Archive for May, 2013

As discussed back on Friday, Kurt Cobain, aged 11-17 was, while not a typical nor a normal boy, not much beyond the average. At that point, while having musical ambitions, he was not a rock star, he was barely a musician let alone a professional — his first live performance didn’t take place until December 1985 (just two months off being nineteen) and his first full band recording session is now thought to have happened at Easter 1986. In essence, he was indistinguishable from a million other teenagers who have embraced a love of music and adopted it as a fantasy of a future.

In Part One of this piece we dwelt on Kurt Cobain’s self-defined ‘road to Damascus’ moment when he discovered the punk rock of the early Eighties thanks to his friends in the Melvins; their practices, their tape compilations of the wider scene. While accepting that his tastes didn’t cut cleanly overnight from mainstream rock/pop to punk in one swift motion, the ability to define himself, to adopt this music as a component of his identity was a crucial act and deserves the weight he places upon it.

What has brought home to me how normal this moment is, however, has been the conversations with so many Nirvana fans over these past six months. The crucial thing the majority of people I’ve spoken to share with Kurt Cobain is an experience of that moment where a piece of music can retrospectively appear of such brutal significance that it hauls one into a fresh reality; one where another person’s music becomes a statement of one’s own life. Having anonymised these pieces I wanted to share the memories of other peoples’ conversions.

Remember these are people who bought the Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide book direct from me, from all over the world, who twenty years after Nirvana’s life, took the time to write to acquire something new on the band…There’s a weight and ongoing life that has sprung from whatever quiet moment of discovery took place back in the past:

I discovered Nirvana by chance in the spring of 1995. I was on a school trip in Wales and the Unplugged album was being played in the minibus. The song that caught my attention was Pennyroyal Tea- it literally changed everything for me, never had I been so moved and lost in a song. When I got home I pestered my Mum until she bought me In Utero and the rest is history!

I bought my first Nirvana album, Incesticide, when I was thirteen. When I heard there was a book dissecting the album song by song I was intrigued. When I heard rave reviews for the book, I got excited. My father had a cassette copy of the Unplugged performance and one day while driving he put on Lake of Fire. I was hooked from that moment. I did a little research on the band and found that Nevermind and In Utero were the mega hit albums. Bleach was the heavy debut. And Incesticide was kind of lost in the shuffle. Now, myself being 7 of 8 children, I kinda felt lost in the shuffle too, so I decided to go with Incesticide as my first pick in my Nirvana collection. And I’m happy to say, that was a great choice.

I grew up in a small town (700 inhabitants)…quite isolated and narrow minded community. When I was 13 years old, Nevermind got released. And thanks to the impact of that album being so huge, it even found its way to the gas station in my village. I bought in on cassette (!), That album changed my life.

I grew up smack dab as the Nirvana phenomenon plowed through life. I saw them live in 1993 in Davenport, Iowa- I was young but I remember it well, (the band went to taco bell on kimberly street after the show- I wish we had too). When I was a bit older I had opportunity to deliver a car to someone in the Northwest and I went to Seattle, Aberdeen, Hoquiam- all the sites. And I’ve written and received a letter from Leland Cobain, Kurt’s grandpa- apparently he enjoys writing letters to fans- you should write him. I’ve also met Krist twice- both times in Chicago where my brother and I saw Eyes Adrift…talked to him for a bit, got a hug, got a drumhead with all 3 band members sigs..Really great experiences- all of them. So when a “New Item” comes along I suppose it satisfies some sentimental need…

I began playing guitar when I was 10 years old(around 92 -93) and learned how to play Lithium. Since then I wanted to learn everything by them and eventually everything about them. I think a lot of people have a similar experience or at least with my friends.

I first heard SLTS on the school bus at around 10 years of age, and when I was 12 years old my mother graciously took me to my first ever concert: Nirvana with 1/2 japs and the breeders. Most people grow out of their childhood tastes but I haven’t really. Cobain has enormously influenced me in terms of my subsequent musical tastes.

First heard Sliver on the radio in Australia in early 1991 when I was 15 and was getting into punk and new wave, then got hugely into Nirvana later that year when Nevermind came out. Then I got into
Bleach after the fact.

I’m 32 and twenty years ago I was really young…When I was 11-12 I wasn’t interested in music. Even when I was 14, so I totally missed everything about Kurt’s death. I have more vivid memories about Ayrton Senna’s tragic death, to tell the truth. First time I’ve listened Teen Spirit, I thought it was a Metallica song!!! I’ve discovered Nirvana in late 1996, found some cassettes on my brother collection (he’s 5 years older than me) and reading about them on some magazines.

Well, I’ve been into Nirvana since my early teenage years. They were my first real musical fascination and the starting point from which I’d eventually discover other fantastic bands. I rarely listen to them nowadays (and when I do, it’s usually more or less obscure live recordings), but a keen interest in the band, its legacy, its individual members etc. endures.

My story… Well it’s pretty usual I guess. My first actual encounter with Nirvana was when in high school a mate of mine asked me to translate the lyrics to “Rape Me” for him. That must have been in late ’94 or ’95. A few months later, another mate of mine popped In Utero on his Hi-Fi and I can honestly say I wasn’t blown away. It’s only a few of months later that I actually took the dive and I’ve been hooked ever since. I have my little Holy Grails that I’ve been hunting down over the years but to no avail. It’s part of the fun I guess!

The only thing possibly fascinating about my connection to Nirvana is that I have a daughter who was born right around the time Francis Bean was born. They wound up going to the same elementary school, although Francis Bean was a grade ahead of my daughter. As a result, I would encounter Courtney Love from time to time and sometimes have little conversations with Francis Bean. I even played a game of handball with her.

For me, I’ve told the story in the final chapter of the book, but as a wider thought, music during teenhood was an identifiable way of distinguishing different groups at school — it was one of the labels kids used to create a shared identity or to break away from the group. Similarly it formed a method of exchange, something one could easily give to others to bind them to you, to create connection, or to indicate status by virtue of rarity, exclusivity or depth.

What I love about the tales is noting that actual contact or experience of Nirvana as a live phenomenon is the exception, not the rule. For most of my fellow obsessives, it seems that the intangibility is perhaps a factor in the depth of interest; life/death makes no difference almost when thinking of something one will never touch or see as a physical reality, it’s all still alive.

Kurt rested back in the teak wood porch chair and cracked a smile recalling the previous night’s shenanigans. Krist had been kicking the phone some four weeks to get him to go, he only really went to please him. The night had passed glad-handing balding ex-somethings and joking how that was the same thing they thought of him. He’d given the thank you speech hunched in behind the podium like it might hide him from view. He was sure the stage lights would pick out the wrinkles setting in and pre-empted with a joke about getting ready to play Iggy in a biopic someday. He wasn’t going to say he still couldn’t stomach much beyond macaroni cheese and strawberry milkshakes. Out front on leaving, a few cameras still hanging around sparkling, some wise-cracking fan had hollered “Kurt! Hey Kurt! What keeps you rocking out?” He was proud of rustling up the answer; “a healthy lifestyle,” before ducking his head under the lintel of the SUV and getting well gone of the whole scene.

His arm had pinpricks of heat like a kid was snatching the sun through a magnifying glass. He knew where each ray landed, he’d long since studied the precise dots of scarring. At least he’d stopped shooting before he hit his early thirties and grew those Keith Richard folds, he’d upset the Universal PR team with some line about “Keith’s been modelling his own Keith Richard’s Halloween masks for thirty years.” They’d already lost it seeing he’d hacked his hair short again — they’d been handing out glossies of the trademark shoulder-length blonde, the photographer had only been out a week back. They should have been grateful he hadn’t dyed it for spite.

They tolerated each other; Kurt and Universal. The rumours would circle the house every few years — that he had crated tapes mounted up in the bathroom, in the basement. The money still flowed, anniversary releases, a live disc or two, the greatest hits that was their way of telling him they didn’t see any difference between inactive and broken up — either way he was on their list of missing in action, presumed near dead. He was quietly proud that his artwork was selling steadily even as his other voices told him it was on name alone. He tended not to invite anyone to the openings if he knew they were the sort to gush at him how great it all was. The songs had more or less dried up but each year brought a little fresh material letting him replay expressions of the same old vocabulary and keep enough pieces out there people knew he existed.

He kept the guns around mostly from habit. The nearby range frightened him if only because it reminded him some of his neighbours were those back-to-nature-weekenders on break to cook barbecue food, pose rugged and blast off guns with ear protectors on before fleeing back to the city. Fright of his life two summers back; a meaty carcass he’d hauled up into the woods and strung from the branches, he’d been lining up a shot on it, had kept back-stepping until his confidence of a hit was stretched taunt, necessary to give some challenge. The gentle twirl and swing of the flesh — elbow against the ground, barrel balanced and breathing steadied — he was near mesmerised by the swaying pink lump. A split second more he would have fired. Instead some nervous fawn of a sixteen year old pushed out through shaking branches and gave the meat a tentative poke with the end of a thick hunk of wood, then a more determined thwack that set it jiggling on the rope. He’d shouted over and the kid took off, still every time he got back down to take the shot he couldn’t clear that image of another timid victim sitting hidden beyond the crosshairs. He gave up and stashed the gun back in its beige nylon bag, wedged it in the cubbyhole in the closet for another day that hadn’t yet come round to dawning.

The view from the porch went only so far, out into a riot of border vegetation marking the fence round the Carnation property. Frances might visit this weekend. Then again, she had a habit of not showing — he couldn’t resent the selfishness, it maybe was his own fault. He couldn’t see himself playing the disciplinarian, she was too used to playing her parents against one another and all he could do was tell her over and again he wished it all wasn’t so. The last time he’d tried refusing her she’d stuck the knife in by calling him Don all day. He screwed his eyes up at the sun and just wished she’d show up and play nice that weekend, stop playing with her make-up long enough to say a few words to him. It wasn’t her fault. She blamed both of them for taking her happy childhood — he assumed she wanted even or…He should get round to moving that dead tree, it’d been there as long as he had, blotting the view. He shielded his eyes and peered at it. Far too familiar a sight, such a bore.

The TV had replayed some backstage interview during the footage of the other night’s ceremony. Mic crackling with crowd noise and venue buzz of crew motion and post-gig adrenalin, he still winced at some of what he came out with. He told himself he hadn’t been that bad, it didn’t matter, but still that needling sense that he was letting himself off easy. The darkness was a memory of someone else. For the moment he rested his sun-closed eyes, set his bare feet up on the porch railing while remembering boys funning around igniting cigarettes between one another’s toes.

While genetics is, day-after-day, providing further evidence of how a child is far more than an empty vessel, there’s still no denying that the overlay of lived experience crucially shapes and moulds that raw material; that there are few guaranteed outcomes in human form.

According to latest assessments, a human ego (Freud’s “das Ich”, ego was a translator’s Latin phrasing) —crucial in allowing an individual to wholly distinguish external from internal realities, to develop fully abstracted thought, and to defend sense of self against stress and external threats — only fully develops from around age nine. Prior to that age its far harder to experience or witness an external event and not ingest it into one’s personality; witness Kurt Cobain’s reaction to parental break-up, for one example. This movement from merely experiencing the world, to defining one’s own reality and the part events play within one’s mind forms part of the reason why teenage years are so flooded with significance — what occurs and what one discovers is new not because one has not experienced related moments before but because one can bestow higher meanings upon them and can give them significance within the constructed framework. Having built a wall between self and other its finally possible to choose to make things part of who one is.

The result is a series of events that can take on the significance of origin myths. Partly it’s that things truly are new — “you’ll never forget your first kiss.” To some extent it’s that a not necessarily new experience, becomes renewed as meaning is actively poured into it. In the case of Kurt Cobain, he’s very overt about what these crucial events were. In Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are, the subjugated misery of the parental breakup gives way to a far more active embrace of experiences such as teen rebel status, first experiences with girls (which seem to embed certain feelings of inadequacy and misfortune), and, most significantly in Kurt Cobain’s own eyes, the discovery of meaningful music in the form of punk.

Authors and commentators have pointed out that Kurt Cobain didn’t stop listening to more mainstream and metal fare; they imply also that Cobain is overemphasising his punk roots as a reaction against his discomfort at mainstream status in late 1992; they suggest there’s a touch of posing and self-mythology in the kid who had been singing along to The Beatles since he was a child suddenly claiming a punk revolution. They miss the point.

They’re seeking some moment of ideological purity, a cut-n-dried real world moment in which Cobain immediately hurled his previous record collection into a ditch and torched it. What occurred was an internal experience, a less tangible psychological experience in which punk music coincided with the teenage desire to grab hold of things that one could call one’s own and that could be used to define oneself. Kurt Cobain defined himself as a punk, the presence of other music within his taste palate doesn’t annul the depth of the discovery.

Cobain describes the discovery of punk as a near religious conversion, a veritable “seeing the light” moment for a boy still in his early-to-mid-teens. There’s no reason to doubt that it was a foundational moment for him; his life through until his death was spent absorbing and owning different currents from within the alternative/punk scene ranging from Melvins’ slow grind, through new wave vibes, Greg Sage guitar tone, David Yow/Buzz Osbourne vocals, grunge, power-pop/K Records/Vaselines’ vibes, Pixies dynamics… There’s no doubting also that this was a man who identified sufficiently with punk as an ethos that he felt genuinely conflicted about the consequences of the major label move and subsequent success. When he points to the discovery of those first tapes exposing him to the post-1980 U.S. take on punk as truly significant; believe it. His musical life would always have a string tying him back to that moment when he decided punk was the ingredient he was looking for in his quest to be someone.

What happens to us as children stays with us throughout our lives; what happens to us as teenagers, we sift for what will be WHO we are in the life to follow.

Let’s get the easy bit out of the way straight-up; I’m not speaking about comparing the ethics of either band, I’m not running back over the points of comparison between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain as products of the white rock-loving underclass nor as enemies of industry business-as-usual. I feel there are interesting ways to look at the two bands as rock industry phenomena.

Guns n’ Roses back catalogue has been kept trimmed to the bone; outside of the core four albums there’s the lean eight track stop-gap Lies from 1989, there’s 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident? covers compilation, after that we’re onto the record label desperately trying to claw money out of the band via the Live Era ’87-’93 release and the inevitable Greatest Hits. Digging around on the official single releases yields a cover of Whole Lotta Rosie, a live cover of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a demo of Don’t Cry, Shadow of your Love and some live tracks. Similarly, on bootlegs, on YouTube, there’s barely a shred left of the original band; a lot of live covers, some appalling recordings like That’s Something, Crash Diet, Cornshucker, Just Another Sunday…A few more pieces from the last decade and a half edition…Then some early demos that all sound like they were recording from beneath a duvet.

That’s not necessarily a criticism. If audio fidelity and quality are the issues that the Nirvana camp circa-1995 to 2013 have specified then they must envy the sheer force of will Axl Rose exercises in his unwillingness for anything that isn’t polished within an inch of its life to be seen. The Guns n’ Roses back catalogue has been sternly curated with no clutter of anniversary editions, bonus live discs, demo discs, single-gathering compilations or outtake sets. The point, however, is that the reality seems to be that there simply isn’t anything left to find from the 1985-1995 edition of Guns n’ Roses bar the most minor of scraps — they make Nirvana look profligate in terms of the amount of material that never made it onto a core release.

The second crucial point is that the relatively pristine nature of their back-catalogue, unlike that of The Stooges which we looked at yesterday, has mattered not a jot to the critical reputation of the band. It’s extremely hard, post-Nirvana, to find any great appreciation for the work of Guns n’ Roses. There’s plenty of kudos, particularly in hard rock magazines for Appetite for Destruction, but this never translates from a liking for the album into a liking for the band. There’s virtually no one willing to stand-up for the world-bestriding colossi status of Use Your Illusion I and II with their packed-to-the-gills approach — the most that gets said is a whiny regret that Guns n’ Roses didn’t release Appetite for Destruction Part Two. What matters is that by the time the latter two albums made it out in 1991, Guns n’ Roses had muddied their reputation, had been absent long years, had lost the pop market by showing themselves to be anything but. The nail in the coffin was then Nirvana declaring a band barely half a decade older to already be the sound of the reactionary past.

In terms of live activity, the table below shows the live statistics for Guns n’ Roses 1985-1994 iteration versus the path forged by Nirvana:


I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a similar collapse in performances the year after success had been achieved. It does put Nirvana’s fall into perspective — regardless of reasons, maybe it isn’t that unusual for a band to reach a peak of intensity and then retreat. Of course, if record labels were calling the shots then that’s precisely the point at which they would likely be trying to get bands out on the road for promotional reasons — these two bands did the opposite.

A further point of comparison is that there’s a similar pattern of releases which suggests a specific strategy at DGC when it came to wayward stars. In each case, the runaway success first major label album — Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind — was followed by the gap-filling b-side and extras compilation — Lies, Incesticide. It’s notable also that both those stop-gap releases specifically took aim at media interventions and criticisms of the bands and band members — at the very least it could be said that both bands hated scrutiny, however warranted or unwarranted. The overall approach though suggests a shrewd desire to buy time and/or take advantage of maximum point of success in the case of each act; perhaps DGC saw two bands who they weren’t entirely sure were going to survive long enough for a follow-up album?

A band who, tragically, have lost a lot of respect through the release schedule of the past thirty-five years is the Sex Pistols. The undeniable brilliance of their one and only album, the fact they defined punk and their lead singer was a figure of genuine originality who went on, with Public Image Limited, to bind together three albums that kicked-off and defined the post-punk era, none of it can overlook the discomfort when studying how they’ve approached music releases.

The damage commenced early thanks to Malcolm McClaren-fuelled randomness, with Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Sid Vicious cheerily going along with it all. The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, the associated singles (none of which feature anything interesting to a rarities collector), the Flogging a Dead Horse set, Some Product (consisting of interview snippets and adverts), Sex Pack (another re-compilation), — for at least the next decade and a half after the Sex Pistols’ demise the majority of associated releases were intermittently interesting at best.

That spell could have been forgotten given the legal situations and the open hatred among the surviving band members provided a legitimate reason to ‘start over’in the Nineties. The only problem being that the feeling of repetition set in fast. The Kiss This compilation succeeded only in scraping in a few of the single b-sides on top of the regular candidates. The Filthy Lucre Live tour of 1996 was a worthy venture but the audio document, like most live albums, wasn’t not of long-lasting entertainment value. Regular reissues of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols had already become a tradition every five years, the Jubilee set in 2002 was essentially worthless, the three-disc box-set that same year was pretty well the first and only truly essential post-break-up compendium of the band’s material. The thirty-fifth anniversary brought a listenable remaster, a few slivers of outtakes and a grand total of one unheard studio track; a Denmark Street rendition of Belsen Was a Gas with Johnny Rotten on vocals.

Around that, the flood of semi-official releases, the live bootlegs of variable to atrocious quality usually packaged with all the aplomb of cut-price supermarket own-brand soup. Essentially the waver-thin quantity of the Sex Pistols’ output left the 2002 box and the latest Super-Deluxe of Never Mind as the two sources covering everything the Sex Pistols laid to tape. Everything else is ephemera at best unless well-drilled but fuzzy repetitions of live hits keeps you entertained.

A further key issue was that the Sex Pistols’ knowing critique of music as commercial product, the repetition of a thirty-five year old joke about openly seeking to fleece the public and others, was a case of the skit, the story, forming the reality. It became hard not to see the entire Sex Pistols’ enterprise, post 1978, as a rip-off. Even the two well-intentioned releases mentioned above were hard not to look at with a cynical eye.

Nirvana certainly can be admired for avoiding what has been a fairly bargain-basin release schedule. Likewise, they’ve left a more substantial reservoir of leftovers than I’ve probably given them credit for given previous comparisons I’ve made have been to The Stooges and Jimi Hendrix — both apparently incontinent studio players. But then, the Sex Pistols were barely a band for more than two maniacal years, Nirvana kept it together a full seven. While I’ve certainly advocated further Nirvana outtake releases I’m certainly not desirous of seeing a lightly tweaked Nevermind emerging every half a decade. What I’d be interested in is the kinds of outtakes, alternative takes, early versions and test-runs that make up the majority of the material on the two major Sex Pistols post-death boxes.

A prime concern of mine at the moment is the idea of what can and can’t be released officially.
Well, in 1999 Rhino Handmade, under license from Arista released the ultimate testament to one of the rare albums that stands as peer to Nevermind.

Complete Funhouse

On the table before me is the seven disc boxset of The Stooges Funhouse: The Complete Sessions. And they do mean complete. This is eight hours worth of session recordings, there are over well over thirty takes of some songs, it’s literally everything they could find; Funhouse’s seven songs played out to infinity across 140 tracks with the addition of a minute and a bit shred called Sliding the Blues and one unreleased track called Lost in the Future.

What stands out for me though is that they could do this and it hasn’t in anyway harmed the band’s reputation; this limited edition box-set is now a hallowed release among the kind of deep fans who give a toss whether a band releases its rarities and outtakes. Instead of wasting time worrying about the tastes of the dilettante fans who just want the greatest hits album, Arista released that all re-releases are ultimately unnecessary and simply went ahead and pleased the true fans who were still writing, reviving and appreciating The Stooges after all these years. It’s a very digestible release too; it emphasises the hard work the band put into trying tweaks and alternative ways to get these songs into best shape, there’s a snippet of dialogue in which Iggy Pop’s sensitive ears note a string ringing on one of the instruments and makes the retake totally belying the band’s reputation as slackers, damn they work hard.

The Stooges and Nirvana are two of the only bands whose outtakes really fascinate me; the comparison also appeals because the lo-fi nature of live recording technology in the early seventies means it’s a challenge to find polished material. It leads me to question what is/isn’t capable of being released. Take a look at the release below:

You Want my Action

The booklet on top is the You Don’t Want My Name, You Want My Action box-set gathering up recently discovered recordings of The Stooges with a short-lived two guitar live line-up. The sound quality declines from front to back going from reasonable (if one is tolerant of pops and clicks) to severely degraded. The crucial point is that it doesn’t matter. The expectation and direction is set, it’s acknowledged, one buys in the knowledge of what this is — it’s exceedingly rare material and if one is the kind of fan who wants to hear multiple versions of songs then you’ll love it anyway.

The two CD version of Metallic K.O. wedged there is also an argument against audio quality being the defining reason for or against a release. It’s a famed album, it’s achieved a cult status in spite of and partly because of the low audio fidelity. It basically records a now stoned-to-the-eyeballs Iggy Pop, fronting a band about to break-up, for an audience that wants to hit him with the various glasses flying overhead. And still, with a great band, even releasing this simply reinforced the iconic value, the underground heroism and the position of The Stooges as forefathers of punk confrontation and one of the finest rock outfits ever unleashed.

Nirvana needs to decide, or already has decided, how they want to be remembered. The choice is between the overground success with feet and souls planted in the underground or as a slick well tuned, corporate rock behemoth that left the underground behind. There was criticism of the With the Lights Out box-set for the sound quality on certain tracks, but then there’s been criticism of the Nevermind anniversary release on the same topic but for having been excessively pumped up and compressed; oh and of the boombox demos of Nevermind back on the audio quality issue. There’s no happy medium. Releasing lo-fi material is fine so long as people know what to expect — only the fanatics buy regardless.

The final item is the Heavy Liquid box-set. To distinguish The Stooges from Nirvana, it must be recognised that the depth of outtakes and leftovers The Stooges left behind is vast compared to the relatively shallow pool of genuinely unheard Nirvana/Kurt Cobain originals. The Stooges poured out material and, in the absence of solid relations with record labels for a lot of their time as a band, a lot of it poured into the unofficial realm. This box, again going from highest to lowest fidelity, brings together a ton of non-album tracks plus such curios as a full disc of the band experimenting with the song I Got a Right across thirteen takes — different lyrics, instrumental, no solo, different effects, and so on. The rest is everything from soundchecks to off the cuff studio sessions at various locations. Tragically Nirvana could never compete with this, With the Lights Out is the nearest they’ll ever come; there simply isn’t enough left in the vaults of true originality. But that doesn’t mean a specialised box-set of this nature wouldn’t appeal to fans, wouldn’t be worth listening to and wouldn’t tantalise.

Heavy Liquid

Compliments to Jason Stessel over at LiveNirvana for bringing this to everyone’s attention – I’m just relaying the news today, no originality!

Over on YouTube, there’s been a bit of a clear out of one of the largest distributors of Nirvana live footage, similarly a few pieces related to Nirvana’s MTV Live n’ Loud performance have been taken down. It’s still possible to find clips but, compared to just a month or two ago, it’s near impossible to find a full recording of the Live n’ Loud broadcast. A search today on one of the few active links came back with this simple declaration:


It’s hard to tell if this is just a regular stripping out of supposed infringements or a targetted attempt to remove competing sources for what everyone has predicted for a couple years will be the DVD component of a Super Deluxe edition of the In Utero album ready for the anniversary this year.

I think private trading of recordings is a legit exercise for the enthusiasts. Hand-to-hand propagation of music has kept interest alive in Nirvana’s music for years. Its the, often illicitly sated, appetite for unheard material that has plugged the gaps between official releases and allowed the major labels to reap such profits from the reissues, DVDs, boxsets and so forth. Plus, there’s very little damage done by people trading live recordings, demos and all the shreds the major labels are too snobby to release.

If there was a legitimate official source for all this material the fans would buy it. A fair example of the process would be the switchover from the dodgy ethics of Napster to the dodgy, controlling yet official order of iTunes. Once a legal channel of sufficient scale and diversity was available the market moved very rapidly away from what had been an illegal experiment. Most people don’t want to be acting illegally if there is an alternative. That’s why organised crime gains its most extensive profits from what cannot be acquired legally, people want to do good. I’ve no great affection for websites ripping DVDs and films. But then, I’ve never been that visual.

The whole tale of downloadable music and so forth interests me more in terms of the way it reinforces power in the hands of those who created the systems responsible. This roams toward conspiracy theory if taken the wrong way, take it more that I think similar people make similar decisions and that people in particular situations are equally likely to adopt the frame of reference arising from the social scenario, the group, in which they find themselves.

Essentially, teams of engineers created the forms via which music could be reproduced and distributed. Having control of the medium gave them power over what was contained therein whether overt or subconsciously adopted by the bands. A fair example is the way Nirvana’s albums, those released while Kurt Cobain was alive, are built around the idea of a vinyl LP record, even the bonus tracks on Nevermind and In Utero, by their very nature, are a reaction to the new medium of the CD.

The problem is, of course, that being able to do something doesn’t mean one should. The engineers discovered they could turn music into data, having done so, creating the MP3 format and others that allowed cheap and massive distribution via the Internet was a logical step. In doing so the people involved successfully extinguished the means of support for hundreds of thousands of musicians. Arguments about how “musicians used to survive performing live” are as spurious as pointing out that the entire financial industry was barely a glimmer until 1980s liberalisation opened the flood gates. Claims that its just a case of adapting are as viable as telling flood victims they just need to see it as an opportunity. As for people salving their consciences by saying it was rich millionaires they were taking from…Untrue. The long tail of bands who were living on the proceeds of their releases had to undergo a radical reduction in their income that sent many back into regular day jobs.

What the engineering graduates had done was define the products of liberal arts graduates as something that wasn’t worth paying for, something that was overpriced and therefore something they could rip. Meanwhile, the devices sold by the engineering graduates are sucking in small fortunes with minimal competition. The new reality is one in which musicians need an alternative source of income (same as authors) unless, by sheer chance, they become the one in a million everyone likes to point to when they claim it’s easy to make money from creativity. A lack of worth placed on the results of creative endeavour has led to a mass market that isn’t willing to pay for it and the tools to assist.

So, to say I have ambiguous feelings about the kinds of innovations, like YouTube, from which I have benefitted is an understatement. I don’t rule out some of the good these things do; but I like to be aware that there are two sides. In other words, I’m cool with Universal and whoever else taking down content that directly and knowingly competes with their official product – because the rule applies to the little people not just the big guys. Musicians now have been robbed of the chance to have a long-term career, one they can live off, in the field to which they are dedicated unless they conform to the mass tastes and fashions. More people than ever can make music, that’s a thrill, but it’s harder than ever for the devoted to live on it.

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?

Kurt Cobain_27

I admit to finding coincidences intriguing. A coincidence, the admission of the hand of chance on a seemingly repetitive basis, sparks my curiosity regarding whether what we’re seeing is an actual trend that can be shown with data, or merely a deceptive slice of cherry-picked data points, or a case that the belief that one should see a particular something leading the mind to filter out contradictory information and home in on reinforcement for what one believes.

Luckily, other people look at something like the well-known coincidence of rock star deaths at age 27 and use it as a point for creating art and items of deep and less geeky engagement.

I’ve known of this exhibition for months courtesy of a fellow rock enthusiast at work, the VP of Corporate Communications to be exact; I just didn’t get round to sharing it. I’m not sure I have much feeling for the images, they’re a little too photographic to inspire but I recognize the difference between being in a gallery studying the paintwork up close versus a flat Internet image; it’s like the comparison between being at a live show versus the YouTube clip.

The overall concept engages me more but brings me back to my reasons in the first paragraph, that I enjoy coincidences because they make me want to look more closely. A few months back a major study concluded that music stars did indeed have higher mortality than the average population until they reached their forties and fifties at which point mortality was no different ( The combination of a relatively volatile grouping of individuals, in risky and unstable circumstances, with an excess of opportunities to engage in risk-increasing behaviours was what was, apparently, responsible for the trend. The data-set is good, it’s sheer size giving it authority, the source authority is excellent. They didn’t dwell on the 27 issue at all…

…But in the same Journal another article a year before did:

The study limited itself to just the U.K. and noted no stand-out number of deaths associated with the age 27 though it confirmed the overall heightened chances of dying among musicians. Does that kill the myth?

Not at all. Like all good stories no amount of data can eliminate the enjoyment of an ominous portent, tales of the grim reaper will always remain something to relish…Or to paint.

I was simply curious on this occasion how long, in Nirvana’s live sets, they persisted in playing more songs from a previous album than they did from the next. In my initial naivety I made the simple assumption that a band would simply move on from each album at some point and, through sheer boredom, substitute newer songs that hadn’t been as well-thrashed on stage. Of course this simply isn’t true. Later in life many bands end up retreating to greatest hits’ medleys as their audiences come to focus more on reminiscing rather than on a band’s new material. And sometimes certain songs are more amendable to a live arena than others; Led Zeppelin never let go of Whole Lotta Love.

In the case of Nirvana though, a band in motion and still somewhere amidst a creative and popular peak in the 1989-1993 era between album releases, I wonder if anything altered. The difficulty, of course, is that songs from Bleach had been played right from the band’s earliest days meaning, by 1993-1994, they’d flogged some tracks for 7 years; neither Nevermind nor In Utero had received anything like that workout with the earliest Nevermind song appearing live in mid-1989 and the earliest In Utero song in mid/late-1990.

Also, Nirvana’s live-sets gradually got longer by, on average, one/two songs each year from 1987 to 1994 so more songs were needed to fill the sets resulting in a lot of material from Nevermind and In Utero throughout those latter years. What we’re really looking at therefore is how long it took for Bleach to be overtaken as the key source in Nirvana set-lists.

The first notable element is the switch evolving across the course of Nirvana’s, admittedly short, set-lists in 1988. On January 23, 1988 the songs that later featured on Incesticide were still making up five of the set while Bleach was only two; Spank Thru, If You Must, Pen Cap Chew and Erectum also featured with a couple of covers tagged on the end. By March 19, 1988 Bleach and Incesticide are on even-pegging with the aforementioned four randoms still attached. Basically it shows that from kick-off in early 1987 right through until sometime in summer 1988 the focus was on this alternative vision of Nirvana in which the songs recorded in January 1988 still formed the crucial spine of Nirvana’s identity as a live band.

From October 30, 1988 onward it’s Bleach that rules. The switchover will have come in the sixteen shows between March 19, 1988 and then. As could be expected this dominance only begins to draw to a close with Nevermind hoving into view. Yet the expected takeover is significantly forestalled. There’s one show on May 29, 1991 where Nevermind predominates, after which its late August 27, 1991 before Nevermind again comes to establish control but even then it’s more of an unsteady parity with numerous shows where Nirvana returns to playing more from Bleach.

I wondered if this indicated Nirvana trying to maintain some secrecy around their newest material — like Krist Novoselic claimed they had to do in 1992 to avoid bootlegging. There’s a simpler reason though; while in retrospect, looking backwards, hearing early versions of Nirvana songs prior to their canonisation on an alum is great — it relies on knowing the songs already for them to have significance. Usually at a gig, when the band show off some new material, it’s a bit of a momentum killer, people don’t know the tune, they can’t sing along, they can’t anticipate moves and motion. So, until Nevermind was out, there’s a very ordinary reason not to overpopulate a set-list with it; the crowd would tire of hearing mystery songs, so it’s a crowd-pleasing behaviour. The showcasing comes only in the run-up to Nevermind’s release, then the dominance commences after that.

Finally in the last days of October Nirvana ease up and Nevermind takes its place as the provider of some eight songs a night with Bleach throttled back to four, sometimes five. Bleach’s dominance lasted a minimum of 36 months, October 1988 to October 1991, probably slightly more somewhere in those obscure mid-1988 months. Yet, given set-list lengths, Nevermind shares the limelight with Nirvana playing anything up to seven songs from Bleach on a number of occasions throughout 1992. It’s only in 1993 that Bleach fades out leaving Nevermind and In Utero on level begging…

What would it mean for the future? Well, there we’re into the realms of what probably can’t be told. Nevermind would have faded slightly perhaps but could Nirvana resist the pressure to play what would still have been their top hits? And given headliner status and longer set-lists it was hard for any album to slip away…