Archive for May, 2013

Apologies, was a public holiday in UK yesterday and I was at my grandfather’s… Now! Awful lot written about the Cobain roar, his particular skill for being able to hold a single note while screaming, to be able to twist a scream up, down, wherever he wished it — that’s a genuine technical ability on display, not just an unpractised gut talent. And that’s what has made the various vocal-only/acapella versions of Nirvana’s songs so interested. None have been officially released (as far as I know) and I can’t imagine they ever will be although voice only versions of hip hop albums are not an uncommon phenomenon given the desire of remix artists to get working with individual voices. Given the rather unlovely nature of a hip hop vocal, those releases are usually best for the appreciation of lyrics, for the dexterity with which an individual plays with syllables and their control over speed and breathing.

In the case of Kurt Cobain’s voice, isolated from the instruments, there’s a wide range of material to choose from stretching from early efforts — the very gruff, paint-stripping growl on Negative Creep or thick tone of Blew — to the frailty that has crept in on a song like Very Ape or All Apologies. Of course I’m sure that what we’re hearing is not necessarily the development of a voice but deliberate decisions regarding what to emphasise or discard — we’re hearing control, an expanding and experienced talent.

One major contrast is being able to hear so clearly the work done to the vocals on Nevermind. The slight echo on a track like Drain You softens the edges; check the almost syrupy effect added to In Bloom alongside the more extreme doubling of Kurt’s voice on the chorus; the demo like quality of Something in the Way is a welcome release with the visibility of each vocal tic and slur now starkly present. There are plenty of sources and certainly their availability is well-known across the fan community:

The additional touches aren’t as visible on the other albums, they’re there, of course, but the nakedness of the voice is plainer. This is my particular favourite. The gulf between the downbeat verses, the ability to let the voice break over a note — I’m very sure it’s deliberate, he did it so perfectly during Where Did You Sleep Last Night from MTV Unplugged — the building snarl of the bridge then the sustained chorus…And yes, there’s plenty of doubling going on at the end there but still…What a song and what a voice.

MV (*cough*) is also available in this form showing him stretching his voice from the initial croak to the dredged up choruses…Another late era experiment with the voice.

God Bless Australia. While I’d never wear an England sports shirt and God forbid I ever wear a football shirt from the egregious business venture (as opposed to a sport) that is the English Premier League, I’m presently endeavouring to buy an Aussie Wallabies shirt — it’s justifiable because I have no idea what sport they play nor have I ever seen them so it’s not a tribal thing. What snobbery!

In other things I’m grateful to Australia for, my favourite Aussie Josephine receives a respectful bow firstly as ever, then I’m pointing specifically to The Guttersnipes today. Michael, Paul, Mark and Andrew have been a pleasure to speak to recently and kindly furnished me with this:

nirvana_palace

I double-checked as much as I could and as far as I can tell this is the only copy I’ve ever seen of this particular Australia tour poster featuring the late addition of Sunday February 2, 1992.

They’re certainly my music pick of the present week so I’ve ripped the OFFICIAL Guttersnipes Live at the Great Britain in 1992 YouTube set from their Facebook page and would like to present it to you as a fun and healthy way to add some Antipodean colour to your day:

If that doesn’t please your ears, well try a slice of the Southernhemisphereplayaistic studio version of Face the Day:

The gritty vocals are given me a good feel (like Rancid at their peak), the willingness to let the music soar in a jumble of indie sunshine, hammer-on-off rock riffs and a wicked outro well-worth waiting for; a nice touch. Interesting hearing a bit of their story too, peoples, look around you, some of these people you’re going to take with you for decades to come:

“(Paul) We four had fairly similar backgrounds, we all met at uni and lived at the same residential college. Musically the tastes were pretty diverse…One guy was into Depression, Misfits, Butthole Surfers, Mass Appeal and others. Another guy was into Minor Threat, Fugazi, Pixies and Steve Albini. Another was into more folk-pop oriented, (The Saints, The Church) and me, I had a bit of everything (Deep Purple, Kate Bush, The Damned, Einsturzende Nuebaten, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Swervedriver). We all had a bit of crossover with each others tastes. Husker Du, Black Sabbath, etc. Musically, it was an interesting mix and our priority was staying friends believe it or not. Our matrix was the fun factor. We played good songs, and we had plenty of mates who drank a lot of beer. A rent a crowd as it were, which made us instantly popular with the venues.”

“(Michael) I’d add Dinosaur Jr and the Pixies to the list Paul had, and possibly some other Australian bands like God, Bored, The Throwaways and Venom P. Stinger. We were all aware of Bleach around the time we formed too, and a lot of other post hardcore stuff from 88/89.”

“(Mark) There were a lot of very good bands around Melbourne at that time, and a lot of places to play. It was a very unpretentious scene, there was not a lot of fashion bullshit. If you were good people came to see you. I have no doubt the best live music on the planet at that time was in Melbourne, not that we realised it then. You could go see the Powder Monkeys in a small pub then cross the road and see Damaged, two of the best live bands that ever existed.”

Intriguingly, the band state they’ve still got material from their final studio sessions they never got around to releasing…Curious…The unknowns of music past; watch this space and check out The Guttersnipes over on Facebook; there’s a lot going on in Melbourne.

For the record, here are the other three Australia tour posters I could locate:

Nirvana_Australia_Grouped

This week I’ve been thinking about the bands who triumphed in the grunge wave. Essentially it was Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Hole who made it through before the door closed but the latter three bands have all had to deal in some way with the primacy and power of the first. It was only Hole, however, who deliberately and/or naively bonded their own efforts to that of Nirvana, the other two carved their own path and were unwillingly subjugated to the storyline of Nirvana as the uber-grunge band and the unwilling mainstream rockers.

The issue with Hole was always the same; Hole were whatever the underground zeitgeist said they should be but never at the right time. Their early recordings positioned them in the lineage of avant-rock/noise-rock bands with prominent female members (think Lydia Lunch, think Kim Gordon), but their high point, Live Through This, moved them into the alternative rock domain shared by their lead singer’s husband’s band, while their post-grunge album sidled ever closer to straight ahead shiny hard rock. The real flaw, however, was that they were permanently poor at hitting that zeitgeist at its peak potential. In their first incarnation they were too late for the Eighties noise-rock scene, the next wave of bands on the up were more closely embracing hard rock and the mainstream; Hole learnt and shifted focus but their 1994 identity (and the genuinely near perfect album they released in that guise) only hit at the moment when the grunge balloon was deflating; then in 1998 they went to the trouble of enlisting Smashing Pumpkins style rock just at the point where the Smashing Pumpkins were about to fall off into irrelevance – Hole were always one step too late.

Leaving aside questions around how much a role Nirvana/Kurt Cobain played in getting Hole signed to DGC, the more crucial component for this week’s discussion is that by becoming such a visible (and vocal) presence alongside Kurt Cobain, there was no way of separating from his achievements, from comparison to him and from a constant sharing of whatever limelight strayed their way. It’s another fair point of comparison that in the case of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, involvement with John totally obscured the fact that Yoko was a long established and significant presence in her own right within the avant garde art and music scenes. In the case of Courtney Love, she had paid her dues in various bands, learnt well, formed a quality band…And couldn’t ever speak of it without talk of ‘him.’

The merging of Kurt/Courtney/Hole was certainly something encouraged at the time; Courtney’s presence at Nirvana’s October 1992 Word of Mouth sessions, the partial-Hole presence at the January 1993 Brazil sessions, Courtney’s brief appearance at Pachyderm Studios in February 1993, Kurt joining Hole during their October 1993 recording sessions for Live Through This, Courtney’s presence at the MTV Unplugged show…They may have shared stages on only a few occasions but in terms of recording and making music it was Hole/Courtney all the way. Media appearances too changed, the Kurt/Courtney pairing was, from 1992, just as likely to appear in interview as any other combination of Nirvana (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/11/22/killing-nirvana-part-2/). It was this piece, speaking as a couple to those who broadcast and decide on the story, that turned Kurt and Courtney into a clichéd phrase and bonded them irrevocably in the public eye.

The years since the initial collapse of Hole have helped to reinforce this because Courtney’s musical inactivity led to her being known simply for being Courtney Love – the name always coming with the prefix/suffix “widow of Kurt Cobain/former wife of Kurt Cobain”. She’s lived her life since her late twenties as an appendage to a dead rock star. Just as Nirvana was, at its core, Kurt Cobain’s vehicle, Hole was Courtney’s and therefore, when she linked herself personally to him, it was impossible not to irrevocably tie the band to him too. It’s visible in the way the front cover of Hit So Hard, a documentary about Hole’s drummer, has a front cover where ‘Hole’ at the top and ‘Kurt Cobain’ at the bottom top and tail the list of key participants and where his name takes the most visible bottom-right corner position in huge letters.

While the bonding with Nirvana brought benefits – a lot of publicity and visibility that undoubtedly did play a role in influencing the bidding wars and high advances for Hole to join a major label – it meant ceding a degree of independence and it is that loss of freedom that is the ongoing fate of Hole; they’ll never be appreciated without reference to Nirvana, they’ll never be examined or remembered without a mention of Kurt Cobain, there’s no legacy of the band or place they’ve earned in rock history in which they’re not part of someone else’s story. That’s independent of having released three excellent albums one after the other.

It was remarkably indicative of the tight bond between Hole’s status circa 1994 and Kurt Cobain that Live Through This, an album that really did deserve its platinum sales and should be remembered as a triumph, came out on April 12, 1994. It therefore remains smudged in an indelible pall of crematoria smoke and psychic discomfort arising from his absent body. It’s how it should be, the band was bound to the fate of Kurt Cobain so the album by necessity should be stamped with his presence/absence. But for a band wanting to be recognised on its own merits this is the danger that results from riding the dominant storyline of an era; when it falls, so do you. Hole had sacrificed their own momentum to get a ride on the rocket to the top and it crashed down into the dirt before they had a chance to climb off and find their own way to stay aloft.

Hit so Hard

Tuesday we discussed Soundgarden, a band that was extracted from Seattle and inserted itself into the Californian alternative scene. Today we’re talking about Pearl Jam, a band that transplanted a California scene vocalist into a solidly Seattle band. In both cases, it wasn’t just Nirvana’s commercial success that impacted the trajectory and achievement of each band, it was the way Nirvana came to own a substantial part of the storyline of grunge and the North-West scene. With Soundgarden it was simply that the history of grunge became synonymous with the story of Nirvana so there was less space for a band that had left the grunge scene behind before Nirvana began their rise. With Pearl Jam their position became partly defined by the storyline announced by Nirvana’s leader himself.

The first time I listened to Pearl Jam must have been prior to July 1994 when I moved to Lincolnshire. A school friend, whose name quite escapes me now, was determined in his belief that Pearl Jam were Nirvana’s superior and lent me a double cassette bootleg of them live, I believe somewhere in Britain, sometime in the year/two years beforehand. I can still recall Even Flow making an impact, Jeremy, Alive…I remember nothing else; I stayed Nirvana side and we had an occasional play fight over the issue. Sometime between 1994 and 1998 someone lent me that collaboration with Neil Young the band did; I couldn’t take it. About ten years later I took a shot on the Rear View Mirror two CD greatest hits collection and traded it in having realised I liked the three songs mentioned earlier plus Spin the Black Circle. Yet this is a band I innately respect. They’ve walked a path away from fame and back into the underground, wilfully so and without regret. They’ve never let the twists of popular taste impact their specific musical inclination, a quality also present in Mudhoney. But, like Radiohead, they’re a band I can’t love, I can’t fall for.

Despite my personal tastes, however, and despite the plain (and well-attested) truth that Kurt Cobain didn’t like Pearl Jam, neither of those issues translates into genuinely believing Kurt’s more cruel statements about his rivals. Pearl Jam, again like Soundgarden, had extremely solid roots within grunge, far exceeding Kurt Cobain’s distant involvement; members of the band had helped initiate grunge via Green River, had been on the Deep Six compilation in 1986, on Sub Pop 200, were part of Mother Love Bone then the Temple of the Dog side-project – their credentials within grunge are impeccable and the primary influence they always claimed was fully paid-up awkward rocker Neil Young. Yet the way Kurt Cobain positioned them was as sell-outs, phoneys and fakes. Heck, according to Jeff Ament, a lover of basketball, “Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love talked trash about the fact that I hooped” – the guy couldn’t even play sport without being seen as the enemy.

It’s certainly true that the breach in Green River emerged due to the desire of the future Pearl Jammers to pursue a major label deal and Pearl Jam dived onto Epic at the end of 1990 with unseemly haste – but being caught up in the wave of alternative rock signings that commenced in 1988-1989 and became a flood in 1990-1991 doesn’t make Pearl Jam any different from numerous others…Including Nirvana. It’s that single point of comparison that seems most crucial.

The bands Kurt Cobain took issue with, Pearl Jam and Guns n’ Roses, were used as the representatives of two specific types of enemy; the macho opposition (i.e., sexist, racist, homophobic hair metal rock dudes) and the internal traitor (i.e., those who would sell out or mimic alternative rock sounds or styles for profit.) It’s a duality that clearly stuck in his mind because in the liner notes to Incesticide it’s the same combination he uses when he vents at “ the threatened man…traitor women”. In the case of Pearl Jam, however, without particularly enjoying their music I can’t see any great sign of the individuals concerned having committed any greater compromise with the corporate rock behemoths than Nirvana themselves though I can certainly acknowledge that Cobain associated sport with the macho jock types he hated also and that some of that personal dislike bled over into his attitude to Pearl Jam. In fact, what’s most plain about the comparison is that both accusations, that Pearl Jam were just traditional mainstream rock and/or that they’d sold out or taken advantage of an indie movement, were accusations that could be levelled at Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain, on a regular basis, tended to state the negatives about his own work, about his band and so forth as a defensive mechanism so that no one could voice a criticism without him being able to shrug and say “I already said that.” Being fair though, he was in an exceptional situation, one he had reached it within an unbelievably short space of time in terms of the rise from borderline-poverty to superstardom. It’s understandable that he required defences and ways of protecting himself – most of us aren’t asked, having compromised ourselves knowingly or unknowingly, to then speak to representatives of the media every few days or to then have our contradictions repeated back to us for analysis.

His reaction was certainly exceptional, for all his negativity about individuals who had harmed him personally – ranging from parents, to schoolmates and onwards – picking verbal battles with other musicians wasn’t a common move for Cobain. What I believe we’re seeing in his treatment of Pearl Jam in particular (as well as Guns n’Roses) is Kurt displaying a very ordinary rhetorical trick used by people to shield themselves from damage. Regularly, when people wish to deny the moral ambiguities they themselves recognise in their day-to-day living, will construct a sentence along the lines of “well it’s not like I’m/we’re dealing drugs/murdering people/abusing kids…” By setting up an absurd comparison while turning the gaze outward toward someone or something else, they nullify the chance to intellectually engage with the accusation they feel is being made and also escape having to make any honest and revealing commentary on their actions – the irrelevance of that other entity’s actions to discussion of their own (commenting on someone else’s sin doesn’t make one’s own sin lesser) doesn’t stop people needing the protection it affords to their sense of self.

This decision to avoid questions about his own band’s decision to play the corporate rock game, the choice to point accusingly at another band and state that they weren’t playing it honestly or with respectable intentions, dragged in fans and media creating a low key inquisition in which allegiances had to be pledged and Pearl Jam’s success became open to questions about its legitimacy, questions that were rarely asked of bands outside of the Milli Vanilli/Vanilla Ice categories of musician. Kurt Cobain’s access to the media and ability to make a story was so powerful that even in Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary celebration releases there was a need to address the controversy, it had become so major a piece of Pearl Jam’s history – all thanks to the word of one man.

Did he come to recognise that he had illegitimately harmed others for selfish reasons? Possibly. The Pearl Jam 20 material does focus on the happy endings, on Kurt and Eddie Vedder slow-dancing at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, on Kurt and Eddie in interviews declaring their respect for one another, on Eddie’s April 8, 1994 statement about how crucial Kurt Cobain had been to the new generation of musicians and their fans – in another source Kurt stated plainly “I’m not going to do that anymore…It hurts Eddie and he’s a good guy…He didn’t ask for this.” At the least he did manage to separate his disdain for the band’s music from personal attacks on the individuals involved but, again, as in the case of Soundgarden, the importance of Nirvana and/or the word of Nirvana influenced another band and how they are remembered. Such power…

Just a brief mention, a very readable extract from the new Nirvana book recently out consisting of journalist Andy Bollen’s memories of associating with Nirvana across a tour:

http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/entertainment/music/music-news/nirvana-revealed-backstage-diaries-tell-1844620

I think it might be the first and only time I’ve ever read something from the Daily Record — from memory it’s pretty well a Scotland-only newspaper, not a topic I’m well-versed in though I will confess to owning every Oor Wullie / The Broons annual going back to 1985 thanks to very early parental introduction, they’re comic strips that appear in The Sunday Post, a Sunday paper published up there.
Anyways, here’s the U.K. Amazon link and I’m sure I saw people discussing the book over at LiveNirvana, always a solid source for Nirvana fan commentary and knowledge:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nirvana-Tour-Diary-Andy-Bollen/dp/1857828755/

I haven’t ordered a copy yet but, reading the extract, I immediately prefer it to the, at times, self-aggrandisement of the Everett True volume which was certainly worth a deep read. This is the third tour volume on Nirvana if Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana. Alternatively, if the Eric Erlandson and Krist Novoselic volumes are included then it’s the fifth memoir…Oh, heck, forgot that one The Chosen Rejects, sixth in that case. More…?