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COVER STORY : Storming Back From the Brink : The pressures of success nearly did in Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Now, after a break--and with a new album--he's set to rock again. But don't expect the elder statesman of grunge to be a role model or anything

August 29, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

SEATTLE — As Kurt Cobain walks into the living room of his rented house, he's made an odd choice in clothing. The most important new voice in American rock in years is wearing a black thigh-length thrift store dress over flannel longjohns.

"Wearing a dress shows I can be as feminine as I want," he says, in a jab at the macho undercurrents that he detests in rock. "I'm a heterosexual . . . big deal. But if I was a homosexual, it wouldn't matter either."

As one of rock's most celebrated figures, it's easy now for Cobain to make such statements.

Nirvana's "Nevermind" album, which has sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide since its release in late 1991, reflected the anger and alienation of young rock fans in a way that has led critics to hail Cobain, 26, as the voice of a new generation.

Even Beavis and Butt-head, the hopelessly moronic head-bangers on MTV, think Cobain (and all other Seattle rockers) is cool.

But there was a time--back in high school in nearby Aberdeen--when it was difficult for Cobain to express himself so freely.

In those days, he felt alienated from the other kids, most of whom didn't understand why he wanted to paint rather than play sports or why he dreamed about getting out of Aberdeen someday instead of joining the other boys in thinking about taking over their fathers' jobs at the timber mill.

So, Cobain isn't just being provocative for provocative's sake when he wears a dress or includes a pro-gay reference in a song. He feels deeply about the issue because he was frequently tormented by teens and adults in his hometown because he didn't seem manly enough. He also was appalled by the misogynistic attitude of most of his male peers in the tough logging town.

It's easy to see how Cobain was an easy target back then. He looks so frail physically and is often so withdrawn when he speaks that it's hard to picture him standing up to a bully's onslaught.

Yet there's a deep-rooted intensity in Cobain that suggests an underlying fearlessness--even recklessness--in the support of his beliefs.

Further waving a red flag at rock's homophobic contingent, he includes in the band's upcoming album the line, "What else should I say / Everyone is gay."

On the point, he adds, "I respect people who promote the way that they feel sexually."

Cobain pauses, as if thinking back to those long-ago days in Aberdeen.

"Yeah, you know, there were a lot of Beavises and Butt-heads back there," he says finally. "The only difference is they weren't as clever as the guys on TV."

It's past 1 a.m. in the house about 15 minutes from Seattle's downtown and Cobain has been talking since early evening about the pressures that could have destroyed him following the massive success of the group's landmark "Nevermind" album.

"We couldn't comprehend what was happening and we didn't handle things very well . . . ," he says, referring to late 1991 when the trio's major-label debut sold a million copies in six weeks--remarkable considering the band's record company expected sales of 200,000 tops.

"We had grown up admiring punk bands and thinking all those groups on the pop charts were embarrassing . . . and suddenly we were one of those bands," Cobain adds. "So, we thought we'd better screw this up and we tried for a while."

Igniting rumors of drug and alcohol abuse, the band caused chaos during appearances on British TV shows and was often surly and sarcastic during interviews in late '91. It also thumbed its nose at the mainstream fans who were turned on to the band by MTV. There were even whispers that they were making a follow-up album so raw it would be unlistenable--a perverse joke on the group's huge new audience.

The media attention on Cobain was especially intense because the album, which included the anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit," combined the radical independence of the Sex Pistols with traces of the melodic grace and craft of Lennon and McCartney.

Adding to the media furnace over Nirvana was Cobain's February, 1992, marriage to flamboyant punk star Courtney Love. The couple was widely characterized as the John & Yoko or the Sid & Nancy of the '90s, depending on your generational touchstone and the darkness of the tales heard about them.

The most incendiary public moment was a summer '92 profile in Vanity Fair, which suggested Love knowingly took heroin while pregnant. Both Love and Cobain have furiously denied that, though the magazine stands by its story. Their daughter Frances is now almost a year old and apparently in good health.

Even before that article, Cobain had withdrawn, turning down tour offers so lucrative that the inactivity prompted additional speculation about serious personal problems, including a possible nervous breakdown.

The pressure was so bad, Cobain says now, that he thought often of quitting the band, but the closest he got was a series of late-night messages on Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic's answering machine.

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