Archive for December, 2016

In the literary world, it’s normal that a sophisticated writer’s output is dissected to indicate the structural, time-specific and/or constant features underpinning what they do. The world of popular music, however, often falls prey to anti-intellectualism: a common kneejerk reaction claiming that any deeper consideration either neuters the emotive force of music (answer: no, it doesn’t) is inappropriate to the form (answer: no, it isn’t) or is purely imaginary unless confirmed by an artist’s own statements (answer: entire industries are built on helping people understand themselves better – why should a zone as full of flakes, oddballs and exceptional cases as music is be the sole arena of human life where people are all-knowing with regard to their actions?) It’s a bizarre reaction in many ways: to be unable to accept music on a physical, emotional and intellectual level whether at separate times and locations, or intermingled.

In the case of Cobain, the 500 posts created from November 2012 to December 2016; over a million words; hundreds of tables/charts/graphics; indicate I feel there’s more to his work than just re-treading soap opera style biographical detail. The starkest example I can offer is the way in which is song-writing notably changes between 1986 and 1994. As a Christmas post I decided to enjoy showing why I think Cobain is such a good writer and sustains deeper assessment.

Think of any singer you wish: compare Beck to Axl Rose; compare Nineties Wu Tang Clan to the hashtag disorientation of mid-2000s Lil Wayne; whatever you wish. Every performer of words has a voice. There are a range of options: first person, third person, the story, interior monologues, direct address to an unknown audience, emotional sensation versus external reportage…Regardless of whether the individual concerned is a seasoned professional who readily and methodically selects different voices at different times, or a from-the-gut lyricist working on pure instinct rather than any formulated conception of their art, lyrics require a mode regardless of thought or forethought.

Cobain is an excellent subject to study in this regard: a concise selection of song lyrics to consider – well under one hundred – showing development across a tight eight year span. Some songs recorded for the Fecal Matter demo at Easter 1986 may have been around a long while but without further evidence it’s pure conjecture. In my opinion, given how fast Cobain wrote, used and discarded songs 1986-1990 I doubt he was re-using leftovers from his early-to-mid teens. I’m ignoring the material on Montage of Heck simply because there’s no data about when/where it was created and most of it didn’t come even close to any sense of complete form. Feel free to consider it in light of this discussion.

In essence, there are three clearly distinguishable threads to Cobain’s lyric writing – and they change significantly in terms of their presence and importance within his portfolio.

The first, is the ‘story’ – defined as a narrative scene/experience played out across an entire song. This approach takes a lot of work: essentially it means writing a short story, in a relatively limited number of words, while making it work as a vocal piece. ‘Paper Cuts’ from the Bleach album is a great example: “When I’m feeling tired / she pushed food through the door / and I crawl toward the crack of light / sometimes I can’t find my way / newspapers spread around / soaking all that they can / a cleaning is due again / a good hosing down.” The first evidence of Cobain using this mode of writing comes on Fecal Matter in 1988 with the track ‘Insurance’ (a court scene) and it’s very understandable why it never becomes a dominant component of his writing – it’s difficult and time-consuming! The next example is ready a year later by the time of Nirvana’s first show: ‘Mexican Seafood’, a slightly feverish sequence in which he winds up focusing on the state of the bathroom floor and the toilet bowl (I felt this song more deeply after a food poisoning episode.) 1987 is the big year for story songs: Cobain has the time and freedom to work on them so by the January 1988 studio session at Reciprocal he’s worked up ‘Floyd The Barber’ and ‘Paper Cuts’ with ‘Polly’ likely already in hand given the song is based on a 1987 news story.

This song form dies entirely. The final two examples are written in May-July of 1990 (‘Sliver’) and the autumn of that year (‘Something in the Way’.) Story songs, in summary, make up 6 of the 68 songs with lyrics released during Nirvana’s lifetime or on the Greatest Hits/With The Lights Out packages in 2002-2004. One is based on a news story (‘Polly’), one on an incident that happened to a local kid (‘Paper Cuts’), one is a fictitious grotesque based on a TV show (‘Floyd The Barber’), three are embellished autobiography (‘Mexican Seafood’, ‘Sliver’, ‘Something in the Way’.) The way in which, between 1988 and1990, he moves toward autobiography is reinforced by other trends in his writing.

The second form is even more prominent in Cobain early work: the ‘character sketch’. This differs from the story song in being a recitation of an individual’s static being, character or circumstance. The Fecal Matter demo is a point of origin in two respects: firstly, Cobain is still finding his own voice so it’s significant how often he speaks ‘as other people’ on the record – note the bizarre put-on voices throughout the demo (an affectation still prominent in the unusual voices on the January 1988 songs later seen on Incesticide.) Secondly, this seeking out of identities is also lyrical: ‘Laminated Effect’ is the only time Cobain sketches named characters (Johnny and Lucy respectively), while ‘Buffy’s Pregnant’ marries his vocal impersonations to stereotypical dialogue of the types of individual he’s representing. ‘Mrs. Butterworth’, in which he hashes out a would-be homemade folk-art entrepreneur’s future plans, continues this lyrical approach in which he visibly speaks ‘as’ another person. He gives up on vocal impersonations very swiftly and very soon it becomes less obvious he’s speaking as a character or autobiographically.

The b-side to Nirvana’s first single, ‘Big Cheese’, had started life as a tale of management at a fast food joint (see the early version played live in Spring 1988) then evolved into a comment on the management at Sub Pop; there’d also been ‘Hairspray Queen’ and ‘If You Must’ (the latter a quintessential ‘writing’ song) recorded that January; while ‘Sappy’ was demo’ed in 1988. The peak for the character sketch though was its dominance on Bleach which contained ‘About A Girl’, ‘School’, ‘Negative Creep’, ‘Scoff’, ‘Swap Meet’ and ‘Mr Moustache’. A division was emerging within this song form quick sketches of characters he observed around him – like the redneck or the couple making a living at garage/car-boot sales – or songs based around his own life and mood (i.e., pressures from management, pressures from girlfriend, his own negativity.)

Things had visibly changed by the time of Nevermind: just as the story song had dwindled to a single song (‘Something in the Way’), there were only two character sketches (‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’) both of which could be read as autobiographical.  That’s not to say, however, that Cobain hadn’t persisted with this mode of writing. ‘Stain’, ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Even in his Youth’ were all written in a flurry around summer-autumn 1989; then, in 1990, Cobain also created ‘Dumb’, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and ‘Oh The Guilt’ – early versions of ‘Rape Me’ were also far more extensive than what would ultimately emerge in 1993.

I’ve said it a lot of times, of course, that so few Cobain compositions are written after Nevermind that it’s hard to draw big conclusions but – by the end of his life, as far as we can see, the only additions to this form were ‘Curmudgeon’ (written sometime in 1991), then ‘Very Ape’ and ‘Scentless Apprentice.’ A form that had taken up over half of Nirvana’s first album remained as a full four songs on Nirvana’s final album, but made up only two of the dozen compositions he’s known to have written in the last two-and-a-half years of his life. Still, it’s a significant batch of Cobain’s productivity: 23 of the 68 songs taken into account in this assessment.

The curious part, however, is seeing the rise of the third song form Cobain used. Bleach was made up of one cover song, two story songs leftover from the January 1988 session, six character sketches, then just two songs in the mode for which Cobain would become best known and that would dominate his later writing. ‘Blew’ and ‘Sifting’ are forged from lines that sound good together, related words, brief images, lines addressed to an unknown audience – there’s no central narrative and no singular character here. I refer to these as the ‘abstract address’: detached images, opinions, feelings combined into songs (hence why looking for a single ‘meaning’ for this type of song has always been so silly.)

‘Downer’ s the nearest Fecal Matter came to this though there was a central theme at play. Note, by the way, that Downer starts with an anonymous narration then breaks into the first person. Cobain would do the same thing on Spank Thru, Mexican Seafood, Big Long Now, Dive, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Drain You, Scentless Apprentice and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter – opening lines in one mode, the rest in another. Oddly ‘Downer’, ‘Aero Zeppelin’ and ‘Sifting’ would be the last songs Cobain wrote that are entirely anonymous with no ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’ involved. Just another small evolution in his style.

‘Spank Thru’ was the next form in this mode, followed in early 1988 by ‘Blew’ and ‘Sifting’ which each evolved new lines and different parts across 1988. Increasingly this is how Cobain would come to write: lines taken from different journals, or scribbled out relatively close to the time of recording, tagged onto core lines and ideas he’d kept or mused on for a while, or words that stayed in his mind. If you look at something like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ideas barely linger longer than a couple of lines. Elsewhere, try ‘In Bloom’ with its chorus refrain existing entirely separately from the verse themes (which are themselves fairly diffuse – “Sell the kids for food / weather changes moods / spring is here again / reproductive glands”). On Nevermind, there were two story songs (‘Polly’ and ‘Something in the Way’), then two character sketches (‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’) then the rest of the album consisted of these abstracts. In Utero, again, would divide up relatively cleanly: no story songs, four character sketches, the rest abstract.

The abstract was, by its very nature, a highly adaptable form: note the change between Nevermind’s unspecific combination of broad statements of opinion and imagery versus In Utero’s targeted clusters of autobiographical reference. Cobain’s fixation on the media echoing through words and titles on In Utero in real contrast to the relative anonymity and veiled biography of Nirvana’s earlier songs: a stark turn toward self-reporting. It isn’t uncommon either for fame to impose a certain introversion on lyrics: essentially, once all an artist sees is hotel rooms, stages and business meetings it’s hard for them to say much about the world. Think of Axl Rose moving from the grime of Appetite For Destruction to the love songs and psychological dissections (and aggression) on Use Your Illusion I and II – or even more specifically compare that to Chinese Democracy after a decade stuck in a mansion. Recently The Weeknd’s new album was filled with the least interesting, specific and developed writing of his career.

In conversation the other week someone drew my eye to ‘Do Re Mi’ and pointed to it as a quintessential heroin song comparable to the narcotised drift of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ or Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ – this air of blissed out warm nothingness to it all (and, having been hooked on the spirit and sung along a million times, people still shake their heads and wonder what heroin’s appeal is…) It reminded me, again, that there’s more than meets the eye inside the music of Kurt Cobain and so – at Christmas – I wanted to sign the blog off for a couple weeks with this remembrance of what an awesome musical force he was.

Anyone who has read any of my ramblings these past years will know that I incredible respect for LiveNirvana and for the Nirvana Live Guide. Whenever I’ve been asked what fandom looks like at its best I think of these sites and the work they’ve done sourcing lost, unknown, different recording of Nirvana shows and sessions; compiling accurate data and sifting myth from reality; bringing together information on Nirvana concerts and shows including photos and set-lists…

It’s amazing what they’ve achieved. Anyone can ‘comment’, anyone can write a thought-piece, but it takes a special dedication to do what these two sites have done. Hunting down and locating evidence of house parties in the far north west of America in the pre-internet late eighties, finding cassettes hoarded by people who attended and taped shows a lifetime ago, persuading people to let them safeguard, protect and share material that would otherwise deteriorate and disappear forever. Any of the analytical pieces I ever did relied on the bedrock that the people at these two sites created.

So, I was delighted to hear that the Nirvana Live Guide will now be migrating to and integrated with the resources at LiveNirvana: a single uber-source for anyone interested in where, what and with who Nirvana played over the years that band was together.

My absolute best wishes to all concerned and anyone out there with information regarding lost Nirvana shows, stuff they might have taped long ago, anything they can contribute to the knowledge placed their for fans – go see these guys!

Over recent years, I’ve had quite a lot of experience of death. Here’s what happens: your body empties of any vestige of the person therein, your physical presence in this world is then destroyed and/or discarded. Your family/friends/loved ones will dispose of near all the belongings you accumulated during life because – ultimately – they loved you, not your things; because they lack the life experiences that made those things mean something to you; because they have their own things to look after; because your things don’t mean to them what they did to you. Regardless of unsubstantiated rumours of life after death (I’ve lived in a haunted house and experienced auditory and visual phenomena without ever catching anything that made me think I was witnessing the active spirits of the dead), your actual involvement in the affairs of this planet ceases. After this time you are a memory – nothing any one does or does not do touches you; you are not aware; nor do you participate in any way – as a memory you exist only as a poor-quality and incomplete recollection in someone else’s head, filtered through their perceptions and experiences.

I’m indebted to an earlier comment on the blog – thanks Billy! – for leading me to this post. The coolest thing about writing the blog has been to come into contact with other minds and lives. Billy raised comments made in a 1992 interview for Flipside magazine (I spoke to one of the interviewers during the preparation of ‘Cobain on Cobain’ – nice bloke, gave me permission to quote the interview directly in the book) in which the following exchange takes place:

Cake: I’ve seen so many bootlegs of you guys, are you pissed off about that or what?

Cobain: For the most part I really don’t care. I like to hear live bootlegs and I would appreciate if the people that make them would send me a copy. But that’s the case, nobody sends me anything. But when embarrassing things come out like stuff that I’ve done in my basement on a two-track or a boombox, that are basically just unwritten songs or pieces of songs; songs I’d like to put together someday into a song…When those come out it’s really embarrassing and it frustrates me.

Cake: Like when you were playing Jabberjaw and all these people were singing Polly when you were doing it and Chris goes “how the **** do you guys know that song?” and somebody goes “bootlegs!”

Cobain: Right! It’s really embarrassing also when they take it upon themselves to title the songs for you. There are some really dorky ones like ‘The Rocker’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’. Oh God!

So, as a starting point, what is known of the intentions of Kurt Cobain circa 1993-1994? Well, he was working on the audio-visual work which became ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ And Nirvana’s ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single would feature a song from MTV Unplugged. Meanwhile, he recorded one shaped up studio demo, one brief shred as part of a studio jam, then the home demo of a further song. Other than that there’s currently just conjecture. But, from conversations with Kevin Kerslake for ‘I Found My Friends’, it’s clear that the video we see – a straightforward live clip/interview clip period piece – is only a fraction of what Cobain intended: Cobain intended further levels of editing, chopping, slicing, reworking – that he simply never got to make the video art collage he wanted. Meanwhile there’s no evidence Cobain had further Nirvana plans at all (I’ve covered the mooted Lollapalooza EP elsewhere on the blog). The only other hints would be the comments made in the ‘Come As You Are’ book about his vague plans for his own record label releasing lo-fi weirdness including ‘the singing flipper boy.’

Does that make all posthumous releases by Nirvana illegitimate? Well, actually, if you want to take a fundamentalist position: yes. Cobain in no way authorised, approved or had any consideration of any release after the planned ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single. If the express wishes of Kurt Cobain are what matter most to you – then you should reject everything after that.

Billy’s first query was “does the fact that Kurt passed away justify releases that betray his wishes or what he would’ve done (basing this on his own words of course)?” There are a lot of intriguing avenues in here. Firstly, for normal human beings like you or I, our words don’t go on permanent display to be hauled out and used decades later in our name or to show us (or those around us) where they’re deviating from holy script. The very fact it’s possible to do that is an oddity created by fame and celebrity – and reliant on fans preserving and compiling Cobain’s interviews regardless of whether he would have found that creepy or intrusive. You and I, we’re lucky, we have the gift of forgetfulness: I feel for John Lydon when his world-changing 18-20 year old self is waved in his face as if that’s all his 60 year old self should be allowed to be – I’d be a lot more perturbed if someone didn’t evolve, learn, grow, change as they live life.

In the case of Cobain, he’s forever trapped in the words of a 20-26 year old young adult, from age 24 one in the middle of an unprecedented disruption and disturbance of his life. There’s also the wider context: Cobain’s time in the music industry ended in the pre-Internet era and before the huge mechanism around the release of demos and outtakes exploded. To use Cobain quotations to claim what he definitely would/wouldn’t have done in a fundamentally different industry, as he approached 50 years old, with his work lacking the halo of death: it requires one to view Cobain as a stone statue, as someone on whom an opinion can be imposed without them reacting or changing – a dead man.

Cobain, on Nirvana’s very first release, wedged noise segments into the recording; on the band’s first album it was only the record label’s refusal that stopped him sticking ‘Beans’ on the record; there are random background noises to ‘Nevermind’ songs; noise jams wedged on the end of 1991 and 1993 albums; the band’s own archives raided for a Christmas demo/outtake/radio release in 1992; the noise jam backing William S. Burroughs; his contributions to Melvins at that time – Cobain’s objection to illicit release of stuff he didn’t like doesn’t mean the kind of material that came out on ‘Montage Of Heck’ wasn’t material he could/would – or couldn’t/wouldn’t – have found a use for. To argue otherwise is legitimate, but does mean trapping Cobain in the identity of the mainstream singer-songwriter pop-punk figure and refusing to place equal value on his very broad artistic, musical and creative palette. It comes down to competing visions of who Cobain was and, therefore, is. Again, those visions are something imposed by onlookers and you/I/we are all entitled to see him differently. It doesn’t mean we have absolute right to predict his future choices.

Intriguingly, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if Cobain had lived: his death fundamentally changes everything. Deciphering whether Cobain would have become a Johnny Cash style troubadour, an Axl Rose style recluse, a convert to electronica and the potential of remix culture, a lo-fi home recorder in the Lou Barlow mode, a reformation tour band leader, a noise experimenter or improviser in the Thurston Moore mode…Who’s to say? Of course that question has direct bearing on the reaction to posthumous releases. There’s no indication whether or not Cobain would have been happy to see ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’, ‘Live At Reading’ or ‘Live and Loud’ released. ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ is definitely and demonstrably not what he intended to release if he hadn’t died. If more outtake releases and ‘product’ were required there’s no way of telling what from the ‘With The Lights Out’ boxset he would or wouldn’t have been willing to release. It’s all personal opinion and belief: using Cobain’s words to sanctify choices he never had a chance to make doesn’t validate or justify one’s choices any more or less than someone else’s opposing view.

This brings me back to the Monty Python clip: it seems very pertinent to this kind of discussion of Cobain – a man who gives no impression of having wanted people following him around or worshipping his words as incorruptible religious text to be used to bless or condemn others. Using Cobain’s 1992 words to condemn releases he wasn’t, isn’t and never will be aware of seems inane at best. Cobain’s words shouldn’t be used to dictate the behaviour of other human beings for the rest of their lives: having made commercial arrangements with record and publishing companies, he explicitly granted them a degree of control over his work. Similarly, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, former members of Nirvana, Frances Bean Cobain, Courtney Love – they were all given degrees of control by Cobain. These are factual indications of his intentions so why should they be downgraded and random interviews be privileged instead?

Billy raised another question: “does an artist’s wishes matter?” The answer is an absolute yes…And, on top of the rights the artist grants to others in exchange for support of one form or another, those wishes are called a will. A will is the official, provable testimony of an individual regarding what they want to happen after their death. It means that random people on the Internet, random strangers in the street, relatives you’ve barely seen in years, commercial contacts you’ve had to work with – none of them get to twist your words or speak on your behalf. I was in a position fairly recently of having to execute someone’s last wishes – whereupon other people told me that my relative had intended something different. I explained openly that I would stick to what was written in the will and, secondly, what I was told by him in person. In the case of Cobain, piecing together his intentions from public sources, having never met him, having no personal experience of him, it would seem a grim way to ‘respect’ him.

The final part of what Billy raised was “if you specifically go against (or ‘rape’ as Kurt may have put it), their wishes and disrespect them, can you still really call yourself a fan?” This gets to the crux of something for me: no one has the right to tell you if you’re a fan or not. Cobain spent his life seeking to escape the control of family, boss, record label. The charitable causes he used Nirvana to support were about freeing people from the vulgar imposition of power by others – he believed everyone had the goddamn right to be who they are, how they wanted, without anyone else telling them they couldn’t. He was a punk after all! If you want to hear every note Cobain ever played, if you just want to hear the official releases, if you don’t want to hear anything he didn’t personally choose to release before his death, if you just occasionally enjoy one song or another – no one, repeat, no one, gets to tell you that’s wrong. Anyone who believes that imposing their views on others is the thing to do when it comes to Nirvana hasn’t learnt much about Cobain and “don’t know what it means” when it comes to his music.

In my eyes, the best fans are ones who have taken Cobain’s words and decided to do something active in this life: frankly, making a consumer choice to buy or not buy a record is a pretty poor way to show respect to Cobain isn’t it? Over at LiveNirvana there’s a community of fans devoting however much or little energy they can to finding and preserving recordings, interviews, images of Cobain and Nirvana – that’s an amazing thing to me. Then again, if that’s not your thing, that’s cool – you’re allowed to just enjoy the music however you wish. In my case, writing about the uncertain living conditions Cobain endured in his teenage years, the absence of a home or of security, it reinforced my decision to volunteer at a group supporting the homeless and to donate regularly to homeless charities. Showing respect and honour is about DOING something: it is not about telling others what to do or demanding they do it differently.

A gentleman percussionist called William Hooker bequeathed me a beautiful statement earlier this year: “if that’s your thing, that’s great, I’m not dismissing it – it’s just not MY thing.” That’s what’s missing a lot of the time. Cobain’s final plea was for ‘empathy’, the desire to listen to and respect other peoples’ feelings without trying to control, overpower or deny them. The world – particularly this year – seems to find it hard to move beyond right/wrong dominance or to do the hard work required to accept others feel differently and to seek commonalities.

I’d personally rather Cobain’s music didn’t rot in a Californian vault – I don’t see any great honour in burying his music along with him. I thought, and people are welcome to disagree with me, that the ‘Montage Of Heck’ soundtrack, out of all the posthumous Cobain-related releases, was closest to his true anarchic artistic spirit. Far from dishonouring him I felt it showed him to be a true artist, someone complex and hugely varied. So, the most crucial statement I can make today is, this is just my opinion – yours is good too. On this blog, sure, I’ll state my beliefs and put forward my reasoning and evidence – I hope it’s fun for you to read and if you have a different opinion on the things discussed…Wicked. That’s all good! I mean, wow, I’m kinda just delighted we’re all still here in late 2016 discussing the life and works of a man and band who ceased to be 22 years ago.