From 1991 to 1994, Nirvana was one of the biggest bands in the world with a look and sound that would come to define the decade's music. At the height of this fame, though, bandleader Kurt Cobain sometimes seemed to be an unwilling participant who had just been swept up and carried away by Nirvana's success. Then, after less than four years of meteoric fame, Cobain died of suicide on April 5, 1994. He was 27.
A new book reveals that Cobain was far more in control and calculating about the band's success than his public persona suggested. The book, Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain, is written by Danny Goldberg, Nirvana's manager during the band's era-defining run.
Serving the Servant begins with Goldberg's first meeting with Cobain and his two bandmates, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. It was 1990, and at the time, Nirvana was still an obscure punk band looking for management and a new record deal. But Cobain surprised Goldberg with his ambitions.
"For the first part of that meeting, he hardly said anything. Krist did a lot of the talking. Then, at one point, I asked them, 'Do you want to stay on the indie label?' — because you never know with punk bands," Goldberg remembers. "And Kurt suddenly piped in, 'No.' Making it clear that he knew what he wanted, that he wanted to leave the indie and be on a major, and it also made it clear to me that he was the boss."
As Goldberg tells it, Cobain proved himself to be the boss time and time again. "Kurt wrote the songs, he was the lead singer, he was the lead guitar player, he storyboarded the videos, he designed the album covers and he made the decisions."
Goldberg argues the reason Cobain was able to make Nirvana stand out at a time when grunge was taking over rock music — and pop culture at large — is because Cobain had the ability to "combine what he liked best about several genres and fuse them into one coherent identity. ... Culturally, he was deeply influenced by the American punk rock scene of the '80s, but he also had a great appetite for pop," Goldberg says. "All of the guys in Nirvana did. They all loved the Beatles. And it was like a guilty pleasure, they would coyly call it the 'B word.' "
Cobain also liked classic rock groups like Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith, minus the macho lyrics and peacocking. "He was determined to subvert the clichés of the macho frontman and to convey a sensitive, compassionate way of rocking hard," Goldberg says.
Goldberg remembers that besides this subversive element, Cobain possessed a "comprehensive, crystalline understanding" of how to connect and resonate with large audiences. Cobain knew how to communicate across different mediums — music videos, interviews, album artwork — and wanted Nirvana to be a global sensation.
"He had an exquisite sense of balance of how to stand for something without being boring, how to be entertaining without being shallow," Goldberg says. "He was almost kind of 24/7 reinventing this Kurt Cobain persona."
But even with the expertly-crafted persona, Cobain openly struggled with addiction. Goldberg says the first time he realized Cobain was addicted to heroin was in January 1992, when Nirvana first performed on Saturday Night Live a few months after the band released its breakthrough album, Nevermind.
Shortly after, Goldberg, along with a group of six or seven others, staged an intervention for Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, to get treatment. Goldberg says the week they did that first intervention, the couple got another surprise. She was pregnant.
Goldberg says Love stayed clean for rest of her pregnancy, but just before the couple's baby girl, Frances, was born, Vanity Fair published an article alleging that Courtney Love used drugs throughout her pregnancy. It became a huge scandal, and the couple nearly lost custody of their child.
"It was just so humiliating and terrifying to have to go through and caused a certain level of anxiety that often bordered on paranoia about the media," Goldberg says.
Although Goldberg says the first intervention did work, Cobain slipped back into using drugs. Goldberg, Love and others attempted another intervention in 1994, but Cobain refused to stay in rehab. Cobain killed himself in April of that year. Goldberg was in a meeting in New York when he got the call.
"I loved him very, very much," Goldberg says. "How close you were depended on which day the week, and which hour of the day. There were times when we really had a brotherly kind of intimacy, and there were times when he would have an opaque look in his eyes and I couldn't get through to him."
Though he deems himself an "unreliable narrator" because of his close relationship with Cobain, Goldberg calls Serving the Servant a love letter to the artist and a deep appreciation for all that he stood for. "I make no bones about it," he says. "I'm talking from the point of view of really admiring, loving the guy."