The world still dearly misses Kurt Cobain, the brilliant, genre-smashing guitarist and lead singer of Nirvana. Today marks a quarter-century since he died by suicide, haunted by depression, drug addiction, stomach pain, and an aversion to the fame machine. His legacy endures — not just for the brilliance of Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero, but for the way he changed the definition of "rock star."
Before Nirvana hit it big with their single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991, the male rock star was epitomized by Guns N' Roses' Axl Rose and other hair-band lead singers. These men were proudly sexist and homophobic (Skid Row's Sebastian Bach famously wore a T-shirt that read, "AIDS Kills Fags Dead").
Cobain, on the other hand, was sensitive and effeminate — someone who regularly spoke out for minorities and called out racism, misogyny, and homophobia. While many remember Cobain and his Nirvana bandmates wearing dresses and kissing in videos and live performances, virtually forgotten is the fact that Nirvana performed at a gay rights benefit in Oregon in 1992.
While promoting Nirvana's late-1992 compilation album Incesticide — which included the following statement in its liner notes, "If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us: leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records" — Cobain spoke to The Advocate, granting the LGBTQ publication his only interview at that precarious time.
At the time, Cobain and wife Courtney Love were still reeling from a Vanity Fair article from the previous year, where the writer described the two as heroin addicts and Love as using the drug while pregnant with their daughter.
In the Advocate article, Cobain displayed comfort in speaking with an LGBTQ publication and a familiarity with gay culture, often using terms like "homophobia" and "misogyny," appreciating the description of Love as a "fag hag," and recalling the time he saw the Village People in concert.
Here are some of the choicest quotes from the interview with journalist Kevin Allman.
The Advocate: I read the liner notes you wrote on Incesticide. I've never seen somebody on a major label say, "If you're a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, we don't want you to buy our records."
Kurt Cobain: That's been the biggest problem that I've had being in this band. I know there are those people out in the audience, and there's not much I can do about it. I can talk about those issues in interviews — I think it's pretty obvious that we're against the homophobes and the sexists and the racists, but when "Teen Spirit" first came out, mainstream audiences were under the assumption that we were just like Guns N' Roses.
These were his words: "You shut your bitch up, or I'm taking you down to the pavement." [Laughs] Everyone around us just burst out into tears of laughter. She wasn't even saying anything mean, you know? So I turned to Courtney and said, "Shut up, bitch!" And everyone laughed and he left. So I guess I did what he wanted me to do —be a man. [Laughs]
Does he remind you of guys you went to high school with?
Absolutely. Really confused, fucked-up guys. There's not much hope for them.
When he was singing about "immigrants and faggots," people were excusing it by saying, "Well, he's from Indiana —"
Oh, well, that's OK then. [Laughs] Insane. Later, after we played our show and were walking back to our trailer, the Guns N' Roses entourage came walking toward us. They have at least 50 bodyguards apiece: huge, gigantic, brain-dead oafs ready to kill for Axl at all times. [Laughs] They didn't see me, but they surrounded Chris, and Duff [McKagan of Guns N' Roses] wanted to beat Chris up, and the bodyguards started pushing Chris around. He finally escaped, but throughout the rest of the evening, there was a big threat of either Guns N' Roses themselves or their goons beating us up. We had to hide out.
Well, when we played that No on 9 benefit in Portland, I said something about Guns N' Roses. Nothing nasty — I think I said, "And now, for our next song, 'Sweet Child o' Mine.'" But some kid jumped onstage and said, "Hey, man, Guns N' Roses plays awesome music, and Nirvana plays awesome music. Let's just get along and work things out, man!"
And I just couldn't help but say, "No, kid, you're really wrong. Those people are total sexist jerks, and the reason we're playing this show is to fight homophobia in a real small way. The guy is a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can't be on his side and be on our side. I"m sorry that I have to divide this up like this, but it's something you can't ignore. And besides they can't write good music." [Laughs]
You know, you were probably taking money from people who were voting yes on 9 [an antigay ballot measure] — but they really wanted to see Nirvana.
[Laughs] Right! Chris went to a Guns N' Roses concert when they played here with Metallica a couple of months ago, and he went backstage, and there were these two bimbo girls who looked like they walked out of a Warrant video. They were sitting on the couch in hopes of sucking Axl's dick or something, and one of them said, "Chris, we saw you at that No on 9 benefit! We're voting yes on 9! You kissed Kurt on the lips! That was disgusting!" [Laughs] To know that we affect people like that — it's kind of funny. The sad thing is that there's no penetrating them. After all that, after all the things those girls had seen us do, that was the one thing that sticks in their minds.
You used to push people's buttons like that in high school, didn't you?
Oh, absolutely. I used to pretend I was gay just to fuck with people. I've had the reputation of being a homosexual every day since I was 14. It was really cool, because I found a couple of gay friends in Aberdeen [Wash.] —which is almost impossible. How I could ever come across a gay person in Aberdeen is amazing! But I had some really good friends that way. I got beat up a lot, of course, because of my association with them.
People just thought I was weird at first, just some fucked-up kid. But once I got the gay tag, it gave me the freedom to be able to be a freak and let people know that they should just stay away from me. Instead of having to explain to someone that they should just stay the fuck away from me-I'm gay, so I can't even be touched. It made for quite a few scary experiences in alleys walking home from school, though.
You actually got beat up?
Oh, yeah. Quite a few times.
And you used to spray-paint GOD IS GAY on people's trucks?
That was a lot of fun. The funniest thing about that was not actually the act but the next morning. I'd get up early in the morning to walk through the neighborhood that I'd terrorized to see the aftermath. That was the worst thing I could have spray-painted on their cars. Nothing else would have been more effective.
Because people thought you were gay and you had gay friends, did you ever wonder if you might be gay?
Yeah, absolutely. See I've always wanted male friends that I could be real intimate with and talk about important things with and be as affectionate with that person as I would be with a girl. Throughout my life, I've always been really close with girls and made friends with girls. And I've always been a really sickly, feminine person anyhow, so I thought I was gay for a while because I didn't find any of the girls in my high school attractive at all. They had really awful haircuts and fucked-up attitudes. So I thought I would try to be gay for a while, but I'm just more sexually attracted to women. But I'm really glad that I found a few gay friends, because it totally saved me from becoming a monk or something.
I mean, I'm definitely gay in spirit, and I probably could be bisexual. But I'm married, and I'm more attracted to Courtney than I ever have been toward a person, so there's no point in trying to sow my oats at this point. [Laughs] If I wouldn't have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle. But I just find her totally attractive in all ways.
She has been described as a fag hag—
Oh, she is. That was all she did for about five or six years of her life-hang out in gay clubs. She learned everything about perfume and fashion from her friends.
It seems tacky enough almost, but rock and roll and our generation are not going to put up with the same Reaganite bullshit we were subjected to when we were younger. I was helpless when I was 12, when Reagan got elected, and there was nothing I could do about that. But now this generation is growing up, and they're in their mid 20s, they're not putting up with it.
I know there's still Republicans all over the place, but don't you feel that it's getting a little bit better? Not just because Clinton is in office now but — look at the first thing he did. He tried to take away the ban on gays in the military, and I think that's a pretty positive thing. I don't expect a lot of change, but I think in the last five years our generation's gotten a little more positive. I know that by reading Sassy magazine, you know? As tacky and stupid as that seems, I can tell that the average 14-year-old kid is a lot more sensitive-or trying to be-than they were 10 years ago.
Are you pro Clinton?
Oh, yeah. I voted for him. I would have rather had Jerry Brown. I contributed my hundred dollars. But I'm definitely happy that Clinton's in.
Would you play at the White House if they asked you to?
[Laughs] If we could have some kind of influence on something, yeah. I know that Chelsea likes us a lot, so maybe Chelsea could say, "Dad, do this and do that! Nirvana says so!" [Laughs] Sure, I'd play for the president. And Chelsea seems like a pretty neat person — Birkenstock-wearing kid. Amy Carter's pretty cool too, from what I've heard. She's been seen at Butthole Surfers concerts!