There have been many feuds in MTV Video Music Awards history — RuPaul vs. Milton Berle, Tommy Lee vs. Kid Rock, Miley Cyrus vs. Nicki Minaj, Eminem vs. Moby (and, um, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), Madonna vs. Courtney Love. But second to only Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift, perhaps the biggest scuffle/kerfuffle in VMAs history occurred between Love’s husband, Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, and Axl Rose, the frontman for Nirvana’s Geffen Records labelmates Guns N’ Roses. It’s a legendary rock ‘n’ roll tale, and Nirvana’s manager from 1990 to 1994, Danny Goldberg, was there to witness all the chaos unfold.
At the time of the 1992 VMAs, Nirvana and GNR represented two polar-opposite worldviews in rock, with Nirvana and other Seattle grunge bands’ ascent signaling a changing of the guard at the previously metal-dominated MTV network. Goldberg, author of recent memoir Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain, says Rose had been a fan of Nirvana at first, after hearing an early copy of Nirvana’s breakthrough sophomore album Nevermind, but that “didn't last very long.” But ironically, Goldberg tells Yahoo Entertainment that he believes if Cobain were still alive, Cobain and Rose would be friends today.
“Kurt and Nirvana, you know, had a real fear sense of differentiating themselves from the commercial rock ‘n’ roll scene that was prevalent before they arrived the so-called hair bands,” Goldberg explains. “I don't think it's exactly fair to call them ‘hair bands’; they all play music, Axl Rose is a great singer, and Guns N’ Roses is a great band. But there was definitely a macho, swaggering identity to those bands that was really diametrically opposed to the idea of masculinity and integrity that Kurt and Nirvana and bands like Pearl Jam had. … Kurt's whole thing about being a feminist, this was at a time when Guns N’ Roses had a song [“One in a Million”] that was on one of their big albums that referred to n*****s and f*****s. And we couldn't have had something more offensive to somebody like Kurt than that. So, they were just culturally in different camps at that time.”
The 1992 VMAs coincided with the publication of an infamous and extremely damaging Vanity Fair story about Love alleging that the Hole singer had taken heroin while pregnant with her daughter with Cobain, Frances Bean. “After the Vanity Fair article came out, Rose said something very rude, like Courtney should be in jail or something like that. It was pretty gross,” says Goldberg. (Rose’s exact quote was: “The only thing that means to me is someone like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, who is basically just a f***ing junkie with a junkie wife, and if the baby's born deformed, I think they both oughta go to prison.”)
“And right after that… Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses both performed on the MTV Awards, the first of the MTV Awards shows that came out after Nevermind was a big record,” Goldberg recalls. “This was a week or two after Axl Rose had said those mean things about Courtney, relative to Vanity Fair and what kind of baby they were going to have.”
And then Cobain and Love showed up to the VMAs with baby Frances, who was less than a month old at the time. When Love spotted Rose in the backstage hospitality area, she couldn’t resist confronting the GNR singer, in her own sarcastic way. “She said, ‘Hey Axl, wanna be godfather to our baby?’” Goldberg chuckles. “So he had a girlfriend at the time, I think her name was [supermodel] Stephanie Seymour, who says cattily to Courtney, ‘Um, are you a model?’ And without missing a beat, Courtney says, ‘Are you a brain surgeon?’” (In her Vanity Fair interview, Love had described Rose as “an ass” who “goes out with models.”)
“So Axl Rose had these huge bodyguards and he had somebody with a camera that was documenting backstage, possibly make some future documentary. So him, the bodyguards, and the cameraperson come over to the table where we are and he says, ‘Shut your woman up or I’ll throw you down to the pavement!’ A beat goes by and Kurt looks at a Courtney and this kind of slacker voice. And he says, ‘Shut up, bitch!’” — like, mocking this request. And we all cracked up, because he was making fun of it. And Axl went away in a big huff,” Goldberg tells Yahoo Entertainment.
Various rock ‘n’ roll A-listers, including fellow nominees the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and the Black Crowes, all witnessed this tension alongside Goldberg. Ex-Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, whose backstage trailer was stationed between the trailers for Nirvana and Guns ‘N’ Roses, told Uproxx in 2016, “It was just in the air that there was this war going on. I remember the vibe actually being really serious. Do people actually care that a junkie and a poser are going to fight? I picture it now like the Anchorman fights.”
The 1992 MTV Video Music Awards ceremony was memorable in several other ways for both Nirvana and GNR. When Nirvana performed, they resisted producers’ orders to do their smash hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and instead played a few seconds of their controversial track “Rape Me” from the yet-to-be-released studio album In Utero before segueing into “Lithium”; at the end of the performance, Novoselic tossed his bass guitar in the air and it came down with a thwack upon his skull. (Thankfully, he was not seriously hurt.) Guns N’ Roses also performed their epic power ballad “November Rain” with Elton John. In the end, Nirvana won two Moonmen — Best New Artist and Best Alternative Video for “Teen Spirit” — while GNR won the Video Vanguard lifetime achievement award, presented by Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor.
That evening, the feuding bands’ two bassists, Novoselic and GNR’s Duff McKagan, reportedly almost came to blows backstage, right before Nirvana’s performance, and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl gleefully taunted Rose on the air. But Novoselic and McKagan later became friends, and Goldberg believes that Cobain and Rose could have patched things up as well, if Cobain hadn’t died by suicide in 1994.
“I actually think that if Kurt were alive… I've noticed that the Rose supports Democrats lately, and I'm sure he's been through a lot in his life, and it's just as likely as not that they would be friends if Kurt were alive today,” says Goldberg, referring to how Rose has become so politically vocal on Twitter in the past couple years that he has inspired a new hashtag, #wokeAxl. “But at that moment in time, it was like two clashing philosophies.”
The socially distanced 2020 MTV Video Music Awards take place this Sunday, Aug. 30, at which Post Malone’s recent Nirvana-themed charity livestream is nominated in a new category, Best Quarantine Performance. In the meantime, watch Danny Goldberg’s full Yahoo Entertainment interview about Kurt Cobain’s life and career below.
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