Archive for June, 2014

This piece came to me via a gentleman called Shane Tutmarc – great-grandson of a gentleman who is both a significant part of music history AND of Seattle music history simultaneously, Paul Tutmarc (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tutmarc). It’s a quite dramatic reworking of Aneurysm on which he plays all the instruments. I think it’s a brilliant move the way the song commences with what sounds like an old school blues rhythm, the kinda thing Jessica Rabbit might croon over only to open it up rapidly to a far tenser and uncomfortable build made up first of just an omninous bass, then the minor key strings before eventually roaring into the Aneurysm chorus which, despite the lighter tone of the backing, is impossible to detach from the surrounding creepy elements. Stabbing piano keys and the rising strings give that sense that a climax is being reached, it’s the point where the axe might come through the door or the shadow is traced on the shower curtain.

The treated vocals continue this uncanniness. I wondered at first if it was a remix of Cobain’s own vocals but recognise now it isn’t. The uncanny, a core horror concept (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny) is centred on the idea of things that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar which is why the subtle deviation from the original vocals is such an effective touch.

Aneurysm was built on rock and roll cliches (“come on over and do the twist,” “love you so much,” etc.) but the cleverest touch was the way it then warped each one (“…overdo it and have a fit,” “…it makes me sick…”) turning it into a joke, a refusal, a sardonic parody. The song’s other great strength (I think it’s one of Cobain’s finest lyrical efforts) is the way it turns every emotional statement into a physical symptom – whether love meaning he brings up his guts, keeps his heart pumping – and each act into a biological concept – dancing leads to a epileptic episode, even the use of the cliche “shoot the shit” looks deliberate given it ends with the human physical output – shit. For such a short, mantra like and repetitious song, it was clogged with cleverness. As has been pointed out a million times, yes, the ‘she’ of the song and an awful lot of the phrasing could be considered as heroin references. This kinda multi-layered composition, conducted in a song with really only six different lines to it, is a great case for Cobain was an astronomically good writer.

This revision of the song is remarkably true to the original in these respects. Stripping it even further to a smaller cluster of repetitions is effective. Altering the voice remains true to the sense of human physicality derailed. Also, while Cobain’s lyrics walked a careful line between rock n’ roll cliche and impassioned believer statements – this song does it musically. The musical choices shift between night club tunes and modern ecstasy while soundtracking an uncomfortable tale of heroin, physical collapse, love and discomfort. The video is crucial here, this isn’t just a film soundtrack, but the film and the interpretation are so well integrated – the film brings the physical concept to the fore, it brings the ‘horror’ element to the fore, it has a physicality that a cartoon or modern CGI effort couldn’t match – the jerky quality of this work benefits the overall unsettled emotion and bodies.

I think musically it’s managed the impressive feat of taking the song in an apparently fundamentally different direction while remaining surprisingly true to the original warping of potentially traditional themes; visually it’s hammered in the crucial kinetic element of the original; and Shane’s managed – overall – to combine the elements present in a remarkably strong way where each reinforces and is mutually dependent on the others to create the overall effect. Impressive.

Anyways, enough of my prattling. Shane kindly gave me some time to describe a little more of his work and what was done here so I’ll let him speak for himself:

“I come from a very musical family going back to my great-grandfather, Paul Tutmarc, who has been credited with inventing the electric guitar. His son, my grandfather Bud Tutmarc, was a well-known Hawaiian Steel Guitar player, and both my parents played music around the house growing up. My favorite movie in kindergarten was Amadeus, so music was always a big part of my life. I remember singing melodies to my mom around that age to have her notate on sheet music so she could play it back to me. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making some sort of music. After discovering Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, I immediately started a band. There was something about Kurt’s music and attitude that made me feel I could do it too. Looking back, I feel so lucky that I was able to grow up in Seattle during that pivotal time in music.

I’ve explored so many different avenues over the years, and each release becomes the “highlight” of each era. From 2001 – 2005, I released five experimental pop records under the moniker Dolour. After a short sabbatical from music, I dug into American roots, country and blues, with Shane Tutmarc & the Traveling Mercies, releasing two albums back-to-back. I went even further down that path with my first solo album, Shouting At A Silent Sky in 2009. Since moving to Nashville in 2010 I’ve worked on a number of projects, including last year’s trio of covers, which includes Aneurysm. I wanted to choose a song that was slightly off the beaten path. I’ve always loved the tongue-in-cheek humor in the lyrics, “Come on over and do the twist,” and the very-Cobain line, “I love you so much it makes me sick.” I started messing around with the arrangement using only midi sounds. There are no real instruments on the recording. The intro has a very Twin Peaks vibe. I was re-watching the show at the time, and the soundtrack definitely crept into the arrangement. And I went with a sort of Michael Jackson Thriller groove on the verses. I made the connection with the background vocals being “beat it, beat it.” Growing up in Seattle, people rarely covered Nirvana songs, it felt too sacred, or it carried too much baggage. But with this cover, it was a joy to take the song completely out of its original context, and reintroduce it in a fresh way.

I don’t remember how I first saw the short film, I used to work at a record store and was always taking home weird art DVDs, and that’s probably where I first came across it. In any case, I remembered it once I had the song finished, and I tracked it down again, and it was a perfect fit. It reminded me a lot of Kurt’s style of art, like the Incestiside album cover.

I sent the video to my brother, with extensive notes of where to make the cuts, and I’m really happy with what we ended up with. My brother Brandon and I have always collaborated. He’s been involved with my web and design projects since my early days with Dolour. He did the artwork for Dolour’s 3rd album, New Old Friends, and has had a hand in every project I’ve done since then. He’s just so fast and easy to work with. I’m sure it helps that we know each other so well, and know the same references. You can see more of his work at his website:

http://www.brandontutmarc.com

Living in such an active music city as Nashville, I’ve been able to get involved in so many different areas of music – from playing shows, co-writing, producing other artists, playing with other artists, etc. Currently I’m finishing up producing a record for Tanya Montana Coe, which should be released later this year. And I plan to start recording a new album of my own in the next month.
To keep up with me, check:

http://www.facebook.com/ShaneTutmarc
http://www.shanetutmarc.com

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/24/kurt-cobain-desperate-for-fame-says-courtney-love

I thought of this title a long while back when someone raised the point that they felt I was morally compromised because I had written a book about Nirvana and sold it rather than releasing my ideas for free. J’accuse was the title of a letter by Emile Zola – it’s become a fun cliche, note the release J’accuse Ted Hughes by Sonic Youth – it simply means, “I accuse.” Today’s piece is about the topic of compromise which, I feel, has always been a part of the Nirvana story.

Dealing first, in brief, with my opinion on Kurt Cobain; did he compromise for commercial reasons? Answer; of course he did. The issue is that people tend to read backward from the consequences to the initial decision as if he could foresee the future – the millionaire status, the trophy wife, the media attention, the $200K pay cheque for a single date in Buenos Aires, the ability to pick and choose video collaborators for short and long form efforts, the record label kowtowing to his demands, the ability to promote his friends and get them on MTV…

It’s unreasonable, it’s projecting clairvoyance onto an individual who couldn’t possibly foresee what was to come. One could add up Kurt Cobain’s decisions and claim he was always doing whatever was required to make money; copying the Melvins – the only local success he knew, changing the sound of Nirvana between the January 1988 effort and the more straight-forward grunge songs he wrote once Sub Pop were involved because that’s what Sub Pop had an audience for and would promote, letting Sub Pop choose the running order of the band’s first album, asking Steve Fisk for a “top 40” drum sound in the April 1990 recording session, writing verse-chorus-verse pop punk songs from mid-1990 onward with a strong debt owed to the Pixies who had recently achieved indie success, barely swearing on the Nevermind album, permitting an MTV-friendly corporate rock video to support his big hit, mellowing out a couple moments of In Utero, accepting MTV invitations left-right-and-centre…

…But, then again, you could also say that he stayed true to punk rock’s sound which in the mid-Eighties through the early Nineties was still an underground phenomenon in America with no commercial prospects at all, that Nirvana made almost no money from playing music until at least late 1989, that featuring a song on Sub Pop 200 made them no cash, that Love Buzz/Big Cheese being a limited edition meant the band received little money, that as late as early 1991 Cobain sat at a gig in Canada autographing lighters and sold them for a dollar each because he was so poor, that he was living in a car in mid/late 1991, that whether he ate or not on a day was a matter of chance, that he dumpster-dived for clothing…That it wasn’t a case of needless profit, it was just about surviving.

That context is vital because decisions that, in retrospect, enabled Nirvana to become a multi-million selling phenomenon were made by a guy with next to no money, no imaginable chance of becoming a star, making a type of music that had never hit it big even if it had gained notoriety. He did want to live off his music, he made decisions accordingly, but what he was hoping for wasn’t a ‘mansion in the hills’ and infinite fame, it was more like escaping “this piss-stained mattress I’ve been sleeping on.”

The desire for elevation, in a capitalist society, does tend to come down to money – it’s the chosen medium of exchange permitting the acquisition and access to most experiences and human requirements. Everyone is required to make a compromise with money – to earn a living. This doesn’t mean everyone is automatically innocent though. There is still the question of whether one’s monetary gains are being made at the expense of other human beings and through moral corruption – if so, sorry, yep, it does make you a bad person. It also raises the more pertinent question of intention – was a decision made for the primary reason of profit and is that profit motivation clear in the end result?

Nevermind remains the crux of the topic; it was a commercial sounding record, they wanted to sell and for it to sell well – the end product is clearly motivated by acquiescence to the profit-related desires of record company and band. Saying that the band only expected to sell tens of thousands or maybe a couple hundred thousand doesn’t void the nature of the decision being taken – it doesn’t make it innocent nor does it make it a non-profit driven decision even if the scale of the profit imagined was the merest fraction of what ended up occuring. This is inspite of acknowledging that Cobain wanted to indulge his pop-orientated instincts, the hard rock side of his tastes – it wasn’t just a personal artistic statement, it was a deliberate product. The kicker though is that it was a decision clearly about surviving not about making egregious profit for the sake of it – it wasn’t Dr Dre sitting on his millions then making yet more millions from a team up with Apple, it was a poor starving boy hoping for some small recognition and good reviews and a continued chance to play and record on a label that could afford to pay its artists. Sub Pop’s finances were a disaster area.

That’s why I don’t worry too much when I see these articles about Cobain’s commercial instincts; someone in lowly straits taking sensible decisions when opportunity was offered – I don’t expect utter purity, I’m too old to believe in it. The only uncompromised music is that which stays in the bottom drawer of a desk at home, never played for an audience, never placed in anyone’s hands – as a music consumer I’m clearly content to make the deal that someone’s work is worth my money. Complicit, yep – compromised, yep.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/04/ebooks-discounts-98-publishers-closure

This brings me to my own compromise. I’ll keep it brief. In essence, it was suggested that by writing and selling a book about Nirvana I was exploiting Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Actually, it’s not an insult, it’s a perfectly valid hypothesis – pretty reasonable to suggest it or to believe it, it’s on an individual to define their terms and where they draw the lines, I can only explain and explore my own reasons for feeling that I’ve done no such thing.

Firstly, I did choose to write a book about Nirvana through any commercial motivation – I wrote a book about Nirvana because I love Nirvana, I’m a fan first, a writer second. I chose to write a book because writing is my only real talent or ability on the creative front – I’m not much of a musician, I’m no artist. So the decision to express my enjoyment of Nirvana in book form was similarly not a commercial choice.

Second, ah…But I did place a price on the book and sell it rather than giving it away for free or simply placing my thoughts on free fan forums – this is a far more solid criticism, for sure! The fact that I’ve placed 400,000 words, 350 articles here, a couple hundred graphics all on here for fans and for free doesn’t void or even mitigate the compromise. Just because someone does something good doesn’t impact on how bad the bad things they do are. Similarly, I work a full day job at a corporate organisation, I do 12-16 hours work and commute per day…And THEN, since February 2012, I’ve also done 4-5 hours of Nirvana writing, Nirvana spreadsheet work, Nirvana analysis night after night for a total of 20-30 hours a week for around 125+ weeks now. Still, all that work does not entitle me to be re-paid nor does it mitigate the fact I decided to make a commercial product. Both these points, hopefully, show my commitment to the subject, show that I’m certainly not “exploiting Nirvana for gain” as much as I am “showing my love for Nirvana and desire to share that love” – but it doesn’t remove the question mark, that I am indeed taking payment for a Nirvana-related product.

So, this leads to the next question, is it legitimate for anyone to do something that has the name of Nirvana on it and that someone might pay for? Well, on this point, if you believe the answer is “only Kurt Cobain plus the members of the band” – fair enough but it means defining all paid commentary, all biographies, all music criticism by journalists or writers as illegitimate. I’m not sure about you but I hate the idea of a world where self-serving PR pieces from musicians and their management were the only ways in which one understood or explored them – seems to be enough of that already. I’m happy with the idea that public topics can be explored publically by individuals observing but not participating in the subject of the discussion – someone else can make a different choice. What makes the difference, I feel, would be the difference between (a) putting the name Nirvana on something to make it sell more, versus (b) putting the name Nirvana on something because that’s the topic under discussion and the discussion is taking place for a non-commercial reason. I did not place the name Nirvana on the book, undertake the writing of the book, for any profit-related motive and I did not make the book about Nirvana because of any commercial reason – I did it because I love Nirvana.

But still…Compromised. So…I put a price on the book – I paid the production costs and hoped to re-coup them. I printed a first 100 copies and gave away twenty-five to various helpers and supporters. The maximum revenue was £750. The cost of production was £400 – thus a profit of around £350 was the maximum expectation. Did I expect to sell all the books? I had no idea. So was I doing it for profit? No, I wanted to write the book and did so anyway independent of what might then happen to it. Could I have given it away for free? Actually yes, I could have shouldered the £400 cost and it would have hurt but…Yes. I chose not to. This is where personal pride comes in – not profit, but pride.

I feel that free work is not regarded with the same respect as stuff one pays for – in a capitalist society, despite lipservice to the innate value of things, a price is deemed to be a mark of quality. I didn’t think twice about deciding that I felt my analysis of Nirvana in Dark Slivers was worth paying ten pounds for – my feeling was that if someone loved the topic of Nirvana but didn’t think my work was worth paying even £10 for…Then that was their choice but I felt that it was a good deal. I didn’t say to myself “I will charge a rate to recoup the hours spent on the book,” impossible – I spent far more time on the book than I could possibly make back. My feeling is that someone bought the book not just because it was about Nirvana but because of an interest in my thoughts and ideas and the work I had conducted. I did want to cover the production costs of a physical book – I wanted to hold a book in my hands, entirely selfishly I wanted to have a physical book as a result of my labours, not just some e-book whatever.

Those were my drives; to write a book, to write about something I loved, to hold the result in my hands and to feel darn good about it. I did!! And it was a bloody honour that a few hundred people felt the result was worth paying something for. Compromised? Yes. And it’s up to you, the reader, the viewer, to decide if the book was worth it or if you felt it wasn’t either (a) a valid discussion of Nirvana (b) decent writing and analysis. Worth ten pounds to find out? Definitely a choice I leave to you! 🙂

The topic came up when I criticised the “Who Killed Kurt Cobain?” / “Love and Death” authors for being motivated by profit. Actually, I should retract that criticism. As journalists they were motivated by a good story – a story worth exploring and it definitely was a good topic. Do I feel they did it for love of Kurt Cobain or a desire to “tell the truth”? Nope. Do I feel they did it because it was a good subject for a book? Yep. Do I think they knew in advance that they could get a book deal from the controversy? Yeah. The compromise doesn’t make them unworthy reads or bad books but I don’t think they were books written in support of Nirvana or Cobain.

I don’t believe in the nihilistic idea that everyone is guilty so it doesn’t matter what one does. I believe that everyone is compromised and it does matter what one does – one chooses the compromises; confess, own them, be honest about them. I’m compromised and I’m delighted that the end result was a work I was and am proud of! Yay!

Gosh, has it really been a month since I was working on this? Darn…Sorry…Sorry…

A diversion today though, wanted to look at Melvins’ Houdini record. I’d always noticed that commentary on Cobain’s involvement with the album is focused on his role/non-role on the production side with barely a mention made of the part he played as a musician on the release. I couldn’t help but want to satisfy my curiosity by grabbing a copy of the album and finding out why…

…Oh dear…It’s pretty obvious. The real story of Houdini, the real fun and drama, come from discussing the record company’s cynical behaviour – their determination to have the name ‘Kurt Cobain’ written on the record by any means necessary and to see if Melvins’ association with Nirvana could be turned, at the peak of Nirvana’s fame, into success for their own artist. I’d have to admit though that a lot of albums never make money I can understand a label executive wanting to exploit the very clear and visible connection between their ‘token grunge band’ and the world’s biggest group – it’s logical, it’s sensible, it’s helpful. Melvins’ status at the time is also fascinating, this was a pretty drug-addled time and examining the album, it’s not bad but there’s definite filler compared to their most glorious excursions. Thing is, for Cobain’s name to be exploited in this way he had to agree to it – his instinct to support his friends, coupled with the fact that it’s fair to say that in the early days he’d made use of his Melvins’ connections and owed them to some extent for early breaks, meant he was happy to involve himself despite there being no apparent evidence of him being interested before in the mechanics of recording beyond asking for a particular sound and a producer fulfilling the desire as best they could. Similarly the mood is visible in the way the relationship between Melvins and the production staff broke down a touch, you can see it in the way that Jonathan Burnside – an experienced producer who’d worked on several other Melvins’ albums and releases – was relegated to ‘engineer’ in the credits when it’s become very obvious that Cobain certainly was not producing in any active sense. Melvins also had to join in with the urge to use Cobain’s presence for commercial purposes. Buzz Osbourne has stated he wanted Cobain there for inspirational purposes and so forth – yeah? Let’s just check, Kurt Cobain had been a presence in the life of Melvins for some ten years by that point but suddenly he was wanted as a collaborator? Alas, hate to say it, but I think it’s more likely that just as Melvins’ arrival on a major label was tied directly to Nevermind’s explosion, the arrival of Cobain in an amorphous and vague role on Melvins’ first major label record was simply a knowing desire to try to keep the label happy and gain some commercial glitter. Nothing wrong with that, useful to have a rock star friend.

Did I say filler earlier? That’s where the Cobain contributions come in; Cobain is given a credit for playing on two songs – Spread Eagle Beagle and Sky Pup. What that involvement amounts to is participation in Melvins’ very own Moby Dick (a la Led Zeppelin.) Spread Eagle Beagle is a lengthy percussion piece that doesn’t feel the desire to go anywhere in a hurry. Lulls at about five minutes and ten minutes – where the drums give way to the light rumbling of what sounds like a steel sheet then the patter of drum sticks being rubbed – almost count as moments of tension simply because so little happens. I’m a fanatic for unusual noise records, for a certain quantity of extremity, but this doesn’t have the same momentum Melvins lent to something like their collaboration with Lustmord – it’s just ten minutes of relatively static thudding, little intricacy or drama. On live bootlegs of Nirvana sometimes you’ll hear for a few seconds the drummer warming up, clattering a few drums before the start of an actual song, just setting the beat and waiting for his comrades to join in…This feels like Melvins playing those few seconds ad infinitum, over and over, while everyone else is too busy nodding out to join in. It could be a joke – that they’ve tagged this nothingness onto the end of a real record in which case it’s a bit sad because Melvins have always managed to be whimsical, experimental, out for just trying things and seeing what might happen – without creating ‘nothing.’

There are several sources within the song. First, a drum kit keeping up a solid heavy thump in the middle, a consistent zing of bent metal that echoes accentuates or follows certain moments in the main rhythm, a separate and far lighter set of accents is being added by a separate drum kit occasionally echoing the main rhythm while a further piece of equipment producing something like the sound of a light switch or thin stick being hit on the edge of a drum – a whip sound – sometimes intervenes. The rhythm is fairly unvarying – the pauses give me the impression of active improvisors pausing to look one another in the eye before a change of direction…Except the direction doesn’t change. The ‘song’ pauses then simply proceeds in pretty much the same manner as it had been. There’s a change up at about six minutes in to a far denser drumming with each instrument gradually rising up for the next couple minutes and the pace picking up while still amounting to little more than a swifter clatter.

For evidence of Cobain’s continued collaborative or creative impulses in the 1993-1994 period Spread Eagle Beagle isn’t the place to go. It’s impossible to tell what contribution he made, there’s no way of teasing out a signature sound or anything identifiably Cobain-esque. In a way that’s perhaps what makes me smile widest because, if I was being generous and clever-clever, I’d suggest that the anonymity of Cobain’s presence is precisely the point. The album’s own merits were being overshadowed by the mere presence of an (unwilling) global superstar. Whatever Melvins did on the album, the label were far more concerned with just plastering Cobain’s name on it. Cobain himself undoubtedly knew that he was helping friends but simultaneously that he was being exploited due to his fame and that it wasn’t just ‘helping friends’, it was also supporting the label people suggesting and coaxing them into it…These are musicians, while most people simply say what they feel is wrong/right, musicians can comment via music, via performance. What Melvins create at the end of the album, was a graffitti track stating “yes, Kurt woz ‘ere” at the same time as it makes him completely invisible, a cipher, a name, nothing more. They’d erased him from the track even as they satisfied their bosses that they’d included him. Great! Doesn’t mean I necessarily am going to listen to the track often even if it potentially says much about the circumstances of the album. Buzz Osbourne’s apparent resentment/irritation with Cobain’s posthumous status perhaps has roots in this kind of moment where Melvins’ own achievements are pushed to one side in favour of their friend’s commercial cachet. Understandably annoying.

So what of Sky Pup where Cobain was coaxed into handling a guitar? Hmm. Perhaps this feels disrespectful but in the songs four minute duration the usual heavyweight chug of Melvins at full pelt is stripped back to a pretty jazzy bass/drums duet which works neatly, but the guitar is missing in action. Oh, no wait! There it is. There’s a repeating sequence during the early minute or so of the song – I was aware that this was Cobain on a right-handed guitar with Buzz Osbourne manipulating the peddles but then it dissolves to a low-in-the-mix watery sounding diarrhea that eventually becomes nothing more than drain noises for the rest of the song matched against some vocal chokes and coughs and ad-libbed squarks. I was hoping to say more about it but there really isn’t anything there to comment on. Apparently Cobain handed the guitar back as rapidly as possible – there’s no indication that this was a live jam, it sounds like a recording of the guitar was mixed in later with the rest of the band playing over the top. I wouldn’t even be surprised if that introductory semi-riff was looped after the fact or if the same minute or two was reused throughout most of the song. There’s some kind of a solo from about 1.50 through around 2.30 then a skeletal 25 seconds in which the finger positions move back-and-forth a couple of times without achieving anything much. There’s a hint of Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol’s spindly moments at that point but it makes the latter Nirvana jam look like gold-dust by comparison (I really like Gallons I admit.)

The most crucial reason that the two Cobain contributions stand out is simply that everything else on the album actually sounds like a Melvins’ song. This is a cohesive and coherent album if one erases Sky Pup and deletes the ten minute marathon finale. That final track simply feels like a band low on inspiration needing to get the song up to some kinda contractually mandated run-time though, in tone, it at least feels consistent with the album as a whole. Sky Pup is a mid-album interlude adding neither a pause for breath nor an intriguing switch to leftfield – it doesn’t sound like it belongs on the same album as the other tracks. It’s a remarkable commentary really – to make the interloper stand out so prominently on the album that it’s clearly the thing that simply didn’t fit into what the Melvins were doing with the Houdini album prior to the intervention of major labels and the potential cash bonanza.

Anyways, a good album…If one deletes Sky Pup and Spread Eagle Beagle.