In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were few bigger bands on the planet than Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana. While it’s safe to say that their respective styles, lyrical content, and fashion aesthetic could not have been more different — sort of a “leather vs. flannel” thing, if you will — both bands enjoyed meteoric rises during that period, with the accompanying staggering record sales, sold-out concert tours, and all kinds of leather and flannels just flying off store shelves.
Here’s one thing you may not know, however: During the bands’ somewhat-concurrent glory days, and despite the fact that there was a ton of fan crossover, the bands came to … well, to not dig each other very much. Specifically, Guns front man Axl Rose and Nirvana guitarist and singer Kurt Cobain openly couldn’t stand each other, and neither were shy about the fact, or their reasons for the animosity. Here’s a little timeline of one of the weirdest non-rap beefs of all time. In this corner, Axl Rose. In that corner, Kurt Cobain. Fight!
Guns ‘N Roses were the ’80s Hollywood metal kings
While Guns N’ Roses were among the last of the bands to be referred to as “hair metal,” their music didn’t quite fit that mold. Sure, they made their bones playing clubs on the Sunset Strip just like a lot of those hairspray-infused bands (via Rolling Stone), but their sound leaned away from the big, shiny, and party-y, and toward the dark, aggressive, and oddly bluesy. As noted by Ultimate Classic Rock, guitarist Slash was much more interested in fusing a raucous tone with a blues aesthetic than he was in nimble shredding, and the voice of Axl Rose was singular: smoky, harsh, kind of shrill, and totally kickass.
Bolstered by an instantly legendary performance of the single “Welcome to the Jungle” at the MTV Video Music Awards (via Rolling Stone), Guns’ 1987 debut album “Appetite for Destruction” landed like an atomic bomb on the national rock scene. UCR notes that by the end of 1988, the album had sold a mind-blowing 6 million copies, and according to The Current, it had moved over 30 million units as of 2020. Subsequent releases like 1988’s “G N’ R Lies” and 1991’s double-whammy “Use Your Illusion I and II” also posted blistering sales — but by the early ’90s, a scrappy rock subgenre was growing in prominence with astonishing speed.
Nirvana were crowned the kings of ’90s grunge early on
The first grunge album arguably arrived in 1985, with Green River’s “Come On Down” (via AllMusic). While that band never quite got their stuff together, some of its members later would: Singer Mark Arm and guitarist Steve Turner would go on to found the legendary Mudhoney, and bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard would form the even-more-legendary Pearl Jam. That band, along with others like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, contributed to an explosion in popularity for the genre in the early ’90s — and then, Nirvana came along.
Composed of Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, the trio’s first album — 1989’s “Bleach,” which featured Chad Channing on drums, per Discogs — wasn’t an amazing success. But Cobain’s maturing songwriting and Grohl’s explosive drumming, plus the production expertise of boards master Butch Vig, combined to make their sophomore effort, 1991’s “Nevermind,” well, pretty special.
The album was supported by a truly innovative, heavy-rotation video for the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (via Ultimate Classic Rock), and by early 1992, the album’s slow-but-sure climb up the pop chart ended with a shocking dethroning of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” from the number one spot. Cobain and the boys were the grunge kings, and the band and their fellow grungers were as pleased as they were stunned. Speaking to VH1, Cobain said the band had trouble believing they had even made the top 40; said Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, “Our friends, these guys that we knew, had knocked off the King of Pop. It was great.”
Axl and the boys were fans of Nirvana at first
Strangely enough, this rock ‘n roll feud didn’t begin with bad blood; if anything, it began with Axl Rose’s overenthusiastic Nirvana fandom. In 1992, Guns were gearing up for a tour with metal kings Metallica, and in a 2006 Esquire interview, Dave Grohl described how Rose was relentless in his attempts to get Nirvana to participate. “I remember that when ‘Nevermind’ first came out, Axl Rose was a really big fan of us,” Grohl said, explaining that Rose had gotten hold of Kurt Cobain’s number and had been calling him, like, a lot. He recalled that one day as he and Cobain were walking through an airport, Cobain blurted out a certain F-word before griping, “Axl Rose won’t stop calling me.”
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett even joined in on the lobbying. Speaking with NME, he remembered how he had gotten Cobain on the horn to make the offer to join the tour, only for Cobain to “[go] on and on about how he just didn’t like what Guns N’ Roses stood for.” Hammett said he quite reasonably suggested that the band “just go out there and represent Nirvana,” and that he literally pleaded with Cobain to reconsider — but ultimately, the rocker wasn’t interested. It stands to reason that the rejection might have left Rose a little miffed, but if so, he wasn’t saying anything about it — at least, not yet. The first public volley in what Grohl described to Esquire as “back-and-forth … tenth-grade bulls***” would, rather uncharacteristically, be launched by Cobain.
Kurt Cobain fired the first shots in the war of words
Now, it’s not that Kurt Cobain was averse to speaking his mind, but he was not known to take random potshots at fellow musicians in public — at least, not until 1991. As Rolling Stone details, it was then that Cobain gave an interview to Seconds Magazine in which he described Nirvana thusly: “We’re not your typical Guns N’ Roses type of band that has absolutely nothing to say.” This may have been taken for a one-off smart remark, if not for the fact that he doubled down during an interview with a magazine in Singapore the following year, saying, “Rebellion is standing up to people like Guns N’ Roses.”
Apparently, these remarks either didn’t get back to Axl Rose until after Cobain had already shot down his efforts to get Nirvana on board with the Metallica tour, or he didn’t take them seriously. But once the singer began to realize that Cobain regarded his band with the kind of affection usually reserved for tax auditors, he didn’t keep his mouth shut for long — and if you know anything about Rose, it won’t surprise you to learn that his retorts turned up the temperature on the rift in a hurry.
Axl Rose fired back in characteristic fashion
The fact that Kurt Cobain, an avowed feminist and pacifist (via Kill Your Darlings), would go out of his way to publicly diss a peer who also happened to be a fan might have been unexpected, but the fact that Axl Rose responded like … well, like a total jerk was not. In fact, he hit Cobain where he thought (likely correctly) that it would hurt the most. Speaking with Metallix Magazine (via Ultimate Classic Rock), Rose gave his opinion on why Nirvana had declined his offer to join that tour: “They would rather sit at home and shoot heroin with their … wives than tour with us.”
By this time, it was rumored that Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, had actually used that very drug while pregnant with the couple’s daughter, thanks to a recent Vanity Fair profile. (Per US Magazine, Love herself admitted in the 2015 documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” that this was true.) Soon after, at a Florida concert, Rose riled up the crowd by mocking that era’s “alternative” music, saying that the term meant just one thing to him: “Someone like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, who is basically is a … junkie with a junkie wife.” He then went on to gently opine, “If the baby’s born deformed, I think they both ought to go to prison.” Obviously, it was now no secret that the two bands were not on friendly terms — but just a short time later, they would meet for a nationally televised event at which the whole thing would blow up.
The bands had a huge dustup at the 1992 VMAs
Five days after Axl Rose’s onstage remarks, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana both arrived to rock out at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards — where producers apparently had no idea there was any bad blood between them, according to a 2016 Louder retrospective on the event. MTV’s Director of Music Programming Amy Finnerty was seated right next to Kurt Cobain in the artists’ tent when Rose, as Cobain put it, “came strutting by.” Courtney Love, having heard about Rose’s diss toward her, sarcastically called out to him asking if he wanted to be the baby’s godfather. Rose was not amused.
“Axl came up right behind Kurt and I. He was genuinely mad,” Finnerty remembered, and Cobain himself recalled Rose’s exact words: “You shut your b**** up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement.” Without missing a beat, Cobain turned to Love and deadpanned, “Shut up, b****,” drawing laughs from everyone nearby except, you know, Rose. His girlfriend at the time, model Stephanie Seymour, snarkily asked Love, “Are you a model?” to which Love snapped right back, “No, are you a brain surgeon?” Rose then stalked off — but when he told bassist Duff McKagan about the exchange, McKagan immediately sought out Krist Novoselic, and the two very nearly came to blows as their security actually encouraged this. McKagan admitted that he was out of line, saying, “I was mad and insane then. My scope of dealing with any sort of conflict had narrowed down to bar-room brawling.”
Nirvana gave a legendary performance after the scrap
Per Louder, after his Axl Rose encounter, Kurt Cobain earnestly told Amy Finnerty that he was actually scared — but if he was shaken up by the whole thing, it certainly didn’t affect his performance. Nirvana freaked out everyone involved in the live MTV broadcast by opening their performance with the opening chords of a song they had been sternly warned against playing — before launching into a blistering rendition of “Lithium.” It was all pure rock from then on — Krist Novoselic nearly knocked himself out cold with his own bass guitar, Dave Grohl tore apart his drums, and Cobain put his guitar through a bass amp, the usual. Just before leaving the stage, Grohl grabbed a mic and excitedly gibbered, “Axl! Axl! Where are you, Axl?”
As the band walked off, Cobain noticed a pair of pianos below the stage, ready for an upcoming number: A duet between Rose and the legendary Elton John on the Guns N’ Roses song “November Rain.” Cobain disappeared beneath the stage, then returned to confess to Nirvana guitar tech Earnie Bailey that he had spit all over Rose’s keyboard. The band and their crew had a good laugh — until the duet began. “These two pianos come up and Kurt goes, ‘I spit on Elton’s piano by accident!'” Bailey remembered. “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.”
Kurt Cobain drew a line in the sand
Louder noted that the following day, Nirvana appeared at a press conference explaining their side of the whole story, and Guns N’ Roses … inexplicably did not. Axl Rose appeared ready to let the whole thing blow over, but Kurt Cobain was not of like mind. In 1993, being also a staunch supporter of gay rights, Cobain gave an interview to LGBT magazine The Advocate in which he recounted the entire VMAs blow-up. He then went on to say that, not long afterwards at a benefit show in Portland, Oregon, he had jokingly suggested in between songs that Nirvana were about to play Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” In response to the jab, Cobain said a kid approached him onstage and pleaded with Cobain to get along with Rose, as he was a fan of both bands.
Well, Cobain was not on board. He recalled telling the young fan, “Those people are total sexist jerks, and the reason we’re playing this show is to fight homophobia in a real small way. [Rose] is a … sexist and a racist and a homophobe.” He then went on to say that, basically, he did not want any fans who were also fans of Guns N’ Roses, saying, “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.”
Kurt Cobain’s problem was mostly with Axl Rose
Despite multiple members of both bands participating in the shenanigans at the VMAs, it has come to light in recent years that if Guns N’ Roses had a different singer, the beef might not ever have happened. Kurt Cobain’s tragic death shocked the world in April 1994, even more so because it came on the heels of an intervention by friends and family and a stint in rehab, per Far Out Magazine. Famously, Cobain fled that facility and jumped on a plane back to Seattle, where he would meet his end — and on that plane, he happened to be seated next to a familiar face.
This would be Duff McKagan, who improbably described how Cobain was happy to see him. As it happened, McKagan was not exactly in a great place, either. “I mean, my pancreas blew up four weeks later. He died two days later,” McKagan told Austria’s Mulatschag TV (via Far Out). “So that’s where we were both at [in] our lives — at the end of our ropes.” Immediately after Cobain’s death, Guns drummer Matt Sorum reached out to Dave Grohl; according to Louder, he was among the very first to call to off his condolences, and Sorum shared that the two are now good friends.
Members of both bands have buried the hatchet in recent years
Remember Duff McKagan was hell-bent on beating the crap out of Krist Novoselic at the 1992 VMAs, but in a 2010 column for Seattle Weekly — titled after Nirvana’s classic “All Apologies” — the bassist made clear that he was more than ashamed of his behavior. “I had no control of myself then. And Krist, I am sorry for that day,” he wrote before continuing, heartbreakingly, “My colleague and friend, I am so sorry for your loss, too. I am sorry I could not be your friend back then. We had so, so many things in common.” According to Sterogum, Novoselic was also a Seattle Weekly columnist at that time — and he was happy to bury the feud. At Seattle’s Neptune Theater in 2015, they appeared onstage together (McKagan playing bass and Novoselic, oddly, playing accordion) to perform “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
As it happens, this was not the first Guns/Nirvana mashup. In 2010, at Revolver’s Golden God Awards, Slash and Dave Grohl — arguably two of the greatest to ever play their respective instruments — joined legendary Motorhead front man Lemmy Kilmister onstage for an absolutely crushing rendition of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” The beef is well and truly squashed at this point, but in an interview with Yahoo!, former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg lamented that it didn’t happen sooner. “I actually think that if Kurt were alive,” he said, “it’s just as likely as not that [he and Rose] would be friends.”