Nirvana and Guns ‘N’ Roses are two of the defining artists of rock music and, during the 1990s, their importance and overarching influence were unparalleled—but that didn’t bring them closer together. The facts remain that they were two different bands with two different types of attack. Considering the different sounds and attitudes that both bands professed it should come as no surprise that they never quite saw eye to eye and a fierce rivalry was formed between the two bands that would become the stuff of legend.
When Nirvana rose to prominence with Nevermind in 1991 and became the talk of the musical world, they were quick to make sure they weren’t bundled along with bands such as Guns ‘N’ Roses. Cobain was famously a champion of equality and feminism, a much more modern school of thought than the backwards sexist lyrics that Axl Rose was singing with Guns ‘N’ Roses. Rose had publically stated that he was a fan of Nirvana which, seemingly, riled up Cobain even further who then took it upon himself to put some distance between the two acts. After Axl had shown Nirvana some love he expected some back, so to be somewhat insulted naturally started a beef between the bands.
Acknowledging their differences wasn’t going far enough for the Nirvana frontman. Cobain decided to use Guns ‘N’ Roses as the antithesis of his band’s ethos, especially considering the band’s sound, by commenting, “We’re not your typical Guns ‘N’ Roses type of band that has absolutely nothing to say.” This immediately riled Rose who previously labelled himself a fan of the grunge legends. He was now tired of the lack of respect by his peers. The truth was, despite selling out stadiums, Guns ‘N’ Roses were no longer considered a musically astute outfit and their contemporaries still didn’t rate them. Rose supposedly vented his frustration to Faith No More and furiously said, “I only like you guys, Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, and two other bands, and all of you hate me. Why do you hate me? It’s like I went away and came back home to find you guys fucked my wife.”
Despite Nirvana making it as clear as humanly possible that they wanted nothing to do with Guns ‘N’ Roses, it didn’t stop Axl Rose trying to vie for their love. The ‘Paradise City’ singer even invited them to hit the road with his band, something which Nirvana, already hitting the high curve of their own trajectory, unsurprisingly declined. “Guns ‘N’ Roses was about to do this massive stadium tour with Metallica, and they wanted us to open,” Dave Grohl once 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,” the Nirvana drummer continued.
Rose obviously took this snub to heart and, rather than take it on the chin, he decided to turn it up a notch and, perhaps showing his lack of grace of elegance, was unbelievably cruel in the process. On stage in Orlando, Rose took it upon himself to call Cobain and Love “junkies” after a report in American tabloids accused the Hole singer as using heroin whilst pregnant. He then said to thousands of people in attendance that, “If the baby is born deformed, I think they both ought to go to prison.” It was adding fuel to an already lit fire.
Verbally, the pair had been jousting for some time but things then got physical at the MTV Awards in 1992 when Cobain and Nirvana found themselves in the middle of a fracas with Guns ‘N’ Roses. It started after Courtney Love jokingly offered to make Rose the Godfather of Frances Bean Cobain in response to his previous comments in Orlando. Rose then threatened Cobain, telling him to shut his wife up before the Love and Rose’s then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour exchanged some vicious words at one another.
Krist Novoselic and Guns ‘N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan then almost came to blows mere moments before Nirvana took to the stage. Cobain then raised the dispute in post-show interviews at the VMAs and made the beef a very public matter. “She yelled, “Axl, Axl— you’re the Godfather!” Novoselic later wrote. “Upon hearing this, Axl apparently got very annoyed, walked over to Kurt, and demanded that he keep his woman in line. Kurt turned to Courtney and sarcastically asked his woman to keep in line and left it at that. Axl then split,” he added.
Later in the evening, following a performance which saw Novoselic accidentally knock himself out with his guitar and Dave Grohl, the nice guy of rock, also taunt Axl Rose — Nirvana still had one more trick up their sleeve. Rose was set to close the show with a duet of ‘November Rain’ with Elton John so, in preparation for that, there were two pianos on hydraulic lifts ready for some ambitious stage shows. Cobain had spotted the pianos and planned to have some fun with them.
“I spat on Axl’s keyboard, it was either that or beat him up,” Cobain later recalled. “I saw his piano there, and I just had to take this opportunity and spit big goobers all over his keyboards.” However, the piano which the Nirvana man had spat on wasn’t Axl’s at all and was instead the lovely Elton’s. In response, several members of Guns ‘N’ Roses and their entourage tried to tip over Nirvana’s trailer but the band weren’t in there and the only people inside was baby Frances Bean and her nanny. Apparently, as soon as they realised the child was inside the trailer, they stopped but the ‘joke’ could have ended in disaster.
During an interview with LGBTQ+ publication The Advocate in 1993, Cobain discussed an encounter he had with a fan who pleaded with him to work things out with Guns ‘N’ Roses as they were their two favourite groups. “No, kid, you’re really wrong,” the Nirvana man recalled before adding, “Those people are total sexist jerks, and the reason we’re playing this show is to fight homophobia in a [really] small way. The guy is a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side.”
In a bizarre coincidence, Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan found himself parked next to Cobain on a flight from Los Angeles in 1994 a few months before the singer’s tragic death by suicide and the two of them resolved the previous animosity. They both talked about their pitfalls with addiction and had a deep talk for hours about their struggles, an occasion which drew a line under the larger quarrels between the groups. Following Cobain’s death, Guns ‘N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum was one of the first people to reach out to Dave Grohl to see how he was coping and that is something the Nirvana drummer has never forgotten, with the two men now being good friends.
While being in bands can help to connect many lost souls, as they find a suitable counterpoint in another it’s certainly no guarantee of friendship. Whether you’re in a rock band or not, the facts are that some people are just different. Nirvana and Guns ‘N’ Roses, like Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose, are just two very different mindsets.