Band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novocelic arrived promptly at 11:00 a.m., when the shoot was to begin, but lead singer Kurt Cobain was a nowhere to be found. Three hours later, Cobain showed up in a pair of large, white Jackie O sunglasses. In a whisper, he asked for a bucket.
Frohman asked, “Sure, but what for?”Knowing the Nirvana front man was a heroin addict, Frohman wasn’t surprised by the request, but it added to the anger that was building inside him. The shoot had gone wrong from the beginning and looked to get worse.
Cobain replied, “‘Cause I think I’m gonna puke.”
"It was the only time I photographed him and Nirvana, and the assignment originally was to do a cover story for the Sunday Observer," Frohman told Rolling Stone. "We had set up for a shoot in New York when they were going to perform at Roseland Ballroom, so we had the whole day to shoot. That was the original assignment, but of course, things didn't turn out the way we planned. Often times with shoots of musicians or celebrities, they don't – so even though I prepared for that, it pretty much went off-track pretty quickly."
"It was a very unique shoot," Frohman recalled. "Kurt showed up three hours late to the shoot, and the shoot was in his hotel. We originally planned for the shoot to take place outside in Central Park. I had a van all packed up with equipment and when we arrived, we met the manager in the lobby, and he said, 'We have to shoot in the hotel.' He arranged for a conference room in the basement of the hotel for us, and he said, 'Go check it out,' and unfortunately didn't offer any other options if it didn't work out. We didn't have that much room. We waited for Kurt, and Dave [Grohl] and Krist [Novoselic] came down, and there was no Kurt. And they left, and they came back two hours later, there was no Kurt."
"Eventually, at least three hours later than originally scheduled, Kurt came down," said Frohman. "He was very quiet and he was wearing these white Jackie O glasses with his chin down to his chest, and he asked for a bucket. And I said, 'Sure, we have a bucket. What do you need a bucket for?' And he said, ''Cause I think I'm gonna puke.' And that was my introduction to Kurt."
"Kurt was very nice and agreeable, and at the same time I had to mold him like Silly Putty," Frohman recalled. "You know, he was very stoned, yet he was coherent on some level and gone on another level. I had met people like that before, but this was unique because I was shooting someone with these glasses on. He wouldn't take the glasses off, so I couldn't really make eye contact easily."
"The whole shoot was improvised, in the sense that I had no plans to shoot in a studio environment," said Frohman. "We managed okay on that level, and I did have a backdrop, but the timing was off. When I thought of five hours [while] planning the shoot, I thought I had time to plan different locations and a variety of pictures. I even asked to shoot in his hotel room, and the manager said, 'Eh, no way. That can't happen.'
"We got these really interesting pictures because he was aware of what he was looking like, and he was unaware of how he was, because he was pretty out of it," said Frohman. "He started spitting water, and I don't think he was doing it to be funny – I think that was just his nature."
"Kurt was an anti-hero and he didn't like to be pretty, and he didn't want to be glorified, and he didn't want to be treated like the way celebrities want to be treated, and it's what endeared him to a lot of fans," mused Frohman. "At the same time, it was challenging to shoot him because he would pay attention, then he wouldn't pay attention, you know? It was like shooting a dog."
"I have a lot of outtakes that I don't even show that are maybe not handsome pictures of a person, but they're very interesting," Frohman said. "The shoot has become, to me, a portrait in all the pictures rather than in one outstanding, iconic photograph. So, to me, it's almost like a film strip. You could look at all the different pictures and you could see a way a person moves and expresses himself with [sun]glasses on, where you can't make eye contact, which is one of the most telling features of a person."
"In the time that I had with him before we went over to Roseland, he seemed very removed and almost had this disdainful quality for the press, and I guess I represented the press," said Frohman. "He was nice to me, but by showing up late and, you know, not really caring, I just had a feeling that he was at odds with his media image. I knew that from reading other articles and all that, so it wasn't a real surprise to me that he wasn't going to be like a lot of other celebrities. I enjoyed that about him, actually."
"When we got to Roseland, he was really nice and engaging with his fans," Frohman remembered. "Now, he was stoned out of his mind. He wasn't very talkative but he was really polite, willing to sign all the autographs and all that. I was very happy to see that, because that's one thing you always want to see. I really enjoyed those moments, so I figured, let's do a picture – sort of like a fan picture, a snapshot, as if I was shooting for the kids with their camera."
Frohman was invited to Roseland Ballroom, where the band was performing later in the evening, with a promise by Dave and Krist that he could take some more photos of them after their rehearsal. After the band finished he approached Cobain, but was told that there would be no more pictures.
His shoot effectively over, Frohman called the magazine and expressed his frustration with the whole experience. He was also trying to manage expectations; he thought the session was a total bust.
"[The live photos in the series] are more simplistic," Frohman explained. "I think you're trying to capture a moment in a performance, and it's more about getting lighting, an angle, a good expression. I think it's also a challenge to do those. I like it as if you're watching an artist in his studio. You're seeing him in his moment, in his element, and so I always find those pictures fascinating."
"I certainly like the performance pictures because, like an artist painting, you really see him doing his thing," said Frohman. "I do think [as an photographer] you are removed from the subject, and I find them less challenging. Maybe technically they could be more challenging, getting a good light on him, and you can't control the background and perspective a lot of the times. They are what they are, and yet I think they're really fascinating to look at."
"I've seen many great pictures of [Cobain]," Frohman noted. "There are some other photographers that have done wonderful portraits of him. You know, he's a handsome man, he's got his eyes full of expression. Those pictures are different, and they're interesting. But to me, there's something about these pictures that transcend connecting to a person."
It was only after he got the contact sheets of the shoot back from the photo lab that he realized he’d captured some amazing moments — some of Cobain’s last.
Frohman’s insightful portrait of an idol transcends the nature of celebrity photography. The pictures are as humanizing as they are glorifying. Cobain appears as a goofily provocative iconoclast, while revealing a more depressing side of the life of a great artist dependent on drugs. These photographs, captured not long before the time of his death, provide a fascinating insight into the end of the life of a rock star.
(©Jesse Frohman/courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery, Interview by Rolling Stone)