Kurt Cobain, the 25-year-old leader of the acclaimed and hugely successful rock group Nirvana, is sitting in the living room of his Hollywood Hills apartment, holding Frances, his and Courtney Love's 4-week-old baby.
It's Cobain's first formal interview in almost a year, and it takes time to open up.
A shy, sensitive man, he speaks easily about his daughter, but there's one thing he's uncomfortable talking about even though he knows he has to.
Nirvana is the hottest new band to come along in years, and several of the articles on the group have speculated about Cobain's alleged drug use.
He now admits that he's used drugs, including heroin, but never as much as has been rumored or reported in the rock press. He also says in a quiet, but forceful way, that he is now drug-free.
"There's nothing better than having a baby," says Cobain disarmingly. "I've always loved children. I used to work summers at the YMCA and be in charge of like 30 preschool kids.
"I knew that when I had a child, I'd be overwhelmed and it's true . . . I can't tell you how much my attitude has changed since we've got Frances. Holding my baby is the best drug in the world."
Yet Cobain, whose music speaks eloquently about the anger and alienation of youth, worries that the persistent rumors are threatening to turn him into a stereotype of a wasted rock 'n' roller. He also doesn't want to be a bad role model for the group's teen-age fans.
He knows some people won't believe him when he says drugs are no longer part of his life, but he still feels compelled to speak out.
"I would say I tried to set the record straight," he says, when asked how he'd respond to someone who questions his sincerity. "That's all I can do. We have a lot of young fans and I don't want to have anything to do with inciting drug use. People who promote drug use are (expletive). I chose to do drugs. I don't feel sorry for myself at all, but have nothing good to say about them. They are a total waste of time."
If you watched the recent MTV Video Awards and didn't know much about Nirvana and all the drug rumors, you would have been puzzled when Cobain looked into the camera after accepting a best new artist award and said, "It's really hard to believe everything you read."
But it was no mystery to the millions of fans who have either bought Nirvana's debut album, "Nevermind," or have fallen under the spell of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the band's wry hit single. They thought they knew exactly what he was talking about: the heroin rumors.
While his wife--leader of the band Hole--watches a tape of the MTV Awards show in an adjoining room, Cobain, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, talks at length about what he only alluded to during the MTV telecast.
"I've been accused of being a junkie for years . . . back way before 'Nevermind,' " he says, his face tense as he wrestles with the subject. "I know that a lot of it has to do with the vibes that I put off . . . the things I'd be doing during tours . . . backstage when writers would come in to see us.
"I've had this terrible stomach problem for years and that has made touring difficult. People would see me sitting in the corner by myself looking sick and gloomy. The reason is that I wastrying to fight against the stomach pain, trying to hold my food down. People looked me and assumed I was some kind of addict."
The continuing stomach problem--which he says doctors have been unable to diagnose--is aggravated by stress and bad eating habits on the road. This is a central reason Nirvana has done so little touring in recent months, he says.
On the issue of drugs, he says he "dabbled" with heroin for several years, defining "dabble" as maybe once or twice a year.
"It didn't bother me at first (when people started talking or writing about possible drug use) because I've always admired Keith Richards and all these other rock stars who were associated with heroin. There had been some type of glamour element to it."
The "dabbling," however, changed dramatically after the "Nevermind" album was released last fall.
Until that album, Nirvana was an underground group--one of many admired bands from the suddenly hot Seattle alternative-rock scene.
Formed in 1986, the trio--also now featuring bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl--combined punk independence and energy with a melodic pop sense that at times is reminiscent of the Beatles, which was the first rock group ever to catch Cobain's ear.
"Bleach," the band's 1990 debut album on tiny Sub Pop Records, sold less than 50,000 copies, but it touched a nerve in critics, fans and record companies around the country.
The group was then signed by DGC Records, part of the powerful Geffen Records complex. "Nevermind," released in the fall of 1991, turned the band into stars almost overnight. The album, which went to No. 1 on the pop charts, has sold more than 4 million copies in the United States alone. Cobain was hailed as an artist with the imagination and depth to become a voice for the '90s.
While it was Cobain's songwriting skills that enabled the band to achieve mainstream success, it was his link to the underground/punk world that made him uneasy in the mainstream spotlight. Not only did the mainstream represent compromise and superficiality to him, but he also felt overwhelmed by the pressures that were thrust upon him.
"I guess I must have quit the band about 10 different times in the last year," he says, handing the baby to his wife, who has joined him in the living room.
"I'd tell my manager or the band, but most of the time I would just stand up and say to Courtney, 'OK, this is it.' But it would blow over in a day or two. . . . The music is usually what brings me back.
"The biggest thing that affected me was all the insane rumors, the heroin rumors . . . all this speculation going on. I felt totally violated. I never realized that my private life would be such an issue."
The drug use temporarily escalated, he says, early this year, when the pressure on him was apparently at a peak. The group went on "Saturday Night Live"; Guns N' Roses and Metallica were trying to talk the trio into touring with them this summer, and there was the band's own concerts, including some dates in Australia.
The "Saturday Night Live" period was touched on in a recent Vanity Fair magazine profile of Courtney Love. She is quoted in the story as saying, "We (she and Cobain) got high and went to 'SNL.' After that, I did heroin for a couple of months." The reason the quote became a cause celebre in pop was that Love was pregnant with Frances at the time.
(Love has denied that she knowingly took heroin while pregnant. The magazine, meanwhile, stands by the story.)
Cobain, who also has a home in the Seattle area, says he did develop a "little habit" early this year. "I did heroin for three weeks," he says, flatly, now smoking a cigarette.
"Then I went through a detox program, but my stomach started up again on tour. I was vomiting really bad . . . couldn't hold anything down.
"We went to this doctor who gave me these tablets that were methadone. By the end of the tour, I had a habit again . . . and I had to go into detox again to straighten myself out again. That took a really long time . . . about a month. And that was it."
Danny Goldberg, an Atlantic Records executive who remains one of the managers of the band, confirmed in a separate interview that he's seen a dramatic change in Cobain since last spring.
"Kurt is someone who had a hard time dealing with the unexpected intensity of the success," Goldberg said. "He came from a very difficult background, literally didn't have his own apartment when I first started managing him. Then, in a matter of a few months, he became an international celebrity. He got confused for a while, but seems to have bounced back. He has a healthy baby and is functioning the best I've ever seen him."
Goldberg says he thinks becoming a father has helped Cobain get a perspective on his career and life.
"I believe the day (last spring) I saw a change was when he had these ultrasound (pictures) of the baby. They are like little black-and-white Polaroid photos and you see the baby's hands and things in the womb. He put it up on his wall at home.
"I think that took him out of thinking about himself and made him start thinking about the next phase of his life, where no matter what happens, this person was going to be in his life. He came out of the 'Oh, man, I was a punk rocker and now I'm a rock star and I never wanted to be a rock star' attitude. He was so thrilled about having a baby."
Back in his apartment, Cobain takes his daughter from his wife and reflects on the future. He is looking forward to what he thought only a few months ago might be impossible: recording another album.
"We've been wanting to record a really raw album for almost a year and it looks like we are finally ready to do it," he says. "I have been prescribed some stomach medicine that has helped ease the pain and I've been going to a pain management clinic. I also meditate. We'd like to put the album out before we go on tour again early next year."
He pauses after the mention of touring. The band followed the MTV Awards with concerts in Seattle and Portland, but they were the group's only U.S. dates this year.
"We might not go on any more long tours," he says, hesitantly. "The only way we could tour is if I could find some way to keep my stomach from acting up. We could record and play shows once in a while, but to put myself in the physical strain of seven months of touring is too much for me. I would rather be healthy and alive. I don't want to sacrifice myself or my family."
DRUG ABUSE; MUSICIANS
Copyright 1992/The Times Mirror Company