Nirvana Manager Danny Goldberg’s New Book Looks At A Different Side of Kurt Cobain

Danny Goldberg started managing Nirvana around the time the band released its epochal sensation Nevermind in 1991. Now, nearly 25 years after the death of the band’s frontman Kurt Cobain, Goldberg has authored a book about his former client and friend called Serving The Servant, which was released last month by Harper Collins. We caught up with the writer and chatted about a number of things Nirvana.

Had you always planned on writing a book on Kurt?

It had been in the back of my mind for some time that there was a different portrait I could paint. I respect a lot of the other books and a lot of the the other movies and things like that. But I thought there was a side of him that is a little forgotten. The brilliance and the sweetness were overshadowed in my mind by the tragedy of his death. Over the years, a feeling had been building that there was sort of a missing perspective that I might be able to provide. And I thought it would be cathartic for me to do.

After Kurt’s death, you said didn’t read anything on Nirvana for a long time. When you were writing this, did you draw on any specific works, or were you just working from memory?

Once I decided to do the book, I tried to read everything that was out there. I re-read the journals and I went online because he did so many interviews and the majority of them are posted on some of the fan-sites. I must’ve read a couple of hundred interviews. He was definitely, for a guy that complained about the press, very interested in the press. And I also called around 30 or 40 people that I knew at that time. As you know, it’s not a biography of Kurt, so I didn’t try to cover his whole life, but I just would call people that I was connected with, like his label or some of my colleagues, or other musicians during those three and half years that I knew him. And I had some memos and other things that helped me and my recollections. 

You write in the book that the arc and intensity of Cobain’s career was no accident. When do you think that started to coalesce in his mind — the kind of career he wanted, or the kind of impact he wanted to make?

By the time I met him, he was very clear about it. I think the best evidence we have for this is his journals. If you go back, you see that, at a pretty young age, he was making drawings of Nirvana having sold-out shows. The career that he created I think was the career he wanted. I don’t think everything about the results made him happy, but I think this was definitely not an accident. This was something he thought about carefully and had a very clear, sophisticated view about how he was going to go about trying to do it.

The part about Kurt’s love for The Beatles was interesting. He seemed to be a little self-conscious about his love of melody. You can see him being a successful artist had he come of age in another period, what with his ability to write hooks. 

I think he was a genius and he would’ve been successful anytime that he was alive, and he would’ve used whatever the cultural language was of the time. He definitely was very inspired as a teenager by the iteration of punk rock of the ’80s, bands like Black Flag. He loved the rebellious posture of it, the politics of it, the authenticity and raw emotion of it. But intellectually, he also loved pop. He listened to Cheap Trick, The Beatles, ABBA. It’s clear in his work that he liked the cultural stance and values of punk, but musically he had a very wide range of interests. There had been some antecedents for indie groups using melodies (the Pixies and Hüsker Dü), and others had experimented with this, but nobody did it as effectively as he did. He actually had his songs and maintained a punk audience.

The author Danny Goldberg. Photo by Jon-Marc Seimon

Early on, Cobain embraced feminism and gay rights. Yet he was adamant about not being doctrinaire to his audience.

I think that he had a very clear idea of what he didn’t wanto to do. He didn’t want to be so didactic that Nirvana was just considered a political band like the Dead Kennedys. He loved the Kennedys and he loved Fugazi, but he said to me that he wanted his fans to know he had a sense of humor.

He liked to rock, he liked the music itself, and he didn’t want to be known as a polemicist. But on the other hand, he had deep feelings about certain issues, particularly what we then called gay and lesbian rights and feminism, and just general egalitarian principles. When Nevermind came out he really wanted to play down the political side, and then once they became very successful, he felt almost compelled to be a little more outspoken.

In the book you say you’re very much pro-Courtney Love. In your intersections with Nirvana fans, do you find people often fall into a pro-Courtney or anti-Courtney camp?

I would say there’s a minority that doesn’t like her, like there was a minority of John Lennon fans that didn’t like Yoko. But she was controversial to people, especially people that knew Kurt before they were together. She was not a shy person, and could alienate people at certain times. My take on her was, number one, that Kurt was in love with her, and I was representing Kurt, and my [intention] was to be supportive and that’s part of the job of being a manager. He was very clear about [Courtney] and I recognized right away that it was a relationship, and it wasn’t just some passing rock-and-roll fling.

Cobain always seemed to be very concerned about the band’s image, though not necessarily in a superficial way. He knew a lot of that was dictated by the press, and had a nuanced understanding about how some of those things develop.

He saw that being a rock artist included all the other elements about connecting with the public. He started the album covers, he story-boarded the videos. When he did press or was going to take a photo, he was very conscious about not having the same hair color too many times in a row, or what t-shirt he was wearing. 

He did not repeat himself a lot in interviews, and it’s inevitable you’re going to repeat yourself when you do hundreds of interviews and so many of the questions are the same. He tried to bring something distinctive [to each interview], so that it had a sense of authenticity rather than feeling like it was sort of a PR thing, and I think that was part of what he admired about John Lennon and some of the other artists that were his role models.

In the book, you attribute some of his nastier episodes to heroin.

People are pretty horrible when they’re on heroin for the most part. Sometimes they’re just kind of grey and withdrawn, and sometimes they can do stupid shit and it’s definitely not anything I would recommend for anyone to do. 

The MTV Unplugged show seems like a miracle it even happened. Was that day sort of a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of experience, or was he capable of that kind of thing all the time. 

I think everything with him was lightning in a bottle. He had some bad days, but with his public work, there are very few bad days. He had a lot of personal travails and depressions, but in terms of what he did on stage or in the recording studio, it was a very high percentage of excellence. That part of him that was an artist and a performer tended to come out and take over.

For Unplugged, I think they rehearsed it for three days … I think he was very nervous about the whole thing in terms of his emotional state, but he didn’t have any ambiguity as an artist. That was the dichotomy of Kurt. Personally, he had a lot of mood swings and coped with dark forces, but the side of his brain that was an artist, well, he was the smartest person in every room he was ever in.

Had he lived, do you think the Unplugged show would’ve heralded a new direction for the band, maybe a move into more acoustic and folk realms?

I think he would’ve experimented with that more. I think he liked it. He felt very good about it after, because I talked to him the next day and he was very excited about it. And he said, “This is gonna really give people a whole other view of our band.” He wasn’t somebody creatively that was going to stay in the same box, the same way Bob Dylan or David Bowie kept changing what they did musically even while maintaining a core identity. I think Kurt was one of those artists who was going to experiment and express himself in a variety of musical languages even while maintaining his identity. He was one of those guys.

This interview was edited and condensed for length.