Archive for February, 2013

The songs on Fecal Matter were among the most overtly personal Kurt would ever write; the early songs ranged across the standard life of a teenager — masturbation, jibes at teenage girls who didn’t fancy him, poking fun at classmates and those who bullied him, TV inspirations, violent imagery. Then, suddenly, in amidst these songs, there’s the occasional burst of oddity. I’d be more surprised if there wasn’t anything unusual featured given Kurt Cobain’s later lyrics and also the reality of the life he was leading during his teenhood — this wasn’t a normal childhood, it was one with significant impediments to normal development.

There’s a ‘knot’ of unfortunate tendencies circulating round the Cobain family. To recount a small number, on his father’s side Kurt’s great uncle Burle committed suicide when Kurt was twelve and had supposedly been about to be charged with sexual molestation at the time of his death. Meanwhile his great-grandfather on his mother’s side not only stabbed himself but then proceeded to reopen his own wounds and bleed to death — Sheesh, it’s a bit much when Uncle Kenneth shooting himself and Uncle Ernest drinking himself into oblivion (despite medical warnings that he was killing himself) then dying of an aneurysm falling downstairs drunk are the more mellow tales. Most children don’t have four violent deaths among their immediate blood relations. The other week we talked about Kurt’s living arrangements (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/28/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-1/), another unusual circumstance, then we can still add on the legendary divorce and related inter-parent viciousness. I’d be more surprised if Fecal Matter wore no stains as a consequence.

Laminated Effect stands out in that respect. It’s the one song in Kurt Cobain’s history that stands out as uncharacteristically ‘nasty’. In the first verse the male homosexual character is raped by his father then catches AIDS; in the second verse the female homosexual is ‘cured’ by heterosexual penetration. It’s disturbing to hear someone who grew to be as enlightened as Kurt Cobain was in later years laying out the myth that homosexuality is some kind of pose and that those born homosexual can be ‘cured’. It’s the equivalent of Eminem’s unreleased track in which he directed racial taunts at a former African-American girlfriend; it’s not so comparable to Axl Rose’s famed One in a Million track which was a deliberate release taking on the persona of a dumb hick from the country arriving in Los Angeles (an, at least, semi-autobiographical tale.)

I’ve been dwelling on this song for a year now, it’s been hard to know what to make of something so jarringly out of sync. My belief now is that there is a case to be made that the song was significant and should be considered as something more than a side-note to the career of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Nirvana were very frugal with their songs, almost everything they recorded found relatively rapid release, not many songs were repeatedly toyed with — Sappy received the most studio efforts (1989 studio, 1990 studio, 1991 studio, 1993 studio), the next was three shots at Radio Friendly Unit Shifter — nothing else popped up more than twice. This is a point about how songs ‘lingered’ in Kurt Cobain’s mind — answer; they rarely did.

In the case of Laminated Effect though, he recorded it in early 1986 (see Gillian G. Gaar’s Entertain Us) which suggests a late 1985-early 1986 writing. The song vanishes, yet in late 1989, a very rare thing occurs and he cannibalises a single line of lyrics from it. Firstly, this tells us how low on serviceable material Kurt Cobain was in mid-to-late 1989; Even in his Youth was recorded in studio in September that year before it ever made it near a live stage which seems to indicate hurried work to build up pieces for potential future use. It’s such an odd act, stripping a single line, one that to an external observer seems to have no particular significance or poetic quality that would make it memorable, and choosing to give it ‘life’ three and a half years later.

It’s a mark of the song’s significance that it’s one of the only times Kurt Cobain borrowed lyrics from an old track to use in a new one — “kept his body clean” was a specific reference to the homosexual male, it’s an image derived from Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth and also an image of guilt and shame — Lady Macbeth walks the castle attempting to wash imaginary spots of blood from her skin having murdered the king. It’s one of Kurt’s most articulate metaphors given he uses it, both in Laminated Effect and in Even in His Youth, in the original Shakespearian context (“told he was at fault, living life unhappy”/”Kept his body clean going nowhere/daddy was ashamed, he was nothing, smears the family name”). What’s also notable is that both songs share the issue of the father; in each case it’s the father who defines the context of the son’s entire existence; in one the rape is given as context to the later events of the son’s life, in the other the individual’s entire being is summarised by their father’s shame.

A second way in which this one song echoed on into the future is that the image of incestuous rape reoccurred in 1990 in the original demo of the song Rape Me. Again, the crucial point is that the person at the core of the event isn’t defined as a victim; they’re defined as being responsible with mention of “my embarrassment” and the invitational tone “rape me…Someone disgrace me.” That’s two further songs looped out of Laminated Effect.

It was easy, initially, to interpret all three songs as simply a recounting of Kurt Cobain’s own guilt, sense of male insecurity, the feeling that he’d embarrassed and disappointed his father. But the first song was on Fecal Matter which leads me, for once, to believe that there was a more literal source for the song — and there is a candidate.

In the book Heavier Than Heaven, Charles Cross recounts briefly the fate of one of Cobain’s relatives, his mum’s brother, Kurt’s uncle Patrick. Patrick died at age 46 of AIDS in the first days of January 1991. Patrick’s homosexuality was apparently a family secret, his parents refusing to believe he was gay, and likewise no one talking about Patrick’s insistence that he had been sexually abused by his own uncle Delbert. There are similarities in the tale being told on Laminated Effect. Kurt’s story focuses on rape by the father (not uncle), the parental shame associated with the son’s homosexuality which was indeed a crucial feature of the real-life case — Patrick’s parents initially refused to believe he was homosexual and Patrick was so furious about how he was ignored and shamed that he considered publically announcing what was happening to him. The next similarities are the move to the big city — Patrick indeed moved to California — and finally the catching of “a big disease”; the biggest disease of the Eighties, particularly in the gay community was AIDS. The fact the chief character is still alive at the end of the song again fits in that regard, Patrick was alive when Laminated Effect was written.

There is difficulty, of course, in establishing the timing (and there’s no extant statements from Kurt as to his intentions — sorry guys, I’m speculating again.) Patrick died on January 2, 1991, four and a half years after the Easter 1986 recording of Laminated Effect. A further intriguing coincidence, however, is that Kurt Cobain resurrected Even in his Youth, in its final released form, at a casual studio session on January 1, 1991. A song about incest, homosexuality, the man infected with the big disease — a memory of it inserted into a song that is then brought back to life one day before the family member who potentially suffered incest, who was homosexual, who was a victim of AIDS, who was a hushed family shame, before that man died. Another timing issue is that it is unknown if Patrick had still been living in State of Washington when he made his homosexuality known to his family, likewise it’s unknown when in the intervening years Patrick had made his accusation regarding Kurt’s great-uncle, or when AIDS was diagnosed.

In the context of ‘Illiteracy will Prevail’ a tape by a nineteen year old Kurt Cobain, on which personal circumstance and influences were worn on the sleeve, it would be more unusual if Laminated Effect was pure fantasy rather than an extrapolation from a known tale. Also, on that tape, there was a very rare feature which was Kurt made use of other voices and told stories through other people’s eyes (for example Buffy’s Pregnant). Rather than Laminated Effect being an unpleasant expression of Kurt’s own feelings, the song appears to be a recounting of the confused and intolerant reactions of his family to what was occurring; his family were genuinely unpleasant in their treatment of Patrick, unwilling to accept homosexuality as something natural. Kurt would go through these feelings again on Been a Son (written intriguingly at roughly the same time as Even in his Youth) which may have been discussing his parents’ response to Kurt’s sister’s lesbianism. Certainly I find it easier to believe that this wasn’t Kurt’s voice than that the sensitive teenager who already believed he was possibly gay, would write a song that was so spiteful toward homosexuals.

What’s a curious further thought leading from this is that Even in his Youth, potentially, may be a more sympathetic and introverted retelling of Patrick’s story; I’ll leave it here.

This might seem an unusual topic but it does have a tangential relevance to Nirvana. Essentially music is motivated not just by twists in the tide of taste, nor only by specific outpourings of creativity, but by shifts in technology and economics. Examining music one hundred and fifty years ago, reproduction was purely via live performance meaning monetisation of music was channelled via the same route though printed scores and sheet music indeed turned a profit. The introduction of the means of recording and playing back music ushered in the modern age in two ways; firstly, the advance in technology created a different (and desirable) experience, secondly, it made music a different (and even more desirable) business opportunity. Instead of being bound by the limited capacity of a venue and by often, and where, an artist was willing to perform, the duplication and subsequent sale of a performance was a product limited by availability of raw materials, the outlets through which the product could be sold and the willingness of the public to pay. The move to digital in recent years has reduced (not eliminated) the importance of raw materials while expanding the accessibility of retail outlets, but also reduced the willingness of the public to pay — paying for a performance or paying for the recording medium possessed a tangible value beyond the music that digital reproduction doesn’t match.

Reproduction of classical performances, the sophisticated music of the elites, disguised and obscured the importance of self-taught musicians, amateur home performance or semi-professional/professional public performers in dancehalls, drinking establishments, street corners…Heck, Louis Armstrong started out in a brothel. Over the past hundred years the cost of recording music and reproducing it has declined significantly; its required significantly less complex equipment and manufacturing capacity; think of the shift from wax cylinder, to shellac, to vinyl, to eight tracks, cassettes and CDs — eight tracks were potentially a superior medium to cassettes in terms of lifespan and sound quality but they cost more and were less adaptable; eight tracks died, same as mini-discs which offered just as few advantages over a CD. This push has allowed more and more recordings of more and more artists, a vast democratisation. The simultaneous development allowing the capturing of performances in ever higher quality using ever less bulky and expensive equipment has run alongside the change in the recording medium.

Anyways, the previous paragraphs are almost a side-issue. At the core, music relies on the deliberate performance and labelling of sound. Two developments have taken place, one fairly linear, the other non-linear. Starting with the former, the cost of instruments declined as enterprising individuals found ways to manufacturer more of them at less cost. Trumpets, saxophones, drums, double-bass — these were dominant instruments for 30-40 years, essentially the jazz era’s peak was as long as that of rock and roll. The drive was still toward more, cheaper, easier; the guitar won out. In essence a guitar is a fairly simple instrument to get a tune from, to manipulate, easily electrified, readily replaceable, robust.

The other development has been generally a move toward smaller groupings of musicians. Remember the giant orchestras being the most respected form in classical music, then moving down to the big band era of swing jazz, then the standard guitar-led unit generally of three to five individuals. Solo artists have, of course, been woven in and out of that pattern.

Here’s the dilemma. Even in a stripped down format like a three piece rock band, there are still costs imposed by the format. These costs range from the transportation of equipment — the drum kit was possibly the most stable element of line-ups across the past hundred years — to the transportation of musicians, to the delays caused by health and personal matters increasing simply by the reality of dealing with three instead of one; it all adds up. When it comes to music as a business, the desire is to sell product; a group scenario requires the inspiration of three people to come together in a social musical setting — it doesn’t always happen and it does take time to create good group music, each element has to gel and there’s deeper criticism and disagreement with the positives and negatives that brings.

Hip hop was the obvious successor to rock because it chimed most fundamentally with the technological and the business trends of the past one hundred years. At its origins it featured the most simplistic instrumental set-up available; a record deck, drum machine and vocal. The equipment is low maintenance so long as it’s looked after, there’s no lengthy training required to create at least a basic arrangement. While synthesisers created new sounds, they also tried to mimic and reproduce old ones; drum machines developed similarly — in each case the desire with the technology was to package, as simply as possible, as many sounds and instruments and capabilities as possible. Suddenly the instrumental set-up didn’t rely on multiple people or coordination; the equipment existed to create without others. The guitar was already a compact robust instrument, the only place to go next was to merge many instruments into a single unit — a convergence made possible via technology. The move to computers has pushed this even further, ever more convenience at lowest cost required to produce the broadest range of sounds alongside other functions. For a commercial business this is a boon; ever more people able to do ever more things without being reliant on other people doing things — more product, more product.

Guitar music had already been following similar trajectories in terms of sound; the percussive qualities of the guitar won out over the variety offered by wind instruments, electrification deepened the sound that could be created, rhythm became the dominant element within music — guitar music moved ever more in tune with dance music. Hip hop took the trend to its logical conclusion but it wasn’t a vast step in terms of emphasis. The vocal performance mimicked that motion too; while usually far more densely worded, hip hop has a highly simplified mode of expression — this isn’t a criticism — far closer to spoken word, far more within the reach of the masses, reliant simply on a basic grasp of rhythm. Again, more people can master it, quicker, meaning there’s a deeper pool of talent from which to select — it’s a perfect commercial move.

The same motion occurred in terms of content too. Hip hop devolved into hash-tag rap in which entire songs are made up of thoughts lasting no longer than a line, an entire verse, let alone an entire song on a single theme or idea is increasingly hard to come by in the mainstream. The soul of pop music has always been about finding new ways of stating universals, hip hop is nothing but universal statements around a reduced set of topics — a trend accelerated by Southern hip hop and trap-rap in recent years. Again, it’s an efficiency measure within the means of production; it’s easier to write a lot of rhyming couplets that can be pieced together than a whole song, it’s easier to write variations on (a) sexual boasting (b) insults (c) financial/material boasting (d) brand names (e) empowerment slogans (f) realness (g) death wish — all highly sellable across demographics — than to weave an entire song as coherent (if not intelligent) as Lil Wayne’s Georgia Bush.

In the Eighties hip hop groups were a dominant force — Run-DMC, NWA, Public Enemy and so forth — while solo stars existed, a lot of attention still focused on the idea of a group. But, as the elements within a group like Public Enemy do not have such a high degree of synchronicity, unlike a guitar-drums-bass-vocals live rock band set-up, the music is more tolerant of error and the different individuals can be separated. That’s been the trend in hip hop, and in a very short space of time. The nineties saw the heyday of record label based identities — Death Row Records, Bad Boy Entertainment, No Limits — under which multiple artists shared a ‘stable’ of producers meaning that, so long as people were writing, the quantity of product that could be created was vast. It was an updating of the pop model developed by Motown or Phil Spektor in the Sixties and as a concept it still worked perfectly. Sub Pop had a similar ‘stable’ concept; shared tours, shared studio and producer, shared visual aesthetic — it worked for grunge same as it did for Motown or for gangsta rap.

The recording technology also meant that collaborations were simpler to arrange, the discreet elements could be brought together without the individuals involved needing to be there at the same time. This still meant there was a certain creativity co-dependency between those artists on the label though which could interrupt the flow of product to market. If a producer dropped out, relationships with colleagues collapsed, personal problems prevented an individual from performing, those around them on the label had to either do more work to continue to pump out manufactured articles, or the label simply released less, or had to rely more on archive material that was behind the cutting edge.

The result was readily found as the competition created by the mass availability of synthesisers and drum machines made reliance on an in-house provider of music unnecessary. As you no longer needed a group, you could retain the identity, shared credibility, shared audiences, resulting from some kind of united presence (Brick Squad, Young Money, Def Jux) without any artist on the label or within the scene being dependent on another. The price of producing music was now so low, the number of producers so high, that it was now relatively simple for artists to buy one another’s product — whether musical or vocal. The business change has been helped by the reality of a musical form that has become so reduced that, so long as there’s a beat, any artist can rap over a piece, or any producer can lay a song under a vocal; the elements share only the rhythmic component and that limitation increases the ease of reproduction.

The other piece that the new model provides is that the reduced investment needed to launch an artist or producer also translates to a reduced loss on investment if that artist or producer fails or declines. By comparison to the endless flogging of aging rock stars, hip hop drops stars all the time — the business model had made individuals increasingly expendable. Again, just like mass production made the role of individual artisans less and less significant when it came to the creation of product, the arrival of the equivalent of mass production in music makes the identity and talent of the creator less relevant within it. That means fans can develop an allegiance to a particular individual, no problem, follow their work, but the overall market can keep moving, finding new buzzes, the ‘cult of the new’ rolls on with the next novelty arising and then the consolidation phase, genre tag, then on.

By the time of Nirvana’s rise, the background wasn’t so much the decline of rock as it was the rising dominance of hip hop artists. The success of Nirvana relied on their merging the last fresh outburst in rock, punk, with the already accepted modes of mainstream rock. This had to occur because the wild activity occurring in the increasingly sub-divided and stratified rock community meant that despite a lot of creativity going on, rock was losing the mass audience. Jazz did the same thing; the acceptable core of jazz became fossilised while the creativity, fresh, new ideas were hard to incorporate into the original mass conceptualisation of what jazz was. Hip hop, however, has the virtue that it can change its sound to keep up with technology in a way that music dependent on particular instrumental tones cannot. As the only core feature of hip hop is rhythm, everything else can be altered while remaining acceptable — rock and jazz were both fixated on a particular set-up of instruments and specific sounds in a way that this new music is not.

The ability of hip hop to change faster, to incorporate more elements without losing its identity or becoming ‘something else’; these give it a survivability lacking in rock. Rock musicians can only incorporate so many other musical genres before becoming that genre or having to accept a change to the instrumental line-up that pushes the guitar off centre stage and morphs the music into another genre. Hip hop doesn’t do that. Hip hop has changed repeatedly; it adapted quickly to the emergence of indigestible 70 minute CD length albums, it was able to merge with modern R n’B to create a hybrid more marketable across genders with the result that most essential hip hop artists are now also dance artists, pop artists, gangstas, romantics, all at once — the individuals have fragmented their identities to match market niches…Or they stay on the margins and let the mainstream play.

The mixtape was the next level, prior to electronic distribution; an opportunity to build an audience without being reliant on physical performance — again, a business advantage over a rock band. Hip hop increasingly doesn’t ‘live’ in a corporeal, real world, sense; it was built initially on manipulation of the medium of reproduction and increasingly lives only within the modern media outside of the smallest micro-communities. Hip hop as a mass market phenomenon is a music of files, recordings, webcasts, downloads, CD-Rs, vinyl with only token gestures in the live touring arena. While rock artists are ever more dependent on live touring (live shows are the rock mixtape) hip hop artists are ever more dependent on building and then maintaining a core audience with an endless sea of downloaded or on disc product, free or otherwise, so there’s never a gap in service, unlike the few years that could elapse between rock band forays.

Mixtapes don’t really work in the world of rock; firstly street-level music distribution isn’t an accepted channel (for a comparison mixtapes never really took off in the U.K., there isn’t a big enough audience to make standing on a street corner or at a market justifiable), secondly the effort required to create the music is too heavy (the combined effort of X people working simultaneously) to sustain substantial give-aways, thirdly the ability to drag in up-and-coming performers to fill space cheaply is much lower. A band with an archive as deep as Sonic Youth can run short mixtapes via their website but they’re reliant on old demos and old live performances — the creation of high quality output cheaply at high speed isn’t an option.

Hip hop was, therefore, the end result of a thinning of performance ensembles across a lengthy period of time; the result of a musical reductionism that led to rhythm becoming the dominant feature which allowed a musical form to evolve that floated free of any particular instrumental line-up, tone or timbre with a vocal style that similarly devolved down to rhythm uber alles; the result of technological evolutions that created instruments ever more cheaply then merged the number of potential ‘instruments’ available into smaller, portable converged tools; the result of good quality recording technology and manufacturing technology being ever easier to access meaning more people could create quicker; an economic model in which people understandably wanted to sell more cheaper and easier; a market in which tastes do change rapidly therefore a music form in which investments can be more readily deleted is desirable. The world’s first million selling music release was Enrico Caruso’s Vesti La Giubba in 1907. In the one hundred years since, we’ve come a long way.

Rap is essentially musical capitalism, an omnivorous force able to ingest whatever it touches, incorporate it and churn it back out in a marketable form for whichever audience demographic they wish to target with it. A lot of capitalists like to claim that capitalism is a representation of nature, a Darwinian force ruined only by the interventions of outside forces that prevent it working smoothly and create the conditions under which corruption and inefficiency occurs. I’d argue that being a human being means imposing self-analysis and self-will on the Darwinian animal component of a person — that what distinguishes us from animals is standing above the pure force of nature. That’s my main objection to untrammelled capitalism; the economic system should serve the vision we have, we should reduce our vision and bring it down and down until it aligns with base functioning. What makes us human, higher beings, is choice and striving to rise above. Don’t mistake nature for a moral good or righteousness.

Like a lot of ever-so-slightly, teeny-tinily fixated Nirvana fans, I’ve listened to quite a few live concerts by this point. What I hadn’t noticed was how solidly constructed Nirvana set-lists were. I admit I expected to see that prior to the In Utero tour set-lists flexed and varied more often. Instead I’ve had to discard my expectation and observe what I’m actually seeing. What I like about data is that its primarily about pattern recognition; taking familiar information (like the set-lists on NirvanaGuide.com) and rearranging it thus bringing out new visions. I’d never placed list after list of Nirvana sets alongside one another before. Doing so is allowing me a fresh insight into what whole tours, entire years, entire spans of Nirvana’s existence looked like as live experiences and what is most likely missing from the live record.

1989, as a year, had one abiding feature; School. That song kicked off 41 of the fully known set-lists, interrupted only by Dive and Spank Thru early in the year then a brief jam toward the end. The abandonment of Nirvana’s earliest unreleased songs from January 23, 1988, later featured on Incesticide, was absolute. The sense is of a band reinforcing existing recognition — Spank Thru, Love Buzz, Bleach — taking time to refresh viable spares — Vendetagainst and Blandest — and to work up fresh material — Stain, Sappy, Been a Son, Polly.

Like when we examined 1993-1994, it’s clear that Nirvana knew how to kick-off a show, the greatest rigidity in set-lists is in the openers. It seems to have been a way of ratcheting up the crowd’s excitement, or of geeing up the band, getting them loose, relaxed, over any nerves. In the full set-lists available, from June 23 until July 18, Jason Everman’s final gig, the opening trio is School, Floyd the Barber, Love Buzz for eight shows. The resumption of live shows on August 26 inaugurates what would, with one last change (Spank Thru, for the only time, was the opener on this show), be the core unit in 33 set-lists; School, Scoff, Love Buzz, Floyd the Barber, Dive — Sept 30 until Dec 3 this is the running order of Nirvana originals.

During that two month spell, following Dive, there seems to have been a desire to stage a mid-set break, a breather after what is a fairly intense opening barrage. Polly, and briefly Sappy or About a Girl, gentler songs all, are regularly song six through from August 26 in Seattle right the way until November 15 in Germany. It’s clear, however, that after the opening salvoes with which each concert began, it was rare that a set-list solidified for more than a few shows in a row. As an example, for five shows between October 25 to 30, the first ten songs are in identical order. This corresponds to the final shows of the U.K. tour prior to the move into Europe. This initiated some shifting of orders, a little more diversity; the first seven songs are unchanged until November 15, song eight and song nine meanwhile shift between some combination About a Girl, Spank Thru and Mr. Moustache.

Other ‘units’ of songs existed even in the far shorter set-lists of 1989 (as compared to the twenty plus song 1993-94 extravaganzas.) Negative Creep was followed directly by Blew on thirty-eight occasions, separated by one song on a further two occasions. Those two songs also formed the closing couplet on two-thirds of those occasions. Another unit worthy of mention is the About a Girl/Spank Thru pairing, in one order or the other; they appeared alongside one another 22 times, in fact there’s only one occasion in any of the 43 full set-lists where About a Girl features but Spank Thru doesn’t. On 29 occasions Polly and Big Cheese appeared together, from Polly’s second appearance right the way until end of December.

What’s clearest is Nirvana’s professional stagecraft at work. They worked, throughout the extant record of 1989, to rev up the crowds before breaking into unreleased, just released, whatever took their fancy. That’s where the talent and quality of the band becomes visible, in their ability not just to hone a set-list but then to have the confidence and swagger to simply change the sets over and over again. Basically, while the first part of a set was rigid, the second half was utterly diverse. With sincere apologies for my shorthand, take a look at the next graphic:

Set-Lists May-Dec 1989

The first eight songs of each set were, with exceptions, predictable. The songs after that…Well, in 34 shows the band only manages to finish three consecutive shows in the same number of songs. I’ve scoured these set-lists and the concluding spells of each of these gigs always shift. Oct 27 and 28 are the only two dates where the set list stays the same — but Nirvana still whacked a couple of extras on the end of the latter date.

If you want to know how I spend a lot of nights, well, perhaps you can tell from these obsessively resorted set-lists — a tragic tale I think you’ll agree. But, having noted the Negative Creep/Blew pairing, that led me to a further clustering effect present almost throughout the extant set-lists for 1989; in 28 of 34 shows those songs appeared with Been a Son and/or Stain but, again, this didn’t guarantee it would definitely be one, or the other, or in a specific order:

Set-List_Conclusions_Aug-Dec 1989

That’s where Nirvana were at in late 1989, so well drilled they could flip and switch as they wished.

I admit inspiration this time around came from a conversation in the forum at LiveNirvana initiated by Chris Hickman — all credit to him. He rightly pointed out that the April 1990 Smart Studios session was intended as the kick-off to album two, not just a rehearsal. With that in mind though, it’s clear that a significant chunk of the album known as Nevermind simply didn’t exist until late 1990 or even on into 1991, a year after this first shot for Sub Pop. Nirvana also hadn’t quite discovered the Pixie-fied formula that would drive a number of the songs on Nevermind, it simply wasn’t there yet. The dynamic of minimal guitar on verses then all-out choruses hadn’t evolved yet; most of the songs that had made it to the studio by spring 1990 were a step on in tone and brightness compared to Bleach, but the guitar’s presence still consisted of (a) constant or (b) the Sliver/Here She Comes Now (and later D7) model of building from quiet to loud across a whole song.

The record of what songs Nirvana had in existence and what songs appeared soon after the April 1990 session serves as a good guide to the likely shape of ‘Sheep’; the second Nirvana Sub Pop album. Often commentary on Nirvana simply wraps the 1989 to 1991 work altogether as if Nevermind was an inevitable product and only needed some tweaks prior to its mid-1991 recording. This simply isn’t true. A finalised album prior to the end of 1990 would have been a quite different beast. Let’s look firstly at what songs were in existence and unused by April 1990:

Songs Available in Mid-Late 1990

I’ve excluded the more or less abandoned songs that ended up on Incesticide; Blandest was gone though not forgotten given it had appeared in a set-list during the summer of 1989 (and also evidenced by the later inquiry as to its whereabouts made in 1992 of Jack Endino while Nirvana were preparing Incesticide); Vendetagainst had reappeared in late 1989 perhaps down to Nirvana’s knowledge of how few songs they had in reserve. In fact, down to the summer of 1990, Nirvana did have a dozen songs available, just a very different dozen to the DGC set.

So, half of Nevermind didn’t exist. Tourette’s was the only In Utero song likely to be in existence. Note that 1988’s entire output of new songs had been used up on Bleach just as almost all early 1991’s writing would be used up on Nevermind, same as the hurried writing in late 1992-early 1993 was swallowed whole by In Utero — Nirvana always reacted to the time pressure leading up to an album release to hammer some new material into shape. If an album was to be out before the end of 1990 then a further spell of work was needed.

And that’s where we diverge from reality. Those who believe it was preordained that Smells Like Teen Spirit and a number of other crucial Kurt Cobain compositions were written will suggest that a lot of lyrics, ideas for riffs and so forth, were probably floating around in his journals and in rehearsals for a while. I agree. Likewise, they would argue that the songs were a response to the circumstances of his life in mid-1990 to mid-1991 so a lot of the urges and desires that found expression in those songs would still have emerged. True.

Yet other crucial circumstances in mid-to-late 1990 were the commencement of business deals that funnelled a small but important sum of money into Nirvana’s pockets via publishing. That was all wrapped up in the preparation for a major label move and without it critical factors that allowed Kurt Cobain to write those songs would have changed. For a start, examine the record of how many shows Nirvana played from June 1990 to June 1991:

Gigs June 1990-June 1991

Late 1990 through early 1991 was indeed the greatest spell of writing Kurt Cobain would ever achieve but it relied thoroughly, not just on emotional traumas like the break-up with Tobi Vail, but on the availability of money so that the band didn’t need to be paid to play — heck, without that influx of cash it’s intriguing to wonder whether the conjunction of Tobi break-up and heroin love affair would have been kick-started either. Sub Pop wasn’t scribing the band many vast pay cheques so this long spell of minimal activity wouldn’t have occurred. Kurt Cobain’s songs would have had to have been churned out at speed — like the work done prior to the Blew EP the year before. Likewise, instead of being the product of a man who confessed later to having sunk into depression and near complete isolation at this time, they would have been the works of a guy spending a lot of nights plastered in sweat and whipping his body around a crowded stage in front of a posse of mouth-foaming punk rock fans.

The major label deal also allowed Kurt Cobain to commit to the more pop-orientated side of his vision. His music had already diverged from straight-forward grunge, but little in the spell up to summer 1990 showed the great leap toward the mainstream that would occur. The original of In Bloom was far grittier, Polly was a lone fully acoustic effort though Lithium was starting to show the band playing with loud-soft dynamics, Sappy was still a far rawer effort than its resurrection in 1993. The core of the songs the band had available would not have been jarringly out of place on Bleach; Breed, Tourette’s, Token Eastern Song, Even in his Youth, Stay Away, maybe even a revised Vendetagainst. These songs would have made the serviceable core of an album that sounded a lot closer to the pop-tinged but still overdriven roar of Dive, Been a Son and Stain. In that context Polly, or Lithium, or Sappy, would have served the role that About a Girl did on Bleach; the showcases for Kurt’s pop chops on an otherwise tough sounding record.

The change in circumstance, another indie record as opposed to a shot at pop stardom, needing to tour rather than sitting quietly writing up a heartbreak, pressure to write new songs in summer 1990 rather than spring 1991; these factors would all have changed the eventual results that emerged.

Note, however, that despite the April 1990 recording session, Nirvana didn’t immediately commence extensive writing in April-July 1990. In fact it’s unclear whether anything other than Verse Chorus Verse and Sliver came into being in those three months. The absence of any visible rush to do anything seems to indicate that there was no pressure on Nirvana to push a new album out, despite the ostensible purpose of the April session. It seems to hint that April was far more about getting a good sounding demo tape together at Sub Pop’s expense, testing out that ‘Top 40 drum sound’ in preparation for a REAL shot at the Top 40, than it was about kicking off a new album for Sub Pop.

Record Stores

If you’ve seen the front cover of Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory? Then you’ve seen my favourite record-shopping street in London; Berwick Street in Soho. I first started visiting London to buy music back in about 2000 when I was twenty years old; there was an exhibition on at the Hayward Gallery called The Art of Sound that had me, by the end of my visit, listening to the throaty growls of passing traffic with the same fascination I reserved for music purchases. I’d travel down and stay with my aunt then set out the next morning, early as she lived in High Barnet at the furthest end of the Northern Line so it was nearly an hour of rumbles and creaks on London Underground to get in. I’d be carrying around one hundred pounds in cash, I mean, I was twenty, one hundred pounds was a lot of money, it was money that meant something.

The route was planned out with military precision; hit Camden soon after 10am, there were two second-hand record places on the pedestrianised street opposite the market, then further up the main street was Record & Video Exchange, toward Camden Lock a new shop opened a couple years later and joined the route, then finally there was an electronica specialist in the upstairs room of a fashion boutique further toward Chalk Farm. I’d conclude by heading into The Camden Cantina usually dead on twelve (the staff knew me for actually hovering at their door until opening time) for Mexican lunch/breakfast.
Onwards to glory! The next step was to hop on at Chalk Farm and barrel down the Underground, out at Tottenham Court Rd, along Oxford St as far as the HMV and there it was, the next three hours plus of my life (and little did I know the same street I’d be browsing thirteen years later — my most recent Berwick St purchases were the unreleased soundtrack to Dawn of the Dead by the excellent Trunk Records label and Can The Lost Tapes two weeks ago.)

Berwick St was the Mecca as far as I was concerned; Selectadisc, Sister Ray, Record & Video Exchange, Sounds of the Universe (Soul Jazz Records), Mr. Bongo (hip hop specialist) one street away, plus two discount places that were always worth a look, and a slightly upmarket shop called Phonica down a side street onto Poland St that was underneath the office building I first worked in two years later when I got my first adult job (also where I met my first office-place psychopath but that’s another story — horrible office, horrible job, horrible people.)

I’d arrive in Berwick St around 1pm and I’d be stuck there until around 3.30pm. I had to leave around then if I stood any chance of making it down to Waterloo and onto a train to Croydon for the final step of the journey; Beanos, the largest second-hand record shop in Europe. This final step was always a case of taking a chance, for starters they were usually a tad more expensive than the others, meanwhile they also had an annoying habit of writing a code on the case of each CD which was hell to get off later. But it got me there around 4.30pm and there was always something. The crucial factor was that a quick rampage through Beanos would give me enough time to change my mind and go back to ONE, and one only, of the shops further back on my route, I could just make it as far as Camden in time to grab a previously discarded option.

It’s almost all gone of course, I think you could see that coming a mile off. All five of those shops in Camden are gone. In Soho, Berwick St still retains Sister Ray, Record & Video Exchange, Sounds of the Universe — I didn’t realise Phonica was still going, I don’t visit. Beanos closed too so the trip down to Croydon is redundant (“Croydon: a Symphony in Cement” — bloody ugly post-war British architecture, we forgot what pretty was for thirty years.) Around that the major stores are going now too; Tower Records at Piccadilly was sometimes worth a detour. It became Virgin Megastores, became Zavvi, became a clothing store. A friend of mine is in the main Oxford St HMV as we speak and says it just feels sad in there. Borders was always an oddity anyway, half way between a posh book shop and a posh record shop. The discount record shop at Clapham Junction swapped to a smaller premises then finally faded out. In the smaller towns and cities, same story; Parrot Records in Cambridge was a favourite, bought Dinosaur Jr Fossils there, my first Coil record. Barneys in St Neots had brilliant contacts for bootlegs and rarities until the front of the ancient building started to fall in; it’s a wine merchant now. Sam Goody’s in Boston went.

But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. I’m talking about the bonds between my Nirvana experiences and these stores. In recent years the surprises and thrills became smaller and smaller which means I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Onward into Countless Battles on a bootleg; Sister Ray’s previous location on Berwick St. I refused to pay £15 for a single minute long shred of a song, this must have been 2008 or so. I bought the most expensive record I ever purchased, Sonic Youth Walls Have Ears, at Beanos in about 2003-4 then got a discount because the girl serving had been singing with a band (The Faint? Maybe) the previous night and she was chuffed at being recognised. I found a vinyl LP called Seventh Heaven, featuring Nirvana at the Bristol Bierkeller, in the Record & Video Exchange in Camden. I also bought a couple of execrable interview discs in Selectadisc at one point thus learning never to buy interview discs. Outcesticide VI was the last notable purchase in that series, Soho again, Sister Ray had it. Sam Goody’s was where I purchased my first ever compact discs — the Nirvana Singles box-set the very day it came out in 1995. Barneys was where I found the Nirvana Wired bootleg featuring the band in Newcastle.

The biggest connection is simply that feeling that, as I only had a hundred pounds to spend, whatever I chose to spend it on had to be special in some way; either a brand new discovery, a chance taken, or a collection advanced, or a bargain located. When hunting Nirvana music, what’s maintained the pleasure has been that sense of rarity, that there’s no telling when the next new discovery will be. Yes, there are huge reasons why online purchasing makes sense and carries vast advantages — that’s a conversation people have had many a time — I’m purely interested in what makes something feel golden. What made the romp through London special was that sense of ritual, the fact I could barely afford to be doing what I was doing so each purchase meant a small sacrifice somewhere (or another dollop of debt).

Those people who don’t particularly care about music — you know the type, their record collection stopped evolving when they hit 21 and started work, it’s full of tasteful club collections, they think a rock anthems compilation is wild, they’ll only ever own one, at most two, albums by the same band — they’re fine with the new ‘all you can eat’ diner that is online music; it’s great for limited attention spans, piling up files, musical wallpaper to colour a room and forget about. I know all the arguments why it has to go that way; all I’m saying is that the active pursuit of new musical experiences gained a vast energy as a consequence of my, then, limited budget, the confined time I had to look-select-revise-pay, the deliberate decision to make it a treasure hunt. Record shops are bound inextricably to a surprising quantity of my fondest and most blissfully carefree memories of my teens and twenties; even now, if I need to take a breath, relax, or pull out of a blue morning mood, I’ll often scrape together some stuff I’m not keen on then go trade it in at a record shop, taking the exchange price in shop vouchers, so I have that tightly-defined budget to go hunting round the store with — I’ve ended up dehydrated and busting for a bathroom after spending four hours in a record shop. Nirvana, however, retains that quality for me because I don’t go streaming vast files online, I look and patiently buy a disc here, a burnt-off CD-R there, a vinyl piece now and then. When something new pops up it’s a thrill.

Anyways, Saturday morning anecdote over. About ten years ago, while ordering some of Michael Gira’s writings from Young God Records, I asked him whether he’d ever write an autobiography given his life seemed populated with the kinds of experiences the majority of people who end up with autobiography could never even dream of. I’d just read his book The Consumer which is still among my favourite reads of all time given its focused solipsism and visceral detail — hints of Burroughs alongside the writing style of Beckett. I was also sick to death (now I’m just numb) of celebrity memoirs of third-rate nothings and, God forbid, footballers. He replied saying (I’m doing this from memory so apologies that it’s only a paraphrase) “writing an autobiography is the ultimate act of arrogant self-obsession predicated on the utter belief that one’s own life was of any interest whatsoever to others.” I try to stick to that rule when writing here on the blog.

There’s always a divide in commentary on Kurt Cobain in which one side is sympathetic to the fact that his crisis had reached such extremes by early 1994 that he felt death was the only way out…And the other side where he’s simply another spoilt rich drug addict.

Speaking to a friend the other day, she pointed out that her periodic black moods had so little to do with the circumstance of her life, she complained that people regularly say to her; “you’re so beautiful, you’re rich, successful at your job…” then some variant on “we wish you were you” or “what have you got to be depressed about?”

I’m not stating that success, or lack thereof, in the various spheres of life (i.e., social, professional, creative, health/physical, spiritual) is unimportant. There’s a dividing line between handling the normal frustrations of life versus a genuine and deep episode of depression in which the entire perception of life has been skewed. The crucial point is that people tend to confuse the short-hand method by which we measure ourselves against others, with the actual substance of that other person’s existence. Ultimately success or failure isn’t an innate quality, it’s a comparative measure; if everyone has one million in any currency then they’re all millionaires but their buying power will therefore be comparable and only those who are super-wealthy will count as rich.

Confusing the observation “your life is great, you’re beautiful/rich/successful, etc.” with the genuine points of conflict within that person’s existence reduces everyone to a quick sketch, a paper-thin study of human nature. The opposite is true, of course, that examining a life and finding it wanting (i.e., “you’re poor/starving/oppressed/unhealthy, etc.) doesn’t automatically mean that life is devoid of smiles and pleasures — yes, we can find happiness in slavery. One of the ‘pop culture’ questions of history, applied to both U.S. slavery and to the Holocaust, was why these great tranches of humanity didn’t rebel against their enslavers. At the time, their oppressors stated that the absence of violent opposition meant their victims were sub-human, were passive/weak-minded/devoid of a ‘normal’ desire for freedom or dignity. In other words, Southern American slavers and Nazi guards, from their position of power, refused to gain a deeper understanding of their victims and instead reinforced their own sense of superiority by deciding that the fact they would hate being in their victims’ position.

In the case of Kurt Cobain, he had a very deep array of weaknesses and damaged circumstance lasting the vast majority of his twenty seven years. The expectation that two years of success tagged on the end of twenty five years of poverty, rejection and misery should be sufficient to solve everything — or that wealth and fame would remove obstacles — is a deeply unperceptive view of what makes and creates a fulfilled human being.

In fact, becoming famous added a vast array of new challenges to those already in existence. A very wounded adult was now beset by legal threats, by financial demands, by a vast sea of commentators, by management attempting to control his time and presentation, by the inability to have freedom given he was so recognizable… These were added to a man who had already experienced homeless, poverty, had ongoing health concerns, a major drug problem running from 1990 onward, a difficult marriage not helped by his own issues with family and intimacy. It’s no surprise that Kurt Cobain was an individual with a deeply set depression; and no surprise, sad though his choice was, that he didn’t necessarily see life as a positive outcome.

Judging the whole of a person by the shorthand categories we tend to use is the equivalent of relying on a 140 character Twitter statement to stand for our entire view of a film. The human experience of even the lives that appear either smallest or most blessed in these basic categories is in fact a deeper and broader tome requiring far more.

What was striking in yesterday’s headline figures on Nirvana and their live compadres was the loyalty Nirvana exhibited to old friends and favourites throughout their career. The table below shows the bands Nirvana played with over more than a single year:

Nirvana_Multi-Year_Support Bands 1987-1994

Now, this’ll probably come as no surprise, but Nirvana played with Melvins in five of the seven years in which the band was active; Mudhoney and Tad in four; Skin Yard, The Legend, Butthole Surfers, L7, Shonen Knife, The Jesus Lizard in three each. It’s that loyalty to old friends that sticks out for me — the band switched side-acts regularly, shared stages with 234 bands, yet the bands with whom they played the most regularly were the comrades from early days. Instead of prioritising ticket sales — there was no equivalent of the Guns n’ Roses/Metallica tag-team here — in 1994 comfort was the priority so of the seven bands played with that year, four had been toured with in previous years and eight of 20 in 1993. It’s always been noted how hard Nirvana worked to elevate their friends and the way they never dropped friends seems clear.

I’m also gratified to note that Nirvana’s protestations that they were a band solidly aligned to the underground — regardless of records sold, awards won and media glitz — is shown to be true by an examination of their live partners. Nirvana played with a phenomenal array of near unknowns from beginning to end of their career —it’s clear how grounded Nirvana were in their declared milieu, they weren’t a band surrounded by future superstars.

I graded bands on the basis of (a) reaching mainstream acceptance (b) remaining top-level indie/underground heroes (c) achieving a degree of recognition and respect in the underground. Very few of the bands with whom Nirvana shared a gig came anywhere close:

Nirvana Support_Stars-Indie Stars-Respected

This view is provided per year but note the overlaps; six mainstream stars, nineteen top-level indie bands, eighteen recognised and respected, but solidly underground, acts — just 43 of 234 unique acts; Nirvana played with 191 near complete unknowns over their seven calendar years.

Of course this view could be read another way; as percentages per year:

Superior Bands as Percentage per Year

Quite clearly the quality of bands Nirvana were playing with did indeed increase almost year-on-year right through to 1994; if I’d counted Cypress Hill, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy plus Bobcat Goldthwait too in the mainstream/indie/underground divide the figures would be higher. The blip in 1989 is noticeable and I actually wonder if that’s a reflection of the shift from what would soon be the hottest local scene on the planet (remember that my mainstream/indie/underground division is as much about media coverage as it is about sales) to touring nationwide where Nirvana were just one among many hopefuls; a surprising percentage of Nirvana’s North-western contemporaries went on to relatively successful careers.

The shift in 1993-1994 reflects a further reality; that Nirvana’s success had finally kicked the alternative into the mainstream – my rating of bands doesn’t just reflect those bands, it also reflects what Nirvana had helped create, the success and critical appreciation of their fellow bands was made easier by Nirvana acting as the figurehead and key representative to mainstream audiences.