Backstage Pass: Kurt Cobain Before Fame | Music | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Backstage Pass: Kurt Cobain Before Fame 

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But when Nirvana’s fame started really blowing up, Kurt, who only wanted to write songs, play packed sweaty shows in small clubs, and make records, wasn’t interested in blowing up along with it. At a White Zombie show at the Limelight in New York in late 1993, I ran into Van Conner, the Screaming Trees guitarist, who was playing with the opening band, Love Battery. I’d known Van from booking the Trees several times in Cincinnati. Both of us were stunned at Nirvana’s breakthrough and at how surreal it was that the music we’d been a part of had now seemingly been jolted out of the underground and into the mainstream, something neither of us had ever considered even remotely possible. At that moment the big thing with Nirvana was that the band was flat-out refusing to tour, even though Nevermind was quickly going platinum. “It’s because Kurt doesn’t wanna play stadiums,” Van said. “He thinks they can still stay small and just keep playing clubs. I keep telling him, ‘You’re crazy, man!’” This unwillingness of Kurt to let go of his underground roots, however unrealistic it was in the face of MTV and beckoning outdoor amphitheaters, was something I found refreshing and inspiring then and still do now. It’s long been de rigueur among certain underground types to bash Nirvana simply for making it big, as if they changed their music and ditched their principles to do so. I don’t agree with that at all. I firmly believe they made the same kind of music they would’ve made whether they ever made it beyond the Aberdeen, Washington, punk house-party circuit or not. In a space-time rupture that happens, if all is aligned, perhaps once every generation, the larger music world was primed and ready for what Nirvana was about. Plus they backed up it all up by being—sorry, deniers—an indisputably excellent rock band. Yes, Dave Grohl has gone on to embrace the glitzy life and play toned-down, MOR-pandering music with the Foo Fighters, but one gets the feeling that Kurt Cobain would never have stooped to that. In fact, his resistance to it is clearly a large part of what killed him.

The Shocking Blue, a late ’60s/early ’70s pop-psych band best known for the Top 40 hit “Venus,” was a favorite of Kurt’s. Nirvana covered the Dutch group’s classic “Love Buzz” on Bleach and as the A side of their first 7”. So when I found two copies of the Shocking Blue’s 1970 single “Never Marry a Railroad Man” in a thrift store the month before Nirvana’s first Cincinnati show, I saved one for Kurt and presented it to him after the gig. “Wow, I don’t have this one,” he told me, clearly touched and excited, like a little kid. “This is awesome, man. Thanks a lot!”

So that will always be the central image I have in my mind of Kurt Cobain. Not the image of the statuesque rock star foisted upon him by legions of worshippers. Not the image of a troubled soul who battled personal demons and the soul-sucking fangs of a Hollywood succubus. Not even that of the great artist he most certainly was. Instead, I see the image of someone who, at the end of the day, was a pure lover of music and of the ability it had to make him feel good. For me, he remains crouched near the lip of the stage in the back room of Murphy’s Pub at the end of the night, with his guitar case lying open, holding a scratchy 45 in his hand. And smiling. Frozen there. Just like that.

Click here to view more photos of Kurt Cobain and find out more about the Morrison Hotel Gallery exhibit.

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