Archive for the ‘In Utero 1992-1993’ Category

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I should have mentioned this about a year ago but juggling job, writing, life…Time burns. It’s the one thing I miss about a daily commute: it was an excellent place to read – I carry a book whenever I leave the house even now. At home there are too many distractions – except when in the bathroom of course – but out and about it’s possible to read and just let the world go by.

So, basically, this is an intriguing one. The key to it is just to sink in and let the beauty of the language and the description just flow. The concept stands on the idea of a lonely teenage girl waking up in hospital to discover Kurt Cobain is there too with no memory of his former life and unrecognised by those around; they begin a relationship; they live the fan-dream life of starting a band with him and…And things go wrong. At first sight I could have just yawned and thought ‘fan fiction’ but it’s just too well-written. The book is wreathed in vivid detail that left it somewhere between an enthralling dream sequence and something painted so perfectly it seems tangibly real. Definitely not something I’d have expected to see in the realms of Nirvana/Cobain-related writing but one I’d recommend to anyone who just likes good fiction which I would define as an interesting premise taken on an unpredictable and surprising journey in words that enhance and inspire emotion throughout. It definitely hits that.

I’m often surprised there hasn’t been more literature drawing on the experience of musicians – Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box is the only one that immediately comes to mind – but I’m guessing it’s because few musicians who lived the life also have the talent for writing and, vice versa, few writers have the experience of being actively touring musicians…I reckon Crosbie does a good job of showing that passion, energy and a gift for words can bring something like this to a point where it feels real. Real talent.

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https://thevinylfactory.com/features/best-john-carpenter-10-records/

I did this piece for The Vinyl Factory recently – a relatively easy one for me given my day-to-day listening habits have quite a lot of space for John Carpenter’s work at the moment. Assault On Precinct 13 and The Fog are my favourite soundtracks of his I admit.

In life, all the time, I’m struck that I think most things are good/bad simultaneously. It’s like candy: the initial sugar hit, the flavour, the indulgence – great! But the undercurrent is, sure, it’ll lead to tooth decay, obesity and so forth. It doesn’t mean one should avoid these things, it just means that there’s no avoiding consequences in life and that people’s tendency to divide into good/bad is just plain silly. Most things are both all the time.

A fair example is the work involved in creating things like one of these ‘Ten Of’ lists. Sure you say, it’s just listening to a bunch of music – it ain’t hard. True! And there’s a really deep pleasure involved in sinking so completely into someone’s work. I tend to find that listening to this much of one person’s music in a concerted way over a couple of weeks gives me an expanded awareness of the things they do that make the music theirs, what their techniques and approaches are, where they’re deviating, what makes this piece standout or that piece fit.

On the other hand, it’s not just listening. It’s hours of flicking back, re-listening, discarding notes and thoughts on one piece, thinking more about another. It emphasises that no one is so original that listening to their music so obsessively won’t kill the vibe or point out the bits where it’s a bit the same, or where they’re coasting. It means I can’t bring myself to listen to Carpenter’s latest just yet – I’ll need a break, time to cleanse the palette and digest.

It’s a constant sin of mine: I get into an artist, I hoover up music by them, then I need a pause before returning to them to really ‘get’ the individual joys of a particular record.

 

 

Thurston on Shelf

Sometimes it can feel like working in a void: the clear out of the book store industry, the increasing reality that niche books exist mainly via online retailers, there’s often a sense that the books I write – given my particular focus – only exist on my own shelf and among the people I’ve sent copies to myself.

That’s why it’s always warming when a friend or comrade sends me a picture of something I’ve done existing out in the world in a book store someplace. We Sing A New Language: The Oral Discography of Thurston Moore came out in the U.S. only about a month ago so good to see it’s about.

I saw a hilarious review on Amazon.com earlier which really made me chuckle! Sense of humour is a valuable thing in this world and this was glorious:

The problem with Sonic Youth LPs is that they sing on them. If they eliminated the vocals, they could have achieved 2nd level Dead C status (and that’s not a bad thing). The problem with Thurston Moore has always been that nobody in The History Of Rock has ever tried so hard to adopt a “cool” persona…and for the record his ex-wife Kim Gordon trails a close second. I used to see these two all the time around NYC and it was actually painful to see them “downtown” it up. On the other hand, Lee Ranaldo would come off in Washington Market Park as just a regular dad. I’m giving this book three stars for the simple reason I did not read it. If it was difficult seeing Thurston Moore in real life, why would I want to read a book about him? Three stars seems fair.”

It’s just one of those things: human lives move so fast that if you’re there at the start of something and therefore help forge the identity associated with it, then at some point ‘who you are’ becomes seen as a cliche or as a persona rather than as something original that you bequeathed to the world. Most people’s experience of this phenomenon is when their own kids look at them and sneer, roll their eyes or snigger at the idea that you were ever fresh, new, a clean sheet, an empty page starting to fill up with hasty scribbles. Being a star of one kind or another means seeing it play out across entire scenes and cities.

From my personal encounters with Thurston, from all the people I spoke to for the project (some 170 of his fellow performers), the person I met was every bit the enthusiast for life and culture he’s made about to be: 100% authentic and valiantly rare. I’ll admit I hope to retain that absence of cynicism and “seen it all before” some 30 years down the line. I got the same bright-eyed vibe when walking round the Tate Modern with Lee Ranaldo. There’s something about the generation that grew up in that moment of the NYC scene that doesn’t seem to get old…

 

At the Louder Than Words literary music festival in Manchester last weekend I watched Penny Rimbaud (once and always of Crass) speak of his life philosophies and experiences including time spent at a meditational retreat: his conclusion being (I paraphrase) “I stared at a wall for 13 hours a day and discovered I only had enough content for 3 days.” It’s a fun thought, that ultimately the brain gets bored, can’t regurgitate enough of its memory banks to entertain for longer than that. I feel the same at times: writing about Nirvana near every single day from February 2012 to the tail-end of 2016 left me, suddenly, with an absence, a feeling that I didn’t automatically have a reservoir of additional words to draw on. What to do? Well, I’m a strong believer that when inner resources are low, other people are a source of energy.

In this case, I was privileged enough to speak at an event in Carlisle on Friday night for Words & Guitars during which I was asked a fine question (which, again, I paraphrase): “was Cobain unable to bring himself to change?” The question has been whirring round in my mind for a few days now.

The question was a reaction to some of my earnest beliefs regarding Cobain: that music had been a way to live a life free of bosses and free of control, to achieve an unmediated expression of self when, where and how he wanted (an understandably powerful force for a boy/teen who had so many homes, been rejected by so many people, had been so unwilling to exist within the context of a job.) That this way of being had been compromised repeatedly from the days of Sub Pop onward and – in late 1991/early 1992 – became an intolerable imposition on the privacy and freedom he sought. Interviews, intrusion, his personal life and desires, how and when and where he played, the expectations placed upon his performances and his music, the analysis of his lyrics and thoughts, the commercial requirements, legal requirements, managerial requirements: it meant music was no longer an escape, hence the evidence seems to show he virtually ceased to write music, perform music, interview, record music for the remainder of his life.

His attempt at ‘change’ was an interesting one: he essentially reverted to the only other happy life he had ever known – the family that had existed until 1976 (Montage of Heck, the film, portrayed this sense of the mirror image very effectively). It’s 1992, he gets his girlfriend pregnant and instead of insisting on abortion he decides he wants a child and, more so, he wants to get married to create the stability he had never experienced – it’s a strangely conservative move for the world’s foremost punk icon of the era. It creates a retreat for him: a cocoon which his managers, fans, band need have nothing to do with – where he can escape them all. It’s essentially what he does: buries himself in a series of hotel rooms and temporary residences right the way from the end of the Asia/Pacific tour until January 1994 when he moves into his lakeside mansion in one of Seattle’s exclusive areas; hides away with his new family (and his drugs) as long as he can. It’s an attempt to escape, to change the destination his life has reached, to escape the nagging feeling that his genetic inheritance and his owninging condemned him to re-live all that was worst.

It fails. Ultimately he has to return to performance, he’s too polite to turn down a lot of the demands on him (though he might rage in private or engage in mild protest, for example, by never playing Smells Like Teen Spirit for MTV, only turning up to 18 days in studio after the recording of Nevermind, refusing most interviews), he ends up with almost everyone who loves him explaining to him the consequences of his continued drug use…And with his music and his family both no longer providing him a retreat he has a significant spiritual crisis to confront: if the only lives he’s ever known, family and music, are at risk, then can he imagine or foresee a life after them? The answer is no.

So, on the one hand, it’s clear he does make a quite significant attempt at change right there in 1992. But then again, the question really seems to be asking whether there wasn’t a more positive way out – could he stop drugs? Couldn’t he leave music behind (if necessary) or change his engagement with the music industry to suit himself better? Wasn’t there any chance of a continued existence with Nirvana or without it? Couldn’t he envisage life as a divorced father or, at least, a lengthy period of mending the familial bond (not being doped off his head likely helping with that)? My answer at the time came down to the futures I could imagine for him: Cobain was an incredible magpie for the sounds of the underground (think of it: an album at Easter 1986, near entirely new album by Jan 1988, an entirely new album by Jan 1989, a new album by April 1990, a different album by May 1991 with the band saying in interview after interview that they had their next album ready to go and that it’d be out in the summer of 1992 – so fast!) but there’s not much evidence that he could take on the freewheeling Thurston Moore/Sonic Youth cavalcade vibe with diversions into electronica, art/music, free jazz, improvisation – that path would have required something more expansive.

The singer-songwriter, Johnny Cash-vibe doesn’t seem to beckon: people forget MTV Unplugged in New York was a corporately imposed format, that ‘Do Re Mi’ was acoustic because it was a demo not because he definitely intended it to be an acoustic song, that he only placed three fully acoustic songs on any of his albums, that his music had been getting wilder and more aggressive in 1992-1993 (remove the older songs written pre-Nevermind and placed on In Utero and what’s left is a lot of aggro and gloriously punky noise) with the last new songs he played with Nirvana being the raucous ‘You Know You’re Right’ and the small shred played live in November/December 1993 then demo’ed briefly in studio in January 1994. But he was verbally dissatisfied with the repetitiveness of playing loud-quiet, verse-chorus-verse material too: so a more likely path is a dive back into the underground – it was suggested to me that Cobain could very readily have slotted into the noise provocations of Earth, perhaps his continued relationship with Melvins might have inspired him to follow their more aggressively independent path. Essentially if he chose to keep repeating the formula that made him mainstream worthy then he’d have sunk, same as the other alt rock gods of the era (Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam) did when tastes moved on in the mid-to-late Nineties: popular taste waits for no man and few artists get a top flight career for more than a few years.

My favourite vision of him, however, was suggested to me when I thought of another character Cobain is often compared to – Axl Rose. Beyond the mutual abhorrence, the clear differences in style, ego, impetus – Rose achieved what Cobain had wanted: an apparently utter independence from any fresh label demands or requirements. The fading of hard rock hadn’t decapitated Guns ‘n’ Roses, they remained ‘the other’ biggest rock band of the years 1991-1994. I have no desire to see an aged Cobain taking to the reunion circuit looking flabby, plastic, weary and leading audiences in karaoke run-throughs of Nirvana songs: my fondest outcome would be a clean Cobain, retreating entirely into private recording, maybe the odd show here or there, the odd guest appearance with friends, but otherwise devoted to recording the album the world is waiting for…And then never releasing it. Just letting the expectation, the imagining, the myth run wild – while remaining utterly immune to it. It’s pretty much what happened with his death – it’d be lovely if it had been his life too.

So, could Cobain change? The additional thought that came to me was how much change Cobain had already experienced in his life: a vast number of addresses, homes, temporary homelessness and so forth during his young life – he rolled with it. The daily change that comes with touring as one rolls in and out of vans, floor-space or other inadequate sleeping arrangements, on and off stages, round towns and down roads. The changing array of personnel lined up behind his musician vision. The move from demo, to studio, to single, to album, to full label artist, to new label…It seems churlish of me to have forgotten how much change Cobain had endured in a very young life. In many ways he had changed more than most people do by age 27: most people have rolled with the expectations placed on them – from school, to university, to work, to relationship being just one path. People value positive change: quitting smoking, taking up exercise, moving home, moving job – Cobain is maybe not being credited for the amount of change he did endure though it’s very true he remained a man with a particular vision and particular desires until the end.

 

Courtesy of the ever awesome Mr. Mike Ziegler…

http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/31722/1/listen-to-previously-unreleased-nirvana-recordings

Interesting, since early last year the locks seem to have fallen off the ol’ Nirvana vaults somewhere down the line. My suspicion is that activity surrounding Montage of Heck led people to hunt out buried tapes, source material, to surreptitiously snag copies that are now emerging. That’d be ironic if part of the impetus around MoH was for the Estate of Kurt Cobain to safeguard the material.

So! What does it amount to? Incidentally, yes, I’m doing something I find fun and comforting – chatting about the music of Nirvana – to distract me from the dreary reality of the U.K. voting its way out of the EU. Probably best I don’t get into that one eh?

The first piece of interest is the emergence of ‘Lullaby’, a title that has floated around in fan circles (as ever kudos to LiveNirvana) for years. What does it amount to? Alas, not much. A jammed out improv with organ to the fore. There’s a guitar part low in the mix but is there – it seems all three members of Nirvana were in on this. The drum sound makes me think it might be Cobain drumming (thoughts and opinions welcomed!) Alas, these stabbing chords and little strolls don’t offer much and the band clearly know there’s not much left to offer other than a final shambolic breakdown. Noise is a good refuge for any jam that has run its course. Shame it didn’t quite live up to it’s name – I think I’d actually been hoping for some kind of slight ‘Marigold’ style acoustic piece.

Speaking of Marigold…Two versions have come out. The instrumental take one of Marigold is intriguing for giving a sense of what a more muscular guitar part might have lent to the track. The decision to keep it as a light pop tune, something whispered and gentle, certainly created something unique but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have potential to be a more standard fit for the Nirvana template.

Take two of Marigold, again an instrumental, seems primarily intended as a run-through of the drums. The guitar part is far more familiar but the drums are more forcefully delivered. Maybe it’s my ears but the drums seem to become more confident as it develops, like this is a practice exercise, warming up, Dave coaching Cobain through it until Cobain has it ready for what will become the proper cuts.

Oooo… ‘Dave Solo’, southern-fried boogie-down grunge rock! It’s pretty likable! The scratchy guitar sound and the growling rhythm guitar fit beautifully, it’s something different to verse-chorus-verse, works well as a relatively brief n’ spunky run-through of basic ideas and doesn’t outstay its welcome. There’s basically just a couple of thoughts at work in it, pretty-vestigial, no sense of how it might shift or develop…So it doesn’t, which is fine for a sub-two minute running time.

There’s also a barely different version of Dumb released. To be fair, by February 1993, Dumb had been worked over for so many years it would have been stunning if there were any significant changes or inflections left to make to it. The only thing I noticed is the absence of backing vocals (and perhaps a slightly less powerful delivery of the “I think I’m dumb” outro line:

Just for fun, here’s Dumb from KAOS 1990 too – nice to compare the takes and the small elements that shifted 1990 to 1993. The humming on the chorus is a lovely touch and does make me wonder if he was using a vocal sound to indicate where he already imagined another sound (the cello in 1993?) would substitute:

 

To finish on a high note…Now THIS I could listen to all day. Some kind and awesome soul has spliced together Nirvana’s ‘live destruction’ efforts from 1991 into two ten minute efforts. Ah…The sweet sweet sound of Nirvana torturing their instruments…

 

 

I’ve been rather enjoying this – really controlled, well-weighted vocal performance then the fun of hearing the familiar shapes of the song twisted through another instrument. It’s fun! My feeling is that Nirvana’s discography is full of very adaptable songs, quite stripped down shapes that lend themselves well to alteration and aural surgery.

It’s part of his ‘Bedroom Closet Covers’ series – but there’s also an album ‘Songs From a Toxic Apartment’: this is the video for ‘They Turned Away’

And one for ‘To Isis Sleeping’ – a mellower tune with a rather charming video

So! There’s been no posts the last few weeks – is it really touching three weeks since New Year…? It’s been a busy 2016 so far. Long may it continue.

My main rambling has been a piece for Words & Guitars:
http://www.wordsandguitars.co.uk/2016/01/never-ever-gonna-get-old-on-the-passing-of-pop-stars/

I had been intending to soften it but ultimately, what the hey. I’m not denying that age has some lush perks (I enjoyed 27-30 more than 16-27 and I enjoyed 30-35 more than anything before) but we’re living in a fascinating era where, in the next decade to a decade-and-a-half, we’re likely to witness the deaths of most of that generation of musicians who became superstars in the Sixties. An entire origin is about to vanish – and not in photogenic ways. Bowie has done an amazing thing by not just focusing on death in a defiant ‘The Show Must Go On’ way, or an accidental “doesn’t it seem poignant now,” way – but by wrapping his entire last project in the image and words of being a dead man walking. A stark, harsh and honest last mode.

I confess I ended up bored witless of the media coverage of Bowie – it was so cheap. It’s hard not to believe that various news departments were rubbing their hands together with glee; “quick! Crack out the archive images for a clickbait gallery! Start trawling for unrevealing tribute quotations from famous names! Open up a livefeed and shovel the punters’ own sh** back at them!” There’s a Viz feature called Tony Parsehole that pretty much smashes the art of the empty-hearted obituary: http://viz.co.uk/tony-parsehole-remembers-amy-winehouse/ and a lot of the endless commentary has followed this model – a few flaccid references to “oh he really changed a lot – oh he wore some outrageous clothes,” all showing, gloriously, a complete lack of engagement with the topic and an absolute determination to hit deadlines and get something up fast. There was little dignified about it all. I’m not saying that many of the comments and articles weren’t heartfelt but there was little that indicated an engagement with Bowie’s work or that offered anything radical in depth – it was a parade of articles saying “isn’t it sad?” Nothing more. Which is unfortunate when Bowie himself ended with such a spirited and revelatory musing on the approach of mortality.

Next month we see what would have been Kurt Cobain’s 49th birthday – odd to think of him as just 20 years shy of the age Bowie and Lemmy departed at.