When Cobain died, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe told Newsweek: “I know what the next Nirvana recording was going to sound like. It was going to be very quiet and acoustic, with lots of stringed instruments. It was going to be an amazing f—ing record…. He and I were going to record a trial run of the album, a demo tape. It was all set up.” The two were close friends (Stipe is the godfather of his only child, Frances Bean, and was one of three people—along with Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, and Sub Pop cofounder Bruce Pavitt—to speak at his private memorial), and Cobain had become obsessed with R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People. “He was talking about that record constantly. Loved it. He loved R.E.M. in general, and I think that’s where he wanted to go,” says Merlis. Eerily, Automatic was reportedly on Cobain’s stereo when his body was found.
“The input of what went into that petri dish of his musical creativity was only a few things, and they were sort of random,” Charles R. Cross tells me when I meet up with him in Seattle. Cross is the author of the definitive Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven, and the just-released Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain; as the editor of the dearly departed local music mag The Rocket, he was one of the few journalists in Cobain’s orbit for the entirety of his musical life. Cross says Cobain wasn’t a voracious record hound, but he was loyal to the things he liked, and each one affected him in some way. “The Vaselines, the Pixies,” Cross says. “Let’s say Kurt had 10 major influences, but he got something from every one of those influences.” Throughout his life, there are markers of his obsessions, from his essay about tracking down an album by female post-punk band the Raincoats in the liner notes of early pressings of the 1992 comp album Incesticide to his endorsement of cult songwriter Daniel Johnston.
Cobain also had a passion for melody, and even beneath the alienating Steve Albini-provided scuzz that colors In Utero, there are some real hooks. Many of those were extracted by Automatic for the People producer Scott Litt, who was brought in toward the end of the sessions to sweeten up several tracks, including the lead single “Heart-Shaped Box.”
“He loved pop music more than most of us did,” says Charles Peterson, who was Sub Pop’s in-house photographer and took many of the most iconic pictures of Cobain. “He sort of curated that last day of [England’s] Reading Festival in ’92, and when you look at that, there was L7 and Screaming Trees and Mudhoney, but also the ABBA cover band Björn Again. He was really into that ABBA cover band. It was genuine. I remember standing on the side of the stage and he looked up at me with this huge smile and was like, ‘What do you think?’ ”
Despite his appreciation for “Dancing Queen,” Cobain largely genuflected before revered oddballs like William Burroughs, whom he collaborated with in 1992. “Kurt would have had the luxury of working with anybody in the world, and in my opinion he would have chosen to work with outsider artists,” says Bruce Pavitt over breakfast near his home in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from Cobain’s house. Last year, Pavitt released the book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, a memoir of the group’s first international tour; he witnessed Cobain’s development as a songwriter, and the two had countless conversations about music. When rumors started that Nirvana were considering jumping from Sub Pop to a major label in 1990, Pavitt recalls bringing him a gift of “the two least commercial records I had ever heard in my life”: Daniel Johnston’s Hi, How Are You and the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World. “Kurt might have worked with Daniel Johnston,” Pavitt says. “He would have used his fame to shed light on artists on the periphery of culture. He did it with the Meat Puppets, too. That was his style. I can’t see him jamming with Paul McCartney.”
Of course, the surviving members of Nirvana famously did end up jamming with McCartney in 2012. It’s a little hard to imagine Cobain participating in that kind of splashy pair-up had he lived, but the melodic line connecting him to the Beatles was undoubtedly there. “I was not that impressed with Bleach,” Nevermind producer Butch Vig told me several years ago. “The only song to me that really stuck out was ‘About a Girl.’ That had a very Lennon-McCartney melodic structure. That, I think, was an early template of where Kurt was going.” Cobain might actually have looked to the world’s most famous band in other ways. “Even if Nirvana had stayed together, they could have pulled a Beatles and just decided not to tour, or really restrict it,” says Pavitt. “By ’94, Kurt was kind of over being an international rock star.”
Cross agrees: “My vision is Kurt as a dean, a statesman, but he’s still writing and putting out really weird records that Jack White is putting out on vinyl editions,” he posits. “It’s something very off-kilter like that. Even toward the end of his career, he was tired of screaming and tired of big arenas, and he wanted to have more control. He’s Neil Young, minus the fancy autos and train sets.”