This article originally appeared in the April 15, 1994 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
The demons were real, but his music was an affirmation. It was about survival.
Nirvana had just finished a majestic performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the Wallace Civic Center last November when bassist Krist Novoselic burst into a sudden tantrum aimed at a member of the audience. “I saw you grab that girl! Why don’t you come up here, you weenie!”
Guitarist/singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain then took a seat to play the ballad “All Apologies,” first lecturing the audience about girl groping in the mosh pit. “We’ve hired goons,” he said calmly, “and if we find anyone groping girls’ breasts or pinching their asses, they’ll throw them out…and beat the shit out of them.”
Musically, it was a masterful show, perfectly paced, every segue showing off each song to its best advantage, with none of the dead spots that can stall a set at mid ballad. Through it all, Novoselic was a towering behemoth, hopping and banging out his bass lines. Cobain, by comparison, was a fragile waif. On stage, the band’s personal dynamic was as clear as their personal dynamic: with David Grohl’s fierce, precise drumming behind them, Novoselic was the kinetic genial giant, Cobain the soft-spoken introvert shuffling across stage in his permanent slouch, emitting howls of vocal and guitar noise mixed with touching, tender melodies. It wasn’t hard to imagine that if anyone ever laid a hand on the singer, Novoselic would kill him.
If you’ve followed Nirvana’s career at all over the past three years, it was difficult not to feel protective of Cobain. There was reported weirdness and with guns, drugs, petulant faxes sent to various publications (including this one) — exploits that made Cobain and wife Courtney Love a notorious rock-and-roll couple.
And yet, in interviews and in live performances, Cobain was invariably lucid, modest, intelligent. He denigrated his image as a “pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself.” That came from an interview with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke after the release of 1993’s In Utero. Cobain said he looked forward to the development of the band and considered tinkering with extended song forms, allowing that “I don’t know if we’re capable of it—as musicians.” But the set at Wallace Civic Center was not the performance of a band on the verge of breaking up, and there were none of the signs of a frontman who can’t, or wouldn’t perform.
Even so, when Cobain’s shotgun-blasted body was found last week in his Seattle home, the shock wasn’t merely at his death. We had been prepared for that (if by none of the other signs) by the “Rome coma” of a month before. And there were hints through his whole career of instability — an incident where he climbed a bank of amplifiers and appeared ready to jump off, his comment to writer Michael Azerrad that if he hadn’t “cured” his mysteriously recurring stomach ailment with heroin, he would have blown his brains out.