Dave Foster: A Formative Nirvana Moment

Who was handling drums the first time the name Nirvana appeared on a show flyer?

Who was drumming the first time Nirvana played a show in Seattle?

Who was the guy on drums when Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop decided they were worth a single?

Dave Foster was drummer for Nirvana during these key moments. A tight three-four months in 1988 saw the band make the jump from the obscurity of Grays Harbor County and gigs around Tacoma and Olympia, to the biggest city in the north-west right at the moment when it entered its ‘Rock City’ moment in the spotlight.

People forget that there were a lot of talented bands circling the Sub Pop label at that time, there’s a tendency to genuflect before ‘unique genius’ rather than recognising that a constellation of circumstances have to come together in order for anyone to get a shot. In Nirvana’s case, being friends with Melvins got them elevated levels of attention; Melvins friendship with Jack Endino got them recording time; Endino’s friendship with Sub Pop got them label notice; Ryan Aigner driving the band around so they could make shows outside of their home area got them into Seattle; the U.K. music press deciding to make ‘a thing’ of Seattle brought attention and opportunity to town; Novoselic’s talent as a bassist and entertainer (as well as his height!) drew notice; Cobain’s talent as a song-writer, vocalist, guitar player and performer (and how closely he fit the long blonde hair/blue eyes mode of American idols) made a difference…

…But the other factor at work in that moment was having a really powerful, reliably heavy and accurate drummer in the form of Dave Foster present. It’s noticeable that Cobain, in his Journals, specifically acknowledged how good a drummer he thought Foster was. It’s rare, in his private notes and unsent letters, for Cobain to note someone’s qualities. He was usually too busy gently skewering people.

I’m always intrigued by the early phases of a band. Once a band is famous, their sound has usually solidified into a known quantity, the line-up becomes relatively sacrosanct, there’s maximum attention and minimum mystery. The early days, however, are where there are the crucial left turns, the doors left unopened, the possibilities abandoned. The drummers in Nirvana certainly intrigue! For starters, there’s Bob McFadden, the gentleman Novoselic and Cobain start practicing with in earnest in autumn 1986 but who leaves after a handful of practices:

An Interview with Bob McFadden: Nirvana’s First Drummer

Then there’s Aaron Burckhard who comes on board – likely in late ’86 – and allows the band to really solidify, get a proper set-list worked up, is with them for their first radio session (which becomes an early demo tape), works on the material that winds up becoming the January ’88 studio demo – the groundwork to becoming a full-time working band. Of course, in that spell, Nirvana still aren’t playing regularly or consistently.

Then there’s the deeply valuable guest spot from Dale Crover who vouches for them in order to get them into Reciprocal. He also gives Cobain and Novoselic a sense of what they could do if they had a dependable presence on drums. That’s where Foster’s skills really come into play. Quite a few of the songs – ‘Big Cheese’, ‘Mr. Moustache’, ‘Sifting’, ‘Blew’ – that would mark the Bleach-era of Nirvana seem to be created with Foster drumming and they definitely fit the ‘Sub Pop sound’ more than Nirvana’s more difficult early songs (‘Blandest’ also seems to arise in this period.

Of course, it’s not surprising Foster’s contributions are unacknowledged. Firstly, there’s only the one known live recording from his time on drums – a real gap not yet filled by anyone coming forward with tapes. Next, he was gone before Nirvana wound up in a studio so the majority of people have never heard his work with the band. Third, disparaging remarks, highlighting youthful indiscretions, appeared in the book Come As You Are mar the perception of his efforts. And, of course, Foster has never been willing to stand up and speak about his time in the band – in his absence it’s not really surprising little there’s little to say. By contrast, Aaron Burckhard has made a concerted effort to connect with fans, give interviews, ensure he’s acknowledged within the Nirvana story. Maybe it’s time for Foster to tell his tale in one form or another?


Tic Dolly Row: Chad Channing’s Pre-Nirvana Band

Back in 2016 I posted a conversation with John Hurd, a member of the band Tic Dolly Row/The Magnet Men, who shared a stage with Nirvana (then going by the name Bliss) at the Community World Theater in September 1987.


Mysteriously, a cassette of the band performing on KAOS Radio in 1987 has surfaced with Chad on drums, John Hurd on guitar, Ben Shepherd (future Soundgarden) on vocals and Chris Karr on bass. The session took place under the auspices of John Goodmanson who hosted Nirvana for their first radio session in May of the same year.

Nirvana’s Sept 1990 Motor Sports Garage Show Video

The Motor Sports International Garage show in full, Saturday September 22 1990 and the only show with Dan Peters (of Mudhoney fame) on drums. Kudos to the uploaders and all credit where due. 2 1/2 weeks later Dave Grohl would be Nirvana’s drummer and he was in the audience for this show. The turnaround was even faster than that: despite having told Peters he was a full member of Nirvana,  the chance at Grohl was too good to miss and Cobain was on KAOS Radio on Tuesday September 25 announcing Grohl was Nirvana’s new drummer.

It also ended a spell in which Nirvana had been relatively static. They’d auditioned around a dozen individuals for drums; they hadn’t yet concluded a major label deal; their output on vinyl/cassette was still strictly limited – Big Cheese/Love Buzz, Spank Thru, Bleach, the Blew EP, ‘Mexican Seafood’ on Teriyaki Asthma, ‘Do You Love Me?’ on a Kiss covers compilation, Sliver/Dive only just out that month. They’d been quiet on the live front too: since the end of the tour in May, they’d only played eight shows – Dale Crover on drums for a run with Sonic Youth and STP, an all-girl punk band from New York.

The show itself was a winner. Here’s a chunk from ‘I Found My Friends’ for fun:

Dan Peters’ anointing took place at a now-legendary September show at the Motor Sports International Garage in gloriously irreverent company guaranteed to ratchet up the excitement.

BLAG DAHLIA, THE DWARVES: We didn’t give a fuck about the Pixies or the Vaselines or David Bowie. What kind of dipshits would like that?! The Stooges, GG Allin, and Paula Abdul were our grunge-era heroes . . . Nirvana were big fans of the Dwarves’ bass player, Saltpeter; they knew he could really play. They never expressed any support for the rest of us that I am aware of, but Kurt never wore women’s clothes onstage or jumped into a drum kit until we had done both things numerous times in Seattle and nationwide.

DUANE LANCE BODENHEIMER, DERELICTS: The Dwarves, they borrowed our drum kit the first time they came up—destroyed it, and we got into a huge fight then made up the next day and became best friends. I think that was a Halloween show. I was dressed up as a girl and when the Dwarves were playing I lobbed a bottle at Blag and hit him right in the forehead. He chased me around . . . A lot of people didn’t like us just because we were dicks, not intentionally so but . . . when you’re drinking and stuff . . . We weren’t violent—it was mostly internal violence, we would fight with one another a lot. Me and Neil [Rogers] would get into it onstage—don’t know what caused that, love the guy to death, best friends, always were.

Certainly Nirvana playing in dresses wasn’t an uncommon move. Many minds thought alike.

DANA HATCH, CHEATER SLICKS: There used to be a big pile of trash in the back of that club and I’d look for some kind of prop to use onstage. That night I found this old Big Ethelt–ype dress and put that on. Merle [Allin, bassist at the time] gave me a wig he had and his girlfriend made up my face so I played in drag. When Kurt wore a dress on SNL a few years later I liked to say he got it from me, but it was hardly an original idea when I did it.

The show kicked in with the Derelicts.

DUANE LANCE BODENHEIMER: I’ve no idea how we ended up on the bill with them—we just said, “Yeah, OK, wow . . . we’re playing . . .” I had no idea how many people were going to be there—to us it was like a fucking arena . . . I remember walking out and seeing all those people, I got serious stage fright—it was awesome . . . When I came out there were a lot of rocker-type people there. I think I said some stuff like, “All right then, you long-haired hippies . . .” just talking some shit, stage banter, trying to be charming. A good show, a lot of our friends upfront yelling at us, calling us rock stars. There must have been over a thousand—to us that was . . . wow. To bands used to playing on average a hundred or less, that was scary.

Then the Dwarves kicked off.

BLAG DAHLIA: There was a charged atmosphere that night, that’s for sure. We were more concerned with getting enough gas money to get home, though. We drove up from San Francisco at Sub Pop’s suggestion for what turned out to be $100. None of the supposedly cool indie bands on the bill or allegedly cool Seattle promoters offered us anything else. But hey, they were the “nice” guys and we were a bunch of real “assholes” from California . . . I know that there was general fear of us because of the bloodshed at our shows, and a general fear of our onstage nudity and the female nudity on our record covers. Seattle was, and is, a very asexual place. Although, I always managed to get my dick sucked there!

DUANE LANCE BODENHEIMER: Somebody threw a whiskey bottle and hit the Dwarves’ bass player in the face—he started bleeding. They had that whole violent aura about them—very confrontational.

BLAG DAHLIA: I would have loved to have seen Nirvana that night. I had enjoyed their sets several other times all over the country. Unfortunately, our bassist was struck with a bottle thrown from the audience during our set and I spent the rest of the show at the emergency room with him. Concerned promoters, our label, and fellow bands on the bill all pitched in to help though, it was really beautiful . . . Psych! No one from Seattle helped out or gave a shit . . . The vibe around the band that night at Motor Sports was more like dumb-ass drunk ex-jocks from Aberdeen in Kmart flannel shirts. And because it was the Northwest, fat chicks.

The Melvins tore it up and finally Nirvana burned it down.

DUANE LANCE BODENHEIMER: Kurt was really passionate . . . lot of punks didn’t like them, hated that “grunge” word too—I can’t stand that word. But Kurt was a purist, he loved punk rock; what they did was honest rock ’n’ roll. He loved all types of music—loud, dirty, real, honest lyrically. The really hardcore punk rockers weren’t big fans. It was simple, raw rock ’n’ roll. Krist came up to me after the show and was like, “That was a great set!” He was really nice. There’s a story before that when he and I were at a show, Poison Idea was playing, a fight broke out—Krist got in a fight, I tried to step in and help and he told me, “Fuck you! Mind your own business!” so he got his ass kicked, he was hurt, and I walked up to him, “Yup . . . should have let me help ya.”

It was only here, in Autumn 1990, that Nirvana finally overtook their former mentors by ceasing to compete on someone else’s turf.

BEAU FREDERICKS, SAUCER: For me, Nirvana was a good live band then, but they could not match up to the Melvins as a heavy intense rock trio. The Melvins were consistently crushing it live, as I am sure Nirvana would agree. Nirvana came into their own when they tapped into their melodic gifts.

Nirvana at RadioShack, Aberdeen – January 24, 1988

Nirvana, the day after their first day in studio, recording their first band video material at the local RadioShack in Aberdeen, WA. The lip-syncing and over-acting is hilariously good fun. Best wishes to the discoverers of this material – gosh, 29 years old now…?

Think of it: when this was recorded Jimi Hendrix was less than 18 years dead; Sid Vicious was only 11 years gone; Ian Curtis only 8 years. The kind of generational gap between the current era and Cobain is a fair distance past any of that.

The amount of attention devoted in the video to ‘If You Must’ – a song Cobain disowned in his Journals, that existed in time for Nirvana’s first house party in ’87 but seems to have been an inconsistent presence in set-lists before a couple of run-throughs in early ’88 – should be seen in the context that its hardly the most serious effort.

The work on ‘Paper Cuts’ follows with the band, mostly, at least pretending to be performing. Dale Crover is having to actually play along with the tape as best he can. The tape will, presumably, have been a rough cassette mix passed to the band the previous day by Jack Endino.

The Magnet Men, Chad Channing, John Hurd and Nirvana in 1987


I had the good fortune to encounter and interview Mr. John Hurd – formerly of The Magnet Men, a band that features in the Nirvana story as the band Chad Channing was in when Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic first encountered him (at a show Nirvana played under the name Bliss with Aaron Burckhard apparently on drums in August 1987 – their last known show of the year.) John was kind enough to share his memories of the band, the era, his remembrances of the rock scene in the area at the time Nirvana were starting out.

I first picked up the guitar when I was 11 – I talked my parents into buying me a cheap electric from the Sears catalog. It had a die-cast metal whammy bar that broke right off when you tried to use it. A real piece of shit. Too much so to even take lessons on it. So I got a better guitar soon after and started taking lessons at the age of 12. At about 17 or 18 I started going to punk shows. Besides Community World Theater, there was also The Crescent Ballroom, which hosted tons of shows around that time: one of my favorites at the Crescent was when the Butthole Surfers played. I think that was the show that they damn near burned the place down with some kind of cheap pyrotechnic display.

The Magnet Men first formed when I was eighteen. I was still in school but cutting class all the time. Most of my friends had already graduated and were doing jobs and trying to move out of their parents’ houses. There was a communal apartment on Bainbridge Island where Chad lived with Andy Miller and James Nybo. We had a tight knit group of friends that would hang out there almost every night playing guitars and talking, partying. Chris Karr and I had been jamming together and approached Chad about starting a band. Both those guys had been in bands already but this was my first real go at it. We all liked the same weird bands and kind of had an idea what we wanted to do. One of us would bring a riff or a song and we would just learn it and try to fit the pieces together. Very much a learn as you go kind of thing.

The original lineup was Chris Karr on Bass, Chad Channing on drums and me on guitar. Chad and I first met when we were youngsters around 1980: I was 11 and he was about 14 or so. We were playing with gasoline with a few otter neighborhood kids. We had a Folger’s can with some gas in it and we were flicking matches at it. When the gas caught fire, one of the kids kicked the can and the flaming gas landed on another kid’s arm and caught his jacket on fire. Rather than taking the jacket off, the kid ran screaming down the street, flailing his arms and making it worse. His hysterical brother ran after him yelling ‘My brother! my brother!’ When we started hanging out again through mutual friends in ’87, Chad and I had both forgotten we had ever met when we were kids. One night he was telling the Folger’s can gas story at a party and my jaw just dropped.
Chris Karr was a schoolmate of mine who played bass in NPO and the high school jazz band (incidentally with John Goodmanson on guitar too). Poulsbo’s North Kitsap High School produced some notable talent – John Goodmanson (NPO, Danger Mouse, engineer and producer of Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney), Ben Shepherd (March of Crimes, Soundgarden) Chad Channing (Nirvana, Fire Ants, The methodists, Before Cars), Damon Romero (NPO, Lush,Treehouse, Bell) Jason Everman (Stonecrow, Nirvana, Soundgarden) to name a few. The Magnet Men was my first real band. We were a heavy prog-punk instrumental band. Our only criteria about song writing was that the songs had to be complex, difficult and fun to play. We loved to do lots of tempo and time changes and abrupt starts and stops. We would practice anywhere we could find space, but eventually we convinced the local storage unit facility to let us rent out a garage and jam late at night after they closed. For gigs, we would play at house parties mostly, being a little too young to play in bars and clubs yet.
Once we had a set’s worth of songs ready, John Goodmanson invited us to play live on the Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA) radio station, KAOS. We had no vocalist then, but were a purely instrumental band. Soon after that radio show, Ben Shepherd joined us on vocals, we changed our name to Tic-Dolly Row, and we did another live radio show at KAOS with him. Those recordings probably still exist somewhere, although I’ve long since lost any copies I had. Ben came up with the name Tic-Dolly Row, describing it as a sailor’s term for down-and-out. It comes from the french word ‘Tic Douloureux’ which is a painful nerve disorder of the face.
We used the KAOS radio show as our demo and sent it to Community World Theater in Tacoma. Tacoma was and still is a working class town about 45 minutes south of Seattle. There weren’t too many all-ages places to play back then but Community World was definitely one of the most active. I’d gone to see a couple shows there, I think Killdozer and The Melvins. We got a gig opening for Inspector Luv and the Ride-Me-Babies, Sons of Ishmael and the band Bliss, who would go on to become Nirvana. That lineup was Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and I think Aaron Burkhard on drums. Although it could have been Dave Foster. Community World was an old, run down hall with a small stage that hosted some really legendary shows. The audience the night we played was fairly small, consisting a lot of our friends and a couple dozen local Tacoma punks. As far as what they were wearing, it’s hard to say. I seem to remember leather jackets, jeans, trench coats or army surplus stuff. Some mohawks here and there.

I remember being pretty nervous playing that show. The sound there was pretty horrible unless the place was packed with people – that night it wasn’t. But we still rocked it. I remember Ben jumping around and pretending to fuck a lingerie clad mannequin they left on the stage. After we played, Bliss used Chad’s black North drum kit, with the scoopy looking drums pictured on the “Bleach” cover. Watching their set, you could tell that Bliss had something, but honesty they didn’t leave a huge impression – to me they sounded like a lighter version of The Melvins.
Later, when Nirvana signed their first deal with Sub Pop, they were looking for a new drummer. They remembered Chad from that show we played, and after Tic-Dolly Row broke up, he joined them. When Chad joined Nirvana, they became a force to be reckoned with. They played out all the time, at clubs, lots of house parties and crazy floor bending packed rooms in the Evergreen State College K-dorm activity area. Chad and I were roommates during some of their first US tours, and he came home with great stories, videos and photos. Sub Pop gave them only a tiny monthly stipend, so I got Chad a job working part-time for my mom’s ceramic business. We slip-cast and glazed a shit ton of very cool ceramic fishes. Kurt lived in Olympia at that time and Krist lived in Tacoma. They would drive the van up to our house in Poulsbo and pick up Chad for band practice, then driving the 2 hours back to Krist’s house in Tacoma for the weekend. My mom is proud that Nirvana once practiced in her basement. She is still a fan. I can’t say that I knew Kurt very well. He was usually pretty quiet and a really nice guy but kind of hard to talk to. Krist was just the opposite, hilarious and friendly. He usually had a gallon jug of Gallo red wine or a case of cheap beer at the ready.

That band (Then called Tic-Dolly Row) changed again when Chad told us he was getting burned out on drums and wanted to play guitar. So Andy Miller joined us on drums and Ben wanted to play guitar too. So we had 5 of us now, trying to make a go of it. At times We had 2 drummers and 3 guitar players. I feel like the whole thing just kind of got muddied with noise and eventually we all just decided to move on to other projects.

Soon after that, Chad joined Nirvana and Buddha’s Favorite Color was formed. That was Jeff Hoyle on vocals, Andy Miller (Bell, Before Cars, Paundy) on drums, Chris Karr on bass and me on guitar. We were a very psychedelic, heavy group. Jeff has a real gift for poetry and turned it into song lyrics. He has a pretty amazing vocal range. Andy was (and is) an insanely good drummer. With his jazz background, Chris’s bass playing shaped our sound. Chris would never play a song exactly the same way twice which probably rubbed off on all of us to keep things fresh. We recorded our first demo in ’89 with Rich Hinklin at the old triangle-shaped Reciprocal Recording studio in Ballard (where Nirvana’s Bleach and a lot of the first Sub Pop records were recorded). We sent it off to Alternative Tentacles records. They passed on us, but we were giddy when we heard from Steve Fisk that Jello Biafra thought we were the most psychedelic band in the Northwest. We got some pretty good response from the demo and played around Seattle quite a bit, at clubs like OK Hotel, The Central Tavern, The Vogue, Hollywood Underground and some loft parties in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.


One of my favorite gigs Buddha’s Favorite Color did was at the Squid Row tavern in Capitol Hill opening for Afghan Whigs. It was their first Seattle show, promoting their first single with Sub Pop. Fuck, they were LOUD. The police showed up after getting several noise complaints. This was a busy urban neighborhood, but the cops made them turn it down anyway. One night, Buddha’s Favorite Color was to play a house party on Bainbridge Island with Nirvana. The party was in a big garage at this girl’s house when her parents were away. Right before our set, our bassist, Chris Karr, was standing under a door jamb and a big piece of plywood fell down and banged him on the head. He decided he was too dizzy to play, so Nirvana went on first. They probably were four or 5 songs into their set when the cops showed up and broke it up. There was a keg of beer and a bunch of drunk underage kids. I remember the first kid they saw holding a beer was arrested, and everyone else scattered.

BFC recorded 3 demos over the next few years, calling it quits around ’92. On our last recording, Paul Heyn replaced Chris Karr on bass. He was in the band about a year.
The next band I was involved in was The methodists, forming in 1995. The methodists were a guitar heavy pop band. The lineup was Erik Spicer on guitar/vocals, Dan McDonald on bass, Chad Channing on drums and me on guitar. We hit it off creatively very quickly and became a song writing machine. We played around the Seattle area a lot in the mid to late 90’s, and some shows in Portland and LA and recorded our one and only LP, Cookie, in 1998 engineered by Kip Beelman and mastered by Jack Endino. This band was a lot of fun – Chad and I would trade instruments during our set and Chad would get up and sing his
songs while playing guitar. I would play drums on his songs and try to keep up as best I could. We did a live room show on KCMU (now KEXP) before going off on west coast tour. We came back from that excited as hell but things eventually petered out with that band and we broke up in ’99.



Nirvana – July 5 1989 in Iowa City plus a Lost Song by Saucer (not on the Soul Jazz No Seattle release)

A few neat little distractions today…Firstly, the deeply pleasant gentlemen from long lost Bellingham band Saucer (who’s songs “Jail Ain’t Stopping Us” and “Chicky Chicky Frown” are on the No Seattle compilation) shared a lost demo with me that they’ve recently dropped up online. I asked their permission to share it onwards – I mean, what the hey, nice to have something to listen to while looking over today’s musings isn’t it? I like the musical bait n’ switch – the chanted verse flipping over to the thrashing chorus, nice seeing diversions and surprises within songs.

Next, just a small thing – someone I know was browsing the online archive of a newspaper and located the two adverts below:

_2 July 5 1989_Iowa City_Daily Iowan

How curious…The Nirvana Live Guide quotes Blood Circus as the band Nirvana supported that night – I’m curious whether the local band, Annihilation Association, had to drop off for some reason, or if it was the other way around and Blood Circus dropped out. The only references I can find to the band online are a live recording from 1988 at http://319dude.bandcamp.com/album/live-1988 and a reference to a guy called David Murray having been in the band, a live photo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/23989451@N00/2703637399/ plus the link back to the newspaper from which the adverts came: http://dailyiowan.lib.uiowa.edu/DI/1989/di1989-07-05.pdf

Anyways, I just want to ask around and see if Nirvana did play with this band and vice versa. There’s a distraction for the evening…

Nirvana and “The Grunge Years” Versus “Revolution Come and Gone” – Sub Pop Compilations


Departed this realm about five weeks ago to go get moving on various other activities so rather a lengthy absence from the blog this past month. I can’t for the life of me remember whether I shared this piece – “No Seattle” was chosen as the album of the month for Seattle’s City Arts magazine. Pleasing once again to see different songs plucked from the release – this time Chemistry Set’s “Fields” and Hitting Birth’s “Same 18” – as highlights. Ah, diversity…Such a pleasure.

Anyways, where was I? Well, one fortuitous discovery this past month was a copy of 1991’s Sub Pop compilation “The Grunge Years” and a further compilation from 1992 called “Revolution Come and Gone” – a neat twosome bookending pre/post Nirvana explosion. Nirvana’s career was almost as neatly sub-divided by compilations – their appearance on “Sub Pop 200” in 1988 saw their second release escape into the world, while “The Grunge Years” was the second-to-last Sub Pop release of the band’s active lifespan (the reissue of Bleach being the final piece.)

Picture1 Picture2 Picture3

Listening to the two compilations intrigued me; take a look at the bands listed – the number of past alumni is so extensive that it does give an impression of a label living on its laurels. With “The Grunge Years” it’s understandable. The ‘grunge’ phase was still a piece of the past – a strange phrase coined and applied in 1989 so the release, while never explicitly saying so, seems to be a harking back, a review, a retrospective. “Revolution Come and Gone” intrigues me because it shares that same ‘looking back’ air in the title – it could be a reference to grunge being dead and gone, or it could be a reference specifically to Nirvana viewed in the rear-view. “The Grunge Years” had  pegged ‘Dive’ onto the release which capitalised neatly on Nirvana’s past patronage and it emphasizes how ‘of a piece’ Dive was to the existing output of Sub Pop – lot of gnarly punk rock moves, lashings of distortion, a very visible product of Nirvana circa mid-1989 rather than Nirvana late-1990 let alone 1991. Picture1

My issue with Sub Pop is that it’s humor relied so much on disposability, glibness, sarcasm – all very enjoyable – but that means I’m not sure Sub Pop ever managed to translate its releases into more respectful retrospective glances. “The Grunge Years” is a good example. The front cover plays the same ol’ joke  that the label had played right back in the notes of Sub Pop 100 in 1986; Sub Pop as globe-spanning corporate conglomerate – heck, the two characters made me think immediately of the film Wall Street. The inlay, again, combines jokes and jadedness in an appealing slalom-ride through whatever is on the mind of Jonathan Poneman that day. The problem is it leaves me shrugging and thinking “why’s this release here at all? Is it really just ‘more grunge’ for the masses?” Product…?

I guess so. As a starting point for appreciating the music that doesn’t bode well. Luckily the music is pretty good! Eleven of the thirteen songs are solid representatives of the North West explosion – with Babes in Toyland and L7 wedged in. It’s, in many ways, Sub Pop 200 Mk.2 – another rendition of the local scene review and that ‘centredness’ has a strong appeal. I’m also enjoying hearing that expanded female presence given the boys club vibe of Sub Pop 200 which made way only for the token presence of Girl Trouble’s Bon von Wheelie. The linkages between K Records and Sub Pop are on display on the release when often Olympia/Seattle was presented as a competition. In reality, Bruce Pavitt was a long-time friend of Calvin Johnson of K and the two labels had teamed up to get Girl Trouble’s first album out – “The Grunge Years”‘ inclusion of Beat Happening doesn’t seem an anomaly, it looks more a reminder of dues paid.

While the packaging and absence of context is even worse on “Revolution Come and Gone”, the music by contrast is a lot more energetic. The variety of bands has expanded – there’s even room for Earth on here – and the scope is now widening up to encompass even more non-North West representatives. While “The Grunge Years” hammers a single sound home, this 1992 compilation sees the label reaching forward to new hopes like Codeine, tagging on burgeoning names like Hole who were creating quite a stir in the underground by 1992 (as well as marriage related publicity and gossip courtesy of the Cobain couple), reaching back to long time stalwarts like Mark Lanegan and Mudhoney, without forgetting newbies like Truly (incidentally, apparently Robert Roth of Truly was a further candidate for second guitarist in Nirvana circa 1989-1990 – the unsettled nature of the Nirvana line-up in those two years seems ever clearer as time goes on.) The result is a more diverse and energetic set.

The pleasure of both, of course, is that between them it’s a fairly comprehensive overview of the key bands of the ‘grunge’ whatever-it-was or that used to get quoted in lazy review thereof. Tad? Check! Nirvana? Check! Screaming Trees? Check! Mudhoney? Check! The Walkabouts? Check! Earth? Check! Beat Happening? Check! Love Battery? Check! the Dwarves? Check! The Fluid, Afghan Whigs, Dickless…Then an assortment of fellow-NW travellers and friends. It’s a shame that Sub Pop has never pulled back from the attitude long enough to create a comprehensive and dignified review of it’s own back catalogue because a respectful look at what it pumped out in it’s crucial years, one that doesn’t smirk all the time, is long overdue.

Kurt Cobain and the Earth Sessions of October 1990

Cobain’s contributions to Earth’s October 1990 sessions in Portland were the last chance he would have to collaborate in studio with a musician outside of Nirvana for some two years. It was the conclusion of a spell in which I feel he was, to some extent, reacting to the collaborative environment of Olympia in which temporary line-ups were common practice – the norm. The re-issue “A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra-Capsular Extraction” features both A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge – on which Cobain contributes backing vocals – as well as the stellar Divine and Bright – on which Cobain took the lead vocals. Having left the Olympia environment I’m not sure he ever recaptured this collaborative urge; the Melvins’ sessions were not exactly top quality work from Mr. Cobain, while Eric Erlandson is blunt about the unusable nature of Cobain’s contributions to Hole sessions in 1993. It seems to have only been it environments where he was clearly leading the work – in his basement in 1994 primarily – that he was able to wring out anything more than a few background moans and harmonies. In a way it seems that Cobain’s apparent yearning to work with other musicians and in other musical contexts circa 1993-1994 was a craving to go backwards to his days in Olympia where it was fine if he hooked up with Slim Moon’s changing cast in Witchypoo, or lent prominent guitar to his on-off-girlfriend Tobi Vail’s work with The Go Team, or took direction from Dylan Carlson on these recordings, or from Mark Lanegan on The Winding Sheet.

I’m in two minds whether the sign of a good collaborator is someone who blends seamlessly into an overall vision, or someone who stands out at all times from the melee of sound. In a typical middle-of-the-road fudge perhaps the answer is that the most talented collaborator is able to merge or emerge on a recording as the moment requires? Cobain at his peak certainly had this gift; he makes the rendition of Where Did You Sleep Last Night on Lanegan’s record, he’s the driving force turning it into a squalling storm of a song, he lends the gnarly edge to the Go Team songs he contributed to, he vanishes into the blend on Lanegan’s Down in the Dark but he fits well in each situation. The Earth songs are further support for Cobain’s adaptability in this regard.

I can’t it, I’m going to start with Divine and Bright because I think it’s a simply awesome song – massive kudos to Dylan Carlson for this track. The guitar part merges drone and pop by virtue of playing a wonderfully simple swaying tune…But doing so under a swamp of distortion. It’s pop in the same way chunks of Bleach were pop once one turned down the amps, took the foot off the pedals and saw the simplicity beneath the ferocious outer coating. The song is a mantra, a relatively simple piece with barely a handful of words – “Divine and bright, divine light, stretch/stretching”. I think such simplicity is to Cobain’s benefit; he can focus on delivery rather than on remembering words. Unusually for Earth the song is a bare three minutes – Cobain’s presence is even slighter coming in for barely twenty seconds somewhere over the minute mark, then reprising the lines at around two-and-a-half minutes to leave just enough space for the song to fade out on a roar of feedback.

Cobain intones the words in a voice I can’t work out is weary and resigned at the sight of ultimate annihilation, or is awed and breathy at the sight of immaculate and gorgeous light. That inability to place the emotion attracts me, a gap to be filled by thoughts of whether the moment is beyond any feeling – an observer numbed by amazement or surrender. Cobain’s tendency to announce apparent positives (“I’m so happy,” etc.) in a voice that speaks of an utter lack of excitement makes the few words of Divine and Bright a near perfect fit for him – “an atomic explosion, of raw and terrible violence and beauty!” “Oh yeah…? So…?” His voice rises across and draws out the word “divine” then plummets to pronounce “and bright” – “stretching” is more a sound than a word – it’s comparable to something like the “hello/how low” bridge on Smells Like Teen Spirit except taking over the totality of an avant-garde rock song. It certainly is toward the pop-end of Earth’s early discography and Cobain must have been comfortable with a guitar sound that spits and purrs like his own preferred approach prior to the on-set of 1990’s mainstream experiments.

A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge meanwhile is more regular Earth-y fare; a roaring semi-instrumental in two parts (originally to be split across two sides of a vinyl disc), genuinely fantastic stuff with the slow march of the guitars, the repeating phrases, the gradually developments and diversions – love it. Cobain’s contribution comes in amidst a sudden eruption of tribal intoning (a little like the sound of a didgeridoo) supplied by Carlson himself. Kelly Canary meanwhile howls and barks to punctuate the regularity, she prevents the song from becoming a mantra, keeps it wild. Her contribution is far more visible than Cobain’s. Here, as on Lanegan’s Down on the Dark, he’s more of an emphasis or a mirror for the main vocalist to ‘rub up against’, I have trouble distinguishing more than the odd likely sound with a Cobain throat behind it. Not an issue, the song stands as a glorious achievement, the vocal element breaks the song and provides a contrasting source of raw sound to spark the ear, the song even shows Cobain as someone who – when asked – could be the subservient partner in a song which is not something that Nirvana had much ability to display. I’m not suggesting a career as everyone’s favourite sideman or session player was going to be an option immediately but, as I said near the beginning, this release shows him as both a deft provider of a specific sound and touch on a song as well as someone who could vanish into the mix and simply contribute to the overall group sound. Worthiness on all sides.

If I wished to push that further, Cobain is credited on a third song – Ouroboros is Broken – for having helped out somehow…Again, indistinguishable but definitely not an automatic negative. In a world of ego-tripping and superstars in a spotlight I rather like seeing a man who was so uncomfortable in the spotlight indicating that he could have still contributed and shared his gifts outside of it.

Kurt Cobain’s Contribution’s to Mark Lanegan’s “The Winding Sheet”

Back in the town of Boston, Lincolnshire (there’s a village called New York nearby – it’s where the pilgrim fathers came from for those with an interest in early American history. As an incidental my dad used to live in Washington, Tyne and Wear, up near Newcastle – also now the name of a town in the U.S.) there used to be a second-hand record shop who’s name now completely escapes me. For a time I got quite into grabbing vinyl there, dusty fingers and the smell of aging card sleeves. This was when I was seventeen or so – best acquisition was definitely Babes in Toyland “Fontanelle”, still SUCH a good album, cohesive without being repetitive, aggression heightened by the gentler touches. At some point I snatched up a copy of Mark Lanegan’s “The Winding Sheet” and just as rapidly discarded it given, at the time, my tastes were pushing further and further into the territory of Swans, Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth at their most caustic and had little space for Lanegan’s sparser and more country-influenced take on rock. If I wanted indie sounds then the U.K. was at the height of it’s Brit-pop spell and I could have just stuck with that but it wasn’t the direction I was heading so on with Babes in Toyland and “The Winding Sheet” was forgotten.

A while back I decided it was time to take another look at the album – lucky chance had brought a copy into the Music & Video Exchange at Notting Hill Gate (my favourite music shop in London) and I stood for a while pondering whether it was worth another shot some fifteen years down the line. It was. I had wrongfully dismissed it in my youthful excesses of volume and destruction.

Cobain’s initial contribution (recorded at a 1990 session) was to provide some backing vocals to the fifth track Down in the Dark. The background vocal approach of the next song, Wild Flowers, is extremely similar to that on Down in the Dark – a higher pitched accent or echo of the main guitar or vocal line. It makes clear that Lanegan wasn’t inviting collaboration; he was stating what he needed from those he brought in to deliver. While an experienced musician at this point with four full albums under his belt with Screaming Trees, this was still Lanegan’s first solo effort and it’s understandable there’s a simplicity to the record – it’s easier to strip down, make it easy, than to build something elaborate. The album mixes basic electric/acoustic indie rock songs similar to the lo-fi efforts bands like Sebadoh were coming out with. The relatively curtailed period of time in which the album was created may explain the similarity of approach taken on a number of tracks – the first session was December 10, 1989 and the last was concluded on January 1, 1990 meaning three weeks from beginning to end. Cobain’s contributions, like his work on Melvins’ Spread Eagle Beagle, could belong to anyone at all – whatever it may add to the song it presents little of note to Cobain’s oeuvre – it’s a good song with or without Cobain. How could it be otherwise when all he chips in are emphasises to the words “you will”?

The rendition of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, however, is a far more intriguing work from a Nirvana perspective. It commences with Krist’s bass front n’ centre, then spills howling overdriven guitar all over the place. It has similarities to the BBC session version of Something in the Way where acoustic niceties are replaced with aggressive (and hugely effective) noise. I love it. The bass and drums carry the tune while the guitar ad-libs around the phrases of the original song. Often it’s simply a whine of feedback but such excellent deployment – Sonic Youth had a ‘standard template’ whereby the bass and one guitar would actually play a song while the second guitar would add noise effects and stunts as a drenched backdrop to a track.

Cobain harks back to the work on Bleach where his guitar work often came in with an initial spike of feedback prior to any attempt at playing. He was already moving away from that approach – perhaps it had more to do with Endino’s production choices and later producers simply erased the initial kick altogether? – but here it’s an effectively deployed choice rather than a default, it builds then the other instruments crash down altogether with Lanegan’s vocals kicking into the first verse. It’s also one of the first times that Cobain really cut loose on a record, he’d been very controlled and focused on defined song form throughout Bleach whereas this is closer to Big Long Now, or to The Priest They Called Him, or to a couple of Cobain’s home or live experiments. The guy was an expert manipulator of feedback and knew how to layer distortion onto a track. It’s a truly great moment on the record – the presence of Cobain and Novoselic is at the core of the song’s identity not just a guest presence; Pickerel’s pounding has been so well mic’ed that every beat shakes the room in this controlled plod.

This version really counts as the source for Cobain’s later rendition on MTV Unplugged, far more than the original Leadbelly song – the vocal delivery with the yearning note at the end of many lines has a greater similarity to Lanegan’s voicing. Wonderfully, of course, it’s nice to contrast Leadbelly’s vocal tone against Lanegan’s decision to rumble the song in his finest bassy voice – by three minutes in when he snarls “the whole night through” it’s become a real rock vocal – and then, again, judge it against Cobain’s crisp and cracked fragility at MTV Unplugged where Lanegan’s growl becomes Cobain’s hound-dog mourning on “whole night through.” The difference between finger-picking and plectrum playing is visible for sure – it contributes to the simplicity of the sound on Cobain’s rendering for MTV – but the version on “The Winding Sheet” is a whole other animal.

This is a nice clip actually…Give it a shot.

A Sighting of the Big Long Now

Bleach Tape - Cobains Writing

I’m fascinated by the song Big Long Now. Ignoring questions of good/bad (given those are personal opinions of no relevance to anyone other than oneself) and ignoring queries about the audio quality of the recording (given such factors are technological issues of neutral import and no relevance to whether a track is good/bad/indifferent), what interests me is its unique status. It’s the only original outtake from the Bleach sessions – the Chad version of Hairspray Queen simply being an unseen alternative to the January 1988 version. That singular status makes it intriguing to me. In the interview for the Dark Slivers book, Jack Endino stated that there were no additional takes of Big Long Now “one take, bam!” which means there’s that version on Incesticide, the rehearsal video on With the Lights Out…And that’s it. That fact that it’s the only song on the album-length releases during Cobain’s lifetime to not end up on a live bootleg, to never make it onto a live recording – it gives it an air of mystery.

In passing, while touring Tacoma, I was spending the afternoon with John Purkey and he pointed out that the song was featured on the demo tape Kurt Cobain personally handed to him – the raw tape of the Bleach sessions. I commented on how unique it is, that there are no live versions and no one knows when it was played…John casually replied “that’s not strictly true – I saw it twice…” And he remembers one of the venues too.

In the book I mentioned that Chad remembers playing the song – as does Jason Everman. Actually, heck, I don’t do this often but I’m going to quote my own work – the next two paragraphs are from Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide –

Chad Channing was drummer from sometime following a May 21, 1988 show, until his last show with the band on May 17, 1990. Chad has claimed the song was played during his time with the band. It has also been claimed that it was a favorite of Jason Everman—Nirvana’s second guitarist from February to July 1989. Also, in Portland, Oregon on June 10, 1989 a fanatical fan requested the song. Krist Novoselic then replied “we don’t play that one anymore.” The phrasing suggests there was a time when they did. Likewise, the fact the fan asked the question implies the song was played given he was asking for a song that was less than six months old and unreleased at that point. Unless the individual concerned had attended a home rehearsal he must have seen it live.

Furthermore, the timing is right. From April-October 1988 only eleven songs are known from sixteen shows and between January-July 1989 only three full and three partial set-lists are known from twenty-seven shows. This is the biggest gap in the Nirvana records. Tightening the noose; three of five set-lists are known for October-December 1988 so it makes it unlikely the song was unveiled until 1989. Yet the song is declared long dead on June 10,1989 and absent from the complete set-list of the band’s only show in May. This makes it possible to say that if, as the witnesses indicate, Big Long Now was played live, we can surmise it happened during at least one of the ten shows that took place between January and April 1989.

SO! Where does Jon’s information fit within that…? Well, what he said – without any further prompting – was “I saw Nirvana play it at a Dorm show at the Evergreen State College…” The first show he’s referring to is Jason Everman’s first show with Nirvana where they played Dorm K208 sometime in February. There’s a partial set-list available from the K208 show, just six songs. In other words, the claimed sighting of Big Long Now, as a live song, take place precisely where the evidence says it should be. Now there’s a show it’d be beautiful to see surface…

It also makes Big Long Now one of the songs Jason was drilled in upon entry to the band and prior to taking the stage with Nirvana – sometime in January he was made to learn this track so there’ll be rehearsal tapes around that time too, if we’re lucky and the band preserved them. It also clear that the song was one of the small number of songs created from scratch probably only just in time for the Bleach sessions alongside Sifting – early December is that first sighting…