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How Duff McKagan buried the feud with Kurt Cobain

The feud between Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses is a notorious one. Whilst the war would never surpass the verbal, it’s still one of the most famous from the 1990s and in rock history, as the two groups represented an antithesis of one another. 

Guns N’ Roses were unapologetic in their excess and had more in common with the ’80s hair metal scene than they did the grunge movement. In many ways, Nirvana and their Seattle peers were a stylistic reaction to this kind of music and off-stage behaviour, so there was no surprise, given their status, that the two would eventually come into contact and conflict.

However, it wasn’t as simple as that, and perhaps, the feud had a lot to do with Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain provoking Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose. After Nirvana released their sophomore album, Nevermind, in September 1991, they were the biggest band on the planet, and everybody wanted a piece of them. 

Their music was so refreshing that Rose even stated that he was a fan of the trio. We all know that Kurt Cobain was an iconoclast and always stuck to his guns, and he once maintained: “We’re not your typical Guns N Roses type of band that has absolutely nothing to say.” A year later, he told a Singapore publication: “Rebellion is standing up to people like Guns N’ Roses”.

Famously, things came to a head in 1992. Rose had been left frustrated by Cobain, who kept rejecting his attempts to take Nirvana on tour. Angrily, Rose told a crowd at a show that Cobain and his wife, Hole singer, Courtney Love were “fucking junkies”. Later that year, backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards, what was now a feud went down in history.

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Allegedly, Love and Cobain mockingly asked the Guns N’ Roses frontman if he’d be the godfather to the pair’s three-month-old daughter, Francis Bean Cobain. Things hit a fever pitch between Rose’s girlfriend, the supermodel Stephanie Seymour, so he and Cobain got involved. Rose is rumoured to have said, “You shut your b***h up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement”. Cobain being well, Cobain, is alleged to have sardonically turned to Love and said, “shut up, b***h”.

In 1992, things took another turn when Cobain recounted the MTV encounter with Axl in the LGBT publication The Advocate. Here, he insulted Guns N’ Roses’ music and their personalities. He labelled Axl “a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side. I’m sorry that I have to divide this up like this, but it’s something you can’t ignore. And besides, they can’t write good music.”

It’s strange that things became so contentious between the two groups, as from the Guns N’ Roses perspective, from what we know, all they did was try to help Nirvana, regardless of what you think of Rose and Co. However, it is clear that to Kurt Cobain, it was about standing up for what is right, so props to him. According to an account by Nirvana Dave Grohl sometime later: “Guns N Roses was about to do this massive stadium tour with Metallica, and they wanted us to open.”

Grohl recalled: “So Axl had been calling Kurt nonstop. One day we’re walking through an airport and Kurt says, ‘Fuck. Axl Rose won’t stop calling me.’ I think it represented something bigger. Nirvana didn’t want to turn into Guns N’ Roses. So, Kurt started talking shit in interviews, and then Axl started talking back. It went back and forth like tenth-grade bullshit.”

Unfortunately, for Rose and Cobain, they wouldn’t get a chance to patch things up. However, one member of Guns N’ Roses was afforded the opportunity, and it would come in the strangest of circumstances. The animosity between both groups continued all the way up until just days before Cobain’s tragic death in April 1994. 

A week before his death, Cobain was given an intervention by his family and closest friends and was checked into an LA rehab facility to kick his heroin addiction. However, on March 31st, 1994, the singer managed to escape the facility by climbing over the fence. He got a taxi to the airport and flew back to Seattle. 

This is where things turned really strange. On the flight, he bumped into Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan. Regardless of the years of animosity, McKagan has always maintained that Cobain “seemed happy” to see him. Weirdly though, McKagan said that he knew from “all of my instincts that something was wrong”.

Duff McKagan saw Kurt Cobain shortly before his death. (Credit: Alamy)

In a 2014 interview with Austria’s Mulatschag TV, McKagan recalled: “I was really fucked up (when I saw Kurt). I mean, I wrote about it in my book, it was, like, 87 words. We were both fucked up. It wouldn’t have been a big deal… It was something, like, even at that time… we were just two fucked up guys, but we were both in big bands, and we landed at the airport and we kind of talked about… I mean, my pancreas blew up four weeks later. He died two days later. So that’s where we were both at at our lives — at the end of our ropes.”

He continued: “I didn’t have a sense that he was gonna die in two days, but again, a lot of my friends and peers were dying, or had died, and I was getting numb to it, getting used to it. And even when I got a call that he died, I didn’t fall out of my chair. It just happened. And I was too fucked up to really take it in. I was, like, ‘Oh, another one fell.'”

“We were talking about what it feels like to be going back home,” the bassist said elsewhere. “That’s what he said he was doing, ‘going home.'” McKagan also recalled that he wanted to give Cobain a ride home but that the Nirvana mastermind vanished before he could offer. 

After that fateful flight, both camps would patch things up. After news of Cobain’s death broke, Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum phoned Dave Grohl and offered his condolences. “After Kurt died, one of the first phone calls I got was from Matt Sorum,” Grohl told Jon Stewart. “He left a message and said, ‘Man, I’m really sorry, and I hope you’re doing well.’ I thought that was really cool.”

The healing didn’t end there. In a 2010 column for Seattle Weekly, McKagan apologised for his own behaviour during the 1992 VMAs. “I blew my lid when I perceived a slander toward my band from the Nirvana camp,” the bassist said. “In my drunken haze and drug-induced mania, I heard what I wanted to hear, and I went after Krist Novoselic backstage. I had no control of myself then. And Krist, I am sorry for that day.”

What has followed has been a series of collaborations between the two camps, with Grohl famously lending Axl Rose his iconic onstage throne in 2016, when the Guns N’ Roses frontman was injured. 

Listen to Kurt Cobain talk about Axl Rose below.