Kurt Cobain partied with me at my house.
There, now please don’t ever accuse me of “burying the lede”. It’s actually a tale of little consequence nor much entertainment value, yet it’s also one I’ve fitfully used as an answer in organized “icebreakers” with co-workers for nearly thirty years – i.e., “What’s one thing that might be surprising about you?”. Or perhaps it’s just magically come up in conversation, I don’t know.
Invariably my story is met with incredulity, or shock, or wonder. “You?” is usually the first response, as in, “Why would this have happened to you?”. This is because Kurt Cobain occupies for current generations the sort of legendary/untouchable status that Jim Morrison did in mine – someone now dead from before your time whose music and vision and lyrics and overall bearing touched the world (or whatever). Let me be the first to say: we couldn’t have known it at the time.
Actually, my in-person and otherwise interactions with Nirvana, the band, began during my senior year of college at UC-Santa Barbara. I had a show on our college radio station KCSB and also helped out in other ways, and as a consequence found myself on the phone talking to Jonathan Poneman, one of the founders of Sub Pop records. The label was just beginning a new subscription-only mail-order singles club, and he told me to get ready to get excited about the first one in the series to come out later in 1988, from a new Washington State band called “Nirvana”. He said they were “a cross between Black Sabbath and Cheap Trick”, which sounded just awful to me. Thankfully the single that would eventually arrive in my mailbox, “Love Buzz / Big Cheese”, was marginally better than that. When I eventually sold it via a Flipside Magazine classified ad around 1993 for a whopping $75 – a year before Cobain’s death – I felt like a shrewd, record-trading Rockefeller. (The numbered, limited-edition single now routinely goes for $5,000+ and is easily one of the most collectable records of its era).
Not long after this time, in May 1989, the former hardcore punk band Scream came to KCSB and were slotted to play a live show on my Wednesday night 8-10pm radio program. Santa Barbara is a perfect gig-less Wednesday night pit stop between early-week gigs in the San Francisco Bay Area and weekend gigs in Los Angeles/Orange County/San Diego, or vice-versa. I was always happy to receive some touring band on my show because our music director, Eric Stone, had exceptional taste in punk rock and its offshoots, and even if he brought in some middling band like Scream it was still a feather in my cap that a band we’d heard of and sometimes liked was playing within the walls of our beloved radio station, and on my show, no less.
Scream were by this time sort of a grunge/emo hybrid, before either term was in heavy rotation, and I know that they counted among their members at least two former and current intravenous drug users, because one of the members told me so. That member was Dave Grohl, the fresh-faced 20-year-old drummer of the band, easily the most likable and extroverted visitor to our studio that day. While other Scream members sniffed & snorted and argued with other, Grohl came into the DJ booth when I was back-announcing records and hung out & talked music with me, then consented to a brief on-air interview during which he cracked jokes & made mirth that I unfortunately remember none of the particulars of. I don’t believe a tape of this encounter exists, but with god as my witness, it happened.
As you may be aware, Grohl would, within 2 years be recruited to drum for Nirvana on their path to becoming one of the biggest bands of all time; become incredibly rich; form the Foo Fighters and become even more incredibly rich; and so on. I saw a book written by him at the airport just three weeks ago.
I recognize that none of this tells you anything about the time Kurt Cobain partied at my house. Hey, just like any good icebreaker, you’ll need to wait! Actually we’ve nearly arrived at that part. So Nirvana, the ones who put out that mediocre 45 I sold for a mere fraction of its eventual immense worth, would then put out a 1989 LP called Bleach that I liked better. The band was part of a great whoosh of heavy, punk-influenced Seattle-area bands releasing music that year, often on Sub Pop and/or on similar labels, catching all sorts of buzz and all seemingly touring up and down California during the year 1989.
I was visiting my parents in San Jose toward the end of my time in college, and it just so happened that my no-question absolute favorite of these heavy bands, Mudhoney, were playing at Marsugi’s in San Jose that weekend on February 11th, 1989, with their openers Vomit Launch and Nirvana. Yes, a then- four-piece Nirvana, playing a 150-person club, themselves opening for Chico, California’s Vomit Launch before Mudhoney went on. I recall enjoying their set, which ended with Cobain deliberately tumbling backwards on stage, into the drum kit, scattering equipment everywhere as feedback squalled and the 35 or so people who’d arrived to that point hooted their appreciation for his showmanship. Over two years later, on June 13th, 1991, I’d also see a now 3-piece Nirvana, with Grohl, open for Dinosaur Jr. at The Warfield in San Francisco. It was the first and only time I’d see them in this form. They were still an indie band, still “one of ours”, I guess, but decidedly more popular than before thanks to a strong overall reception for Bleach, and about to become the biggest band in the world in 6 months.
Yet it was earlier in 1991, January if I’ve got my timing right, when my friend Bob, who happened to also be Mudhoney’s manager and jack-of-all-trades (merch seller, check writer, tour helper etc.), was visiting from Seattle and staying at my apartment at 941 Stanyan in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. We had plans to get some food on nearby Haight Street and then eventually walk over to the I-Beam Club that night, where The Melvins were playing. I wasn’t really a fan of that particular band, but it was a night out, and, as I’m sure you’d agree, sometimes you need a night out.
After we ate, we walked by a Thai restaurant and Bob spied Kurt and Chris from Nirvana coming out of it. There was a nice what-are-you-doing-here reunion between the three of them. It turned out that the Nirvana guys were driving back from Los Angeles to Seattle; perhaps, at least as I imagined it in hindsight, they had just signed their deal with DGC for Nevermind and were heading back home to figure it all out. They had plans to stay with a friend that night in San Francisco before starting for home the next morning.
Once we confirmed that they, too, were going to see The Melvins that night, Bob promptly invited the two of them over to my place for the pre-show drinks. The four of us walked across the street to Cala Market for liquid fortification, and I recall us bantering aimlessly until Cobain theatrically dropped a giant bottle of vodka on the checkout line belt and confidently proclaimed, “I want to have a hangover tomorrow”. To be honest, it’s the only thing I remember him saying of any consequence the entire night.
We then hoofed it back to my place and my room, whereupon the scene was set: Kurt Cobain sat quietly on my bed, drinking and not interacting much with the other three of us. He found much pleasure reading my Zippy The Pinhead comic anthologies, and immersed himself in those. Chris animatedly rifled through my record collection, getting super-excited when he’d pull something out he liked: “Oh! You have this Half Japanese record! Let’s play it!”. Bob, Chris and I talked loudly a bunch about music, while Kurt retreated quietly but respectfully in his corner of the room, not really getting into it with the rest of us at all.
We probably pre-partied for about an hour, three of us with our beers and Kurt with his bottle of vodka and a chaser, before we walked over to the I-Beam together. On the way over, I remember asking some dumb-ass question about their touring or their next record or something similarly sycophantic, and getting kind of a blow-off non-answer from Kurt, who clearly didn’t want to talk about his band at all. Once safely inside the club, we split up, and I didn’t see the two Nirvana guys again that night.
So this legendary night of Kurt Cobain partying at my house, the one I’ve used to grease the wheels of social interactions when called upon to do so, was about as inconsequential as any other night in my early 20s spent having a few drinks with various yahoos before seeing a band at a club. It just happened to be with a guy who’s now so posthumously world-famous that he’d be headlining Coachella or Glastonbury as a hologram right now if his bandmates had enough lack of integrity to allow it.
There’s a postscript to this mediocre story as well. Only three weeks later, I went to see The Dwarves at The Stone, a club on Broadway in San Francisco. I immediately spied the insanely tall, aforementioned Nirvana bass player Chris Novoselic, with whom I shared much mirth and alcohol not even a month earlier. I bounded up to him while he was mid-conversation with someone and excitedly asked, “Hey Chris, remember me?”. He squinted his eyes, looked me over, and said with much finitude and no small amount of emphasis: ”NO”.