While Kurt Cobain went through well-documented struggles with fame after Nirvana’s 1991 single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made him an A-lister, the frontman was able to leverage his burgeoning celebrity to shine a light on some of the less-recognized artists that he cherished.
“Kurt was determined to use his newfound fame to support the kind of indie rock he loved,” says Nirvana's former manager Danny Goldberg, author of the upcoming memoir Serving the Servant, about his experiences working with the band. Cobain immersed himself personally and artistically in the fertile punk scene of the 1980s, so once Nirvana made it big, he made concerted efforts to pull some of the underground up with him.
Here are five of the best examples of Kurt Cobain's indie-rock altruism.
In the late-'80s, Scottish indie-pop group The Vaselines were an obscure name even within the U.K. But 10,000 miles away in Washington state, Cobain was listening intently to their first two EPs — 1987’s Son of a Gun, and the following year’s Dying For It. When singer Eugene Kelly formed his new band Captain America in 1990, Cobain paid back his self-confessed debt by having the band open on their 1991 tour of the U.K., frequently inviting Kelly onstage to sing backing vocals on Nirvana’s cover of the Vaselines track “Molly's Lips.” “Just as important,” recalls Goldberg “[Nirvana] shared the beer that promoters provided.”
Cobain also made a point of wearing a Captain America t-shirt during photo shoots for British magazines, and one shot end up on the cover of NME, giving them an instant profile boost. As Captain America changed their name to Eugenius in 1992, Cobain personally recommended them to Atlantic Records, who released their first two albums.
The sludge-rock gods were more than just an influence on Nirvana, they were actually part of the band in their early days: Three tracks from Nirvana’s 1989 debut Bleach featured Melvins drummer Dale Crover. A year later, Melvins singer Buzz Osborne introduced Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic to a young drummer named Dave Grohl, completing the classic Nirvana line-up that would conquer the world with 1991's Nevermind.
As the band worked on that set's follow up In Utero, Cobain took time out to sit in the producer’s chair (for the first and only time) for the Melvins' 1993 major-label debut, Houdini. “Kurt was a genius at choruses, and his main contribution was to focus on them,” recalls Melvins A&R rep Al Smith in Serving the Servant. Sure enough, the album became one of the Melvins’ biggest commercial successes, with Osborne later referring to it as "our biggest selling record, although not so much that I could put a down-payment on a new Rolls or something."
The hard-living San Francisco punks had burned out by the end of the 1980s, but found themselves getting called out by the newly-famous Cobain, who made up his own Flipper t-shirt with a sharpie before appearing on Saturday Night Live in early 1992, and wore it again in the video for “Come as You Are.” The t-shirt became so iconic in Nirvana folklore, that Forever 21 brazenly repurposed it, and and sold it on their own website in 2011.
The Meat Puppets
Cobain loved The Meat Puppets’ second album Meat Puppets II so much that Nirvana covered not one, but three of its songs during their famous 1993 MTV Unplugged recording in New York City, and made sure core members Cris and Curt Kirkwood rode shotgun. It was at the chagrin of the show’s producers had been hoping for some bigger name guests. “They had to be nice to us ‘cause it was at the behest of the headliners,” Curt told Billboard in 2014. “I think they thought they might get Eddie Vedder out there.”
Instead of getting a Seattle grunge supergroup, a generation of Cobain acolytes were sent out to look for the early work of a crew of Arizona weirdoes -- and subsequently, the Meat Puppets scored their first Billboard Hot 100 hit the following year, with the No. 47-peaking "Backwater." It was the Nirvana way.
Daniel Johnston's early self-released cassettes of fragile, lo-fi songs had earned him cult status during the 1980s, but the Texas singer-songwriter had also spent much of the decade fighting mental health issues. That was still the case when Cobain turned up to the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992 wearing a t-shirt of Johnston’s 1983 album Hi, How Are You. The sudden attention meant that Johnston became the subject of a bidding war — even though he was living in a mental hospital.
Despite a generous offer from Elektra Records, Johnston rejected them because they also had Metallica, who the singer considered to be possessed by Satan. Instead, he opted for Atlantic Records, who released 1994’s Fun, which duly flopped. Even so, Johnston continued recording prolifically, and his remarkable life (including his connection to Nirvana) was chronicled in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.