Archiving: Nirvana’s Leftovers Versus Mine

Just a whimsical post for a quiet kinda day…I found it interesting to think of the fact that a completely different standard applies to audio works as compared to literature; I mean, an academic archive might be keen on having my scrap notes someday if I do something that gains weighty note beyond my limited realm of interest and attention. But I can’t imagine any one reading this article being keen on having the rough notes that came to make it — do you want the piece of gym scrap paper I started this on? It’s unreadable. Yet I better keep it just in case given the kinds of trends that have been witnessed in prices for author’s archives:

Yet, what we’re looking at here, is not something that anyone except a fanatical researcher would sit down and read for pleasure. The blend of humdrum notes, rough one-liners that might one day become significant when allied to other words in an overall narrative or structure, letters and stubby thoughts, there’s no way to experience them in any coherent or enjoyable fashion. As far as public consumption goes, we may see sifted fragments in a well choreographed tome.

In the case of music, however, the rough workings of a musician possess a far more immediate impact and enjoyment. Of course that doesn’t mean every shred of tuning up, between take banter, butterfingered miscues or cack-handed lumpen error would or should emerge — I can live without a tape of Kurt Cobain practising the pentatonic scale repetitively. What I’m referring to is both rough takes yet to be honed into their final song form, to solo run-throughs of ideas or even stray riffs if sufficiently polished, full group improvisations and jams around an idea or theme — these all have an interest that an author’s fag-packet-musings rarely possess.

Part of the reason is the relative length of the experience. A draft of a song is comparable to a full page or two of written material — each is a substantial outpouring that one can engage with. Just as the rough copies of a full chapter might prove intriguing, a lengthier jam has a thread that can be followed whether that interest is formed by its unity or by its breaks and diversions.

The further difference between reading text versus listening to music, as mental processes plays a role also. The body and mind can feed on even random noise as an experience in a manner more akin to how it can detect shapes and patterns in paint splatters and ink blots. In each case what is being engaged is the brain’s capability as a pattern-finding engine; this isn’t what occurs when sifting page after page of short thoughts and ideas, the immediacy is lacking. Similarly music can be felt and experienced as a physical sensation, a further level of experience that is lacking from an author’s archive and a further reason why something like the rehearsal tapes and home demos of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana have a deeper interest and aren’t the equivalent of an author’s stockpile of abbreviations, shorthand, on-the-spot thoughts or observations.

I was reminded of this old thought of mine when going through material related to the Nirvana LLC court battle between Courtney Love and the duo of Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. In response to a statement from Courtney stating that Krist had threatened to toss Nirvana tapes off of a bridge, Krist/the lawyers replied:

“After listening to hours and hours of recordings for the box set project, I determined that there were some outtakes that sounded really bad. In this day and age of limited copyright protection in cyberspace, I was afraid that these recordings could leak out of our organization and hit the World Wide Web. I told Courtney that I felt we should erase some of these tapes because they are redundant and a poor representation of the group. Having worked so closely with Kurt Cobain, I know that he would feel the same as we occasionally practiced this while he was alive. Kurt had a very high level of discretion in regards to art. Artists do this, it’s no big deal.”

Certainly it means Courtney was correct and Krist probably had threatened to do some chucking out — a first thought that comes to mind is whether he has done something of this nature in the years since, there’s no information either way. He certainly seems convinced it was the right thing to do and gives four reasons (a) they’re bad (b) they’re not needed (c) they make Nirvana look bad (d) Kurt wouldn’t want them to emerge.

The ins-and-outs of my feelings about this quotation are essentially focused on the first of those points. The other three I can summarise my thoughts on fairly rapidly; (b) is any music truly needed? Why is a poor rendition or an early effort any less valid to those who would love to hear it? (c) the fan community is used to lo-fi renditions and sluggish live material but it humanises the increasingly sainted band (d) channelling the voice of a dead man to justify an action in a future they never reached is a poor way to make any choice.

But that point that they “sounded really bad” is what intrigues me. There’s no indication if it’s a reference to low-fidelity sound that may be beyond salvageable; if so it’d have to be pretty awful given the state of the Boombox Demos from 1991 that secured an official release — it can’t be worse than some of the snippets on various bootlegs which were interesting partly because they retained a sense of mystery in amidst the tape hiss.

The quotation doesn’t say if it’s a reference to bad playing on the part of the band; on this matter, if we’re talking tapes of retuning or twenty minutely distinguishable renditions of About a Son then maybe he has a point. On the other hand, the Heavy Liquid bootleg from The Stooges contains a disc featuring thirteen renditions of I Got a Right in various conditions (i.e. “no gtr solo”, “false start”, “instrumental”, “+ gtr solo”, “too slow”, “two false starts”, “different lyrics Outro”, “not Leslied”, “diff drums”). I’m not saying I’m listening to the disc every day but it’s a perfectly enjoyable experience and lends a real appreciation of how hard a supposedly messed up and wild band actually practised on getting their sound. Plus it’s a cool song so it’s no different to hitting the ‘repeat’ button, fine.

The quotation doesn’t state if the tapes contained jams that never went anywhere; improvisations that eventually broke down; snippets that might have become true songs if anyone had remembered them or taken a second shot — now, as a bona fide fanatic, these really would be of interest. I’ve said before that there’s insufficient on disc evidence of Nirvana’s talents as improvisers, certainly a feeble minimum that wasn’t on stage. This would have some virtue if properly curated.

Anyways, that’s where my curiosity hinges. What was so bad that it must be destroyed?


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