Nirvana’s Former Manager Remembers Kurt Through Rose-Colored Glasses
“Despite the squalor of his low points and grotesque reality of his death, mine is a largely romantic view of Kurt’s creative and idealistic sides.” So states Danny Goldberg in the introduction of his book Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain. This serves notice of the tack Goldberg will take in his memoir, which covers the years he served as Nirvana’s manager from 1990 to 1994 (a duty he shared with the band’s co-manager John Silva). A quarter-century after the band’s demise, the magnitude of Cobain’s talent still awes Goldberg. He’s always ready to advocate for his one-time client.
Goldberg previously touched on his relationship with Cobain in his 2008 book Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business, but here he really delves into the subject at length. It’s also a look back at an old-school music industry, before the internet completely upended things, and at a time when being on the cover of Rolling Stone actually meant something. Well, at least to some music fans. As Goldberg notes, from the record company’s perspective, “Commercial radio and MTV were for the masses; the print medium was for the cult fans.” No record company wanted their act to be a “buzz band,” an act that only music critics liked; better to reach the mainstream through radio and MTV. Yes, this was also a time when a video making its debut on MTV was a bonafide event.
Cobain certainly appreciated the power of MTV. “He regularly watched the channel himself and wanted Nirvana to be a big deal there,” Goldberg writes, adding, “and he hated the part of himself that cared that much.” This description perfectly illustrates the contradiction of Cobain, a profoundly ambitious man whose success never erased an underlying fear that he might be betraying his alternative values, a conflict he never fully resolved.
In this book, Goldberg describes how he sometimes found himself caught in the middle of that conflict. When Cobain wanted to publicly vilify some journalists he felt wronged by, naming them in the liner notes of Nirvana’s odds-and-sods collection Incesticide, Goldberg feared his client’s emotions had gotten the better of him. He wrote Cobain a letter, begging him to reconsider. He reprints this letter in full in Serving the Servant. It’s a remarkable document. Goldberg, clearly anguished, pleads with Cobain to not be “destructive,” reminding him that attacks on the media can also be self-defeating (“by appearing to over-react to them — instead of weakening them, you empower them).” Nonetheless, he cedes to Cobain’s authority, and states they’ll issue the liner notes the way Cobain wants, if he insists.
That was the private battle. Publicly, Goldberg stood behind Cobain, denying to journalists that Cobain and his wife had left recorded threats on a journalist’s answering machine, even though he knew otherwise. “I never had any regret about trying to cover up for them in this way,” Goldberg writes, with some defiance. “I wasn’t under oath…I was doing my job and standing up for my client,” though he also takes care to add that “there is no excuse for threatening people.”
“I was predisposed to see all things Nirvana through rose-colored glasses,” Goldberg admits elsewhere. But he doesn’t shy away from discussing Cobain’s drug issues, describing how he arranged the first of numerous (and, ultimately, ineffective) interventions with him shortly after Nirvana’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in early 1992. He continued to try and help Cobain for the rest of his life. The pain he feels over Cobain’s death still lingers, and he writes of still wondering if there’s something he could’ve said or done that might have made a difference. And for all the good memories they share, there are also traces of sadness in quotes from those Goldberg interviewed for the book (including Cobain’s wife Courtney Love, and fellow Nirvana member Krist Novoselic). But while Goldberg’s feelings of loss run deep throughout the story, Serving the Servant never hesitates to accentuate the positive.
(Ecco, April 2, 2019)