Archive for November, 2012

Sometimes Nirvana’s rise to glory is looked at as an inevitability. Rather it’s safe to say that as late as mid-1990 there was no guarantee the band was going to win a major label deal. Certainly the release of Bleach didn’t lead irrevocably to the triumph of Nevermind. Other steps intervened to make Nirvana into the band the world knows.

Similarly, however, there’s no inevitability to Kurt Cobain’s grim demise or the dwindling life left in Nirvana across the period 1992 to 1994. There could have been a resurgence, a resurrection. This inability to know what might have been, or what might still exist in the archives, allows those who wish to believe, to keep faith that in 1994 Kurt laid down worthwhile demos for future releases of some sort. Take a look at the following graph:

I’ve deliberately not shown the actual figures for how many songs were written because what I’m interested in is the lulls not the activity itself. While 1993 and 1994 seem to have been even worse than 1992 in terms of the number of songs written, the overall pattern was at least in line with the norm for his working practices with lulls after each album.

The lull in early 1989, during which Dive was the only song definitely written, is followed by a quiet spell throughout late 1991 and early 1992 during which Tourette’s, Talk to Me, Curmudgeon and Heart Shaped Box come together. The gap in late 1993 through early 1994, when only You Know You’re Right and Do-Re-Mi can be proven, isn’t exceptional when seen in these terms. It gives rise to two conclusions; firstly, that there’s a chance Eric Erlandson’s comments in March 2012 about unknown 1994 demos may carry weight. Secondly, that Kurt Cobain’s decline need not have been permanent barring his decision to make it so.

In early 1993, Kurt relied on a bedrock of earlier material he could cherry-pick to bulk up In Utero to the twelve songs (plus bonus) he seems to have felt was ideal. He carried a full seven songs onto In Utero era releases. If he was willing to use Do Re Mi, You Know You’re Right, Talk to Me PLUS Verse Chorus Verse and Vendetagainst (Help Me, I’m Hungry), he would still have needed an exceptional second half 1994 to have an album ready to record in early 1995.

At my estimate, the most Kurt wrote in a six month period was eight-nine songs ranging down to a norm of four or five. To get as far as an album recording in 1995 he would have needed to exceed his finest ever spells of writing which had been late 1990 and early 1991 (first and second best with nine and eight songs respectively.) It seems unlikely. Unless something extraordinary happened, or he’d pumped out a ten track album (which in Nirvana terms would have meant just a half hour or so of music) we wouldn’t have seen a new Nirvana/Kurt Cobain album until 1996 at the earliest.

On the positive side, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Many bands lean heavily on material written prior to the heavy touring, TV and media engagements of fame in order to sustain them past a second major release. Likewise, it isn’t unusual for performing artists to drain the well of inspiration and need lengthy periods to recover some measure of creative flow. A drug-free Kurt Cobain looking toward the future could have had one…if he had wished. If he had, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about the lull in productivity 1993-1994, it would just be an irrelevant blip on the graph with no more significance than the ones after Bleach or Nevermind.

Advertisements

Part credit for this post goes to a gentleman called Brett Robinson over on the LiveNirvana forum (if you’re interested in Nirvana I genuinely recommend the site and the forum — I’ve used the site for years but only recently engaged with the forum and the intelligence and knowledge present is awe-inspiring.) A discussion was started a couple weeks back asking people to suggest “The Top Five Most Important Concerts to Nirvana’s History.” Brett pointed to the show in Hoboken, New Jersey on July 13, 1989 on the basis that it’s the night Sonic Youth saw first saw Nirvana play live. I agree wholeheartedly.

Melvins acted as the role model to a young Kurt Cobain trying to seek a social setting for present-day teen survival and also looking for a longer-term means of escape from that setting. Melvins served wonderfully for those first few years, yet having discovered the limitations of the indie scene as it stood in 1989-1990 — living on the breadline, unenviable touring conditions, limited studio time and budget — the band needed something new.

The example of major label moves had been set by many recent underground bands; Mother Love Bone, The Posies, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains among others. But the foremost band in the Eighties underground was always Sonic Youth. If Nirvana could be considered ambitious it’s in reaching past all their other compatriots to make comparisons to the band that had, at that point, become the biggest alternative act without crossing over or compromising with mainstream tastes. Having left Melvins behind already, with the buzz building, Sonic Youth became the next critical role model.

It’s intriguing how others have either taken up the chant or saw the comparison too. There’s the well known quotation from 1988 that “Nirvana could become…. better than the Melvins!” yet the comparisons changed:

Keith Cameron: “’people were saying, you know, one day, they might be as big as Sonic Youth.”

Dave Grohl in 2011 on Nevermind: “Holy shit! We’re going to be as big as Sonic Youth!”

Everett True in Nirvana: The True Story: “’Yeah, as big as Sonic Youth at least, or the Pixies…”

Anton Brookes: “our idea of the ‘Top 10’ was being as big as Sonic Youth or the Pixies…”

Krist Novoselic in 1992: “‘We wanted to do as good as Sonic Youth…”

A lot of these quotations are post-event comparisons but they coincide absolutely with the vision available in 1990 of what success for a band that wasn’t soaked in mainstream glitz meant.

Nirvana followed Sonic Youth onto Gold Mountain for a very clear reason as described in 2011 by Danny Goldberg, “John and I signed Sonic Youth, who were very good at picking opening bands…They chose Nirvana to open for them on a European tour, and I recall John coming back and saying that we should manage Nirvana. Then Thurston called me and told me how great they were. I really trusted Sonic Youth. We met with Nirvana, and they trusted us because they trusted Sonic Youth.” Just like Dale Crover’s presence had persuaded Jack Endino to open his doors to Nirvana in 1988, Sonic Youth got Nirvana their management company thanks to firstly, taking Nirvana with them for seven shows in August 1990 (at that point the largest shows Nirvana had been a part of), then personally asking for it to happen.

Precisely the same thing happens again with Kim Gordon apparently responsible for persuading Nirvana that DGC was the label they should go with. It’s like Sonic Youth had adopted Nirvana. A year later Sonic Youth again take Nirvana with them for a month of touring in August including their first substantial festival appearances at the Reading Festival, Monsters of Spex, Pukkelpop, Überschall 91 and Ein Abend in Wien.

Nirvana continue, even after fame, to mimic the Sonic Youth mode of behaviour whether deliberately or through some shared underground heritage. The sponsorship of other bands — whether The Raincoats, The Vaselines, Melvins — was something Sonic Youth had been doing for years, bringing up other acts as tour support or barracking the industry to get them releases. Also Cobain’s diversion into production (with Melvins in 1992 and 1993) had been prefigured by Lee Ranaldo’s work for Babes in Toyland and Kim Gordon’s work for Hole.

So, while not as fundamental to Nirvana’s sound as Melvins were in the early days, Sonic Youth had an equally strong influence on pushing Nirvana into the limelight, onto the major label stage, and providing an aim, something to emulate. Later, reading interviews where one or other member of Sonic Youth states things like “I think anybody who knew Kurt fantasizes about some conversation that they could have had with him that might have saved this person from such a tragedy…” it still has that feel of the elders watching over their kid brother.

Anyways, this is a scrap from the April 1994 edition of Metal Hammer magazine which I bought for the Kurt Cobain tribute. It was also the first time I had come into contact with Sonic Youth. This single purchase thus bid farewell to Kurt at the same time as introducing me to the band that became the single most important influence on my music-consuming tastes and directions. I’d like to confess at this point to having seventy-seven Sonic Youth (and related) releases…

Curse you Metal Hammer, April 1994 for your impact on my budgets!!

Brett (Beautiful Day) commented that Flowers of Romance would have been another good choice to include on the cover shot for the Dark Slivers book – Dan808 replied too pointing out how curious it was that “Cobain picked that as one of his favourite albums rather than PiL’s Metal Box or PiL’s debut.” I can see a connection to a topic I briefly comment on in relation to the song Beans in the Post Mersh chapter of the book.

This is a argumentative theory, not a fact. But Kurt Cobain wanted to include Beans on Bleach – it would have been there if not for others intervening. While reciting the reason for the exclusion, there’s not been much desire to ask ‘why would Kurt Cobain want to include this song?’ I think it’s similar to Axl Rose’s decision to wedge a similar scrap of dubious quality at the end of Use Your Illusion II, My World. In each case, sticking a solo track at the end of your band’s album is a declaration of ownership and authority over the album and therefore the band – everyone else is submerged in the group identity, you aren’t, you’re allowed to show your experiments and stand out as an individual. Flowers of Romance was a difficult album for PiL, until that point the music had been essentially the creation of Keith Levine and Jah Wobble with John Lydon confined to lyrics. On this album, Wobble had left, Levine contributed but was a heroin-induced wreck, so Lydon dominated the music too. To mark it even more thoroughly as HIS property he gave it a title that tied it to a very early Sex Pistols song (a jam track they used to use in various forms to open shows). So, if looked at as the singer’s declaration of independence and dominance, rather than simply as a musical composition, Flowers of Romance seems to be an album that would resonate with Mr. Cobain.

As an aside, the timing of that list of favourite albums is interesting. The final album on it is PJ Harvey’s Dry, released in June 1992. So, the famous list of fifty albums was created either in late 1992 or sometime in 1993. Given Kurt was very much off doing his own thing and divorcing himself from the band (see the piece from earlier this week on trends in press coverage) its a neat coincidence with the concept above – but I do think a coincidence. It’s also a nice coincidence with the whole issue of the bathtub filling with sewage and wrecking his stuff.

Also, I’m interested in the unknowing, the things that can never be truly known. What we do with them is we stitch a narrative over the top of the gap to connect known events and thus cover the absence in between.  I’ve talked a lot on this blog (see Killing Nirvana Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 plus Trending Kurt Cobain’s Creativity) about the nosedive in Nirvana’s activity post-fame. The incident that I took as the inspiration for the cover is of deep significance to that theme.

Kurt Cobain stated that he lost a number of notebooks with all their lyrical ideas. There’s little further comment on the incident in the nearly two years left to run so its impossible to tell how much was lost, how many potential lines or new song ideas went missing in that event. It creates an absence; Kurt Cobain never publically assesses the damage caused or the quantity of work he couldn’t recover. We therefore can’t see whether Kurt wrote more than he appears to have done in the first half of 1992. Its still unlikely there was much (given overall trends, tours, TV, press, marriage, heroin…) but the survival of those journals and notes could have meant a Nirvana that had twenty new songs left in them rather than the dozen or so they do come out with.

Anyways, just to show I’m paying attention to the comments. 🙂

And Dan808 – yes, if you want a copy of the book, drop me at email, NirvanaDarkSlivers@gmail.com and I’ll put you on the pre-order list. No payment needed until I can confirm postage back to you and you decide you’re cool with it. Stay good!

On here’s the sample chapter from Dark Slivers again, I know its buried down in the blog now…

Dark Slivers Book-A5-chapter14

And apologies for the delay in the Saturday post – it all depends on what time I wake up on a Saturday AM.

It seems impossible to overstate the importance of Melvins to the story of Nirvana. In Kurt Cobain’s reminiscences, contained within Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana and within his Journals, he defines the most positive aspects of his teenage identity in terms of music. His ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion is the discovery of punk music via Melvins, the role models he describes are Melvins, his first experience of the life of a gigging band (as a roadie) comes from the Melvins. As a formative experience only the divorce of his parents is more significant.

Musically the influence was also explicit. Kurt Cobain’s Fecal Matter demo sounds like early Melvins combining a sound emerging from the hardcore scene with a slower, narcotized vibe on many songs (the version of Downer lasts around a minute longer than the 1988 rendition would.) Kurt Cobain was following the most immediate model available to him which was this local band. It’s 1987 before Kurt Cobain truly begins to try on other sounds with his music from that year sounding far more edgy, far more new wave. Members of Melvins also provided Kurt with his first on stage music experience joining him both as Fecal Matter members and also in a short lived project known as Brown Towel (see Nirvana Live Guide/LiveNirvana for more info.)

The Melvins’ influence continues though. Jack Endino is clear that he only took the Nirvana studio booking because Dale Crover was on drums for the band — Dale’s presence assured Jack that this band must have something to them. Nirvana’s first media coverage specifically hinged on the band’s link to Melvins suggesting that practice might even make them “better than the Melvins!” This is quite a list of firsts owed to Melvins; intro to punk, roadie experience, first proper demo, first press, first live performance, first studio session.

Nirvana would share a split single with Melvins as each band struggled in late 1989-early 1990 to expand their audiences. The Here She Comes Now/Venus in Furs covers single was one of only three split singles Nirvana released, one with The Fluid being Sub Pop’s decision, the other, with The Jesus Lizard, being a fan-boy wish-fulfillment in 1992-93 giving Kurt the opportunity to show love to some of the remnants of Scratch Acid, a major early influence.

That loyalty to Melvins continued right through Nirvana’s career with Kurt Cobain being willing to have his name associated with Melvins’ major label debut Houdini. While the extent of his participation in the recording/production of the album is debatable, my assumption is that Kurt was sharp enough to know that his name on the album was enough to guarantee it extra media coverage and probably a certain quantity of sales thus benefitting his friends directly. This was the same thinking that led Cobain to write the liner-notes to the reissue of The Raincoats’ debut album and to put so much attention into The Vaselines or Shonen Knife. One of the few powers he enjoyed once famous was that it allowed him to support those he adored. He also had the band support Nirvana for a few dates in December 1993 and then throughout most of the band’s last shows in February 1994 onto March 1, 1994. Melvins played to some of the biggest audiences of their career, just at a time when they needed such support to ensure the success of Houdini — it’s safe to say Kurt Cobain knew precisely the commercial power he was putting at their disposal and took some satisfaction from it.

What really makes the difference in my eyes is that, by the end of his life, Kurt had repudiated his links to many formal friends and idols. He wrote dismissive letters (unsent) to Calvin Johnson and Krist Novoselic while publically criticizing Sub Pop, grunge, riot grrl…He never did this to Melvins. The best indication of the importance of Melvins to the Nirvana story is that he always supported them throughout his teenhood and his traumatic last decade.

This is a quotation from a Melody Maker article released on July 25, 1992:

“…Kurt had more pressing problems on his mind on returning from Nirvana’s recent European dates. He found his Los Angeles apartment flooded.

Unfortunately, for reasons best known to himself, Kurt had stored his tapes of all the songs he’d written in the last year in a dry shower stall. The flood filled the shower and bathroom with debris and waste and the tapes were destroyed along with many of Kurt’s favourite guitars.”

Apparently he also left a certain quantity of his diaries and scrapbooks there too — there are complains in his Journals about how often they were being stolen from him and how violated that made him feel. So, here’s the cover photo and the original of the same photo:

I can understand the next question is probably “eh? Wha…?” I’ll try to answer it here.

Starting point; I didn’t want to use a photo of Nirvana or Kurt Cobain. Frankly I’ve seen so many photos of the band that I’m kinda bored, the photos don’t speak to me anymore. Likewise, though this is puritanical, I didn’t want to take commercial advantage of something I love. That’s how using a Nirvana photo would have felt — it was too obvious a step, too staid, too dull. It seems one can’t find a book about punk, grunge, the Nineties without Kurt’s photogenic face emblazoned across it somewhere. That’s fine, but not what I wanted.

In a moment of inspiration I took the concept of the bathtub full of guitars, journals, tapes and discs and went with it. Credit where its due; I borrowed the acoustic from Monika Weyer, the orchids from Jeniya Starkova, the camera itself from Noel Young — thank you friends! The two albums on display at bottom right are Swans The Burning World on vinyl and Psychic TV Dreams Less Sweet — I chose to position each of them in shot in order to draw on the flower imagery Kurt used around Nirvana. Quite obviously, at bottom left are the cassette and CD of Incesticide. I wanted to position them there so they were both visible and simultaneously not at the center of the shot, to give that sense of them as neglected, ignored elements (a key argument of the very first chapter in the book.) I also wanted to have two copies of the same album visible to suggest the idea of a double image, that within the album we’ve seen for twenty years lurks another album, with new things to discover, all within the same cover.

Shooting the photo took perhaps an hour, playing with positioning, trying to emphasize different elements, fetching lamps and additional lighting to brighten the shadows… It was pretty much trial and error. Following the shoot and dismantling I went through the shot and eliminated those that were too dark, or where the blank side of the practice amplifier was too prominent, or where too much of the bathroom tiles was visible. I came down to ten pictures that I liked:

I consulted my designer, Maureen, who made a variety of versions with a range of effects — I hadn’t even considered using effects on them. The version that now forms the cover was her first attempt and no matter what we tried we always came back to it; the colors, the starkness, the work she’d done to ensure the album words were picked out specially…It was perfect.

So. There we have it. An obscure Nirvana reference, that only the fanatics might work out. An attempt to avoid the clichéd band shot and to avoid taking advantage of the band. The kindness of friends lending me materials to support the endeavor. Trial and error on the photo front. Then the work of an excellent creative making all the difference. I’m pleased with it, hope you like.

I was asked the other day “Nick, is Incesticide your favourite Nirvana album?”

It was an easy one to answer, “no way. In Utero’s the favourite by a mile. But I think Incesticide is important.” In the sample chapter released tomorrow I’ll delve into it in more detail but in essence, Incesticide served three crucial purposes; firstly, as described in the blog post “Kurt Cobain Gives a Christmas Present” it was Kurt kicking back at commercial compromise; secondly, it was part of the reemphasis on Nirvana’s noisy punk-focused side after the ‘blip’ of Nevermind; thirdly, it was Nirvana’s attempt to indicate the abandoned paths on their road to fame — showing fans that there had been other sounds explored not just a march to victory.

The album essentially cuts Nevermind out of the picture and draws a straight line from Nirvana’s early era directly to the raucous material that emerged in 1992-1993 — D7, Return of the Rat, Curmudgeon, Oh the Guilt — and ultimately to In Utero and its raw sound. It’s impressive in a way, using past work to show where future work was going to go. Incesticide helped indicate the band’s immediate direction.

The record was utterly unfriendly to corporate pay-masters, to family-friendly record chains and, ultimately, to fair-weather pop fans. This wasn’t just a case of the music though, in itself, the music was a distillation of several key sounds of the Eighties alternative underground — Incesticide should be considered as the most-successful product of that scene. The front cover, the title, the liner notes, the absence of a video until well into 1993 (and hardly a radio-friendly video at that given the trashy punk vibe and aggressive treatment), the refusal to talk to the press. While described as a deliberate attempt not to shift focus from Nevermind there’s little more the band could have done to show an absence of commercial desire and a desire to cause a bit of offence along the way.

Side B of the album is essentially an EP-length release of what Nirvana sounded like before they became a grunge band. These are songs written 1985-late 1987 by all accounts and show a far more articulate lyrical style alongside a varied range of vocal and musical styles, plus a willingness to experiment with structure; for example with Aero Zeppelin commencing with almost two wordless minutes of music, very rare for a Nirvana song. Side A, by contrast, picks up the story in the aftermath of their most ‘Seattle sound’ era with the band genuinely emulating the demo-like feel of their then power-pop and lo-fi heroes. The story of Nirvana is often seen as a move straight from Bleach and grunge to Nevermind and pop-rock. Incesticide displays the intervening spell when the band were trying on a sound that, if they’d persisted with it, would have won them another indie deal, but wouldn’t have propelled them far as major label rock.

The focus on the three studio albums, and on the studio albums as discreet entities, has made it harder to see how unified Kurt Cobain’s lyrical themes were. Looked at as a single oeuvre it’s possible to see themes, ideas and images reiterated year-after-year from the start to end of his career. Incesticide is as much a part of this discussion as any of the albums and helps show the divisions and unities in the rest of the catalog. For a start, it makes it clear that Incesticide was Kurt Cobain’s response to fame (in form, art, words) while In Utero was only a response to the assaults on his family in late 1992.

Plus, the final argument for Incesticide is simply numbers; it gathers songs from a quarter of Nirvana’s radio sessions (two of eight); from seven of ten pre-Nevermind studio sessions; it includes a song first appearing on Kurt Cobain’s second ever demo recording; it captures Nirvana’s first studio session; it features four of their six drummers; it contains three of only eight cover songs Nirvana released officially prior to April 1994; four of its fifteen tracks were alternatives to versions already released; and it contained songs from each year of Nirvana’s development from the band’s formation to 1991. That’s quite a haul.

Incesticide, far more than the fragmented With the Lights Out or any other Nirvana archive project since, was the crème de la crème, the finest outtakes Nirvana had in the cupboard. The sheer quality of the release has been sorely underestimated when it can be seen, from twenty years distance, that the MTV Unplugged performance and You Know You’re Right are the only Nirvana outtakes that run Incesticide close.

In yesterday’s piece we pointed out that, between 1992 and 1994, two of the major pieces of being a genuinely active band, performing and recording, were missing. In this blog’s first post we showed that another piece, writing songs, wasn’t figuring on the front-man’s agenda. What other pieces of being a band with a life exist…? Let’s talk about media relations.

I’ve used the archive at the Internet Nirvana Fan Club and sifted it to find Nirvana’s interviews between 1988 and 1994 giving me a total sample of 64 to work with. The biggest phase of attention was naturally after Nevermind emerged, the first half of 1992 is swamped but it doesn’t ‘fall off a cliff’ after that, but given this is a band at their peak, they’re barely engaging more than they were in the years when they were just another unknown band.

And hold up… Take a look at the nature of the interviews conducted across the years:

That 33.33% in 1994 is earned via a single interview which seems to feature Kurt, Krist and Courtney altogether. There’s a clear trend toward the band no longer acting as a unit in front of the media; primarily Kurt conducts solo interviews, there are equal numbers for Krist solo interviews and Kurt interviewing with Courtney present.