Chapter 13

THE RICHARD NIXON LIBRARY

OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON


NOVEMBER 1990–MAY 1991

It might be time for the Betty Ford Clinic or the Richard Nixon Library to save me from abusing my anemic rodent-like body any longer.

—From a letter to Tobi Vail, May 1991.

“Heroine,” Kurt’s own bastardization of the word heroin, had first appeared back in his rude cartoons in eighth grade. Having grown up fascinated by rock ’n’ roll, he was well aware that many of the musicians he idolized had succumbed to drug abuse. And though he had addictively smoked pot, frequently drank too much, and was known to huff inhalant from the bottoms of shaving cream cans, he pledged that he would never suffer a similar fate. In 1987, during one of Kurt’s sober purging periods, he chastised Jesse Reed when his friend suggested they try heroin. “Kurt wouldn’t hang out with me after that,” Jesse remembered. “I was trying to find heroin, a drug I’d never tried, and he’d never tried, and he would lecture me: ‘Why do you want to kill yourself? Why do you want to die so badly?’ ” In a personal drug history constructed later in life, Kurt wrote that he first had used heroin in Aberdeen in the late eighties; his friends contest this, since he had a fear of needles at the time and there was no heroin to be found in his circle. He did occasionally take Percodan in Aberdeen, a prescription narcotic; he may have romanticized and exaggerated this opiate when recalling it later.

By the fall of 1990, brokenhearted over Tobi, the same questions Kurt asked of Jesse earlier could have been put to him. In early November he overcame his fear of needles and first injected heroin with a friend in Olympia. He found that the drug’s euphoric effects helped him temporarily escape his heartache and his stomach pain.

The next day, Kurt phoned Krist. “Hey, Krist I did heroin,” Kurt told his friend. “Wow! What was that like?” Krist asked. Kurt said, “Oh, it was all right.” Krist then told him, “You shouldn’t do it. Look at Andy Wood.” Wood was the lead singer of Mother Love Bone, an upand-coming Seattle band, who died of a heroin overdose in March 1990. Novoselic cited other Olympia friends who had died of heroin addiction. Kurt’s reply: “Yeah, I know.” Novoselic, playing the role of older brother, warned Kurt that heroin wasn’t like the other drugs he’d done: “I remember literally telling him that he was playing with dynamite.”

But the warning fell on deaf ears. Though Kurt promised Krist he wouldn’t try the drug again, he broke this promise. To avoid Krist’s or Grohl’s finding out, Kurt used the drug at friends’ houses. He found a dealer named José, who was selling to many of the Greeners in Olympia. Coincidentally, Dylan Carlson had experimented with heroin for the first time that fall, though not with Kurt. But soon their bonding also extended to heroin—usually done only once a week, owing to several factors including their poverty and their desire to not become addicts. But they would go on occasional binges, like the time they rented a cheap hotel room in Seattle to nod off in private without alarming their friends or roommates.

But Kurt’s friends were alarmed by his drug use. Tracy had finally forgiven Kurt, and they were occasionally hanging out. When Shelli told her Kurt was doing heroin, she couldn’t believe her ears. That week, Kurt phoned Tracy late at night, obviously high, and she challenged him directly: “He told me he’d done it a few times. He said he really liked it, and that it made him more sociable. But he said he wasn’t going to do it all the time. I tried to walk the fine line by telling him he shouldn’t do it, without making him feel bad for having done it.” A week later, they spent an evening together attending several parties. In between events, Kurt insisted they stop by his place so he could use the toilet. When he didn’t return, Tracy went looking and found him on the floor, with a bottle of bleach sitting next to him and a needle in his arm. She was furious: Kurt had turned into something Tracy couldn’t have imagined in her worst nightmare. The joke of Nirvana’s first album title no longer seemed funny to anyone. But heroin was only a small part of 1990 for Kurt, and for the most part, he kept his promise to use it only occasionally. He was distracted from all else by the fact that his career was taking off like never before. He signed a contract in the fall with Virgin Publishing, which brought him his first big check. Kaz Utsunomiya, president of Virgin, flew to the Northwest to ink the deal. Though Kaz was a longtime industry veteran and had worked with everyone from the Clash to Queen, he was shocked to see the squalor of Kurt’s apartment. They talked about Kurt’s influences, particularly the Clash; Kurt said Sandinista! was one of the first records he owned that was remotely punk.

Kurt’s initial share of the publishing deal came in the form of a check for $3,000. He paid his rent, and then drove to South Sound Mall with Mikey Nelson and Joe Preston. Kurt spent almost $1,000 in Toys “R” Us on a Nintendo system, two Pixelvision video cameras, two automatic BB guns that looked like M16 rifles, and several Evel Knievel plastic models. He also bought fake dog feces, fake vomit, and rubber severed hands. “He threw it all into a basket,” remembered Preston. “It was just a bunch of junk he could destroy.” It was as if an eight-year-old boy had been set loose in the store and told he could have anything he wanted. Kurt used the BB gun to immediately shoot out the windows on the Washington State Lottery building across the street. He also bought, for $20, a used child’s Swinger bicycle, a style that at the time was remarkably unhip: It was so tiny that pedaling it required him to scrunch over with his knees to his shoulders. Kurt gleefully rode the bike until it was dark.

He was still riding the bike a few days later in the midst of what at the time was the most important business meeting he’d ever had. On Thurston Moore’s recommendation, the band had contacted Gold Mountain Management. The firm was run by Danny Goldberg and John Silva. Silva, as the younger manager, was assigned the job of negotiating with Nirvana. It was an easy task—because of his connection with Sonic Youth, he already had Kurt’s stamp of approval. Silva and his girlfriend Lisa Fancher came to Seattle to meet the band face-to-face and take them to dinner. Kurt loved being taken to dinner by music industry honchos because it was the only way he could guarantee eating a decent meal. But this night, Silva and the rest of the band sat around for hours while Kurt rode his Swinger bike in a circle in the Lottery parking lot. “We all decided he was going to break a limb,” recalled Fancher. Though the long delay seemed like just another childish pastime, a more cynical observer might have suggested it was Kurt’s first move in what would become a battle of wills with his soon-to-be manager.

Kurt put his bicycle down to go to dinner, but afterwards announced Beat Happening was playing across town. It was a test of Silva’s interest, and like any good businessman, Silva acted enthused and went to the show with Kurt. Silva protested to Fancher later that he detested Calvin’s band (she also remembered he initially hated Sonic Youth, complaining about their “major egos”). Yet he’d passed Kurt’s acid test, and within the week, Nirvana had signed with Gold Mountain.

On November 25, Nirvana played a show at Seattle’s Off Ramp that attracted more A&R representatives than any concert in Northwest history. Representatives from Columbia, Capitol, Slash, RCA, and several other labels were bumping into each other. “The A&R guys were in full-court press,” observed Sony’s Damon Stewart. The sheer number of A&R reps altered the way the band was perceived in Seattle. “By that time,” explained Susan Silver, “there was a competitive feeding frenzy going on around them.”

The show itself was remarkable—Kurt later told a friend it was his favorite Nirvana performance. During an eighteen-song set, the band played twelve unreleased tunes. They opened with the powerful “Aneurysm,” the first time it was played in public, and the crowd slam-danced and body-surfed until they broke the light bulbs on the ceiling. “I thought the show was amazing,” recalled Kim Thayil of Sound-garden. “They did a cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Here She Comes Now’ that I thought it was brilliant. And then, when I heard ‘Lithium,’ it stuck in my mind. Ben, our bass player, came up to me and said, ‘That’s the hit. That’s a Top 40 hit right there.’ ”

The A&R men were just as impressed. As the set ended—after a break for a fire alarm—Jeff Fenster of Charisma Records managed to convince the band his label was the best choice. Two days later, Nirvana’s lawyer, Alan Mintz, called and said the band was going to sign with Charisma. The deal was for $200,000, a healthy but not outrageous advance. But before Fenster could have a contract prepared, the band decided, at the last minute, to sign instead with DGC, an imprint of Geffen Records. Though DGC’s A&R rep Gary Gersh had not been one of the early bidders, the endorsement of Sonic Youth ultimately proved to be the deciding factor. Geffen also had a strong promotion department, headed by Mark Kates, and Gold Mountain knew promotion was the key to breaking the band. The Geffen deal called for Nirvana to be paid $287,000, at the time one of the largest advances for a Northwest band. Mintz extricated the band from the vestiges of their Sub Pop contract: As part of the Geffen agreement, Sub Pop would be paid $75,000 and get 2 percent of sales from the next two albums.

Though Kurt had read music industry books, even he wasn’t prepared for how long the deal took to be finalized—the contract wasn’t signed until April—and how little money it initially meant for him. By the time fees for lawyers, managers, taxes, and debt were deducted, Gold Mountain put him on a retainer of $1,000 per month. He immediately got behind on his bills, and complained he could only afford corn dogs—the floor of the apartment was now littered with their sticks.

Grohl had gone back east for most of December, and minus his roommate, Kurt sought to relieve his boredom by any means necessary. He hung out a lot with Dylan, and soon broke another barrier he’d sworn never to cross. Dylan was a gun nut, and Kurt consistently preached that guns were barbaric. A few times Kurt agreed to go into the woods with Dylan, but he wouldn’t touch the guns, and on one occasion even refused to leave the car. But eventually Kurt began to let Dylan show him how to aim and fire. It was harmless stuff: putting holes in cans with shotguns, or shooting up art projects Kurt had decided to sacrifice.

Kurt also began to hang out a lot with Mikey Nelson to shop at thrift stores. “There was always some record he was hoping to track down,” said Nelson. “One of his favorites had a bunch of truckers talking over the CB radio. He had the Charles Manson recordLie. And he was a huge fan of ‘H. R. Pufnstuf.’ ” Even in late 1990, Kurt was still pushing the merits of the Knack’s Get the Knack. “He told me all the great songs on that record were the ones people hadn’t heard of.”

John Purkey stopped by the apartment that month and helped Kurt shop for Christmas presents. Kurt’s biggest purchase that year was a large custom aquarium for his turtles. They smoked marijuana before shopping, but Purkey was surprised when Kurt asked, “Do you know where I can get some heroin?” Purkey replied, “You’re not shooting up are you?” “Oh, no,” Kurt lied. “I’ll just smoke anything.” In many ways, his meager budget helped curb his addictive desires: He simply couldn’t afford to become a drug addict.

On December 11 Kurt again sought medical help for his stomach condition, seeing a doctor in Tacoma. This time the diagnosis was irritable bowel syndrome, and Kurt was prescribed Lidox, a form of clidinium. The drug didn’t seem to help his pain, and he discontinued it two weeks later when he got bronchitis.

The year ended with a New Year’s Eve show in Portland at the Satyricon. Slim traveled down with the band and saw what he remembered as a knockout show, despite the fact that Kurt was drunk on whiskey and Coke, against his doctor’s orders. It was now noticeable that Kurt was attracting groupies. Slim watched one young woman locking eyes on him for the whole show: “Her demeanor said, ‘I’m the girl in the audience who wants to fuck you tonight.’ ” Kurt however, didn’t notice and, like most nights, went home alone.

They began 1991 with the three-hour late-night drive from Portland since they had a studio session scheduled the next day. They finished two songs, “Aneurysm” and a re-recording of “Even in His Youth.” They also worked up several songs Kurt had just written, including an early “All Apologies.” “They had a bunch of ideas they wanted to throw down,” remembered Craig Montgomery, who produced the tracks. “But their gear was in horrible shape, and they were all pretty fried.”

Kurt’s friend Jesse Reed returned to the Northwest for the holiday, and the day after the recording session they went to Aberdeen to visit Jesse’s parents. On the drive, Kurt found himself talking about his future with his old friend, and as the car entered Grays Harbor County, he admitted his love for this landscape and the people, contradicting all he said in interviews. As they passed some of the farms outside of Satsop— an idyllic valley, despite an abandoned nuclear plant—Kurt told Jesse his dream was to use his label advance to buy a farm. He saw a large ranch house and pointed to it: “What do you think of that house over there? If I buy that, then we can play as loud as we want, have big parties, have people over, and no one will care.” The house wasn’t for sale, and Kurt had no money yet, but he swore to Jesse that if he ever did hit the big time, he’d come back to the harbor and buy a ranch, “just like Neil Young has in California.”

Early in 1991 Kurt made a telephone call he’d been putting off for years: He phoned his father. Since moving to Olympia, most of his contact with Don had been through his grandparents.

The conversation—as was typical of communication between two stoic Cobain men—was short. Kurt mostly talked about the band, telling Don he’d signed a major label deal; Don wasn’t sure what that meant, but when he asked Kurt if he had enough money, his son said yes. Kurt inquired of Don’s other children, and they briefly chatted about Don’s latest job, working as an investigator with the Washington State Patrol. Kurt told his father he’d been performing a lot; Don said he’d enjoy going to see him some time. The conversation lasted only a few minutes and was remarkable more for what the two men didn’t say than what they did. Don wasn’t able to talk about the hurt he felt that his firstborn had drifted away, and Kurt wasn’t able to talk about any of the hurts he felt: not the divorce, the remarriage, or their many other struggles.

Kurt had stayed in better touch with his mother; her interest in his career, and her acceptance of him as a musician, seemed to increase as his fame did. Kurt and Wendy were drawn closer yet that year when another family tragedy struck on January 2, 1991—Wendy’s brother Patrick died of AIDS in California, at 46. Patrick’s homosexuality had always been a deep secret within the Fradenburg family; he was so good-looking and popular with girls, his parents seemed unable to believe it when he announced he was gay. Even prior to his diagnosis, he had suffered from clinical depression, but when he developed full-blown AIDS, it sent him into an emotional tailspin. His anger at his parents was so great he planned to write a treatise on his lifelong sexual history— which included that he’d been sexually abused by his Uncle Delbert— and send it to the Aberdeen Daily World to embarrass his family. As it was, the family decided to leave the cause of death out of his obituary and to list his domestic partner as “a special friend.” Kurt was invited to the memorial ceremony, but he did not attend, citing his need to work on his upcoming album.

For once, Kurt wasn’t lying to get out of a family commitment. He was indeed preparing for his album, and as 1991 began he was fastidiously working. Nirvana had rented a new practice space in Tacoma, and every day they rehearsed for hours. Some of their playing was to teach Grohl the songs in their catalog, but much of it was honing new material Kurt was writing. In January, Sub Pop released their last official Nirvana single, a live recording of the Vaselines’ “Molly’s Lips.” In the run-on groove the label had etched a one-word farewell: “Later.”

In February Kurt turned 24, and for the occasion he sat down and began to write the story of his life, one of dozens of short attempts he undertook over the years. This version ran three pages before petering out. “Hi, I’m 24 years old,” he wrote. “I was born a white, lower-middle-class male off the coast of Washington State. My parents owned a compact stereo component system molded in simulated wood grain and a four-record box set featuring AM radio’s contemporary hits of the early seventies called Good Vibrations by Ronco. It had such hits as Tony Orlando and Dawn’s ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’ and Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle.’ After years of my begging, they finally bought me a tin drum set with paper heads out of the back of a Sears catalog. Within the first week, my sister poked holes in the heads with a screwdriver.”

Kurt’s history went on to note that he remembered his mother playing Chicago songs on the piano and that he’d forever be grateful to his Aunt Mari for giving him three Beatles albums. He wrote that one of his first disappointments was when he found out, in 1976, that the Beatles had dissolved six years earlier. His parents’ divorce seemed to have less of an effect: “My parents got a divorce so I moved in with my dad into a trailer park in an even smaller logging community. My dad’s friends talked him into joining the Columbia Record Club and soon records showed up at my trailer once a week, accumulating quite a large collection.” And with that, this attempt at telling his life story ended. He went back to his favorite journal subject at the time: writing liner notes for the upcoming album. He wrote many different versions—the album ultimately didn’t include any—but one draft of a dedication for the record said more about his childhood than his attempt at biography: “Thanks to unencouraging parents everywhere,” he wrote, “for giving their children the will to show them up.”

In March Nirvana played a four-date Canadian tour, and then immediately went back into rehearsals. After much debate with their managers and label bosses, they settled on Butch Vig again as producer, using Sound City, a studio outside of Los Angeles. The label would be picking up the expenses, though these would come out of Nirvana’s advance.

Before they headed for California, the band had one more Seattle show, on April 17, at the O.K. Hotel. Kurt organized it after hearing his friend Mikey Nelson had so many unpaid traffic citations he was in danger of going to jail. The line-up included Bikini Kill and Fitz of Depression, and Kurt insisted all proceeds go to Nelson. The show did not completely sell out, owing to a party for the movie Singles the same night. Nirvana’s set included covers of Devo’s “Turnaround,” the Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” and the Wipers’ “D7,” but the surprise came when the band played a new composition. Kurt slurred the vocals, perhaps not even knowing all the words, but the guitar part was already in place, as was the tremendous driving drum beat. “I didn’t know what they were playing,” recalled Susie Tennant, DGC promotion rep, “but I knew it was amazing. I remember jumping up and down and asking everyone next to me, ‘What is this song?’ ”

Tennant’s words mimicked what Novoselic and Grohl had said just three weeks earlier, when Kurt brought a new riff into rehearsal. “It’s called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ ” Kurt announced to his bandmates, stealing the Kathleen Hanna graffiti. At the time, no one in the band knew of the deodorant, and it wasn’t until the song was recorded and mastered that anyone pointed out it had the name of a product in it. When Kurt first brought the song into the studio, it had a faster beat and less focus on the bridge. “Kurt was playing just the chorus,” Krist remembered. It was Krist’s idea to slow the tune down, and Grohl instinctively added a powerful beat.

At the O.K. Hotel, Kurt just hummed a couple of the verses. He was changing the lyrics to all his songs during this period, and “Teen Spirit” had about a dozen drafts. One of the first drafts featured the chorus: “A denial and from strangers / A revival and from favors / Here we are now, we’re so famous / We’re so stupid and from Vegas.” Another began with: “Come out and play, make up the rules / Have lots of fun, we know we’ll lose.” Later in the same version was a line that had no rhyming couplet: “The finest day I ever had was when tomorrow never came.”

A week later the band headed to Los Angeles. On the drive down, Kurt stopped by Universal Studios, and went on the same rides he’d taken with his grandparents fifteen years before. The group moved into the Oakwood Apartments for the next six weeks, not far from Sound City Studios. Vig visited them during pre-production and found chaos. “There was graffiti on the walls,” he remembered, “and the couches were upside down. They would stay up every night and go down to Venice Beach until six in the morning.” The nervousness the band felt about recording was alleviated by drinking, which all three members did to excess. One night, Krist was arrested for driving while intoxicated; John Silva had to scramble to bail him out and get him back in the studio.

Most of the sessions began at three in the afternoon and ran until midnight. During breaks, Kurt wandered the halls of the studio and stared at gold records for albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, though he was most impressed by the Evel Knievel record cut there. The lite-metal band Warrant had rented the studio before Nirvana; when the group came back to pick up gear during Nirvana’s session, Kurt grabbed the studio’s paging system and started screaming “Bring me some ‘Cherry Pie,’ ” the title of Warrant’s hit. One night Kurt stole the original master tapes to the Evel Knievel album and took them home to Olympia.

They spent that first week trying to get basic tracks down, mostly concentrating on the drum sound, which was Vig’s specialty. After two weeks, they’d laid down ten songs, though most had no more than three takes because Kurt’s voice would wear out after so much screaming. Many of the songs were ones they cut previously during the Smart Studio sessions, and it was more technical work than creative.

Compared to the band’s other sessions, there were few problems. During the recording of “Lithium” Kurt struggled to get his guitar parts right and became progressively more frustrated, eventually smashing his guitar on the studio floor. In the end, Vig decided to use the take recorded during Kurt’s meltdown; it was titled “Endless, Nameless” and put on the compact disc as a hidden track.

The biggest problem of the session was Kurt’s own procrastination: He still hadn’t settled on lyrics for many of the songs, though a few tunes, like “Polly” and “Breed,” the band had been playing for years. When he did finish a lyric, most were as paradoxical as they were revelatory. Many lines left the listener unclear as to whether he was singing about external or internal circumstances, defying explanation though communicating an emotional tone. In his journals, Kurt wrote a letter to the long-dead critic Lester Bangs, complaining about the state of rock journalism—a profession that both fascinated and repulsed him—by asking, “Why in the hell do journalists insist on coming up with a second-rate Freudian evaluation of my lyrics, when 90 percent of the time they’ve transcribed them incorrectly?” Despite the wisdom in Kurt’s question, he spent hours trying to figure out the songs of his idols. He also labored over his own compositions, variably inserting messages or editing himself when he thought he had been too revealing.

Such was the case with “Something in the Way,” the last song recorded during the sessions. The lyrics recounted Kurt’s mythical period living under the bridge. He had written this song a year earlier, but he had kept it hidden from his bandmates. In his first imagining of the album, Kurt had wanted a “Girl”-side (composed of all the songs about Tobi) and a “Boy”-side (to include “Sliver,” “Sappy,” and “Polly” among others, all the songs about his family or his inner world). He had always planned to end the album with “Something in the Way,” though he never mentioned this to his producer. Instead, he brought forth the song during the Sound City sessions as a last-minute surprise and wrote the lyrics out in the studio, making it appear to all as if he were crafting them on the spot, when he had worked on them for years. Despite his letter to Lester Bangs, no single individual analyzed the Freudian implications of his lyrics more than Kurt himself, and he knew very well that releasing a song implying he lived under a bridge would cause much pain for his family.

As they finished up the sessions, a friend of Grohl’s visited and offered to bet Kurt he’d be on the cover of Rolling Stone within six months. Kurt replied, “Ah, forget it.” Mikey Nelson and his bandmates from Fitz of Depression also showed up and stayed with Nirvana at the Oakwood, as did the Melvins—during one weekend there were 22 people sleeping in their two-bedroom apartment. The Fitz had run into more bad luck: A club had promised a much-needed show but cancelled at the last minute. “Call him back,” Kurt insisted, “and tell him we’ll play, too.” Two days after finishing their record, Nirvana played a tiny Los Angeles club called Jabberjaw and debuted “On a Plain” and “Come As You Are” in front of an astonished audience. They insisted that all the door money go to Nelson. Kurt described the show in a letter to Tobi as “indescribably fucked-up on booze and drugs, out of tune, and rather, uh, sloppy. It took me over fifteen minutes to change my guitar string while people heckled me and called me drunk. After the show, I ran outside and vomited.” At the club, Kurt noticed Iggy Pop in the audience, and this time Kurt wasn’t wearing an embarrassing shirt. “It was probably the most flattering moment of my life,” he observed.

Yet the most revealing part of Kurt’s letter was his admission of increasing drug abuse, including Quaaludes, which he’d been ingesting like candy. “I’ve been taking a lot of drugs lately,” he wrote Tobi. “It might be time for the Betty Ford Clinic or the Richard Nixon Library to save me from abusing my anemic rodent-like body any longer. I can’t wait to be back home (wherever that is) in bed, neurotic and malnourished and complaining how the weather sucks and it’s the whole reason for my misery. I miss you Bikini Kill. I totally love you.” He signed it “Kurdt.”

This letter—like so many others he wrote—went unsent, perhaps because of a woman he had run into two weeks before the Jabberjaw show. She would play a far larger role in his life than Betty Ford, Richard Nixon, or Tobi Vail. He remembered her from her small part in Straight to Hell.

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