Monday 26th: Countdown to Dark Slivers Release

More stats and general musings on Nirvana to follow…But wow, things are getting busy. The book is due back from the printers this Friday – fingers crossed! In the meantime…This is an early summary of each chapter – just a set of snapshots rather than a full picture of what is covered in each one. Oh, and yes you’re right, each chapter is named after an album by a band Kurt expressed a liking of (The Minutemen, Scratch Acid, Big Black, etc.) the exception being Songs the Lord Taught Us, but it was too good a title to pass on:

Foreword

Months of total immersion in Nirvana has not always led me in healthy directions…You have been warned… J

1.0 The Greatest Gift

Incesticide sold more albums than any punk album in American history…Yet its qualities and pleasures have been roundly ignored. I set out the case for the album’s status in terms of the quality of what it contained, the care the band took over its creation, its artwork, its liner notes, its songs

2.0 (MIA) The Complete Anthology

Biographies of the band have stated that Nirvana’s first label Sub Pop teamed up with DGC to combine efforts and create Incesticide…They’re wrong

Fresh interviews with the key individuals at Sub Pop indicate that there never was a planned Sub Pop release. Incesticide was dreamt up and planned entirely at DGC and by Nirvana

3.0 Two Nuns and a Pack Mule

Even Incesticide’s back cover was a comedic image and with the selected cover songs, plus Sliver, on the album its always been the most fun of Nirvana’s albums

Yet Nirvana’s brand of humour was often caustic, aggressive and used as a form of attack — the band were at their funniest when taking sarcastic swipes at the scenes, bands and individuals they despised which can be seen in lyrics, in behaviour on stage and their approach to media and TV

4.0 The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape

The chapter indicates the deep thought that Kurt Cobain put into structuring and sequencing the songs on the album — there’s a joke running through the entire album and likewise an attempt to mimic Nevermind, making this album its mirror

It’s now possible to see how many songs were refused for this album and to reconstruct the logical decisions that were being made in terms of what was included and why these fifteen songs were chosen

5.0 My War

Nirvana are portrayed as an apolitical band yet they were permanently committed to anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia throughout their career which has been ignored because Nirvana’s approach was to have the conversation with their fans rather than to focus on ‘big banner’ causes aimed at attracting media comment

The liner notes within Incesticide are exceptional — a rock star deliberately driving away his audience by telling them to “leave us the fuck alone!” and doing so on the basis of their views on gender, sexuality and race

6.0 Double Nickels on the Dime

Nirvana were not an inevitability, despite the subsequent focus on jokes about ‘destiny’ and how they were going to be rock stars

Nirvana as a phenomenon occurred as a half dozen identifiable factors came together. Incesticide was part of the band’s attempt to resist and sabotage fame

7.0 Project Mersh

The literature simultaneously portraits Kurt Cobain as anti-commercial on a gut level and ruthlessly ambitious and commercial in his actions. I feel this schizophrenic portrayal arises from a misunderstanding of what music meant to him

In this chapter I focus on the desire for control and freedom as the driving motivations; whether an action was commercial/non-commercial simply wasn’t something that Kurt Cobain was primarily interested in hence the consequences of his actions could be either without it representing a ‘fracture’ within his personality

8.0 Post-Mersh

Incesticide showed Nirvana trying on different styles as they learned and evolved with a far more underground sound, with the sound of Kurt Cobain’s first recordings entirely abandoned then resurrected for Bleach

Alongside the album Kurt Cobain attempted numerous experiments with his vocals, with recording techniques and with guitar that ended as he headed mainstream

Incesticide represented the span of Nirvana’s experiments…But not necessarily of Kurt Cobain’s experimental urges

9.0 Hairway to Steven

Nirvana’s evolution can be followed by examining how they switched from covering metal songs to alternative rock tunes to more mainstream fare — Incesticide was their key statement not of the bands that did influence them but of those they wished to be seen to be influenced by, the album serving a ‘propaganda’ purpose that downgraded their rock roots in favour of emphasising their punk favourites

10.0 Big Black Songs About…

Like any writer Kurt Cobain had a personal style, one that evolved between the songs seen on Incesticide that originated in 1987 and those he became famous for. I suggest that he had three key song modes

Kurt Cobain wrote quite a number of ‘story’ songs between 1987-1990 then abandoned linear narrative altogether, similarly the character sketch was a regular trope of that period which he soon abandoned in favour of direct personal addresses announcing his mind-set and situation via song

11.0 Over the Edge

Having shown the forms in which Kurt Cobain created lyrics, we look here at exactly when his writing underwent changes and what may have events drove those changes

12.0 Family Man

As well as his writing style Kurt Cobain dwelt on specific themes and ideas that either evolved or remained constant all the way back to his first recordings in 1985 — the focus was regularly on issues arising from family, gender, sexuality

This chapter proposes a unifying concept that draws together material from as far back as 1985 and as late as 1993 — I posit that Kurt Cobain was the most psychologically motivated rock star the mainstream had ever seen

13.0 Songs the Lord Taught Us

A song by song dissection of the fifteen tracks on Incesticide seen in the light of the lyrical themes, musical patterns and Nirvana background described in this volume

The chapter synthesises the themes and ideas that have been expressed throughout this work and applies them to each of Incesticide’s tracks here ordered by the dates on which they were recorded/released keeping the songs in their chronological context and alongside their immediate ‘family’

14.0 Dry as a Bone

By 1992 Kurt Cobain was barely writing songs, yet there are still rumours of unreleased material. The paucity of truth in such rumours, the absence of truly impressive outtakes shows Incesticide was actually the cream of Nirvana’s leftovers

This entire work has been made possible by the depth of work done by bootleggers and unofficial releases over the past twenty years creating a situation in which the band and the record label have been supplanted in terms of knowledge

15.0 Coda

From 1992-1994, Nirvana barely existed as an actively creative unit. This chapter makes the case for seeing those years as the story of a band that was barely alive

Kurt Cobain’s suicide note was the third of just three written statements made to his public 1991-1994; the first was the Incesticide liner notes, the second his contribution to The Raincoats’ album release. What stands out is that the suicide note was a deliberate concealment, an attempt to avoid having to explain himself or his reasons

Reading Nirvana: A Bibliographical Note

In the case of Nirvana, fan-led initiatives online are actually the best source of raw data — whether on live shows, songs, sessions, past interviews and media reports — so this chapter begins with a brief tribute to LiveNirvana, the Nirvana Live Guide and the Internet Nirvana Fan Club

The chapter then summarises the various strands of the bibliography; biographies, cultural-historical studies of grunge as a phenomenon, song/album studies, then onward into photo books and other more unusual items covering English language publications on Nirvana through to October 2012

 

Dark Slivers: What’s the Cover all About?

This is a quotation from a Melody Maker article released on July 25, 1992:

“…Kurt had more pressing problems on his mind on returning from Nirvana’s recent European dates. He found his Los Angeles apartment flooded.

Unfortunately, for reasons best known to himself, Kurt had stored his tapes of all the songs he’d written in the last year in a dry shower stall. The flood filled the shower and bathroom with debris and waste and the tapes were destroyed along with many of Kurt’s favourite guitars.”

Apparently he also left a certain quantity of his diaries and scrapbooks there too — there are complains in his Journals about how often they were being stolen from him and how violated that made him feel. So, here’s the cover photo and the original of the same photo:

I can understand the next question is probably “eh? Wha…?” I’ll try to answer it here.

Starting point; I didn’t want to use a photo of Nirvana or Kurt Cobain. Frankly I’ve seen so many photos of the band that I’m kinda bored, the photos don’t speak to me anymore. Likewise, though this is puritanical, I didn’t want to take commercial advantage of something I love. That’s how using a Nirvana photo would have felt — it was too obvious a step, too staid, too dull. It seems one can’t find a book about punk, grunge, the Nineties without Kurt’s photogenic face emblazoned across it somewhere. That’s fine, but not what I wanted.

In a moment of inspiration I took the concept of the bathtub full of guitars, journals, tapes and discs and went with it. Credit where its due; I borrowed the acoustic from Monika Weyer, the orchids from Jeniya Starkova, the camera itself from Noel Young — thank you friends! The two albums on display at bottom right are Swans The Burning World on vinyl and Psychic TV Dreams Less Sweet — I chose to position each of them in shot in order to draw on the flower imagery Kurt used around Nirvana. Quite obviously, at bottom left are the cassette and CD of Incesticide. I wanted to position them there so they were both visible and simultaneously not at the center of the shot, to give that sense of them as neglected, ignored elements (a key argument of the very first chapter in the book.) I also wanted to have two copies of the same album visible to suggest the idea of a double image, that within the album we’ve seen for twenty years lurks another album, with new things to discover, all within the same cover.

Shooting the photo took perhaps an hour, playing with positioning, trying to emphasize different elements, fetching lamps and additional lighting to brighten the shadows… It was pretty much trial and error. Following the shoot and dismantling I went through the shot and eliminated those that were too dark, or where the blank side of the practice amplifier was too prominent, or where too much of the bathroom tiles was visible. I came down to ten pictures that I liked:

I consulted my designer, Maureen, who made a variety of versions with a range of effects — I hadn’t even considered using effects on them. The version that now forms the cover was her first attempt and no matter what we tried we always came back to it; the colors, the starkness, the work she’d done to ensure the album words were picked out specially…It was perfect.

So. There we have it. An obscure Nirvana reference, that only the fanatics might work out. An attempt to avoid the clichéd band shot and to avoid taking advantage of the band. The kindness of friends lending me materials to support the endeavor. Trial and error on the photo front. Then the work of an excellent creative making all the difference. I’m pleased with it, hope you like.

What is Dark Slivers About?

Wednesday lunchtime Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide went to print. I’ve a list of pre-orders at present so if this sounds interesting then do drop me a line NirvanaDarkSlivers@gmail.com and I’ll add you to it. I’m not taking payment (£10 plus P&P) until I have the first hardcopies back from the printers and can give people an accurate Postage cost. I will, however, deliver anywhere in the world and the first one hundred will be signed, inscribed and numbered to those people personally. 

Of course, seems important I tell you what the book’s about…

Well, as it says in the Foreword, this isn’t another story book biography chronologically ticking off the events. After years of reading every last word emerging about Nirvana I felt there was more to say, a more argumentative approach had been lacking. The book tackles issues thematically, one subject at a time, driving each to a conclusion, hopefully convincingly enough. I’ve tried to ensure that all evidence is cited so the reader can examine it for themselves.

The original book concept was a 25-35,000 word volume on Incesticide. Four chapters — The Greatest Gift, (MIA) The Complete Anthology, The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape and Songs the Lord Taught Us — focus exclusively on Incesticide arguing its importance as a compilation and as the best-selling album of pure Eighties alternative rock, the errors in the back story plus the decisions taken in selecting its tracks, the curiosities within its track listing and structure, then details of the songs themselves.

My interests expanded far beyond that remit. The final work is 72,000 words and 260 pages. What I wanted to do was show how Incesticide was deeply integral to Nirvana’s musical path in multiple ways, using those points to jump off into wider discussions. Three chapters — Big Black Songs About…, Over the Edge and Family Man — tackle the forms which Kurt Cobain used for writing, how his writing changed over time and finally the cohesive nature of his lyrical fixations. Two Nuns and a Pack Mule describes the massive humour within Nirvana’s music at the same time as pointing out that a lot of that humour was for private consumption and had a brutal edge; My War argues that Nirvana’s political side has been underestimated and under-explored; Hairway to Steven shows how Nirvana’s use of cover songs flexed across their career and that the band often ‘spoke’ through the songs they chose to play. Double Nickels on the Dime tackles the subject of commerciality and destiny in the story of Nirvana, then Post-Mersh is a lengthy chapter arguing that Incesticide may have been the pinnacle of Nirvana’s experiments but it was not the most avant-garde or wild expression of Kurt Cobain’s experimental urges, dissecting the various currents of his known private demos.

I admit the more controversial chapters are the ones I’m proudest of — Family Man is one such chapter, I think it draws together known threads of Kurt’s work but unifies them in an original and coherent way (you decide.) Two other chapters that thrill me whenever I reread them are Project Mersh and Coda. The impetus behind Project Mersh was that I was fed up of reading arguments that either tried to claim Kurt was a non-commercial pure artist OR a committed careerist. I argue that the question is wrong; that Kurt’s actions were motivated not by the avoidance or acquisition of a solid career but by a deep desire for control and freedom from the demands of employment and management starting right back in his teenhood. Coda forms the dive into darkness at the end of the book — I let it stretch and meander a bit focusing first on analysing and demonstrating how completely Kurt’s commitment to music collapsed from 1992 then taking an original look at the three occasions on which he wrote to his fans directly, the final one being his suicide note.

Over the weekend I’m going to release a sample chapter — Dry as a Bone — tackling the March-April 2012 rumours of extensive 1994 home demos. Its a standalone chapter so can be read in isolation from the rest of the book. It’ll give you a sense of my style and approach while hopefully providing an interesting and entertaining, though downbeat, take on an up-to-the-minute piece of the Nirvana story.

How I Came to Write Dark Slivers

The publishers of the book series 33 1/3 requested proposals for new, 25-35,000 word, volumes in their collection of album guides. For no reason I can discern I was seized by enthusiasm and went for it. There was no process of weeding out before I chose Incesticide; it popped into my head and it felt right. I justified it because (a) it’s barely discussed and has always been under-appreciated (b) the three studio albums are deeply covered and (c) the coincidence of the anniversary coming up on December 15, 2012 felt worth marking regardless of what Universal were doing. The first draft chapter submitted, and since revised, stated “Bleach’s anniversary was marked with a Sub Pop special edition; Nevermind’s saw several deluxe reissues; for Incesticide…So far nothing.” A liking for waifs and strays meant it appealed to me.

The year since has disappeared in an avalanche of notes, scrawled ideas on paper scraps at the gym, emails sent from work to home and back again, plus the main manuscript in the middle. My average day became six hours sleep, twelve hours at work or commuting, then six remaining hours (plus whatever was stolen from my sleep hours) for writing and the rest of life.

I was one of 473 proposals for 33 1/3 so didn’t get through. Their feedback helped drive me on; the factors were that I was up against people with years of music experience and also they couldn’t imagine publishing a second Nirvana study if it wasn’t on Nevermind. Very reasonable! By this time I’d pushed beyond the initial remit and knew my destination. The book is a bit of a hybrid; there are four chapters exclusively on Incesticide while the others weave the album into wider analysis showing how illuminating Incesticide is and how integral its songs are to Nirvana.

Eventually I’d moved far enough along, sought out and, by some miracle, secured a literary agent willing to support the book — she said she liked my writing style and that I seemed to know my subject incredibly well. Alas, times are hard for publishing and music publishing in particular is suffering. Ten rejections later all focused on (a) too much competition and/or (b) not general enough to appeal to an audience beyond Nirvana fans, we were done…

…NO. Approval from a publisher would have felt nice but frankly, by this point, I was working day in, day out on what is, at finish, a 15 chapter, 72,000 word study of 230 pages. I felt the book had things that might be of interest to lovers of Nirvana; to people like me. Again, good luck intervened and I located a small publishing imprint.

As a Nirvana fan, treating the topic, the people and the people who might read it (i.e., fans just like me) with scrupulous respect was crucially important. I didn’t even use a photo of Kurt Cobain on the cover because I felt it would be taking advantage of him (fanatical I know…) I have a shelf full of Nirvana books (27 at last count) and while some are great I’ve genuinely felt ripped off by a number of them — I knew what I wanted to avoid creating. As a fan first and a writer second I constantly tried to make sure I was creating something I might enjoy.

In terms of my style, my feeling was that the basic storyline had been rehashed many times over and that I didn’t want to just create another chronological biography stringing together anecdotes. I interviewed a small number of people on a specific number of questions and used them sparingly and as appropriate. My core focus was on using the music itself, backed up and supported by my bootleg collection, by online sources and YouTube to create a book where others could go and look up the evidence themselves if they wished.

My writing is definitely a result of my working career allied to my academic work (I have two degrees in history from Cambridge University and I work at a technology analysis firm.) What I created was a series of argumentative essays, analyzing and interpreting specific themes or topics. It does make for a harder read, but I hope a convincing one. I felt throughout that there were lots of works describing ‘what’ happened in Nirvana’s career but very little space dedicated to wondering about ‘why’, or ‘how’, or what significance the events held.

In a few days, the creative artwork and design will be concluded, the book will be in the hands of the printers. It’s the only book I have any intention of writing about Nirvana; I’ve said everything I have to say and my reasons for writing this book have never had anything to do with starting a music writing career; I don’t want to turn something I love into something I do purely to get paid and live, that would rob me of the pleasure I’ve had in creating this work.

My remaining thoughts, leftovers from the book, responses to news, ideas I never got to develop — I’ll put it all out on the blog, I genuinely just hope you enjoy reading it. If any of it means you feel motivated enough to see what I’ve written in the book then I’m certainly delighted — I loved writing it and if others like what I’m doing enough to want to read it then that’ll feel fantastic.

Why I Wrote Dark Slivers

This project has consumed evenings and weekends around my real life for so long…I’ve been sunk into Nirvana so deeply that I admit I can’t quite remember how I filled time before it. But I do remember doubts ganging up on me when I started. It would have been all too easy to say “write? I don’t have the right.”

I wrote this book because I was inspired by Nirvana in a literal sense. 1986-1990 they were just a cluster of poor boys in the back end of nowhere making barely a penny and with only the slimmest scraps of hope. The sour jokes they (and their associates at Sub Pop) made about impending success betrayed how few chances they saw, how little they could imagine what was going to happen. But, because they loved what they were doing, they kept on finding the time, the resources, the opportunities to keep music in their lives. Even with no hope beyond “maybe then I can get off this piss-stained mattress I’ve been sleeping on” they focused not on mythical end goals but on taking pleasure and triumph from their immediate actions; from doing something in the here and now.

My best day was realising that life will never slow down, will never wait for me or pause to let me package the day-to-day up neatly before I begin. I realised it was on me, regardless of what I had to do out of practical necessity, to focus myself on the people and on the things I love. It occured to me that these are the pieces that couldn’t be taken away; something you create then you hold it in your gut.

The story of Nirvana, for me, is a story about miracles occuring. The image stuck in my mind all year, the vision that drove me, was the picture of Kurt Cobain sat in a car, by a phone booth, refusing to move in case the radio lost its signal, waiting twenty minutes to hear the station play Nirvana’s first single having called in and requested it. He’s quoted saying something about it feeling like a bigger triumph than he had ever imagined. I love that idea of the future superstar, sat like an excited kid, stunned by his own creation and not caring at that moment whether he was the only person asking for it. There have been nights, after a moment of revelation while writing, that I’ve been too excited to sleep. It’s unlikely I’ll make back the money I’m investing in the preparation of the book, but what thrills me is the idea of holding something I created, the physical object, in my hands in a few weeks. Life’s little victories in bloom.
Nirvana taught me you need to start doing what you love before life gets so full that you can’t even remember what it was that made life feel good in the first place. While writing Dark Slivers, each time I’ve fulfilled my desire to write something I’m sure is original, new thinking on Nirvana, I’ve felt fire inside. That’s how it should feel when we do what we adore; the love buzz.

I think the important things in life are those we do, not because they’re what we have to do in order to live, but because they’re what we have to do in order to be alive. Everything else is barren necessity – the void.

Nirvana: Why More? Why Now?

Eighteen, nearly nineteen years ago rock music’s dominance ended. Nirvana sang it on its way by showing up the old poses and histrionics for the lame fakery they were. Since then the band’s archives have been gradually displayed for the legions of fans who still know that this was art not product. Journalists and professional writers have taken every chance to rehash the tales – you know the old stories by now. But in trying to recall the visceral fury of Nirvana there’s been insufficient energy set aside to think, consider and question.

Here, all I wish to do is present ideas, thoughts, theories on issues arising from the story of Nirvana. My reason? Because this wasn’t just another band, it wasn’t just entertainment. There was something deeper here and my curiosity has led me to demand more than just hearing what the band ate for breakfast.

As news arises regarding Nirvana and the various individuals who made that era special I’ll comment, I’ll consider and, if I have thoughts of my own, I’ll raise them. What I promise is that whatever I say may not be right but it’ll be what I honestly think. My second promise is that having told you my truth, I’ll welcome you showing me yours.