There are two dates that will always be ingrained the mind’s of Nirvana fans; September 24, 1991 and April 5, 1994. The first marks the release of their sophomore album, Nevermind, which recently enjoyed its 25th anniversary. Peppered with traces of the Replacements, Pixies and Sonic Youth, the raw, rugged and throaty melodies of frontman, Kurt Cobain, left an impression on the senses as if being walloped by a street preacher with a pack-a-day habit. The second date is the somber reminder of the day that Cobain took his own life at his home in Seattle at just 27 years old.
Regardless if a person considered themselves a fan of the band and subsequent grunge “scene,” the loss was felt much in the same way that society reacted to the recent passings of legends like David Bowie and Prince. The world was a better place with Kurt Cobain in it. But unlike religious deities who are worshiped for their purity, it was Cobain’s flaws and strong personal convictions which made him a true original.
Although it is commonplace today for artists to speak out on various sociopolitical topics – ranging from Jay Z’s assessment of the failures the war on drugs to San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing National Anthem protest which has gathered momentum with other athletes – the late ’80s/early ’90s wasn’t exactly rife with forward thinking when Nirvana was selling millions of records.
It was an era when people got their news on television and through newspaper. The Internet went from nonexistent to being its most infantile stages. And the music industry was enjoying billions of dollars in sales before succumbing to the “disease of free.” It was a glorious time to be a rock star. But Kurt Cobain wasn’t put on this Earth to fill a casting call for counterculture poster child. Rather, he had something to say.
When Nirvana released their debut album, Bleach, in the summer of 1989, the general consensus in the country was that being gay was not only immoral, but the only cause of the AIDS epidemic – aided strongly by the early, dubious acronym “GRID” which stood for “gay-related immune deficiency” and was later abandoned when doctors realized heterosexuals could also be infected.
At the time, there were ludicrous calls for proposed quarantines, reinstating state sodomy laws and even tattooing people infected with HIV.
Northwestern University’s John Phair compared the fear of AIDS victims to 1950s-era anti-communist paranoia and Japanese-American internment during World War II in an April 1986 editorial for the Chicago Tribune, writing, “According to a poll published in December by the Los Angeles Times, 50 percent of the adults surveyed supported a quarantine of AIDS patients, 48 percent would approve of identity cards for those who test positive for antibodies to the virus that causes AIDS and 15 percent favored tattooing AIDS victims.”
Despite the understanding that AIDS could be contracted by both gay and straight people, Pat Buchanan wrote in a 1987 column, “There is one, only one, cause of the AIDS crisis — the willful refusal of homosexuals to cease indulging in the immoral, unnatural, unsanitary, unhealthy, and suicidal practice of anal intercourse, which is the primary means by which the AIDS virus is being spread through the ‘gay’ community, and, thence, into the needles of IV drug abusers, the transfusions of hemophiliacs, and the bloodstreams of unsuspecting health workers, prostitutes, lovers, wives, children.”
In August 1988, Florida’s Saint Petersburg Times wrote about 6-year-old Eliana Martinez, a mentally challenged, AIDS-infected girl who was ordered by a federal court judge to attend school inside a 6-by-8-foot glass booth.
Needless to say, gay culture was facing a witch hunt and hysteria unseen since University of Pennsylvania professor and psychiatrist, Samuel Hadden, claimed that homosexuality was a mental illness curable through shock therapy – a sentiment shared by other notable psychiatrists at the time like Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides.
Prior to embarking on his run with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain has recorded a demo in his aunt’s basement under the band moniker, ‘Fecal Matter,’ with Dale Crover, Mike Dillard and Buzz Osborne who would later go on to form The Melvins.
“They set up in my music room and they’d just crank it up!” Mani Earl, Cobain’s aunt, later remembered. “It was loud. They would put down the music tracks first, then he’d put the headphones on and all you could hear was Kurt Cobain’s voice screaming through the house! It was pretty wild. My husband and I, we’d just look at each other and smile and go, ‘You think we should close the window so the neighbors don’t hear? So they don’t think we’re beating him or something?'”
“Laminated Effect” remains one the most memorable songs from Fecal Matter which tells a boy-meets-girl tale where the girl is a lesbian who finds herself ‘cured’ through having sex with the boy – a gay AIDS-sufferer who was raped by his father as a child. The song ends on the refrain “Made not born, made not born” – suggesting that Cobain had a strong, anti-gay sentiment which was shared by many others at the time.
However, one could strongly argue that Cobain’s point of view was not his own – instead taking on alternative points of view like on Fecal Matter’s “Class of “86”/”Buffy’s Pregnant” in which Cobain speaks from the perspectives of popular jocks and cheerleaders. This “alternate” perspective would later be revisited on “Rape Me” from their In Utero project which would be hailed as a strong rallying cry against sexual assault despite the controversial title and lyrics.
While lyrics can often be misconstrued or misinterpreted; actions cannot. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were for equal rights at a time when many artists remained silent to the atrocities associated with the AIDS epidemic and how all of the blame was being placed on the gay community.
As a band, Nirvana notably rallied against homophobic rhetoric on August 22, 1992 when they played a benefit concert at the Portland Meadows which opposed Measure 9 – an initiative to amend the State constitution which would bar “promotion” of homosexuality. It also would have mandated that schools “shall assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided.”
“Measure 9 goes against American traditions of mutual respect and freedom, and Nirvana wants to do their part to end bigotry and narrow-mindedness everywhere,” the group said in a statement before the show.
At the time, Nirvana had also been engaged in a small but heated war of words with Guns N’ Roses for what they believed to be homophobic and racist attitudes held by frontman, Axl Rose – specifically citing his lyrics on “One in a Million” which bemoaned “n*ggers, faggots and immigrants.” In turn, Nirvana had refused to tour with the band and resulted in Rose referring to Cobain as a “pussy.”
Nirvana was potentially leaving millions of dollars on the table by forgoing their invitation to join the ‘Use Your Illusion’ tour. Guns N’ Roses would later average $601,435 USD per date during the 106 tour stops – suggesting the band made over $63 million dollars during the two-year run.
On the day of the anti Measure 9 concert, a Guns N’ Roses fan hopped on stage and urged Cobain to make peace with the band, saying, “Hey Man, Guns N’ Roses played awesome music, and Nirvana plays awesome music. Let’s just get along and work this out, man!”
“No kid, you’re really wrong,” Cobain responded. “Those people are total sexist jerks, and the reason we’re playing this show is to fight homophobia in a real small way. [Axl Rose] is a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and on our side.”
Measure 9 was ultimately defeated in the November 3, 1992 general election with 638,527 votes in favor to 828,290 votes against.
Nirvana performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” & “Territorial Pissings” on Saturday Night Live in 1992. Whether it was their devil-may-care attitude or a form of real protest for gay rights, during the end credits of the show, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain purportedly decided to “piss off the rednecks and homophobes,” by French kissing each other.
Although it may have seemed like one of the more unlikely quartets at the time, Nirvana and drag star, RuPaul, forged a unique bond in the early 1990s after the latter had charted with “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in 1992.
“These are kids who come from the same irreverent, hippie, bohemian mentality that I came from,” RuPaul recalls. “So of course they’re going to gravitate toward what I’m doing. And a lot of people don’t get that. A lot of people don’t have that computer program to understand what that is, that irreverence, that wink that drag is. A lot of people are offended by it and that’s the end of it. So Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love and the other kids in that band loved it, and you could see it in their faces when they’re taking the pictures. They’re not going boo, or it’s not like a joke. It’s like, ‘This is fucking cool.'”
In a Reddit AMA years later, RuPaul once again touched on Nirvana’s acceptance at the time, writing, “I think mainly because [Kurt] thought outside the box and understood that, you know, what drag is at its core: totally punk-rock.”
While the LGBTQ community has certainly made strides as it relates to acceptance these days, things were much different in 1992. A state like Vermont was one the most progressive – passing a comprehensive statewide law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination. However, it wasn’t until 2007 that Vermont passed legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
Yes, dressing up in drag and being transgender is quite different. But at that time, they were viewed as the same side of the queer coin. And not surprisingly, Cobain and Nirvana were there to champion the cause.
Cobain’s own childhood upbringing actually should have shaped a homophobic viewpoint. But it didn’t. In fact, it had an opposite effect.
“I even thought that I was gay,” he said in a July 22, 1993 interview with PBS. “I thought that might be the solution to my problem … I had a gay friend. And then my mother wouldn’t allow me to be friends with him anymore, because, um, well, she’s homophobic.”
When Cobain referred to his “problem,” he was reflecting upon his struggles with maintaining a masculine identity as an adolescent. In turn, Cobain always found a greater kinship with women.
“Because I couldn’t find any friends, male friends that I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot,” he said in the same PBS interview. “I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed.”
In a 1991 interview with NME, Cobain reflected a point of view about sexual assault which suggested that it was a “we” problem as opposed to just a “they” problem – something that highlighted how rape prevention was being treated just as one-sided as the AIDS epidemic had been.
“Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth. And it happens every few minutes,” Cobain said. “The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.”
At the time, the idea was that women needed to defend themselves through self-defense measures – a sort of “slut shaming” under the guise of female empowerment.
“I was talking to a friend of mine who went to a rape crisis center where women are taught judo and karate,” Cobain said. “She looked out the window and saw a football pitch full of boys, and thought those are the people that should really be in this class.”
Nirvana notably recorded songs which addressed the issue of sexual assault on “Rape Me” and “Polly” – spawned after reading about the rape of a 14-year-old girl in the news – and broader feminist rights on “Pennyroyal Tea,” and “Breed.” But it was Nevermind’s “Been a Son” which best addressed the nation’s sexist viewpoint at the time. Women weren’t just viewed as second-class citizens, Cobain argued that the public didn’t even want them.
NPR’s music critic Ann Powers noted, “[Nirvana] came out of Olympia, a much different scene, more female-dominated. Riot grrrl—a subgenre of punk rock that focused on empowering girls to speak out on feminist topics such as reproductive rights and sexual violence—sprang from the same circles as Nirvana, and Cobain made friends with famous riot grrrls Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna, who inadvertently gave Cobain the title idea for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ From the very beginning, he was aware of the gender issue.”
Tori Amos, a victim of sexual assault who later touched on it her own song, “Me and a Gun,” spoke of the power of Nirvana’s own song on the topic, “Rape Me,” telling the New Musical Express in 1994, “I spoke publicly about that because I thought it was very clear what it was about. It was like ‘Go on, hit me! Rape me! You cross this line, motherfucker, and I’ll kill you…you’ll never break my spirit.’ It’s a defiant song. But the scariest thing to a rape victim are the words ‘rape me’. When I first heard it I broke out in a cold sweat, but when you get over that you realize he’s turning it back on people.”
Nirvana’s last concert took place on March 1, 1994 in Munich, Germany, at Terminal Einz, an airplane hanger that fit 3,050 people. Cobain had struggled with his voice on numerous occasions leading up to the show.
While the Hollywood ending would suggest a miraculous return to form, he struggled to hit the notes on “Heart Shaped Box” before he ultimately thanked the audience and said goodnight. For many, his vocal troubles indicated substance abuse and trouble with his wife, Courtney.
Or, maybe he had already said enough.
Inside the liner notes of the last album Nirvana ever released prior to his death, In Utero, Cobain solidified his willingness to put human rights over album sales, writing, “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.”
- Featured/Main Image: Youri Lenquette