By BRAD WHEELER
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain is Danny Goldberg's poignant new book on the Nirvana singer and songwriter. It takes its name from the opening track on Nirvana's final album and refers to band manager Goldberg's deferential relationship with Cobain, a servant to his own artistic muse. Twenty-five years after Cobain's death by suicide, Goldberg, a music-industry veteran whose previous books include How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside The Rock and Roll Business and In Search of The Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea, spoke to The Globe and Mail about Cobain's legacy and the advocate role of a rock star's manager.
You begin Serving the Servant by admitting that you'd forgotten some of the details of your relationship with Cobain and Nirvana.
Just how accurate is the book?
I was as accurate as I could be. I also did my best to be honest about things I wasn't sure about. I think that's the key. Sometimes you have to describe things that are very important emotionally, but there aren't transcripts available. I tried to be honest about what was subjective and what was factual, because if you only limit yourself to things that are documented, you're leaving a lot out.
There are a few books on Cobain already out there. Any of them get him wrong?
It's not about any specific inaccuracies out there. It was more of an imbalance I wanted to address. I felt the aggregate portrait of Kurt was more focused on his death than his life. I tried to do the reverse. Obviously I included his death and his drug addiction and his depression, because it was important to who he was. But that's not why people still wear Nirvana T-shirts or play his music today.
You describe him as a total artist, rather than as a tormented songwriter. Is that part of the balanced portrait you're trying to get at?
That's part of it. He was an amazing singer, and I think he was a very good guitar player. He oversaw and approved of every aspect of all the production elements on the records and videos, down to the tiniest detail. He was intensely engaged in the full array of tools that connected him to his fans. He had the idea of what a rock star could be, in the best sense, based on people like John Lennon, who was one of the role models he used.
What about the notion of an artist devoted to their muse, and how that can make them difficult to deal with and maybe not the nicest of people?
Kurt was concerned with being a nice guy. You're absolutely right, not every great artist is concerned with that. But he was. He had darkness inside him, demons that eventually killed him, but he was nice to people.
There are other artists who aren't like that. Creating art and being nice, those are different compartments in the brain.
I found the parts of the book that get into the artist-manager relationship interesting.
You know Bruce Cockburn's manager Bernie Finkelstein, I believe. Did you read his book, True North: A Life Inside the Music Business?
I do know Bernie. I'm very fond of him and have enormous respect for his accomplishments and obviously his long relationship with Bruce Cockburn. I didn't know he had a book out. I'll have to read it. Many years before working with Nirvana, I had a little record label that put out a couple of Cockburn records in the States, one of which was Stealing Fire, which I think was Bruce's most successful album in the United States.
Cockburn didn't think If I Had a Rocket Launcher could be a radio hit. But, according to Finkelstein, he and you convinced him otherwise and put it out as a single. Is that right?
Well, I thought it was my idea. But if it was Bernie's idea, God bless him.
[Laughs] You write that a manager can't be objective and that a manager idealizes their clients. What do you mean by that? You know, the word "manager" is deceptive. Because it sounds like we're in charge of something. But we're really working for the artist. There's no ambiguity as to who the boss is. We're advocates. It's not about being objective. That's the role of others. I do best when I kind of romanticize them.
And it was very easy to romanticize Kurt Cobain, because he was brilliant - uniquely so.
Romanticism aside, your book makes it clear that Cobain wanted to be successful, that he wanted to sell records.
He would talk to other bands about having written songs he thought could go to No. 1. To talk about that in the punk subculture was extremely rare. The whole ethos of a lot of punk artists was almost defiant about success. But Kurt didn't look at it that way. He was defiant about compromising his art. He hated sexism.
He hated pretension. He hated macho behaviour. But he wanted to get those messages through.
And the best way was to sell records and concert tickets, yes?
There was a time when In Utero came out that Walmart didn't like the album cover, because it had fetuses on it. I thought it was ridiculous, so I called Kurt and said we'd tell Walmart no, and that we didn't need to pander to them. But Kurt said no.
He said, "You don't understand. Where I grew up, Walmart was the only place I could get a record. So let's talk to the label and have them do a different cover." So, he was uncompromising with his art, but part of the art was connecting to a mass audience.
What about being a so-called spokesman for his generation? He rebelled against that, didn't he?
That was ridiculous. He just laughed that off, because he was the opposite of that.
He wasn't a spokesman for anyone, except his own muse and his own feelings and his own art. But the idea of being accountable for other people was absurd.
Still, spokesman or not, Cobain's music did represent something generational, didn't it?
Absolutely. In the same way that Bob Dylan did for my generation. I still talk to people who are now in their 30s and 40s who still tear up when they talk about what Kurt meant to them, as a different way of being a rock star and a different way of being a man and a different way of being a public figure, and giving the space for people to honour the sensitivities and softer side and feelings of alienation, and validating that to the people. As an artist, Kurt's genius was so great that he was able to articulate things that a lot of people of his generation were feeling.
On April 23, 6:30 p.m., at Toronto's Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, author Danny Goldberg speaks with music journalist Alan Cross about Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain.
Kurt Cobain, front man for Nirvana, performs at the Nakano Sunplaza in Tokyo in 1992. The late singer-songwriter is the subject of a new book, Serving the Servant, written by his former manager Danny Goldberg.
RICHARD A. BROOKS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES