The MTV Video Music Awards had long been one of the premier events in the rock’n’roll calendar, but the 1992 ceremony was a watershed affair. A change was in the air: the preceding 12 months had seen grunge drive a stake through the heart of the glam-metal scene that had dominated MTV and the US charts during the late 80s. As a prime mover in the latter scene, Axl Rose had asked grunge prime movers Nirvana to play at his birthday party and also to join Guns N’ Roses on tour with Metallica, only to have both offers rejected out of hand. Rose responded by calling Cobain and wife Courtney Love “a junkie with a junkie wife” at a show in Orlando, Florida, declaring, “If the baby [Love and Cobain’s newborn daughter Frances Bean] is born deformed, I think they both ought to go to prison.” With GN’R and Nirvana set to appear at the VMAs just five days later, the scene was set for a showdown.
Matt Sorum (drummer, Guns N’ Roses): I remember Nirvana coming out. We were on the same label [Geffen]. Duff McKagan turned me on to them. He had the demos from before Dave Grohl came into the group and he gave me a copy of Nevermind. I remember looking at the album cover, with the image of the baby on it, thinking, ‘That is really iconic.’ We asked them to tour with GN’R and they turned us down. They called us ‘corporate rock’.
Amy Finnerty (director of music programming, MTV): I was just 20, quite junior in the programming department, but I was the person who had pushed to get Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit video played, so Kurt had asked if I could come along to the awards. So I was there at Kurt’s invitation. I wasn’t aware of the details of what had gone on before, but I do remember that Axl wanted to be part of their camp. He extended an olive branch, you know? The day before the awards, all of the bands came in for rehearsals and that was when things started to get difficult.
Krist Novoselic (bassist, Nirvana): Nirvana showed up for the production of the awards show early in the day at UCLA, west of Hollywood. The show was in the sports arena, and there were mobile houses set up for the performers off an athletic field. Tabitha Soren (co-presenter, VMA Awards): The trailers were all lined up right next to each other. Anybody who wanted more space had to go outside, which forced a lot of people together who, normally, probably wouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Two of the bands were Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, both of them at the height of their popularity. There was a sort of rivalry between the two camps, alternative rock going head to head with the veterans of heavy metal.
Bruce Gowers (Director, VMA Awards): We were completely unaware that there was an ongoing feud between Kurt and Axl. Amy Finnerty: At the rehearsal, Nirvana played Rape Me, which was not what the VMA people were expecting to hear.
Kurt Cobain: They were going to replace us if we didn’t play Teen Spirit.
Krist Novoselic: The MTV people were upset. We were being asked from all corners not to.
Amy Finnerty: There was a lot of discussion, but by the end of that day, they had reached an agreement. Next morning, we had another rehearsal, at which they played Lithium, and everybody was happy. The band goes back to the trailer, we all get ready for the show. Before Nirvana went on, we were sitting in a circle in the artists’ tent. I was sitting next to Kurt, and he was pretty relaxed because he was holding Frances. Courtney was across the circle, there was a few of us.
Kurt Cobain: He [Axl] came strutting by with five of his huge bodyguards and a person with a movie camera.
Amy Finnerty: When Courtney saw Axl, she said: “Axl, Axl, do you wanna be the godfather to our child?” She was taunting him. You could tell by the tone of extreme sarcasm.
Kurt Cobain: Everyone laughed. We had a few friends around us, and he just stopped dead and started screaming…
Amy Finnerty: Axl came up right behind Kurt and I. He was genuinely mad.
Kurt Cobain: These were his words: “You shut your bitch up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement.” [laughs] So I turned to Courtney and said: “Shut up, bitch!” So I guess I did what he wanted me to do – be a man.
Amy Finnerty: Kurt’s tone was very sarcastic, so everybody laughed… at Axl basically, for making such a comment about a woman… especially because anybody who knew Kurt and Courtney knew that a) Kurt wasn’t that type of person and b)nobody could ever keep Courtney in line, so what was he thinking? I’d say Kurt handled that situation perfectly. He knew exactly what he was doing by turning to Courtney and saying that. It really lessened the tension in the room, allowed the rest of us to laugh a little bit. Then [Axl’s then girlfriend] Stephanie Seymour asked Courtney: “Are you a model?” and Courtney replied: “No. Are you a brain surgeon?” Axl didn’t seem to know how to respond, so he walked off. I leaned over to Kurt and said: “Wow, that was weird!” And he said: “I was really scared.” He wasn’t kidding. It was, like, scared of being beat up.
Tabitha Soren: Shortly afterwards, I walked through the backstage area. I saw a bunch of very large, muscular bodyguards in all-black T-shirts restraining Axl Rose. His girlfriend was looking very shaken, but at that moment, I didn’t even know who he had had an altercation with.
Kurt Loder: It was like two worlds colliding. That was sort of an important moment in the way fashions changed, and you really saw the culture of music going in a slightly different way.
Kurt Cobain: Afterwards, we heard that Duff McKagan wanted to beat Krist up.
Krist Novoselic: I was walking toward the stage and came across Duff McKagan. I think Duff was also under the influence. He must have heard something from Rose and had a terse word for me.
Duff McKagan: I blew my lid when I perceived a slander toward my band from the Nirvana camp. In my drunken haze and drug-induced mania, I heard what I wanted to hear. I went after Krist Novoselic backstage. I was mad and insane then. My scope of dealing with any sort of conflict had narrowed down to bar-room brawling.
Krist Novoselic: That guy wanted to fight me and he had about three bodyguards who were, like, pushin’ me around. I was already a little bent out of shape and instantly replied with the same sentiment. The production people grabbed me and we continued toward the stage.
Amy Finnerty: There was a plan that if they started to play Rape Me, MTV would cut to a commercial, so everybody was prepared for that. I was standing right next to Judy McGrath when they took the stage and started to play Rape Me. When those opening chords started, Judy grabbed my hand, and I remember she looked at the guy who was speaking to the production truck and said, ‘No, not yet. Hold it, hold it, hold it…” Judy let them continue and then, when they went into Lithium, she and I just cracked up.
Dave Grohl: Sometimes, Krist would do this thing where he’d take the bass and throw it 20 feet up in the air and catch it. So at this Video Music Awards thing, he throws it up in the air…
Krist Novoselic: I’m plugged into some awful bass rig that’s distorting terribly. I can barely hear what I’m playing, and the tone deteriorates into an inaudible mess. Fuck it – time for the bass-toss schtick. Up it goes! The only time I’ve ever dropped it was then in front of 300 million people. Ouch!
Dave Grohl: Blinded by the light, smack down on the head, winds up on the floor and I didn’t realise what had happened.
Krist Novoselic: I was fine, but I faked like I was knocked out, perhaps expressing my inner torment over a taxing evening. Maybe I was just embarrassed.
Bruce Gowers: Then Nirvana did like a Who-thing, kicked the drums over, destroyed their equipment.
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Joel Gallen: Kurt throws his guitar through the bass equipment, and Dave is bashing all the drums. They start knocking the amps over. Then Dave runs up to the mike and starts yelling Axl’s name.
Amy Finnerty: Dave was yelling, “Axl! Axl! Where are you Axl?” He was taunting Axl because of what had gone on before.
Earnie Bailey (guitar tech, Nirvana): After Nirvana played Lithium, Kurt went below the stage, where Axl and Elton John’s pianos were mounted on a hydraulic lift awaiting their duet.
Kurt Cobain: I spat on Axl’s keyboard… it was either that or beat him up. We’re down on this platform that brought us up hydraulically, I saw his piano there and I just had to take this opportunity and spit big goobers all over his keyboards.
Earnie Bailey: Kurt came in, laughing his ass off. He told me he’d spit across the keys of Axl’s piano as he left the stage. So we’re laughing about that, watching the ceremony on TV, when these two pianos come up and Kurt goes, “Oh fuck! I spit on Elton’s piano by accident!” I’m not sure which was funnier, Kurt’s horror at what he had done or the sight of Elton John hammering away on that piano.
Amy Finnerty: So, because of Krist smashing himself in the head, they didn’t go directly back to the trailer, but I did, because Jackie Farry, Kurt and Courtney’s nanny, was in there with Frances. When I got to the trailer I found Duff McKagan and Gilby Clarke and other members of Guns N’ Roses trying to tip it over. Axl was there but he did not physically have his hands on the trailer. They didn’t know Frances was in there, so I totally freaked out on them and called security. As soon as they realised Frances was in there, they stopped. It was just their idea of a joke. They just didn’t know.
Duff McKagan: Kim ‘Fastback’ Warnick, my mentor, called me the day after my embarrassment and scolded me for it. I felt so low. We had so, so many things in common. We have so many things in common today.
Matt Sorum: We’re good friends now. I know Grohl, I see him. After Kurt passed away, Dave told me I was one of the first guys to call him.
What Happened Next?
The following day, at a hastily convened press conference, the members of Nirvana revealed their side of the story, while Guns N’ Roses maintained a tactful silence. Some years later, Slash revealed that he had not taken any part in the VMA feud, declaring, “I was like, ‘I don’t have time for this shit.’” Krist Novoselic and Duff McKagan made a very public reconciliation in 2008 when both were writing blogs for Seattle Weekly.