Song Writing

10 Things We Learned From The Kurt Cobain Book Serving The Servant

by Jeff Suwak

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Kurt Cobain has long been mythologized as the archetypal "tortured artist." With Serving the Servant, author Danny Goldberg wanted to show a different side to the biggest rock star of the 1990s. As former Nirvana music manager and personal friend of Cobain's, he had plenty of material to draw from.

Compared to the popular persona, Goldberg's version of Cobain is less glamorous but more human - more real. None of Goldberg's portrayal takes any glean away from Cobain's genius, however. It only adds to it. It shows Cobain as the primary driving force behind every creative aspect of Nirvana, from songwriting to design of album covers, posters, and T-shirts. He even dictated what attitude the band projected in any given interview. Cobain masterfully orchestrated every step of Nirvana's rise, determined to bring his personal vision to life.

Goldberg with Kurt Cobain
By his own account, Goldberg wrote the book himself, with no help by ghostwriters or writing coaches. The result is an intimate account of the time he spent with a man he considers to be the Bob Dylan of the 1990s - the grunge generation's greatest rock-and-roll savant.

For children of the '90s, and maybe for some younger Nirvana fans, some of Goldberg's account will likely be jarring, or at least mildly annoying. While Nevermind was sweeping the nation, projecting a romanticized image of anti-corporate outsider heroism, businessmen like Goldberg were ecstatically counting the dollars pouring in. Cobain, too, paid keen attention to how many records he sold and how much money was being made and spent.

In many other ways, though, Cobain was as genuine as legend has it. He didn't go to many big Hollywood-style parties. He was always humble and kind to his fans. He stuck up for outcasts of every kind, and he never forgot his roots.

Serving the Servant is a well-written, engaging read that may shatter some myths but also fills out Kurt Cobain as a real person rather than a mythical figure. From what I've learned about the guy, I can't help but think he'd have preferred it that way. Here are 10 takeaways.

1. Don't let the flannel fool you: Cobain was ambitious

Kurt Cobain may have portrayed the image of a dropout slacker, but behind the scenes he was calculated and ambitious. Goldberg notes how Cobain made a conscious effort to never repeat himself in the press, thereby always remaining interesting and fresh for the public. Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, who was always more shameless about wanting to be rich and famous ("bigger than Madonna"), reminded Goldberg that Cobain wasn't any different from her in that regard, he was just better at concealing it.

Goldberg writes that one of Cobain's biggest problems was that he sought fame and fortune so desperately, but upon attaining those things discovered they didn't make the pain of his childhood wounds or his self-doubts go away.


2. "Territorial Pissings" had another angle

"Territorial Pissings" was indeed about misogyny, as is commonly known, but it was also inspired by the poor treatment of Native Americans.

Cobain grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, which is a bit south of the Quinault Tribe's reservation lands. He witnessed firsthand the racism and mistreatment of native peoples.


3. Cobain didn't sweat fake news

In an interview with Kurt Allman of the LGBT magazine The Advocate, Cobain said that he'd been called a "faggot" in high school and that he spray-painted "HOMO SEX RULES" on a wall with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic when they were kids.

Cobain went on to say he was "gay in spirit" and could be bisexual. Word got out about the piece, and a gossip columnist spread word that Cobain and Love came out as gay in the soon-to-be-published piece. This fake news created quite a stir.

Allman expected Cobain to be furious. When he called Cobain to explain he wasn't responsible for the rumor and hadn't started it to create a promotional buzz, Cobain just laughed and said, "Don't worry about it, this kind of thing happens all the time."


4. The strategic Lollapalooza call

Nirvana was conspicuously absent from all the Lollapalooza festivals, which started in 1991 and featured the biggest acts in the alternative genre - precisely the audience Nirvana appealed to. According to Goldberg, their absence was strategic: Both Goldberg and Cobain felt that performing at the festival would lump them into the general music scene, when what they wanted was to preserve the sense that Nirvana was a unique act existing in a space entirely their own.


5. Tired of the hometown hype but never the hometown

After Nirvana blew up, the media started bandying around the notion of a "Seattle sound," implying that a homogenous musical sensibility had formed in the region. This always irritated Cobain, who considered Nirvana's vision to be uniquely their own. The other Seattle-area musicians, as well, viewed Nirvana as an outlier, aware that Cobain's talent set him on a level above the rest.

Cobain never let his ire for the media's packaging of the "Seattle sound" stop him from maintaining his ties with his old friends in those bands, however. He continued to promote them whenever he could, wearing T-shirts with their names during performances.

Cobain also remained cognizant of what his old crew might think about his increasingly "commercial" music. Even at the height of his fame, he continued getting his hair cut by Sub Pop publicist and friend Jennie Boddy in her Seattle home. He may have hated the idea of a "Seattle sound," but he also stayed true to the people who were there with him at the beginning.


6. Cobain never wanted to be seen as a sellout

Cobain was nervous that his old friends in the punk scene would think he sold out with Nevermind. Before the album's release, he'd compulsively remind people that he'd been writing catchy tunes with pop-music sensibilities ever since "About a Girl" and "Sliver."

He never stopped being concerned over the issue and was always trying to strike the right balance between commercially appealing music and his punk-rock sensibilities. He wanted the masses to love his art, but he also wanted the respect of the outsider circles he'd come up in.


7. An onstage intervention with a fan

Cobain and Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses got into it backstage at the 1992 MTV Music Awards when Rose threatened Cobain while he sat with Love and their month-old daughter. Love started it by jokingly offering to make Rose their daughter's godfather.

What is less known is that a month after the MTV Music Awards, Nirvana played a benefit concert at the Portland Meadows in Oregon. The show was held in opposition to Oregon Ballot Measure 9, which would have made it illegal for the state government to use public funds to promote "homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism." The measure was viewed as an attack on gay rights and sparked a resistance.

During the show, Cobain and Novoselic told the story of their encounter with Rose. A fan, who Goldberg says was obviously stoned, ran up on the stage. Security moved to stop him, but Cobain told them to let the young man speak and even shared his microphone to let him have his say.

The fan pleaded with Cobain to respect all music and musicians, including Rose and Guns N' Roses. Cobain kindly put his arm around the young man and explained that he couldn't support an artist who stood for misogyny, racism, and homophobia. The kid nodded and shook Cobain's hand, his mind seemingly changed right there in front of a packed crowd of music fans.

Goldberg calls it "one of the greatest rock-and-roll moments" he'd ever witnessed.


The book title is a reference to the In Utero track "Serve The Servants," one of Kurt Cobain's most personal songs.

8. Cobain was a staunch supporter of gay rights

As for that aforementioned Oregon Ballot Measure 9 show, Nirvana's appearance at the benefit concert was instrumental in getting the proposal voted down.

Prominent gay rights activist Scot Nakagawa said Nirvana's performance was crucial to the opposition's victory. "We needed to change the story and the Nirvana concert helped to do so. Nirvana helped make the campaign magnetic. The number of volunteers soared, donor confidence rose, and many in the community felt redeemed."

It's just one example of Cobain aiding the LGBT community.


9. When Nirvana unplugged, Cobain thought it sucked

Many consider Nirvana's Unplugged performance one of the best ever in the series, which has featured many of the top acts in music. Cobain, however, initially thought that the show went terribly. He misread the polite, muted response of the audience, thinking they hadn't enjoyed the show. The truth is that they were so quiet partly because of the intimate setting but mostly because the performances were so powerful.

Cobain's singing on the band's cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" was particularly memorable. The last notes he hit just before opening his eyes and revealing their almost frightening intensity blew Neil Young away. Young called those closing vocals, "Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable."


10. As far as Cobain was concerned, those heavy metal guys just didn't get it

As Nevermind was breaking, Nirvana's label pushed their music to heavy metal fans. Cobain wasn't comfortable with this because he associated the metal community with misogyny and macho posturing he'd been rebelling against his whole life.

When a promoter put Cobain on the phone with the editor of the heavy metal section of CMJ New Music Monthly without telling him who was on the line, Cobain "clammed up." The promoter stayed away to hide from Cobain's wrath for a long time afterwards.

May 2, 2019
Get Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain at Amazon
Here are the Nirvana Songfacts entries
And an interview with Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt
photo: Jeff Kravitz and FilmMagic.com

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