Serving The Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain (Ecco Press)

Standing in front of a chapel filled with mourners, Gold Mountain manager Danny Goldberg had to come up with some words to sum up his feelings for the friends of his deceased client, the young but troubled Kurt Cobain. A good generation older then many of the people in the room, Goldberg delivered some flowery praise that didn’t sit right with most of the people in the audience. He spoke of Cobain in a mystical, almost religious tone,  and though he meant well, Cobain’s friends walked away from the service thinking Goldberg had no clue as to who Kurt Cobain was. Goldberg was seen as a suit––but more importantly, he was seen as part of the music industry problem that had killed Cobain. Days later, Goldberg was the subject  of an anonymous fax that mocked his speech at the memorial service and the music industry in general. Goldberg starts off his biography Serving The Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain by retelling this story, and it’s clear that the wounds from the incident still hurt, twenty-five years later.

Danny Goldberg rightly can lay claim to being one of Cobain’s closest business partners. Yet at times in Serving The Servant, Goldberg comes off as an outsider in his own story.  Such feelings are understandable; he was a good fifteen years older than the members of Nirvana, and easily as old as the fathers of Nirvana’s many fans. He even readily admits that he felt that he could have—and should have—been closer and more emotionally involved with Kurt. Of course, one can’t necessarily blame him for keeping his distance; one must retain a healthy business relationship with their client, especially when said client is unstable. Goldberg gave Cobain and Nirvana stability, and the only way he could do so was by staying professionally unattached.

It doesn’t help that Goldberg occasionally lapses into the same sort of purple prose that garnered him the harsh criticism twenty-five years ago. He’s quick to state how much Kurt loved him, looked up to him, considered him a father figure—a point which might indeed have been the case, but constant reminders of it are both annoying and come across as insincere, if not questionable. Goldberg spends too much time trying to tell the band’s history—he’s not a biographer; the story he’s told is a story best read elsewhere—we recommend Everett True’s Nirvana: The Biographyand it detracts from his own story. It’s also incredibly cringe-inducing to read his statement that had he known how successful Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters would become, he would have spent more time getting to know the drummer. Gross!

Yet in spite of Serving The Servant’s flaws, Goldberg does have a story to tell. The book excels when he focuses on the business of being Nirvana’s manager, and for all the histories of the band, none have ever done a very compelling job of examining that side of the story—a story Goldberg is not only primed to tell, but one that could almost exclusively be his. When he does shine a light into these aspects, the story is quite interesting. When the label is preparing to release Incesticide, Cobain decides he wants to use the liner notes to attack his enemies in the press, and he wants to pull the already-in-production compilation to do so. Goldberg shares with the readers his letter talking him out of it, and it shows Goldberg to be the savvy rock and roll manager that he was. It’s a well-organized plan that gave Cobain the out he needed, deftly playing it in a way that didn’t tell Kurt they wouldn’t do it; it simply told him what the consequences might be. It’s deft and a brilliant power play, and it’s this sort of thing Serving The Servant needs more of.

Then again, it’s easy to understand why the Cobain camp would shy away from behind-the-scenes book about the business side of Nirvana; even thirty years later, that legacy of Cobain as indie-rock champion and punk-rock ethicist is still a prickly subject. After all, much work went into making sure the world didn’t see him as a sellout, yet the moments in Serving The Servant that paint Cobain as a willing participant in his success—and happy recipient of the rewards he received—feel uncomfortably contrary to the man Cobain the world knows and loves, yet are probably closer to the truth about who the man actually was. Sadly, it was this contradiction and conflict that ultimately killed him.

Hopefully, someday someone will rip the bandage off, legacy and underground persona be damned, and tell the business side of the Nirvana story. Personally, I hope Goldberg will; he’s the man with a most compelling story to share. Unfortunately, Serving The Servant doesn’t satisfy that need. While it is an enjoyable read, it feels too tentative, too cautious, and disappointingly too reserved to fully serve the servant he served.

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