Archive for the ‘A Young Kurt Cobain 1967-1987’ Category

One of Kurt Cobain’s greatest apparent pleasures, one of the few he took from his fame, was to cast the torchlight over bands and musicians he adored. It’s possible to think of Cobain as a younger adherent to label-mate Sonic Youth’s dragging up of fellow artists – Shonen Knife, Meat Puppets, Greg Sage and the Wipers, Melvins, The Vaselines; all owe ongoing attention to their association with Cobain. Yet Cobain’s showcasing of his leftfield tastes managed, in one case, to bring an artist back from the dead.

Lead Belly was a virtually forgotten blues artist – rediscovered in the Sixties during the blues revival but as a very minor background figure by comparison to other proponents of the style such as Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. The key blues idol in the eyes of the 60s and 70s rock scene though was Robert Johnson, the man who sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical gifts, a man who left just 29 recorded songs (41 takes.) He was also an early entry to The 27 Club. He was the crucial figure in the blues rival of the late 60s – the central defining blues figure for Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Keith Richards; the guitar cream of the rock scene. In all five cases their focus was Johnson’s mastery of the blues as a vocal and instrumental art – this mattered to four men who prided themselves on their overall musical abilities.

Kurt Cobain’s inspiration took alternative roots and destination. It’s unclear where he first discovered Lead Belly, but Lead Belly is the only blues figure to feature on the well known Top 50 Albums list emphasising his centrality as a figure Cobain admired. With the performance of Where Did You Sleep Last Night – a relatively common Nirvana cover he performed on stage quite a number of times from 1989 onward as well as at The Jury cover sessions – at the MTV Unplugged performance he single-handedly made Lead Belly a name known among rock and pop audiences and gave the defining performance of one of his songs. What’s curious to me is why and how Lead Belly became a figure of significance for Kurt Cobain.

As a first port of call, one other key influence on Nirvana was always the Led Zeppelin connection. Led Zeppelin did in fact perform one of their regular retooling efforts on a Lead Belly song, Gallis Pole, turning into Gallows Pole on Led Zeppelin III. There’s no evidence but it’s an intriguing suggestion, that the name Lead Belly may have been familiar to Kurt Cobain via this route. It also suggests the change of direction; Kurt Cobain was never a bluesman, he was a child of rock, a teen punk, a maturing pop musician. He never shared the Clapton-Hendrix-Beck-Townsend worship of the blues. So, by tying the earliest historical root to his tastes to a musician who had more connection to the band that pushed guitar music away from the blues and toward a separate style, he reemphasised his adherence to that later era.

A further element he didn’t share with those four individuals was guitar worship. Kurt Cobain was endlessly disparaging about his own instrumental abilities and his use of the guitar was rarely about more than accompaniment to the sentiments he wished to express in words. Again, Lead Belly’s more rough style married better to the kind of impressionistic (and not necessarily clean or well tutored) work Kurt Cobain exhibited in the acoustic demos available of him working at home. Unlike Robert Johnson, Lead Belly also saw fit to move away from guitar at times if an alternative instrument suited the desired effect or direction. As a musical urge Lead Belly simply ‘fitted’ Kurt Cobain’s self-taught and punk orientated vision of musicianship. He was rejecting an entire component of the hard rock lineage, that leading back to the four key figures of the late sixties, in favour of the heavier sound of the Seventies. His music may have owed its roots to the blues but it wasn’t a reiteration of them.

Lead Belly also brings with him far greater baggage than Robert Johnson’s mythical demonic linkage. Lead Belly was a quintessential ‘bad man’, a regular jail house presence with one murder, one attempted homicide, one further stabbing all to his name across several decades. While Johnson’s personal biography is a misty affair, Lead Belly’s is fairly well-known and can be read a point around the redemptive power of music; that one can appreciate the work of an individual without loving the individual or their life. For a man like Kurt Cobain, one with serious self-esteem issues and feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame arising from a disturbed childhood and ongoing poverty into his mid-twenties, listening to an artist who made music that lifted him above the mess of his life… It may not share the poetry of the ’27’ but it has a deeper, and positive, fuel.

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As discussed back on Friday, Kurt Cobain, aged 11-17 was, while not a typical nor a normal boy, not much beyond the average. At that point, while having musical ambitions, he was not a rock star, he was barely a musician let alone a professional — his first live performance didn’t take place until December 1985 (just two months off being nineteen) and his first full band recording session is now thought to have happened at Easter 1986. In essence, he was indistinguishable from a million other teenagers who have embraced a love of music and adopted it as a fantasy of a future.

In Part One of this piece we dwelt on Kurt Cobain’s self-defined ‘road to Damascus’ moment when he discovered the punk rock of the early Eighties thanks to his friends in the Melvins; their practices, their tape compilations of the wider scene. While accepting that his tastes didn’t cut cleanly overnight from mainstream rock/pop to punk in one swift motion, the ability to define himself, to adopt this music as a component of his identity was a crucial act and deserves the weight he places upon it.

What has brought home to me how normal this moment is, however, has been the conversations with so many Nirvana fans over these past six months. The crucial thing the majority of people I’ve spoken to share with Kurt Cobain is an experience of that moment where a piece of music can retrospectively appear of such brutal significance that it hauls one into a fresh reality; one where another person’s music becomes a statement of one’s own life. Having anonymised these pieces I wanted to share the memories of other peoples’ conversions.

Remember these are people who bought the Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide book direct from me, from all over the world, who twenty years after Nirvana’s life, took the time to write to acquire something new on the band…There’s a weight and ongoing life that has sprung from whatever quiet moment of discovery took place back in the past:

I discovered Nirvana by chance in the spring of 1995. I was on a school trip in Wales and the Unplugged album was being played in the minibus. The song that caught my attention was Pennyroyal Tea- it literally changed everything for me, never had I been so moved and lost in a song. When I got home I pestered my Mum until she bought me In Utero and the rest is history!

I bought my first Nirvana album, Incesticide, when I was thirteen. When I heard there was a book dissecting the album song by song I was intrigued. When I heard rave reviews for the book, I got excited. My father had a cassette copy of the Unplugged performance and one day while driving he put on Lake of Fire. I was hooked from that moment. I did a little research on the band and found that Nevermind and In Utero were the mega hit albums. Bleach was the heavy debut. And Incesticide was kind of lost in the shuffle. Now, myself being 7 of 8 children, I kinda felt lost in the shuffle too, so I decided to go with Incesticide as my first pick in my Nirvana collection. And I’m happy to say, that was a great choice.

I grew up in a small town (700 inhabitants)…quite isolated and narrow minded community. When I was 13 years old, Nevermind got released. And thanks to the impact of that album being so huge, it even found its way to the gas station in my village. I bought in on cassette (!), That album changed my life.

I grew up smack dab as the Nirvana phenomenon plowed through life. I saw them live in 1993 in Davenport, Iowa- I was young but I remember it well, (the band went to taco bell on kimberly street after the show- I wish we had too). When I was a bit older I had opportunity to deliver a car to someone in the Northwest and I went to Seattle, Aberdeen, Hoquiam- all the sites. And I’ve written and received a letter from Leland Cobain, Kurt’s grandpa- apparently he enjoys writing letters to fans- you should write him. I’ve also met Krist twice- both times in Chicago where my brother and I saw Eyes Adrift…talked to him for a bit, got a hug, got a drumhead with all 3 band members sigs..Really great experiences- all of them. So when a “New Item” comes along I suppose it satisfies some sentimental need…

I began playing guitar when I was 10 years old(around 92 -93) and learned how to play Lithium. Since then I wanted to learn everything by them and eventually everything about them. I think a lot of people have a similar experience or at least with my friends.

I first heard SLTS on the school bus at around 10 years of age, and when I was 12 years old my mother graciously took me to my first ever concert: Nirvana with 1/2 japs and the breeders. Most people grow out of their childhood tastes but I haven’t really. Cobain has enormously influenced me in terms of my subsequent musical tastes.

First heard Sliver on the radio in Australia in early 1991 when I was 15 and was getting into punk and new wave, then got hugely into Nirvana later that year when Nevermind came out. Then I got into
Bleach after the fact.

I’m 32 and twenty years ago I was really young…When I was 11-12 I wasn’t interested in music. Even when I was 14, so I totally missed everything about Kurt’s death. I have more vivid memories about Ayrton Senna’s tragic death, to tell the truth. First time I’ve listened Teen Spirit, I thought it was a Metallica song!!! I’ve discovered Nirvana in late 1996, found some cassettes on my brother collection (he’s 5 years older than me) and reading about them on some magazines.

Well, I’ve been into Nirvana since my early teenage years. They were my first real musical fascination and the starting point from which I’d eventually discover other fantastic bands. I rarely listen to them nowadays (and when I do, it’s usually more or less obscure live recordings), but a keen interest in the band, its legacy, its individual members etc. endures.

My story… Well it’s pretty usual I guess. My first actual encounter with Nirvana was when in high school a mate of mine asked me to translate the lyrics to “Rape Me” for him. That must have been in late ’94 or ’95. A few months later, another mate of mine popped In Utero on his Hi-Fi and I can honestly say I wasn’t blown away. It’s only a few of months later that I actually took the dive and I’ve been hooked ever since. I have my little Holy Grails that I’ve been hunting down over the years but to no avail. It’s part of the fun I guess!

The only thing possibly fascinating about my connection to Nirvana is that I have a daughter who was born right around the time Francis Bean was born. They wound up going to the same elementary school, although Francis Bean was a grade ahead of my daughter. As a result, I would encounter Courtney Love from time to time and sometimes have little conversations with Francis Bean. I even played a game of handball with her.

For me, I’ve told the story in the final chapter of the book, but as a wider thought, music during teenhood was an identifiable way of distinguishing different groups at school — it was one of the labels kids used to create a shared identity or to break away from the group. Similarly it formed a method of exchange, something one could easily give to others to bind them to you, to create connection, or to indicate status by virtue of rarity, exclusivity or depth.

What I love about the tales is noting that actual contact or experience of Nirvana as a live phenomenon is the exception, not the rule. For most of my fellow obsessives, it seems that the intangibility is perhaps a factor in the depth of interest; life/death makes no difference almost when thinking of something one will never touch or see as a physical reality, it’s all still alive.

While genetics is, day-after-day, providing further evidence of how a child is far more than an empty vessel, there’s still no denying that the overlay of lived experience crucially shapes and moulds that raw material; that there are few guaranteed outcomes in human form.

According to latest assessments, a human ego (Freud’s “das Ich”, ego was a translator’s Latin phrasing) —crucial in allowing an individual to wholly distinguish external from internal realities, to develop fully abstracted thought, and to defend sense of self against stress and external threats — only fully develops from around age nine. Prior to that age its far harder to experience or witness an external event and not ingest it into one’s personality; witness Kurt Cobain’s reaction to parental break-up, for one example. This movement from merely experiencing the world, to defining one’s own reality and the part events play within one’s mind forms part of the reason why teenage years are so flooded with significance — what occurs and what one discovers is new not because one has not experienced related moments before but because one can bestow higher meanings upon them and can give them significance within the constructed framework. Having built a wall between self and other its finally possible to choose to make things part of who one is.

The result is a series of events that can take on the significance of origin myths. Partly it’s that things truly are new — “you’ll never forget your first kiss.” To some extent it’s that a not necessarily new experience, becomes renewed as meaning is actively poured into it. In the case of Kurt Cobain, he’s very overt about what these crucial events were. In Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are, the subjugated misery of the parental breakup gives way to a far more active embrace of experiences such as teen rebel status, first experiences with girls (which seem to embed certain feelings of inadequacy and misfortune), and, most significantly in Kurt Cobain’s own eyes, the discovery of meaningful music in the form of punk.

Authors and commentators have pointed out that Kurt Cobain didn’t stop listening to more mainstream and metal fare; they imply also that Cobain is overemphasising his punk roots as a reaction against his discomfort at mainstream status in late 1992; they suggest there’s a touch of posing and self-mythology in the kid who had been singing along to The Beatles since he was a child suddenly claiming a punk revolution. They miss the point.

They’re seeking some moment of ideological purity, a cut-n-dried real world moment in which Cobain immediately hurled his previous record collection into a ditch and torched it. What occurred was an internal experience, a less tangible psychological experience in which punk music coincided with the teenage desire to grab hold of things that one could call one’s own and that could be used to define oneself. Kurt Cobain defined himself as a punk, the presence of other music within his taste palate doesn’t annul the depth of the discovery.

Cobain describes the discovery of punk as a near religious conversion, a veritable “seeing the light” moment for a boy still in his early-to-mid-teens. There’s no reason to doubt that it was a foundational moment for him; his life through until his death was spent absorbing and owning different currents from within the alternative/punk scene ranging from Melvins’ slow grind, through new wave vibes, Greg Sage guitar tone, David Yow/Buzz Osbourne vocals, grunge, power-pop/K Records/Vaselines’ vibes, Pixies dynamics… There’s no doubting also that this was a man who identified sufficiently with punk as an ethos that he felt genuinely conflicted about the consequences of the major label move and subsequent success. When he points to the discovery of those first tapes exposing him to the post-1980 U.S. take on punk as truly significant; believe it. His musical life would always have a string tying him back to that moment when he decided punk was the ingredient he was looking for in his quest to be someone.

What happens to us as children stays with us throughout our lives; what happens to us as teenagers, we sift for what will be WHO we are in the life to follow.

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 (www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk) 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.

Article in a previous week’s copy of The Economist (online at http://www.economist.com/news/international/21570679-cops-convicts-and-craftsmen-are-keeping-carbon-paper-alivejust-fade-black) 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 Endino.com, 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 LiveNirvana.com 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?

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 (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/28/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-1/), 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.

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.

http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/2/6/e002089.full

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.