At the Louder Than Words literary music festival in Manchester last weekend I watched Penny Rimbaud (once and always of Crass) speak of his life philosophies and experiences including time spent at a meditational retreat: his conclusion being (I paraphrase) “I stared at a wall for 13 hours a day and discovered I only had enough content for 3 days.” It’s a fun thought, that ultimately the brain gets bored, can’t regurgitate enough of its memory banks to entertain for longer than that. I feel the same at times: writing about Nirvana near every single day from February 2012 to the tail-end of 2016 left me, suddenly, with an absence, a feeling that I didn’t automatically have a reservoir of additional words to draw on. What to do? Well, I’m a strong believer that when inner resources are low, other people are a source of energy.

In this case, I was privileged enough to speak at an event in Carlisle on Friday night for Words & Guitars during which I was asked a fine question (which, again, I paraphrase): “was Cobain unable to bring himself to change?” The question has been whirring round in my mind for a few days now.

The question was a reaction to some of my earnest beliefs regarding Cobain: that music had been a way to live a life free of bosses and free of control, to achieve an unmediated expression of self when, where and how he wanted (an understandably powerful force for a boy/teen who had so many homes, been rejected by so many people, had been so unwilling to exist within the context of a job.) That this way of being had been compromised repeatedly from the days of Sub Pop onward and – in late 1991/early 1992 – became an intolerable imposition on the privacy and freedom he sought. Interviews, intrusion, his personal life and desires, how and when and where he played, the expectations placed upon his performances and his music, the analysis of his lyrics and thoughts, the commercial requirements, legal requirements, managerial requirements: it meant music was no longer an escape, hence the evidence seems to show he virtually ceased to write music, perform music, interview, record music for the remainder of his life.

His attempt at ‘change’ was an interesting one: he essentially reverted to the only other happy life he had ever known – the family that had existed until 1976 (Montage of Heck, the film, portrayed this sense of the mirror image very effectively). It’s 1992, he gets his girlfriend pregnant and instead of insisting on abortion he decides he wants a child and, more so, he wants to get married to create the stability he had never experienced – it’s a strangely conservative move for the world’s foremost punk icon of the era. It creates a retreat for him: a cocoon which his managers, fans, band need have nothing to do with – where he can escape them all. It’s essentially what he does: buries himself in a series of hotel rooms and temporary residences right the way from the end of the Asia/Pacific tour until January 1994 when he moves into his lakeside mansion in one of Seattle’s exclusive areas; hides away with his new family (and his drugs) as long as he can. It’s an attempt to escape, to change the destination his life has reached, to escape the nagging feeling that his genetic inheritance and his owninging condemned him to re-live all that was worst.

It fails. Ultimately he has to return to performance, he’s too polite to turn down a lot of the demands on him (though he might rage in private or engage in mild protest, for example, by never playing Smells Like Teen Spirit for MTV, only turning up to 18 days in studio after the recording of Nevermind, refusing most interviews), he ends up with almost everyone who loves him explaining to him the consequences of his continued drug use…And with his music and his family both no longer providing him a retreat he has a significant spiritual crisis to confront: if the only lives he’s ever known, family and music, are at risk, then can he imagine or foresee a life after them? The answer is no.

So, on the one hand, it’s clear he does make a quite significant attempt at change right there in 1992. But then again, the question really seems to be asking whether there wasn’t a more positive way out – could he stop drugs? Couldn’t he leave music behind (if necessary) or change his engagement with the music industry to suit himself better? Wasn’t there any chance of a continued existence with Nirvana or without it? Couldn’t he envisage life as a divorced father or, at least, a lengthy period of mending the familial bond (not being doped off his head likely helping with that)? My answer at the time came down to the futures I could imagine for him: Cobain was an incredible magpie for the sounds of the underground (think of it: an album at Easter 1986, near entirely new album by Jan 1988, an entirely new album by Jan 1989, a new album by April 1990, a different album by May 1991 with the band saying in interview after interview that they had their next album ready to go and that it’d be out in the summer of 1992 – so fast!) but there’s not much evidence that he could take on the freewheeling Thurston Moore/Sonic Youth cavalcade vibe with diversions into electronica, art/music, free jazz, improvisation – that path would have required something more expansive.

The singer-songwriter, Johnny Cash-vibe doesn’t seem to beckon: people forget MTV Unplugged in New York was a corporately imposed format, that ‘Do Re Mi’ was acoustic because it was a demo not because he definitely intended it to be an acoustic song, that he only placed three fully acoustic songs on any of his albums, that his music had been getting wilder and more aggressive in 1992-1993 (remove the older songs written pre-Nevermind and placed on In Utero and what’s left is a lot of aggro and gloriously punky noise) with the last new songs he played with Nirvana being the raucous ‘You Know You’re Right’ and the small shred played live in November/December 1993 then demo’ed briefly in studio in January 1994. But he was verbally dissatisfied with the repetitiveness of playing loud-quiet, verse-chorus-verse material too: so a more likely path is a dive back into the underground – it was suggested to me that Cobain could very readily have slotted into the noise provocations of Earth, perhaps his continued relationship with Melvins might have inspired him to follow their more aggressively independent path. Essentially if he chose to keep repeating the formula that made him mainstream worthy then he’d have sunk, same as the other alt rock gods of the era (Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam) did when tastes moved on in the mid-to-late Nineties: popular taste waits for no man and few artists get a top flight career for more than a few years.

My favourite vision of him, however, was suggested to me when I thought of another character Cobain is often compared to – Axl Rose. Beyond the mutual abhorrence, the clear differences in style, ego, impetus – Rose achieved what Cobain had wanted: an apparently utter independence from any fresh label demands or requirements. The fading of hard rock hadn’t decapitated Guns ‘n’ Roses, they remained ‘the other’ biggest rock band of the years 1991-1994. I have no desire to see an aged Cobain taking to the reunion circuit looking flabby, plastic, weary and leading audiences in karaoke run-throughs of Nirvana songs: my fondest outcome would be a clean Cobain, retreating entirely into private recording, maybe the odd show here or there, the odd guest appearance with friends, but otherwise devoted to recording the album the world is waiting for…And then never releasing it. Just letting the expectation, the imagining, the myth run wild – while remaining utterly immune to it. It’s pretty much what happened with his death – it’d be lovely if it had been his life too.

So, could Cobain change? The additional thought that came to me was how much change Cobain had already experienced in his life: a vast number of addresses, homes, temporary homelessness and so forth during his young life – he rolled with it. The daily change that comes with touring as one rolls in and out of vans, floor-space or other inadequate sleeping arrangements, on and off stages, round towns and down roads. The changing array of personnel lined up behind his musician vision. The move from demo, to studio, to single, to album, to full label artist, to new label…It seems churlish of me to have forgotten how much change Cobain had endured in a very young life. In many ways he had changed more than most people do by age 27: most people have rolled with the expectations placed on them – from school, to university, to work, to relationship being just one path. People value positive change: quitting smoking, taking up exercise, moving home, moving job – Cobain is maybe not being credited for the amount of change he did endure though it’s very true he remained a man with a particular vision and particular desires until the end.

Wanted to share the information related to the Louder Than Words festival taking place from Friday this week through Sunday 13 at the Palace Hotel in Manchester.

Quite the event, it’s an entire festival focused on music literature and music writing:

I’m filling some time on Sunday noon in interview with John Robb, formerly of Sounds – currently leading the Louder Than War magazine – who interview Kurt Cobain back in 1989 and on a number of other occasions.

Looks like quite the event, and what the hey, three days worth of events, talks and moments – so if you’ve time then pop in. I’m planning to get in early and just soak in as much as I can. One moment I’m definitely looking forward to is artist Chris Gollon and musician Eleanor Mcevoy on Saturday evening. They collaborated together on a series of paintings and songs which work so well together as a live experience: the music connects one to the art on the walls, while the images let one read more into the words and music. Eleanor is a really great performer, it’s an art being able to dominate a space so completely with just a guitar and voice – to create variety with limited means and an excellent story-teller’s vibe. Bringing in Chris to talk about the pictures and add detail to it all, brilliant. I had a great evening when I saw them together in February.

Friday 11th November at Cakes & Ale (Castle Street, Carlisle) – something a bit different for an autumn evening, I’m going to be sitting down with Doug Baptie (who runs the Words & Guitars magazine/site) and talking about Nirvana.

Sounds like my kind of venue, frankly, the idea of sitting with a group of enthusiasts, with a decent beer, trying to pour out more of the material I’ve learnt these past years. Sometimes I have trouble remembering it all: conversations with 230-odd of the people who played with, shared stage with, recorded with Cobain and Nirvana – conversations with well over 100 of the journalists, radio hosts, students who interviewed the members of the band over the years – that whole visit to the North West of the U.S…

I’ve moved on – just finished preparing “We Sing A New Language: The Oral Discography Of Thurston Moore” for release in the U.K. (Omnibus) next spring, then in the U.S. next summer; commencing work on other works; of course the interviews, reviews, brief articles I’ve contributed to Words & Guitars, The Vinyl Factory, Clash – so it’s nice for me to have had this time to sit and go back over my own words, to go back to the beginnings of the blog and look at what I was working on and the patterns I was seeing from all the data available about Nirvana and their activities.

I’m going to take an album of photographs with me focused on Aberdeen, WA – I think Cobain’s journey is amazing because of where it starts; I want to talk about the speed he’s working at and developing at during the late Eighties (a new album’s worth of material every year 1986-1990 showing off his mastery of different aspects of the U.S. underground); the coincidences/contacts that Nirvana benefited from and that helped them rise…Then, at some point, I guess we’ll talk about the path down.

I like the idea of just sitting discussing it with people who are curious about the subject, hearing what people have to say, knocking back and forth the topics on their minds…Is there a nicer way to spend a night than with fellow travellers?

Naturally, if you’re in the North West or feel like a trip over there (I’m intrigued to see Carlisle, never been myself) then everyone welcome. I’ve been told the bookshop hosting this is charming.

Totally separate topic: I had the good fortune to interview Adam Harding of Dumb Numbers, charming bloke, I’ve become a real follower of what he’s been expressing with the band…

Spent the last few days living with the three disc ‘Be Here Now’ reissue – Oasis, credit to them, they always knew how to cram a single with worthwhile B-sides (always the maximum number of fresh originals every time) and that gives them the depth to sustain a substantial reissue too where most bands can barely fish out a live show to fill up a supposedly ‘deluxe’ edition.

Doesn’t mean I love ‘Be Here Now’ of course. But it’s a moment I recall, that time when Oasis really did feel like something everyone of any age could love. Speaking to so many musicians and journalists these past couple of years, quite a few have spoken of feeling the need for change after 1994 – things had become too pressured, too precious, something lighter was needed to refresh the palette. Oasis provided that to the popular mainstream in the U.K. and for a few years they felt untouchable.





I had the good fortune to encounter and interview Mr. John Hurd – formerly of The Magnet Men, a band that features in the Nirvana story as the band Chad Channing was in when Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic first encountered him (at a show Nirvana played under the name Bliss with Aaron Burckhard apparently on drums in August 1987 – their last known show of the year.) John was kind enough to share his memories of the band, the era, his remembrances of the rock scene in the area at the time Nirvana were starting out.

I first picked up the guitar when I was 11 – I talked my parents into buying me a cheap electric from the Sears catalog. It had a die-cast metal whammy bar that broke right off when you tried to use it. A real piece of shit. Too much so to even take lessons on it. So I got a better guitar soon after and started taking lessons at the age of 12. At about 17 or 18 I started going to punk shows. Besides Community World Theater, there was also The Crescent Ballroom, which hosted tons of shows around that time: one of my favorites at the Crescent was when the Butthole Surfers played. I think that was the show that they damn near burned the place down with some kind of cheap pyrotechnic display.

The Magnet Men first formed when I was eighteen. I was still in school but cutting class all the time. Most of my friends had already graduated and were doing jobs and trying to move out of their parents’ houses. There was a communal apartment on Bainbridge Island where Chad lived with Andy Miller and James Nybo. We had a tight knit group of friends that would hang out there almost every night playing guitars and talking, partying. Chris Karr and I had been jamming together and approached Chad about starting a band. Both those guys had been in bands already but this was my first real go at it. We all liked the same weird bands and kind of had an idea what we wanted to do. One of us would bring a riff or a song and we would just learn it and try to fit the pieces together. Very much a learn as you go kind of thing.

The original lineup was Chris Karr on Bass, Chad Channing on drums and me on guitar. Chad and I first met when we were youngsters around 1980: I was 11 and he was about 14 or so. We were playing with gasoline with a few otter neighborhood kids. We had a Folger’s can with some gas in it and we were flicking matches at it. When the gas caught fire, one of the kids kicked the can and the flaming gas landed on another kid’s arm and caught his jacket on fire. Rather than taking the jacket off, the kid ran screaming down the street, flailing his arms and making it worse. His hysterical brother ran after him yelling ‘My brother! my brother!’ When we started hanging out again through mutual friends in ’87, Chad and I had both forgotten we had ever met when we were kids. One night he was telling the Folger’s can gas story at a party and my jaw just dropped.
Chris Karr was a schoolmate of mine who played bass in NPO and the high school jazz band (incidentally with John Goodmanson on guitar too). Poulsbo’s North Kitsap High School produced some notable talent – John Goodmanson (NPO, Danger Mouse, engineer and producer of Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney), Ben Shepherd (March of Crimes, Soundgarden) Chad Channing (Nirvana, Fire Ants, The methodists, Before Cars), Damon Romero (NPO, Lush,Treehouse, Bell) Jason Everman (Stonecrow, Nirvana, Soundgarden) to name a few. The Magnet Men was my first real band. We were a heavy prog-punk instrumental band. Our only criteria about song writing was that the songs had to be complex, difficult and fun to play. We loved to do lots of tempo and time changes and abrupt starts and stops. We would practice anywhere we could find space, but eventually we convinced the local storage unit facility to let us rent out a garage and jam late at night after they closed. For gigs, we would play at house parties mostly, being a little too young to play in bars and clubs yet.
Once we had a set’s worth of songs ready, John Goodmanson invited us to play live on the Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA) radio station, KAOS. We had no vocalist then, but were a purely instrumental band. Soon after that radio show, Ben Shepherd joined us on vocals, we changed our name to Tic-Dolly Row, and we did another live radio show at KAOS with him. Those recordings probably still exist somewhere, although I’ve long since lost any copies I had. Ben came up with the name Tic-Dolly Row, describing it as a sailor’s term for down-and-out. It comes from the french word ‘Tic Douloureux’ which is a painful nerve disorder of the face.
We used the KAOS radio show as our demo and sent it to Community World Theater in Tacoma. Tacoma was and still is a working class town about 45 minutes south of Seattle. There weren’t too many all-ages places to play back then but Community World was definitely one of the most active. I’d gone to see a couple shows there, I think Killdozer and The Melvins. We got a gig opening for Inspector Luv and the Ride-Me-Babies, Sons of Ishmael and the band Bliss, who would go on to become Nirvana. That lineup was Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and I think Aaron Burkhard on drums. Although it could have been Dave Foster. Community World was an old, run down hall with a small stage that hosted some really legendary shows. The audience the night we played was fairly small, consisting a lot of our friends and a couple dozen local Tacoma punks. As far as what they were wearing, it’s hard to say. I seem to remember leather jackets, jeans, trench coats or army surplus stuff. Some mohawks here and there.

I remember being pretty nervous playing that show. The sound there was pretty horrible unless the place was packed with people – that night it wasn’t. But we still rocked it. I remember Ben jumping around and pretending to fuck a lingerie clad mannequin they left on the stage. After we played, Bliss used Chad’s black North drum kit, with the scoopy looking drums pictured on the “Bleach” cover. Watching their set, you could tell that Bliss had something, but honesty they didn’t leave a huge impression – to me they sounded like a lighter version of The Melvins.
Later, when Nirvana signed their first deal with Sub Pop, they were looking for a new drummer. They remembered Chad from that show we played, and after Tic-Dolly Row broke up, he joined them. When Chad joined Nirvana, they became a force to be reckoned with. They played out all the time, at clubs, lots of house parties and crazy floor bending packed rooms in the Evergreen State College K-dorm activity area. Chad and I were roommates during some of their first US tours, and he came home with great stories, videos and photos. Sub Pop gave them only a tiny monthly stipend, so I got Chad a job working part-time for my mom’s ceramic business. We slip-cast and glazed a shit ton of very cool ceramic fishes. Kurt lived in Olympia at that time and Krist lived in Tacoma. They would drive the van up to our house in Poulsbo and pick up Chad for band practice, then driving the 2 hours back to Krist’s house in Tacoma for the weekend. My mom is proud that Nirvana once practiced in her basement. She is still a fan. I can’t say that I knew Kurt very well. He was usually pretty quiet and a really nice guy but kind of hard to talk to. Krist was just the opposite, hilarious and friendly. He usually had a gallon jug of Gallo red wine or a case of cheap beer at the ready.

That band (Then called Tic-Dolly Row) changed again when Chad told us he was getting burned out on drums and wanted to play guitar. So Andy Miller joined us on drums and Ben wanted to play guitar too. So we had 5 of us now, trying to make a go of it. At times We had 2 drummers and 3 guitar players. I feel like the whole thing just kind of got muddied with noise and eventually we all just decided to move on to other projects.

Soon after that, Chad joined Nirvana and Buddha’s Favorite Color was formed. That was Jeff Hoyle on vocals, Andy Miller (Bell, Before Cars, Paundy) on drums, Chris Karr on bass and me on guitar. We were a very psychedelic, heavy group. Jeff has a real gift for poetry and turned it into song lyrics. He has a pretty amazing vocal range. Andy was (and is) an insanely good drummer. With his jazz background, Chris’s bass playing shaped our sound. Chris would never play a song exactly the same way twice which probably rubbed off on all of us to keep things fresh. We recorded our first demo in ’89 with Rich Hinklin at the old triangle-shaped Reciprocal Recording studio in Ballard (where Nirvana’s Bleach and a lot of the first Sub Pop records were recorded). We sent it off to Alternative Tentacles records. They passed on us, but we were giddy when we heard from Steve Fisk that Jello Biafra thought we were the most psychedelic band in the Northwest. We got some pretty good response from the demo and played around Seattle quite a bit, at clubs like OK Hotel, The Central Tavern, The Vogue, Hollywood Underground and some loft parties in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.


One of my favorite gigs Buddha’s Favorite Color did was at the Squid Row tavern in Capitol Hill opening for Afghan Whigs. It was their first Seattle show, promoting their first single with Sub Pop. Fuck, they were LOUD. The police showed up after getting several noise complaints. This was a busy urban neighborhood, but the cops made them turn it down anyway. One night, Buddha’s Favorite Color was to play a house party on Bainbridge Island with Nirvana. The party was in a big garage at this girl’s house when her parents were away. Right before our set, our bassist, Chris Karr, was standing under a door jamb and a big piece of plywood fell down and banged him on the head. He decided he was too dizzy to play, so Nirvana went on first. They probably were four or 5 songs into their set when the cops showed up and broke it up. There was a keg of beer and a bunch of drunk underage kids. I remember the first kid they saw holding a beer was arrested, and everyone else scattered.

BFC recorded 3 demos over the next few years, calling it quits around ’92. On our last recording, Paul Heyn replaced Chris Karr on bass. He was in the band about a year.
The next band I was involved in was The methodists, forming in 1995. The methodists were a guitar heavy pop band. The lineup was Erik Spicer on guitar/vocals, Dan McDonald on bass, Chad Channing on drums and me on guitar. We hit it off creatively very quickly and became a song writing machine. We played around the Seattle area a lot in the mid to late 90’s, and some shows in Portland and LA and recorded our one and only LP, Cookie, in 1998 engineered by Kip Beelman and mastered by Jack Endino. This band was a lot of fun – Chad and I would trade instruments during our set and Chad would get up and sing his
songs while playing guitar. I would play drums on his songs and try to keep up as best I could. We did a live room show on KCMU (now KEXP) before going off on west coast tour. We came back from that excited as hell but things eventually petered out with that band and we broke up in ’99.

I was lucky enough to be asked if I wanted to speak to Michael Gira the other week. It’s an intriguing time coming up: extensive touring over the next year before I moves onward with Swans in some – yet to be determined – iteration of the Swans identity.



Courtesy of the ever awesome Mr. Mike Ziegler…