In the early 1990s, Nirvana emerged from the underground to become one of the biggest bands in the world. Their look and sound defined the decade, and their influence can still be felt today.
No one seemed to personify this generation than frontman Kurt Cobain, a brooding and sensitive figure who seemingly struggled with the band’s success. Cobain died of suicide on 5 April 1994, at the age of 27.
On the 25th anniversary of his death, a new book aims to paint a deeper portrait of Cobain. The book, Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain, is written by Danny Goldberg, Nirvana's manager during the band's meteoric rise. Goldberg spoke with BBC Music about why he wrote the book, what Cobain was like before and after the band hit the big time, and how he hopes his memoir will add to the late musician’s legacy.
BBC Music: How did you meet Nirvana, and how did you get involved in managing them?
Danny Goldberg: I had been in the music business for a while, and started a management company called Gold Mountain Entertainment. We signed Sonic Youth, which was a big entry into the indie punk world because of their prestige, and they were such important identifiers and curators of new talent. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth told me that Nirvana was the best new band that had opened for them, so we met with Kurt, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl in November 1990. That was about nine or 10 months before Nevermind was released. I think they trusted Sonic Youth the way I did, so that was the seal of approval on both sides.
BBC Music: Do you remember the first moment you knew Nirvana were special?
Goldberg: When I finally saw the band live a few months later, I realised how extraordinary Kurt's talent was. They were opening for Dinosaur Jr at The Palace in LA, and I was mesmerised by the way Kurt connected with people. He created the sense that you knew him, even standing at the back of the crowd. That was when I realised that I had stumbled onto something very, very special. I remember the way I felt driving home afterwards, and how euphoric I was. I was 40 years old. I was pretty jaded. I'd been in the business since I was 19. I'd worked for Led Zeppelin and a lot of other bands, and seen hundreds of shows, and I was trying to run a small business. I was not romantic about the business at that point, but I was romantic about Nirvana after I saw them – after I saw Kurt's combination of power and vulnerability.
I was mesmerised by the way Kurt connected with people. He created the sense that you knew him, even standing at the back of the crowd.
BBC Music: Your book, Serving the Servant, is one of the few accounts that have come out of what you might call the inner circle around Nirvana. What was it that made you want to just share your memories at this particular moment in time?
Goldberg: Over the years, especially in the last decade or so, it seemed to me that Kurt's image had become overwhelmed by his death, his drug addiction and the darker sides of him. I certainly am aware of those sides, and I don't shy away from describing my encounters with them in my book.
This book is not a biography of Kurt. It's a memoir of the last three-and-a-half years of his life when I worked with him. Not everyone who is a genius is a nice person to other people, but he was. His darkness was all directed at himself, not at others, and I thought that there was a portrait of him that I could add, which would broaden out his legacy.
I'm not criticising the other depictions of him, because a lot of them are accurate. But they are incomplete. I wanted to add a perspective of someone who saw, up close, how creative and brilliant he was, and how Kurt was a sweetheart to the people around him during most of the period of time. I'm an unreliable narrator. It's biased. I loved the guy. I saw him and still see him through rose-coloured glasses.
BBC Music: The general perception of Kurt Cobain is someone who was immensely talented but complex, dark and, in many ways, an unwilling participant of Nirvana's success. But you paint another picture, of a person who was much more in control and calculating about the band's image and success.
Goldberg: Oh, he was the architect of Nirvana's success. He made every single decision. He wrote all the songs, all the famous songs, anyway, the lyrics and the music. He made the final decisions about every mix, about the mastering. He designed the album covers. He was the lead singer and the lead guitar player. He did most of the interviews. He storyboarded the videos. He designed the T-shirts, and he paid attention 24/7 to this career that he had imagined when he was younger, and that he executed in an extremely sophisticated level. There were aspects of the results of success that he didn’t like. He certainly detested the media interest in his personal life, and he wasn't crazy about being recognised if he went to the store or something like that. But he created it. It didn’t happen by accident.
BBC Music: Were there any sort of decisions that he was making in the artistic sphere that he felt he lost control of, or regretted in retrospect, after the band were successful?
Goldberg: I don't think he regretted any artistic decisions, not that I'm aware of. I think he was a big Kurt Cobain fan. This is a guy who put together an anthology of his early songs when he was 24 years old, after Nevermind came out, and released Incesticide just to make sure his full body of work was documented and curated the way he wanted it. There were certain shows that he wasn't happy with. He was self-critical in that respect, but I think he was quite happy with the records and the videos, because he worked so hard on them, and he thought about them so much, they were the result of what he wanted.
I think that there were aspects of being successful that didn’t feel the way Kurt expected it to feel. A part of it was that he had a lot of inner pain. He had a terrible childhood, prone to depression, and had done heroin long before he became famous. Being successful didn’t make all that pain go away. It gave him the satisfaction of being successful and expressing himself, but he still had these demons. That was like the shock of, you know, you get what you want, but it still doesn't solve all of your inner problems.
There were aspects of being successful that didn’t feel the way Kurt expected it to feel.
BBC Music: Was the general perception of his addiction accurate?
Goldberg: I don't know what the general perception was. But I know exactly the day I discovered that he was doing heroin. It was the day that the band did the TV show Saturday Night Live in January 1992. It was the week that Nevermind went to number one. It was so surreal to have a punk-influenced record replace a Michael Jackson album as the number one album in the US. It was an accomplishment that none of us thought possible a few months earlier, and they were doing Saturday Night Live, which is a big deal for any musical artist.
We got faxes of two pieces that had been written by West Coast journalists who'd seen him a week or two before, and alluded to the fact they thought he was on heroin. That was a very depressing thing to read, because usually, where there's smoke, there's fire. Then, I saw him, and he was stoned. A number of other people realised it that same day. That was just a dreadful fact that all of us who cared about him had to contend with, and for the rest of his life, it was a struggle.
BBC Music: One of the things you mention in the book is about what you said at Kurt Cobain's funeral: "I believe he would have left the world years ago if he hadn't met Courtney." As far as you could see, what role did Courtney Love fill in Kurt's life?
Goldberg: Well, he was in love with her. I think they had met briefly in the two preceding years, but I happened to be at a show in Chicago where she came back stage, and introduced herself to me. Five minutes later, I saw her sitting on his lap, and they both looked quite pleased with themselves, and were together for the rest of his life after that.
Courtney is a controversial figure. There were people who didn't like her for one reason or another, and people who thought she was brilliant and liked her a lot, and I was of the latter view. I saw her intelligence and her humour, but more to the point, I saw that Kurt was genuinely in love with her. This was not some passing rock and roll fling, at a time when other people around the band didn't get that. She was the love of his life. There's no question about it.
BBC Music: One of the things you explore in the book is how the band's dynamic changed. Can you tell us more about that?
Goldberg: The dynamic changed because a lot of things happened very, very quickly, within a matter of a few months. They became extraordinarily successful, and that kind of success is disorienting, especially for the first year, on anybody to begin with. Then, you add to that the fact that Kurt had developed this drug problem, and then Courtney was a new character and was on the road with them all the time. Often, you'd hear stories of people in Australia or Japan or whatever and Kurt and Courtney were in one car, and Krist and Dave were in the other car.
When they got on stage, they played great together, but the dynamic was definitely affected by these things. Also, Kurt wanted to renegotiate the relationship financially with the other guys. When they started the band, they were sharing all the money, including the songwriting money, even though Kurt wrote all the songs. A lot of bands do that at the beginning, because the songwriting money is the only money. Dave and Krist agreed to this, and it added a business element to the relationship that wasn't there when they were just three guys in a van playing clubs.
BBC Music: One of the things you mentioned about the band dynamic is when Dave Grohl starts harmonizing, and that it had a particular response with Kurt.
Goldberg: Kurt said to me one day, offhandedly: “I hear Dave singing harmonies every night. I don't know if you realise what a good singer he is.” I didn't, and I always jokingly now say, “If I had known how talented Dave was, I would have spent more time with him then.” Kurt knew that Dave was really talented, and he let me know, because Kurt was so smart about music.
BBC Music: How do you want your book to add to the legacy of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana?
Goldberg: I hope that readers get a feeling of his spirit through my account of the events. If they can feel his brilliance, his sweetness and his energy, then I'll be happy. I hope I brought to life enough of the details that people feel him in a different way, and add to their appreciation of what a great soul and great artist he was.
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