MAY 1990–DECEMBER 1990
Love you so much it makes me sick.
—From “Aneurysm,” 1990.
The same week Kurt fired Chad, he also broke up with Tracy. It too was a firing of sorts, and he handled all such partings poorly. Kurt’s edict to Tracy was that they shouldn’t live together: In saying this, however, he had neither the money nor the ability in his lethargy to move out. And since she’d spent all her money paying their bills, she couldn’t afford to move. They continued to share the apartment until July, when she found a new place in Tacoma. During those three months, they lived in alternate universes, in the same physical space, but miles apart emotionally.
His was also a world of betrayal, because while Kurt had informed Tracy about his infidelity in Texas, he had neglected to tell her the greater betrayal, that he was in love with another woman. The new object of his desire was twenty-year-old Tobi Vail, an Olympia musician. Kurt had known Tobi for two years, but it wasn’t until early 1990 that he had the occasion to spend an entire evening with her. He told Dylan the next day that he’d met the first woman who made him so nervous he threw up. He put that experience into the song “Aneurysm,” with the lyric, “Love you so much it makes me sick.” Though she was three years younger, she was more educated than he was, and he’d listen for hours to Tobi and her friend Kathleen Hanna prattle on about sexism and their plans to start a band called Bikini Kill. Tobi had her own fanzine, and in its pages she had coined the phrase “riot grrrl” to describe the 1990 model of punk feminism. She was a drummer primarily, but could play guitar; she had an extensive punk rock record collection; and she was, Kurt imagined, his female counterpart. “You just never met a girl that knew so much about music,” observed Slim Moon.
Yet despite their shared musical interests, Kurt had fallen for someone who could never love him the way Tracy had, and who, more important, would never need him. Tobi took a more casual view toward relationships than Kurt; she wasn’t looking for a husband, nor was she about to mother him. “Boyfriends were more like fashion accessories for Tobi,” observed Alice Wheeler. What Kurt was searching for in a relationship was the kind of family intimacy he had lacked since early childhood; but Tobi rejected the traditional relationship he sought as sexist.
Even the word “girlfriend” meant something different in the Olympia punk rock community, where few would admit to being in a couple. It was as if to act like you were going steady was to adopt the traditional patterns of a society that everyone had come to Olympia to get away from. “No one dated in Olympia,” observed Dylan. By these standards, Kurt’s relationship with Tracy was downright old-fashioned; his union with Tobi would not conform to such stereotypical roles.
Their relationship had begun in secrecy—he was still living with Tracy when he first slept with her. But even after Tracy moved out, their coupling didn’t seem to progress beyond coffeehouse discussions and occasional late-night sex. He thought of her all the time, obsessively, and he infrequently left the apartment, afraid she might call. She rarely phoned. Their relationship mostly entailed going to concerts, working on the fanzine, or talking about politics. He began to interpret her views of punk rock through his own lens, which inspired him to write lists of things he believed in, of things he hated, and of records he should listen to. One slogan he repeated again and again was, “Punk rock is freedom.” He began to emphatically state this in every interview, though never explaining what he was seeking freedom from: It became a mantra to resolve every contradiction in his life. Tobi thought it sounded great.
Yet despite their intellectual joining, many in Olympia never knew they were a couple. “The whole time they were dating,” said Slim, “it was confusing to me whether they were officially dating. Maybe it was inconvenient to her when he broke up with Tracy, in a way, because it put her on the spot. I don’t think she really intended to be with him for a long period of time.” Tobi, Kurt found out, was allergic to cats, so his animal farm was usually off-limits. It was also filthy by now: Once Tracy left, the whole apartment took on the look of a garbage dump, with unwashed dishes piled up, dirty clothes littering the floor, and Kurt’s mutilated dolls watching over the scene with their crazed, busted eyes.
A year earlier, Kurt had complained that feminists were threatening to him. But once Kurt began sleeping with Tobi, riot grrrl feminism was easier for him to swallow, and he soon embraced it as if it were a newly discovered religion. The same man who read Ciccolina pornography now used words like “misogyny” and talked about the politics of oppression. In his notebook, Kurt wrote out two rules of rock that were quotations from Tobi: “1: learn not to play your instrument; 2: don’t hurt girls when you dance (or any other time).” The “learn not to play” was one of the many teachings of Calvin Johnson, who argued that musicianship was always second to emotion.
Kurt had originally met Tobi while playing with the Go Team, an Olympia band centered around Calvin, but then most of the Olympia music scene was centered around Calvin. With his boyish short hair and propensity for wearing white T-shirts, Johnson resembled a wayward Marine recruit. But when it came to punk rock, he had the manner, if not the look, of a dictator, creating policy the way a newly crowned despot crafted a constitution. He was leader of Beat Happening, co-owner of K Records, DJ on KAOS, and promoter of local rock shows. He preached a low-fi, indie rock ethic, and he ruled Olympia the way Buzz Osborne had commanded Grays Harbor. “Calvin was very non-rock,” remembered John Goodmanson. “The joke was that if you had a bass player in your band, you couldn’t be on K.” Calvin’s followers even had their own name: “Calvinists.” Tobi was not only a Calvinist, she had once been Johnson’s girlfriend.
Every step of Kurt’s relationship with Tobi presented challenges to his self-esteem. It was hard enough for Kurt to fit into the cosmopolitan Seattle scene, but even in tiny Olympia he felt as if he were a contestant on a punk rock version of “Jeopardy!” and that one wrong answer would send him packing back to Aberdeen. For a kid who grew up wearing Sammy Hagar T-shirts, he found he had to constantly use his “Kurdt” self as a disguise to protect his real past. He admitted as much in a rare moment of self-disclosure in his journal: “Everything I do is an overly conscious and neurotic attempt at trying to prove to others that I am at least more intelligent and cool than they think.” When asked to name his influences during press interviews in 1990, he listed an entirely different roster of music than he had one year earlier: He’d grown to understand that in the world of punk rock elitism, the more obscure and unpopular a band was, the hipper it was to drop their name. Friends began to notice the divided self more: When Kurt was around Tobi, he might criticize a band that earlier the same day he’d advocated for.
That summer both Krist and Kurt were fastidiously dubbing cassettes of the Smart Studios demos, but they weren’t wasting postage sending them to Touch and Go; they sent them to Columbia Records and Warner Brothers. After all the problems with Sub Pop, Kurt and Krist had committed to signing with a major label, if only to get decent distribution. To Tobi, this was anathema. She announced her band would never be on a major label. Influenced by her position, Kurt tempered his major label aspirations by telling interviewers Nirvana would sign with a major, cash the advance check, break up, and then put a record out on K. It was a magnificent fantasy, and like the many grand ideas that floated through his head, he had no intention of acting in so foolish a way as to jeopardize his chance at fame and fortune.
Since their brief employ of Tam Ohrmund, Nirvana had managed themselves, using Michele Vlasimsky as booker, with Krist handling most of the financial arrangements. “I was the only member of Nirvana who graduated from high school,” Krist explained. In May 1990, Sub Pop sent the band a new proposed contract—it was 30 pages long and gave numerous unequivocal rights to the label. Kurt knew he didn’t want to sign this document. He and Krist turned to Susan Silver, the respected manager of Soundgarden. She took one look at the contract and told them they needed a lawyer.
Silver was surprised at how adamant they were about not wanting to be on Sub Pop anymore. They complained Bleach had gotten no promotion, and that the label had never provided them with an accounting for how many copies had sold. Kurt declared he wanted a big-money deal on a major label with the muscle of a big corporation behind him, even though the band was still without a drummer. Such a statement was grounds for public hanging in the court of Calvin, but it was even in contrast to most Seattle bands. It also contradicted what Kurt had said in the press as recently as three weeks before. On April 27, when radio station WOZQ asked whether the band would consider signing with a major, he replied: “We don’t have any interest in a major label. It would be nice to have better distribution, but anything else that goes on major labels is just a bunch of shit.”
But in the time since that interview, his split with Tracy had deprived him of his benefactor. He now declared he wanted a “million-dollar deal,” but perhaps in a nod to the influence of Tobi, he proclaimed that even when Nirvana got their huge deal, they would “still tour in a van.” Kurt had heard of Peter Paterno, one of the industry’s heaviest lawyers, and asked if Susan could put in a word for them. “I’m going to Los Angeles tomorrow,” she said. “If you come sometime while I’m there, I’ll take you to meet him.” Krist replied, “We’ll start driving tonight and see you in a couple of days.”
Two days later, they met Silver in Los Angeles. Silver introduced them to Don Muller, a well-known agent, and when Paterno was unable to make time in his schedule, she connected them with attorney Alan Mintz. He found them “naïve but ambitious.” Mintz’s specialty was new bands, but he discovered that even as new artists, “they were definitely among the scruffiest that ever came through the door.” Sub Pop was also talking to lawyers, attempting to use Nirvana’s growing reputation to get a major label to invest in them. Mintz mentioned this to the band, suggesting they might get the distribution they wanted on Sub Pop. Kurt leaned forward and resolutely replied, “Get me off this label!” Kurt declared he wanted to sell lots of records. Impressed by their tape, Mintz began working to find them a deal that day.
It wasn’t a difficult job. Even by mid-1990, Nirvana’s standing as a dynamic live act, and the budding success of Bleach on college radio, had attracted the interest of “artist and repertoire” agents, employees hired by labels to sign bands. The first A&R man interested was Bret Hartman of MCA, who in early 1990 had been having discussions about their contract with Poneman and Pavitt. Hartman realized his interest wasn’t being passed on to the band, so he acquired Kurt’s home number and started leaving messages on Kurt’s answering machine.
When they returned to Seattle from L.A., Krist and Kurt headed back into the studio, on July 11, to record the single “Sliver,” to release in advance of another U.K. tour. They had hired Dan Peters, Mudhoney’s drummer, for this gig, though they were still auditioning drummers. This would be their ultimate quick-and-dirty studio session, recorded in the middle of a Tad album while that band was on a dinner break. The title was yet another Cobain composition with no relation to the lyrics, but this time the name was the only thing obtuse about the song: It was straightforward and a creative breakthrough. For subject matter, Kurt had mined what he knew best—his family. Like Richard Pryor, who struggled in his comedy career until he started telling jokes about growing up in a whorehouse, Kurt had finally discovered his unique voice, which evolved when he wrote about his family. He had found his gift as a writer, almost by accident.
“Sliver” tells the story of a boy dropped off with his grandparents who doesn’t want his parents to leave. He pleads for his grandmother to take him home, but to no avail. He eats mashed potatoes for dinner. He has problems digesting his meat. He rides his bike, only to stub his toe. He tries watching television, but falls asleep. “Grandma take me home / I wanna be alone,” was the unadorned chorus. The song ends as the boy wakes up in his mother’s arms. “It’s probably the most straightforward song we’ve ever recorded,” Kurt explained to Melody Maker. It also was one of the first Nirvana songs to use contrasting dynamics, which would become a signature for the band: The verses were quiet and slow, but the chorus came in as a thunderous wall of sound. After its release, Kurt was quizzed about its meaning, and he had the audacity to claim it wasn’t autobiographical. But no one, certainly not anyone who knew him, believed this: “It was about being a little boy and wanting to be at home with Mom, not wanting to be baby-sat by his grandparents,” explained his sister Kim.
In August Nirvana went on the road for a short West Coast tour, opening for Sonic Youth, with Dale Crover as their temporary drummer. The tour was a chance for Kurt to meet Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, whom he considered just short of royalty. His self-esteem rose when he found they treated him as a peer. The two bands immediately struck up a friendship, and best of all, Moore and Gordon offered business advice, suggesting Nirvana consider their management company, Gold Mountain.
They certainly needed help. Despite the honor the tour afforded, they were paid poorly, following Sonic Youth’s huge bus in their absurd little Dodge van, looking more like starstruck fans than stars themselves. At the Los Angeles show, MCA’s Bret Hartman and his boss Paul Atkinson went backstage to visit the band after their set, and found Kurt and Krist packing up their gear; they were too poor to afford roadies. Atkinson invited the band to tour MCA, but Krist said they had to drive back for his job. The conversation came to a halt when Krist explained he had to go sell T-shirts—they needed gas money to get out of town.
When the tour arrived in the Northwest, interest in the hometown boys was greater than for Sonic Youth. In Portland and Seattle, they were burgeoning stars; after each show a growing number of fans were speaking their praises. Yet Kurt’s personality didn’t seem to change with the attention, observed Sally Barry, who was in an opening band on this tour. “He was the first person I ever saw fling himself into the crowd with his guitar and not give a rat’s ass,” she recalled. “With other people, you could see a conscious thought to it. But with Kurt, it was instant and honest.” Almost every show ended with Kurt leaping into the audience, or the audience leaping into him. This tour, Kurt spared his drummer, since Crover had announced he would pound Kurt within an inch of his life if his kit was damaged.
Crover had to return to the Melvins, so Nirvana hired Dan Peters as their new drummer, and began planning a U.K. tour. But even as Peters pounded the drums for the band at a September 22 concert, in the audience was another candidate Kurt and Krist had flown in to audition. The gig, for which Peters had played well, was his one and only show with Nirvana.
The newly arrived drummer was 21-year-old Dave Grohl. Originally from Virginia, Grohl had played with the bands Scream and Dain Bramage. The transposed letters of the latter name was probably enough to endear him to Kurt, since it showed, if nothing else, that Grohl shared his sense of humor. It was Buzz who had hooked Grohl up with Nirvana, stepping back into his mentor role, and it may have been the greatest gift he ever bestowed. The instant Kurt and Krist practiced with Grohl, they knew they had their final drummer.
Just twenty days later, Dave Grohl was playing his first show with Nirvana, barely familiar with the names of the songs, much less the drum parts. But with Grohl it hardly mattered: As Krist and Kurt had discovered, he was an animal behind the kit. Kurt had struggled with drummers in the past, his perfectionism stemming from his own tenure playing drums. During most soundchecks, Kurt regularly moved to the drum kit and pounded out a few songs for kicks. But Grohl was the kind of drummer who made Kurt glad he’d picked up the guitar.
Grohl’s first show was in Olympia’s North Shore Surf Club. The night marked some of the worst technical snafus of Nirvana’s entire history; an electrical malfunction caused the power to blow repeatedly, and the band had to turn off half their amps to avoid further blackouts. The only illumination available came from audience members holding flashlights, creating an eerie effect like something out of a cheap independent film. Playing with a tiny kit, Grohl proved too strong: He hit the drums so hard he destroyed the snare.
A week later, the band toured England to promote the “Sliver” single, which, in typical fashion, didn’t come out until the tour was over. Still, they played to rabid audiences, their fame in England being far greater than in the U.S. at the time. While in London, Kurt went to see the Pixies, one of his favorite groups. The next day he called up Pixies manager Ken Goes and asked if he would manage Nirvana. Goes wasn’t familiar with Kurt but agreed to meet.
When they met in a hotel lobby, Goes found Kurt was more interested in talking about the Pixies than in promoting his own group. “He wasn’t your average fan, like the type we always see outside of stage doors,” Goes recalled. “In fact, he wasn’t so much a fan; he was a student of the band. He obviously had a massive amount of respect for what they were doing. He went on and on about it.” During their conversation, a commotion ensued when Charles Thompson, the lead singer of the Pixies, walked into the hotel. Goes offered to introduce Kurt to his idol, but Kurt froze at the suggestion. “I don’t think so,” Kurt said, backing away slightly. “I, uh, I can’t.” And with that, Kurt beat a hasty retreat, acting as if he wasn’t worthy to be even in the presence of such talent.
When Nirvana returned from England, Dave Grohl decided to move to the Pear Street apartment—he had been staying with Krist and Shelli. That same week, MCA sent tickets for Kurt and Krist to fly to Los Angeles to tour their offices. The label wasn’t the band’s first choice—it had been so long since MCA had a hit, people joked their name stood for Music Cemetery of America—but they couldn’t turn down a free ticket. The label put them up at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, and after they arrived Bret Hartman went to inquire if the accommodations were satisfactory. He found the mini-fridge ajar, and Kurt and Krist sitting on the floor surrounded by tiny bottles of liquor. “Who put this stuff in our room?” Kurt asked. Despite the fact that the band had toured the U.S. five times and Europe twice, Kurt had never seen an honor bar. When Hartman explained he could have anything in the fridge and MCA would pay, Kurt looked at him incredulously. “I realized,” Hartman recalled, “that perhaps these guys weren’t as experienced as I thought they were.”
They didn’t know honor bars, but they knew they were being slighted the next day when they toured MCA. Hartman and Atkinson had circulated copies of Bleach, along with a memo urging the staff to be warm and gracious. Yet when they escorted the band through the building, it appeared every bigwig was at lunch. Angee Jenkins, who ran the publicity department, spoke with them briefly and encouraged them, as did the guys in the mailroom, who were among the handful of MCA employees who had listened toBleach. The topper came when the group was wheeled into the office of Richard Palmese, who briefly shook hands with them before muttering, “It’s really great to meet you guys. I really like your music but I’ve got a lunch appointment in five minutes. I’m going to have to excuse myself.” Kurt wasn’t even sure who he was meeting, so he turned to Atkinson and asked, “Who is that guy?” “That’s the president of MCA,” Atkinson replied with a grimace. And with that, MCA was out of the running. While in Los Angeles, Kurt and Krist hooked up with Sonic Youth, who again pushed Gold Mountain Management and told them they should sign with their label, DGC, part of Geffen Records, one of the few labels who so far hadn’t expressed interest.
By the time Kurt returned to the Northwest, Grohl had moved in, and his presence temporarily lifted Kurt’s spirits. Living alone was never good for Kurt’s mental health, and his isolation reached a peak during the summer of 1990. He bore all the signs of a child who had gone through a severe trauma: He stopped talking except when spoken to, and he spent hours every day doing nothing but stroking his wisp of a beard, staring into space. He and Tobi weren’t seeing each other as much, and when they did get together he seemed unable to move the relationship to the next level. He bitterly observed in his journal, “The only difference between ‘friends who fuck every once in a while’ and ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’ is the official titles given.”
When Grohl moved in, things improved provisionally; he was as easygoing as Kurt was withdrawn. “The house,” remembered Nikki McClure, “became boy-land. Now Kurt had someone to hang out with all the time. It kind of had this husband-and-wife feel to it.” Since Kurt was virtually incapable of picking up anything, Grohl did things like wash Kurt’s clothes for him. Few others could have handled the state of the apartment, but Grohl had spent the last several years on the road. “Dave was raised in a van by wolves,” explained Jennifer Finch. He taught Kurt how to create homemade tattoos using a needle and some India ink. However, when Kurt decided to imprint his arm with the K Records logo—a “K” inside a shield—he went to an Olympia tattoo parlor one day with another friend.
The tattoo was yet another attempt to impress Tobi—and Calvin. To anyone who wasn’t familiar with K Records, Kurt explained the tattoo by pronouncing his love of the Vaselines. Curiously, the Vaselines weren’t on K, though they were distributed by the label. “Who knows what he was thinking with that tattoo,” said Dylan Carlson. “I think he liked the records K distributed better than the records they put out. He should have had the tattoo read, ‘K Distribution.’ ”
A better idea would have been to etch “the Vaselines” on his arm. Ever since Kurt added the band’s “Molly’s Lips” to Nirvana’s repertoire, he’d been singing this group’s praises. They were the perfect band for Kurt. They were childish, amateurish, and unknown outside of the U.K. and a small U.S. cult. Soon after hearing the Vaselines, Kurt began one of his many multi-draft letter-writing campaigns in his journal, attempting to befriend Eugene Kelly of the band. These letters were always chatty (in one Kurt mentioned his “ridiculous sleeping schedule where I retire in the wee hours of the morning and successfully avoid any hint of daylight”) and inevitably ended with some laudatory comments about how brilliant the Vaselines were: “Without trying to be too embarrassingly sappy, I have to say the songs you and Frances have written are some of the most beautiful songs ever.”
Grohl shared Kurt’s musical taste, but not his obsession with courting favor with legends. He was far more interested in girls, and they were interested in him. He began dating Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill— Dave and Kurt would then do the Olympia version of double dating with Kathleen and Tobi; they’d drink beer and make up lists of the most important punk rock records. Most of Dave and Kurt’s amusements were adolescent, but with Tobi and Kathleen around, everyone was more sociable. The situation made Kurt more attractive to Tobi, since the prospect of hanging out as a gang was less serious than individual dating. “Tobi and Kathleen would literally say, ‘Let’s go out with Nirvana,’ ” neighbor Ian Dickson recalled. During one rambunctious night of partying at Kurt’s house, Hanna spray-painted “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on the bedroom wall. She was referring to a deodorant for teenage girls, so her graffiti was not without implication: Tobi used Teen Spirit, and by writing this on the wall, Kathleen was taunting Kurt about sleeping with her, implying that he was marked by her scent.
Yet despite an occasional night of revelry, Kurt was lonely and disenchanted—he spent a few nights secretly watching Tobi’s window from the street like a shy Cyrano. For the first time in years, he was feeling less hopeful about his career, even though labels had continued calling. Strangely, after years of anticipation, as he approached actually signing a contract, he was filled with self-doubt. He missed the togetherness he’d had with Tracy, and their friendship. A few weeks after Tracy moved out, Kurt had finally confessed that he’d been sleeping with Tobi all along, and Tracy was furious. “If you’d lie about that, you’d lie about anything,” she yelled, and a part of him believed her.
He did, very briefly, consider buying a house in Olympia. He couldn’t actually complete any sort of purchase until he got an advance check, but he was confident enough he would elicit a large deal that he paid a fee to procure a list of available properties. He drove around with his friend Mikey Nelson of Fitz of Depression, looking at dilapidated commercial buildings, planning to build a recording studio in the front and live in the back. “He seemed only interested in the houses that looked like businesses,” Nelson said. “He didn’t want to live in a normal house.”
But that idea, and all the other fantasies he had for the future, went out the window during the first week of November, when Tobi broke up with him. He was devastated; when she told him the news, he was barely able to stand up. He’d never been dumped, and he took it badly. He and Tobi had gone out for less than six months. It had been casual dating, casual sex, and a casual romance, but through it all he hoped deeper intimacy was just around the corner. He fell back on his old pattern of internalizing his abandonment, and back into self-hatred. She didn’t leave him because she was young; she left him, he imagined, because he didn’t deserve her. He was so nauseated that, helping Slim move a week later, he had to stop the car to throw up.
In the wake of the breakup, Kurt became more sullen than ever. He filled an entire notebook with stream-of-consciousness ranting, much of it violent and distressed. He used writing, music, and artwork to express his despair, and with his pain, he wrote songs. Some of them were crazy and angry songs, but they represented yet another level of his craft, since the anger was no longer clichéd and now had an authenticity his early work lacked. These new songs were filled with rage, remorse, pleading, and utter desperation. In the four months following their breakup, Kurt would write a half dozen of his most memorable songs, all of them about Tobi Vail.
The first was “Aneurysm,” which he wrote hoping to win her back. But he soon gave up on that, and instead used his songs, as countless songwriters had before, to express his deep level of hurt. One song was called “Formula,” but was eventually retitled “Drain You.” “One baby to another said, ‘I’m lucky to have met you,’ ” went the lyrics, quoting words Tobi had told him. “It is now my duty to completely drain you,” was the chorus; it was both an acknowledgment of the power she had over him and an indictment.
There were other songs inspired by Tobi, sometimes not as clearly connected, but all haunted by her ghost. “ ‘Lounge Act’ is about Tobi,” Krist observed. One line in the song references Kurt’s tattoo: “I’ll arrest myself, I’ll wear a shield.” Another sums up how their relationship was more about learning than love: “We’ve made a pact to learn from whoever we want without new rules.” In an earlier, unrecorded lyric of “Lounge Act,” Kurt more directly addressed his former paramour: “I hate you because you are so much like me.” “Lithium” was written before Tobi, but the lyrics changed over time and eventually reflected her. Kurt later told Chris Morris of Musician that the song included “some of my personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling—very lonely, sick.”
Though Kurt never specifically addressed it, his most famous song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” could not have been about anyone else, with the lyrics “She’s over-bored and self-assured.” “Teen Spirit” was a song influenced by many things—his anger at his parents, his boredom, his eternal cynicism—yet several individual lines resonate with Tobi’s presence. He wrote the song soon after their split, and the first draft included a line edited from the final version: “Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?” The answer, at one point in his imagination, had been Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail.
His songs were the most fruitful aspect of the breakup; his writings and artwork showed a more enraged and pathological outcome. One drawing shows an alien with his skin being slowly ripped off; in another a woman with a Ku Klux Klan hat lifts up her skirt and flashes her vagina; another depicts a man stabbing a woman with his penis; and yet one more shows a man and a woman having sex above the caption, “Rape, Rape.” There were dozens of such depictions, and pages and pages of stories with tragic endings and disturbing imagery. Not atypical is the following screed:
When I grow up I want to be a faggot, nigger, cunt, whore, jew, spic, kraut, wop, sissie, whitey hippie, greedy, money-making, healthy, sweaty, hairy, masculine, quirky new waver, right wing, left wing, chicken wing, chicken shit, ass kickin, dumb fuck, nuclear physicist, Alcoholics Anonymous Counselor, psychiatrist, journalist, stink fist, romance novelist, gay, black, cripple, junkie, HIV positive, hermaphrodite, flipper baby, overweight, anorexic, king, queen, pawnbroker, stock broker, pot smoker, (all is swell, less is more, God is gay, harpoon a catch) journalist, rock journalist, stuffy, cranky, middle-aged, bitter, little, scrawny, opinionated, old, booking agent and editor of a fanzine that segregates the small percent into even a smaller percent. Keep em divided, Ghettoize, united we stand, do not respect others sensitivities. Kill yourself kill yourself kill kill kill kill kill kill rape rape rape rape rape rape is good, rape is good, rape kill rape greed greed good greed good rape yes kill.
Most of the rage was turned inward, though. If there was one central theme to his writing that fall, it was self-hatred. He imagined himself as “bad,” “faulty,” “diseased.” One page told a crazy tale—completely fantastical—of how he enjoyed kicking elderly women’s legs because “these ankles have a plastic bottle full of urine strapped on them and a tube running up into the old worn-out muscled vagina; the yellow stain goes flying everywhere.” Next, he sought out “50-year-old fags who have the same muscle malfunction but in a different cavity....I kick their rubber underwear and the brown stuff soaks into their beige slacks.” But this disturbing story eventually turned the violence toward the writer: “Then people with no particular fetishes kick me all over the body and head and watch the red shit splat and run and soak my blue jeans and white shirt.” The story ended with him writing repeatedly, “I am bad,” and then, twenty times in big characters, the size of the letters he used to spray-paint on the walls of Aberdeen, “ME, ME, ME,” until he finally ran out of space, having filled every inch of the page. He wrote this with so much pressure the pen went through the paper. He made no effort to hide these stories, and instead, his journals would lie open around the apartment. Jennifer Finch began dating Grohl, and she read some of the writings left on the kitchen table and noticed his torment. “I was worried about Kurt,” she remembered. “He was just out of control.”
The hatred he had for others was mild compared to the violence he described against himself. Suicide came up as a topic repeatedly. One diatribe detailed how he might turn himself into “Helen Keller, by puncturing my ears with a knife, then cutting my voice box out.” He repeatedly fantasized about heaven and hell, both embracing the idea of spirituality as an escape after death, but just as often wholeheartedly rejecting it. “If you want to know what the afterlife feels like,” he speculated, “then put on a parachute, go up in a plane, shoot a good amount of heroine into your veins, and immediately follow that with a hit of nitrous oxide, then jump or set yourself on fire.”
By the second week of November 1990, a new character had begun to spring forth in Kurt’s journal writing, and this figure would soon make its way into almost every image, song, or story. He intentionally misspelled its name, and in doing so he was granting it a life of its own. Oddly, he gave it a female persona, but since it became his great love that fall—and even made him throw up, just like Tobi—there was a fairness in this gender choice. He called it “heroine.”