Archive for April, 2015

Times change.

Sure, some artists will always have a place in musical histories – but that’s not the same as giving them a vibrant posthumous life. This is a simple consequence of life; musical tastes change as generations succeed one another. The greatest shifts in music in the past half century were the handover of the baton from classical to jazz, from jazz to rock, from rock to hip hop/R n’ B/urban (I’ve long since lost track of what to call it.) Sat in a darkened cinema that seats perhaps fifty people, seeing there were still seats for “Montage of Heck” free – it certainly reminded me that Nirvana weren’t as big a force in the U.K. as they were in the U.S. and that Cobain’s enduring appeal isn’t as total as it might seem among fan circles.

Nirvana circles are constantly caught between a number of kneejerk reactions that can be read in the comments sections beneath most articles online; firstly, “can’t we stop exploiting the guy? Isn’t this done? Can’t he rest in peace? Do they have to keep pumping out new material when only the three albums plus Incesticide are essential?” The second, “why aren’t they releasing X known archive recording? Where is the official release of Y? Can’t the record label get it together and put Z out after all these years?” It’s a feast or famine narrative; one part of the audience has had enough, one part wants more. Someone somewhere has to arbitrate between these two audience segments and ensure the conversation keeps going if a legacy is to be supported.

Before that, there’s a basic legal decision to be made. Many fans get caught up in the acquisitive urge – the idea that a creative individual’s works ‘belong’ to the audience rather than to the family, friends and loved ones of that individual. It’s usually couched in the language of freedom (the same way conservatives couch the withdrawal of government support for the needy as a way of giving those people freedom) when I’d have to say the idea of stripping an individual of any rights to define the inheritance they leave to others, or of stripping those others of any right to benefit, seems unjustifiable. The individual’s will is always the first step same as for a house or any other property. Next the family claim wherever rights aren’t owned by third parties (record companies, publishing companies, management companies, etc. all of whom have paid an artist – and had their payment accepted – for a particular component of the rights over the works under discussion) There’s nothing to stop fan communities bidding for such rights and purchasing them of course but in the meantime the rights are defined by these agreements. Those stakeholders need to decide what they wish to do – do they even want the work involved in managing a legacy when posthumous rights are such amorphous and difficult legal constructs?

Many personal wills and inheritances are disputed or leave various parties dissatisfied – imagine how much more complicated this is when the inheritance under discussion consists of business rights, commercial shares, ongoing financial relationships rather than simply a house and its contents. The aftermath of the Sex Pistols, of the Beatles, of Elvis, of Hendrix – all were beset by years of legal wrangling before a cleaner approach could emerge without a fudge of arguments, writs and protests swamping the positive celebration of someone’s work. The resolution of this overhang of business seems to be crucial – in the case of Nirvana it caused a cessation of releases from the time of “From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah” in 1996 until the greatest hits and “You Know You’re Right” in 2002. The legal bedrock needs to be solid before a legacy can begin to address what fans want.

At this point – if a memory isn’t to fade – new material, new content, new information is needed and it needs to spark several reactions; newcomers who haven’t experienced the artist need to be provoked into being curious enough to learn about them or hear them; people who grew bored of them need to want to pick them up again; those who remain devoted need the least work really but still need to feel simultaneously interested and like there’s more to come. Flooding a market with product lessens the impact, creates over-familiarity, achieves little additional benefit for all the extra cost and effort involved – it’s a waste. It’s also inhuman, it takes no account of the fact that hearing a new live recording every couple years might remind one of what one loved about a band but hearing 100 live takes of the same song all at once just provokes disinterest. Releases must be managed to ensure warmth of feeling persists, that continued fandom is rewarded regularly, that interest is staggered to catch new age groups, that boredom and over-saturation doesn’t set in.

Legitimacy is also crucial. Elvis Presley’s reputation suffered mightily during his lifetime from cheap budget releases and an over-proliferation of repetitive live recordings. It took time after his death to pause, restore respectability to the catalogue and the perceived ownership and to proceed from there. The legacy of Jimi Hendrix had a similar challenge; while the first few Hendrix archive releases were appreciated the decisions being made by the mid-Seventies to overdub and re-make tracks meant the authenticity of the resulting recordings was increasingly in doubt. Again, it took a substantial reset – the acquisition of rights to his music by Hendrix’s family, the setting up of Experience Hendrix – before the credibility of the catalogue returned. Interference with recordings isn’t such a challenge in the case of some musical sources; Michael Jackson’s catalogue is a fair example – his vocal is deemed the crucial requirement so updating the backing tracks, updating the collaborators, tweaking the sound is all deemed (within reason) acceptable.

Over-saturation is always an issue. Tupac Shakur’s vast archive of studio vocal tracks left rich pickings for his record label (Death Row) and the business his mother set-up to manage his affairs. The deluge that followed over the decade after his death, unfortunately, exhausted much good will; two disc compilations ever two years were so lengthy they were tiring to listen to and exposed a lack of differentiation or development that might have been less obvious with slimmer releases; the choices made musically often seemed to the detriment of Tupac’s impact; side-bar releases (a live record, two volumes of remixes, various unofficial compilations of early material, the movie soundtrack, reissues) created a jumble in which it was hard to feel any new release was notable or special. All this material failed to quell the call from some quarters for ‘the original tapes’ to be released, or the sense that there was yet more to come – the fanatics still wanted more long after most people had stopped looking. By the time the Tupac campaign shriveled down to one disc releases (the Eminem-helmed release, the soundtrack, one final Tupac disc overloaded with collaborations) it seemed to be a response to dwindling material of quality rather than a decision based on paying attention to audiences.

Joy Division went down a similar – though slightly different path starting at an earlier stage. A well curated leftovers release, “Still”, hit right back in 1981 – a fine record at a peak of interest in the band. While that would seem to be a best practice (look at Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York” to see this in action) the subsequent development of the band’s legacy fell short. This was based on regular issues of ‘half heard’ compilations with the odd bonus thrown in – then a truly excellent box-set (Heart and Soul) which unfortunately made subsequent archive efforts look threadbare. At least the live shows were worthy of interest but sound quality issues are a heavy factor given Joy Division never made it to vast acclaim (and vast live recording budgets) during their lifetime as a band. It’s been a disjointed process. That issue of a lack of material impacted the Notorious BIG’s posthumous records – ultimately the guy didn’t record enough music to sustain a legacy though both his main albums are remarkable. The “Born Again” release required padding out with collaborations to make anything of the slim pickings of his vocals – “Duets” was even worse – the “Greatest Hits” was fair enough then the film soundtrack added next to nothing. Each made money, none really burnished credentials. Maybe hip hop just moves too fast for a legacy to ever last long – that’s a different question however.

Every back catalogue ends up dealing with the question of eking out a dwindling supply of material. Often this results in claims of exploitation of fans who end up paying in order to get hold of one, two tracks. The thirtieth anniversary “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” reissues kept it simple; deluxe containing a good quality live show, super-deluxe containing some (fairly well known) demos plus the supposedly long-lost and recently rediscovered studio version of “Belsen Was a Gas” with Johnny Rotten on vocals, plus various other ephemera. After thirty years such limited means seems acceptable. At some point there has to be a projection of how long an artist’s critical cachet will last and therefore how to stagger releases. Being able to release new live recordings and demo dribbles forever might be possible but once there’s a bare handful bothering to listen there’s no point. This question would seem to emerge sooner rather than later in most cases; how long was it worth holding back Tupac’s music? How long is it worth holding back Kurt Cobain’s music?

In the case of the Beatles’ Anthology reissues there was at least a good portfolio of practices, warm-ups and early takes to refer to which satisfied fans. The challenge here, however, was that their legacy had been swamped in legal action for so long that there’d be next to no attempt to develop it properly – it all came too late at the tale end of too many re-parceled sets of known songs. Expectations had reached extreme levels meaning Anthology couldn’t fail to underwhelm even with the ‘reunion’ songs included – waiting for decades to discover scratch efforts, having to parse warmed over rock n’ roll or edited together takes of whatever…Whereas a gradual release of material over the years might have kept interest alive without wounding anticipation, what happened was too much all at once everything was over and done with between November 1995 and October 1996. It was a failure of scheduling that put too much attention on why leftovers stay leftovers when a gentler approach could have pleased many people.

Without careful bundling, quality and substance become crucial. The remastered Led Zeppelin issues were a triumph of modernity – a facelift on old friends. The extras included, however, were of limited interest and limited divergence from the known songs. Issuing songs with only one verse from Michael Jackson while foregrounding his name as if it’s still his record rather than a stitched up compilation ends up an embarrassing failure of honest and fair description which, again, wears down good will (and therefore potential buyers.)

Where does this leave us with the Nirvana legacy? Well, in my ‘umble opinion, the last decade has actually been a really effective performance and there is credit due to the various parties involved. Perhaps that’s a controversial perspective but let me explain further…

The MTV Unplugged album was a huge success – it’s outsold “In Utero” and has done much to mellow perceptions of Kurt Cobain, to open doors to his music that Nirvana’s noisier aesthetic hadn’t necessarily permitted. The rapid-fire timing made absolute sense. The next steps – issuing the last work Cobain had been really committed to (Live! Tonight! Sold Out!) in 1995 as well as the singles box in some countries kept interest alive and plugged a hole given Nirvana hadn’t issued a live record or a visual recording at that point. While From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah was unsatisfying to many fanatics who were already gorging on live bootlegs it did provide a rapid-fire retort to the softer image of Unplugged and did no harm. The pause for the next few years could have been a challenge except it meant Nirvana’s reappearance occurred as a new generation discovered the band (take a look at the performance of most great artists and note most have a wilderness phase then rediscovery based less on quality of fresh output and more on new audiences after the generation that needed to react against it’s predecessors has moved on).

The Greatest Hits had the ‘golden ticket’ in the form of You Know You’re Right – there had to be a greatest hits at some point, it was a sensible reentry point (or starting point for some bands) and there wasn’t much debate on the choices made. It did what it said on the tin. The box-set struck a decent middleground – known b-sides, a slew of true unknowns, home demos, different versions, the DVD element. While fans gripe about the sound quality on some choices, that better versions existed elsewhere, it was still an extensive and pretty comprehensive entry. After this point Nirvana fans have had something to look forward on what is normally a two year cycle with DVDs and live recordings filling the hole until the anniversary releases came out.

The doubling up of album anniversaries and DVD releases has prevented over-saturation because the visual and the audio components are such separate entities. Time has been left in the schedule for people to yearn for something fresh each time. I think Montage of Heck’s release in 2015, two years after the In Utero anniversary campaign fills an appropriate hole and – again – adopts a multi-channel approach which prevents it clogging fans up or confusing them regarding what to choose. It also provides a narrative that gives legitimacy to the issue of Cobain’s more shredded and non-commercial pieces – I think it’s a clever move that will help deflect criticisms of its ropey nature. It’ll be appreciated as part of an attempt to show Cobain in a flawed and naturalistic light rather than as simply “the next archive release.”

The anniversary releases were, again, comprehensive mashups of the live and studio material that remains related to “Nevermind” and “In Utero” – it’s a shame there wasn’t a deeper look at the “Bleach” era but that release was relatively low-key by comparison to its successors and was no embarrassment. There’s been good logic behind each release, the exclusions and repetitions were kept to a minimum, it’s clear why the combinations of material used were put there. While some have queried the mixing efforts, or the absence of one or t’other song, those are minor complaints when judged against the wholesale rewriting of history that happened to someone like Hendrix, or the massively unsatisfied desires of Beatles fans or Led Zeppelin fans, or the threadbare results of the BIG effort. It’s been respectful, regular, neither gluttonous feast nor bone-thin famine.

The only missteps really have been “Sliver” in 2005 – a fairly pointless rehash of the box-set which really was open to accusations of cash-grab given the tagging on of extras only a year after the majority of the release had already been seen – plus the “Icon” greatest hits set that no one can figure out why it’s out there. That’s not bad for a twenty year old legacy that’s put so much material into the public space.

Is there more? Why yes. That’s the crucial element – there’s got to be more to keep things going, to keep the excitement. So sure, I’d like to hear Fecal Matter, Sound City Sappy, whatever someday…But I’ll wait. So far I’m pretty confident it’ll come because so far there’s always been something in the pipeline. It’s smart commerce and smart management and compared to the treatment of many artist’s work posthumously I have few complaints.

June 30, 1989. Just a week into their first U.S. tour Nirvana lands in San Antonio, Texas, at a venue called Alfred’s. Every time I discuss what got me started writing the ‘I Found My Friends’ book I always come back to names that intrigued me back in February 2013 when I wrote a post about bands Nirvana shared stages with. Well, this show featured both Happy Dogs and the Swaziland White Band – both curious names that I wanted to learn more about. Ultimately I was lucky enough to hear from members of both bands and, in the former case, it was through the trust and support of Cynthia Bergen who arranged an interview with Jose Soria – former member of Happy Dogs and the subject of a film she was putting together called ‘Strange Places.’ It’s been intriguing learning of the creative collective Cynthia runs and wanting to know more I asked her if she might be willing to let me interview her for the blog…

For a start, we ran through what was coming from the team of which she’s a part – the sheer scale is kind of mind-boggling as is the diversity. “We’ve got a short horror film called ‘Delirium’ pending submission for film festivals…Then the feature film ‘Strange Places’ will complete production at the end of May 2015. There’s the ‘Underground Movement’ web series showcasing various artists, musicians and film-makers – plus the ‘No Sleep’ horror channel that director Isaac Rodriguez has got up and running. Around that there are two books on the way – firstly there’s the ‘Vintage Club Stories: Volume 1’ – that’s a short story collection for summer 2015. Next there’s ‘Dark Cloud’, we’re waiting to announce a release date there. I’m also a fire performer with ‘Nocturnal Sol’

Nocturnal Sol:

Cynthia: “I was a movie buff from a young age – I’ve a lot of memories of eating popcorn and watching movies with my family. Plus I started – fairly early in my teens – writing short stories, poetry, music and frequently going to the movies. So it is ironic that the interests I started off in my early youth would play a big factor in my life today. My first story, the one that actually started it all for my writing, was “Carolina Mansion”, which is still in progress. That was to be my first book and hopefully to be picked up by a publisher and production company. That would have satisfied me. My friend and editor at the time told me ‘I think we have something here,’ by which they meant a story that was worth telling and possibly a movie. But while writing ‘Carolina Mansion’ all of these other stories started popping up in my mind. The interesting thing is these stories were based on true events that I had experienced and vowed never to tell because I was ashamed. For example, ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’, is a story about racism and the hatred endured when I was visiting my German friend in Houston. This story turned out to be my first short film ‘Storm Within the Veins’, which received an Honorable Mention Award’ at the Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival held in Houston, Texas back in October 2012. Educators from a college took an interest in my work which led onto engagements speaking to students about both my writings and short films.”


I asked about the “Strange Places film too given its focus on an individual whose life and past experiences had brought me into contact with Cynthia via the topic of Nirvana.

Cynthia:  “A very good friend of mine, Jolene Blakely, introduced me to a couple; Jose Soria and Vicki Wyman.  Jose was a chef at The Friendly Spot’, a popular local ice house in Southtown, San Antonio.  Jolene’s work as a nurse has always given her a deep empathy for people and their personal experiences – Jolene would frequent ‘The Friendly Spot.’ Vicki would often be there waiting for Jose to finish work, they began to speak and ended up having so many conversations that Jolene gained a true understanding and feeling for the daily struggles the couple endured as black tar heroin users.   Jolene brought Jose and Vicki to my attention and, as a writer, I jumped at the opportunity to speak to them – whereupon I discover that they were a true goldmine of intriguing tales.  These first conversations evolved into a number of more formal interviews and eventually into a lengthier story based on the lifestyle their specific difficulty creates.  I have a section on my website called Hidden Artist where I decided to begin promoting Jose’s art work.  Meanwhile Jose began to list bands he’d performed with, plus those he’d hung out with across the years.  The list of bands…Wow…Nirvana, Happy Dogs, Faith No More, Joy of Pain-it just kept coming.  The couple really opened up about daily struggles alone with their 600.00 dollar a day drug use, and this is how Strange Places came about.  The name itself came from hearing the different areas of their bodies’ heroin addicts are forced to use when injecting their…Demons.  There are scenes in this movie that are going to leave you speechless.

Production-wise we started over a year ago but had to make some adjustments to the cast and crew, brought in some additional talent and just worked hard to ensure that everyone involved, shared the same vision.  The workload is pretty grueling at times but it’s become something to which everyone in the cast and crew (Aaron Martinez, Anthony Fountain, Jolene Blakely, Jesse Salazar III, Isaac Rodriguez, Gloria Bueno, Adam Alexander Ramirez) is devoted so we’re looking at completion date of June 2015.   My role…I think it’s all about the artist and the actors.  I see myself as a collector of creativity.  I’ve found my greatest happiness comes from discovering new talents and collaborating with them in new projects that give them exposure and that gives me the excitement I’m looking for.  I am also a member of ‘Geekdom’, its and organization that has all types of facilitators, people who can help-it’s all just there at your finger.”

Next I just enquired more broadly about what kept her going with what sounds like an incredible workload and so many creative directions. Cynthia started by pointing to the importance of a core.

Cynthia: “I run something called The Vintage Club – it started as an idea for something I was going to open with a friend, I owned the name for ten years but it never went ahead in that form…My motivation comes out in the word ‘Vintage’, from my love for original things – I saw it as a place for any form of music, art, creativity that had a story to tell, something deeper. So, the Vintage Club evolved into The Vintage Club Stories – a fuller idea, a new beginning for myself and hopefully a community with unlimited potential and unlimited expression for those who join us. It’s always been crucial to me, that there are artists, musicians, film makers – a family that believes in my work. What motivates me to continue is that drive for achievement and the will to express my life experiences in text. Positive feedback is always a plus!”


Delirium, Dir Isaac Rodriguez, Synopsis- While investigating a mysterious murder, detective David Freeman uncovers a long-buried secret that traps him in a world of terror. Available on No Sleep Channel Apr 6, 4015

Underground Movement, Dir Anthony Fountain- A series covering bands, artists, and filmmakers in San Antonio, TX, and surrounding areas.

No Sleep Channel, Dir Isaac Rodriguez – A web series of short horror films.

Vintage Club Club Stories:  Vol I, Writer Cynthia Bergen – A collection of Short Stories based on true events.

Dark Cloud (Book)Writer Cynthia Bergen – Classmate that I found out is fated to be incarcerated and later executed.  A story based on true events. Book coming in the fall.

You can find

…And I think you should too.

No, really. I can say, hand on heart, Montage of Heck is the best film about Kurt Cobain and the Nirvana phenomenon ever released. I did a quick sketch a month back summarizing other films on the topic and it’s safe to say there’s nothing like this out there ( There’s a strong echo of Live! Tonight! Sold Out! in the editing style that doesn’t seem accidental and I hope that sounds like a fair compliment; it looks like a video work Cobain himself helped put together. Gosh.

At the ICA in London the viewing was shown ‘at the director’s desired volume’ which made a real difference – I don’t think I’ve ever heard Nirvana material sound so good. The sheer intensity of the sound, often tipping right over into a whine of white noise, made the live footage feel as close as I can imagine is possible to being there. There’s a relentlessness about the sonic layer of the film, long sections clamp down on your hearing and won’t let go, whole spittle-flecked mad dog raging going on – then suddenly a sharp cut, or a switch to a single voice, numerous moments where the near silence becomes equally hard-edged and intriguing. Again, that surge and mute approach seems very ‘Nirvana’ – a fair indication of the deep attentiveness paid to all aspects of this film.

The talking heads aspect of the film is actually kept exceedingly brief – the conversations with Don Cobain, Kim Cobain, Wendy O’Connor, Krist Novoselic, Tracy Marander, Courtney Love are a way to add emphasis to key points, to flesh out various topics. I enjoyed listening to Jenny Cobain – she was a down-to-earth lady and I felt nothing but sympathy for the description she gave of this increasingly unruly (and even cruel) teenager. Don Cobain came across as a quiet man, at one point he seems to have tears in his eyes, but he can’t get words out – again, I can understand why he might be a difficult person to maintain a bond with. I was slightly creeped out noticing how similar Cobain’s mother and ex-wife look these days. Comments about the absence of Dave Grohl and so forth don’t really get the point – this isn’t an interview centred film. Most people are stripped down to a bare few sentences, each well-chosen. It means the words do stick in the mind. Wendy describing watching her son come home looking ever more destroyed by heroin was desperately sad. Novoselic’s emphasis and re-emphasis of how much Cobain hated being humiliated is a very powerfully made point.

There’s tight interweaving of key themes. Novoselic’s point about humiliation is then returned to in Love’s description of Cobain’s reaction to her ‘thinking about’ cheating on him, which in turn harks back to Cobain’s audio tape recounting an early sexual humiliation, which links to the present issues around masculinity and physicality that run through the tale. The family ‘issue’ is obviously core – it’s funny seeing the early footage of a Cobain family Christmas circa 1970 echoed in the Cobain family Christmas circa 1993. Each one positioned just before a collapse, a disaster. There’s a lot of skill involved in having a film appear to barrel along at this seemingly unhinged velocity while discreetly creating these connections.

It’s great how much of the ‘Nirvana story’ is let pass by-the-by. The big milestones are logged via imagery rather than dwelt on with wordy exposition – the film allows existing biographies (and the endless churn of articles year-after-year) fill that role while it focuses on showing Cobain himself changing and reacting. I’ve seen comments stating that x or y isn’t mentioned and should be – I didn’t notice. Tobi Vail maybe is the biggest absence but there’s so much of more interest going on that losing an on-off girlfriend from the mix didn’t strike me as a crucial or noteworthy flaw. Of far more interest was the film’s see-saw with Cobain’s family life and upbringing at one end of the movie – and Cobain’s family life and bringing up of his daughter at the other. While the stuff about Cobain’s childhood doesn’t add anything fresh to what is already known, the material focused on Frances Bean Cobain, Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain as a family unit is genuinely interesting because it’s perhaps the most detailed portrayal of that aspect of Cobain’s life ever seen. I’m not gooey about love and kids and so forth but there is something very sweet watching this young couple playing with one another, then watching them with their daughter too. I found it heart-warming and rather than feeling voyeuristic it stirred empathy and affection. Kudos! Like it! Watching Kurt, in bizarre drag, mimicking a letter Courtney reads out is both bizarre and funny – it’s also an indication of how connected the two seem to be, Cobain’s miming seems perfectly timed, Courtney’s words, his mouth. There are also plenty of moments where the physical similarity between the two is obvious, they’re very much alike.

The film certainly packs a punch the way watching any destructive path can be expected to. I did watch intently for the entire duration. The whirl of live footage, home movies, animations, cartoons, press interviews, studio footage, words on screen kept the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor. Notes of disquiet the film raised for me were that it quietly makes a very strong case for Cobain as poster-boy for mental health issues – the imagery taken from his artworks is almost entirely unpleasant, bloody, gynecological. Sure, most teens have a dark phase as they begin to expand their worldview and incorporate not just the fairy tales of youth but also the harsher sides of reality, but Cobain’s seems to extend throughout his rather short life. The well-known tale of his failure to sleep with a girl is disturbing not for the intertwining of suicide plans and sex, nor for the squeamish details of the girl’s unpleasant scent, but for the very fact that he took the time to perform the tale to tape – what for? Why? This endless self-documentation feels uncomfortable in itself. The early discussion of childhood hyperactivity and medication puts this theme front and centre, as does discussion of stomach issues and let alone the new theory raised about the reasons for Cobain’s suicide which – if true – does make him look manic. A few weeks ago I watched “Night Will Fall”, documentary film footage of the concentration camps (well worth a watch incidentally) and was shocked by the conjunction of images of skin-bone bodies being poured into pits then suddenly people walking or being held up, somehow still alive despite the seeming absence of any content to their emaciated bodies. There’s something brutal about the human body and in this film Cobain spends a lot of time half-naked and just looks so tiny. Beyond all the discussion – the statement from his diary claiming that he’d tried heroin ten times between 1987 and 1990 was a big addition to understanding of his use of chemicals (it looks unlikely that there’s a year from age 15 onward where he’s not on something frankly) – I felt the sight of his body made a silent case for there being something very wrong.

Wendy O’Connor’s sniping at Don Cobain – a man she hasn’t been married to in over three decades – did a neat job of undermining the ‘loving mum’ image, it’s probably the moment in which the problems in Cobain’s childhood stand out moststarkly; if this is the kind of spite and bile this lady can summon at this far remove, decades after the end of their marriage, it suggests the atmosphere in the house at the time must have been toxic. It made me feel infinite sympathy for Don Cobain who has received such harsh reviews from his son and others yet comes across more as chronically ill-equipped to deal with emotion rather than harsh or unpleasant. Already seen in the trailer, Wendy tells a tale of Cobain visiting in the autumn of 1991 and playing her a pre-release tape of “Nevermind” to which Wendy responds by warning Cobain that it’s going to make him a star (“better buckle up kid because you are not ready for this.”) I admit it still just didn’t ring true for me – one listen to “Nevermind” and his mum had the foresight to see he was about to become a runaway success…? I mean, fine, but Cobain himself still looked surprised and disarmed for the next few months after this supposed warning, it’s never mentioned by him in any interview, lots of people hearing that pre-release tape thought it was going to do well but I can’t recall anyone listening to it and thinking this was the next global smash in the making. It was clearly too good a story not to include but it’s one of the few moments where my immediate reaction inside the auditorium was to feel doubt about the honesty of what I was hearing.

I don’t have any time whatsoever for the murder theories that have circulated around Cobain/Love and seeing the couple together in this welter of home footage simply emphasised the unlikeliness of anything of that nature – yet, I’m not convinced of the new “Kurt felt I’d betrayed him just by thinking of cheating on him” tale. I mean, another one? Another tale…? I think I’m a bit jaded and fed up of fresh explanations. On the one hand, Love comes across as an intense being and it’s an intense topic she’s discussing so I can understand the bundle of hand activity she goes through when discussing it (cigarettes, water bottles, waves, etc.), on the other, not a clue what to make the tale. As a similar aside, Morgen has reiterated again and again that Love had no say in what went in the film – I certainly believe this is all his work but I have trouble believing any director would put this much footage of Courtney Love’s breasts on screen without any permission or sign-off of any sort. Frankly I can’t believe he’d leave himself that open to a lawsuit by not having worked out a very solid contract backing up what he could/couldn’t do with all this material prior to commencing the film. I really did get tired of seeing Courtney’s breasts by the way. This is not a sexy film though Cobain’s still photos of Courtney naked surrounded by flowers were remarkably beautiful.

Now…Do I have any criticisms? Well, yeah, I do. I’ll reemphasise that it is the finest film about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana ever made – it’s probably the only film I’d say is essential to the canon. Having said that, however, it isn’t “Senna.” The latter movie did an awesome job of bringing one closer to a genuinely likable individual, teased out the various threads of his being and life, had real zip to it, speed, momentum, fast motion. So a first difficulty here is that watching Cobain doesn’t make one ‘like’ Cobain particularly – he doesn’t come across as a particularly sympathetic character. In many ways its fascinating watching this much intimate and personal material yet feeling he’s still a closed book – the similarity between him and his father in this regard stood out for me. I think it’s a consequence of seeing someone who can talk about actions (“I planned to kill myself…I invited myself over to her house…I was grossed out so I left…”) but quite clearly has so much difficulty openly stating his feelings. There’s an intriguing match in the way that Jenny Cobain seems to do the talking for Don – then later there’s the sequence I mentioned where Courtney Love speaks for Kurt Cobain (which in itself points toward the way Courtney Love often spoke for Cobain in interviews and so forth.)

There are funny moments in the film, good lines, plus he’s a natural at playing with his baby – but, again, those moments where he comes across as amusing and quick-witted and self-depreciating are outweighed by the gory cartoons, the vicious one-liners, the harsh writing. The footage from MTV Unplugged toward the end is enjoyable and brings something new to this mix because he seems at ease and the wise-cracks are actually funny. This film doesn’t make the case for Cobain as a fun person to be around, it doesn’t focus much on him as someone concerned about supporting a wider musical community or particular social or political causes, it doesn’t show him as a friendly person…It’s not easy to warm to someone who is both distant and seemingly so self-centred.

“Senna” was also – by contrast – cut to the bone, whippet-fit. Morgen’s fandom is clear in that it seems he’s had great difficulty cutting things out. The film is overlong and it is over full – I’m a Nirvana fanatic and I still felt restless at points. The technique was usually to spend time advancing the plot, then suddenly there’d be a five-to-ten minute ‘drum solo’ in which imagery and sound was slung at the audience. It really was like watching a band suddenly derail a song with elongated solos. Once, maybe, a few times over the full span of the film, cool…But this was constant and began to feel more like a way to cram more clips in rather than a way to illustrate or expand on a theme or key point. If the film wanted to be less plot-orientated and more impressionistic then cool, that’s fine, but it’d still need to be a chunk shorter in that case. On that same point, just removing the over-familiar live footage, the pieces cribbed from Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, the well-known interview footage would have left a far more fighting-fit result. If the film is aimed at Nirvana novices then I’d understand the overload of totally non-exclusive material but not the way it assumes so much pre-knowledge on the part of the viewer. If the film is aimed at Nirvana fanatics then I’d understand the assumption of pre-knowledge but not the overload of well-known material. This isn’t a ‘huge’ criticism by the way, I just think it’d be a more effective film if it was shorter and if it was clearer in its intent; rare material junkies or novices?

Another point would be that I’m not sure I learnt anything particularly new. That’s fair enough really; the tale is well-known, well documented. Barring that realisation that I’d never seen such a good case made for Cobain as loving family man and talented child amuser – there’s nothing else that didn’t stick close to “Come as You Are”/”Heavier Than Heaven”. There was no revelation. Did I feel ‘closer to the real person’? Yep, in the sense that I thought “wow, so young…Wow, so thin…Wow, so fucked up…” at several points. Ultimately I think it’s a true and honest portrayal of the real person; sometimes funny, sometimes loving, sometimes intensely focused, sometimes vicious, sometimes defensive. Cool, all good. Again, this is a very minor criticism. I did like the way comment was made on the Vanity Fair piece and on the derailment of that Nirvana book in 1992 in a way that didn’t get stuck into who was right or wrong in each case. Not shying away from the worst sides of Cobain was an honest move. Watching the home movie footage in “Montage of Heck” ultimately made me think that I’m not surprised people told Lynn Hirschberg that there was something really grim about the way the Cobain couple were living – and it’s long since been shown that most of what she stated in the article was basically true with slight tweaks needed to dates and times. Fans have long debated the extent and depth of Cobain’s heroin addiction and I think “Montage of Heck” does leave little room for doubt that while Cobain’s addiction flexed and varied it was a pretty solid presence – almost everything in this film post-1991 looks a touch sordid even before Cobain seems to nod out during his child’s first haircut.

I’d been trying to consider what the film might look like to a non-Nirvana fan – could it be watched just casually? Could it be watched and enjoyed by a fan of documentaries in general rather than of this topic in particular? The answer is yes, it’s a good primer on the subject of Kurt Cobain and it’s worth a look…But I can’t imagine it being held up as a masterclass of documentary film making simply because of that excessive length, the flabbiness, the overuse of what are innovative techniques once, twice, even three times but not as often as here. There’s too much about it that wouldn’t be of interest if one wasn’t a fan – but it should deservedly receive a wide-viewing on its TV debut next month. It’ll reignite both the “Kurt was so beautiful”  and the “I don’t wanna support a junkie scumbag” viewpoints – both have ample support herein. I can’t imagine there’ll be many converts outside of the next generation of teenage angst-ers looking for an idol who looks and sounds like an angry seventeen year old throughout the entire film. I’m also delighted that the film didn’t go down the posthumous deification angle; that Tupac: Resurrection film was gross in how one-sided and ‘touched up’ its portrayal of the subject was. “Montage of Heck” most definitely does not make Cobain look glamorous, charming or delightful. It does make him look very damaged.

So there we have it. A solid piece of work, some beautifully imaginative directorial touches, a few shards of new Cobain music, a great insight into the life and times of the last rock icon, a more human portrayal than has yet been managed. On the other hand, I can see what the Guardian meant now when its critic Peter Bradshaw said he wanted to learn more about the music. I was hoping to see more about Kurt Cobain as artist and creative but instead – beyond emphasising that he worked hard and did an awful lot of drawing, writing and playing music – that whole area felt like a sidebar to its core concern which was to show Kurt Cobain reacting to family pre-Nirvana and to family-post-fame. Fine! It’s a good piece of work. Kudos Mr Morgen.

Just a couple of cheerful bits to share on a Friday. Firstly, was chuffed to receive some really great questions from Melissa in Austin who runs the ‘something witty’ blog – very clear she’d thought a lot about what might be more interesting than the average! They were fun to tackle too.

Next, a very pleasant conversation on KFLY Radio in Oregon with Carl Sundberg. Nice chatting to someone who was there back in the day, who knows some of the bands in the “I Found My Friends” book, who seems to be enjoying reliving old memories. Apologies I’m a bit muffled – even in the modern age conversations linked from Spain to the far U.S. west coast aren’t necessarily perfection.

Carl shared with me a comment he wrote about his feelings on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana – hope its OK to share with you:

“It wasn’t about how many scales he could play. All the fools who worked that angle never understood the real reason Nirvana spoke to a generation. Nirvana was the sound of the little punk that kept getting picked on finally standing up and swinging at the bully. And it was the sound of the KO…knocking that bastard out clean. It was the scream of the underdog. It was the beacon for the lost. The barbaric yawp heard across every rooftop. It was angry, cathartic and real. But it felt good. It felt righteous. It felt, necessary. It was the sound of winning. All of the nerds, the wimps, the losers and the weak, the sad and defeated, we could do this too. We could rise from our social trappings. We could make something from nothing. We didn’t need big hair and all the licks, the leather pants or the pyro. We just needed a few chords, some riffs and the Truth. We could scream our frustrations at the world, we could fight the Goliath…We Could Let Them Have It. But then, all of sudden, just like that, the Goliath rose again. And David fell by his own hand…and we all stood there, in disbelief, the shockwaves pulsing through the nation…Now, decades later, we have only some brief moments frozen in time.And most of us, we moved on, to middle and old age, with our boredoms and charades, our mortgages and credit cards, our thinning hairlines and expanding waist lines…we are different now, all of us. But will never forget the era when the Bullies were losing. If only for a little while.”

The book also featured in the Tacoma Weekly this week:

Plenty going on it seems…Nice…

Anyone remember this? It’s an interview in July 2014 with Courtney Love in which she discusses a planned biopic, a musical, her own book…And the rumoured Brett Morgen documentary on Cobain. Its a blitz of potential projects. It’s just a re-confirmation of statements Morgen made in January of 2013 – that ‘something’ was coming:

Come late November of 2014, the formal announcements begin:

Intriguing, however, the ‘Montage of Heck’ sound collage Cobain recorded back in the Eighties had become an Internet meme right at the start of the month ( This article attempted to dissect how/why a well-known and long-shared bootleg recording would suddenly spread like wildfire, crediting it to one site after another ‘accidentally’ stumbling upon the extant articles at LiveNirvana. To be honest, it doesn’t seem accidental. My suggestion would be either a newshound looking for news on ‘Montage of Heck’ (the documentary) stumbled upon ‘Montage of Heck’ the sound collage and decided to put it up – or, alternatively, that Brett Morgen and his team are very smart and seeded the music file to start circulating the news of the documentary, to start getting the name on radars, to kickoff the ensuing campaign.

And what a smart campaign its been too – genuine kudos. Modern news-cycles rely on regularly refreshed content – nothing stays on a front page for long. Morgen has managed to keep the documentary permanently on the front pages of music and non-music sites (as well as print media) for several months. The way its been achieved has been to maintain a regular drip-feed of event and/or fresh information – a gradual process of releasing a little more, a little more, a little more month-by-month without ever releasing everything in one vast lump.

So, there was a pre-premier interview round. Then the reviews of the Sundance premier. Next the post-Sundance follow-up interviews. Next came the announcement of the accompanying book. Then commentary on the involvement or otherwise of Dave Grohl. Next the announcement of the DVD and worldwide theatre showings. A plan to release ‘Montage of Heck’ (the collage) on Record Store Day came to nothing but would have been both attention-grabbing and lucrative given the sell-out performance of past Nirvana RSD releases (having stood in the queue for the Pennyroyal Tea single I can attest to that popularity.) Very late in the day came the announcement of a planned soundtrack with almost no associated details. A series of teasers have kept that release high on the rumour-mill – there’s still no information about what it includes bar murmurings about a ’12 minute Cobain track’, the fans have proven more than able to keep that wheel turning themselves. The release of the trailer then re-ignited the Internet and the film still isn’t on general release yet.

Apparently the soundtrack is imminent but even the release of the date is being withheld in order to make its announcement a ‘news event’ that’ll gobble up column inches. My personal belief is that the soundtrack is already complete and Morgen is simply keeping back the information for an appropriate time in order to keep the PR going. Superb work. There was a teaser a month or so ago on Twitter – photos from Morgen of untitled Cobain compositions on a screen and a comment about “working on a soundtrack”. That’s it so far.

Why all the secrecy and careful release of information? Well, let’s look at the potential audience. At the core are the fanatical Nirvana fans – they were always a given, always guaranteed to attend…But are as susceptible as any other crowd to getting excited, to the thrill of anticipation and delayed gratification. The slow burn has kept speculation high, as ensured word and rumour has spread among Nirvana fans. Less fanatical Nirvana fans can’t fail to be aware by now that this film is coming out – if even my classical music loving friend Dan is aware then everyone must know. Staying in the limelight long enough to expand the web of media contacts, to get top billing on every major music site has allowed Morgen to get interviewed by a substantial number of major publications spreading word among music fans in general. That’s the intriguing bit, how far beyond the fanatical core can interest be spread? It’s unclear. Pitches to film/documentary lovers that this is worthwhile viewing for people who aren’t Nirvana-savvy were part of the campaign as well as the ‘intimate access’ perspective aimed at the fan community.

The commercial structure of the campaign makes a lot of sense too. It isn’t cynical to say that Montage of Heck is aimed at the current dollar worth of the average Nirvana fan. Twenty years ago those fans were late teens/early twenties (with leeway on either side). Now, those same fans are in their thirties or breaching the forty mark, they have regular careers and income. Thus Montage of Heck isn’t just a documentary. It’s a TV showing (doubtlessly with substantial cash revenue courtesy of HBO) – it’s a worldwide theatre release (ticket revenue in multiple countries for limited dates) – it’s a DVD release – it’s an accompanying book – it’s a soundtrack. I have my tickets booked for Sunday, I nearly booked additional tickets for the Friday or Saturday – that’s already £24 for two tickets.

Next I’ll buy the DVD – £13 – plus the book – £20. So we’re up to £57 pounds now. Add on the soundtrack when it emerges – are we talking £10 or £15? Let’s split the difference – total expenditure; £69.50. That’s a lot of cash generated from a single buyer. The small core will ‘eat it up’ in pretty much this manner – do the math, multiply. That’s substantial revenue. Add on the more selective audiences who might wait for the DVD, or might browse the book. Add on those who go see it with friends or who can be persuaded by the fanatics. Saving the soundtrack for last makes absolute sense – each previous element across the next month acts as publicity and promotion for the music release and legitimises what might otherwise have been a difficult sell to the mainstream.

The ubiquity of coverage of Montage of Heck is a masterclass in layering up activity, news, actual material…Superb work. A credit to the team involved. I’ll certainly admit I’m hugely looking forward to it all. All of it. Morgen states he’s been working on the film for eight years – it shows in the detailed publicity campaign over a full six months (a rarity in the music release/music documentary world), it shows in the interlinked commercial releases targeting a relatively wealthy audience of music fans/buyers, it shows in Morgen’s caginess (the word used by a journalist who contacted me to describe his interview with Morgen) because Morgen knows giving away too much all at once will create gaps, space, absence in what has been a very consistent run in the news. Rather chuffed to get a mention in Pitchfork – and the critic clearly can’t stand me! Heh! Made me chuckle. He’s got it right though, the reason I wrote the book was to put other people’s voices first rather than my own so wanting more of them and less of me seems pretty reasonable. I’d have to say my desire was to get away from the same ol’ superstar voices ad infinitum, ultimately if one wants to know Krist Novoselic’s view on Cobain and Nirvana then there are several hundred interviews over the past twenty years providing that… It does put me in mind of the difficulty of wearing several hats. Am I a writer preparing a book on Nirvana? Am I a fan and hobbyist doing something because it amuses me? If the former, then the obsessiveness and the personal journey kinda stuff is irrelevant and distracting. If the latter, then why should a critic take it anymore seriously than any other garage project…? Being fair, to professional journalists and writers trying to make a living in an ever more difficult space, squeezed by the ever declining quantity of space provided to ‘culture’ in the mainstream media, working long years learning the theory and practice of their trade, it must be fairly galling having some amateur pop up and take a shot. I can imagine if I was busy pursuing my professional skills I’d look askance at someone popping up and trying to do it as a part-time activity… Criticism isn’t a bad thing – ultimately its fairly un-actionable, that’s the intriguing part. I’ll not be going back and re-writing the book to fit a critic’s views. All one can do is see if there’s a lesson or two, some ongoing reading or research to be done. But, like most things, one must close a lot of it off – both praise and criticism – and just do whatcha gon’ do. I saw someone the other week state “I wouldn’t be surprised if Courtney paid him to write this – same old myths about how Kurt was at the end,” while in the Pitchfork review the guy claims the book heaps abuse on her. Sheesh, I thought I’d minimised her presence because I was bored of her being such a strong part of Nirvana’s story…And I thought I’d decided not to use a lot of the unpleasant stories people told of her for that same reason. People are uncomfortable not just with multiple hats but with multiplied responses also. On the one hand, I think there’s something to be taken from the criticism, things I didn’t do, things I could do, things I’ll maybe use on the blog at some point. On the other hand, sure, there are aspects and elements I discount and believe are wrong and disbelieve. That’s life; you can’t be everyone’s friend all the time and you can’t be so open to their thoughts and feelings that one forgets ones own. So! Pitchfork did me a true honour by commenting on the book on their site – I mean, wow, I read Pitchfork every morning, it’s part of my daily routine. So to be mentioned there, for me, is a real pleasure. And the positives were nice to read also – the things that I wanted to do and that he says I did (even if he doesn’t like them!) 🙂 The crucial thing, for me, the reason I think it’s sound criticism, is that he commences with the key question; is a new book on Nirvana important? Does it add anything different thus validating the effort and energy? In this case, though he acknowledges what I did was a valid idea, he doesn’t like the execution and result – that’s an entirely reasonable position to take and I certainly would feel a heel chuntering about that.

In an interview for European broadcaster VPRO in late November 1991, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic explained:

Chris Novoselic (Krist): Yeah, I haven’t really come to grips with it yet. We’ve been in Europe ever since everything’s happened.

Dave Grohl: We haven’t been back to America since this whole thing’s blown up, so we really don’t know how insane it is over there yet.

In some ways these are odd statements. Nirvana returned to the U.S. in early September, were touring from the middle of that month right the way through to their homecoming show at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle on Thursday, October 31. The interview on Monday, November 25 in Amsterdam took place just over three weeks later. Had so much changed in just three weeks…?

The indications are that they did. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had been on the radio since August 27 – the band acknowledged it was getting a good reaction, that it was popular, that it was doing well. That wasn’t the same, however, as ubiquitous domination of the airwaves. The release of “Nevermind” followed early in the brief September tour but, again, it was doing better than expectation but it wasn’t – yet – crushing all before it. ‘Lift off’ was finally achieved with the video premier on September 29 on MTV’s 120 Minutes and its move to the Buzz Bin on MTV in the first week of October. That left barely three weeks for Grohl, Novoselic and Cobain to detect what was occurring before they departed the country once more.

What they could see happening was limited. The shows were all booked in larger club venues but still just clubs – all sell-outs, all crazy, but not packed stadium level attendances. From the stage there’d be no way of seeing that the band’s power had shifted in between the shows playing support to Dinosaur Jr back in June, through the larger European shows with Sonic Youth in August, now their own headlining shows in October.

In terms of press attention, likewise, there was certainly more of it – September/October was the heaviest attention Nirvana had ever seen with some 25 interviews (judged by the LiveNirvana Interview Archive) across those two months in the U.S. They were, of course, being invited on TV consistently for the first time (though these were not their first interview with a TV camera present) so the nature of the attention had also changed but while ratcheting up, it wasn’t yet madness. Europe, by contrast, sees 39 interviews in a little over a single four week period in November – sometimes 4-5 interviews in a single day.

Translating that increased attention into sales and star-level popularity…That’s another step altogether. The record label shipped a quantity of albums to retailers – they didn’t know what had happened until sales figures were returned to them so September sales wouldn’t be accurately reflected until well into October (at least.) This wasn’t an instantaneous process – information took time to flow in and to be recorded officially. So, increased attention and sell-out shows demonstrated to the band that they were doing well – but didn’t give them the total vision of what was happening. The media engagements were a means to an end – a necessary evil which Nirvana would increasingly lament from the end of the year onward, Cobain was already starting to turn down interviews by the time they left Europe. The interviews of September/October were mainly only visible as magazine covers and TV broadcasts in November – there was a delay in the band’s actions becoming omnipresent imagery.

“Nevermind” was certified Gold and Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America on Nov 27. The expectation that the album might achieved 200,000 in sales had been vastly exceeded in just ten weeks from Sept 23. The band’s awareness of this velocity consisted of their management telling them backstage before or after shows what new milestone had been reached. What does one say except “hey, cool…”? Nirvana, however, still needed to pay back their $287,000 advance to the record company before they would see royalties from those sales (See ‘Ownership of Nirvana’ post from 2013: That meant they were seeing performance revenue but it would be quite some time after before they saw royalties for record sales. The shows, at that point in time, were not increasing in size compared to months earlier – the spaces might be full but that didn’t mean vast new wealth reflecting their status, all it meant was more people failing to get in – it would be the Asia/Pacific tour of 1992 before venues were consistently scaled up to accommodate numbers in the many thousands.

The final issue is ‘momentum’. Hearing the album was meeting expectations in early October, hearing it was exceeding expectations by mid-October, hearing it was five times what the label and management had expected by late October…Nirvana’s limited visibility of the velocity of what was happening went hand-in-hand with being unable to see when it might subside. What distinguished “Nevermind” was that it continued to sell right the way through the next two years – 3 x multiplatinum by February 1992, 4 x multiplatinum by June 1992, 5 x multiplatinum by November 1993. That’s the difference between a satisfying, but temporary success versus an enduring triumph. Each week, throughout October and November, everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop and it never did.

Thus, I hope it’s clear why shell-shocked members of Nirvana might sit in an interview in late November with no idea what awaited them in the U.S. or what had truly occurred in their absence. They had been on the road and hadn’t seen the racks of magazine covers, hadn’t heard or seen the permanent rotation on U.S. radio or MTV, they had only a limited awareness of crowds wanting Nirvana tickets and unable to get them, and they certainly weren’t rich men just yet.

Why am I thinking of that this week? Well, people – very reasonably – ask me how “I Found My Friends” is going…Answer? I’ve no idea. Via Amazon I can access the Nielsen ratings which currently state ‘zero copies’ under the SOLD category. Meanwhile Amazon’s sales ranking shows this table:


Which is actually just a record of a book compared to other books – the book might only sell 20 copies a day but would move up the rankings if other books suddenly sold fewer than 20 or down the rankings if other books sold more than 20. Since March 24 it’s been ranked 20,000 – 60,000 – 5,000 – 15,000 and everywhere in-between. There’s no actual knowledge to be drawn from it.

Similarly, so far, media attention has – to a large extent – been non-spontaneous. That’s starting to change; 4-5 organisations have been in touch of their own accord, without prompting from me or the publisher, asking for review copies or interviews. That’s nice to see. Likewise, it’s tricky comparing activity to what might then occur; I’ve been on a couple of U.S. student radio stations, plus written two pieces for U.S. newspapers, seen the press release go up in a number of places…All of which is bloody good fun actually! But I’ve no idea whether it means the book is doing well or not. Likewise, books and music releases mainly do well in the moment – the massive triumphs have that momentum we spoke of earlier. I’ve no idea what momentum the book might have.

The main thing, ultimately, is I’m waiting to see what reviews say. I’m intrigued – I’m a grown man (nearly!) and can cope with measured criticism, all good. So far, it’s all been pretty positive, which is pleasing and I’m delighted that – so far – people who took part in the book are pleased with it…But I want to know more; are they happy? Are Nirvana fans like the crew at LiveNirvana chuffed with it? What do random Amazon users say? Will the magazine/newspaper reviews continue to be friendly…? I’m curious…How could I not be intrigued…? It’s a fun journey and its only week one. 😉