Last week was the 25th anniversary of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s death, and the various emotions of sadness surrounding the Nirvana frontman have come back into focus for his many fans and those close to the band, including the group’s former manager Danny Goldberg.
Goldberg’s new book, “Serving the Servant,” which was released last week, gives rare insights into Cobain, his thinking and legacy as told by someone who was privy to Cobain professionally at the height of his career through his final days.
His close examination and recollection into his time working with Nirvana (starting in 1990 through Cobain’s death in 1994) is a deep dive that offers various nuggets into what made Cobain tick from the guy who the singer once called a “second father” in an interview. Though he says early in the book that he’s not the most reliable storyteller (“My memory is far from perfect”) and enlists many contributors (including ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, several journalists and Cobain’s wife Courtney Love), Goldberg gives wider context to Cobain.
“It was a rollercoaster, I use that word a lot,” Goldberg told TheWrap. “On one hand, I loved the guy so much and it’s such a drag that we lost him so young, and that he was in that much pain to do that (kill himself).”
In the anecdote-filled book, Goldberg chronicles the making of “Nevermind,” Cobain’s obsession with detail and how the musician was able to expertly thread the needle between widely disparate groups. His seriousness about his art, above any other personal issues, was never in doubt, and remains a critical point of what is remembered about Cobain today.
“I think it is a combination of his musical brilliance and his connection with some of the deepest feelings of adolescents of all ages,” Goldberg said of the singer’s continued relevance. “Musically he was one of rock and roll’s great singers whose voice conveyed both power and unfiltered vulnerability. He was also a master songwriter who was able to combine rock intensity, memorable melodic hoods and lyrical depth. On another level, his body of work continues to speak to people who feel isolated, or too sensitive for their surroundings, or misunderstood.”
Cobain’s ethos of inclusion, Goldberg said, went beyond his music. In the book, the singer is portrayed as a staunch feminist and someone who wasn’t afraid to stick up for those who he felt were marginalized. Cobain’s closeness to the Olympia, Washington Riot Grrrl scene is one example. And the band’s willing participation in Oregon’s No on 9 campaign, in opposition to an anti-gay bill, helped get the bill nixed.
That sensibility was crystallized in a 1992 confrontation between Cobain, Love and Axl Rose at the MTV Video Music Awards. The spat was clearly demonstrative of Cobain’s disdain for what he felt Rose stood for.
“He had a revulsion for macho behavior that was hostile to women or to gays,” Goldberg said. “That was part of who he was.”
In the book, Goldberg draws a line between the myth of Cobain as the ardent punk and the reality of Cobain as a driven, ambitious musician aiming to be successful and accessible on his own terms. Such as Cobain tapping celebrated indie-rock engineer Steve Albini to record the group’s 1993 album “In Utero” — and then enlisting R.E.M. engineer Scott Litt to polish the album’s singles, “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.”
“He was trying to balance different agendas that were important to him,” Goldberg says of Cobain’s intentions on the band’s 1993 album. “He was someone who would frequently straddle different worlds, different things, and that was part of the success of Nirvana with the straddling punk and more commercial music. I think he got out of Albini what he wanted and respected what he got from Albini, but he needed things that Albini couldn’t give him.”
But, as serious and focused as he was, Cobain was sharp-witted and had a keen, if not subtle, sense of humor that’s reflected throughout the book. To many fans of the band, Cobain’s image as portrayed in the media at the time was that of an authentic punk (like here), but he was different to those close to him.
“He had a great sense of humor,” Goldberg said. “The people who knew him remember him differently than he was portrayed following his death.”
Goldberg said that his biggest regret was not spending more time with Cobain — with whom he had a “comfortable rapport.”
“I didn’t know he was going to live such a short amount of time and you know, I just wish I had hung out with him more,” Goldberg said.
As for what path Cobain’s music might have taken had he not died. Goldberg suggested that he might have turned to a solo, acoustic career following the band’s “MTV Unplugged” performance, akin to Neil Young — though he is “sure he (Cobain) would have kept evolving and not copying himself.”
In the end, for Goldberg, Cobain’s legacy is in his art, not his death. (He is firmly dismissive of the number of conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death as well.) In all, Goldberg said that Cobain managed to craft a legacy — both sonically and personality-wise — that remains as important as it was when was alive.
“He had the success and power to stay faithful to the other aspects to who he was as an artist in terms of melody and guitar solos and lyrics about the inner world,” he said. “His legacy was changing what a powerful frontman can be and broadening the idea of what masculinity was. He really was a real-life genius and if rock n roll ever produced a genius, he would be on that short list. When it came to his art, he was always the smartest person in the room.”