I thought of this title a long while back when someone raised the point that they felt I was morally compromised because I had written a book about Nirvana and sold it rather than releasing my ideas for free. J’accuse was the title of a letter by Emile Zola – it’s become a fun cliche, note the release J’accuse Ted Hughes by Sonic Youth – it simply means, “I accuse.” Today’s piece is about the topic of compromise which, I feel, has always been a part of the Nirvana story.
Dealing first, in brief, with my opinion on Kurt Cobain; did he compromise for commercial reasons? Answer; of course he did. The issue is that people tend to read backward from the consequences to the initial decision as if he could foresee the future – the millionaire status, the trophy wife, the media attention, the $200K pay cheque for a single date in Buenos Aires, the ability to pick and choose video collaborators for short and long form efforts, the record label kowtowing to his demands, the ability to promote his friends and get them on MTV…
It’s unreasonable, it’s projecting clairvoyance onto an individual who couldn’t possibly foresee what was to come. One could add up Kurt Cobain’s decisions and claim he was always doing whatever was required to make money; copying the Melvins – the only local success he knew, changing the sound of Nirvana between the January 1988 effort and the more straight-forward grunge songs he wrote once Sub Pop were involved because that’s what Sub Pop had an audience for and would promote, letting Sub Pop choose the running order of the band’s first album, asking Steve Fisk for a “top 40” drum sound in the April 1990 recording session, writing verse-chorus-verse pop punk songs from mid-1990 onward with a strong debt owed to the Pixies who had recently achieved indie success, barely swearing on the Nevermind album, permitting an MTV-friendly corporate rock video to support his big hit, mellowing out a couple moments of In Utero, accepting MTV invitations left-right-and-centre…
…But, then again, you could also say that he stayed true to punk rock’s sound which in the mid-Eighties through the early Nineties was still an underground phenomenon in America with no commercial prospects at all, that Nirvana made almost no money from playing music until at least late 1989, that featuring a song on Sub Pop 200 made them no cash, that Love Buzz/Big Cheese being a limited edition meant the band received little money, that as late as early 1991 Cobain sat at a gig in Canada autographing lighters and sold them for a dollar each because he was so poor, that he was living in a car in mid/late 1991, that whether he ate or not on a day was a matter of chance, that he dumpster-dived for clothing…That it wasn’t a case of needless profit, it was just about surviving.
That context is vital because decisions that, in retrospect, enabled Nirvana to become a multi-million selling phenomenon were made by a guy with next to no money, no imaginable chance of becoming a star, making a type of music that had never hit it big even if it had gained notoriety. He did want to live off his music, he made decisions accordingly, but what he was hoping for wasn’t a ‘mansion in the hills’ and infinite fame, it was more like escaping “this piss-stained mattress I’ve been sleeping on.”
The desire for elevation, in a capitalist society, does tend to come down to money – it’s the chosen medium of exchange permitting the acquisition and access to most experiences and human requirements. Everyone is required to make a compromise with money – to earn a living. This doesn’t mean everyone is automatically innocent though. There is still the question of whether one’s monetary gains are being made at the expense of other human beings and through moral corruption – if so, sorry, yep, it does make you a bad person. It also raises the more pertinent question of intention – was a decision made for the primary reason of profit and is that profit motivation clear in the end result?
Nevermind remains the crux of the topic; it was a commercial sounding record, they wanted to sell and for it to sell well – the end product is clearly motivated by acquiescence to the profit-related desires of record company and band. Saying that the band only expected to sell tens of thousands or maybe a couple hundred thousand doesn’t void the nature of the decision being taken – it doesn’t make it innocent nor does it make it a non-profit driven decision even if the scale of the profit imagined was the merest fraction of what ended up occuring. This is inspite of acknowledging that Cobain wanted to indulge his pop-orientated instincts, the hard rock side of his tastes – it wasn’t just a personal artistic statement, it was a deliberate product. The kicker though is that it was a decision clearly about surviving not about making egregious profit for the sake of it – it wasn’t Dr Dre sitting on his millions then making yet more millions from a team up with Apple, it was a poor starving boy hoping for some small recognition and good reviews and a continued chance to play and record on a label that could afford to pay its artists. Sub Pop’s finances were a disaster area.
That’s why I don’t worry too much when I see these articles about Cobain’s commercial instincts; someone in lowly straits taking sensible decisions when opportunity was offered – I don’t expect utter purity, I’m too old to believe in it. The only uncompromised music is that which stays in the bottom drawer of a desk at home, never played for an audience, never placed in anyone’s hands – as a music consumer I’m clearly content to make the deal that someone’s work is worth my money. Complicit, yep – compromised, yep.
This brings me to my own compromise. I’ll keep it brief. In essence, it was suggested that by writing and selling a book about Nirvana I was exploiting Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Actually, it’s not an insult, it’s a perfectly valid hypothesis – pretty reasonable to suggest it or to believe it, it’s on an individual to define their terms and where they draw the lines, I can only explain and explore my own reasons for feeling that I’ve done no such thing.
Firstly, I did choose to write a book about Nirvana through any commercial motivation – I wrote a book about Nirvana because I love Nirvana, I’m a fan first, a writer second. I chose to write a book because writing is my only real talent or ability on the creative front – I’m not much of a musician, I’m no artist. So the decision to express my enjoyment of Nirvana in book form was similarly not a commercial choice.
Second, ah…But I did place a price on the book and sell it rather than giving it away for free or simply placing my thoughts on free fan forums – this is a far more solid criticism, for sure! The fact that I’ve placed 400,000 words, 350 articles here, a couple hundred graphics all on here for fans and for free doesn’t void or even mitigate the compromise. Just because someone does something good doesn’t impact on how bad the bad things they do are. Similarly, I work a full day job at a corporate organisation, I do 12-16 hours work and commute per day…And THEN, since February 2012, I’ve also done 4-5 hours of Nirvana writing, Nirvana spreadsheet work, Nirvana analysis night after night for a total of 20-30 hours a week for around 125+ weeks now. Still, all that work does not entitle me to be re-paid nor does it mitigate the fact I decided to make a commercial product. Both these points, hopefully, show my commitment to the subject, show that I’m certainly not “exploiting Nirvana for gain” as much as I am “showing my love for Nirvana and desire to share that love” – but it doesn’t remove the question mark, that I am indeed taking payment for a Nirvana-related product.
So, this leads to the next question, is it legitimate for anyone to do something that has the name of Nirvana on it and that someone might pay for? Well, on this point, if you believe the answer is “only Kurt Cobain plus the members of the band” – fair enough but it means defining all paid commentary, all biographies, all music criticism by journalists or writers as illegitimate. I’m not sure about you but I hate the idea of a world where self-serving PR pieces from musicians and their management were the only ways in which one understood or explored them – seems to be enough of that already. I’m happy with the idea that public topics can be explored publically by individuals observing but not participating in the subject of the discussion – someone else can make a different choice. What makes the difference, I feel, would be the difference between (a) putting the name Nirvana on something to make it sell more, versus (b) putting the name Nirvana on something because that’s the topic under discussion and the discussion is taking place for a non-commercial reason. I did not place the name Nirvana on the book, undertake the writing of the book, for any profit-related motive and I did not make the book about Nirvana because of any commercial reason – I did it because I love Nirvana.
But still…Compromised. So…I put a price on the book – I paid the production costs and hoped to re-coup them. I printed a first 100 copies and gave away twenty-five to various helpers and supporters. The maximum revenue was £750. The cost of production was £400 – thus a profit of around £350 was the maximum expectation. Did I expect to sell all the books? I had no idea. So was I doing it for profit? No, I wanted to write the book and did so anyway independent of what might then happen to it. Could I have given it away for free? Actually yes, I could have shouldered the £400 cost and it would have hurt but…Yes. I chose not to. This is where personal pride comes in – not profit, but pride.
I feel that free work is not regarded with the same respect as stuff one pays for – in a capitalist society, despite lipservice to the innate value of things, a price is deemed to be a mark of quality. I didn’t think twice about deciding that I felt my analysis of Nirvana in Dark Slivers was worth paying ten pounds for – my feeling was that if someone loved the topic of Nirvana but didn’t think my work was worth paying even £10 for…Then that was their choice but I felt that it was a good deal. I didn’t say to myself “I will charge a rate to recoup the hours spent on the book,” impossible – I spent far more time on the book than I could possibly make back. My feeling is that someone bought the book not just because it was about Nirvana but because of an interest in my thoughts and ideas and the work I had conducted. I did want to cover the production costs of a physical book – I wanted to hold a book in my hands, entirely selfishly I wanted to have a physical book as a result of my labours, not just some e-book whatever.
Those were my drives; to write a book, to write about something I loved, to hold the result in my hands and to feel darn good about it. I did!! And it was a bloody honour that a few hundred people felt the result was worth paying something for. Compromised? Yes. And it’s up to you, the reader, the viewer, to decide if the book was worth it or if you felt it wasn’t either (a) a valid discussion of Nirvana (b) decent writing and analysis. Worth ten pounds to find out? Definitely a choice I leave to you! 🙂
The topic came up when I criticised the “Who Killed Kurt Cobain?” / “Love and Death” authors for being motivated by profit. Actually, I should retract that criticism. As journalists they were motivated by a good story – a story worth exploring and it definitely was a good topic. Do I feel they did it for love of Kurt Cobain or a desire to “tell the truth”? Nope. Do I feel they did it because it was a good subject for a book? Yep. Do I think they knew in advance that they could get a book deal from the controversy? Yeah. The compromise doesn’t make them unworthy reads or bad books but I don’t think they were books written in support of Nirvana or Cobain.
I don’t believe in the nihilistic idea that everyone is guilty so it doesn’t matter what one does. I believe that everyone is compromised and it does matter what one does – one chooses the compromises; confess, own them, be honest about them. I’m compromised and I’m delighted that the end result was a work I was and am proud of! Yay!