Cobain Buying the Lead Belly Guitar / and ‘Nothing to Say’


A small piece from the Smithsonian Folkways rather impressive volume on Lead Belly. So, in case you were wondering, in 1994 the guitar Cobain stated he was considering buying was donated as an exhibit to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame And Museum.

So…Chris Cornell. I’ve been asked a few times in the four weeks since May 18 why I hadn’t put up a post or whether I’d be game to do a brief article for this place or that…And I shrugged and said no thanks. It’s not because I was dismissing the sadness of Cornell’s death, or his meaning to his fans, or the reasonableness of the request.

Death is simultaneously universal and solitary. We will all undergo the transformation and when we do – no matter how many people are around us – we will communicate nothing of it to those around us, even the most basic confirmation “I am dead,” will be beyond us. That moment in time will belong to you, or I, alone, forever. Similarly, the observation of that moment will tell a spectator little beyond it’s basic unpleasantness; the arrival of ‘absence’ within a body; the mutual private sadness of those still living who stand or sit watching us watch. We can watch and confirm what happened but not feel its significance to each of us.

In its aftermath, those left will be able to recount their grief and touch us with its tangible impact…But we take only so much of their pain inside us – it is their private interior feeling and is ultimately incommunicable to us. The weight that comes with someone’s passing, cannot be handed onto anyone else’s shoulders; nor can we measure our weight against theirs – we each bear it alone, in our own way, work through it alone.

In some ways I find that a comforting thought: that in an over-observed, over-communicated, hyper-mediated world there is something of such ultimate and inescapable significance that it remains inarticulate to all who feel it. That’s why I had no great desire to comment at the time: the point of death is there is nothing to say.

So, sure, I don’t disrespect the flood of obituaries; video clips; tributes; top tens; photo selections; encounters; in memoria op-eds that emerge in the aftermath of any musician’s death. It’s the business of music journalism to report the events of music: it’s an impersonal machine with no moral right or wrong. I didn’t find the repetitive quick summaries of his career enlightening; I didn’t flinch much at the over-egging of Soundgarden’s influence (as opposed to relative popularity); I already have all the albums and enjoy them sporadically as the mood takes me. It was simply another conversion of emotion into product – there’s no harm in that but it is a conversation of the living withh the living, it has nothing to do with the deceased.

The only pieces that resonated with me were one making an initial inroad into reckoning with a historical musical movement that has, ultimately, seen the untimely deaths of a remarkable core of its premier exponents – the ‘death rock’ image of whatever was ‘grunge’ gains yet more reasonable support. The other was a piece reiterating the point about depression and its effect on an individual’s perception of what is normal or rational or sensible. Again, however, in both cases, it meant Cornell became an example for some other narrative or story someone wished to tell: conversion into an intellectual element, again, is a way around the incalculable hole left by a death.

A friend of mine, currently, has endured a tragic loss. I have no words I can give to him that cover the occurrence or provide comfort. Presence, when wished for, is all anyone can give in the end. I believe strongly that death takes something from those left behind. Once age has weakened us sufficiently, seeing/hearing that our friends and loved ones are gone, wrenches the body and mind until eventually we know we’re just waiting for our own without anything left to fight it. Seeing the death of our loved ones and the pain of others when we’re young, again, reminds us that there is no discussion to be had and that the clock is ticking.

But I believe our loved ones, if their deaths are worth anything to us, are worth the giving of a little bit of our own peace of mind; our own comfort; our own spirit. They’re worth a private pain that never gets better though it fades and the memory of it grows dimmer – at which point we feel dissatisfied with ourselves for how frail is human retention of a feeling and a moment.

So I’ve got nothing to say about the death of Chris Cornell. His experience of it was his alone; the feelings of his friends and family remain inside them; your feelings as a fan or casual observer are yours and I have no knowing of them. Death is that one moment that belongs to no one else. I would feel disrespectful in trying to pierce something so ultimately private with any words at all.


Nirvana: Topping ‘In Utero’ – What Would Have Been Next?

I’d like to thank Mitchell for popping up and asking me to speculate on Nirvana’s next direction in light of the material shared on ‘Montage of Heck’ – if I did the math I suspect we’ve now seen more of Nirvana’s leftovers than we did original songs while the band was actually a living entity. Do they, plus other rumours tell us anything about what ‘the next Nirvana album’ may have been?

Ultimately, after all this time, the answer is still “we know nothing.” While preparing ‘Cobain on Cobain’ I was delighted to be permitted access to the full 40TV video footage of Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl being interviewed (in two different settings) while in Portugal in February 1994. It’s a fun piece, they’re enjoying themselves, then there’s a moment where they look sheepish, where the high spirits fall away:

Interviewer: I’ve heard that you’re going to release another album in several months. How will it be deeper or more poppy than this one?

DG: I don’t know. We’re still trying to figure it out. We’re just experimenting. Might be really weird.

Interviewer: But have you already composed songs or not yet?

DG: A few.

KN: Few, yeah.

DG: Just a couple. We’re still — we don’t know what we’re going to do yet either. It’s kind of — it’s up in the air right now. Still a mystery. To us.

They move on swiftly to talking about Grohl’s work with the Backbeat band. They’ve no desire to halt the cavalcade, but this is a huge contrast with late 1991 when Nirvana were all confidently claiming that they had the next album plotted out and ready to release in ’92. This time ‘a few’ becomes ‘a couple’. They have no plan at all for a new album – not even a vibe they’re thinking of following. In Sandrine Maugy’s interview with Dave Grohl a few days later in Paris, they talk about everything but the idea of new music from Nirvana isn’t even mentioned. There’s nothing here.

The more one looks, the more things recede into fuzziness. Michael Stipe is clear that he invited Cobain to join him and R.E.M. in March 1994 simply because he was scared about Cobain’s state of mind – it wasn’t a plan for a collaboration, it was a musical intervention. The idea that Stipe was about to halt R.E.M.’s own album recording plans for ‘Monster’ in order to record a fully-fledged body of work with Cobain is simply unreal. R.E.M. were in studio in February, booked in again for early April – there’s no time.

Similarly, the ‘Lollapalooza Tour EP’ idea is supposedly the next Nirvana product meant to emerge after the ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single – again, however, there’s nothing except an ‘idea’ for a release, no substance at all. Interviewing members of Geffen management for the ‘I Found My Friends’ book they were clear there was nothing they recall even discussing at the time. The label’s hottest property’s supposed new release wasn’t worth remembering because it never existed.

What about ‘You Know You’re Right’ though? It’s a demo, a good one, but still a demo. There’s obvious work still to be done to create a credibly releasable song. Its status comes posthumously not because it was album-ready/release-ready at the time. Pat Smear has suggested he was told he could add parts to it but as nothing happened even he is unwilling to confirm that the song was deemed complete. It is true that on ‘Nevermind’ and on ‘Bleach’ Nirvana used older recordings from previous sessions (‘Polly’, ‘Floyd the Barber’, ‘Paper Cuts’ – ‘Downer’ was a later bonus) but it seems that was a decision taken during album sessions, not a deliberate plan. It makes it unlikely ‘You Know You’re Right’ was something being placed in the can ready for later.

And ‘Do Re Mi’ suffers from the shadow cast by MTV Unplugged. Though a titanic performance, that session was a contractually obligated TV format Nirvana was required to adhere to if they wished to perform. It therefore says nothing about Nirvana’s own intentions though they were flirting with acoustic segments for a time in 1993. Nirvana’s albums are over 90% electric all the way – the idea of a new singer-songwriter direction, though alluring and possible, isn’t substantiated by any evidence. ‘Do Re Mi’ itself was unlikely to remain in its unadorned bedroom demo form – when Cobain strains for a note it sounds more like the technique he uses on other home demos to indicate where he’d be adding a scream to the final amplified version.

People point back to Cobain leftovers to claim the band could have cobbled together a complete work, forgetting Cobain’s strong pride in his work, his deep consideration of the final form and selection for each album. ‘Old Age’ was long abandoned – a gift to his wife so no longer even a Nirvana song. With ‘Talk to Me’ there’s, so far, no evidence supporting rumours it was played in ’94 though there is clear evidence that it was so uninteresting to Cobain and the band that in the numerous sessions from spring 1992 onward, all those concerts too, they didn’t even attempt it. ‘Opinion’ and the original ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ had gone missing years earlier too. The use of 1990-1991 songs for early 1993’s ‘In Utero’ is well testified; but is poor evidence for other resurrections.

There are other places to look for potential songs, of course, the thread on here is loaded with them. The unknown rehearsal instrumental added to the In Utero deluxe was so dashed off no one involved had even remembered it existed. Then there’s the ‘unknown’ song that gets played twice in late 1993 and at the January 1994 session – now that, at least, is a credible new Nirvana song but it’s still only a minute-and-a-half shred. Alongside ‘You Know You’re Right’, however, it certainly lays to rest the idea that Cobain was abandoning the effects pedals and volume. Heck, Nirvana didn’t even play MTV Unplugged, unplugged.

One could look to his various home demos with Courtney Love to tease out future works:

Except nothing seen so far has been a truly credible new song – they’re whimsical games. There’s little to see so far though I look forward to the eventual archive release.

Others hold out great faith for Cobain giving up being the guiding force in Nirvana and letting Dave Grohl shoehorn some songs in – to be fair, at least he had the material:

Again though, I just don’t see it. This was Cobain’s fiefdom – he might take the odd idea, try the odd b-side, but handing over a percentage of an album to his drummer? This wasn’t a democracy.

On the bright side though, Nirvana were quick, disciplined workers in studio – there’s no reason to claim they weren’t capable of jamming together a bunch of songs over the course of 1994-1995 in the way that ‘MV’, ‘Gallons’, ‘The Other’, ‘I Hate Myself’, ‘Milk It’, ‘Serve the Servants’ and so forth don’t seem to have existed until late 1992. These were talented and experienced musicians.

…But the question “what do the demos currently available show?” The answer is they show Cobain had one unknown song he was tinkering with; he had ‘You Know You’re Right’; he had ‘Do Re Mi’. Three datapoints isn’t enough to draw any kind of pattern. The ‘Path to an Album’ posts ( suffered from that same point – that the past isn’t a perfect guide to the future. It’s speculation.

And it’ll always be speculation, which is kinda fun isn’t it?









No Evidence: The Ongoing Career of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana

Uncertainty is a beautiful thing. Legends are created not through predictability, but through blank white space into which a reader/viewer/fan can inject wish fulfillment, a gap in knowledge allowing fans to participate and have some degree of ownership over the question of ‘what might have been?’

It’s hard, after twenty years of sainthood, to rewind the clock to ’94 and realise that there’s nothing in the Nirvana story making Cobain’s ‘legend’ status inevitable. That isn’t to say that it wouldn’t/couldn’t have happened without his death – but there’s fair reason to suggest that untimely death was crucial.

Firstly, the commercial picture. Remember the premier bands of the early-to-mid-Nineties? Pearl Jam, while garnering more respect than they acquired back in the day, haven’t had a multi-platinum album in the U.S. since 1994’s Vitalogy. Soundgarden’s multi-platinum sales  for Badmotorfinger and Superunknown stalled in 1996. Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple (1994), Hole’s Live Through This (1994), Alice in Chains Jar of Flies (1994) Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) – the heyday of the grunge/alternative bands ended not long after Cobain’s death. The torch passed to a new generation, bands like Green Day – Red Hot Chili Peppers are the only other enduring success story.

The question is whether Cobain’s death played a role in the deflation of the enthusiasm around the ‘alternative nation’ or whether it would have ended anyway. That’s open to debate. Most musical movements, however, barely last half a decade before losing the masses. Tastes change. The ‘cult of the new’ demands something fresh.

Secondly, in terms of musical trends, Nirvana’s rise was the final act not only of punk but of the dominance of the guitar in popular music. Rock n’ Roll had overtaken Jazz as the world’s premier musical form sometime in the early Sixties just as Jazz had usurped Classical. The mid-Nineties saw Hip Hop become the world’s most crucial and effervescent creative form. In terms of commercial success, global presence, artistic influence – Hip Hop superseded rock music. Rock is now where Jazz was in 1970 – full of life, new twists and strains springing up, but no longer visible to mass audiences. Nirvana may have survived as one of the world’s biggest ROCK acts – but one of the world’s most important creative entities? Nope.

Thirdly, the rise of the Internet shattered the music industry. Numerous critically respected rock acts passed back to indie labels as part of a mass clear-out in the early 2000s. Most of the rest didn’t renew their contracts or weren’t given the choice of staying with a major label. That isn’t as important as it used to be but sales are no longer what they were for most artists. Measurements of ‘career longevity’ show that bands aren’t surviving as long, aren’t staying in the spotlight as long. Everyone is smaller even if the smothering of social media, Instagram, Twitter, whatever with certain attention seekers makes some characters seem bigger than they really are in terms of commercial power.

That brings us to Nirvana as an entity – there’s very little indication whether Nirvana would endure. The opposite is true also, there’s no indication that Nirvana was definitely over. Everything happened too fast in 1994 for any final conclusion to be drawn. In many ways ’94 was a repeat of ’92 with tour cancellations, overdoses, Cobain vanishing from the public eye, future plans in the calendar but no certainty, casual studio visits but no big intentions. With that in mind it’s impossible to say whether, with Cobain’s survival, there may have been a new Nirvana album in 1995, 1996, 1997 – or whether Nirvana were done and the era of Foo Fighters was about to begin.

In terms of Cobain’s album-ready material, by his own admission the cupboard was threadbare. Most finished studio works had been released or long abandoned. That doesn’t mean there might not have been some revivals – half of In Utero was filled with songs from before Nevermind – but there’s no indication of him feeling much affection or use for songs like ‘Old Age’ (given away), ‘Sappy’ (already released in ’93), ‘Clean Up Before She Comes’ (abandoned in the late Eighties and never attempted in studio.) His new material in ’93-’94, true songs as opposed to jams like ‘The Other Improv’, consisted of two tracks; ‘Do Re Mi’ and ‘You Know You’re Right’. It doesn’t mean he was done, Cobain was fully capable of writing songs at speed – but he would have been starting almost from scratch. Attempts to fill imaginary tracklistings with old leftovers are fun but fly in the face of the care and attention Cobain paid to the music he put out – who knows?

As for direction; it’s a mystery. Acoustic? Vague statements and a home demo of ‘Do Re Mi’ provide little support for that idea. The opportunity to work with members of R.E.M. also doesn’t suggest an acoustic route given R.E.M. were busy working on ‘Monster’ – one of their most amped-up records (heck, it even had room for Thurston Moore to bust electric on it.) Electric? Well, ‘You Know You’re Right’ was Nirvana-by-numbers (though cool!), messing around with new effects boxes earlier in ’93, all the jams and noisy tracks created in late ’92/early ’93 – it could all suggest Cobain’s sound heading back toward the heavier sounds of pre-pop Nirvana…Or it could be nothing. Preparation for a new album was already well behind:

And that’s the reality of it all. A 48 year old Kurt Cobain would not be the zeitgeist owning figure of the mainstream that he was briefly in ’92-’93. That ground, in 2015, would still be owned by Kayne West, Young Thug, Nikki Minaj and others. The likelihood is the path of Nirvana would have followed that of all the other multi-million sellers of the early Nineties – there’s no reason for Nirvana to be the one band immune to the shifts in music culture and commerce. That doesn’t mean that a fully functioning Cobain wouldn’t have continued as an effective underground force…

…And that’s where the fun is. Anyone can choose whether they feel Cobain in 2000, 2000, 2015, would have been a strung-out yet occasionally great Johnny Thunders figure; or an eternally productive and collaborative Thurston Moore; or a forgotten death in a squalid room like Layne Staley; or just a respected circuit player like Mark Arm or Eddie Vedder.

Cobain Postcard from Death Scene Plus PDF Police Review of Evidence


It’s one way to commemorate an anniversary…The Seattle Police Department chose to mark the twentieth anniversary of Cobain’s death by reviewing the evidence they hold and releasing a report summarising their views. Their conclusion? Nothing contradicting the verdict of suicide. In terms of new information, there’s almost nothing; they uncovered that on Tuesday April 2, 1994 Cobain took a taxi into town to purchase the shotgun shells that he then used. There’s an interesting discussion of the movement of the gun at time of firing which concludes that Cobain’s death grip on the gun results in the final position of one shotgun casing and one misfired round. Oh, and in what should delight murder theorists, turns out the 1.52 milligrams per litre level of heroin in Cobain’s blood stream is entirely correct though the report also notes the presence of fresh needle tracks and puncture wounds indicating sustained use of heroin and more than one recent injection (wounds is a plural in the report – not just one indicating injection at time of death but several.)

They also released a postcard that was in Cobain’s wallet but unsent in which he scribbles down “Do you Kurt Cobain take Courtney Michelle Love to be your lawful shredded wife even when she’s a bitch with zits and siphoning all (your) money for doping and whoring…” Apparently there’s more not included in the photo released. Funnily enough, the stationery Cobain uses for the postcard above, that was found in his wallet, comes from a San Francisco hotel called the Phoenix – apparently popular with a rock clientele, perhaps partially due to its proximity to a neighbourhood known for drug dealing. As an aside, Cobain doesn’t visit San Francisco in March 1994 – however, Roddy Bottum, keyboardist for Faith No More and a friend of the Cobain couple flew in from San Francisco sometime after March 18 and left before 25 suggesting he might have left the postcard at the house and Cobain had later scooped it up and used it as scrap paper sometime among the smattering of days between Friday March 25 and Tuesday April 5. (Added Note: pointed out in comments, it’s likely the card was written by Courtney herself – sheesh, couples! They have the weirdest sense of humour. :-))

This is the Police Report incidentally:


A thank you at this point to Jon for adding a YouTube link in the comments a week ago to Tom Grant’s response to Mike Ciesynski which, neatly, includes detective Ciesynski’s verbal comments on his review.

For once I’m going to give an inch to the murder theory – Cobain isn’t exactly a candidate for world’s tidiest human being as demonstrated by the photos last month of how he and Courtney Love left one apartment they shared and the numerous comments on his apartment in Olympia previous to that. The idea that he put the syringe back in his box and put the caps on is a bit weird…BUT. Suicide isn’t a normal act, it isn’t a normal time and this is a guy who has shown meticulous attention to the staging and positioning of art projects suggesting it isn’t that he’s constitutionally incapable of being tidy, orderly and precisely arranged. Having laid out items next to his body, putting away the syringes was just one more preparation…Or his supposed killer takes the time to it which is pretty unconvincing too. I’m sure the Seattle police are pretty aware that by this stage people will just believe what they believe.

The postcard’s main fascination comes from the way in which it’s such a common behaviour on Cobain’s part; the Journals are riddled with unsent letters, vicious missives to all and sundry explaining their sins and crimes. My perspective was always that it was his way of discharging his more negative views and I’ve always doubted that any of the letters were meant to be sent because I think Cobain knew fine well that what he was writing was usually extremely slanted and didn’t even capture the totality of his own feelings. Instead it was more akin to the sentiment put out in his lyrics about politeness (“if you wouldn’t mind/if you wouldn’t care…”, Come as You Are, All Apologies) that he often felt he couldn’t say things, or just as likely knew he’d be talking sh** if he did. Really I put the postcard in with that, a semi-nonsensical scree aimed at his wife who has just threatened to take his child away and to divorce him. I mean, those couple of lines are pretty silly.

Nirvana and Lollapalooza

I’ve muttered on about Lollapalooza before, this is just a very brief addition to the topic. I noted that Perry Farrell and the organisers hadn’t been asked about it. A few brief attempts to contact Mr F didn’t get far so I just popped a question on Twitter – land of those incapable of making an extensive or wide-ranging argument or luxuriating in a flow of words (a comment on the medium not Mr F I assure you – he’s a sharp guy!) Anyways, just a minor addition to the store of Nirvana knowledge but he did reply with the following:


Not a major addition, more a touch more chronology indicating that the band did accept – after one of their usual bursts of word play and teasing. I shouldn’t credit Cobain with all light plays on words but it does hint that he either was involved, or that he had allowed someone to go ahead and agree on his behalf even if he had only the slimmest intentions of going ahead with it. The silence is just fairly typical passive-aggressive North-West behaviour – best not to reply than to offend by saying something someone might not like or might come back on. It was suggested to me the other day that this is a fairly common characteristic of the area – a bit like how I was once told that the Japanese would rather move office and disconnect the number than say no to you on a phone call. As I’m British and therefore make weasling out of blunt honesty a core part of my average day I can definitely sympathise.

I’d simply been curious regarding what point in time the invitation had been made – this is still up for grabs. I’ve never been a fan of the idea that Cobain plotted his end over a lengthy period of time and I was wondering whether the invitation was made in late 1993 or whether the band received the invitation in the spell from February onwards when he seems at his worst. Ah well, nice there are always questions.

The Gits, Boycotts and NBC

Even in amidst the peaks and troughs of his troubled final year, Kurt Cobain’s basic decency remained on display. Reacting to the news of the brutal rape and killing of Mia Zapata the band used their weight to ensure that there’d be a good audience for the benefit that allowed Mia’s friends to begin the private investigations into her death that ultimately led to finding the murderer.

After a crazy time in which band members and male friends were the obvious first suspects, during which the police investigators questioned the role played by whatever Mia happened to be wearing that day in her fate (for the record and though I’m sure it doesn’t need stating, rape is not a crime that relies on someone dressing for the occasion – it’s about power and opportunity. The physical vulnerability of the victim versus the physical strength of the attacker plus the availability of a suitably discreet venue are the key factors – the attractiveness or otherwise of an individual is why you date them not why one forces an unwanted sexual act on them. Anyways, I digress…) and nothing seemed to be moving. An awful lot of money, an awful lot of work went into solving the crime and it took over half a decade to reach a result. Simultaneously, the hopes and dreams of an up-and-coming group of musicians were broken; they lost a beloved friend and also their own day-to-day lives were irrevocably altered as the chance to play, tour, record and progress as a group (and as a job that gave them their living) was whipped away. It’s understandable that the entire incident was extremely wounding to those involved and that reprising it comes with pain that must be considered.

That’s all context though – I think I’ll let individuals at the heart of this speak for themselves.

Happy Friday comrades!

Cobain’s Drugs Party in 226/526

A fun and entertaining sideline presented to me by Jeremy Keene – thank you fella! At about the three minute mark of this neat little interview with Duff McKagan there’s a mention of the famous room at the Marco Polo Hotel. Duff points out the echo of a song by punk band GBH:

The thought therefore occured that maybe the room was wrong but there’s definitely no fifth floor or room 526 at the motel – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a knowing echo. Cobain’s work is strewn with puns on other words and twisted meanings. It’s an intriguing possibility that, even when at his lowest, there was room for a sardonic smile when it came to choosing the room.

I’ve mentioned before how the final months of Cobain’s life are filled with echoes of his past – that he seems to have been looking backwards – a 1984 punk track isn’t out of place at all. Examples? Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam had been played only twice after its heyday in 1991 until it reappeared at MTV Unplugged; similarly Where Did You Sleep Last Night had cropped up only once or twice a year since 1989 before becoming a landmark TV performance for the band; in 1994 only two new songs featured in Nirvana set-lists but one was My Sharona by the Knack – a band Cobain had pointed to back in 1991-1992 as a comparison for Nirvana- while the other was My Best Friend’s Girl by the Cars, played at Nirvana’s last show and reputedly one of the first songs he ever learned; the suicide note reference to ‘dear Boddah’ tying to a childhood imaginary friend; calling his grandfather out of the blue, for the first time in ages, just to talk. It made sense too that key tour partners in Europe were his teenage favourites, the Buzzcocks, and perennial supporters, inspirations and Aberdeen buddies, the Melvins – his desire to support and see favourites was of course on display but was another part of this apparent cocoon of old comforts. The fact he mainly did it with music and with family is an indication of the twin poles of salvation he’d looked to.

E.F.F.E.C.T. Cobain 1992 through 1994

My hangovers have become two day extravaganzas. One day of physical pain then a second day of general emotional vibes and not quite being with it, motivation down, self-criticism up. Apparently this is quite common. Partly it’s age, partly it’s because I don’t drink as often as I used to so my body just isn’t used to it – plus not drinking often means it’s possible to see the depressive effect of alcohol for what it is. Alcohol in itself is a pure substance, but we consume it usually in adulterated forms and imprecisely varied amounts so the body is facing an array of chemical onslaughts. Couple that with the impact of body temperature, pre-existing mood and psychological status, physical health, body mass, efficiency of internal organs, whether one is drinking stood up or sat down, sleep patterns, quantity and/or type of food consumed with it, whether one drinks water…The impact of alcohol in a laboratory can be tested to derive a scientific rule or equation but loose in society it becomes a conundrum of infinite complexity. Most of us have experienced it; the morning after a booze-soaked outing but somehow we’ve survived, or the couple of pints on the way home that somehow leaves the head buzzing the whole of the next day – or the friend who downs beer with abandon but needs carrying home as soon as they touch shots.

I’m always struck that people often have difficulty dealing with ambiguity; in the case of Cobain I’m always struck by people studying photos, looking at video footage, reading observations from others and claiming that the reality of his addiction wasn’t all it was made out to be because he was fine on this occasion or that. As I’m sure most people actually do realise on some level, the fact the impact upon him varied shouldn’t come as a surprise. The fact that in July 1993 he overdosed sometime in the period immediately before going on and was still able to play indicates that he was remarkably functional drug addict able to sing and play guitar despite being undoubtedly under the influence and probably not in anything close to a decent state. On the other hand, The Jesus Lizard have said before that it wasn’t exactly a virtuoso performance – he phoned it in. Not such a disaster that people talk about it in the way they do the January 16th show in Sao Paolo but still a zombified human being. It was both things at once – amazing stamina and well-practised capability, drug-induced sluggishness and lack of energy.

Examining a video and catching behavioural changes resulting from drug use might be valid, but the only thing that could be told from a photo would be skin damage and/or weight gain/loss. Similarly, the indication of off-kilter movement or speech on a video says that at that point in time someone might be having trouble…But it doesn’t extend to suggesting that three days later that was still their ongoing condition – it captures a moment not a trend or a pattern. The video and camera doesn’t lie, people are just asking far too much of it if they expect it to tell all about an individual. The functioning of his internal organs, the chemical impact on his brain, on fluid levels, on lung capacity, on heart rate or vision – none of this can be told without a close up examination.

To make a wider statement about his holistic condition across a period of time means combining evidence and here the evidence is very clear; witness reported overdoses, statements regarding drug use or purchase, photos indicating skin damage (take a look at the shots from Paris in 1994 where makeup was required to cover what had happened to his face), video clips indicating impacted motion and performance, hospitalisation, self-reported usage, the independent decision to seek treatments, reported physical pains and issues that may or may not have been linked to drug use. There’s no debate, given the span of time over which these sources are available, that there was a committed ongoing drug habit of varying intensity with spells of relatively controlled or intermittent usage and periods of heavy debilitating and incapacitating usage. There’s an expectation – born of a focus on worst case scenarios and imagery that sticks in the mind – that he should look like a Nancy Reagan approved dessicated skeleton, preferably with damaged teeth and eyes rolled back. He never did. In some images it’s clear that at age 26 Cobain had grown into his looks, in others he’s looking pretty rough – no one image can tell the tale and there’s no single pattern or path that could be observed in something as blunt as an image.

As human beings in a rapidly moving world, we make mental snapshots that allow us to evaluate and respond at pace; we rarely assess our fellows wholly or completely. Common statements that always make me twitch are “he didn’t look/act like a (insert choice here – pedophile, mass murderer, terrorist, spree killer, serial cheat, fraudster)” as if anything other than a tiny minority of individuals fall into the required image. It’s particularly lunatic because all those items are legally created and contextual descriptions – in a society with no legal age limit for sexual activity there’s no such thing as illegal and therefore immoral activity with a child, in a society that accepts killing in certain situations even mass murder doesn’t mean one wouldn’t invite them for dinner, meanwhile the ability of respectable individuals in smart clothing to egregiously enrich themselves seems to be a boom industry because people judge the clothing, personal grooming, accent and presentation rather than any awareness of internal intent or objective.

The result is statements like “I don’t understand why they’re unhappy – I mean, they’re rich/beautiful/successful/powerful/loved…Ad infinitum.” Again, easy external markers are used as a substitute for any knowledge of the internal emotional and/or psychological condition of an individual. It’s like saying of someone who dies of cancer – “but they looked so healthy,” – our position as external observers of one another gives us no ability to glance inside to that individual’s personal measures of success, personal frustrations or desires. In order to be able to function as a social order, in other words to understand and judge or react to status, position and our potential relationship to an individual, we substitute the things that we can measure at a glance; style, demeanour, brands, employment status and so forth. None of these things show us what the person might be like one minute to a next but they’re the nearest we can get in the quick-study contact most of us experience with one another day-by-day.

In the case of Cobain, he didn’t need to look like a drug addict to be one. And being chemically or psychologically dependent on pharmaceuticals didn’t make him a less moral or less decent person – nor a less functional one. Just as one’s morality exists independent of what one eats for dinner, so did Cobain’s. Anyways, sorry! Afternoon rant over!

For the record, the only thing I’ve ever found truly effective against a hangover is how much water I consume WHILE drinking – I used to drink water afterwards when I made it home but too much at that point disrupted sleep and so forth. Avoid mixing – for it is the devil’s work!!

A Final Cobain Locale – Room 226, Marco Polo Motel: April 1994

Room 226

Courtesy of Mr Mitch Holmquist, a series of interior shots of Room 226 of the Marco Polo Motel as it stands today. Thanks Mitch! The guy is a mine of Nirvana-related/State of Washington-related knowledge.

Room 226_3

I strolled past way back in September when visiting the North West but never popped inside. It’s known among Nirvana circles simply because it’s one of the final places Kurt Cobain was seen alive. Naturally it’s changed over the years but gives a fair sense of the room – its a motel room, I doubt it was any more thrilling twenty years ago. That’s the most jarring thing perhaps – multi-millionaire rock star at peak of his fame, mansion by the waters just a 45 minute drive away, instead he’s sitting round in a blank little box of a room, maybe gazing out on the parking lot view, otherwise looking at nothing.

Room 226_6

And actually, to be fair, it looks pretty nice! Given the cost of a hotel in Central Seattle, staying here, on one of the main bus routes back into the centre (the bus ride out took me 15 minutes or so back in September – service seemed really regular and reliable), within walkable distance of centre (the walk toom me maybe an hour to head back as far as the Paramount), with decent facilities and a clean room…Nice! Frankly, beyond the historical (and slightly ghoulish) Cobain connection I reckon the Marco Polo Motel looks extremely pleasant.

Room 226_1

It’s also what I like about U.S. history compared to European history. The fact we built stone castles and cathedrals over our sites of interest sometimes makes European history seem less day-to-day or real – it’s all too excessive in a way, the life of normal people wiped away and replaced by the actions and relics of those with the power and wealth to create enduring temples.

Room 226_2

In the U.S., so many more of the historical sites are surprisingly ordinary and examining something at this close range – the life of an individual who’ll still have a place in legend in fifty years time or more – it’s still possible to see how simple and everyday it all was.

Room 226_4

Kurt Cobain reminds me that beyond the excess portrayed upon TV and film screens and via celebrity-obsessed rags, the rich and super-rich ultimately live nothing more than a more polished and sunnier version of reality. Their hotel rooms might be a bit nicer – but how much ‘nicer’ can something truly be? I stayed in a seven star hotel once – it was just a hotel in the end, anonymous living.

Room 226_5

Song Dissected : Do Re Mi

Someone in the comments at one point asked my thoughts on Do Re Mi – and certainly as the last known Cobain original it’s impossible to look at the song without considering the background circumstance of the time and what would come next…

In terms of the apparent facts about the song, it’s a wonderful end to the Cobain saga simply because so little is known about it. What’s it really called? It might be Do Re Mi (a fair guess given Cobain’s liking for children’s TV if its an echo of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical number from the sound of music) or it might be Dough Ray Me (referring to a comic book series as described here; or it might be Me & My IV (apparently scribbled on a napkin according to Courtney Love)…Basically there’s no definitive name so call it whatever you like.

Likewise, there’s no facts about what it was intended for; the rumoured Lollapalooza EP release is the only official upcoming outlet for it but there’s no information whatsoever if there was ever substance to that idea. That would leave Do Re Mi as one of those Nirvana’s that drifted until a purpose was found for them. Alternatively, there’s the rumours of intended collaboration with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and some people point to the overall mellow style of the song and the deviation in vocal style to push that possibility. Again, it’s a moot point – there’s no answer.

Furthermore, arguments about Cobain’s next musical direction can continue uninterrupted forevermore given there’s no indication that Do Re Mi’s acoustic approach was the way the song was intended to stay. There’s plentiful evidence by now that even the most raucuous Cobain compositions (Sliver, Very Ape for example) often began life as muted sounding home acoustica. His own comments revealed a desire to go in a variety of direction and on the last known (but still unheard and unreleased) version of the song Cobain played drums instead of guitar which neatly keeps everyone guessing.

What is known is that as well as the bedroom demo found on With the Lights Out (and therefore recorded sometime in the twenty-two days in January 1994 during which Nirvana was not out on tour or Cobain was not definitely occupied) there’s a later version recorded during the fifteen unoccupied days in March with Pat Smear and Eric Erlandson. It’s a possibility that a third version may exist recorded during a March 25, 1994 basement jam with Pat Smear. It’s also clear that, given the comprehensiveness of With the Lights Out, Do Re Mi is one of only two songs Cobain definitely wrote between the end of the In Utero recording sessions and his demise a full year later.

That’s what I love the most about this song as a concluding entry in the Cobain catalogue; it’s an open-end, an uncertainty.

Vocally though, I’d argue its a disquieting support for the idea that there wasn’t much life left in Mr. Cobain. Many people like his falsetto vocal – I would agree with them – yet I’d also point to the broken and strained voice displayed, there’s very little power displayed, held notes break all over the place, it sounds like his voice isn’t warmed up or that he’s a man just risen from his bed. This has a charm all its own but there’s a sense of exhaustion carried in his voice. I’m not declaring that he was a vanquished force, I’m more a believer that this was a man who wasn’t doing much with his private time beyond shooting up and sleeping. It’s still a beautiful vocal performance and truly a different approach to the use of his beautiful voice – I can’t tell if that’s a reaction against yet another element of his musical persona that had devolved into a stereotype or a brief experiment. Again, the fact that this is the only identified or even claimed Cobain original mentioned in discussion of the March jams, and that he did choose to practice it, suggests to me that he wasn’t hiding material from Pat or Eric, this was simply all he had left to work out.

Musically, the song has some attractive melodies delivered with a forceful thwacking of the strings that makes me think there was already an electric ideal in mind – he’s really driving the strings and its aggressive build is disguised by the skeletal recording style and high-pitched vocals. Again and again there are lashed chords that crash through the song, whether on the bridge just before the 3 minute mark (and again in the outro) or in the lead into the chorus. It doesn’t, however, support the idea that he was able to pull away from the verse-chorus-verse mode of song-writing he took such issue with. He placed great emphasis on the tiredness of that song-writing model and on guitar music in general yet here he is still playing it out toward the end of his career. It had become his default setting for how he thought about songs and their structure.

Finally, lyrically, I’m going to cut here from one of the final chapters of the Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide book which you can find under the About tab of this blog:

Listening to You Know You’re Right (acoustic) or Do Re Mi what’s striking are the prominent lyrics that focus on sleeping and dreaming; Kurt’s lyrical inspiration barely got these two songs out of bed. When it does though his themes went no further than opiates, medication, an emotional state that’s either numb or cold as ice next to a series of blanket refusals; “I will never,” “I could never,” “I won’t.” This isn’t a man with many ties left to a world outside his head or one looking forward positively.

That’s what strikes me most forcefully about what are, in each case, beautiful lyrics. In neither one is there a world existing outside the head of the narrator. This wasn’t uncommon in Kurt Cobain’s work, many of his lyrics were opinions or views rather than external features or landscapes, but usually in his prior work there are plentiful links to events that were occuring around him even if they were suitably veiled. I see no reason to believe that Cobain had deviated from the writing practice that had come to dominate since around 1990 (again, I talk about the three main modes in which he wrote – my theory – in the Dark Slivers book so I won’t recap) and therefore no reason to believe that these two songs aren’t showing what he saw around him in which case its one cold and barren landscape peppered with negatives, with resistance or (in the case of the full Nirvana version of You Know You’re Right) submission…It doesn’t lead me to believe there was more to the life of Kurt Cobain in 1994 than cocooned hiding. Do Re Mi is beautiful, a gorgeous song that wears it rough edges like a backwoods’ princess, but hardly a celebration of the joys of spring or a life filled with either humanity, fellowship or a lust for more.