Had the pleasure of chatting to a very perky Mr. Tad Doyle a little while back – finally finished writing it up.
Had the pleasure of chatting to a very perky Mr. Tad Doyle a little while back – finally finished writing it up.
The second interview piece filmed by Omnibus Press. Basically I wanted to yak on about Nirvana/Cobain’s relationship with the press – how it isn’t as one dimensional as is often portrayed, that’s there’s a clear evolution and progression in how the band relate to the media.
The first spell is simply one where, like any new band, they’re barely noticed – a few lines here and there, a quote or two. Likewise Cobain isn’t singled out – it’s almost always the band as a whole being interviewed because the underground isn’t as prone to ‘superstar syndrome’. During the next spell, the majority of media activity happens around touring, snatched time here and there – with the band complaining that there’s not enough of it, that Sub Pop aren’t doing enough to arrange interviews for them. Nirvana’s media activity continues in this off-on tour/off-tour cycle until into 1991 when Geffen are doing a tad more and Nirvana’s status as a major label act (and increasingly one of the top draws in the underground) garners them more attention.
The explosion in late 1991, as you might expect is where things get crazy. The band have to try to find a way to cope with it and they, very sensibly, begin to divide-and-conquer. They’re increasingly interviewing with different people all in the same venue, it’s the only way to accommodate the quantity of attention – and they really do try to accommodate everyone. They’re a courteous bunch and they do their best until it becomes simply too overwhelming.
The nature of the attention influences what occurs at this point. Previously, they’ve mainly been talking to people from fanzines or the music press who possess a fair idea what’s on in the underground – sometimes people who have their own bands (like Paul Kimball who was in Landsat Blister and Helltrout). After September 1991 there are magazines calling who would never have dirtied their hands with anyone Nirvana call their friends, who wouldn’t have bothered with Nirvana until ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ set things on fire. The band are increasingly less inclined to handle these requests except where they have to.
Cobain retreats. This is where the stereotype of the ‘difficult’ relationship with the media commences – and it becomes the dominant story simply because it occurs during the phase of peak attention. It overlooks the years where Nirvana (and Cobain) wanted more attention; it overlooks their attempts to speak to everyone – there’s just too much. Add on Cobain’s troubles plus the media’s natural urge to separate the front man from the rest of the band (the standard media ‘rock god’/’guitar hero’ stereotype plays best where its one person with everyone else in the background) and then recall that late 1991 is the heaviest spell of touring and performing Nirvana have ever embarked on – the exhaustion and desire for peace in 1992 makes a very human sense.
Novoselic shoulders a lot of the duties, the rest of the band speak up and shield Cobain from the attention. The band try to find some good in their situation so increasingly try to use their podium to share the spotlight with favourite bands and artists. A little further down the line they’ll start to talk up good causes too.
But the real game-changer is the attacks on Cobain’s new-found family in Autumn 1992. It brings him out of his media exile because he needs to use the media to launch his counter-offensive. This is when Azerrad is brought in to write the ‘official’ biography, this is where he starts talking to a few more journalists at major newspapers and lifestyle magazines.
1993 is much the same – interviews on tour in South America, In Utero promotion is very much a group affair, then 1994 is another drop into silence…
The paperback edition of ‘Cobain on Cobain’ is out on Omnibus Press now too. Different cover, same content (yes, I still pretend to be American throughout the entire introductory essay – I’m so used to spelling American English by now, drives my friends up the wall when I write dates as March XX, 2016 rather than keeping things English…)
As a diversion, I also wrote a piece about Nurse With Wound for the Vinyl Factory recently:
The main connection between the Nurse With Wound piece and ‘Cobain on Cobain’ would simply be the value of immersion. For the NWW piece I submerged in the music for a full month – it’s amazing how things start to tie together, connections get made, the brain gets used to one sound or another simply through lengthy exposure… For ‘Cobain on Cobain’, imagine pulling that process out to a full year (to be fair, I drowned in Nirvana from Feb 2012 until early 2015). Listening to interviews, transcribing material, reviewing translations, viewing the videos, reading the printed works, heading back to the existing interview volumes or to a few of the magazines I have here, going back to the biographies to check and re-check my timeline, hunting down the copyright holders, discussing the interviewers’ introductions with them… Finishing ‘Cobain on Cobain’, having done ‘I Found My Friends’ and ‘Dark Slivers’, did feel like coming up for air.
The main drive through those three years has remained pretty constant; I wrote ‘Dark Slivers’ because I felt I could say things that hadn’t been said in the existing bibliography – I felt there were quite a few books I could ‘beat’. As a fan I’d collected 40-odd volumes already and I was so sick of the posthumous ‘sainthood’ articles and their overloaded cliches – if I could just create something more original than that, something that added something, then I was happy. ‘I Found My Friends’ and ‘Cobain on Cobain’ then became two sides of a coin; hunting down all these people who have never spoken about performing with Nirvana – getting their testimonies down on the page, shared with the fans; then getting a good chunk of rarer interviews with Cobain and Nirvana, his own words, down on the page, into the libraries and shared with the fans. In each case I knew what had come before and wanted to beat a few of them…
Anyways, there it is. ‘Cobain on Cobain’ for what it’s worth. Hope it’s a fun read if you take a shot on it.
I’d like to thank Mitchell for popping up and asking me to speculate on Nirvana’s next direction in light of the material shared on ‘Montage of Heck’ – if I did the math I suspect we’ve now seen more of Nirvana’s leftovers than we did original songs while the band was actually a living entity. Do they, plus other rumours tell us anything about what ‘the next Nirvana album’ may have been?
Ultimately, after all this time, the answer is still “we know nothing.” While preparing ‘Cobain on Cobain’ I was delighted to be permitted access to the full 40TV video footage of Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl being interviewed (in two different settings) while in Portugal in February 1994. It’s a fun piece, they’re enjoying themselves, then there’s a moment where they look sheepish, where the high spirits fall away:
Interviewer: I’ve heard that you’re going to release another album in several months. How will it be deeper or more poppy than this one?
DG: I don’t know. We’re still trying to figure it out. We’re just experimenting. Might be really weird.
Interviewer: But have you already composed songs or not yet?
DG: A few.
KN: Few, yeah.
DG: Just a couple. We’re still — we don’t know what we’re going to do yet either. It’s kind of — it’s up in the air right now. Still a mystery. To us.
They move on swiftly to talking about Grohl’s work with the Backbeat band. They’ve no desire to halt the cavalcade, but this is a huge contrast with late 1991 when Nirvana were all confidently claiming that they had the next album plotted out and ready to release in ’92. This time ‘a few’ becomes ‘a couple’. They have no plan at all for a new album – not even a vibe they’re thinking of following. In Sandrine Maugy’s interview with Dave Grohl a few days later in Paris, they talk about everything but the idea of new music from Nirvana isn’t even mentioned. There’s nothing here.
The more one looks, the more things recede into fuzziness. Michael Stipe is clear that he invited Cobain to join him and R.E.M. in March 1994 simply because he was scared about Cobain’s state of mind – it wasn’t a plan for a collaboration, it was a musical intervention. The idea that Stipe was about to halt R.E.M.’s own album recording plans for ‘Monster’ in order to record a fully-fledged body of work with Cobain is simply unreal. R.E.M. were in studio in February, booked in again for early April – there’s no time.
Similarly, the ‘Lollapalooza Tour EP’ idea is supposedly the next Nirvana product meant to emerge after the ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single – again, however, there’s nothing except an ‘idea’ for a release, no substance at all. Interviewing members of Geffen management for the ‘I Found My Friends’ book they were clear there was nothing they recall even discussing at the time. The label’s hottest property’s supposed new release wasn’t worth remembering because it never existed.
What about ‘You Know You’re Right’ though? It’s a demo, a good one, but still a demo. There’s obvious work still to be done to create a credibly releasable song. Its status comes posthumously not because it was album-ready/release-ready at the time. Pat Smear has suggested he was told he could add parts to it but as nothing happened even he is unwilling to confirm that the song was deemed complete. It is true that on ‘Nevermind’ and on ‘Bleach’ Nirvana used older recordings from previous sessions (‘Polly’, ‘Floyd the Barber’, ‘Paper Cuts’ – ‘Downer’ was a later bonus) but it seems that was a decision taken during album sessions, not a deliberate plan. It makes it unlikely ‘You Know You’re Right’ was something being placed in the can ready for later.
And ‘Do Re Mi’ suffers from the shadow cast by MTV Unplugged. Though a titanic performance, that session was a contractually obligated TV format Nirvana was required to adhere to if they wished to perform. It therefore says nothing about Nirvana’s own intentions though they were flirting with acoustic segments for a time in 1993. Nirvana’s albums are over 90% electric all the way – the idea of a new singer-songwriter direction, though alluring and possible, isn’t substantiated by any evidence. ‘Do Re Mi’ itself was unlikely to remain in its unadorned bedroom demo form – when Cobain strains for a note it sounds more like the technique he uses on other home demos to indicate where he’d be adding a scream to the final amplified version.
People point back to Cobain leftovers to claim the band could have cobbled together a complete work, forgetting Cobain’s strong pride in his work, his deep consideration of the final form and selection for each album. ‘Old Age’ was long abandoned – a gift to his wife so no longer even a Nirvana song. With ‘Talk to Me’ there’s, so far, no evidence supporting rumours it was played in ’94 though there is clear evidence that it was so uninteresting to Cobain and the band that in the numerous sessions from spring 1992 onward, all those concerts too, they didn’t even attempt it. ‘Opinion’ and the original ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ had gone missing years earlier too. The use of 1990-1991 songs for early 1993’s ‘In Utero’ is well testified; but is poor evidence for other resurrections.
There are other places to look for potential songs, of course, the https://nirvana-legacy.com/category/unreleased-n-posthumous-nirvana/ thread on here is loaded with them. The unknown rehearsal instrumental added to the In Utero deluxe was so dashed off no one involved had even remembered it existed. Then there’s the ‘unknown’ song that gets played twice in late 1993 and at the January 1994 session – now that, at least, is a credible new Nirvana song but it’s still only a minute-and-a-half shred. Alongside ‘You Know You’re Right’, however, it certainly lays to rest the idea that Cobain was abandoning the effects pedals and volume. Heck, Nirvana didn’t even play MTV Unplugged, unplugged.
One could look to his various home demos with Courtney Love to tease out future works:
Except nothing seen so far has been a truly credible new song – they’re whimsical games. There’s little to see so far though I look forward to the eventual archive release.
Others hold out great faith for Cobain giving up being the guiding force in Nirvana and letting Dave Grohl shoehorn some songs in – to be fair, at least he had the material:
Again though, I just don’t see it. This was Cobain’s fiefdom – he might take the odd idea, try the odd b-side, but handing over a percentage of an album to his drummer? This wasn’t a democracy.
On the bright side though, Nirvana were quick, disciplined workers in studio – there’s no reason to claim they weren’t capable of jamming together a bunch of songs over the course of 1994-1995 in the way that ‘MV’, ‘Gallons’, ‘The Other’, ‘I Hate Myself’, ‘Milk It’, ‘Serve the Servants’ and so forth don’t seem to have existed until late 1992. These were talented and experienced musicians.
…But the question “what do the demos currently available show?” The answer is they show Cobain had one unknown song he was tinkering with; he had ‘You Know You’re Right’; he had ‘Do Re Mi’. Three datapoints isn’t enough to draw any kind of pattern. The ‘Path to an Album’ posts (https://nirvana-legacy.com/?s=path+to+an+album) suffered from that same point – that the past isn’t a perfect guide to the future. It’s speculation.
And it’ll always be speculation, which is kinda fun isn’t it?
These’ll likely come down soon but, for now, a couple of quick shreds of unreleased Kurt Cobain demos taken from this:
It’s a fan made compilation of Kurt Cobain’s known solo acoustic demos, spoken word pieces and experimental takes. The pieces that I haven’t heard as yet are ‘On a Mission from God’, ‘Speed Ambiance’ plus ‘Intro + Tuning’.
‘Cry Baby Jenkins’ has been around a while – but added to the material on the Montage of Heck soundtrack and the other pieces here, I’m always stunned how underappreciated Cobain’s efforts as a story-teller and writer are. This, like ‘Aberdeen’ or ‘Rhesus Monkey’, show a man interested in the sounds his voice will make, the way he can alter how he pronounces sentences to give different effects – most of what he does in terms of speed, pronunciation, tone, is all deliberate. There’s now enough material available to testify to Cobain’s efforts as a spoken word artist – that in the late Eighties his potential destination wasn’t necessarily Top 40 music stardom, that there were other angles he was pursuing at the same time, multiple directions.
The ‘squeaky voices’ tape manipulation phase – while irksome to many – deserves note. There are now half-a-dozen or more tracks where he’s pursuing this angle. His sister has spoken of how much it entertained Cobain, that this was something that gave him pleasure. It may not be as easily consumed as his verse-chorus-verse guitar work but as a curious diversion, as an aspect that went unseen until recent posthumous releases, it’s interesting to me. ‘When You Are Older’ is as good a name as any for the piece above – and yes, I chuckled at it. There seems to be an audience for it – this is Cobain as entertainer, as someone trying to please people. It’s a warming little sketch of him at ease.
‘Screen’ meanwhile is an early version of ‘Old Age’ with certain lines of lyrics already in place. There’s not much else to note except for his regular tendency to have the structure and melody in place long before the lyrics are pinned.
Today I wanted to share a piece by one of the contributors to ‘Cobain on Cobain’ – and someone I’m delighted to count a friend – Jessica Adams.
Jessica’s interview with Cobain came out in Select in 1992 from an interview that took place on January 23. She kindly permitted me to include the transcript of her phone conversation with Cobain in the book. I’ll let her take up the story:
“Talking to Kurt Cobain on the phone was a complete fluke. I was supposed to be interviewing Dave Grohl, but at the last minute I heard Kurt’s rather croaky voice in my ear. It is a total joy to be able to share the interview after all these years. I always wanted to give the cassette tape to his daughter, Frances, to prove to her that he had a dry sense of humor and a good heart and that he wasn’t a tormented creature as shown in the media. Kurt was very kind to me in the interview, and I feel bad about the photograph they used on the front cover of Select and the way the piece was written up. Writers can’t control editors or art directors. The piece sensationalized his illness, and to this day I feel guilty about the fact that he trusted me enough to share his memories of recording Nevermind, only to have those memories misrepresented in the published piece, which bore my name in the byline. Just another small letdown in what must have been a sea of letdowns for him, at a time when he was so vulnerable. I was very lucky to see Nirvana in Sydney, and the band was so powerful and so affecting, I have to admit I have not been able to listen to
Nevermind since. I literally have not heard it since that year. Wherever you are now, Kurt,
know how loved you are and how important you are—especially to women, for whom you
always took a stand.”
Jessica worked as a freelance writer at Select and other music magazines before turning to novels, including the bestselling Cool For Cats based on her time writing for rock newspapers. She works as an astrologer for Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar and also works as a medium. Jessica is also the editor of AMMP, the Australian Music
Museum Project, where you can hear her original Kurt Cobain interview online.
I’m a huge fan of the work Jessica has put into the Australian Music Museum Project – Australia has had a remarkably active, and very original, music scene for decades yet this is the first time there’s been a concerted attempt to document it. Even better, the work is being conducted in cooperation with the bands and artists concerned, not as an official deification, entirely as an attempt to capture the lives and works of the people who made it happen. Definitely a project worth a lot of respect.
All the best Jessica, and all the best to the AMMP!
I was invited to sit down at the offices of Omnibus Press and to discuss things on my mind while preparing the Cobain on Cobain book.
The thing I’ve always asked myself is, “I was a Nirvana fan at age 13 – why is it something I still bother talking about at age 35?” The obvious answer is that I’ve always felt that people return to their youth to find elements of comfort and contentment – Nirvana being part of mine. It’s the root of much of my musical taste, it was the start of something for me – a fire set somewhere inside.
Here I talk more widely about what Cobain represented, where he came in the history of rock music, why he’s still so loved and why he – not just his music – his perceived so warmly. Why does Kurt Cobain matter in 2016?
I noticed that ‘Cobain on Cobain’, the U.S. hardback edition, is available via other national Amazon sites with the U.K. paperback to follow in March:
UK – http://goo.gl/cvkOt4
Germany – http://goo.gl/Tr769V
France – http://goo.gl/nKbBmN
Canada – http://goo.gl/unhyah