Darker Hues: Kurt Cobain’s Voicemails to Victoria Clarke

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 He gave an interview that day, a little more edgy, a little more withdrawn – but, again, not particularly difficult.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.


8 thoughts on “Darker Hues: Kurt Cobain’s Voicemails to Victoria Clarke”

  1. You refer to Krist as Kurts closest friend in the article which is something I often see in articles about Kurt but how accurate actually is it. They didn’t really become friends to after Fecal Matter so 1986 and in 1990 Kurt lived in Olympia and I believe Krist was in Tacoma any mentions of them interacting after that seem to be band related. So at most they were close friends for what 3 years. After that it is mainly Dylan/Slim Moon/Tobi and Kathleen and Dave for a time and later Courtney Cali and members of Hole. Of course all of this is in the end meaningless but I think we can sometimes confuse being in a band with being friends.

    1. I admit I’d disagree on this I guess – but really welcome thinking about it because you’re SO right, I’d never actually questioned myself on why I think it – was I just the victim of “Come as You Are” bio-era propaganda?” I think I’d be shy of trying to create a ‘hierarchy’ or ‘league table of friends’ – I’m not sure I’d want to do that or that it’d be valid. Would it feel better if I switched ‘closest’ to ‘close’? I’d feel better. But it’s hard to spot an individual with a longer devotion to Cobain or one who spends as much time sharing experience with him.

      Cali? He’s an employee for better or worse – there are other nannies for chunks of 1992-1993. Hole? Maybe, but Eric is overt that he didn’t want Kurt involved in the “Live Through This” recording sessions and that he wasn’t round seeing his friend every day – 1991-1994.
      Tobi/Kathleen? Seems to stretch from 1989 through early 1991 in line with Kurt’s Olympia living but not much further than there…
      Dave? Sure, I’d take that – 1990-1993 room-mates, work-mates…But Dave is clear he didn’t hangout with Kurt socially once the drug crowd took over from 1992. He’s also clearly subordinate to the Krist and Kurt in interview situations which seems to suggest a pecking order.
      Dylan/Slim/Dale? Definitely. True friends. The people one doesn’t see for ages and when you come back to them it’s like you’ve never been away. They’re not seeing much of Kurt, and no one can get hold of him between touring and dope for a long while…But for sure!

      But on that same basis, Krist deserves his place too – unless we’re saying it’s about “who’s there at the end?” I still call people my friends who I knew at school – or who I lost touch with after uni – who I only knew at or via particular workplaces. Krist serves Kurt’s vision in a way that numerous others fail to 1986-1990 – Kurt ditches those he can’t get on with, those who aren’t believers. Krist is the perennial because he earns it with loyalty. The band, by 1990 are spending a substantial portion of the year together either recording, practising, interviewing or touring – again, Krist is the partner through all this.

      You’re undoubtedly right that the relationship frays – I’m not sure I’d be much into shepherding a cantakerous mood-swinging depressive drug addict around at my place of work either – but judging the entire relationship, or discounting it, on the basis that after 1992 everything to do with Nirvana becomes ‘the day job’ to Kurt and one he’s happy to avoid seems a bit unfair. Even in late 1993 it’s Krist who comes back on stage to pick up Kurt and carry him backstage, Krist shielding Kurt by taking on as much of the interview work as possible, still taking the mike as he has done since the early days when Kurt doesn’t feel like talking, still trying to handle the business and defending his friend to the press, still – judging by his account in Heavier than Heaven – trying to find a way to look after someone he cares about right until the end in face of significant provocation… But you’re right, there’s at least a bad blip in their relationship which never has a chance to work itself out.

      1. On a side note I’d say one of Kurt’s closest friends would be Pat Smear. Well 93-94 anyway. He seemed to spend a lot of time with Pat on tour, Pat was the one to take Kurt to the hospital in Rome and he made the 1994 home demos with him (that’s Pat on the second guitar on Do Re Mi right?). After reading Evertte Trues book on Nirvana, it seems that Kurts relationship with Krist was very strained by 1992. They’re last encounter is very sad.

  2. Oh! One thing to add of course, Kurt does end up living in a van at the back of Krist’s house in late 1991 too…Which kinda seems like an indication of ongoing friendship. I don’t think there’s any sign of a divide until 1992.

  3. Man The pain in Krist eyes which does not prove much but he genuinely seems the saddest of all the people when remembering KC. When he talks about not having to buy left hand guitars anymore ( and this is 20 years later) he still seems more sad then Courtney did the day after. I believe Krist was his closest friend over time for sure

    1. I see few other people sticking with Cobain – or Cobain allowing people to stick with him – for that whole period of his young adulthood. Damn he was young…A friend he met in late teenhood who is still there for him at 27 – rare. One who really has been through a lot of it with him, despite rifts, breaches, etc.

  4. Kurt got chummy with pat but I think some if that is due to admiration for the germs guitarist. I’d say kurt was very close with krist and Dave until the drugs and marriage and the publishing royalty fight. Ian dickson and Carrie Montgomery were very tight with kurt until his marriage. I’d say that kurt had two friendships that survived his marriage to Courtney: Dylan Carlson and Mark Lanegan. The mere fact that courtney publicly attacks slim moon and kurt’s Olympia coterie in 1993 indicates to me that much of this anger was coming from kurt. I doubt courtney would have been publicly attacking kurt’s old friends in kurt’s lifetime if kurt himself weren’t the source of much of this. While I’m willing to believe that the couple’s siege mentality and drug based paranoia fed the splits with Ian dickson, Carrie Montgomery and kurt’s bandmates, I doubt very much that courtney would’ve cared about slim moon making money off of beeswax if kurt hadn’t told her he felt betrayed. Kurt had so drastically removed himself from Olympia that by late 1992 he hadn’t spoken to the bikini kill members (including the drummer who he had broken up with) or his former neighbor slim moon and the musicians and scene friends he had once socialized with. After the wedding it seems that moving to L.A., drugs, media paranoia and Courtney’s influence had changed kurt’s social circle considerably. He from then on hung out with Courtney’s friends almost exclusively. He still maintained a relationship with Dylan, lanegan and the melvins though. I assume that he still loved krist but the drugs had made thus relationship very strained. He was trashing dave to people in 1993 and he was talking to dale crover and Mark pickerel about having them drum on future nirvana records. Although I imagine dave would’ve quit if he had to divide drumming duties with the other two, but at the time this may have been kurt’s goal to avoid firing dave. It’s ridiculous to me that kurt would’ve been dissatisfied with Dave’s drumming since dave was so close stylistically to dale but dale wouldn’t do what kurt told him to, unlike dave. I imagine that since at the end even courtney was calling krist and pleading with slim moon to hang out with kurt, as well as going to Susan silver for advice, had kurt lived his relationships would’ve improved.

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