Jim White on Friday: Caught between a rocker and a hard case: When the king and queen of grunge took against two would-be biographers, things turned very nasty . . .
Friday 05 February 1993
The message was left by the hottest property in American rock music: Kurt Cobain, lead singer with the band Nirvana. In 1993, Nirvana is big business indeed. Its fast, dirty, rough-edged music and fast, dirty, rough-edged lifestyle, known as 'grunge', has caught the mood of suburban, white adolescents to such an extent that the latter have bought more than 12 million Nirvana albums in two years.
In December 1991, Victoria Clarke, an Irish rock journalist, and a colleague, Britt Collins, sensing that Nirvana might be the group for the Nineties, were commissioned to write an in- depth, unauthorised biography of the band. Nine months later Kurt Cobain felt their research had gone far enough.
But telephone threats were not the end of the matter. On Monday, Ms Clarke was in a Los Angeles courthouse, giving evidence against a female rock musician who, it is alleged, hit her in the face with a cocktail glass in a night-club last December. The musician is Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain's wife. Although Ms Love's own band - she is the lead singer of another Seattle grunge group called Hole - has barely sold enough records to fill a dustbin, over the last six months she has become one of the few people in the United States more famous than her husband.
It all seemed like a good idea in the beginning. 'Kurt's is the classic rock'n'roll story - heroin, bad childhood - I thought there was something there,' said Britt Collins last week, sitting in a house in London in which the telephone number was ex-directory. 'And you can't invent someone like Courtney, she's fascinating, everything she does and says is completely outrageous. Compared to them, most other rock bands are boring.'
The authors' initial proposal was to write an unauthorised biography, over which the subject would have no right of veto. It was not to be the standard celebrity puff of rock biographies. It was, they say, to be a serious examination of the social forces that had created Nirvana. But they wanted some interviews with the band and access to its concerts.
At first, it seemed to the authors that co-operation had been given. Their synopsis was faxed over to the band, and they received, in return, backstage passes for its European tour in June 1992. Ms Clarke went on the tour, while Ms Collins went to the United States to research the grunge scene in Seattle, whence Nirvana had sprung.
'Kurt was never hugely supportive,' recalled Ms Clarke. 'He was always polite, but distant.'
As the tour progressed, and the band's reputation grew, so came some less savoury publicity, particularly about heroin. Cobain, who has always been shy of interviews, became suspicious of a journalist so close to the band, and Ms Clarke was thrown off the tour. But Chris Novoselic, the bass player, gave her a long interview, and a Filofax full of people she should contact (particularly former drummers of the group, of which there are a lot).
Then, in its September issue last year, Vanity Fair magazine ran an eight-page interview with Courtney Love that changed the couple's profile overnight. If Kurt Cobain finds publicity distasteful, his wife, apparently, cannot live without it. She thrives on risk: once, during a concert she was giving in London, she dived from the stage on top of the crowd, which interfered alarmingly with her. According to someone who was there, it was a dangerous thing to do: at the time she was wearing a baby- doll nightie.
Recently, Ms Love told The Face magazine that she 'was terrified of being mediocre, so I never behaved in a socially acceptable way.' One socially unacceptable thing she did, she told Vanity Fair, was to take heroin while pregnant with Cobain's child.
If this remark was intended as a publicity stunt, it backfired horribly. The moment it appeared in print, Cobain and Love became America's most hated couple. On phone-in shows and in newspaper editorials across the country, the moral majority showed its distaste. Such was the furore that, when the baby was born, the welfare authorities threatened to take her into care.
About a month after the Vanity Fair article appeared, Britt Collins thought it would be a good idea to interview its writer, Lynn Hirschberg. Ms Collins was particularly keen to discover whether Ms Love had really made the remark about heroin, which she had subsequently denied. A taped conversation proved she had.
'You couldn't leave Courtney out of a serious look at Nirvana,' said Ms Collins. 'The parallels with Yoko Ono, with Nancy Spungen (Sid Vicious's girlfriend) are too interesting. She and Kurt check into hotels under the name Ritchie, Sid's real name, incidentally. It's not very nice to stereotype, but she falls right into it. I'm fascinated by the way she's taken over from Kurt, no one wants to interview him any more. It's like Di and Charles.'
But Ms Collins's timing was not good. After the infamy that had followed the Vanity Fair article, Ms Love had begun a one-woman campaign against Lynn Hirschberg, accusing her of having an 'unhealthy obsession'.
'I've heard some of the messages Courtney has left on Lynn's answering machine,' said Ms Collins. 'Now that's unhealthy.'
When, a couple of months later, Cobain and Love found out that their would-be biographers had spoken to Hirschberg, 'all hell', according to Ms Collins, 'was let loose. In Nirvana's world you had to choose sides. It's Us against Them. The moment we interviewed Lynn Hirschberg we were no longer Us. We were Them.'
Lawyers' letters arrived daily at offices of the women's publishers, accusing the authors of 'intentionally and wrongfully intruding into the plaintiffs' private lives, solitude and seclusion, causing the plaintiffs extreme emotional distress.'
When this had no effect, the telephone lines ran hot. One evening Cobain and Ms Love left alternate messages on Victoria Clarke's answering machine. This is an extract from Ms Love's: 'I don't physically threaten anybody, I don't beat people up . . . I don't know why I'm trying to be rational with you, everyone wants to kill you. We will use every dollar we have and every bit of our power to basically fuck you up.'
At which point the tape cuts off. But Ms Love hasn't finished, she redials, re- engages the machine and continues, her train of thought barely disturbed.
'Hi, as I was saying. I think you're disgusting. I think you're just . . . scary. I have nothing to say.'
And so she continues for another 2,500 words.
When they first heard the tapes, the authors decided to stop their research. But their agent insisted they continue.
'She said we mustn't be intimidated,' said Ms Collins. 'Why should we stop? We had done nothing wrong. They were trying to censor us.'
The authors' resolve was strengthened one night last December. Victoria Clarke was in a night-club in Los Angeles when in walked Mr Cobain and Ms Love. Immediately a fracas ensued, during which Ms Clarke was struck across the face with a glass. The next morning she filed a complaint. The police went to arrest Ms Love, who immediately filed a counter-complaint saying she was acting in self-defence. A preliminary hearing took place in Los Angeles last Monday to establish who was to stand trial for attacking whom.
To add spice to the spat, Albert Dworkin, a celebrity lawyer who has represented Axl Rose - the other bad boy of American rock, whose group, Guns N' Roses, is Nirvana's major rival - volunteered to represent Ms Clarke free of charge. It would be an interesting case, he said.
And so it has proved. In the opening exchanges, Ms Love was in typically uncompromising form. She wanted the judge to tell her when the proceedings were going to end as she had her limo waiting outside. When Mr Dworkin played the answering machine tapes to the court, Ms Love admitted it was indeed her voice, but said she had not intended any malice. The case was adjourned until the end of the month.
'The authors are trying to create controversy, invent traumas,' Janet Billig, a spokesman for Nirvana, told the Independent. 'They are minor, insignificant writers. The band never gave their co-operation. These women never waited for an answer to their request for co-operation, they just started to invade privacy.'
Ms Billig's version of events is very different from that of the authors.
'When they got a 'no' for their initial proposal, these women got down and got dirty. There are three other books being written about Nirvana at the moment, we have no problem with any of these. The writers of these haven't tried to probe and infiltrate our lives like these women did.'
It is not hard to feel sympathy for Kurt Cobain in all this. Shy of publicity to the point of paranoia, he did not ask anyone to write his biography, particularly not writers as tenacious as this pair. On his sleeve notes for his last record release he wrote, 'we are having to deal with the betrayal and harassment that stems from aspiring groupie writers who surround us now like celebrity-worshipping jackals moving in for the kill.'
His anger seems to have been motivated by concern for his loose-cannon of a wife. At one point on his rambling answering machine binge he said: 'If anything comes out in this book which hurts my wife, I'll hurt you. I don't care if this is a recorded threat, I'm at the end of my ropes.'
He has succeeded, however, in doing nothing more than act as the best publicity agent an author could wish for. Several large forests have been felled for the book's huge first print run in April.
Moreover, it seems that Cobain may have been premature in his anger. The book remains, according to its authors, enormously positive about his band.
'We showed Courtney's ex-husband our manuscript,' said Ms Collins. 'He was amazed how nice we were to Courtney given what had happened. The thing is, I still think Nirvana are great.'
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