Questions: Brown Cow/Brown Towel

You’ll have to forgive me today, I’m on holiday but normal service will be resumed on Monday.

Tonight, myself and a friend are off to the Scottish Storytelling Centre ( to see the Annual Scottish Tall Tales Storytelling Competition which promises the “hilarious, mysterious or just plain ridiculous – ferocious fibs and fables performed live on stage by Scotland’s finest tellers, then you decide who wins the lucrative accolade of Oscar the Leprechaun!” I mean…Wha? It’s perfect, I love a good storyteller and every good story deserves a little exaggeration.

Now, very tangentially, reading through the lists of minor league bands and performances taking place in Edinburgh and Glasgow this evening, and noting the storytelling event made me recall reading the Nirvana Live Guide and loving all the random bands who filled Nirvana’s early days. Similarly, it made me wonder about the Brown Cow/Brown Towel performance – if you want to feel what that early show, the second time Kurt Cobain had apparently been on a venue stage, felt like, just look in your local paper, check the local listings. There’ll be a handful of hopefuls making a “joyous noise unto the lord” night after night with no precise clue what they’re doing, hyped up and nervous, just going for it without letting the fear of embarrassment hold them back.

The questions I have about the performance in question revolve around the words; Kurt Cobain recited poetry over background noise, I wonder how much of this ‘poetry’ was stripped from songs we already know of on the Fecal Matter demo? I wonder how much went onto reuse in the early Nirvana recordings where storytelling songs, songs with a longer coherent narrative thread (Polly, Floyd the Barber, Paper Cuts) were relatively plentiful? I also assume that his recitation was less a case of spoken word seriousness and instead revealed the attempts to speak in the tongues of others that had been revealed on Fecal Matter where he, for the last time, noteably spoke in a character’s voice, or the continued vocal experimentation that was still alive a year and a half later on the January 23, 1988 recordings.

Anyways, questions…Always more questions…No answers here but I thought I’d share what runs through my head and the kind of pondering that leads to some of the posts I end up whacking up here.


The Age of Information Technology

Article in a previous week’s copy of The Economist (online at mentioned that the last manufacturer of manual typewriters — a firm called Godrej & Boyce based in India — stopped production in 2009.

In relation to Nirvana, I’ve commented before on the amazing gulf between the world in which we’re living and that which Kurt Cobain departed in 1994. A phrase used in recent years is ‘the digital native’, the idea of a group within society who have lived their entire lives surrounded by electronic forms of interaction creating a new nature, as normal to them as the organic or mechanical ones onto which this new world has been grafted. There’s little if any technology in Kurt Cobain’s songs but, essentially, that’s because before 1994 society wasn’t as saturated in consumer electronics as it is now.

So, for example, if you wanted to phone Kurt Cobain, you called a landline. If he didn’t pick up, everyone was able to tell themselves he wasn’t in (he might not have been, there was no way to know). Nowadays, if you call someone’s mobile, they may forget to get back to you, something may happen that prevents them calling, but the technology is more firmly laced to the body of the individual — you’re calling a person not a home; an individual not an office, so it’s harder to hide from attention at twenty years’ distance. Kurt Cobain’s ability to vanish for periods of time post-fame was supported by the nature of the technology available.

His writing, likewise, remained a purely manual process. He never, as far as can be told, sent email, used a computer, tapped away on a typewriter even. There’s no written communication from Mr. Cobain that purports to come from a mechanical or electronic source — there’s a mass of handwritten paper, however. His inspiration was only as fast as his scribbling, there wasn’t a back-up online someplace — hence why the 1992 flooded bathroom was so catastrophic — and if he didn’t have paper to hand then it’s unlikely he was working in great detail or depth — which is why the long home between tour-spells seem to have been so crucial in the writing process.

Further reinforcing Kurt Cobain’s divorce from technology, there’s no indication in the various sources detailing the technical side of Nirvana’s recording sessions — see, hunt down a copy of Charles Cross’ book on the Nevermind album, or read Gillian G. Gaar’s book on In Utero — that Kurt Cobain paid the slightest attention to the technology available in studio. He was clearly interested, for example, in seeing Steve Albini’s microphone set-up at Pachyderm Studios, not an unreasonable reaction given its apparent complexity, but not in learning the in depth details of the recording process. His role as a co-producer for Melvins’ Houdini album seems to have been name-only given the statements on about the sessions. There’s no record of him involving himself in mixing, maybe choosing to record Something in the Way unplugged, or to plug Territorial Pissings direct were the biggest technology decisions he made in studio. He was essentially happy to ask for a “top 40 drum sound” or to comment on the tone and texture of the sound being produced, but he doesn’t seem to have wanted, during the short years of his life, to have wanted to learn how to do it for himself.

That isn’t a criticism though. I think that we’re simply looking at a normal human being in the late Eighties-early Nineties; particularly one from a lower socio-economic bracket, even today penetration of Internet, mobile phones, etc. is affected by wealth and isolation and Kurt Cobain pre-twenty years old was both poor and relatively isolated. I’m perhaps too used to people waving their phones and other devices at me now, or spouting technical specifications, in an annoying way, as if they’d made the darn things themselves or as if the device was a worthy substitute for their absence of personality or depth (not that I’m saying I’m sick of people waving tech at me, no, what gave you that impression…?)

Like most people, when Kurt Cobain needed or wanted to use technology he was totally willing and able to do so. The best example was his desire to use video technology to capture Nirvana at quite an early stage in their career. Krist Novoselic’s camcorder footage of the 1989 U.K. tour is readily available; Nirvana’s video made for the Sub Pop version of In Bloom is common knowledge; that he took the band into a video studio in March 1990 to try and kick-start preparation for a band video release. Even earlier than that Nirvana had tried, on January 24, 1988 straight after their first studio session, to record supporting videos for a few songs (including the later maligned If You Must). Kurt Cobain had a functional approach to video; his central issue was to express, the question was therefore how or who could do it — within that mix he was more than capable of getting out the video tech or waving cameras around.

His closest relationships with technology though were with the products of bygone decades; the television, the guitar, the microphone, the radio. Consumer electronics stretched as far as record players and boomboxes — maybe today Kurt Cobain would be a prime candidate to be one of the guys with big headphones and a sullen expression shutting the world out and keeping eyes low. What exists instead is a musical repertoire in which the lyrics barely feature technology — no driving anthems, no escalators, trains, TV shows but no TV, an organic, fleshy, feely set of songs. Of course, without the wattage being shoved through the speakers where would we be?

Songs Dissected: Laminated Effect

The songs on Fecal Matter were among the most overtly personal Kurt would ever write; the early songs ranged across the standard life of a teenager — masturbation, jibes at teenage girls who didn’t fancy him, poking fun at classmates and those who bullied him, TV inspirations, violent imagery. Then, suddenly, in amidst these songs, there’s the occasional burst of oddity. I’d be more surprised if there wasn’t anything unusual featured given Kurt Cobain’s later lyrics and also the reality of the life he was leading during his teenhood — this wasn’t a normal childhood, it was one with significant impediments to normal development.

There’s a ‘knot’ of unfortunate tendencies circulating round the Cobain family. To recount a small number, on his father’s side Kurt’s great uncle Burle committed suicide when Kurt was twelve and had supposedly been about to be charged with sexual molestation at the time of his death. Meanwhile his great-grandfather on his mother’s side not only stabbed himself but then proceeded to reopen his own wounds and bleed to death — Sheesh, it’s a bit much when Uncle Kenneth shooting himself and Uncle Ernest drinking himself into oblivion (despite medical warnings that he was killing himself) then dying of an aneurysm falling downstairs drunk are the more mellow tales. Most children don’t have four violent deaths among their immediate blood relations. The other week we talked about Kurt’s living arrangements (, another unusual circumstance, then we can still add on the legendary divorce and related inter-parent viciousness. I’d be more surprised if Fecal Matter wore no stains as a consequence.

Laminated Effect stands out in that respect. It’s the one song in Kurt Cobain’s history that stands out as uncharacteristically ‘nasty’. In the first verse the male homosexual character is raped by his father then catches AIDS; in the second verse the female homosexual is ‘cured’ by heterosexual penetration. It’s disturbing to hear someone who grew to be as enlightened as Kurt Cobain was in later years laying out the myth that homosexuality is some kind of pose and that those born homosexual can be ‘cured’. It’s the equivalent of Eminem’s unreleased track in which he directed racial taunts at a former African-American girlfriend; it’s not so comparable to Axl Rose’s famed One in a Million track which was a deliberate release taking on the persona of a dumb hick from the country arriving in Los Angeles (an, at least, semi-autobiographical tale.)

I’ve been dwelling on this song for a year now, it’s been hard to know what to make of something so jarringly out of sync. My belief now is that there is a case to be made that the song was significant and should be considered as something more than a side-note to the career of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Nirvana were very frugal with their songs, almost everything they recorded found relatively rapid release, not many songs were repeatedly toyed with — Sappy received the most studio efforts (1989 studio, 1990 studio, 1991 studio, 1993 studio), the next was three shots at Radio Friendly Unit Shifter — nothing else popped up more than twice. This is a point about how songs ‘lingered’ in Kurt Cobain’s mind — answer; they rarely did.

In the case of Laminated Effect though, he recorded it in early 1986 (see Gillian G. Gaar’s Entertain Us) which suggests a late 1985-early 1986 writing. The song vanishes, yet in late 1989, a very rare thing occurs and he cannibalises a single line of lyrics from it. Firstly, this tells us how low on serviceable material Kurt Cobain was in mid-to-late 1989; Even in his Youth was recorded in studio in September that year before it ever made it near a live stage which seems to indicate hurried work to build up pieces for potential future use. It’s such an odd act, stripping a single line, one that to an external observer seems to have no particular significance or poetic quality that would make it memorable, and choosing to give it ‘life’ three and a half years later.

It’s a mark of the song’s significance that it’s one of the only times Kurt Cobain borrowed lyrics from an old track to use in a new one — “kept his body clean” was a specific reference to the homosexual male, it’s an image derived from Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth and also an image of guilt and shame — Lady Macbeth walks the castle attempting to wash imaginary spots of blood from her skin having murdered the king. It’s one of Kurt’s most articulate metaphors given he uses it, both in Laminated Effect and in Even in His Youth, in the original Shakespearian context (“told he was at fault, living life unhappy”/”Kept his body clean going nowhere/daddy was ashamed, he was nothing, smears the family name”). What’s also notable is that both songs share the issue of the father; in each case it’s the father who defines the context of the son’s entire existence; in one the rape is given as context to the later events of the son’s life, in the other the individual’s entire being is summarised by their father’s shame.

A second way in which this one song echoed on into the future is that the image of incestuous rape reoccurred in 1990 in the original demo of the song Rape Me. Again, the crucial point is that the person at the core of the event isn’t defined as a victim; they’re defined as being responsible with mention of “my embarrassment” and the invitational tone “rape me…Someone disgrace me.” That’s two further songs looped out of Laminated Effect.

It was easy, initially, to interpret all three songs as simply a recounting of Kurt Cobain’s own guilt, sense of male insecurity, the feeling that he’d embarrassed and disappointed his father. But the first song was on Fecal Matter which leads me, for once, to believe that there was a more literal source for the song — and there is a candidate.

In the book Heavier Than Heaven, Charles Cross recounts briefly the fate of one of Cobain’s relatives, his mum’s brother, Kurt’s uncle Patrick. Patrick died at age 46 of AIDS in the first days of January 1991. Patrick’s homosexuality was apparently a family secret, his parents refusing to believe he was gay, and likewise no one talking about Patrick’s insistence that he had been sexually abused by his own uncle Delbert. There are similarities in the tale being told on Laminated Effect. Kurt’s story focuses on rape by the father (not uncle), the parental shame associated with the son’s homosexuality which was indeed a crucial feature of the real-life case — Patrick’s parents initially refused to believe he was homosexual and Patrick was so furious about how he was ignored and shamed that he considered publically announcing what was happening to him. The next similarities are the move to the big city — Patrick indeed moved to California — and finally the catching of “a big disease”; the biggest disease of the Eighties, particularly in the gay community was AIDS. The fact the chief character is still alive at the end of the song again fits in that regard, Patrick was alive when Laminated Effect was written.

There is difficulty, of course, in establishing the timing (and there’s no extant statements from Kurt as to his intentions — sorry guys, I’m speculating again.) Patrick died on January 2, 1991, four and a half years after the Easter 1986 recording of Laminated Effect. A further intriguing coincidence, however, is that Kurt Cobain resurrected Even in his Youth, in its final released form, at a casual studio session on January 1, 1991. A song about incest, homosexuality, the man infected with the big disease — a memory of it inserted into a song that is then brought back to life one day before the family member who potentially suffered incest, who was homosexual, who was a victim of AIDS, who was a hushed family shame, before that man died. Another timing issue is that it is unknown if Patrick had still been living in State of Washington when he made his homosexuality known to his family, likewise it’s unknown when in the intervening years Patrick had made his accusation regarding Kurt’s great-uncle, or when AIDS was diagnosed.

In the context of ‘Illiteracy will Prevail’ a tape by a nineteen year old Kurt Cobain, on which personal circumstance and influences were worn on the sleeve, it would be more unusual if Laminated Effect was pure fantasy rather than an extrapolation from a known tale. Also, on that tape, there was a very rare feature which was Kurt made use of other voices and told stories through other people’s eyes (for example Buffy’s Pregnant). Rather than Laminated Effect being an unpleasant expression of Kurt’s own feelings, the song appears to be a recounting of the confused and intolerant reactions of his family to what was occurring; his family were genuinely unpleasant in their treatment of Patrick, unwilling to accept homosexuality as something natural. Kurt would go through these feelings again on Been a Son (written intriguingly at roughly the same time as Even in his Youth) which may have been discussing his parents’ response to Kurt’s sister’s lesbianism. Certainly I find it easier to believe that this wasn’t Kurt’s voice than that the sensitive teenager who already believed he was possibly gay, would write a song that was so spiteful toward homosexuals.

What’s a curious further thought leading from this is that Even in his Youth, potentially, may be a more sympathetic and introverted retelling of Patrick’s story; I’ll leave it here.

The Effect of Childhood Trauma

A lot of years ago a girlfriend told me to think of the mind as a mould being filled layer-by-layer. In this vision, what happens as a child sets deepest in the mind, the layers that come after lie on top of that underlying shape and either fill or follow its kinks and defects. Quickly the mind fills, the fundamental nature of the mature mind is built on either the solid foundations or the rubble of what has happened to that young head. I’ve never seen reason to disagree with this vision.

The above report was published just before Christmas on BMJ Open, a well-respected and important online medical journal, and ties in neatly with the material on Kurt Cobain’s living arrangements pre-adulthood. It comes to various conclusions but the essential one is that childhood trauma and adversity is a key factor in premature adult mortality. Essentially, while people would recognise the limitations of a child missing a limb or having a physically limiting characteristic as an acceptable reason (not excuse) for later limitations, people still find it extremely difficult to understand something in the head as a mental wound or injury that can create similar limitations. One would recognise the relative futility of saying “just get over it,” to someone who was visibly disabled; by contrast, unless someone is notably mentally incompetent, the illusion of ‘normality’ leads to frustration among observers in the situations that expose that mental disability to full view. Instead of realising that someone basically can’t act normally we observe their unremarkable physical appearance, verbal communication, basic functioning and decide they’re just like us, capable of making the desired decision, doing the desired act, if only they would try or choose to. It’s hard to recognise the indents in our own ‘mould’ that predispose us to refuse certain ways of living — unless a mental dysfunction steps over the bounds into what is deemed socially unacceptable, we consider it normal, rather than the injury (minor or otherwise) that it is.

In the case of Kurt Cobain, it’s remarkable he functioned as well as he did. Many people get over a parental divorce with no adverse effects; it’s unreasonable to demand though that the event mean nothing to anyone — Kurt Cobain was one of the ones for whom it did have meaning. Similarly many families move around (I lived in six homes as a child) but his was an extreme case — a direct consequence of the divorce and one that brought with it additional challenges in terms of shared accommodation and temporary living. From the time of his parents’ divorce to when he was fifteen he went through three homes, by age seventeen he was temporarily homeless and had been dumped from home-to-home like package. His puberty, a crucial period of development, was heavily insecure, loveless, abandoned.

This isn’t a plea or an excuse; don’t confuse a reason (i.e., why someone does something) with an excuse (why someone does something and therefore they’re not responsible or it doesn’t matter). In the case of Kurt Cobain there were good reasons for him to grow up a less than secure adult. His family history (multiple suicides of close blood relations, etc.) suggests there may have been a genetic factor predisposing him toward depression also. The study used a standard and approved questionnaire for measuring adverse childhood experiences (ACE) — Kurt Cobain would have ticked boxes for four of eight markers; substantive verbal abuse, living with a depressed person, a separated family, domestic violence.

Under a third of deceased stars possessing no ACEs died through substance use or risky behaviour, this increased to 41.9% for those with one ACE…Then 80% of those with two more more. Kurt Cobain fit firmly into the latter category. Combine that with the overall pattern identified — that music stardom does increase mortality above that of the general population — and in the specific case of Kurt Cobain there’s an individual with substantial indicators of likely risks as an adult, who goes into a profession that increases the risk further.

Later in the report a separate study is cited, one looking at the general populace and which concluded that adults with four or more ACEs were at “7.4 times greater risk of alcohol addiction, 4.7 times greater risk of illicit drug use and 12.2 times greater risk of attempted suicide.” Again, all we’re seeing is that childhood trauma embeds tendencies in the mind that are hard to overcome or simply ‘shake off.’

We are not dictated by our past, our reactions are not preordained — this is a positive, we do have choices. The majority of people, however, do not live lives that are the exception to the patterns set by socio-economic circumstance, parental income and situation, or the traumas that burrow deep into the clay of the mind with successive years flooding but never erasing the hole. I take it as an inspirational example that Kurt Cobain achieved world-bestriding accomplishments during his brief time on the planet, in spite of the recognisable and clear reasons (multiple childhood traumas, homelessness, medical issues, dietary issues, poverty for all but the last two years of his life, escalating drug use, the stresses of unstable living conditions) why he could have simply disappeared into the places society reserves for our injured; a combination of jail, living on the streets or simply being forgotten all life-long. He was an exceptional human being, who made something of himself on top of and in spite of and because of what had hurt him…It didn’t mean he had the means or the opportunity to survive the injuries he carried with him.

Four Walls and What Was Made

Kurt Cobain's Homes_1967-1994

A pause to give credit where it’s due, featured an excellent range of photos of the houses and I have used a number of them for the collage above. Credit for the Pear Street photo must go to Diamond Brooke and her Flickr feed – again, worth a look for Nirvana fans.

Over the past two days we’ve been dividing Kurt Cobain’s life down into time spent in specific ‘homes’. Naturally I accept that a lot of what I do on this site is simply aggregate existing data but I’m often stunned by the picture that results simply by loading data into a single view.

My reasons for compiling the data, initially, was that I wanted to attempt (as best as possible) to correlate Kurt Cobain’s song-writing to where he was while writing. In the kind of coincidence to gladden the heart of any data chimp (a friend once bought me a t-shirt reading “I love data” repeated over and over — thanks Shane!) the picture that emerges is remarkably clear.

To the best of my ability, in the Over the Edge chapter of Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide, I’ve tried to pin down, to periods of six months, roughly when Kurt Cobain wrote various songs. The approximate result is as follows:

Songs by Half Year

I’ve not included the Fecal Matter songs (e.g., Spank Thru or Downer), nor have I included Kurt Cobain’s solo experiments (i.e., Montage of Heck) simply because it’s hard to pin down when they were made with any degree of guesswork. The only changes I’ve made since the book are to include Opinion in 1H 1990 and shift Tourette’s to 2H 1989. When compared to Kurt Cobain’s living arrangements, however the results are emphatic:

Songs by Home_Figure

While money may still have been hard to come by during the years Kurt Cobain spent in Olympia, it truly was his artistic home. Given how long he spent in that location it’s no surprise that he wrote more songs there but the sheer quantity is overwhelming:

Songs by Home_%

Dividing the figures by time spent in the location doesn’t alter that picture of dominance:

Songs by Home_Per Month

While making clear that Kurt Cobain’s peak occurred in Olympia, there is some fudging involved that I can only acknowledge but do not have sufficient information to fix. If I could untangle Kurt Cobain’s living arrangements from January 1992 until January 1994, it wouldn’t erase the overall picture but it would make clearer whether, for example, the Carnation house permitted a real focus on writing or whether most of the work was done while running around hotels and temporary accommodation with Courtney. Similarly, the two songs written in the second half of 1992, I’ve noted as Curmudgeon and Talk to Me (based on live data) but Curmudgeon at least might more properly belong earlier in 1991, I can’t prove it. The dominance of the Olympia spell may be even more pronounced given Kurt moved there in April 1987 so my estimates, based on six month periods, don’t correspond perfectly — 114 ½ Pear Street may filch a song or two from the previous eight months spent in the Melvins’ practice space and at 1000 ½ E. Second Street.

The first spell of relative stability Kurt Cobain had enjoyed since he was a child seemed to allow him the space and time to write and create. Tracy’s willingness to support him also meant he didn’t have to divide his time quite so much between work and music — though she, very reasonably, came to resent him sponging off her it did have a beneficial effect on his core pursuit. Similarly it can’t be underestimated that Krist Novoselic provided Kurt a steady and dependable musical collaborator reducing the impact of changing drummers so often and ensuring ideas could be turned into full work relatively swiftly. Kurt was surrounded by beneficial circumstances thanks in large part to the individuals he could now rely on.

My ultimate thought on the ‘meaning’ of all this information is that the place of greatest veneration for any Nirvana fan shouldn’t be the house at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East. The place where the majority of Nirvana’s music was created, where Kurt Cobain truly lived as a creative soul, was at the unassuming and unglamorous property at 114 ½ Pear Street, Olympia between April 1987 and July 1991. To my mind, celebrating the place that gave the safe cocoon needed to build something is of far more importance and significance than the barely lived in site where he chose to tear everything down.

Life Long Latchkey Kid: Kurt Cobain’s Homes Part 2

Yesterday we examined the record of Kurt Cobain’s childhood wanderings, how he was shunted from home to home throughout his teens. Finally relative stability arrived in the form of his first long-term relationship with Tracy Marander and a resulting departure from Aberdeen. That single residence on Pear Street in Olympia ended up being his home for just over four years, the longest he’d been in one place since he was nine years old though the couple did change flats within that building and Tracy did move out to be replaced as flatmate by Dave Grohl.

Returning home in the aftermath of the recording of Nevermind, the move to a major label, standing on the cusp of his true fame Kurt managed to get himself thrown out for not paying the rent. That was the end of the stable spell of life. It’s genuinely fascinating realising that the rock star who ruled planet Earth for that spell in the early nineties didn’t have a home from July 1991 until January 1992; imagine it, the biggest rock star on the planet as living in his car.

Even after that, there was still nothing close to a home. Kurt Cobain — now with wife in tow — bounced between rented apartments, tour hotels and hotels in LA and Seattle right through until spring of 1993. Even with all the money now floating around him, it doesn’t cease being the case that he was essentially homeless. At least this time there were comprehensible reasons, the Cobains were trying to purchase a home but there was little time in between tours, festivals, recording, battles with the authorities over custody of their child and major drug problems. In the chart below I haven’t calculated the spells spent in a number of rehab facilities:


It’s curious, having arbitrarily made the start of Nirvana and of Kurt’s relationship with Tracy the dividing line between his youth and adulthood, that the pattern is much the same as his childhood with the stable period being superseded by yet another spell, this time of three years from age twenty four until his death, during which he lived in six definite locations and a slew of temporary accommodation.

One link ( has conveniently placed the sales record and other details of the Carnation home online:


It’s an intriguing property because, despite the understandable attention paid to the site of Kurt Cobain’s death, it was the Carnation property that was the first home he owned and that was retained throughout the maelstrom of mid-1992 through 1993. It’s also mysterious because it’s impossible to tell how much time Kurt Cobain actually spent living at the house or why it seemed to be less than wholly beloved. For whatever reason retreating to a country village, one with a population of just 1,243 in the 1990 census, where Wikipedia lists the local activities available as “Harvold Berry Farm where you can pick your own berries in the summer”, doesn’t seem to have worked regardless of whether the idea was to evade drugs or intrusion in general. There is a rumour Kurt returned to the home sometime in early April having fled rehab.

Working out the estimated dates of accommodation also throw Cobain’s relationship with his place of death into the spotlight. The Cobains moved into the Lake Washington house in January 1994. Nirvana toured until January 8. Kurt joined the band for their final studio session on Jan 30 then they left on tour two days later. He was in Europe until March 12 when he was definitely home given the Police were called to a domestic incident that night and again on March 18. He headed into rehab on March 30 returned home around April 3. At most Kurt Cobain lived in that house for three weeks in January, then just over two weeks in March.

Observing his entire life, ranking locations, what emerges is as follows:

KC_Top Living Locations_1967-1994

Of the 25 ‘phases’ identified, only five added up to more than a single year. Worse, of the years spent in solid locations, 13 ½ of those years took place from the age of less than one to only just fifteen years old. The remaining half of Kurt Cobain’s life, his entire rise to young adulthood, involved only the briefest of respites in which he had something that could be called a home.

Life Long Latchkey Kid: Kurt Cobain’s Homes Part 1

Reading the various biographies of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, the point is frequently made that Kurt had lived what could gently be described as an unsettled and nomadic existence pretty well from the time of his parents’ divorce in 1976. Ladled out on top of that is a patina of genuine poverty throughout his later teenhood leading to periods of homelessness stretched right through until he hit twenty in 1987. Relative stability arises from that point yet still there are tales of being slung out of rented homes even as late as the middle of 1991 when he was now 24. Linking together the references makes his later life seem a more moneyed return to drifting with hotels filling gaps even when he wasn’t on tour or fulfilling band duties. Purchasing a home for the first time in 1993 simply doesn’t stop that sense of a man floating free of physical locale — the final year of his life saw him buying one home, renting another, buying another, while simultaneously spending regular nights in motels and drug hangouts.

Sourcing the data, I ended up simply staring at it — adding up the regular moves brought home precisely how devoid of refuge the life of Kurt Cobain had been:


This is the life of Kurt Cobain to age twenty. It was hardly a comfortable life in the early days given the combination of tight financial circumstances, mounting parental discord leading to the parents splitting in March 1976 before a final legal pronouncement of divorce in July, then the spell sharing a trailer with his father and grandparents, followed by the spell with his father and eventually his father’s new partner and her children. But it was from March 1982, once he had turned fifteen, in the aftermath of ever-increasing battles with his father, that Kurt’s living arrangements implode.

From the age of fifteen until the age of twenty he barely stayed a year at any address. There are nine definite homes in which he lived during that phase and one period where, at best, it could be said he was a ‘guest’ of various relatives and relations. During this crucial phase of life it’s easy to understand why the conclusion of formal schooling became challenging, likewise why, existing disaffection would be expanded into an all-encompassing sense that he was unloved and unwanted.

Further reinforcing the sad picture, in each of 1984, 1985 and 1986 he endured spells of homelessness. To be fair, none could have lasted longer than a couple months but still, for certain periods of his late teens Kurt Cobain barely knew from day-to-day where he was sleeping. He was even forced back in with his father despite the extreme tension between them — his dad found him living on a couch in a back-alley. Again, it makes it easier to understand why locating regular employment proved challenging given his disrupted living arrangements.

By 1987 he had lived through seventeen different locations or phases in his young life. The longest he had a home for was the eight years that corresponded with his infancy and the only time when he was part of a true family — the coincidence of family love and physical security reinforces why he would remember it as an idyll lost forever.

No Melvins = No Nirvana

On here’s the sample chapter from Dark Slivers again, I know its buried down in the blog now…

Dark Slivers Book-A5-chapter14

And apologies for the delay in the Saturday post – it all depends on what time I wake up on a Saturday AM.

It seems impossible to overstate the importance of Melvins to the story of Nirvana. In Kurt Cobain’s reminiscences, contained within Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana and within his Journals, he defines the most positive aspects of his teenage identity in terms of music. His ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion is the discovery of punk music via Melvins, the role models he describes are Melvins, his first experience of the life of a gigging band (as a roadie) comes from the Melvins. As a formative experience only the divorce of his parents is more significant.

Musically the influence was also explicit. Kurt Cobain’s Fecal Matter demo sounds like early Melvins combining a sound emerging from the hardcore scene with a slower, narcotized vibe on many songs (the version of Downer lasts around a minute longer than the 1988 rendition would.) Kurt Cobain was following the most immediate model available to him which was this local band. It’s 1987 before Kurt Cobain truly begins to try on other sounds with his music from that year sounding far more edgy, far more new wave. Members of Melvins also provided Kurt with his first on stage music experience joining him both as Fecal Matter members and also in a short lived project known as Brown Towel (see Nirvana Live Guide/LiveNirvana for more info.)

The Melvins’ influence continues though. Jack Endino is clear that he only took the Nirvana studio booking because Dale Crover was on drums for the band — Dale’s presence assured Jack that this band must have something to them. Nirvana’s first media coverage specifically hinged on the band’s link to Melvins suggesting that practice might even make them “better than the Melvins!” This is quite a list of firsts owed to Melvins; intro to punk, roadie experience, first proper demo, first press, first live performance, first studio session.

Nirvana would share a split single with Melvins as each band struggled in late 1989-early 1990 to expand their audiences. The Here She Comes Now/Venus in Furs covers single was one of only three split singles Nirvana released, one with The Fluid being Sub Pop’s decision, the other, with The Jesus Lizard, being a fan-boy wish-fulfillment in 1992-93 giving Kurt the opportunity to show love to some of the remnants of Scratch Acid, a major early influence.

That loyalty to Melvins continued right through Nirvana’s career with Kurt Cobain being willing to have his name associated with Melvins’ major label debut Houdini. While the extent of his participation in the recording/production of the album is debatable, my assumption is that Kurt was sharp enough to know that his name on the album was enough to guarantee it extra media coverage and probably a certain quantity of sales thus benefitting his friends directly. This was the same thinking that led Cobain to write the liner-notes to the reissue of The Raincoats’ debut album and to put so much attention into The Vaselines or Shonen Knife. One of the few powers he enjoyed once famous was that it allowed him to support those he adored. He also had the band support Nirvana for a few dates in December 1993 and then throughout most of the band’s last shows in February 1994 onto March 1, 1994. Melvins played to some of the biggest audiences of their career, just at a time when they needed such support to ensure the success of Houdini — it’s safe to say Kurt Cobain knew precisely the commercial power he was putting at their disposal and took some satisfaction from it.

What really makes the difference in my eyes is that, by the end of his life, Kurt had repudiated his links to many formal friends and idols. He wrote dismissive letters (unsent) to Calvin Johnson and Krist Novoselic while publically criticizing Sub Pop, grunge, riot grrl…He never did this to Melvins. The best indication of the importance of Melvins to the Nirvana story is that he always supported them throughout his teenhood and his traumatic last decade.

William S. Burroughs: Kurt’s Perfect Literary Idol Part. 2

Kurt’s key literary idol was William S. Burroughs and, as we began to explore in part one of this piece, there are clear reasons why the connection was made. Kurt’s teenage descriptions are of hanging out with a gay friend simply as a rebellion against the local rednecks; seeking out a fellow ‘reject’ to win freedom from their abuse and impositions.

William S. Burroughs had, by the Eighties, become the ultimate literary outlaw. Yet, increasingly downplayed was the importance of Burroughs’ homosexuality — even now, if you read his Wikipedia entry, it’s possible to see the drugs and guns and barely notice that he wrote book after book fixated on penises penetrated male anuses, it was gay fiction first and foremost. Most importantly, what Burroughs was attempting to write was the possibility of escape. Burroughs hated effeminate homosexuals and what he wanted to portray and elevate was the idea of the non-effeminate male homosexual; the result was, on the one hand, Burroughs’ own lifestyle with its guns, drugs, rock n’ roll and counter-culture vibe, and on the other hand a series of hero figures within his novels who were almost all explicitly gay while simultaneously being gun-toting, anti-authoritarian rebels, outlaws, gunslingers and warriors.

This was a surprisingly perfect fit to Kurt’s challenge. Kurt Cobain was seeking a concept, a belief, that would allow him to stop feeling un-manly and un-masculine without requiring him to be consumed by the traditional masculinity as emphasized by his father and by school bullies. William S. Burroughs was saying over and over again that a defiantly male identity was possible that didn’t need to rely ultimately on heterosexual coupling (Burroughs was a massive misogynist believing sex to be just another way society held back and retarded human potential.) He was also stating that the new male didn’t have to conform to the view prevalent in the mid-twentieth century that equated homosexuality with effeminacy and didn’t permit alternative visions of what a man could be.

Burroughs’ work therefore was surprisingly tightly linked to the conflicts portrayed in the music of Nirvana (Laminated Effect, Floyd the Barber, Even in his Youth, Stain, Been a Son, Rape Me’s first demo… Plus all the songs in which Kurt portrays himself as diseased or ‘wrong’) and was, most importantly, an escape route. To a young man with a wounded male identity, Burroughs showed that there didn’t have to be a direct tie between sexuality and identity, that identity was malleable and that Kurt’s artistic life was no more a preclusion to heterosexuality than Burroughs’ homosexuality precluded him from being a hard-living, gun-loving, aging redneck…Who happened to find sexual pleasure in other men. Sexuality didn’t dictate lifestyle.

Of course, the intellectual, spiritual escape didn’t wholly succeed. The nearest Kurt seems to have come to a resolution is in his very vocally expressed sexual adoration of Courtney Love; “the best fuck in the world.” The problem though is that his underlying psychological issue posited that the shedding of guilt and a move to ‘wholeness’ would result from his bonding with a woman. Discovering that even though it made him very happy, that expecting one’s partner to provide you absolute happiness is unrealistic; there are compromises involved in sharing a life with another human being and others can only help, they can’t ‘fix’ you entirely.

This makes Kurt’s desire to have Burroughs star in the Heart Shaped Box video an intriguing one. A song that was about his submission to his female love object, that explicitly uses imagery referring to her vagina, was going to feature a man who’s work was about freeing man from his enslavement to vaginal fixation, and from a sense of manliness reliant on acquisition and use of women. Far more than being simply a rich rock star trying to call in a personal idol, the participation of William S. Burroughs in the video would have lent even greater emphasis to the song’s entangled themes of love versus freedom, of the centrality of children whether as renewal (fetuses feeding the IV tubes of an old man) or as oppressor (KKK outfits) and the umbilical noose meaning one can’t escape one’s genetics.

William S. Burroughs: Kurt’s Perfect Literary Idol Part. 1

I’m instituting a week of more controversial topics I think…For argument’s sake.

Kurt Cobain’s musical career featured the work of, in essence, a nineteen to twenty-seven year old man. Yet, in a music industry that tends toward romance and excessive libido, these elements were almost absence from Kurt’s lyrics. On the other hand, there are multiple references to emasculation, numerous adoptions of the female role within a song, heck, there are more songs about rape than about consensual sex.

Kurt was not gay, there’s no evidence of that at all, but he did have a genuine challenge around gender identity. His father made clear to Kurt how disappointing his lack of interest in traditional signifiers of heterosexual masculinity was; a feeling of shame Kurt displayed in his songs years later. Being made to feel that he wasn’t a whole man seems a crucial factor in the emasculatory images used. Essentially his father’s staunchly ‘jock’ view of what being a man was left Kurt adrift once he rejected his father. The problem was that his father’s view of the world left Kurt with few alternatives; effeminacy or acceptance of homosexuality. The reinforcement given to this by school bullying, being labeled a “faggot”, led him to wear the identity just to be left alone.

The conflict is surprisingly undimmed years later in The Advocate interview; “I’m definitely gay in spirit, and I probably could be bisexual…I probably would have carried on with a bisexual life-style” he says. It’s a ludicrous but revealing quotation; Kurt Cobain was never bisexual, there’s evidence of a few girlfriends, of his heterosexual dalliances and experiments plus his head-over-heels passion for Courtney Love. There’s no evidence of a genuinely homosexual attraction to other men. By a bisexual lifestyle it’s unclear what he’s referring to bar his spells between girlfriends when he just seems to have been asexual and solitary. What it shows his how Kurt was unable to see that his creative, artistic, solitary tendencies were perfectly masculine — he’s still centred on the idea that as he wasn’t macho he therefore must be not fully heterosexual. He equates his lifestyle with non-heterosexuality by default not because it was bi-or-homosexual.

The song Laminated Effect from the Fecal Matter demo is a horrible indication of this conflict. The first verse shows the protagonist, Johnny, being raped by his father and as a consequence living an unhappy life that ends with him dying of AIDS in San Francisco. So, just to be clear, the only destiny for a male homosexual character was misery and death. The second verse meanwhile has a lesbian character being ‘cured’ as she finds out male-on-female vaginal penetration “it’s normal.” It’s not a nice song and on first reading could be taken as a simple, nasty, piece of teenage homophobia. As with most of Kurt’s lyrics, however, it’s far more about himself than any commentary on society or social groupings as a whole. It’s a song about the destruction set in motion by a father figure destroying the son and about life only being sustainable if tied to the female. It’s not a homophobic song, it’s not Kurt revealing an underlying hypocrisy in his later pro-homosexual leanings, it’s Kurt showing that he feels he’s doomed because his dad has robbed him of his manliness making him into something (“made not born” as the song’s outro claims) that can only mean a sad, unhealthy life and an undesirable end.

It’s the same conflict echoed in songs like Floyd the Barber, Been a Son, Stain, Even in his Youth, Beeswax, On a Plain (“neutered and spayed”), Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, the first demo of Rape Me…

Part Two Later Today.