It was 1992 when Kurt Cobain posed with infant daughter Frances Bean wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with three words: grunge is dead. Of course it was a goof; at the time, the major labels were in full thrall with grunge, lustily courting greasy-haired Seattleites.
Years later, after Cobain took his own life, the phrase became an accepted truth. Labels started dropping grunge acts en masse. Bands imploded or slid into irrelevancy—few survived the decade.
Cut to 2012. Grunge’s influence has peppered popular culture for years, but the comeback began in earnest last fall with the hoopla surrounding the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s game-changer Nevermind and Pearl Jam, who celebrated two decades of Ten with a Cameron Crowe documentary, a best-selling retrospective book, and a festival in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin.
Of the Big Four grunge bands, three are active concerns working on new albums: Pearl Jam never went away; Soundgarden reunited in 2010 after a 13-year break; Alice in Chains have fully integrated singer William DuVall, who replaced the late Layne Staley. A Nirvana reunion is out of the question—replacing Cobain would be a crime against music—but Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and producer Butch Vig collaborated on the Foo Fighters’ Wasting Life last year.
In April, Vig tweeted that he’d spent the day recording with Grohl, Novoselic, and an unnamed “special guest” (the session was likely to do with Grohl’s forthcoming documentary on Sound City, the studio where Nevermind was recorded). After a surprise reunion at the Williamsburg after-party for the grunge-era rock documentary Hit So Hard, which chronicles the travails of Hole drummer Patty Schemel, the band’s guitarist, Eric Erlandson, hinted at the possibility of a “White Album” featuring unreleased Cobain solo material he hopes will someday see the light of day.
But it’s not all ’90s nostalgia. GrungeReport.net estimates 40 percent of readers are under 20, some of whom weren’t even born when Kurt Cobain killed himself. Patty Schemel, for one, witnessed the younger generation’s grunge love firsthand as she traveled the country promoting Hit So Hard. “Maybe it’s a backlash to what’s going on with pop music today—everything is so packaged and slick. Something dirty needs to show up,” Schemel says. “It’s weird seeing a Nirvana T-shirt in H&M. For kids, Nirvana are what Jimi Hendrix was to me. Grunge has become classic rock.”
For an hour or so before midnight on Friday April 13, three key former members of Hole, the 1990s grunge-pop sensation—Eric Erlandson, Melissa Auf Der Maur and Patty Schemel (billed as the “Trinity Jam” to celebrate Hit So Hard, a rock-doc about Schemel screened earlier that night at Cinema Village in New York City)—tuned their instruments and hung loose at Public Assembly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But at the strike of midnight the three band mates looked nervous. Word that something serious “was up” seeped out from the band’s hangers on to the publicists and to a few reporters, and one by one eventually the whole audience got the message: Courtney. Is. In. The. Building. (!!!)
So by the time the three kicked off a short set that included The Smiths’ Paint a Vulgar Picture—crooned by the stunning Auf Der Maur—and a noise-rock jam, the darkly lit room crackled with nervous energy. After toying with the crowd to the point that her own bandmates seemed to despair whether Love would actually show up (After a few initial cues Der Maur joked: “Does someone want to check the boiler room for someone smoking?”) a side door bolted open and Love was whisked up to the stage wedged between a burly black bouncer and a kid dressed a little like Justin Bieber.
Dressed in a prim black vest and white shirt, Love slid several strings of colored beads from her arm onto her designated mic stand name checked British indie kids The Cribs, who had played earlier in the night. Then she picked up a beat-to-shit Fender Stratocaster. Crouching down, she strummed it rhythmically–almost violently–to warm up and be photographed as members of the band rushed around to find a strap for her guitar. “Strap me in Eric,” she joked, stifling a flash of minor annoyance. “Oh yeah Daddy.” Then they launched into Miss World, the biggest hit off their Billboard number one album Live Through This, released 18 years ago last Thursday, seven days after her late husband, Kurt Cobain was found dead, a shotgun shell through his head and a suicide note nearby.
Despite long being a favorite target in the mainstream press—for her public tantrums, plastic surgery choices, and serial drug-abuse issues—it had been a tougher week than usual for Love, given especially the bleak anniversary. After lobbing accusations over Twitter at ex-Nirvana guitarist Dave Grohl to the tune that he made a pass at Love’s 19-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, Bean released a statement referring to Love tersely as her “biological mother” and suggesting that Twitter ban her. So some of the people in the crowd may have been expecting to see a train wreck. (As of Sunday, Gawker posted Love’s Twitter apology to her daughter, "Bean, sorry I believed the gossip.. Mommy loves you.")
At the Morrison Hotel gallery recently rock photog, Jesse Frohman stressed that grunge can be strictly a nostalgic commodity. His prints, last portraits shot of the grunge icon before his death, ranged in price from $1,500-12,000. But Frohman, who only dealt with a “very stoned” Cobain for twenty minutes—after he had shown up to the shoot 3 hours late—couldn’t escape the dark aura that surrounded the singer either. “There was just something very sad about Kurt. I’ve never seen someone so sad,” Frohman related. During the after party at the Tribeca Grand, in which the Virgins played a set and Jarvis Cocker DJ’d, pr-types wondered if Love would show up and either create buzz, pandemonium or both. As it turned out they needn’t have worried.
Love delivered the goods at Brooklyn Public Assembly as she sang “I made my bed I’ll lie in it/I made my bed I’ll die in it”— the chorus to Miss World—each time with increasing emphasis and even the most hardened cynics suspected she meant it. And for a moment at least, the audience of mostly 30-somethings were teens again sitting in their parent’s living rooms watching 120 Minutes on MTV. This was the other Courtney. The good Courtney; the strong-female archetype who bridged several different species of rock genus—from Garage to Laurel Canyon glam to Punk and Riot Grrl; who can pop her eyes open as wide as Alice Cooper.
Of course, Love’s relationship with her daughter wasn’t always tragicomic, but it was probably never carefree. While overall the scenes in Hit So Hard (which runs all week at Cinema Village) concerning mother, daughter and Cobain—filmed with Schemel’s camcorder in the apartment Love, Cobain and Bean shared on Spaulding Ave. in the Hollywood Hills—convey a hippie communal vibe, the most arresting visual sequence shows Love “talking” to a diaper clad Bean while Cobain listens. Practically whining she says, “We were worried about daddy tonight weren’t we? We thought he died. Is daddy going to leave his girls?” Cobain cracks back in a southern drawl: "I’m going out for a pack of cigarettes and I’m never coming back."
There is no question that Cobain’s suicide, one week before Live Through This hit record stores and catapulted the band to stardom, cast a pall of darkness over Love and by extension, Hole, that never receded. Asked to join the band, the then 22-year old Auf Der Maur recalls having wondered if she could psychically afford to join an outfit that was “so dark.”
Schemel, who knew Cobain from back in the mid-1980s when he was a roadie for proto-grunge outfit the Melvins, had already been dabbling with heroin and was on and off the wagon until finally disappearing to “crack and heroin island” when she was literally drummed out of the band by control-heavy producer, Michael Beinhorn—in 1997 during the recording of Hole’s third record Celebrity Skin—who replaced her with a hired hand she refers to as “Johnny one-take.” Eventually she landed up living in Macarthur park wearing a “crackhead windbreaker” and pleading for Love to Western Union her money. Love’s response: “I’ll only do it one more time.”
Two months after Cobain’s death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who was also Erlandson’s on and off girlfriend died of a heroin overdose when he was (at least according to Love in Hit So Hard) on his “first date” with Drew Barrymore.
Asked whether he and Pfaff were using together at the time of her fatal OD, Erlandson, who admits he has “many regrets” over what went down with Pfaff that night, will only say, “I was still close to her at the time. She had her problems and I had mine but I wasn’t doing what she was doing and that’s why I’m alive.” While Cobain’s death had caused both Love and Erlandson in his words to “just say fuck I don’t even care about music,” the death of Pfaff “galvanized us and we knew we had to keep going.”
As late as Thursday, Erlandson strongly suspected he would never play with Love again. Sitting over iced tea in a greasy spoon West Side diner, he said with a sigh, “Things would have to change a lot for that to happen.” Erlandson, a tall bony man with long blonde hair, was wearing an old burgundy cardigan. His thoughtful, unhurried demeanor conveys a brand of slacker-masculinity that served as a perfect foil for an otherwise all female group, whose fan base consists of, in Love’s words: “mostly girls, gay guys and a handful of advanced straight men.”
He spoke at length about forming Hole with Courtney, his friend Kurt’s suicide, and the maelstrom that was his twelve years of rock stardom and excess. Then the twelve years of “self-imposed exile” afterwards to “process everything that had happened to [him.]” Its all grist for his book of prose poetry, Letters to Kurt, which hits bookstores tomorrow. The volume takes the form 52 free-associative letters to different people in his life, most noticeably Kurt and Courtney. Like Hit So Hard, Letters is the story of a regular person taken in the tide by extraordinary personalities.
He understands why so many alternative theories have arisen around Cobain’s death, which male impersonating rocker Phranc likens to “our generation’s Kennedy assassination”—an event so stark that everyone in a specific generation can recall where they were when it happened. “With suicides especially you want to create a murder or a conspiracy,” Erlandson says. “You just do! You start doing all this stuff in your head and its just natural.” He adds that it is especially difficult to accept given the method Cobain used—swallowing a shotgun and pulling the trigger—“is such a harsh act.” Before trailing off, without elucidating further, he adds, “in some ways [in the book] I’m trying to say there are some deeper truths here.”
A sense of failed belongingness, which leads to isolating yourself and alienation as well as numbing yourself to pain are a number of textbook signs that future suicide victims exhibit. “Well throwing yourself into a drum kit every night, numbing your pain with heroin and what does that do but forces you to isolate further,” he says. Not to mention Cobain would write “50 times ‘I hate myself and want to die,’” in his journal. Asked if after he got famous Cobain felt he couldn’t match up to his stage persona, Erlandson looks at me intently and says: “that’s fame. You go out on stage and you have all this adulation and then you go back into your private moments and you think ‘I’m not that person, I don’t deserve this’ and that causes fragmentation and you need to numb yourself further.” And Cobain had all those issues going on “even before the record blew up.”
He explains that only a choice few that were actually with him at the time of the events of the book—“which were mostly a blur at the time”—will be able to connect the dots and interpret the book literally. “It came out in coded language, I wasn’t comfortable talking about all this stuff directly.” Even so: its difficult not to look in a certain direction when lines like, “under the knife one too many times and no amount of money will fix you.” Or that he is including himself when he writes: “The survivors get to edit history to their liking. And then call each other names.”
While acknowledging the gravity of the unmistakable tragedy that marked the death of Cobain, who he calls “the voice of a generation” Erlandson writes, “I’d hate to see you wasting away in digital nostalgia like the rest of us.” Try as he might he cannot place his old friend in a modern context. “Can you picture Kurt on Twitter? No way. I can’t even picture that guy on a computer.” Cobain had something “ancient, old and wise even backwoodsy—yet still of this world—about him.” Moreover he’s emblematic of something society is especially yearning for now—gleaned in the fashion aspects of grunge, which have been popping up lately—and the fact that twenty years later teens are still interested in the Cobain mystique. That seems like a something of a sift from when he was a kid and “connecting” with musical styles much “less distant,” like punk, then only a few years old. “We need that more than ever as we’re becoming more robotic, the internet is changing us man, its heavy, heavy, we just don’t realize it because we’re in it,” he says.
One of the only non-coded revelations in Letters, which comes early on in the books short introduction, is that Erlandson and Love lived together for “almost two years” between ’89-91 during their first years of the band. According to one LA scenester at the time, Paul Koudounaris, a typical early Hole gig would have been when they opened at Natural Fudge Company for his local Dadaist cult favorite band, Imperial Butt Wizards. Koudounaris recalls Love once telling him and a friend that she wanted to be “gold record famous in a year” and he and his friend bursting out laughing because it seemed so unlikely. “No one even thought about crossover success. The idea was preposterous, like an elephant flying,” he says, adding, “until Nirvana.”
The seeds for Love and Cobain’s relationship were planted one night after the unknown couple met the soon-to-be grunge god outside a Butt Hole Surfers concert. Later that night, “goaded by a British rock journalist” Cobain called Love when she was in bed with Erlandson. Laughing, he says, “the media was already in bed with them from day one, no courtship – you go right to the magazines.”
As anyone at Brooklyn’s Public Assembly on that fateful Friday night who saw the two share a long hug before Love hurried off stage and back into her insular world of unknowable celebrity, all is not just animosity between the two. While he laments the fact that Love is potentially “wasting her life collecting fashion junk, doing Etsy, and eBay, Tweeting and slandering people left and right,” he is quick to acknowledge another “true” Courtney Love who “most people have only gotten glimpses of.” Letting out a long sigh, he adds, “the essence of that person will last forever.” Perhaps it is in the nature of Love’s perpetual rebellion never to fade away.