Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain'

Danny Goldberg's 'Serving the Servant.'
Danny Goldberg's 'Serving the Servant.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Danny Goldberg knows where his liability is with a certain segment of hard-core Nirvana fans. There's no recording of the eulogy he delivered at Kurt Cobain's memorial service, but journalist Everett True scathingly quoted one sentence referring to the singer-songwriter as "an angel that came to life in human form, as someone who was too good for this life and that was why he was only here for a short time."

Goldberg acknowledges that his remarks were "tone-deaf to the grief some of his other friends experienced," but his new book Serving the Servant continues Goldberg's policy of celebrating Cobain's achievements rather than probing his dark corners. The author had a unique window on those achievements: from shortly before Nevermind was released in 1991 until the end of Cobain's life in 1994, Goldberg's company managed Nirvana.

As head of the company, Goldberg was responsible for higher-level considerations, for example relationships with record companies and publishing agencies, while his colleague John Silva handled more of the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts considerations. That helps to explain why Goldberg doesn't dwell on the messier aspects of Cobain's life, but it doesn't mean he wasn't aware of them. It just means he saw more of the artistic genius who was hyper-aware of his music and image, who was authentic in his expression but mindful of its context.

One of the strengths of Goldberg's account is just how much of that context he can provide. As he notes, he was 40 years old when he met Cobain, who was then 23. Already an industry veteran, Goldberg understood what Nirvana were poised to do — although he writes he "had no idea of the dimensions of the commercial tsunami soon to come."

In late 1990, Nirvana were riding the success of the Sub Pop album Bleach and knew their follow-up would be bigger. They were ready for new management, a new drummer (Dave Grohl), and a new label (DGC). The breakout success of alt-rock bands like R.E.M., Faith No More, and Jane's Addiction suggested the growing gen-X market was ready for something more raw than the hair metal and pop sheen of the '80s, and major labels were on the lookout for the avatar of the new punk explosion.

Goldberg walks readers through Nirvana's journey step by step, consistently emphasizing Cobain's leadership and vision. Before sitting down to write, he explains, he went back and read all of the Nirvana books he'd been ignoring for a quarter-century. He also spoke with many of the people who shared the journey, including Krist Novoselic and Courtney Love.

The result inevitably feels corrective, but constructively so. While Goldberg acknowledges that addiction and mental health struggles sapped Cobain's focus and ultimately took his life, he insists that Cobain was acutely aware of what he and his bandmates were doing, that Nirvana's massive success was something Cobain planned for, recognized, and built on.

One reason Nirvana's recorded output, whether live or in the studio, is so uniformly high-quality is that they rehearsed extensively, and that Cobain had a strong vision for every song. When they hit L.A. to record Nevermind with Butch Vig (fun detail: they shared a short-term apartment rental complex with Kid 'n Play), they practiced instead of partied and hit the studio each day with their parts locked down.

When it came time to promote the album, the band members were also "low-maintenance and unpretentious," writes Goldberg. Cobain knew precisely what he wanted for the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video ("pep rally gone wrong"), and when the local teens recruited through college radio got restless and drugged-up, Cobain knew that would work for the aesthetic. He also took control of the final edit, paring down director Sam Bayer's emphasis on a narrative concerning the janitor.

Goldberg extensively chronicles Cobain's enduring relationship with MTV. The network still had tastemaker status, and when a young staffer named Amy Finnerty convinced the network to lean hard on "Smells" (yes, she got promoted), Cobain reciprocated by doing MTV one favor after another — for example, performing at the VMAs and doing "Lithium" instead of "Rape Me," although they opened with the first couple chords of the latter song just to make network head Judy McGrath nervous. The band also, of course, recorded the Unplugged performance that stands at the peak of that franchise, largely forgoing their Nevermind hits in favor of daring covers and material from In Utero.

In Utero was recorded at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota — a facility that's the focus of this week's episode of The Current Rewind podcast. Goldberg doesn't have much to say about the studio itself other than commenting on the extreme February cold, but he quotes Novoselic calling it "Frank Lloyd Wright meets Mike Brady."

Producer Steve Albini used large arrays of microphones to capture an authentic live sound, but Cobain ended up agreeing with his management that Albini's mixes were just a little too punk, with Cobain's lead vocals buried where radio would never find them. R.E.M. veteran Scott Litt remixed singles "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies," to general approval.

Goldberg is sympathetic toward Love, not surprising given that his company also managed Hole. He takes Yoko Ono comparisons as compliments, arguing that Love and Cobain did as well. Like Ono and John Lennon, Cobain and Love were a mutually supportive artistic couple, which Goldberg argues was part and parcel of Cobain's feminism: he didn't want a groupie, he wanted a peer. Love also functioned, in the words of an A&R staffer, as Cobain's "Twitter feed. He would communicate with looks and she always knew what he meant."

As witness to many of Cobain's intersections with wider music-celebrity culture, Goldberg has informative perspectives on Cobain's relationships with others in that orbit. The first artist Goldberg ever saw Cobain go out of his way to introduce himself to was Peter Gabriel, who praised Nirvana's music much to Cobain's delight. Goldberg also stood by on the Saturday Night Live set as Victoria Jackson brokered a phone conversation between Cobain and "Weird Al" Yankovic. "That sounds great, Al," said Cobain when the parodist asked to re-imagine "Smells Like Teen Spirit," though Cobain later thought that adding a parody video and album cover went a little further than the two had discussed.

The Axl Rose feud? Totally real, with Rose forever alienating Cobain by warning him about Love's verbal retorts in the wake of comments Rose made about the couple's reported drug use while expecting a child. "Keep your woman quiet," snarled Rose. That wasn't going to happen.

The Eddie Vedder feud? Cobain did fuel that fire in an interview Goldberg thinks was ill-judged, and certainly felt competitive with Pearl Jam, but in the end the two were sympatico and recognized as much. Goldberg saw the two slow-dancing together backstage at the VMAs while Eric Clapton played "Tears in Heaven," a pop-culture moment for the ages.

Serving the Servant won't win over all the Goldberg skeptics; as the author realized in reading those several accounts of the band's history, he was routinely portrayed as "the man" (as in stick-it-to-the) in Nirvana's camp. The book's best endorsement, though, comes from Cobain himself.

Goldberg writes that he keeps a framed copy of a note shared by its recipient Juliana Hatfield. When Atlantic (then with Goldberg as a leading executive) acquired Hatfield's label, Cobain faxed her a message saying, "We are very lucky to know Danny Goldberg. He's the most honest man in show biz and as long as we know him we'll be in good hands."

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