It’s 1993 all over again: yesterday Kim Deal of the Breeders released a new video, tickets go on sale today at noon for Helmet and Smashing Pumpkins shows, and last night at NeueHouse photographer Jesse Frohman remembered Kurt Cobain’s last American photo session, images from which are gathered in a new book.
Staged at the Omni Hotel in July of ’93 before Nirvana introduced its new album In Utero to a crowd at Roseland Ballroom, the photo session for Britain’s Observer magazine yielded now iconic shots of Cobain at the height of his glam-grunge glory, wearing an ocelot-print shirt, ripped jeans, a trapper hat and a pair of Converse sneakers (the shoe brand sponsored last night’s invite-only event).
Cobain’s eyes are hidden behind a pair of Jackie O sunglasses, and a tall bottle of Evian in his hand hints at why.
Frohman — a onetime assistant to Irving Penn who has taken stunning portraits of everyone from Woody Allen to Derek Jeter to James Brown — had initially blocked off five hours with Nirvana, with the intention of shooting in its hotel and in Central Park. But those plans were soon scuttled: “When I met [the band’s] manager at the hotel he said, ‘We have to shoot at the hotel,’ and he reserved a conference room in the basement of the hotel,” Frohman told last night’s moderator, Carlo McCormick of Paper. “I said that wasn’t going to work and he said, ‘I think you should check it out.'”
The photographer was left with no choice but to dismantle a “presidential” table in the middle of the conference room in order to make space for the shoot. At the 11am call time, Cobain was nowhere to be found. And when he finally showed up around 2:30 or 3pm, he wasn’t in the most responsive state: “He came in stoned,” Frohman told the audience as images of a frail, slightly slumped-over Cobain were projected behind him. “So you had this feeling that perhaps you’re not going to communicate in the same way that you’d communicate with someone who’s very coherent.”
The introduction to Kurt Cobain: The Last Session, published last week by Thames & Hudson, is penned by the author of the Observer profile, Jon Savage. In it, Frohman recalls Cobain’s first words to him: “Hi. Nice to meet you, do you happen to have a bucket? I think I’m going to puke.”
Frohman usually likes to warm up his subjects (which, around that time, included musicians like Chris Cornell, the Beastie Boys, Green Day, and Public Enemy) with half an hour of conversation. But with the band’s manager telling him, “the more you talk, the less time you have to shoot,” it was clear that wasn’t going to happen with Kurt. “I was talking while I started to pose him and I realized as I was posing him that it might be better just to let him be,” Frohman recalled, “but when I let him be too much he would just go off, and you can see in a couple of the pictures where he starts to become a ballet dancer.”
In one shot, Cobain pretends to shit in a bucket; in others, he drools or spits water. Not only that, but he wouldn’t take off his sunglasses – in various frames, Frohman or his lights are clearly reflected in his shades. “I was so upset about this shoot,” the photographer admitted. “If you talked to me after the shoot I would’ve been like, ‘It was a disaster.’”
But that changed soon enough: “Once I got this film back I said, ‘Wow, I have something here.’”
In the end, Frohman was glad he hadn’t pushed for on-location shots. But some of the most revealing photos are the candid ones taken outside of Roseland, as the band headed from its van to rehearsal. Cobain, now sporting a trademark ’50s cardigan, poses with some teenage fans — and he looks every bit as sheepish and awkward as they do.
Kurt once said, “If I went to jail, at least I wouldn’t have to sign autographs,” but here he signs the girls’ magazines without complaint.
He wasn’t a big fan of doing encores or playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” either — but in a testament to his conflicted relationship with fame, he did both during the Roseland show. In a fit of passive aggression, he intentionally flubbed the lyrics and guitar solo to the hit that had famously propelled him into the spotlight.
The mangling may have been payback: in his original Observer piece, which is reprinted in the book, Savage noted that the audience had rudely talked over an acoustic stretch of the show. That’s when Cobain finally lifted his sunglasses to reveal his eyes, and Frohman got the usable shot that he likes to call “the hero picture.”