http://www.radionz.co.nz/collections/under-the-influence/nirvana

February 9, 1992 – Auckland. Gotta love the extended riff intro to School (I can’t tell if it’s a loop by the radio station or actually what Cobain played on stage) – it reminds me of an old bootleg of Nirvana remixes I had. This has been floating around a while – it came out back in April and consists of interviews by Radio New Zealand National about this southern-most of Nirvana gigs.

Lots of neat details, few revelations – the stepping up of the venue as each one sold out, Cobain’s ropey condition by the time he arrived, the fact the band spent only 36 hours or so in the country because they were so determined to get him out and get him a break. Even the witnesses feel the band ‘only played 12 songs’…Which isn’t true but it seems they did race through it and get off. There’s no indication greatness was on stage.

There’s also an old poster on the website showing the original venue – a nice historical touch.

These recordings have been floating around for a while; October 1992, the peak of the Cobain’s siege mentality as Vanity Fair’s poison-pen letter had sparked the intervention of Child Welfare Services who removed Frances Bean Cobain from her parents at two weeks old so an investigation could take place regarding their drug usage and fitness as parents. Kurt and Courtney had to endure a guessing game of figuring out which ‘inside sources’ (what the rest of us would get to call ‘friends’) had made anonymous accusations against them – who could they trust? Relationships with Cobain’s closest friend – Krist Novoselic – had been rocky since early that year given a few disagreements between respective spouses – another link broken. And, being frank, Cobain was hitting a peak in his drug usage. While it’s pointless (and impossible – though potentially fun) to try and plot a calendar of ‘how high?’ or to argue he was OK on the basis of X or Y photograph or video footage, ultimately Kurt Cobain really did have a drug problem of sufficient scale that he had spent parts of the year in rehab and even greeted his own daughter’s birth having been fetched from there by his wife – not exactly perfect virtue. The weeks after the arrival of a child are a busy, tiring, fraught time for any set of parents – for these two, at this time, the media light, the pharmacology of the father, the mistrust of those around them…It added up.

All I feel is that it was sheer bad luck and misfortune for two U.K. journalists to walk into the middle of this environment where the slightest sign of intrusion could be deemed to have negative intent, or a traitorous edge. Victoria Mary Clarke tells her own tale and I’ve no desire to take her words from her so here she is:

http://vmcjournalism.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/my-adventures-with-kurt-and-courtney/

June 26, 1992 – it’s already going wrong. That’s the date of the Roskilde Festival. Denmark beat Germany in the European soccer championships so the whole nation was celebrating – Nirvana even agreed to go on an hour or two late because the audience wanted to see the match on the big screens on stage. Cobain met a Geffen-hired photographer for a quick ceremony handing over gold discs for sales of Nevermind in Denmark – he was happy, courteous, complimented the football result. It was a good show. He gave an interview that day, a little more edgy, a little more withdrawn – but, again, not particularly difficult. And somewhere in amidst it he’s had management kick this journalist out of the festival.

September 1992, out comes Vanity Fair – things kick off more deeply. It seems to be the news that Britt and Victoria have spoken to Lyn Hirschberg that provokes the final storm…36 minutes of vitrolic voicemails from various sources:

The Dave Grohl call is…Something I’d not checked before. Wow. Grohl calls claiming that he’s heard a rumour that they’ve slept together – he’s clearly unhappy, for whatever reason, he threatens legal action on top of the death threats from Kurt and the barrage from Courtney.

Then it gets truly surreal…Kurt’s aunt now calls up to demand that no material from her interview be used in the book – again, legal threats, a statement that the understanding is that the intended book is a hatchet job.

There’s a wider orchestration at work – multiple levels of attack coming down on the two journalists – calls from the couple at the centre seem to be leading to these reactions from other people, meanwhile the record company’s legal people and the Cobain’s private representatives are tackling the publishers in both U.K. and U.S. Full defence at play. Ultimate result is that a book never materialises – just an ugly incident.

Listening to it all is voyeuristic, for sure – don’t think I’ll listen to these again any time. The fact that Kurt calls sometime on the night of October 22 – early morning on October 23 doesn’t bode well for his condition, the tape is fascinating in the sense that more than the Sao Paolo performance in January 1993 or the post-overdose performance in July 1993 in New York, he’s visibly wasted. Nirvana are one week before the poor performance in Buenos Aires where Cobain is invisible except for the performance and brief backstage time before – he’s ill? Yeah…For sure.

The comments under the YouTube clips tend to be a bit of a ‘right/wrong’ battle at points with people taking sides. I’m not sure there’s a side to be taken here. The voicemails are vicious, unpleasant, unnecessary – it’s harassment, it’s threatening, it’s gross behaviour from both Kurt and Courtney. On the other hand, the scale of the threat to their family at that point, their love for one another and for their child, the situation they’re currently in – their terror, their rage, their misery is all understandable also. Of course we do live in a society governed by rule of law so that doesn’t justify extra-judicial intimidation but it makes their verbal violence comprehensible if not forgivable. I’m into reasons (why something happens and someone does something) not excuses (why something happens and therefore someone’s actions aren’t their fault.)

As far as Victoria and Britt…Again, similar splitting of the difference. Journalism by its very nature is intrusive – it’s meant to be. The bargain any artist makes with the media is that by giving away a certain amount of privacy they’ll receive a certain amount of benefit resulting from coverage. The individual artists draw their lines, journalists are independent and therefore entitled to explore, question, find other routes to clear understanding. The ‘quest for the truth’ doesn’t negate them receiving blame for the harm that the truth can cause. Revealing someone as a killer obviously hurts their family, their friends – but there’s a greater good at play. Music biography, a trickier field. Instinctively I’d hate it if the only biography permitted was the sugar-coated faux-honesty of artists telling their own tale – they’re entitled to try but I think most artists are flippant, deceptive, sometimes blind. We all are – it’s human to underplay or reinterpret one’s sins.

I can’t imagine Victoria or Britt gathered anything other than the truth about the situation around the Cobains; that Courtney Love had made herself a less than beloved figure long before meeting Kurt Cobain, that drugs were a major part of the scene around both people, that Cobain was on drugs throughout the pregnancy, that Courtney came off as soon as she knew but it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some blurring of early lines while still ignorant and still kicking. Revealing the views of others wouldn’t have been flattering, but wouldn’t have been dishonest either. The band’s lack of cooperation certainly didn’t help the situation – in a way it’s a shame they didn’t continue given Lime Lizard had followed Nirvana from their early days around the 1989 European tour, it may have been nice to see someone from the indie publishing world rather than the corporate music press create the first authorised biography of Nirvana.

End result? I think Victoria Clarke’s blog piece summarises things nicely. That it was grim on every front – that no one emerged untarnished or totally spotless. As a fan of Nirvana, therefore a fan of Kurt Cobain, I never want to turn admiration for someone’s creative works, or an attempt to understand a person one admires much of the time, into an application for sainthood (bleugh!) A recording like this is a good reminder that everyone has times they’re not all they are at their best – I wouldn’t wish you to see me at my worst either. It’s a grim recording, but a human one and a nice reply to the less balanced, more gushing end of Nirvana coverage and writing. A specific moment in time caught forever.

http://www.thevinylfactory.com/vinyl-factory-releases/beyond-nirvana-10-essential-under-the-radar-grunge-records-from-the-seattle-era/

This is a piece I was invited to contribute recently by Anton and the kind people of the Vinyl Factory. As I say at the start, it would have been so easy just to list a batch of well known hits but…I think there’s so much music was pouring out of the region and so much that has been glossed over and erased from all but the deepest musicological explorations. These are ten I picked out – there are plenty of others worth a look – with a desire to provide ten contrasting sides of the State of Washington music scene. hope you enjoy and hope my verbal histrionics don’t distract too much from the quality of the releases I’m discussing.

Thanks to the crew at Soul Jazz for passing this request onto me – damn it was fun. Whittling anything down to ten is quite the exercise…

Just a little round-up today of pieces from around Europe…I admit I can’t read half of them!

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This first one is from Sweden – a fair and moderate review but points deducted because in his view the release isn’t ‘grunge enough’, he’s dubious about it not containing, essentially, “the greatest hits of Sub Pop”. It’s a bit of a defining challenge really – what made me interested in doing the release in the first place was to try and show that there was more to the State of Washington / State of Oregon than this single stereotype…But seeing the word grunge in the title makes some people confused why that’s not the be-all-and-end-all of what they get across the two discs. The reduction of entire musical cultures to single shorthand ways of speaking about them – it’s exactly why I thought a release was needed.

In a relatively centralised nation like the U.K., it’s very hard for subcultures to escape notice of the media or to be ignored by the British music industry – even if most of those bands never penetrate the U.S. market. The same is true of other Europe states – massively smaller than the U.S. geographically, massively centralised media and massively centralised music industry infrastructure. The result is that the music media are unused to scenarios in which music escapes their attention. Faced with a release on which they’ve never encountered any of the bands, where they ‘might’ (if they’ve delved deeper) have come across Bundle of Hiss as a footnote to Tad or Mudhoney, it seems to give them uncertainty. They equate the attention given to the grunge bands as an indication that those bands were the best the North West had to offer rather than of an industry machinery momentarily fixating on a particular sound and milking one version of a regional identity while neglecting the greater sum of the diverse music present there. Sheesh, I feel awful second-guessing someone’s review – they’re entitled to say whatever they wish – but…I think the hole in awareness is a fair point. On the other hand, it does say that the songs themselves are likeable, so that’s good.

LOOPreviewNoSeattleSep14

This is a nice one ‘auf Deutsch’ from a Swiss publication called Loop – the guy has definitely delved in and his piece brings out the various debates that are fair to have around the release; to what extent was the ‘Seattle sound’ just ‘the Sub Pop sound’? To what extent is the industry different between U.S. and elsewhere? Were Nirvana unique in many respects and deserving of their meteoric success? Then he focuses on the songs themselves and just comments on what he’s hearing.

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Again, a very mellow cool review from a German publication – same approach, picking out labels, the variety of sounds, the connections between individuals and bands – citing the release as being a bit of a documentary / sampler of the scene.

From France, here’s two pieces, one from Les Inrocks – a pretty major magazine there – and Rock n Folk. I’ve met a guy who worked for both publications actually…Nice to see familiar names.

No Seattle – Les Inrocks – Oct 14

No Seattle – Rock n Folk – oct 14

I rather like what “Les Inrocks” says, it comes out with a comment about how one of the beautiful things is the booklet and seeing the musicians themselves speak of their “misspent youth”! Neat. It quotes Abe Brennan of My Name and his comment that “when I was a boy we had to walk five miles in the snow just to see a shitty punk band. Those were the days!” Stephane responds “et c’est beau.” Bien…Tres bien…

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This final piece is a little hard to read without zooming (sorry!) and comes from Tageszeitung Junge Welt – a German left wing newspaper who gave it a full half page and picture, how nice of them! The title basically translates as “Raw Pearls” and the sub-title is something like “Listen to the Forgotten”. It goes on to say stuff about the mash-up of genres that took place in the North West, the diversity of music on the discs, the reconciling of this small number of global superstars versus the many who just kept on playing to this day…A nice read.

Oh – that earlier piece from Les Inrocks isn’t the only place where someone is quoted. German site Laut chooses to go with the words of Jaime Robert Johnson - 

http://www.laut.de/Various-Artists/Alben/No-Seattle:-Forgotten-Sounds-Of-The-North-West-Grunge-Era-94553

What I quoted from him was an honest statement about how the traditional path to fame wasn’t something that most kids in the North West would ever be accepted within. That it was up to people to do it themselves “the kids themselves built that scene…Music made by the kids – for the kids is so important you can’t leave it to professionals.”

http://www.hhv-mag.com/de/review/6926/various-artists-no-seattle

HHV also found time for this and dwells on the unpredictability of the results – the variety of approaches found. They highlight Shug for just being awesome, Hitting Birth for playing ‘tribal industrial’, Small Stars for being tentatively Sonic Youth-esque (intriguing…hadn’t thought of that…)

Way, wayyyyyyy, in the way-back, I did a series of maps basically amateurishly plotting Nirvana’s touring in the U.S.:

http://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/11/28/mapping-part-ii/

http://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/12/01/nirvana-1990-tours/

http://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/12/10/nirvana-in-the-u-s-1991-maps/

http://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/12/12/1992-1994-maps/

I found it intriguing to conceive of Nirvana’s tours in a more physical way – as movement from one location to the next rather than just gigs or recordings of gigs – a reemphasis on the journeys rather than the outcomes.

Having diligently plotted the band’s first tour down the West Coast in early 1989, I moved on and tracked the summer and autumn 1989 tours in the U.S., then the April/May tour of 1990 followed by the West Coast jaunt in August, next the Sept-Oct tour of 1991, moving on to the October-December 1993/January 1994 tour finally. I don’t think I looked much deeper than that really – I made the maps, followed them round, left them there.

What I didn’t really focus on was the shift in approach across those years – for some reason it was on my mind today. For a start, the band’s complaints in multiple sources and biographies regarding the grim experience of living in a van for weeks, perhaps point to a shift in approach. The first tour commenced in Seattle, carried on through California, then on to the rest of the U.S. – logical huh? Well…No. The reason is that it meant by the time the band reached the east coast and played New York they were simultaneously exhausted and as far from home as they could be. The result was the cancellation of seven shows – a significant portion of a tour in which the band only played sixteen shows outside of State of Washington and California. The original tour plan would have taken them home as follows:

1989 Cancellation

So; Toronto, Newport, Detroit, Champaign, Denver, Salt Lake City, Boise – cancelling the tour meant Nirvana basically made the route home in a day or two as opposed to two weeks…But they were still just skipping the path home.

For the September tour they were more focused. They’d played the west coast plenty of time so they simply skip it altogether and instead commence the tour in Minnesota – in other words, a long drive done quickly to start things off rather than the slow progress from the North West. This allows them to polish off the gigs they didn’t do the previous time and makes the entire tour a progression heading ever closer to home – a positive for tired guys.

It’s clear that they’d learnt something from the early experience because the route planning in 1990 reflects the new pattern; they clear the west coast up in February, then come April 1st they simply drive to Chicago from State of Washington and commence there – no ‘long beginning.’ From the time they hit Florida on May 4, they’re on their way home – every gig a step closer. They still overestimate their own stamina – yet again that long in a van means a band member is flung out at the end of the tour. September-October 1991, a full year and a half (and one label change) later and they still kick off by driving all the way over to Ontario, Canada before working their way home, this time going back up the West Coast rather than directly home.

Here’s the bit I realised I’d failed on though…The big change between 1989-1991 and 1992-1994? Well, sure, there’s the bit where they stay home and barely play for months, but more significantly it’s the way air travel becomes a feature of their touring within the U.S. I’d not noticed it because, of course, the band were flying to Europe regularly, but before they hit fame they’re still driving the continental U.S. From 1992 this isn’t necessarily so – it results in the West Coast / East Coast ‘pinging’ in 1992/1993.

1992_Shows

1993_Jan-Sept_Shows

The band no longer have to plot out routes, they can fly in for lucrative one-offs and head home immediately (pretty well what they did with the European festivals and South American shows in 1992.) The In Utero tour – while more extensive – still retains that determination to start well away from home, this time in Arizona, before crashing round the East Coast. The route home is still there but it’s a lot more convoluted given they arrive back in Seattle for Live and Loud then head out again from there.

That basic pattern remains; first tour, the tour has a long start and an abrupt finish – they run out of steam. After that they go for the ‘quick start’ somewhere far across the continent and then the ride home. It’s late 1993 before relative comfort stretches that pattern out.

A few neat little distractions today…Firstly, the deeply pleasant gentlemen from long lost Bellingham band Saucer (who’s songs “Jail Ain’t Stopping Us” and “Chicky Chicky Frown” are on the No Seattle compilation) shared a lost demo with me that they’ve recently dropped up online. I asked their permission to share it onwards – I mean, what the hey, nice to have something to listen to while looking over today’s musings isn’t it? I like the musical bait n’ switch – the chanted verse flipping over to the thrashing chorus, nice seeing diversions and surprises within songs.

Next, just a small thing – someone I know was browsing the online archive of a newspaper and located the two adverts below:

_2 July 5 1989_Iowa City_Daily Iowan

How curious…The Nirvana Live Guide quotes Blood Circus as the band Nirvana supported that night – I’m curious whether the local band, Annihilation Association, had to drop off for some reason, or if it was the other way around and Blood Circus dropped out. The only references I can find to the band online are a live recording from 1988 at http://319dude.bandcamp.com/album/live-1988 and a reference to a guy called David Murray having been in the band, a live photo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/23989451@N00/2703637399/ plus the link back to the newspaper from which the adverts came: http://dailyiowan.lib.uiowa.edu/DI/1989/di1989-07-05.pdf

Anyways, I just want to ask around and see if Nirvana did play with this band and vice versa. There’s a distraction for the evening…

http://www.cityartsonline.com/articles/album-month-no-seattle-forgotten-sounds-north-west-grunge-era-1986-97

Departed this realm about five weeks ago to go get moving on various other activities so rather a lengthy absence from the blog this past month. I can’t for the life of me remember whether I shared this piece – “No Seattle” was chosen as the album of the month for Seattle’s City Arts magazine. Pleasing once again to see different songs plucked from the release – this time Chemistry Set’s “Fields” and Hitting Birth’s “Same 18″ – as highlights. Ah, diversity…Such a pleasure.

Anyways, where was I? Well, one fortuitous discovery this past month was a copy of 1991′s Sub Pop compilation “The Grunge Years” and a further compilation from 1992 called “Revolution Come and Gone” – a neat twosome bookending pre/post Nirvana explosion. Nirvana’s career was almost as neatly sub-divided by compilations – their appearance on “Sub Pop 200″ in 1988 saw their second release escape into the world, while “The Grunge Years” was the second-to-last Sub Pop release of the band’s active lifespan (the reissue of Bleach being the final piece.)

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Listening to the two compilations intrigued me; take a look at the bands listed – the number of past alumni is so extensive that it does give an impression of a label living on its laurels. With “The Grunge Years” it’s understandable. The ‘grunge’ phase was still a piece of the past – a strange phrase coined and applied in 1989 so the release, while never explicitly saying so, seems to be a harking back, a review, a retrospective. “Revolution Come and Gone” intrigues me because it shares that same ‘looking back’ air in the title – it could be a reference to grunge being dead and gone, or it could be a reference specifically to Nirvana viewed in the rear-view. “The Grunge Years” had  pegged ‘Dive’ onto the release which capitalised neatly on Nirvana’s past patronage and it emphasizes how ‘of a piece’ Dive was to the existing output of Sub Pop – lot of gnarly punk rock moves, lashings of distortion, a very visible product of Nirvana circa mid-1989 rather than Nirvana late-1990 let alone 1991. Picture1

My issue with Sub Pop is that it’s humor relied so much on disposability, glibness, sarcasm – all very enjoyable – but that means I’m not sure Sub Pop ever managed to translate its releases into more respectful retrospective glances. “The Grunge Years” is a good example. The front cover plays the same ol’ joke  that the label had played right back in the notes of Sub Pop 100 in 1986; Sub Pop as globe-spanning corporate conglomerate – heck, the two characters made me think immediately of the film Wall Street. The inlay, again, combines jokes and jadedness in an appealing slalom-ride through whatever is on the mind of Jonathan Poneman that day. The problem is it leaves me shrugging and thinking “why’s this release here at all? Is it really just ‘more grunge’ for the masses?” Product…?

I guess so. As a starting point for appreciating the music that doesn’t bode well. Luckily the music is pretty good! Eleven of the thirteen songs are solid representatives of the North West explosion – with Babes in Toyland and L7 wedged in. It’s, in many ways, Sub Pop 200 Mk.2 – another rendition of the local scene review and that ‘centredness’ has a strong appeal. I’m also enjoying hearing that expanded female presence given the boys club vibe of Sub Pop 200 which made way only for the token presence of Girl Trouble’s Bon von Wheelie. The linkages between K Records and Sub Pop are on display on the release when often Olympia/Seattle was presented as a competition. In reality, Bruce Pavitt was a long-time friend of Calvin Johnson of K and the two labels had teamed up to get Girl Trouble’s first album out – “The Grunge Years”‘ inclusion of Beat Happening doesn’t seem an anomaly, it looks more a reminder of dues paid.

While the packaging and absence of context is even worse on “Revolution Come and Gone”, the music by contrast is a lot more energetic. The variety of bands has expanded – there’s even room for Earth on here – and the scope is now widening up to encompass even more non-North West representatives. While “The Grunge Years” hammers a single sound home, this 1992 compilation sees the label reaching forward to new hopes like Codeine, tagging on burgeoning names like Hole who were creating quite a stir in the underground by 1992 (as well as marriage related publicity and gossip courtesy of the Cobain couple), reaching back to long time stalwarts like Mark Lanegan and Mudhoney, without forgetting newbies like Truly (incidentally, apparently Robert Roth of Truly was a further candidate for second guitarist in Nirvana circa 1989-1990 – the unsettled nature of the Nirvana line-up in those two years seems ever clearer as time goes on.) The result is a more diverse and energetic set.

The pleasure of both, of course, is that between them it’s a fairly comprehensive overview of the key bands of the ‘grunge’ whatever-it-was or that used to get quoted in lazy review thereof. Tad? Check! Nirvana? Check! Screaming Trees? Check! Mudhoney? Check! The Walkabouts? Check! Earth? Check! Beat Happening? Check! Love Battery? Check! the Dwarves? Check! The Fluid, Afghan Whigs, Dickless…Then an assortment of fellow-NW travellers and friends. It’s a shame that Sub Pop has never pulled back from the attitude long enough to create a comprehensive and dignified review of it’s own back catalogue because a respectful look at what it pumped out in it’s crucial years, one that doesn’t smirk all the time, is long overdue.