On Wednesday, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s returns for the final 30 episodes of what’s become a 120-episode season. (Lessons were learned about putting numbers in the show title.) To kick off this stretch run, we’re doing an episode you knew was coming at some point: “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And to discuss Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, we have this week’s guest, who is, uh, Courtney Love.
If this is your first time checking out 60 Songs, first: Welcome, and enjoy the back catalog, especially R.E.M. Second, here’s how the show works: Rob does an extended monologue up top about the song and band in question (along with stories from his adolescence and whatever else is rattling around his brain), and then he brings on the guest for an interview. Typically, the monologue takes up the vast majority of the run time. But given that the guest is—again—Courtney Love, who is—again—talking about Nirvana, both the monologue and the conversation ran a little long.
It’s worth it, though: The top-line thing to point out is that Courtney sings alternate “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyrics, including ones she wasn’t fully aware of until a few days before recording. She also shares great insights into Kurt’s approach to his artistry, as well as her own journey in the music industry. In fact, the whole conversation is a journey. We’re including a very short portion of the interview below—most of it is better heard in context, and we hope you’ll listen to the conversation (and Rob’s monologue, please don’t skip) in the episode here.
Lastly, another important announcement: Rob is writing a book based on the show, called Songs That Explain the ’90s. (See, lessons learned.) It will be out November 7, 2023, on Twelve Books, but it’s available for preorder now.
All right, enjoy.
You told me Kurt Cobain was one of the most wildly ambitious people to ever walk this earth.
And the whole thing about him not wanting to be a rock star is bullshit. You said he had more ambition than ’80s Madonna.
He was canny. He was savvy. Jason Everman, I mean, give me a break. “I want to look like Soundgarden, but I just don’t want to put up with a guy that can’t play.” He was jabbing always, but he had to hide it more than me. And oh God, one of the ways that I fell out with the whole Bikini Kill Manifesto, it wasn’t actually personalities, it was principles. There was one thing in the manifesto where it was like, “We will not learn instruments. The instruments are the tools of the patriarchy.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s bullshit.” I’m fucking learning “Sweet Emotion” right now, what the fuck? And “Highway to Hell” is after “Paint It, Black,” what are you guys talking about?
Kurt and me, we did not have the time that, say, [Billy] Corgan had to sit in our basements and learn things. So really, Kurt got by with not being a shredder. He didn’t want to be. Kim Thayil was a shredder.
He was, yeah.
But I would do whole rehearsals where Eric [Erlandson, founding guitarist of Hole] would change the tempo. I’m like, “No, no, no, Kim Thayil, no.” Actually, my band’s Sub Pop single of the month thing, there’s a half-decent song called “Turpentine” that starts with a good dirgey, grungy thing that Eric sped up and did a whole Kim Thayil thing. And then I forbade more Kim Thayil tempo changes. I was like, “We’re done with that.”
I think Nevermind, Kurt just straight went for it. Straight, “Not hiding my light under a bushel anymore, fuck that. We’ve been granted permission. All systems go. I’m going to live my full potential.” And yeah, it just gets very complex.
But then he would go on to say at least the production, he was embarrassed by it. He said it sounded like a Mötley Crüe record, Nevermind did. And he said In Utero was the closest he’d ever gotten to the sound in his head.
We all said a lot of things. Lying to the press is one of the great sports in life.
I wanted to ask you, if you were open to it, I wanted to ask about Live Through This and “Doll Parts.” And my thought on it was that record and that song were recorded, written in one universe and released into another universe, right?
Yeah. They were all written for an album called In Utero. So just FYI. Right. And then the reason it goes Live Through This is like, “I can’t fake deal with that after what I’ve been accused of.” I’m like, “Fine. Live through this, you fucks.”
It’s a good title.
So one very big difference in our upbringing is, I’m very class neutral. My mother was very wealthy, but I’ve also been on food stamps, all the things. So if you have an Edinburgh brogue from Scotland in [the United Kingdom], you’re considered class neutral. No one knows what class you are. I am as class neutral as an Edinburgh brogue. I literally have been all the things, right? And my mother was an extraordinarily wealthy San Francisco heiress.
I hopped out of that family of origin. I’ve been a ward of the state, all the things. But one thing we never had was gun culture, none. Like Eugene, New Zealand, San Francisco, Marin County even, I never touched a gun. I didn’t know what a gun was. I would never, ever. Just guns were not part of the chat. And then when Kurt and his best friend Dylan Carlson and Buzz [Osbourne], where they grew up, they’d go shoot guns.
I mean, you’ll have to ask Charlie [Cross, Cobain’s biographer] because Kurt wouldn’t tell me that it was different than this. Charlie says, it’s a bit of a myth lie, but I love the myth lie a bit. So Kurt’s mom, Wendy, had a longshoreman boyfriend who wasn’t very nice to her and he had guns and Wendy threw them in the lake. And the myth goes, I think Charlie deconstructs this, so you have to check with him. But he never told me differently.
Did he fish out Wendy’s guns that he threw out and buy that guitar from my favorite photo of Kurt that I sent you? Maybe not, I don’t know. And I prefer to believe otherwise.
I’ve been lied to this whole time and it’s fine, it’s fine.
By the rock stars.
This transcript has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview and episode, click here. Subscribe here and check back every Wednesday for new episodes. And to preorder Rob’s new book, Songs That Explain the ’90s, visit the Hachette Book Group website.