Book Review by Tom Nelson — Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain (Danny Goldberg)
While there are countless books and documentaries on the late Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, few are as intimate and meaningful as that of former music executive and Nirvana manager, Danny Goldberg.
Goldberg is an interesting study himself. He captured the attention of Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant at age 23 and became Zeppelin’s North America publicist and later vice-president of the band’s label, Swan Song. He rose quickly through the music industry ranks and led Atlantic Records, Mercury Records and Warner Bros. Records; as well as manage the careers of blockbuster acts like Allman Brothers, Bonnie Riatt, Sonic Youth and of course, Nirvana.
Goldberg wrote the Cobain biography no one else could.
In addition to being an engaging writer, he knew his subject as few others did and his friendship with Cobain was real. (He delivered the eulogy at Cobain’s funeral.)
One could write tomes on Nirvana’s music — what made it unique, how it shaped a decade of music and how it fits into the pantheon of music history. Goldberg was an appendage of the band in their days of mega-stardom. I’d consume that book with the same appetite and curiosity as I did this one.
Instead, Goldberg keeps it a genuine work of biography and focuses on Cobain, the person. Indeed, that’s what makes the book appeal to an audience well-beyond aficionados of the Seattle music scene.
A favorite passage in the book was set in the aftermath of Cobain’s suicide. It seemed everyone — fans, critics, musicians — were teasing out lessons of Cobain’s all-too-early passing. Did Nirvana sign on to a big label too soon, as Sleater-Kinney suggested (maybe they should have signed early)? Did they tour too much? Get famous too fast?
Danny cuts through the BS and answers with a priceless sense of humor: “Don’t do heroin.”
Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right explanation.
When you break it down, there wasn’t a lot of mystery behind Cobain.
Yes, he was a brilliant songwriter; yes, he tied together disparate music genres as no one else had before; and yes, he created the sound that the music world yearned for in the waning days of hair metal.
But at the end of the day, he was one of millions of Gen X’ers who came from a broken home, misdiagnosed with ADHD, picked on relentlessly in school and who sought refuge in music.
He just did it better than the rest.
When Goldberg arrived back in Seattle for Cobain’s funeral, his driver shared with him a story of her own experience driving Cobain.
Like most moms at the time, she had a son who was a big Nirvana fan. Cobain asked her where they lived and noted it was on their way to their destination. Cobain asked to swing by the house to meet her son. He told the son, “You know, your mom is a really good driver.”
So would I.
Cobain was a refreshing change from the decadence and depravity of heavy metal lead singers. AC/DC and Guns N Roses were a staple in my CD collection; yet I was ashamed of the misogyny and skipped over the ugly stuff. I didn’t with Nirvana. Plus, the lyrics had meaning and helped get me through some tough times myself.
At 46, I can appreciate a line from Goldberg’s book’s namesake with a chuckle:
“Teenage angst has paid off well /
Now I’m bored and old”
To learn more about the stories behind Serving the Servant and Goldberg’s life in the music industry, join me on April 21st for a Zoom fundraiser. We’ll take your questions and more. To RSVP, click here.