“Danny, he’s dead.” It was March 4, 1994, and David Geffen, the record mogul who had signed Nirvana just three years earlier, was calling band manager Danny Goldberg to share the terrible news. Kurt Cobain had overdosed on a powerful sedative while in Rome. Strangely enough, it was a false alarm. But the Nirvana frontman would die a month later in his Seattle home, at just 27, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Goldberg’s new book, “Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain,” is a generous and detailed tribute, packed with the harrowing — trying to get Cobain clean — and the hilarious — helping Cobain slip out a back door to avoid Axl Rose. The book, out April 2, thrusts readers into the brilliant flash that was Nirvana: Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl. We spoke recently with Goldberg, 68 — who worked for Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, ran Warner Bros. Records and manages, among others, Steve Earle — about “Serving the Servant.”
Q: Kurt was sometimes seen as sort of a slacker king or a guy who didn't care all that much. As you present him, he actually cared about every detail.
A: Yes, when I was talking to Courtney [Love, Cobain’s wife], she said: “We were both really ambitious. In my mind I was going to take Nirvana down.” And then she paused, and she said: “You know, Kurt was just as ambitious. He just hid it a little better.” But that was part of his art. He was extremely focused and disciplined about accomplishing what he wanted to accomplish. This is someone who insisted on months of rehearsal before they went to the studio to do a record, who had a tremendous work ethic. And at the same time he created a character called Kurt Cobain. Hiding some of his ambition was conscious, and it was part of the creation of a persona that he felt that he wanted to create and that he would have admired as a kid. He’s not the only one who did that. I think Bob Dylan and the guys in R.E.M. did it.
Q: It may be hard for people to understand just how quickly everything moved for Nirvana and for Kurt and Courtney.
A: They were a band that when they toured, they would have to sleep on people’s floors because they couldn’t afford the hotel rooms. They had no money, and they had the romance of being a young punk band that believed in what they were doing and they had a subculture that respected them. MTV was at its peak, and a month of heavy rotation on MTV made you famous to millions of people. So this became a global phenomenon incredibly quickly.
“Nevermind” comes out in September of ’91. Courtney and Kurt get together in October, just like a month after the record comes out. And they were together for the rest of his life after that. And then January, just a few months later, is when they do “Saturday Night Live,” which is when a lot of us realized that there was a heroin problem. So within a few months you’ve got success, you’ve got a drug problem in the band and you’ve got this extremely intense new girlfriend soon to be wife and a level of press scrutiny that occasionally happens to musical artists all at the same time, so you know it was a lot to go through.
Q: You talked to Courtney and Novoselic. But not Grohl.
A: I wanted to talk to him. I made a request to [John] Silva, his manager. I never got a response, so I didn’t drive myself crazy trying to get to Dave. . . . This is sort of my book, my version of Nirvana and Kurt during those years, and I was definitely much closer to Kurt than to Dave.
Q: I wonder whether your clear support of Courtney, who is a polarizing figure in this world, is why Silva, a guy who worked closely with you, wouldn't talk.
A: Look, I have not talked to John that much over the years. He’s become extraordinarily successful, and he’s earned his success. He’s an excellent manager in every respect. But I had very close friends in high school who I never talk to, and that’s just the nature of the cycles of life. . . .
The one moment that I described in the book is when I was sitting somewhere with Courtney and Kurt, and Kurt was going on about how people should really understand how much he loves Courtney and not disrespect the relationship. And I knew that [Love’s band] Hole was looking for a manager, and it just occurred to me to say, “Kurt, do you think I should manage Hole?” And he said, “Oh, God, that would be so awesome,” and I could just see it. It seemed to him like some kind of validation. And when I told John the next day, he just looked at me and said, “Fine, you deal with her.”
Q: There is this wonderful moment when Kurt tells you about Dave's singing, which nobody would know about until the Foo Fighters.
A: Kurt just said to me, “I don’t think you realize how good a singer Dave is, but I hear him singing harmonies every night.” It was like he was really doing it so I would know this because there was this very fraternal side of him and a sweet side of him, but also it had a touch of envy in it. I mean he was competitive.
Q: But we wonder, if Kurt had lived, was Grohl going to want to sing and do his own songs?
A: I would say the likelihood is that Dave would have found an outlet similar to what he did with the Foo Fighters. I might not have known how talented Dave was, but Dave knew. Dave knew he was a songwriter. Dave knew he could be a lead singer, and Kurt had other musical interests that didn’t necessarily fit in with their Nirvana. That was part of what “Unplugged” [on MTV] was about. It was originally sort of presented as something in the course of marketing [the band’s final album] “In Utero” to do. But Kurt approached it completely differently than anybody I think had before. He didn’t do most of the hits. And he had the Meat Puppets on there and on the “In Utero” tour. He brought a cellist and another guitar player on the road with them.
Q: There were rumors at the time that he was going to make a solo record with Michael Stipe.
A: There’s no question, and Courtney said this, too, Kurt was going to do some recording with Michael Stipe, do some demos. That doesn’t mean those wouldn’t have ended up on a Nirvana record.
Q: The saddest part about this book is really where it leads. As fans, we always wonder why our heroes can't be saved. But here, we see everybody trying to help. But even the addiction specialist who cleaned up Aerosmith storms out of the room terrified after a few minutes with Kurt and Courtney.
A: His name was Bob Timmons and of course the lawyers for the publishers are paranoid, concerned about possible litigation. The lawyers said: “Gee, can you say all that? Maybe you should change his name.” And I said: “Good news. He’s dead.” . . . Kurt was one of a kind. He didn’t fit into any cookie-cutter concept, and that was what made him great and what made it hard sometimes to help him. I don’t know why anybody kills himself. There’s hundreds of books about this. And psychologists, psychiatrists, yogis, priests, rabbis and philosophers have all grappled with it, and nobody seems to have any great answers why you take 20 people that were all abused or 20 people that all had similar problems and 19 of them don’t kill themselves and one does.
Q: What do you hope people will take away about Kurt in 2019?
A: Just how brilliant he was and the good side of him. Look, I’m a [Jimi] Hendrix fan, and when I think of Hendrix I don’t think of his death, I think of his guitar solos. I would hope that Kurt gets more into that category with the way people think about him and then his death. You’re never going to not know that he killed himself. But I just hope to shine a light on some parts of him that were a bit underexposed, and that’s what I hope the book does. If people could see his smile in their mind the way I could see it in my mind.