“As we sat in the garden of a London pub, Kurt’s mood was buoyant…”

Thirty years ago today, the world lost Nirvana’s legendary frontman. In celebration of his life, his music, and a legacy that continues to resonate, journalist and music industry legend James Sherry looks back at the Kurt Cobain he encountered…

“As we sat in the garden of a London pub, Kurt’s mood was buoyant…”
James Sherry

It’s hard to fathom that it’s already been three decades since Kurt left us. So much time has passed but his power, integrity and legacy remains as potent as ever. I feel very lucky to have fallen within Kurt’s orbit a couple of times in Nirvana’s early days, and in 1990 and 1991, I experienced and met two very different sides to Kurt Cobain.

The first time I interviewed Nirvana I was a budding young music journalist, and they were in the UK to play at the (much-missed) Astoria venue in London on October 24, 1990 (with L7 and Godflesh in support). Dave Grohl had not long been in the band and Sliver had recently come out as a single, giving the world it’s first big clue into just how big Kurt’s pop songwriting abilities would make the band, although the indications had always been there for those listening hard enough.

The offices of the magazine I worked for were situated in King Street in Hammersmith, under a 7 Eleven (that fuelled the staff), and I recall the band calling reception saying they were having problems finding the office. I walked up the road to meet them and vividly remember Krist Novoselic’s lanky frame lumbering down the road towards me, with Kurt and Dave shuffling behind him.

Once we got back to the office and I had made the band a round of tea, we settled down to talk – well, Krist and Dave did. Kurt was clearly the shyest of the trio; Krist and Dave guffawed and fooled around throughout the interview, full of that self-deprecating and sarcastic humour Nirvana would soon become famous for.

Kurt, however, hunched at the end of the sofa, rolled an un-lit cigarette I had given him between his fingers, his eyes caked in heavy black eye-liner, as he interjected occasionally in a soft, quiet voice as the band discussed the music scene at the time, politics and their mistrust of major labels, who were starting to show an interest. The frontman became more animated as the interview went on, telling a story of how when on tour in Columbus Ohio with TAD, this guy had smashed in all of the windows of their van because he thought Kurt was having an affair with his girlfriend. “I was butt naked covered in glass, I just stood up and went ‘don’t kill me’,” he laughed.

After the interview, I’d wanted to get some photos to go with the feature, but the magazine wouldn’t commission a photographer for a small piece, so I asked the office manager Hanne Jordan to bring her camera in as I knew she had been a music photographer in the early ’80s. She hadn’t shot a band in years and her quirky, old-school manner amused Nirvana greatly and they really came alive, goofing around on the roof of the offices, Kurt even breaking out into a huge smile for some of the pics.

Hanne later sold the photos to an agency and probably did quite well out of them. If I’d known how big they were going to get, I would have taken the bloody pictures myself!

The second time I got to interview them, I met an entirely different Kurt. He was confident, chatty and excited about the future. It was August 24, 1991, Nirvana had just played Reading Festival (the infamous first appearance where he hurled himself into the drum kit), and Nevermind was in the bag, and due to be released the following month. The summer sun was shining, and we sat in the back garden of a pub in Hammersmith called The Salutation, and Kurt’s mood was buoyant and happy. He knew he had a good album under wraps and was excited for people to hear it.

The pre-release tapes of Nevermind were circulating and the buzz on the band was getting louder and louder by the second but even then, Kurt’s expectations of how big Nirvana would become were low. It’s well documented that they signed to Geffen because they ‘thought they could be as big as Sonic Youth’, but when I asked Kurt how far he wanted to take things he just said “it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter… I don’t really like playing on really huge stages where there’s a barrier dividing you and the audience from each other. That’s not very fun.”

At that time, that was his biggest concern. Of course, nothing could have prepared Kurt for the huge and rapid success that would engulf Nirvana and change their lives forever. And as we walked back to the office from the pub, I remember chatting to Kurt about music as we strolled along in the sun. He had a garish psychedelic Butthole Surfers shirt on, and we talked about Gibby’s musical lunacy. I was wearing a Poison Idea tee and we laughed about their thirst for excess on every scale and their punk-as-fuck attitude.

As I watched Nirvana walk off to their next interview, I do remember wondering if I’d ever see them again, as it was clear something big was going to happen. And boy, did it.

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