, Nirvana would have to pay the upfront costs for the recording. This was contrary to the way most record labels worked, and contrary to the way Sub Pop operated with their other bands. Though Kurt never sent one of his “we’re willing to pay you to put out our record” letters to Sub Pop, his combination of hunger and ignorance was apparent to the more savvy Poneman. Checkbook in hand, the band excitedly made plans to go back into the studio with Jack Endino again at the end of December.

Once Kurt had an album to focus on, he immediately began to distance himself from the “Love Buzz” single, which only two weeks before had been his most precious possession in the world. He talked about it with Slim Moon, who said he was left with the impression that “Kurt didn’t like anything about it, except the fact that they now had something that was out.” Kurt sent a copy of the single to John Purkey and included the following note: “Here’s our very commercialized rock star/stupid, fuzzy, Sub Pop picture sleeve, limited edition single, featuring Kurdt Kobain on front and back. I’m glad only 1000 were printed. The LP will be different. Very different. A rawer production and raunchier songs.” Even writing to a friend, he spoke of himself in the third person. His love/hate relationship with the single mirrored his approach to all his work. Nothing the band ever did, either in the studio or onstage, matched the way it sounded in his head. He loved the idea of a record until it came out, and then immediately he had to find something wrong with it. It was part of a larger dissatisfaction.

This was most evident in his relationship with Tracy. She loved him completely, yet he rejected her sentimentality and told her she shouldn’t love him so much. Note exchanges continued as their main method of communicating, and her to-do lists for him grew longer, since he rarely did anything she asked, even though he was unemployed and living off her. In December 1988 she left him the following note: “Hi Kurt! I’ll be home at 2:30 or 3. Before you turn on the TV, could you straighten up the bedroom? You could fold my clothes and put them in my drawer or just inside the closet on the left. 1) Put fresh newspapers down, 2) Shake rugs in bathroom and kitchen, 3) Clean tub, sink, and toilet. I’m sorry, sorry, sorry I’m a nag and a bitch lately. I love you, let’s get drunk (semi) and fuck tonight. Love you.”

Kurt and Tracy struggled with the messy breakup between Krist and Shelli. From Kurt’s perspective, it gave Krist more time for the band, but for Tracy the split had removed their best couple buddies: It was as if Lucy and Ricky had to watch Ethel and Fred divorce. Tracy found herself frequently worrying whether she and Kurt were next, if only because she knew a breakup would allow him to devote every waking hour to the band. She decided to test his commitment by threatening to break up. She didn’t really want to split; she just wanted him to tell her he was committed. But any test of wills with Kurt was a mistake. Obstinate, he responded practically when she told him he had to move out. “If you want me to move out, I’ll go live in my car,” he said. He’d lived in cars before, and he would again. She, of course, told him this was nonsense. But Tracy had mistakenly begun a game of “Who will blink first?” with the reigning Grays Harbor champion.

Even with the band finally happening, life for Kurt went on much as it had before: He rose late and spent all day writing songs or playing his guitar while watching television. One afternoon, Tracy complained that he’d written songs about almost everything in his world—from masturbation to characters on “Mayberry R.F.D.” (“Floyd the Barber”)—except her. He laughed at the suggestion, but pondered it in his journal: “I would love to write a pretty song for her, even though I have no right to speak for her.” On the same page, he was less romantic when he portrayed himself as a character with no arms: “I gesture and grunt for your affection, wielding my flippers in a windmill circle; my bib is soiled with lost attempts to contact you through saliva communication, drivel drying to my chest.” One of his many obsessions was “flipper babies,” infants born without arms; he wrote about the topic regularly and drew freakish illustrations of what he imagined they looked like.

A week later, he wrote a song about his girlfriend. The chorus went, “I can’t see you every night for free,” a direct reference to their argument. Strangely, though he rehearsed and played the song in front of her, he never admitted it was about her. Instead he told her, “I just write what comes in my head, and I don’t write anything about you or anyone else.” He was lying, of course, but the fact that he would create this gift for her, but not be willing to risk the intimacy of presenting it, says much about their relationship and his commitment to it. It was like a junior-high-school boy who leaves a valentine for a girl but doesn’t have the courage to sign his name. When he played the song for Chad and Krist, they liked it immediately and asked its name. “I have no idea,” Kurt said. “What’s it about?” Chad asked. “It’s about a girl,” Kurt said, and they decided that would do for a title. Most of Kurt’s titles had only a minor relationship to the lyrics anyway.

“About a Girl” was an important song in Kurt’s development as a writer—it was his first straight-ahead love song, and even if the lyrics were twisted, it was so unabashedly melodic that in Nirvana’s early live performances, audiences mistook it as a Beatles’ cover. Kurt told Steve Shillinger that on the day he wrote “About a Girl,” he played Meet the Beatles for three hours straight to get in the mood. This was hardly necessary: Ever since he was a toddler he’d studied their work, even though they were considered passé in punk circles.

By the end of 1988 Kurt’s musical influences were a strange potpourri of the punk he’d learned at Buzz Osborne’s knee, the heavy metal he listened to as a teenager, and the pop he’d discovered in his early childhood, with little rhyme or reason to their grouping. There were huge hunks of music history he’d missed simply because he hadn’t been exposed to them (he still hadn’t heard Patti Smith or the New York Dolls), yet in other small pockets, like when it came to Scratch Acid, he was the sort of expert who could tell you every track they released. He had a tendency to fall in love with a group and embrace their music above all others, proselytizing to his friends like a doorstep preacher. Krist had a better grasp of the larger rock oeuvre, one reason Krist remained essential to the band—Krist knew what was kitsch, while Kurt sometimes erred in this category. In late 1988 Kurt summoned his friend Damon Romero to his apartment by telling him, “There’s this great record I’ve discovered that you have to hear.” When Romero arrived, Kurt pulled out the Knack’s album Get the Knack, and moved toward the turntable with it. Romero, who was well familiar with this 1979 release, which couldn’t have been considered more mainstream, thought Kurt was being sarcastic, and inquired, “Are you serious?” “No, you’ve got to listen to this—it’s an awesome pop album,” was Kurt’s deadpan reply. Kurt put the record on, and Romero uncomfortably sat through both sides of the disc, wondering the whole while if there was some sort of punch line yet to come. But Kurt closed his eyes and was silent as it spun, playing air drums with his hands in a quiet homage.

Shortly after “Love Buzz” was released, Kurt made a mixed tape for his friend Tam Orhmund that displayed his favorite current music. Side A included songs from Redd Kross, Ozzy Osbourne, Queen, the Bay City Rollers, Sweet, Saccharine Trust, the Velvet Underground, Venom, the Beatles, and the Knack; he retitled the Knack’s “My Sharona,” as “My Scrotum.” Side B included tracks from such dissimilar bands as Soundgarden, Blondie, Psychedelic Furs, Metallica, Jefferson Airplane, the Melvins, and “AC-Fucking-DC,” as he wrote the name. It took hours to make a tape like this, but Kurt had nothing but time.

With the gift he was hoping to interest Orhmund in managing Nirvana. Realizing that Sub Pop wasn’t looking out for his interests, he thought Ohrmund, who had no prior experience but was outgoing, might better represent them. At one point he and Tracy considered moving to Tacoma with Tam. After looking at several houses, Kurt nixed the idea when he saw a bullet hole in a wall.

Orhmund had instead moved to Seattle, which to Kurt seemed to be the only qualification needed to be the band’s manager. On the day they picked up the “Love Buzz” single, they stopped by her place and Kurt announced she was their new manager. He gave her a stack of records and asked her to send them to Touch and Go and anyone else she might think would be interested. She put together a crude press kit, which included pictures from the K-Dorm show and their paltry press clippings. Even on the day the single came out, Ohrmund remembered, “Kurt acted like he hated Sub Pop.”

That fall Kurt had ordered Donald Passman’s book “All You Need to Know About the Music Business” from the library. After reading it and sharing the information with Krist, he became more suspicious of his label and decided they needed a contract. The next week, Krist drove to Seattle and drunkenly pounded on Bruce Pavitt’s door, yelling, “You fuckers, we want a contract!” Sub Pop drafted a short contract that went into effect on January 1, 1989. It called for three albums over three years—a schedule Kurt thought too slow—and the label was to pay the band $6,000 for the first year, $12,000 for the second, and $24,000 for the third.

The band spent most of December rehearsing for the upcoming session. Since their practice space was in Aberdeen, travel could take up most of the day. Chad only occasionally had a car, and Kurt’s vehicle was hardly dependable. Most days, Krist would drive his van from Aberdeen to Olympia to pick up Kurt; head north to Seattle to pick up Chad, who would take the ferry in from Bainbridge; and then they’d all drive back to Aberdeen. At the end of the day, the route would be reversed. Some days they’d drive as many as 400 miles to accomplish a three-hour practice. Still, there were benefits to this commuting: It began to foster a sense of togetherness, and gave them uninterrupted time to listen to music. “We listened to Mudhoney, Tad, Coffin Break, the Pixies, and the Sugarcubes,” remembered Chad. The list of bands they listened to is as good a description of Nirvana’s sound in 1988 as any. They managed to sound both derivative and original, at times within the same song. But Kurt was learning, and learning quickly.

On December 21, 1988, the band returned for their first official home-town show in Grays Harbor as Nirvana. Though they were starting to draw crowds in Olympia and Seattle, for this appearance they played to an audience of twenty, mostly “Cling-Ons.” The venue was the Hoquiam Eagles hall, just two blocks away from the Chevron station where Kurt’s father had once worked. Krist stripped down to his underwear and again poured blood on himself. They played Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for the first and only time in concert, and the cover elicited a bigger response than any of Kurt’s originals. The show marked the first time Kurt’s sister, who was still in high school, had seen her brother in concert. “I sat on the edge of the stage, singing along,” Kim recalled. “I lost my voice. I was supposed to get up the next day in class and give a book report, but I couldn’t.”

That week Kurt sent his grandparents Leland and Iris a Hallmark Christmas card. Inside the card, he included a note, updating them on his professional progress:

Dear long lost grandparents: I miss you very much. Which is no excuse for my not visiting. I’m very busy living in Olympia when I’m not on tour with my band. We put out a single just recently and it has sold-out already. We are recording for a debut LP this Monday, which will be released in March. In February we are going on tour again in California and then we will be back in April only to take a break. Then on the road again. I’m happier than I ever have been. It would be nice to hear from you as well. Merry Christmas, love Kurt.

Kurt exaggerated the band’s touring schedule—their shows were still infrequent, but increasing in pace. But he wasn’t exaggerating when he described himself as “happier than I ever have been.” The anticipation of an upcoming career milestone was always more joyous to him than the actual event, and the idea of having his own full-length album— something far more significant than a single he presumed—filled him with enough levity that he uncharacteristically talked about his inner emotions. It was rare for him to acknowledge how he felt about himself—rarer still for him to describe himself as happy.

Two days after the Hoquiam gig the band drove to Seattle to record their album. It was Christmas Eve. “We had nothing else to do,” explained Krist. They spent the night before at Jason Everman’s house, a friend of Chad and Dylan’s. As typical for Kurt, he’d written the melodies but few lyrics, so he stayed up most of the night finalizing his words. He told his bandmates he couldn’t sleep anyway.

They arrived at the studio the next afternoon and worked deep into the night. During this session they laid down basic tracks for ten songs, but Kurt didn’t like his vocal takes. The only track he fancied was “Blew,” which had been the victim of a bit of serendipity: Krist had forgotten which key he was in, and had mistakenly tuned down one notch below the Drop-D tuning the song was written in. The result was a sound that was heavier and deeper than anything they’d done before, a perfect mistake. Like many of the early songs Kurt wrote, the lyrics to “Blew” didn’t make sense—they were, as Kurt later explained, simply “cool things to sing”—but the melody and lyrics effectively communicated hopelessness and despair, themes that were prevalent through most of Kurt’s songs.

About midnight the band called it quits and headed back to Aberdeen. On the long drive home they listened to the session six times in a row. Krist dropped Kurt back in Aberdeen at Wendy’s house at 1:30 in the morning on Christmas Day, 1988. He had planned to spend the holiday there before heading back to see Tracy. On the surface, Kurt and Wendy’s relationship seemed improved. That fall, he wrote in his journal: “We get along great now that I’ve moved out. I’ve done what my mother wants. She thinks I have a respectable job, a girlfriend, a car, a house. I need to retrieve some old stuff that I left at home, my old home, my real home, now simply my mother’s home.”

Kurt usually made Christmas presents for his family by hand, both out of artistic preference and economic necessity; in 1987 he’d crafted keychains. But gifts in 1988 were a no-brainer: he gave everyone, including his aunts and uncles, copies of the single. Having the record created a homecoming of sorts for him—he now had evidence to prove to the relatives he was making something of himself. Wendy played the single on the family stereo, but it was clear she wasn’t impressed. She told him he needed “something else to fall back on.” Kurt would hear none of it.

More exciting than Christmas was yet another high-profile show the band played on December 28 at the Underground in Seattle for the release of the Sub Pop 200 box set. Even while struggling to pay their bands, Sub Pop threw lavish parties, and this event was no exception: It was an eight-band, two-day affair at a U-District club. Nirvana were on the first night and were introduced by Steven Jesse Bernstein as “the band with the freeze-dried vocals.” The show marked one of the first times Nirvana was on equal billing with the rest of Sub Pop’s roster— previously they had been considered a baby band. They stayed in Seattle and, during the next three days, spent another fifteen hours in the studio with Endino. Working until the early evening on New Year’s Eve, Kurt finally retreated to Olympia to start 1989 with Tracy.

The second week of January, the band was back at work for two more sessions of mixing, and with this they were close to done. After almost 30 hours in the studio, they had nine tracks. They chose to use three of the Crover demos on the album, and they remixed those. Kurt had decided the album would be called Too Many Humans, which wasn’t the name of any individual song but summed up the dark thesis of his work. But in early February the band headed to California on tour, and while driving through San Francisco, Kurt saw an AIDS prevention poster that struck him as funny: It read “Bleach Your Works.” “Bleach,” he said to his two bandmates as the van drove down the street. “That’s going to be the name of our new album.”

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