For many, Nirvana were the voice of Generation X. And with good reason. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics reflected elements of alienation and angst of the post-Boomer generation, while their incredibly melodic music powered by Krist Novoselic’s booming bass and Dave Grohl’s tenacious drumming took what was going on underground and brought grunge and alternative to the mainstream and blew the then-ruling hair metal away.
“We had a pretty good time [as they shot to fame],” Novoselic tells SPIN over the phone. “But we really didn’t even know what was going on. We were doing these tours at this point in relatively small places. We heard we were on heavy rotation on MTV and these label guys would show up and it would be like ‘Oh okay.’ Just working hard and trying to play good every night.”
That sharp focus is what thrust Nirvana into the spotlight, but, the thing about Nirvana that people always forget beneath Cobain’s dark brilliance was their sense of humor.
Novoselic recalls a show in 1989 somewhere in Massachusetts [attended by SPIN’s Byron Coley] with only “five or six” people in attendance.
“We had a show the night before and Kurt smashed his guitar, or just didn’t have a guitar, probably smashed it, had problems with it or it conked out,” Novoselic explains. “Since we had Jason Everman as our other guitar player, Kurt was going to be our frontman for the show. He hams it up and is jumping around, the frontman with just a mic. So he jumps on me and I pick him up and I lift him by his ankles [Laughs]…and start shaking him off the edge of the stage. All of this change then comes pouring out of his pocket. There’s like quarters and nickels and dimes, pennies…and now that I think about it’s probably all the money he had in the world at a time.”
Not too long after that, Cobain, Novoselic and the band’s fifth drummer Grohl wouldn’t have to worry about losing all their money on-stage.
We know what happened next. Nevermind turned them into international superstars, In Utero was a gritty follow-up and then it was over. Cobain died on April 5, 1994. But in five short years from the release of 1989’s Bleach through Cobain’s death, Nirvana transformed the music world and left almost everything they had out there — literally.
As the trend of massive reissues and mining of artists’ unreleased material steadily becomes the norm, don’t expect to hear any new Nirvana songs anytime soon. “You Know You’re right,” which was released in 2002, was the last song the band recorded together. While Cobain was a prolific artist in terms of quality, there aren’t many (if at all) loose songs or demos that are lying around in a vault waiting to be dusted off. Some of the ones from early 1994 — which consisted of Novoselic and Grohl jamming together — became Foo Fighters songs. “I don’t know what happened to that stuff but I have to go in the vault before the tape falls apart!” Novoselic quips.
But “You Know You’re Right” almost didn’t make it, had it not been for a trusty airport security guard.
“We recorded that on a 24-track and I had that reel-to-reel in my basement for years,” Novoselic says of the song. “It was like ‘What am I doing with this?’ So in 2000 or 2001, I had to go to L.A. so I flew down there with the tape to get it mixed [by Adam Kasper].
“I walked up to the X-ray machine [and had the reels in hand] and was like ‘Oh gosh, I better not pass this through,’” he remembers. Fortunately, an accommodating security screener allowed the magnetic tape holding the session to bypass the X-ray machine.
“We just busted it because we’d love playing together. That was our glue and we had this language and conversation,” he says. “It’s just this total Nirvana song that has the bass driving and a big chorus, BIG chorus then it goes back down, which was kind of our formula. I’m really glad we caught that one. I wish we would have done more, but we didn’t.”
Nearly two-and-a-half decades after they played their final show, Nirvana remains relevant. Earlier this year, Post Malone announced he’d be performing an entire set of Nirvana covers. He surprised many by stampeding through a 75-minute set and doing the songs justice, to the surviving members’ and Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, approval. He’s not the only one to reference Nirvana and Cobain.
“It’s the individual connection [to the music],” Novoselic says. “I still get fan mail and when I used to go out in public, people would tell me how Nirvana changed their lives. Something about the music just connects with people, and it’s very personal to this day. It’s not really up to me to define what that connection is because it’s literally on a case-by-case basis. It’s the energy and the honesty. Kurt would say ‘I like cryptic lyrics’ and he’d say that he wasn’t really out for big messages or anything. But that left it open for interpretation and maybe that’s one of the keys to how individuals connect with it.”
But, he says, it’s something that even Cobain would have appreciated if he were still alive today.
“He had a big heart and he was a sweetheart.,” Novoselic says. “He could connect and empathize with people. Those kinds of things would affect him. But he had this voice inside of him that could speak and keep speaking. There’s so many people that make that connection and it’s just an amazing talent.”
That’s why going to a place like the Museum of Pop Culture in the band’s adopted hometown of Seattle is such a trip for the bassist. He marvels when he heads to the Nirvana exhibit and sees all of the memorabilia from the band’s brief time. “I’ve been in there a few times and it just…God it weighs on me. Like, it’s my life, right?” he says. “It’s Nirvana Disneyland.”
Thinking back, Novoselic isn’t so sure how things would have gone if Cobain were still alive. He points to the success of the Guns N’ Roses’ reunion tour as to how things can turn for a band.
“You just don’t know,” he says. “Dave is making heavy rock, I’m doing this country, Americana rock. That really doesn’t matter — the tragedy is that Kurt died so young and was a sweetheart person and is very missed.”
Looking back, 26 years after Nirvana effectively ended when Cobain died, Novoselic appreciates the ride and how they “just burned so bright for such a short time.”
“Maybe I was just being silly for the sake of being silly,” he says. “I can’t speak for Dave or Kurt, but our mission was to have as much fun as possible and our statement was made on the records.”