We’re in the midst of what looks like being the longest ever drought between significant official releases of Nirvana material. The six year pause between From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah (October 1996) and the greatest hits record/unveil of ‘You Know You’re Right’ (October 2002) has now been superseded by the gap since September 2013’s In Utero anniversary or November 2015’s Montage Of Heck compilation of home demos by Kurt Cobain. The big difference is that the earlier pause was due to legal disputes but everyone was aware that, as documented on numerous bootlegs at the time, there was a lot of unreleased material to come – now we’re contemplating an empty well.
Doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some fun this year! A real pleasure, for me, was receiving Marcus Gray’s art collection “Parasite: A Photographic Wake for Kurt Cobain.”
It kicks the hell out of the embarrassing ‘coffee table book’ that the estate put out last year. Gray specializes in making visual suggestions, specific to Kurt Cobain’s life and work, that provoke thoughts that spill well beyond the edges of the photo frame – memories, additional facts, associated moments, spiraling out from the initial image. Substantial work has gone into sourcing era-specific objects (a Mrs. Butterworth’s jar, for example); or selecting non-obvious media (Cobain’s grandfather’s phone book entry, a back page newspaper advert for X-Ray glasses that ties to the 1990 In Bloom video); or combining items that resonate with meaning to those with fair background on Cobain’s story (a card from the Marco Polo Motel inside a Tom Moore cigar box). The initial selections are already impressive but what elevates them is the visible thought that has gone into how to move beyond blank documentation into artistic imagining. Images are treated, slurred, magnified, placed against a range of backdrops, every single work presented here has a specificity of both image and effort that makes them art. I particularly liked how subtle the work could be: the famous red-and-black striped jumper Cobain wore in 1993 is rendered in a way that looks like neon light and would be impossible to identify as a jumper if one’s own mind didn’t make the leap to that item of clothing, with the photo caption providing a useful pointer.
There was a bit of an outpouring of books collecting photographs of Nirvana and of Kurt Cobain a few years back, and they all had their virtues. It’s just really nice to see someone going way beyond that and taking Cobain – a quintessential outsider artist – as an artistic muse prompting hard work, significant skill and deep thoughtfulness. It’s not a huge volume but I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to the book because it’s not of an intimidating length or size, and because each image rewarded fair lengthy contemplation, I can spend 5-10 minutes thinking outside of the edges of the image at the events, times, places and actions that the photo points to.