These recordings have been floating around for a while; October 1992, the peak of the Cobain’s siege mentality as Vanity Fair’s poison-pen letter had sparked the intervention of Child Welfare Services who removed Frances Bean Cobain from her parents at two weeks old so an investigation could take place regarding their drug usage and fitness as parents. Kurt and Courtney had to endure a guessing game of figuring out which ‘inside sources’ (what the rest of us would get to call ‘friends’) had made anonymous accusations against them – who could they trust? Relationships with Cobain’s closest friend – Krist Novoselic – had been rocky since early that year given a few disagreements between respective spouses – another link broken. And, being frank, Cobain was hitting a peak in his drug usage. While it’s pointless (and impossible – though potentially fun) to try and plot a calendar of ‘how high?’ or to argue he was OK on the basis of X or Y photograph or video footage, ultimately Kurt Cobain really did have a drug problem of sufficient scale that he had spent parts of the year in rehab and even greeted his own daughter’s birth having been fetched from there by his wife – not exactly perfect virtue. The weeks after the arrival of a child are a busy, tiring, fraught time for any set of parents – for these two, at this time, the media light, the pharmacology of the father, the mistrust of those around them…It added up.
All I feel is that it was sheer bad luck and misfortune for two U.K. journalists to walk into the middle of this environment where the slightest sign of intrusion could be deemed to have negative intent, or a traitorous edge. Victoria Mary Clarke tells her own tale and I’ve no desire to take her words from her so here she is:
June 26, 1992 – it’s already going wrong. That’s the date of the Roskilde Festival. Denmark beat Germany in the European soccer championships so the whole nation was celebrating – Nirvana even agreed to go on an hour or two late because the audience wanted to see the match on the big screens on stage. Cobain met a Geffen-hired photographer for a quick ceremony handing over gold discs for sales of Nevermind in Denmark – he was happy, courteous, complimented the football result. It was a good show. He gave an interview that day, a little more edgy, a little more withdrawn – but, again, not particularly difficult. And somewhere in amidst it he’s had management kick this journalist out of the festival.
September 1992, out comes Vanity Fair – things kick off more deeply. It seems to be the news that Britt and Victoria have spoken to Lyn Hirschberg that provokes the final storm…36 minutes of vitrolic voicemails from various sources:
The Dave Grohl call is…Something I’d not checked before. Wow. Grohl calls claiming that he’s heard a rumour that they’ve slept together – he’s clearly unhappy, for whatever reason, he threatens legal action on top of the death threats from Kurt and the barrage from Courtney.
Then it gets truly surreal…Kurt’s aunt now calls up to demand that no material from her interview be used in the book – again, legal threats, a statement that the understanding is that the intended book is a hatchet job.
There’s a wider orchestration at work – multiple levels of attack coming down on the two journalists – calls from the couple at the centre seem to be leading to these reactions from other people, meanwhile the record company’s legal people and the Cobain’s private representatives are tackling the publishers in both U.K. and U.S. Full defence at play. Ultimate result is that a book never materialises – just an ugly incident.
Listening to it all is voyeuristic, for sure – don’t think I’ll listen to these again any time. The fact that Kurt calls sometime on the night of October 22 – early morning on October 23 doesn’t bode well for his condition, the tape is fascinating in the sense that more than the Sao Paolo performance in January 1993 or the post-overdose performance in July 1993 in New York, he’s visibly wasted. Nirvana are one week before the poor performance in Buenos Aires where Cobain is invisible except for the performance and brief backstage time before – he’s ill? Yeah…For sure.
The comments under the YouTube clips tend to be a bit of a ‘right/wrong’ battle at points with people taking sides. I’m not sure there’s a side to be taken here. The voicemails are vicious, unpleasant, unnecessary – it’s harassment, it’s threatening, it’s gross behaviour from both Kurt and Courtney. On the other hand, the scale of the threat to their family at that point, their love for one another and for their child, the situation they’re currently in – their terror, their rage, their misery is all understandable also. Of course we do live in a society governed by rule of law so that doesn’t justify extra-judicial intimidation but it makes their verbal violence comprehensible if not forgivable. I’m into reasons (why something happens and someone does something) not excuses (why something happens and therefore someone’s actions aren’t their fault.)
As far as Victoria and Britt…Again, similar splitting of the difference. Journalism by its very nature is intrusive – it’s meant to be. The bargain any artist makes with the media is that by giving away a certain amount of privacy they’ll receive a certain amount of benefit resulting from coverage. The individual artists draw their lines, journalists are independent and therefore entitled to explore, question, find other routes to clear understanding. The ‘quest for the truth’ doesn’t negate them receiving blame for the harm that the truth can cause. Revealing someone as a killer obviously hurts their family, their friends – but there’s a greater good at play. Music biography, a trickier field. Instinctively I’d hate it if the only biography permitted was the sugar-coated faux-honesty of artists telling their own tale – they’re entitled to try but I think most artists are flippant, deceptive, sometimes blind. We all are – it’s human to underplay or reinterpret one’s sins.
I can’t imagine Victoria or Britt gathered anything other than the truth about the situation around the Cobains; that Courtney Love had made herself a less than beloved figure long before meeting Kurt Cobain, that drugs were a major part of the scene around both people, that Cobain was on drugs throughout the pregnancy, that Courtney came off as soon as she knew but it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some blurring of early lines while still ignorant and still kicking. Revealing the views of others wouldn’t have been flattering, but wouldn’t have been dishonest either. The band’s lack of cooperation certainly didn’t help the situation – in a way it’s a shame they didn’t continue given Lime Lizard had followed Nirvana from their early days around the 1989 European tour, it may have been nice to see someone from the indie publishing world rather than the corporate music press create the first authorised biography of Nirvana.
End result? I think Victoria Clarke’s blog piece summarises things nicely. That it was grim on every front – that no one emerged untarnished or totally spotless. As a fan of Nirvana, therefore a fan of Kurt Cobain, I never want to turn admiration for someone’s creative works, or an attempt to understand a person one admires much of the time, into an application for sainthood (bleugh!) A recording like this is a good reminder that everyone has times they’re not all they are at their best – I wouldn’t wish you to see me at my worst either. It’s a grim recording, but a human one and a nice reply to the less balanced, more gushing end of Nirvana coverage and writing. A specific moment in time caught forever.