The ever-expanding library of books about Nirvana and its frontman, Kurt Cobain, is surprisingly light on first-person accounts. Most of its canonical texts, like Charles R. Cross’s “Heavier Than Heaven” and Michael Azerrad’s “Come as You Are,” were written by journalists. “Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain,” written by the band’s co-manager Danny Goldberg and published in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Cobain’s death by suicide, is one of the only books to come out of the singer’s inner circle.
Managers make for unreliable narrators. They are lied to by their artists, and in turn lie to us. They often don’t know the worst of it and might not be inclined to believe it if they did. “I was predisposed to see all things Nirvana through rose-colored glasses,” Goldberg admits. He oversaw Nirvana’s ascent from indie act to the most famous band in the world, and Cobain once told a journalist he regarded the older man as a “second father.” To Goldberg, he remained achingly opaque. “Sometimes I felt as close to him as a brother,” he writes, “and other times he seemed a galaxy removed, barely perceptible.”
Goldberg’s Cobain is a figure of childlike sweetness, sharp humor and great gloom. He was a savvy marketer and tireless creative force who was fiercely devoted to his family, and plagued by stomach problems that baffled his doctors (Goldberg gently suggests that they might have been psychosomatic). A clear-eyed participant in every aspect of his career, he tended his own myth carefully and worried more about upsetting Rolling Stone and MTV than he ever did about selling out.
Goldberg drops no bombshells, but “Serving the Servant,” which features recollections from Courtney Love, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and others in Cobain’s orbit, enlisted mostly to fill in gaps in the author’s memory, is empathetic and absorbing, illuminating but not gossipy.
For die-hard Nirvana fans, Cobain’s life is already a dog-eared book, but Goldberg provides a fresh, eyewitness account of otherwise familiar tales: He was there the night Kurt and Courtney met cute-ish; during the custody battle for their daughter, Frances Bean; during the infamous awards show dust-up with Axl Rose (nobody comes off well); and for at least two interventions.
When they met in 1990, Goldberg was a former publicist who ran a management company, Gold Mountain, which counted the Cobain-beloved Sonic Youth among its clients. Nirvana were indie up-and-comers who wanted a shot at the mainstream. Under the aegis of Goldberg and his partner John Silva, they soon signed to a major label, releasing the universe-shifting “Nevermind” in 1991. It was perhaps the only album in history equally beloved by punk rockers, pop fans and metal heads, an accomplishment as unlikely then as it is now. It went gold after 18 days.
Goldberg was backstage at a Chicago club when Kurt and Courtney first got together, three weeks after the album’s release. Love was formidable and vulnerable and messy. She enjoyed getting mad at things. Goldberg liked her right away; no one who disliked Love would have survived for long in Cobain’s inner circle, anyway.
As the band’s fortunes rose, Cobain and Love slipped further into drug addiction. He showed up stoned to interviews and to an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” much to Goldberg’s horror. “Kurt displayed a baffling resiliency,” he writes. “He could be out of it one minute and deeply engaged the next.”
Cobain’s bandmates watched their roles in his life shrink as Love’s expanded. Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl are presented as distant, easygoing figures, bit players in a story that is partly theirs. Even Cobain’s decision to take lucrative songwriting copyrights away from his bandmates “generated only minor stress,” Goldberg writes, unconvincingly.
In concert, Grohl began singing harmony vocals, presaging his eventual role as lead singer of the Foo Fighters. Goldberg suggests Cobain found this unnerving. “I hear Dave doing harmonies every night and he is a much better singer than you might think,” he told Goldberg, who adds, “Kurt’s tone had a touch of envy to it, as if he were looking over his shoulder in more ways than one.”
Goldberg doesn’t spend much time on the strife reported to have roiled the band in their final year, though Cobain did ask him if he thought he could survive as a solo act. In March 1994, Cobain overdosed on Rohypnol while on tour in Rome. Things changed after that. “Something affected his brain,” Novoselic told Goldberg.
The manager had by that time taken a label job and was working for Nirvana only in an informal capacity, though he did show up for one last, dispiriting intervention a few weeks before Cobain’s death. Cobain was despondent, and Love was terrified: For the first time, even Frances Bean didn’t bring him joy. “I had no idea what had triggered the last few weeks of Kurt’s despair,” Goldberg writes. “Maybe it was an intense crystallization of the depressions that had long tormented him. Maybe it was something at home. Maybe it was related to his career.”
“Serving the Servant” doesn’t linger on the specifics of Cobain’s death, though it does take aim at the murderous conspiracy theories that have sprung up around it. Cobain was worth more alive than dead, Goldberg reasons — dead musicians can’t record new albums, or tour.
After Cobain’s death, Goldberg and Love would become twin targets of fans’ grief and rage. To Internet message board dwellers, Goldberg was a cardboard villain, a corporate shill who served Cobain up to the mainstream that would devour him. But “Serving the Servant,” in its own understated, overprotective way, effectively conveys the frustration, the to-the-bone grief, that comes from losing a loved one who was fundamentally unknowable in the first place. It’s the closest thing we have to a survivor’s account, at least until Love finally releases her memoir, currently six years overdue.
Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She’s working on a book about the history of the space program.
By Danny Goldberg
Ecco. 304 pp. $28.99.