An exclusive interview with legendary music exec Danny Goldberg about his new book on his role in the career of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana
In 1990, Danny Goldberg’s management company Gold Mountain Entertainment signed an up-and-coming band from the Pacific Northwest called Nirvana. A year later, the band’s major label debut, Nevermind, exploded with seismic force, and Nirvana became the hottest band on the planet. But it all came to an end too soon when Nirvana’s creative force, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide in early April 1994.
Goldberg had been especially close to Cobain, and touched on their relationship in a chapter in his 2008 book Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business. His new book, Serving the Servant: Remember Kurt Cobain tells the full story of his time with Cobain, and Nirvana. Here, he shares more reflections on a musician he remembers for “his brilliance and his sweetness”:
When you signed Nirvana, you hadn’t seen them perform live; what did you think about their first album, Bleach?
If I listened to Bleach it was once. I was not an aficionado; I was not carefully following everything that was on college radio or written about in fanzines. It wasn’t that I loved Bleach so much; I respected it, I got that it created a buzz and that a lot of smart people thought that it was good, but I don’t remember listening to it more than once.
I went through a transition of feelings about Nirvana. I was very ,very busy at the time, running a small business, and trying to make the monthly bills, dealing with a lot of different people who worked with me and a lot of different artists. I made a decision that Nirvana is somebody we should try to manage based on what other people said, not based on my own taste. I trusted John [Silva, Nirvana’s co-manager], and even more, I trusted Thurston [Moore], who both recommended Nirvana to me. And it was sort of okay, great, let’s do this. But I didn’t think about them that much. They were on the back burner relative to other day-to-day immediate priorities I had with other clients.
What were your first impressions when you met the band?
Well, the first meeting, they came to our office. We had an office near Universal, and I still remember the address: 3575 Cahuenga Boulevard West. Krist [Novoselic] did most of the talking. And Kurt was quiet. Now, a lot of artists from their culture had negative feelings about major labels, and I asked them, “So, do you want to stay on Sub Pop?” And Kurt, who had been quite quiet, just said, “No!” It was the first word he said to me. And it wasn’t just the clarity with which he said it — it was that it ended that subject. And I realized, “Oh, this is not three equal people, and the big guy who’s talking a lot is not the boss. It’s this littler guy is the guy.” I’ve seen that in other bands, where one person is first among equals, and that was completely the case with Nirvana over the time that I worked with them. All the decisions were Kurt’s decisions. He cared what other people thought, but they didn’t get an equal vote. And Dave [Grohl] and Krist were fine with it, that was the way it was. They knew who Kurt was. They were the biggest Kurt Cobain fans out there.
And it was really the epiphany I had when I saw them live that really dramatically shifted my level of focus.
What did they have that was different from other bands when you saw them live?
You know, I’ve tried to ask myself that, because there’s no glib answer about it. And what I keep coming back to was a feeling I got. And the feeling I got was that Kurt was somehow, without a lot of theatricality, or long intros like somebody like Springsteen would do, somehow created this intimacy with the audience that was palpable. And I was deeply moved by it. It was just one of those things where I felt that everybody in the audience felt personally connected with him. And I really, to this day, don’t remember exactly how he did it! It was something about his level of intensity and his talent; his voice was just so unique. But I do know that it immediately changed my attitude.
It was just the beginning of car phones, and I remember calling Rosemary [Carroll, Goldberg’s then-wife] on the way home and raving about it, and she was like, “You’re excited about a band?” I mean, I’d been around for 20 years, I was so jaded and it was a business, and I really was not into romanticizing most of the things that I got involved with because I was so focused on trying to be a responsible business person.
You write that the band didn’t have any food fights in front you; they must’ve considered you the “grown up” in the room.
Apparently! I knew at the time that was sort of my role. And it was a role I was happy to play. I never wore suits, I certainly wasn’t a suit; I wear the same jeans and sweaters I wear today. But I was older, that’s just the way it was. I never saw them throw pieces of pizza around, and several people I talked to did.
You write that Kurt had to be convinced to appear on the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992. Yet you also say he complained if his videos weren’t aired on MTV enough. If he was so ambitious, why would resist being on the show?
Well, he was intensely ambitious, but his ambitions went in various directions. One of his ambitions was to be successful, but one of them was to stay faithful to his notion of who he wanted to be in the world. Part of that had to do with how he wanted to present himself. He didn’t want to be a typical MTV artist, or for that matter a typical grunge artist, or a typical Seattle artist. He had a very particular notion of what his persona was, and he was rigorous in protecting it.
VIDEO: MTV Headbanger’s Ball interview with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic
For example, when he went on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, he knew there was a metal element in his music; when he was a kid he listened to AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Zeppelin. But he also knew that a lot of that culture was macho and misogynistic and shallow in ways that were an anathema to his set of values, and to punk rock culture. But he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. So he went on Headbanger’s Ball because he liked the idea that the metal show was going to include Nirvana, but he wore a dress and was kind of sullen. So it gave a perception of his kind of looking down on the show — but still doing the show.
Another iteration of the same thing he did was when he took the photo for the band’s first cover of Rolling Stone, but wore a t-shirt saying “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” And I don’t know if anyone else could’ve pulled it off. From one point of view, if you describe those things to people it could sound hypocritical. But he just did it with such a deft hand that it worked. His core fans believed that he was distancing himself from these things, and at the same time, he created a lane of exposure to mass audiences in doing it. It’s a hard balance to achieve, but I don’t think anyone’s ever done it more deftly than he did.
After Nevermind’s release, Kurt’s drug problems escalated; was it hard for you to revisit this period?
Well, the experience of writing the book was an emotional roller coaster. I wrote it pretty quickly. Most of the work was done over the course of seven months, and I was almost in a trance of just absorbing and re-reading every interview he did, and listening to the music to hear his voice, and going on youtube and finding clips. I was so immersed in it. And in doing that, I sometimes got a glimpse of some of what he was dealing with, inside himself, just tiny little ideas about it. There was a great deal of despair and sadness there, combined with this incredible brilliance and a confidence in his brilliance. I mean, he knew he was great. This was not somebody who had any insecurity about his talent. So reliving it, sometimes those things would bum me out because I’m always, gee, why couldn’t I think of some other ideas, or some other person for him to talk to? That kind of a thing. But a lot of it was just being immersed in the work and trying to document my memories, and the added memories of a few other people as best as I could.
What gets me depressed — look I’m anti-hard drugs. I always have been, ever since I’ve been in the music business. I particularly hate heroin, and I hate the effect that it has on people, and I hated the effect it had on him. But what gets me more upset is the pain that he was in. And that’s where I would really sometimes just have to stop, because the poor guy, such a sweet beautiful guy. He was always sweet to me. And the idea that he was unhappy a lot of his life just bummed me out, and it still does.
After the final intervention in March 1994, did you have any foreboding about what was going to happen?
Well, I had an immediate feeling of real sadness and self incrimination because I’d gotten impatient and irritable with him during the intervention, especially after he told me how William Burroughs could be a plausible role model; how you could do heroin and still have a long and productive life? And I felt terrible that I had snapped at him, and I did call him afterwards and apologized, and at least I got to talk to him one other time, and got to tell him I loved him one more time. But I was very worried. That was the worst I’d ever seen him, it was the hardest I’d ever had to connect with him, and I was just praying that he would get into the right room with the right people in the rehab place or somewhere. If he could get chemically together, and just get the toxins out of his body, I knew that his brilliant mind would kick in and that he could figure out whatever problems seemed were bedeviling him at the time.
But I was very very worried; I had been very worried since Rome [Cobain overdosed in Rome in early March], because that was just so terrifying, he almost died then. And so those last six weeks of his life, I was not as close to him, because he wouldn’t let me get as close. But I didn’t know he was going to kill himself. I knew there was a possibility he’d do it; God knows he’d talked about it in song. But the reality of it was a horrible shock. But I didn’t have a sense of foreboding like “Oh my God, this is the moment, he’s gonna go.” I just had a general sense of anxiety about the lack of connectivity over the previous six weeks or so.
What’s biggest misconception people have about Kurt?
That people focus disproportionately on his death. I was a huge Jimi Hendrix fan, I’m of that generation where I was in high school when Are You Experienced came out, and it was a tremendous bummer when he died. But when I think about Jimi Hendrix, I don’t think about his death; I think about his guitar solos. And I’m hoping that as time goes by, people can just focus on Kurt’s music, which is incredibly beautiful and inspiring, and still, against all odds, touches young people who weren’t even alive when he died.
Kurt was in a class of all of his own. And there’s millions of people that get that. At the beginning of the book I do this silly thing of just comparing how streams “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has had compared to the biggest Michael Jackson song or Pearl Jam song or Soundgarden song. There’s something about what he did that lasts and transcends generations in a way that some music does but a lot of music doesn’t. He’s on a very short list to me, with Bob Marley and Bowie and John Lennon. Obviously, I go on and on about him. I just love the guy.
VIDEO: Kurt Cobain interview, December 13, 1993