Merry Christmas! The Evolution of Kurt Cobain’s Lyrics

In the literary world, it’s normal that a sophisticated writer’s output is dissected to indicate the structural, time-specific and/or constant features underpinning what they do. The world of popular music, however, often falls prey to anti-intellectualism: a common kneejerk reaction claiming that any deeper consideration either neuters the emotive force of music (answer: no, it doesn’t) is inappropriate to the form (answer: no, it isn’t) or is purely imaginary unless confirmed by an artist’s own statements (answer: entire industries are built on helping people understand themselves better – why should a zone as full of flakes, oddballs and exceptional cases as music is be the sole arena of human life where people are all-knowing with regard to their actions?) It’s a bizarre reaction in many ways: to be unable to accept music on a physical, emotional and intellectual level whether at separate times and locations, or intermingled.

In the case of Cobain, the 500 posts created from November 2012 to December 2016; over a million words; hundreds of tables/charts/graphics; indicate I feel there’s more to his work than just re-treading soap opera style biographical detail. The starkest example I can offer is the way in which is song-writing notably changes between 1986 and 1994. As a Christmas post I decided to enjoy showing why I think Cobain is such a good writer and sustains deeper assessment.

Think of any singer you wish: compare Beck to Axl Rose; compare Nineties Wu Tang Clan to the hashtag disorientation of mid-2000s Lil Wayne; whatever you wish. Every performer of words has a voice. There are a range of options: first person, third person, the story, interior monologues, direct address to an unknown audience, emotional sensation versus external reportage…Regardless of whether the individual concerned is a seasoned professional who readily and methodically selects different voices at different times, or a from-the-gut lyricist working on pure instinct rather than any formulated conception of their art, lyrics require a mode regardless of thought or forethought.

Cobain is an excellent subject to study in this regard: a concise selection of song lyrics to consider – well under one hundred – showing development across a tight eight year span. Some songs recorded for the Fecal Matter demo at Easter 1986 may have been around a long while but without further evidence it’s pure conjecture. In my opinion, given how fast Cobain wrote, used and discarded songs 1986-1990 I doubt he was re-using leftovers from his early-to-mid teens. I’m ignoring the material on Montage of Heck simply because there’s no data about when/where it was created and most of it didn’t come even close to any sense of complete form. Feel free to consider it in light of this discussion.

In essence, there are three clearly distinguishable threads to Cobain’s lyric writing – and they change significantly in terms of their presence and importance within his portfolio.

The first, is the ‘story’ – defined as a narrative scene/experience played out across an entire song. This approach takes a lot of work: essentially it means writing a short story, in a relatively limited number of words, while making it work as a vocal piece. ‘Paper Cuts’ from the Bleach album is a great example: “When I’m feeling tired / she pushed food through the door / and I crawl toward the crack of light / sometimes I can’t find my way / newspapers spread around / soaking all that they can / a cleaning is due again / a good hosing down.” The first evidence of Cobain using this mode of writing comes on Fecal Matter in 1988 with the track ‘Insurance’ (a court scene) and it’s very understandable why it never becomes a dominant component of his writing – it’s difficult and time-consuming! The next example is ready a year later by the time of Nirvana’s first show: ‘Mexican Seafood’, a slightly feverish sequence in which he winds up focusing on the state of the bathroom floor and the toilet bowl (I felt this song more deeply after a food poisoning episode.) 1987 is the big year for story songs: Cobain has the time and freedom to work on them so by the January 1988 studio session at Reciprocal he’s worked up ‘Floyd The Barber’ and ‘Paper Cuts’ with ‘Polly’ likely already in hand given the song is based on a 1987 news story.

This song form dies entirely. The final two examples are written in May-July of 1990 (‘Sliver’) and the autumn of that year (‘Something in the Way’.) Story songs, in summary, make up 6 of the 68 songs with lyrics released during Nirvana’s lifetime or on the Greatest Hits/With The Lights Out packages in 2002-2004. One is based on a news story (‘Polly’), one on an incident that happened to a local kid (‘Paper Cuts’), one is a fictitious grotesque based on a TV show (‘Floyd The Barber’), three are embellished autobiography (‘Mexican Seafood’, ‘Sliver’, ‘Something in the Way’.) The way in which, between 1988 and1990, he moves toward autobiography is reinforced by other trends in his writing.

The second form is even more prominent in Cobain early work: the ‘character sketch’. This differs from the story song in being a recitation of an individual’s static being, character or circumstance. The Fecal Matter demo is a point of origin in two respects: firstly, Cobain is still finding his own voice so it’s significant how often he speaks ‘as other people’ on the record – note the bizarre put-on voices throughout the demo (an affectation still prominent in the unusual voices on the January 1988 songs later seen on Incesticide.) Secondly, this seeking out of identities is also lyrical: ‘Laminated Effect’ is the only time Cobain sketches named characters (Johnny and Lucy respectively), while ‘Buffy’s Pregnant’ marries his vocal impersonations to stereotypical dialogue of the types of individual he’s representing. ‘Mrs. Butterworth’, in which he hashes out a would-be homemade folk-art entrepreneur’s future plans, continues this lyrical approach in which he visibly speaks ‘as’ another person. He gives up on vocal impersonations very swiftly and very soon it becomes less obvious he’s speaking as a character or autobiographically.

The b-side to Nirvana’s first single, ‘Big Cheese’, had started life as a tale of management at a fast food joint (see the early version played live in Spring 1988) then evolved into a comment on the management at Sub Pop; there’d also been ‘Hairspray Queen’ and ‘If You Must’ (the latter a quintessential ‘writing’ song) recorded that January; while ‘Sappy’ was demo’ed in 1988. The peak for the character sketch though was its dominance on Bleach which contained ‘About A Girl’, ‘School’, ‘Negative Creep’, ‘Scoff’, ‘Swap Meet’ and ‘Mr Moustache’. A division was emerging within this song form quick sketches of characters he observed around him – like the redneck or the couple making a living at garage/car-boot sales – or songs based around his own life and mood (i.e., pressures from management, pressures from girlfriend, his own negativity.)

Things had visibly changed by the time of Nevermind: just as the story song had dwindled to a single song (‘Something in the Way’), there were only two character sketches (‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’) both of which could be read as autobiographical.  That’s not to say, however, that Cobain hadn’t persisted with this mode of writing. ‘Stain’, ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Even in his Youth’ were all written in a flurry around summer-autumn 1989; then, in 1990, Cobain also created ‘Dumb’, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and ‘Oh The Guilt’ – early versions of ‘Rape Me’ were also far more extensive than what would ultimately emerge in 1993.

I’ve said it a lot of times, of course, that so few Cobain compositions are written after Nevermind that it’s hard to draw big conclusions but – by the end of his life, as far as we can see, the only additions to this form were ‘Curmudgeon’ (written sometime in 1991), then ‘Very Ape’ and ‘Scentless Apprentice.’ A form that had taken up over half of Nirvana’s first album remained as a full four songs on Nirvana’s final album, but made up only two of the dozen compositions he’s known to have written in the last two-and-a-half years of his life. Still, it’s a significant batch of Cobain’s productivity: 23 of the 68 songs taken into account in this assessment.

The curious part, however, is seeing the rise of the third song form Cobain used. Bleach was made up of one cover song, two story songs leftover from the January 1988 session, six character sketches, then just two songs in the mode for which Cobain would become best known and that would dominate his later writing. ‘Blew’ and ‘Sifting’ are forged from lines that sound good together, related words, brief images, lines addressed to an unknown audience – there’s no central narrative and no singular character here. I refer to these as the ‘abstract address’: detached images, opinions, feelings combined into songs (hence why looking for a single ‘meaning’ for this type of song has always been so silly.)

‘Downer’ s the nearest Fecal Matter came to this though there was a central theme at play. Note, by the way, that Downer starts with an anonymous narration then breaks into the first person. Cobain would do the same thing on Spank Thru, Mexican Seafood, Big Long Now, Dive, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Drain You, Scentless Apprentice and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter – opening lines in one mode, the rest in another. Oddly ‘Downer’, ‘Aero Zeppelin’ and ‘Sifting’ would be the last songs Cobain wrote that are entirely anonymous with no ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’ involved. Just another small evolution in his style.

‘Spank Thru’ was the next form in this mode, followed in early 1988 by ‘Blew’ and ‘Sifting’ which each evolved new lines and different parts across 1988. Increasingly this is how Cobain would come to write: lines taken from different journals, or scribbled out relatively close to the time of recording, tagged onto core lines and ideas he’d kept or mused on for a while, or words that stayed in his mind. If you look at something like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ideas barely linger longer than a couple of lines. Elsewhere, try ‘In Bloom’ with its chorus refrain existing entirely separately from the verse themes (which are themselves fairly diffuse – “Sell the kids for food / weather changes moods / spring is here again / reproductive glands”). On Nevermind, there were two story songs (‘Polly’ and ‘Something in the Way’), then two character sketches (‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’) then the rest of the album consisted of these abstracts. In Utero, again, would divide up relatively cleanly: no story songs, four character sketches, the rest abstract.

The abstract was, by its very nature, a highly adaptable form: note the change between Nevermind’s unspecific combination of broad statements of opinion and imagery versus In Utero’s targeted clusters of autobiographical reference. Cobain’s fixation on the media echoing through words and titles on In Utero in real contrast to the relative anonymity and veiled biography of Nirvana’s earlier songs: a stark turn toward self-reporting. It isn’t uncommon either for fame to impose a certain introversion on lyrics: essentially, once all an artist sees is hotel rooms, stages and business meetings it’s hard for them to say much about the world. Think of Axl Rose moving from the grime of Appetite For Destruction to the love songs and psychological dissections (and aggression) on Use Your Illusion I and II – or even more specifically compare that to Chinese Democracy after a decade stuck in a mansion. Recently The Weeknd’s new album was filled with the least interesting, specific and developed writing of his career.

In conversation the other week someone drew my eye to ‘Do Re Mi’ and pointed to it as a quintessential heroin song comparable to the narcotised drift of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ or Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ – this air of blissed out warm nothingness to it all (and, having been hooked on the spirit and sung along a million times, people still shake their heads and wonder what heroin’s appeal is…) It reminded me, again, that there’s more than meets the eye inside the music of Kurt Cobain and so – at Christmas – I wanted to sign the blog off for a couple weeks with this remembrance of what an awesome musical force he was.


Posthumously Respecting The Word and Art of Kurt Cobain

Over recent years, I’ve had quite a lot of experience of death. Here’s what happens: your body empties of any vestige of the person therein, your physical presence in this world is then destroyed and/or discarded. Your family/friends/loved ones will dispose of near all the belongings you accumulated during life because – ultimately – they loved you, not your things; because they lack the life experiences that made those things mean something to you; because they have their own things to look after; because your things don’t mean to them what they did to you. Regardless of unsubstantiated rumours of life after death (I’ve lived in a haunted house and experienced auditory and visual phenomena without ever catching anything that made me think I was witnessing the active spirits of the dead), your actual involvement in the affairs of this planet ceases. After this time you are a memory – nothing any one does or does not do touches you; you are not aware; nor do you participate in any way – as a memory you exist only as a poor-quality and incomplete recollection in someone else’s head, filtered through their perceptions and experiences.

I’m indebted to an earlier comment on the blog – thanks Billy! – for leading me to this post. The coolest thing about writing the blog has been to come into contact with other minds and lives. Billy raised comments made in a 1992 interview for Flipside magazine (I spoke to one of the interviewers during the preparation of ‘Cobain on Cobain’ – nice bloke, gave me permission to quote the interview directly in the book) in which the following exchange takes place:

Cake: I’ve seen so many bootlegs of you guys, are you pissed off about that or what?

Cobain: For the most part I really don’t care. I like to hear live bootlegs and I would appreciate if the people that make them would send me a copy. But that’s the case, nobody sends me anything. But when embarrassing things come out like stuff that I’ve done in my basement on a two-track or a boombox, that are basically just unwritten songs or pieces of songs; songs I’d like to put together someday into a song…When those come out it’s really embarrassing and it frustrates me.

Cake: Like when you were playing Jabberjaw and all these people were singing Polly when you were doing it and Chris goes “how the **** do you guys know that song?” and somebody goes “bootlegs!”

Cobain: Right! It’s really embarrassing also when they take it upon themselves to title the songs for you. There are some really dorky ones like ‘The Rocker’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’. Oh God!

So, as a starting point, what is known of the intentions of Kurt Cobain circa 1993-1994? Well, he was working on the audio-visual work which became ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ And Nirvana’s ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single would feature a song from MTV Unplugged. Meanwhile, he recorded one shaped up studio demo, one brief shred as part of a studio jam, then the home demo of a further song. Other than that there’s currently just conjecture. But, from conversations with Kevin Kerslake for ‘I Found My Friends’, it’s clear that the video we see – a straightforward live clip/interview clip period piece – is only a fraction of what Cobain intended: Cobain intended further levels of editing, chopping, slicing, reworking – that he simply never got to make the video art collage he wanted. Meanwhile there’s no evidence Cobain had further Nirvana plans at all (I’ve covered the mooted Lollapalooza EP elsewhere on the blog). The only other hints would be the comments made in the ‘Come As You Are’ book about his vague plans for his own record label releasing lo-fi weirdness including ‘the singing flipper boy.’

Does that make all posthumous releases by Nirvana illegitimate? Well, actually, if you want to take a fundamentalist position: yes. Cobain in no way authorised, approved or had any consideration of any release after the planned ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single. If the express wishes of Kurt Cobain are what matter most to you – then you should reject everything after that.

Billy’s first query was “does the fact that Kurt passed away justify releases that betray his wishes or what he would’ve done (basing this on his own words of course)?” There are a lot of intriguing avenues in here. Firstly, for normal human beings like you or I, our words don’t go on permanent display to be hauled out and used decades later in our name or to show us (or those around us) where they’re deviating from holy script. The very fact it’s possible to do that is an oddity created by fame and celebrity – and reliant on fans preserving and compiling Cobain’s interviews regardless of whether he would have found that creepy or intrusive. You and I, we’re lucky, we have the gift of forgetfulness: I feel for John Lydon when his world-changing 18-20 year old self is waved in his face as if that’s all his 60 year old self should be allowed to be – I’d be a lot more perturbed if someone didn’t evolve, learn, grow, change as they live life.

In the case of Cobain, he’s forever trapped in the words of a 20-26 year old young adult, from age 24 one in the middle of an unprecedented disruption and disturbance of his life. There’s also the wider context: Cobain’s time in the music industry ended in the pre-Internet era and before the huge mechanism around the release of demos and outtakes exploded. To use Cobain quotations to claim what he definitely would/wouldn’t have done in a fundamentally different industry, as he approached 50 years old, with his work lacking the halo of death: it requires one to view Cobain as a stone statue, as someone on whom an opinion can be imposed without them reacting or changing – a dead man.

Cobain, on Nirvana’s very first release, wedged noise segments into the recording; on the band’s first album it was only the record label’s refusal that stopped him sticking ‘Beans’ on the record; there are random background noises to ‘Nevermind’ songs; noise jams wedged on the end of 1991 and 1993 albums; the band’s own archives raided for a Christmas demo/outtake/radio release in 1992; the noise jam backing William S. Burroughs; his contributions to Melvins at that time – Cobain’s objection to illicit release of stuff he didn’t like doesn’t mean the kind of material that came out on ‘Montage Of Heck’ wasn’t material he could/would – or couldn’t/wouldn’t – have found a use for. To argue otherwise is legitimate, but does mean trapping Cobain in the identity of the mainstream singer-songwriter pop-punk figure and refusing to place equal value on his very broad artistic, musical and creative palette. It comes down to competing visions of who Cobain was and, therefore, is. Again, those visions are something imposed by onlookers and you/I/we are all entitled to see him differently. It doesn’t mean we have absolute right to predict his future choices.

Intriguingly, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if Cobain had lived: his death fundamentally changes everything. Deciphering whether Cobain would have become a Johnny Cash style troubadour, an Axl Rose style recluse, a convert to electronica and the potential of remix culture, a lo-fi home recorder in the Lou Barlow mode, a reformation tour band leader, a noise experimenter or improviser in the Thurston Moore mode…Who’s to say? Of course that question has direct bearing on the reaction to posthumous releases. There’s no indication whether or not Cobain would have been happy to see ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’, ‘Live At Reading’ or ‘Live and Loud’ released. ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ is definitely and demonstrably not what he intended to release if he hadn’t died. If more outtake releases and ‘product’ were required there’s no way of telling what from the ‘With The Lights Out’ boxset he would or wouldn’t have been willing to release. It’s all personal opinion and belief: using Cobain’s words to sanctify choices he never had a chance to make doesn’t validate or justify one’s choices any more or less than someone else’s opposing view.

This brings me back to the Monty Python clip: it seems very pertinent to this kind of discussion of Cobain – a man who gives no impression of having wanted people following him around or worshipping his words as incorruptible religious text to be used to bless or condemn others. Using Cobain’s 1992 words to condemn releases he wasn’t, isn’t and never will be aware of seems inane at best. Cobain’s words shouldn’t be used to dictate the behaviour of other human beings for the rest of their lives: having made commercial arrangements with record and publishing companies, he explicitly granted them a degree of control over his work. Similarly, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, former members of Nirvana, Frances Bean Cobain, Courtney Love – they were all given degrees of control by Cobain. These are factual indications of his intentions so why should they be downgraded and random interviews be privileged instead?

Billy raised another question: “does an artist’s wishes matter?” The answer is an absolute yes…And, on top of the rights the artist grants to others in exchange for support of one form or another, those wishes are called a will. A will is the official, provable testimony of an individual regarding what they want to happen after their death. It means that random people on the Internet, random strangers in the street, relatives you’ve barely seen in years, commercial contacts you’ve had to work with – none of them get to twist your words or speak on your behalf. I was in a position fairly recently of having to execute someone’s last wishes – whereupon other people told me that my relative had intended something different. I explained openly that I would stick to what was written in the will and, secondly, what I was told by him in person. In the case of Cobain, piecing together his intentions from public sources, having never met him, having no personal experience of him, it would seem a grim way to ‘respect’ him.

The final part of what Billy raised was “if you specifically go against (or ‘rape’ as Kurt may have put it), their wishes and disrespect them, can you still really call yourself a fan?” This gets to the crux of something for me: no one has the right to tell you if you’re a fan or not. Cobain spent his life seeking to escape the control of family, boss, record label. The charitable causes he used Nirvana to support were about freeing people from the vulgar imposition of power by others – he believed everyone had the goddamn right to be who they are, how they wanted, without anyone else telling them they couldn’t. He was a punk after all! If you want to hear every note Cobain ever played, if you just want to hear the official releases, if you don’t want to hear anything he didn’t personally choose to release before his death, if you just occasionally enjoy one song or another – no one, repeat, no one, gets to tell you that’s wrong. Anyone who believes that imposing their views on others is the thing to do when it comes to Nirvana hasn’t learnt much about Cobain and “don’t know what it means” when it comes to his music.

In my eyes, the best fans are ones who have taken Cobain’s words and decided to do something active in this life: frankly, making a consumer choice to buy or not buy a record is a pretty poor way to show respect to Cobain isn’t it? Over at LiveNirvana there’s a community of fans devoting however much or little energy they can to finding and preserving recordings, interviews, images of Cobain and Nirvana – that’s an amazing thing to me. Then again, if that’s not your thing, that’s cool – you’re allowed to just enjoy the music however you wish. In my case, writing about the uncertain living conditions Cobain endured in his teenage years, the absence of a home or of security, it reinforced my decision to volunteer at a group supporting the homeless and to donate regularly to homeless charities. Showing respect and honour is about DOING something: it is not about telling others what to do or demanding they do it differently.

A gentleman percussionist called William Hooker bequeathed me a beautiful statement earlier this year: “if that’s your thing, that’s great, I’m not dismissing it – it’s just not MY thing.” That’s what’s missing a lot of the time. Cobain’s final plea was for ‘empathy’, the desire to listen to and respect other peoples’ feelings without trying to control, overpower or deny them. The world – particularly this year – seems to find it hard to move beyond right/wrong dominance or to do the hard work required to accept others feel differently and to seek commonalities.

I’d personally rather Cobain’s music didn’t rot in a Californian vault – I don’t see any great honour in burying his music along with him. I thought, and people are welcome to disagree with me, that the ‘Montage Of Heck’ soundtrack, out of all the posthumous Cobain-related releases, was closest to his true anarchic artistic spirit. Far from dishonouring him I felt it showed him to be a true artist, someone complex and hugely varied. So, the most crucial statement I can make today is, this is just my opinion – yours is good too. On this blog, sure, I’ll state my beliefs and put forward my reasoning and evidence – I hope it’s fun for you to read and if you have a different opinion on the things discussed…Wicked. That’s all good! I mean, wow, I’m kinda just delighted we’re all still here in late 2016 discussing the life and works of a man and band who ceased to be 22 years ago.

Kurt Cobain: Let’s Keep the Music Alive

Releasing Kurt Cobain’s rough drafts and outtakes does no disservice to his legacy.

Jeff Burlingame wrote in Time on August 19, that the release of new material from or about Kurt Cobain should cease. His reason — that this is not what Cobain would have wanted — was a fair one which I respect…but don’t agree with.

What happens to dead musicians when there’s no more music and nothing new said of them? They’re forgotten. Their music dies. The lifeless repetition of greatest hits ultimately makes it impossible for existing fans to return to the music with fresh ears, or for new fans to feel excited discovering it. Their music becomes the audio equivalent of sun-bleached wallpaper; over-familiar background that we barely notice let alone view with any intensity.

In a beautiful eulogy at Cobain’s memorial, Krist Novoselic — Nirvana’s bassist and Cobain’s friend — spoke of Cobain’s ethos saying; “no band is special, no player royalty.” That’s why it’s so troubling when people take Cobain’s words as diktats to be obeyed two decades after his passing. Every time there’s a new Cobain release someone makes the claim that his image shouldn’t be taken in vain, or that his unreleased music should be kept locked away to maintain the sanctity of his back catalog. Creating a Gospel of Kurt, or converting his music and image into holy relics, reeks of a posthumous sainthood that’s as un-punk rock as it gets.

Asking “What Would Kurt Think?” only raises more questions. Do the views of Kurt Cobain the troubled teenager carry equal weight to those of Cobain the weary 27 year old? Is everything he said sacred? Is there nothing that can now be seen as immature, or only applicable within the context of his life? Dogmatizing his words then adopting them as our own means we pick-and-choose whatever we wish, illegitimately appropriating his status to justify our own personal wishes and intentions. It means we falsify Cobain; no one can truly know what such a contradictory and intriguing person would think of the world of 2015.

A further truth is you don’t have to care what Kurt Cobain might think — it’s your choice. When you first bought a Nirvana album you didn’t fill in an application form asking for his permission. Following an onstage breakdown in Rome in 1989, Cobain raved at one of the owners of Sub Pop, his record label, that his audiences were idiots. In 1992 he released a statement asking certain fans to “leave us the fuck alone!” Just as Cobain had every right to make such statements, fans had every right to ignore them. Buying someone’s music doesn’t provide them a veto over your personal morality or your enjoyment of said music.

No one expects an artist’s rough sketches to match their fully-realized works. Consider the slew of outtakes leaked in August 2015. The result, far from being a decline in respect for Cobain, was an outpouring of reaffirmed enthusiasm for the man and his work. One take of “Lithium” saw Cobain, voice near gone, barely able to croak the chorus. This humanized the man while revealing him as someone so titanically dedicated that even with half-a-voice he still pushed himself all the way in his desire to practice and perfect. This alternative version brought out idiosyncratically telling details invisible if all we had was the polished work on “Nevermind.”

Outtakes can reinvigorate well-worn songs. True, the Cobain of 1994 didn’t choose to release them. But back in 1992 he agreed to his record company’s request that Nirvana outtakes be stitched together to exploit Nirvana’s unexpected fame and the Christmas buying season. The high quality of the “Incesticide” compilation shouldn’t disguise that Cobain had no trouble with its commercially compromised purpose. He even named a 1992 song “Oh the Guilt,” a quotation taken from his “Journals” where he lamented the idea that he was meant to feel guilt for his success and burgeoning wealth.

It’s also unreasonable to expect that Cobain, who would now be in his late forties, would stand here in 2015, ignorant of and naïve about the commercial potential of outtakes — even the Beatles and Led Zeppelin have engaged in archive projects. The idea that Cobain was an austere purist who wouldn’t have joined with his bandmates in embracing the release of archive material if the opportunity arose seems illusionary.

The use of Cobain’s image and music is a matter worth vigilance. Cobain’s avatar chanting Bon Jovi songs in a game was disquieting — yet the result reenergized fans and reaffirmed their belief that Cobain remains more than just product. There’s a certain overwrought paternalism to claims that any use of Cobain’s music or image is predatory or that individuals need protecting from hearing music that isn’t ‘perfect.’ Such an argument underrates the general care that has been taken by his estate and over-privileges what is being consumed. It’s isn’t life-or-death, it’s just music, no matter how good. It’s hard to see the existential harm caused by letting those who wish to hear more exchange their cash to do so.

Ultimately I’m glad that posthumous sales of Cobain’s music have provided for his child, have helped fund Chad Channing’s excellent band Before Cars, have allowed Novoselic to pursue political interests. I’m more than happy to keep production plant workers, administrators, marketers and everyone else at a record label in work so they can feed their families.

And maybe it’s selfish, but it does thrill me whenever unheard recordings reignite that voice, that sound — it’s like encountering an old friend and finding the years haven’t dulled their energy. While Kurt Cobain chose to burn out, it would be our mistake if we let his last embers be buried in a record company vault and allowed to fade away in silent indifference.

A Pledge of Allegiance: My Most Desired Piece of Music Memorabilia

This piece was suggested to me by the team at so credit to them for providing me with a fun idea and hopefully the result is a quality read.


A home isn’t a shell of wood, cement and brick. That’s just a house. Amid the functional blankness of unavoidable purchases — dead sofas, cutlery, toiletries — people cocoon themselves in treasured memories; that’s what makes a home. Mementoes record where we’ve been, certificates and trophies of one form or another capture what we’ve done, photos nod respectfully to the people with whom we’ve done it. We curate museums of self. What we value most will be hung on walls and placed atop units telling who we are, who we have been.

It’s more than a declaration of self. A home binds us to our tribes. The living and the dead comingle in our belongings, we preserve them, give life to them, honor them. We open that door not just to friends, family, acquaintances. Memorabilia is a mark of gratitude thanking those we might never have met but who — through their works — gave us comfort, color, inspiration. We pledge allegiance by adding physical markers of their lives to ours so no one can tell our stories without acknowledging theirs. Memorabilia says someone or something mattered.

Though I’m not a rich man, I’m tempted. A friend of mine says he’ll accept $7,500 to $10,000 dollars for it. Plastic casing at least twenty-seven years old, not too battered for being not much shy of my age and twenty-seven is a sacred number in this context . A handwritten chunk of card roughly twelve centimeters wide and maybe a little longer. I imagine the cassette weighs a hundred grams. I used to patiently re-spool cassettes just as unremarkable as this using a pencil to feed the magnetic tape and the tip of a finger to screw-drive the reel one turn at a time.

I’ve never valued picture discs, limited editions, numbered copies, or any of the other sleights of hand used by canny businesses to confer preciousness on industrial end-products. If the music isn’t worth it, I don’t want it. I clear out records that leave me cold or that I never feel like playing. But downloads are too slight a thing to be satisfying. They strip sound of worth, reduce it to anonymity, to musical wallpaper and corporate filename formats. I want the commitment that comes with an object given shelf space even if I don’t fetishize plastic, paper, vinyl.

Human connection invigorated these objects; handicraft kindles value for me in extinguished substances. A CD-R with a Xeroxed cover bought from Dylan Nyoukis at a gig in Brighton. John Lydon’s memoir hand-signed then embossed at the 100 Club. Woodblock covers for Michael Gira’s home recordings. The Fire Ants’ only single sent as a thank you from Ed Dekema for writing the band’s oral history for their new reissue. A polaroid from Marcus Gray’s Parasite project. The Blood Circus t-shirt Geoff Robinson sent. A lathe-cut 7” of a Dumb Numbers’ song.

And this tape…I’ll play it two times and the second someone else will have to do it for me. It’s Nirvana’s first studio session on a cassette Kurt Cobain dubbed off by hand in early 1988 as a gift for a friend of his I’m now happy to call a friend of mine. It’s the only item of music memorabilia I’ve ever thought of owning. A tape a twenty-one year old pauper boy copied back before his band meant anything at all to the world. I’d be too afraid to play it more than twice.

I’ll never have been so scared as on that first occasion. I’ll be praying; “Allah, please, don’t let my grandfather’s old tape-deck fuck it all to hell.” Electric skin and cold sweats expecting to hear the tinfoil crinkling of a mashed tape at any moment. If it breaks there’s no replacement; Cobain handed out other tapes but I’ll never come near another one. It’s handmade aspects mean another one still wouldn’t be this one. From beginning-to-end, though I know ever note, every nerve in my body will be set shaking like crystal, a never-felt intensity arising from pure fear that this might all go wrong at any moment and it might become just a hundred grams of trash.

The second time, I’ll be in a hospital or, if I’m lucky, my own home. It’s the best any of us can hope for; that we have a chance to pause and say goodbye when the end is coming on strong. I hope I’m not alone. I’ll ask someone to take the cassette out of the transparent reinforced fireproof security box I’ve had welded to the floor. I’ll ask them to put it on for me. And I’ll smile because it’s so silly — who the hell else’ll care about a guy who died some sixty years back in another century? Do you cry for the music-hall stars of the 1890s? But I’ll welcome the comfort of music I’ve lived with since age thirteen played on a tape that’s as close as I’ll ever come to shaking the man’s hand and thanking him for making music that made my life better.

I don’t think it’s too much money. If I can scrape it together I’ll be delighted to make that much of a difference to my friend’s life. The tape’ll look so incongruous sat in the middle of my home, so nondescript, a monumental nothing appealing to my sense of humor. I’ll rest it on the rare Nirvana CD single kind people in Tacoma gave to me and signed their names on. Cobain’s tape’ll be surrounded by memory of one friend, the names of half-a-dozen others — I like the idea of their writing being as precious as his, a gathering of people he knew or would have liked.

There’ll be no re-sale value once memory of Cobain fades. There’ll be an ever-shrinking cluster of aging collectors I’ll find it too much trouble to track down and I can’t imagine museums shelling out for a 1988 tape in 2050. There’s the absurdity of buying something just because it passed through the hands of someone I admire; something I can’t play or use, that’ll I’ll need to buy protection for. If I don’t take pleasure in the ridiculousness of it I’ll talk myself out of it.

I know already the day after the purchase it’ll feel too small a thing and I’ll wonder at all the things I could have done with that kind of money. I’ll have overpaid because I’m buying from a friend and turning it over in my hands I’ll feel a bit silly. It’s a just a thing I’ll tell myself. It’s just a possession…But that word will make the difference. Someday when my body has turned traitor I’ll draw strength from the ghosts inhabiting the things around me because that’s what they’re there for. They’re spirit totems stored up to carry us through dark times…

…And I’ll remember that the money and the silliness don’t matter; they’re just cause to smile. I’ll recall the one hour I sat, face pale, composure like porcelain balanced precariously on a table edge — that time when I never listened to music so intensely. And I’ll know this tape will play me out of the world paying my respects to an epiphany at age thirteen; to personal glories in my mid-thirties; to friends and memories and all my ghosts. And I’ll hold the hand of someone I love and the tape won’t matter anymore, it’ll just be people. And love. And it all won’t matter.

Kurt Cobain, Malcolm X, the Nazis and the Confederate Flag

Reading the comments below any piece on Kurt Cobain or Nirvana it’s stunning how rapidly someone pops up and blurts “Kurt was murdered.” No matter what the topic, what aspect of the band or the individual is under discussion, someone’ll slap the statement down making clear they see nothing as important to the band’s story as the lead singer’s exit. The reduction to a singularity is understandable; musical tales that transcend and become part of wider cultural conversation stop being about music and become part of wider threads speaking to ambition, comedy, tragedy, sex, death – often all at once. Thus John Lennon is reduced to ‘Imagine’ or to quotes about being ‘Bigger than Jesus;’ Elvis becomes Vegas judo moves and bathroom death; Sid Vicious is a safety pin and a swastika; Michael Jackson becomes white skin and odd squeals. I saw a beautiful Kim Gordon quotation the other day stating that pop culture is all about how “people pay money to see others believe in themselves.” Musicians don’t need to overtly stand for a cause, or a declared meaning, to be bound into the desires, wants, needs, fears and wishes people project onto them. What intrigues me in the case of Cobain is how impossible it’s become to speak of him, without speaking of the conspiracy theories surrounding his death.

This isn’t about my views on the theories themselves, it’s about the conversion of a perspective harboured by a small minority of individuals in early 1994, becoming a far more widely held belief among audiences who don’t necessarily have a dedicated adoration for Kurt Cobain’s music. It’s a wider cultural theme in line with popular threads of commentary and discussion rather than a topic rooted in music or Nirvana’s actual existence as a band. Why should a topic so unrelated to Nirvana’s life become so unavoidable after the lead singer’s death?

Firstly, stand-out events in the popular imagination are never the ordinary, the everyday, the common experience. Quite regularly recently people have mentioned to me how worried they are by events like the murder of several dozen tourists on the beaches of Tunisia, that they believe ISIS will undoubtedly attack in the west soon, that terrorism is a major fear for them. I’ve grown an unhelpful tendency to respond with the latest death statistics to explain why I’m totally unconcerned; in the U.K. in 2013 there were 17.8 deaths per 1,000 people – a grand total of 506,790 dead in a single year with barely a tremor of disruption to reality. Death is everywhere – we lose Britain’s fifth largest city every single year with barely a murmur. The U.S. lost 2,600,000 in 2013 – that’s Chicago or Houston wiped out annually. I’ll next point out to them that the U.K. murder rate dropped to 526 in 2014 (–2013-14/rpt-chapter-2.html) which, given a population of 64,800,000 means a miniscule chance. Now compare that to the presence of violent death on your TV, newspaper, comic book, latest record… There’s a massive disproportion between the amount of time people spend thinking about or learning of violent death versus its actual presence. Near all of us are going to die of petty injuries or disease peoples.

(Here’s a beautiful visualisation of the 2009 death totals – – showing the death rate hovering merrily around the half a million a year mark. For the U.S., here’s a quality historical review of death from 1935-to-2010 from the Centers for Disease Control;;2010</a>).

The commonplace nature of death is what elevates certain deaths to a higher level; society needs ‘spectaculars.’ The deaths that become part of wider discussion and popular memory need to happen to someone of ‘significance’ on the public stage; need to be outside the everyday experience; need to come wrapped in a wider story worth retelling. Other aspects might put some deaths ahead of others in the popular imagination, as an example, Dr. Harold Shipman committed a series of quite boringly ordinary murders – injection of drugs, people slipped away. The deaths on their own were so ordinary they were barely worth of note and beyond friends and family the names go unrecalled – the elevating factor is that Shipman is likely to have committed 250 such murders making him one of the world’s biggest serial killers. The scale of the exercise makes Shipman the significant figure while the deaths become anonymous. Think of a stamp collection; one Canadian stamp might be more or less interesting – but a complete collection of every Canadian stamp ever issued, now that’s significant. Size, timing, method of exit – they all make a difference to what’s recalled and repeated across the media and among circles of people. As another example; Eazy E, rap impresario, major figure in the formulation of gangsta rap, multi-platinum selling artist…His death is barely mentioned because dying of AIDS in a hospital bed was neither photogenic nor even particularly exceptional. Tupac Shakur, multi-platinum artist, one of the most diverse rappers ever, dies at peak of career in a gloriously dramatic manner – tie the Notorious B.I.G.’s death just before releasing an album called ‘Life After Death’ and with the East/West media thread, gang connections, the fall of Death Row Records – it’s Hollywood baby!

Cobain easily passes the test for a spectacular; dies young, dies close to peak of fame, plenty of controversy keeping him in the papers 1992-1994 and reaching a peak after the Rome incident so lots of eyes already waiting to see what would come… But why should the conspiracy theories have become so loud? Well, it’s about cultural production. A concluded story can only be re-told so many times, that’s why articles on Nirvana constantly need to have a new angle, new pitch, new info – some claim to being NEW. That’s simple logic; why buy precisely the same information one already possesses? The human desire for culture is for novelty. Retelling requires there to be a gap between known and new in order to create tension – so, Dave Grohl has been asked about Nirvana several thousand times over twenty years, he’s told and retold every tale – but he might emphasise different details, will usually use different words, tell it a different way – this grants a degree of longevity to known material as it’s new to those who haven’t heard it and there’s a nugget of freshness for those who do. The same impulse is at play in the collection of bootleg renditions of Nirvana material; will the quality of what’s found live up to the power of what’s on the official records? Rarely, but it might. Will something truly new occur? Rarely, but it might. That potential, that deviation from the known, that slight tweak is vital to keeping a cultural object – whether a memory, a song, a story – alive.

This is the terrain where the conspiracy theories work perfectly. They overwrite the closed and complete story with one where there’s still an open potential and where the tension that makes it interesting exists in the gap between the known (i.e., listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit for the thousandth time doesn’t create the same kick as first hearings) and the unknown (i.e., a ragged bootleg rendition providing the unexpected and the potential to give something new.) It’s why there’s a far greater market for Nazi memorabilia than other World War Two ephemera, why playing the Nazis in a computer game for the umpteenth time, or films about Nazis on the moon, documentaries about secret weapons and research all get a listen because the tale of what might have but didn’t is an open space into which imagination can be poured and excitement found when re-reading what actually did happen and what the victors actually did do is already closed down and clear. You don’t see books around proposing counterfactual tales of what if the Allies had won the war a different way – there are quite a few re-fighting the battle from the German side. Secret histories turn dead stories into repeatable, re-playable experiences that the present-day consumer can explore.

Similarly, the interest in what didn’t happen is a reaction against the everyday quality of what did; again, it’s about the spectacular versus the lived experience of the average person. Malcolm X became the poster boy of the hip hop generation despite having contributed little beyond thought to the civil rights struggle because he was a figure who was unsullied by reality. Martin Luther King Jr. personally engaged with the Presidents of the era, staged the greatest march in the nation’s history to that point, was present at numerous flashpoints of the struggle while acting as talisman, figurehead and voice of what was occurring. He’s become an accepted ‘hero’ figure of the establishment however, identified with the reality of what did and did not happen for the racially oppressed in the U.S., his views are deemed to have been played out and the results seen which makes him a harder figure to rally excitement around. Malcolm X, by contrast, died at the start of a new journey into greater engagement with the wider civil rights cause, a different vision and set of beliefs – an untapped future potential. His views – simplistically reduced to an openness to self-defence and the application of revolutionary violence – never had the chance to play out across society, they remain an unrealised potential possessing the excitement of the unknown. On top of that he retains the allure of the rebel, he hasn’t become part of the dominant culture so there’s space for the marginalised, those believing in themselves as outsiders, to tag onto him. The fact his views can never be truly tested, his methods and ideas never fully explored or known makes him invulnerable to the boredom inherent to society’s winners.

To move to a symbol, why does the confederate flag persist? It’s the symbol of traitors to the current United States of America, of a group of people who chose to stand for racist exploitation of slave labour against what we would consider modern quality – so why fly their flag? The reason is that it stands for an independent identity against a central, dominant identity – the United States of America, the Union, Washington, is the being against which the flag declares independence, resistance, rebel status. Those who fly it once upon a time were holding on to a vision of society that they felt would be better than what came to exist – the disappointment of the everyday had set in, they had an untested alternative they could hark to. There are few now who wave the confederate flag in support of the 1860s vision of what the south was or could be. It’s become a wider rejection of the everyday standing in for whatever the individual wishes it to – a blend of those who are and are not deliberately raising one part or another of its actual historical meaning. The same process has happened to Cobain – as it does most historical figures – he’s now a symbol of ‘live fast, die young,’ of the outsider, of the person wanting to claim readymade rebel status with a t-shirt or a bedroom poster.

In the case of Cobain, he never had the chance to reach the disappointment that every musical figure eventually creates when they get old and no longer align to the latest thrill of the new zeitgeist. While every other musical figure of note – from Dylan to McCartney to Bowie to Pop to Rotten – has had to endure a period of dismissal before being admitted to the lexicon of ‘all time greats’, Cobain was never dismissed, hadn’t done enough to disappointment critical opinion as yet. That opens up a huge space for imagination, to ponder the hints of what might have come next, to tease out what avenues weren’t pursued – to draw one’s own designs (however logical or well-reasoned) on blank white space. Living musicians of that era – Eddie Vedder, Courtney Love, Thurston Moore, Dave Grohl – are a closed space, there are few surprises left after a further twenty years in which to perform them. Cobain is still open because the question can never be closed; what would he have done next?

Suggesting Cobain’s murder opens that space up even further, adds a fresh ‘what if’ to a known tale. There isn’t much interest in asking ‘what if Nirvana recorded Nevermind for Sub Pop not Geffen?’ because that’s a point about music – Cobain’s murder or otherwise resonates with the wider cultural interest in violent death, in themes of justice, redemption, tragedy…It’s Hollywood. It also permits individuals to retell a closed incident in as many ways as they wish – it creates ‘new’ where it didn’t previously exist. Into a space with “Cobain commits suicide,” one can write ‘accidental overdose and cover-up by multiple suspects,’ ‘deliberate assassination by one or more of a variety of suspects,’ ‘earlier discovery by a variety of individuals subsequently covered up,’ ‘death at location other than where he was found,’ ‘CIA MK-ULTRA campaign against seditious cultural figures,’ ‘improper investigation by incompetent or complicit officials,’ it’s a universe of new stories opened up for consideration. This allows the tale to be remoulded across time and space, to be fitted to individual views and experiences, in a way that an official, established and documented story cannot.

It also comes stamped with the spirit of the rebel, the idea that this is a counter-view to that of an amorphous ‘powers that be’. Cobain’s rebel status – the Nineties repetition of the archetype – is reinforced by pledging allegiance to the idea that even his death wasn’t what the squares in the media, government, police say it is. That call may only get stronger among newer Nirvana fans given the reality of Nirvana’s career has long since faded into imagination which makes written versions of the tale all seem equally valid but increasingly it’ll be a way to resist the view of elders and parents; a neat generational gap. The individual can own their own vision of what happened to Cobain and no one can take that away from them. The paucity of evidence is indeed a large part of the appeal of the conspiracy theories, the sense that there’s the potential for something new to occur or appear, that the story isn’t closed and might be radically revised, that there’s the possibility of discovery rather than just a dead certainty. The sense of being part of a community resisting a central view or vision, a lone warrior, seeker after truth, open-minded, is a neatly self-justifying addition to an individual’s identity and view of themselves.

Cobain’s death is therefore, understandably, a perfect candidate for posthumous revisionism. It had the ‘spectacular’ nature that propelled Cobain from being solely a piece of music history, to being a wider cultural cypher and figure. That moved him from conversations about music into conversations about larger societal themes – drugs, love, suicide, divorce, sickness, capitalism, conformity, submission, hypocrisy. There’s the reality that Cobain’s full potential can never be answered so he possesses a permanent appeal that the majority of artists can’t match. The need for novelty and newness made counterfactuals, alternative histories, more appealing. The existing ‘what if’ of Cobain’s tale laid open imaginative space into which people could project their own theories and imaginings – claims of murder push that even wider. The rebel status accruing to Cobain and adopted by those adopting him as an idol is reinforced and made more current, individual and personal by claiming his death as a resistance to the official history.

Any Thoughts at all on Kurt Cobain’s Birthday…?

So, everyone taken a moment with a Nirvana song today…?

I admit I usually avoid writing just to mark the occasion of Kurt Cobain’s birthday or his death either. This site has been going some two and a bit years, there are 400 posts up here and though I’ve been running low on the deeper analyses that I prefer to run I’ve never felt much need to switch over to thinking my random musings are anywhere near as good or interesting as some proper discussion of a big meaty Nirvana topic. So I’ve always felt I’ll write when there’s something to say, not just to mark an occasion.

But breaking that habit…Even today I spoke to two separate people who both said “I remember where I was when he died.”

I don’t think Kurt Cobain was ‘more special’ than anyone. While writing “I Found My Friends” I learnt of more than a dozen musicians who played alongside Nirvana and died tragically young – they’re each worth remembrance by those who loved them. But that’s where I find the point to be. It’s not about superstars and god-heads and icons and saints. It’s about people who have connected with one’s life. Cobain reached a position where millions felt that connection, some form of link – and that’s worthy of respect. There’s no disrespect in the way he commands a wider reach than one’s own lost loved ones; more people mourning or remembering doesn’t mean the remembrance is of greater value, nor does remembering someone you may or may not have seen or met in person devalue it. Sometimes people sneer at feeling expressed toward something one did not experience or someone one never met – but they’re wrong to privilege their personal lived reality so highly as to ignore the many things that impact our lives, that are of significance, that we don’t touch or speak to directly. Those things are also worthy of note and remembering too.

As I said, I don’t think Cobain was ‘more special’ but I truly do think he deserves to be seen as an inspirational figure. Social mobility, the dream of the equal playing field where anyone can rise from the bottom to the top is – frankly – a damned lie these days as money entrenches privilege to a degree not seen in America ever and in the U.K. since the days of rule by the aristocracy. Only a tiny number will make it, but that’s no reason to be cynical about their achievement – it shows it can be done, it shows the limitations too, but it is worth admiring and wanting to make happen. These past few years I’ve felt truly privileged to speak to musicians, writers, artists and instigators the world over – it’s amazing to see people putting their time and energy into making anything that is about self-expression not just about money, or obeying orders, or pleasing others. All of it, from the smallest effort, is worth respect and celebration. Cobain’s ability to go from semi-homeless, emotionally damaged drop-out to the pinnacle of his chosen field is a testament to hard work, to compromise, to non-compromise, to the support of others and to self-sufficiency all at once. We can celebrate all those things for the part they played rather than privileging one over the other.

I also think Cobain’s rise provides an example of how to live. I don’t want to live fast and die young. I don’t want to leave grieving relatives alongside an immortal reputation. But I do want to believe that there’s a lot more to life than acquiring excessive cash, exercising power over others, doing what it takes to be popular. Standing here seven years after the worst downturn since the 1930s, looking at the evidence of banks manipulating entire markets, bankers actively deceiving democratically elected governments, the media stealing data from ordinary people just to make a story or corrupting coverage to protect wealthy investors…I’m glad to look on Kurt Cobain as a hero of mine for reaching a position where he could have had all the corrupt indulgence he wished…And decided he didn’t want it.

I also think looking at Cobain’s sad end made me think about what kinds of heroes I want and what about them I’d like to live up to. At the moment I think Hervé Falciani is one of the bravest men I’ve ever witnessed – he has risked life and liberty to expose that a bank was laundering money for drug gangs, purchasing equipment to be relayed to them, deliberately helping people who felt that only the ‘plebs’ like you or I should pay for the infrastructure of our country. Looking across the last few years I look at Mohammed Bouazizi – maybe the future isn’t what we hoped in 2011 it might be but one man acted, did what he felt was right, and brought down governments who had stood with a foot on people’s throats for decades. Who can still believe that they, one person alone, can make no difference in this life after that moment? When I look at the inspiration Cobain has provided to people to do things with their lives I see a lot of goodness. People can change the world or they can just change the lives of those who know and love them. Again, both are worthy of respect – both mean that you, I, we matter.

Thinking back on Nirvana now in February 2014 I do get self-indulgent; my grandfather died one week before I visited Seattle for the first time – I can’t think of Seattle without missing him. My father died the week I handed in “I Found My Friends” – I can’t think of the book without missing him. My godfather died just weeks ago – I’ll never think of these days before the book release without missing him. But I also think that losing people I love meant I appreciated more how much pain people must have experienced when Cobain died – that it was a personal experience for them and speaking of him needs to be treated respectfully because he wasn’t just some TV screen or on vinyl ghost.

Anyways. Happy Cobain Birthday to every true fan out there. Hope there’ll be a lot of Nirvana pleasures ahead this year and there’ll be something each of you chooses to do to make your lives or the lives of those you love that bit more amazing in 2015.

Nirvana and Kurt Cobain on Film

2015 promises to be a bit of a bumper year it seems for film treatments of the band Nirvana…Or, more precisely, of Kurt Cobain. The rise/fall model, plus the icon status accorded to Cobain since his death, place him in a separate category to the average superstar musician – he’s into the realm of Elvis, Lennon, Hendrix, Ian Curtis…There’s a dependency on the ‘one man’ model of cinema in which a plot is played out via a central character who must possess certain talismanic qualities. Retelling the story of Nirvana thus becomes a retelling of the tale of Kurt Cobain because, let’s be fair, without his remarkable rise to fame and his tragic ending there’d probably not be a cinema interest in him and he’d be confined to the same fan-only band releases as most artists on music DVDs. What I want to do here is just briefly glimpse over the record of Nirvana and Cobain on film from the earliest commercial release through to the present, ignoring (mostly) performance releases like Live at Reading.

The progress of Nirvana on film commences with brief appearances in Dave Markey’s 1991: the Year Punk Broke. Released at the peak of Nirvanamania, it captured Nirvana in August 1991 playing sideshow to Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth – just one band among peers. This entire vibe was emphasised by the back stage footage of the friends pranking around and amusing each other – a community feel. Cobain wasn’t even a particularly elevated presence though perhaps he did gain a little more airtime than his colleagues it was the scantest difference. It’s a great music film incidentally, lots of neat asides about what was already occurring prior to the eruption of Nevermind. Thurston Moore’s famous declaration about 1991 as the year that punk broke was made prior to Nirvana becoming the world’s biggest band – a prescient comment. I’d have a suspicion that more Nirvana footage was incorporated during the editing process across 1992 given what had subsequently happened to the band – a comment on sudden lucrativeness.

Next came Nirvana’s own attempt to speak to their experience. Live! Tonight! Sold Out! (1994) is mainly remembered – rightly – as a stitched together compilation of band performances. I’d suggest, however, that it’s the first real attempt to make a cinematic treatment of the Nirvana tale. The format worked out by Kurt Cobain himself in collaboration with Kevin Kerslake and his team is a montage piecing together chunks of Cobain’s own collection of interview footage, back stage material and whatever else band members had taped of one another over the year. There isn’t necessarily a storyline, it’s more a portrayal of a single moment in Nirvana’s career – a whirl of 1992 confusion which still manages to be, at times, amusing, funny, irreverent as well as confused and disjointed and uncertain. While the net is cast relatively wide in terms of gathering material, there are still limitations and the mood remains rooted in that one location and in a certain petulant aggression aimed at fame and the Nirvana mythos at that moment in time when Cobain was contemplating its creation. Still, it’s a starting point. There are similarities to Nirvana’s earlier appearance in 1991: the Year Punk Broke and the timing seems non-coincidental – Markey’s film came out in December 1992 with Cobain having already started discussions and some work earlier that year with Kerslake as the vision of what the ‘film’ would be expanded. Ultimately what stops it advancing is the In Utero tour and the sad end of Cobain but this might have been something more. Still, it sits comfortably in the band DVD realm currently.

The next big endeavour took a few years to emerge. Kurt and Courtney (1998), I’ll admit, is entertaining as heck. Hand on heart, I don’t believe the murder conspiracies, but that’s irrelevant to this tale of watching a guy trying to make a film. Given the experiences the Cobain couple had in 1992-1993 with outsiders prying into their lives and running around asking anyone and everyone for tales, I’m not hugely surprised that Nick Broomfield’s bull in a china shop haring about was ever going to make him appealing. Again, irrelevant. The result is a rather scattershot enterprise combining the interviews he acquires with his own narration and ‘making of’ tale that set the style for films about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana – focused on death, often ad-libbed or experimental in approach, not necessarily an advert for slickness. It’s a talking heads set-up in the main but there are enough people who are interesting to see talk to make it rewarding. Wonderfully it could be taken as a fine argument for or against the conspiracy tales given everyone in the movie – barring his aunt who thinks he committed suicide – comes across as unusual if not outright embittered or loopy. Please take that as a statement of opinion not fact of course – give it a watch, have fun! It marked the emerging focus on the death of Cobain as the moment of critical public interest beyond Nirvana fans and music fans, the piece that made it social/cultural history rather than just music ‘stuff’.

As an aside, I’m not neglecting the ongoing procession of straight-to-DVD interview and commentary collections that have emerged; I just gave up on them after a bit through no great fault of there’s. You’ll know the ones – Teen Spirit, All Apologies, the Nevermind ‘making of’ disc, there’s one on my shelf called ‘Too Young to Die’ which is a taping of a German TV show…Nothing to add on them except the obvious marketability of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana – with Cobain being the bigger draw. He’s overshadowing his own band.

By the next decade Cobain’s standing had truly grown. The band of which he was a part has kinda become back story at most to the crucial figure as Cobain becomes a dramatic model – a template for whatever one wishes, doomed youth? Wronged victim? Man? Last Days (2005) performed a thinly fictionised take on Cobain’s final week in Seattle on the lam. Again, no pretence that my perspective on the film is the only one possible, but as a cinematic experience there comes a point where the absence of a plot creates a definite level of boredom. It’s a film perfect for those who believe myths of the millennial generation’s ennui, who believe that there really are millions of people out there just gazing blankly at mirrors then hoping people look at them. Ultimately there’s nothing to the film bar staring at the main character in various states of dress/undress, activity/inactivity, glasses on/off – other people are barely relevant. There’s an absence of any commentary on the subject – but there’s also an absence of any commentary from the subject either. By taking no stance, placing no words in the character’s mouth, there’s a void. Being charitable I’d point out that it allows meaning to be imposed and created by the observer – the puppet’s head fills with whatever one might wish. A contrast with the director’s work Elephant, however, is that in Elephant there’s an end point building amid the lives being lived that maintains a tension and creates forward motion – that’s gone here.

About a Son (2006) was a further experiment in documentary-making. Michael Azerrad’s tapes of Cobain in interview across autumn/winter 1992 and spring 1993 were combined with a tourist guide video of Cobain related scenery and locales. Criticisms that could be levelled are that the reliance on one set of interviews, from one specific time in Cobain’s life, creates a uniformity of mood and perspective – a certain deadness. Similarly it spray-paints over Cobain’s sometimes flexible relationship with truth – not a criticism of him, we all embellish and tell stories differently depending on time and place – without any corrective provided by other sources. I’ve commented on the film before that Cobain basically flames an awful lot of people and places in the recordings – a negative posture that doesn’t leave much room for warmth. I guess that’s my ultimate criticism perhaps, that while a very watchable (and listenable) film, it still circles the ‘tragic end’ school of cinema because it’s hard not to get to the end without thinking; “gee, this guy was gloomy and depressed and negative,” which seems such a one dimensional vision…

So, onwards to the New Year – two new entries. Soaked in Bleach comes out later this year and, at least judging by early material, there’s been substantial effort expended on it with full scale replicas of required locations and attention to the kind of knit-picking detail that keeps the average conspiracy buff typing in capital letters to their heart’s content. Essentially it’s the Cobain death trip retold by private investigator Tom Grant – if you’ve absorbed the material in the two Halperin books, plus the material on Grant’s own website then you’ll pretty much have what to expect plot-wise. More intriguing, of course, is that this is a cinematic experience and therefore it’ll be nice to see how they approach it, portray it, explore it. There are live actors involved, various people interviewed – I’m expecting a combination of re-enactment coupled with talking heads and voiceovers but we’ll see.

All of which rambling brings me to Montage of Heck, this year’s other major Cobain film. Again, I’ve not seen it, others have, the reviews are floating around – why am I particularly pleased to see it? Well, the other week the director Brett Morgen explained his reasons for leaving Cobain’s death well-alone ( It’s certainly a little mischievous as an explanation, it’s not like the film doesn’t sound haunted by Cobain’s death, it’s not like it doesn’t set up ‘reasons’ for the end – death is coming and it is in the room regardless of where the film cuts. However, when looking back over the record of Cobain as a cinema experience it’s a pleasure to contemplate a film that extends beyond Cobain as ghost voice speaking at a difficult moment as part of a campaign to orchestrate positive stories about Nirvana/Cobain (and to fill the hole awaiting a book about the band and its lead singer) and focuses more on birth and life. It’s interest in him as a person rather than as a whodunit is what makes me feel pretty warmly toward it – a fuller entity rather than just an episode. The yardstick against which I’m judging it is the Tupac: Resurrection movie – which was basically a hagiography which glossed an awful lot of the unpleasantness in the life of Tupac Shakur in favour of a rousing application for contemporary sainthood. Morgen’s effort takes a similar approach – combining footage sources from throughout his life with his own voice recordings – but seems far more personal; the core of Resurrection stemmed from more commercial sources like TV interviews, video shoots and so forth rather than the personal archive and self-filmed/self-recorded matter Cobain and his loved ones built up. The weaving of multiple source formats – art, music, journals, spoken word recordings, video recordings – also feels original and leads me toward a strong degree of positivity here. Eight years in the making? Sheesh, it’s just nice to see a genuinely new cinematic take.

Is there anything left to say after 2015? Oh, there’ll always be someone willing to give it a shot. My presumption is the full-on biopic must be out there somewhere… Otherwise, I’m uncertain. One varied reprisal would be the lacing of interview material from multiple sources and eras (there’s enough of it out there) to reprise the About a Son approach with greater diversity of sources. Similarly, tales of Nirvana created in that way might be a possibility given the official Nirvana DVDs have made scant use of the interview footage. Maybe the Spinal Tap style comedy treatment is somewhere down the line…

Nirvana’s Bad Days at the Office

This individual puts up some intriguing stuff on YouTube, noted this one a while back and find it pretty revealing.

Core reality of my life; I’m British white middle class working an office job. My day doesn’t involve being on the receiving end of any form of discrimination, it doesn’t involve a macho environment full of people spoiling for a fight or running on drugs or adrenalin, I’m unlikely to be sexually assaulted (unlike, as the current government estimate states, anywhere between 60,000 and 90,000 women this year in the U.K. – as a sidebar, dang, kinda upsetting number huh? I know one friend who has been raped and two who have been attacked so it’s a fair guarantee even more of my loved ones will be…), I’m rarely exposed to aggression in any form – which means when I see violence in real-life I find it quite a punch in the gut – but frankly I’m delighted to lead such a lucky life, one where I’m totally unused to any such unpleasantness.

At first viewing perhaps it’s easy to say “oh, look, it’s Kurt Cobain being aggressive,” but I actually feel a far greater empathy as a result of viewing this. Let’s start with the obvious and with the end item; the notorious Dallas, Texas performance in 1991. Cobain smashes a piece of equipment with his guitar, a bouncer (I can’t remember if he owned it or if his friend did) takes offence, waits for Cobain to dive into the crowd then proceeds to grab him by the hair, takes the opportunity to get some punches in – Cobain twats him with the guitar and on they go, bit of a fight, gang of people step in, blood, stand-off, audience chanting… That’d put a spoiler on anyone’s day. This isn’t the only fight in Nirvana’s history – but physical violence is mercifully rare, as it should be in anyone’s life.

The video, however, is wonderfully edited to include events leading up to the incident. Cobain’s equipment is malfunctioning, people are fiddling with his pedals, eventually the guitar cuts out altogether but he tries to soldier on and keep singing, keep performing. This is the difference between being a performer and most other jobs; your entire job is compressed into one hour, two hours – if something goes wrong then that’s it, you’ve achieved nothing that day. Worse, not only do you fail, you can’t fix it quietly – you fail publically, in front of your audience, you can’t hide it or take it back. That kind of full exposure is rare in the majority of jobs. You drop something? Fine, most of the minor worries of the day-to-day can be fixed without anyone even noticing. Something goes wrong? Most of the time you have hours left to fix it and can go to bed without it excising your mind too hard. I have a boss – a couple times a year I have to own up, my bad, I screwed up. It never feels good. Cobain doesn’t have one boss, he has a crowd of people all there witnessing things he often can’t control. That must be an unusual feeling – stand up, give a presentation, see how embarrassed you feel when you drop something in front of them, or the PowerPoint slides don’t click on, or someone points out you’ve made an error…It feels personal.

The technical failures are present here and also in the clip from November 1993. OK, if my laptop switches itself off and I can’t complete my work, I’m furious. I leave the room, I cuss the machine – I’m frustrated, I’m annoyed. Cobain doesn’t have the virtue of being able to walk away – he’s stuck there on stage with a few thousand people observing, he feels responsible and, of course, he’s pretty well trapped in a cone of human focus and attention. It’s the same frustration present whenever one’s tools are defective, they’re letting you down at the critical moment, it ruins what one is trying to do. In the Dallas incident and the Bethlehem, PA case Cobain takes some brief anger out on the equipment – Gods, some days I do wish I could hurl the laptop down a stairwell…Know that feeling? Then these two clips will make more sense.

Add something more to that, however, Cobain complained of people walking over his effects peddles and equipment to get on stage. Heh! Again, sat at my desk it’s unlikely anyone is going to tread on my keyboard or kick my phone – but to not only suffer an equipment malfunction as a consequence but also for there to be someone obviously and thoughtlessly responsible…Again, the annoyance is understandable. In the Dallas’ clip, whatever the guys crouched at his feet – who seem to be trying to sort the peddles out – do, they accidentally cut the guitar altogether to a long howl of feedback. Unhelpful. Similarly, trying to do one’s job, trying to blast through the 90 minutes one has to get right that day only to have a whacking great spotlight blinding you altogether as in the opening clip? I’ve seen people throw fits because of the glare on their screen as they try to work, they can’t see what they’re doing…How’s about an industrial size searchlight’s worth of glare? Feel better? I can’t think of any job that would be improved by someone at the back of the room aiming a torch at your eyes. Again, rather than seeing it as Cobain being moody, it seems a pretty reasonable reaction to a rather major annoyance. Getting back to the time factor; do your whole job in a ninth of the time – sure, sounds good to keep things short but it’s more like compression, a ratcheted up intensity level that also deepens the impact of negatives.

The opening show on the clip, Brazil, is notorious for Cobain’s basically drug-addled performance. Again, I’ve seen people with migraines leave the office because of strong light, can’t imagine how ugly enduring a comedown on stage in front of 45,000 people must feel. Most of us have felt time crawl during a hungover day or the day we crawl in feeling like death warmed up because of sickness, or travel conditions fry us or soak us before we make the office and have to endure a full day of discomfort – watching this clip reminded me of that equivalence between anyone’s world, anyone’s day job, and that of a top-level musician. Even without the drug issue he’d be entitled to days where it’s a wonder he doesn’t puke on stage or lose a lung coughing. Top marks for attendance!

Personal pride has a lot to do with it too. Most human beings want to do a job well, they don’t want to fail. Cobain doesn’t want a crowd of people telling him he’s sh** – no one would become a performer if their only interest was in failing or being ignored, dismissed, criticised. Cobain took his work seriously, he wanted to do his best by crowds – at least through the majority of the band’s performances. The band at one point were getting sick of playing “Love Buzz” but he reminded them that, at the time, it was their best known song, it was what people wanted to hear and he thought they had to do it – he cared about satisfying the ‘judges’ stood in front of him for that hour or two. The band may have practised for hours in the run up to a tour, they were tired, run-down, exhausted, home-sick, hungry – they had to make it all count for something. For something to interfere with and prevent that from happening must have felt terrible.

The July 1989 show in New York was the end of the tour – they felt so awful by then they cancelled the rest of their dates and headed home. Jason Everman was unceremoniously kicked out the band – or simply never asked back, the kind of personal circumstance that, understandably, would affect anyone trying to do their best. Instead a drunk grabs the second mic, shouts “fucking shit!” and proceeds to interfere with the gear as the band alternate between trying to usher him off the stage and encouraging him in the right direction by nudging and shoving him – what else are they meant to do? Remarkably, they’re still playing even as he demolishes the song – it must be embarrassing trying to complete one’s job while a drunk sprawls around in the middle of it. It all spills over into minor violence and the song breaks down. No wonder. There’s a well-known bootleg of a show in Vienna in 1989 where the band are heckled by a drunk who shouts “play songs about fucking girls!” at them for the best part of five minutes – that’s an awfully long time for someone to shout at you. Enduring the intoxication of others is irksome even when it’s a friend (mea culpa – sorry friends! Your tolerance has been appreciated many a times!) but to endure the drunkenness of strangers is a really drain. When they move on to actively interfering and interrupting your performance, souring the experience of those you’re trying to impress and perform for…Rotten.

Just as I’m not subject to aggression or violence in my day-to-day, I’m not subjected to unwanted physical attention either. At the Leeds 1990 show on the clip Cobain is trying to play as a guy proceeds to hug him. Overreaction? It seems more like a violation of personal space at a really rotten moment to be honest. You’re trying to do your job, you’re trying to concentrate, you could screw up in front of a thousand people, some lumbering drunk grabs you – great. It clearly wasn’t meant maliciously, most things aren’t, but it doesn’t make Cobain’s reaction disproportionate or unreasonable – last thing needed when trying to sing, play guitar, keep up with your band is an outside factor getting involved. Plus if I was suddenly grabbed from behind I’d flinch at the very least. Unfortunately there’s a perspective that performers are public property – that, as entertainers, their bodies are there to be touched, groped, molested at the whim of the audience. It’s a curiosity actually, that buying a ticket for a performance, to some people, entitles them to view interference with the performer as acceptable – the enjoyment and entertainment of one or more members of the audience takes priority over anything the performer might feel, a very dehumanised and dehumanising response to having bought entry.

It isn’t just audience members and bouncers who might interfere; November 1991, the Paradiso…Cobain glares into the camera lens then eventually snaps and gets right up in the cameraman’s face, smothering him. There’s a sense of that children’s game, you know the one where you hover your finger just an inch off someone’s skin then say “I’m not touching you,” so you can annoy and still claim mock innocence? Kids are so cunning – always pure malice, they know when they’re doing wrong. The cameraman feels he’s entitled to get ‘his shot’ so intruding into Cobain’s performance, getting in the audience’s way, hovering the lens next to Cobain’s face – so long as he doesn’t actively hit him – it’s all fine. Of course it’s not, Cobain makes his “how would you like it?” point by standing over the cameraman, interfering with the guy’s camera, waving his guitar over them – again, it’s not violent but he’s crossed the line into physical contact because the intrusiveness of the camera has been sorely underrated. Again, imagine doing your job as someone hovers by you, staring, watching, observing your every move. Musicians already have to get used to an abnormal environment in which they will be watched with that intensity – so they create other lines and boundaries to their psychic space. As a contrast, Cobain seems nonplussed by the stage-divers charging past in Leeds – any contact is incidental, any proximity is accidental (though probably a bit irksome if too close and if uninvited) …Bar that one deliberate moment. Same with the cameraman – it’s the deliberateness of the observation, not its mere existence, that pushes over the boundary.

The second clip is simply Cobain clipping his mouth on the mic in 1991. Minor, but still, getting popped in the face by a piece of metal, catching it in the teeth – it’s not a pleasant experience being smacked in the mouth, teeth are sensitive! Things being thrown on stage, thrown at the band, that’s not uncommon. Trying to work and being spat at, just being rapped by bits of metal or plastic – it’s a niggling irritation and an occasional pain. Again, it’s a fair reason to get annoyed, to react poorly – it’s more a sign of the band’s chosen path that they’re clearly used to it, there are few cases of them stopping or asking people to desist. If someone chucked stuff at me just because I was stood in front of them I’d have a heck of a lot more to say. In a way it’s an indication of the band’s learned discipline as performers that this kind of incident barely pauses them if at all. That’s a major factor when viewing this video; the determination to keep playing, to continue singing, to not fall out of time…That’s a demonstration of serious practice and strong discipline – something underestimated when it comes to serious musicians. An unpractised, untrained human being would usually react or fail when subjected to such things – these guys? Nah. Strong.

That leads us to the final clip for discussion – penultimate one on the video. Cobain chucks down his guitar rushes to the front of the stage and points out the person he wants removing; the band taunt them on their way out. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence unfortunately, the band witnessing guys in the crowd using the tightness of the space to grope and molest girls. One of the favoured clichés of the tabloid newspaper is to describe some awful act – a mugging, assault, sexual assault, theft, whatever – and make sure to say how no one did anything, that people didn’t want to get involved. It’s a sad truth that caught in a moment, indecision and inactivity are understandable first reactions after which the chance to do anything has usually passed. It’s to Cobain’s credit, and the band’s, that they didn’t let it pass. There were some things they didn’t want to play witness to at their shows.

So…A long ramble…But what does a bad day at the office look like for Nirvana? It might mean verbally abusive drunks, physically aggressive drunks, physically aggressive staff, invasion of space, unwanted physical attention, others damaging your property, others interfering with your equipment, people sabotaging you as you try to get stuff done, people throwing things at you, people doing unpleasant things a few feet away in front of you, equipment malfunctioning or breaking down altogether stopping you in your tracks…Add that to the challenges of the physical environment; a sweaty club, a smoky room, a wind-swept outdoor venue, lights so strong they hurt, equipment too loud or so quiet you can’t hear it, a crowd yelling, staff wandering around, tight space so you can barely move or so wide you can barely communicate with your comrades as you work – imagine the niggling difficulties one has to overcome and get round if you’re changing workplace every single day…Then just add on the normal day-to-day stuff that affects most of us; clumsy moments, bad moods, not being at one’s best, walking into things, walking on things, being off rhythm, just failing like everyone always does at some point – of course, multiply that by the fact that a band performance means that each band member is subject to whatever failings their colleagues feel that day, not just their own. Nirvana played around 370 shows in their life span – in that space of time they must have grown one hard skin, far more than I have in thousands of days of working. That’s a lot of intense days at work for the Nirvana boys.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go stand at the window and rubberneck on the couple having the argument in the street outside.

Why Commemorate Kurt Cobain at All?

“…that part of town ( 2nd street ) has looked like that since i can remember and i’m old. also, why make cobain out to be such a ‘son.’ You talk of the positive effect his music has had or something like that, what about the negative effect that idolizing him has had. It has glamorzed drug addiction and and made it seem hip to do nothing but cling to someone who did not value his life. And I’m no angel. All the ugly signs and memorials should be taken down and laid to rest. One more thing, they have memorialized the location that he got loaded at …really?”

I’ve said it before, I like receiving contrary views because even if I disagree at least it makes me hold up for a second and think before barrelling on down my own lil’ path of self-righteousness. The other day the comment above was placed with one of the posts regarding my visit to Aberdeen, WA last September (gosh, is it coming up to nine months gone already?!) I admit I rather like it! There’s a lot going on in there so I’m hoping (fingers crossed) to both respectfully agree with some of it and respectfully disagree with some other bits of it. Let’s see how I do shall we?

There are a number of angles here; to clear up one of the easy ones post-haste, I’d suggest that there’s nothing in the story of Kurt Cobain that glamorizes drug addiction. The majority of onlookers see heroin addiction as the most crucial factor in his demise, the majority of fans feel they’d have seen far more glories, far more music, from him if heroin hadn’t hastened his demise. As a 14 year old at the time my main reaction was to immediately take on a pretty solid mantra of “injecting untrustworthy cocktails of heavily cut chemical byproducts is a really bad idea.” I can’t imagine many people watched the wasting away visible in 1992 photos of Cobain, the massive reduction in his writing and creativity (more than three quarters of his songs are written prior to the Nevermind album’s release), his disappearance from the public eye, the stories (untrue) of junky babies, the intervention and observation by social services (I’d say quite rightly until the situation was clearer despite the parental protestations of innocence), the general spiral…And coming away thinking that his drug addiction was in anyway positive. Cobain was a great antidote to the Eighties’ rock vibe in which one’s drug consumption was a sign of your superhuman endurance, of your masculine wildness and also to the yuppie drug takers either focused on the glamour of drugs or on the ‘mind expansion’ and ‘experimentation’ nonsense – Cobain made it look really unsexy, unglamorous and unwelcome.

It also showed the music industry doing its best to cover and conceal everything to try to keep that sexy druggy vibe alive – the PR teams were OK to admit his drug-taking to score ‘bad boy’ points but didn’t want to full squalor to be visible. Cobain did truth a big favour by his constant statements regarding how unwelcome an experience drug addiction was. It’s so saddening that he clearly didn’t enjoy what was occuring – at least five spells in rehab trying to clear the situation and unable to ‘win’. The degree of self-hatred welling up from his feeling of weakness, again, makes it look so unattractive – he wasn’t a man who revelled in his excesses or celebrated hedonism.

The point about Cobain as Aberdeen’s “son” is a really good one. It’s so understandable why there’s an ambivalence in the posthumous commemoration of Cobain – he was pretty overt about his distain for the town, he even protests too much to be honest, I think there’s a sense in which he overeggs how much he dislikes it in order to emphasise the “I had it tough” aspect of his youth (no, Kurt did not sleep rough under the bridge, no, Kurt was not beaten up by homophobes, no, Kurt did not spray ‘Homo Sex Rules’ on a building, no, Kurt did not do anything more under the bridge than hangout drink beers and maybe smoke pot, no, Kurt wasn’t anyone of real interest in Aberdeen.) I imagine he’d be more than happy to go un-memorialised.

Alas, on the other hand, why does anyone know or care that Aberdeen, WA exists? Kurt Cobain is the only figure from the town to achieve truly globe-spanning fame – he’s one of a bare handful of cultural figures who can occupy that Elvis, Michael Jackson, John Lennon realm (as a sidebar, each one an individual with personal flaws and chemical flaws, but also ALL amazing artists of global significance) – that’s an amazing achievement and it’s certainly a significant impact on Aberdeen. I would perhaps think of the activities done in his name in Aberdeen less as celebrations and more as commemorations – yesterday, June 28th 2014, commemorations were held for the moment when the Serbian revolutionary executed a representative of the Austro-Hungarian empire (and his wife) and set off the First World War. It isn’t a celebration, it’s a memorial, a chance to remember both the good that came – the heroism, the comradeship, the bravery – as well as the all-too-apparent awfulness. Remembrance is a valuable thing and Kurt Cobain is, without a shadow of a doubt, a significant part of the past of Aberdeen and one worth commemorating.

Having said that, I would definitely say that when commemoration becomes an application for sainthood I start feeling a bit sick. Kurt Cobain wasn’t a saint, he wasn’t just an unambiguous cardboard cutout of wholesomeness. He was an incredible artist, he was a man who worked extremely hard at his art, he was a man who inspired and comforted and excited and entertained millions the world over…But a memorial speech that didn’t recognise the sadness and the harsh side of his tale would make me uncomfortable – it would be a lie. An awful lot of Cobain’s art came from his pains and discomforts and his failings. The appropriation of his image to recognise the town’s past, acknowledge the town’s most famous son, encourage a warm welcome to the many people who will someday take a pilgrimage to the town, to bring a benefit to the town in terms of its image and potential dollars to support livelihoods and lives in the region – this is all good. I’d just be hoping it wasn’t one-dimensional praise because that wouldn’t be honest. Cobain deserves his status in the pantheon of music…And he was still a man destroyed by drugs and demons. What’s that cliche? ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’? I’d go with that.

Tapping away on this blog has been a privilege – why? Because I’ve been introduced by person after person to their creative endeavours – inspired by Kurt Cobain. The effect of his death, of people’s admiration for him, has not been a fixation on doom – it’s been a desire to build and make things. I’ve heard from people who used his music at wedding celebrations, from people making music interpreting Cobain’s material or who started bands that are now completely unique but started just covering his songs, I’ve caught up with artists who created work built around Cobain as a source of inspiration, I’ve met other people as inclined to write as I am partially because Cobain led them in certain directions. I’ve heard from people living in every continent on this planet, all doing positive things with their lives and celebrating their lives AND all acknowledging that Kurt Cobain was a part of that. The sorrow of losing an idol, the thrill of hearing music that inspired them – it didn’t give them a death wish or a worthless shrine-building cult-forming death drive, it took them to new places.

I’m not sure that admiration for Kurt Cobain has had many negatives though I’m very sure some lazy ignorant kid somewhere did indeed skim-read Cobain’s life and take the message “die young, leave a good looking corpse” or “drugs are good, mmm-kay.” Unfortunately there’s no controlling the acts of the ignorant – one could wrap the world in cotton wool and some people would still find ways to hurt themselves and others. Does Kurt Cobain deserve the blame for that? You’re right, he can’t control who takes what inspiration from him or whether people choose him as a role model or idol, but the people venerating him certainly can receive a degree of blame…Except no one responsible for public celebrations of Kurt Cobain seems to have been celebrating drug usage, or self-destruction, or death. So, again, those who take that trinity of elements as the main messages of Cobain’s life and as elements to be emulated…Hmm. Worrisome. I don’t have an answer to the desire of some people to destroy themselves not because of great pain but simply because, nor an answer to the desire of some people to destroy others not because of great threat or need but simply because. But in a world of motivating factors I’m pretty sure Kurt Cobain is an extremely minor factor.

So…To head back to the title question, why commemorate Kurt Cobain? Firstly, he’s historically significant globally and more precisely a part of the history of Aberdeen, WA. Erasing things one doesn’t like from history heads into the realms of Stalin or of North Korea. Secondly, his status really is deserved – he’s the creator of a persistently admired bedrock of music and music did undergo a sea-change for which he was the figurehead as well as a core catalyst (though an unwitting one.) Thirdly, he’s one of a tiny number of musicians to die while still within reach of the peak of their career and to therefore leave this sense of incomplete work and a longing for more – most commentary on Kurt Cobain carries that silent “what if…?” within it which helps create and sustain the fascination and the curiosity. Fourthly, unwillingly, he’s become a modern morality tale and it’s worth speaking honestly of his life to recognise that he was a man trying to do good and with many admirable qualities who was brought low by his flaws – that isn’t a condemnation nor a hagiography, it’s just a shame. Fifth, he put Aberdeen on the map and has contributed economically through the publicity he brings to the area as well as the direct contributions made by visitors – there’s the potential for his name to do many lifetimes of good to the region and that’s worth shooting for. Sixth, he’s inspired people to create and to make something of their lives on a scale and with a breadth most people will never achieve – that’s a truly exceptional achievement.

The Camera Lies: Cobain in Photos

I’ve said it before, I’m not a big fan of genuflecting over endless photos of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the work that goes into surfacing shots of rare shows and moments in the life of this band. The kinds of photos I’m referring to are the close ups and front-on shots of Cobain’s face – they leave me cold because they serve a fundamental lie.

The purpose of a photo is to bring an onlooker closer to a moment that has past, whether a piece of their own history or someone else’s. The belief, with photos of Kurt Cobain, seems to be that this is about communion with the soul of the man himself – a way of growing closer to an understanding of him and a sympathy with his experience of the world. I would argue most of it is, instead, about projection by the onlooker and/or photographer and nothing at all to do with Cobain.

The Mona Lisa is a prime example – what was the woman thinking? The answer is that, actually, the image captures nothing. It’s impossible to verify if the famous smile was actually present (think about it, over the period of time the artist took to capture the image did the model truly maintain a single uniform facial expression for ten minutes, thirty minutes, hours on end?) or whether it was simply what the artist wished to portray or represent to us – his invention entirely and one that should make us ask not, “what was the woman thinking?” but “what was the artist thinking?” Likewise, even if we assumed that it was a true representation of the physical expression of the model it brings us no closer to verifying her actual emotional state; most people have a ‘photo face’ that they put on when a camera is pointed at them – what we may be seeing is the model’s false face adopted because of the present of an artist’s brush. And, again, even if we accepted that this face was indeed a direct translation of what she was feeling at that moment in time its a tragic voiding of the complexity of a human being to reduce them down to a single face at a single moment – when that model left the room we don’t know if she looked relieved, if she laughed to see herself in paint, or if she cried over a distraction we can’t see because all we have to go on is what the artist commissioned, paid for and chose to represent. We’re not seeing truth, we’re seeing a selected and mediated (un)reality.

The same goes for photos of Kurt Cobain. I read one photographer stating that one of his famous shots of Cobain staring wide-eyed into the camera, in his opinion, captured a moment of nakedness, vulnerability and honesty…Crap. Studying the sea of Cobain photos what is clearest to me is that this was a man extremely uncomfortable to be brought to a location specifically for people to commit an act upon that had no purpose other than to let people gaze at his face. His facial expression isn’t unhappy, it isn’t sad or soulful – it’s a deliberately blank canvas, it’s a tease even, a case of him saying “look into my eyes, believe what you like, I’m telling you nothing.”

This matches with his distrust of the press and, indeed, most of the trappings of his superstar status – he didn’t enjoy people prying into his life so I believe it’s equally unbelievable to think that a man who famously lied to and/or concealed things from interviewers would simultaneously reveal himself utterly to a cameraman. It leads me to recall the moments on stage when he pursued the TV cameras and forced them to cut out because he waved his penis at them, or the moments when he spat on the lens, or the decision in the Come as You Are video to conceal faces.

Look again at the weight of Cobain images out there and note how often it’s obvious that he’s faking or forcing a smile – the most likely explanation for those moments is that he’s been asked to smile by the cameraman, same as one would be asked at a wedding or other occasion. I’m definitely personally projecting here – I’m constantly told “smile” in photos and I simply can’t react because it’s a demand for a false and fake reaction. What I say is always the same, “talk to me or say something funny – I’ll smile immediately”, the real human contact is needed in order to capture a natural photo, I can’t pretend. In the case of Cobain, there’s the photo of him holding up a can of spam to the camera – caught acting, his smile is natural because he’s not trying to smile, his own focus and desire is to show the can. Similarly, the photo of him sat on the floor exhausted with a hand to his head and apparently crying seems real but was something he got over swiftly. All the most popular Cobain pictures (, the iconic Rolling Stone shots (including the one that graces With the Lights Out), show nothing, say nothing, give no insight other than a refusal to engage with the camera. It’s a dead face and what he’s sharing with ‘us’, the viewers, is no emotion at all thus voiding the supposed purpose of all these pictures floating around the world and gracing magazines, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Tumblr, whatever.

The threefold purpose of photos, in my opinion, is to verify an occurence, to be appreciated as art in its own right and/or share an experience. The former case is served by photos such as those of Cobain’s trip to hospital in Rome in March 1994, confirming something occured and illustrating its telling and retelling – the picture is nothing on its own without the story. The artistry of the photographer’s art, to me, is served by shots like the frenetic photos from the International Motor Sports Garage that capture the blurred reality of bodies in motion – the Bleach cover likewise is a wonderful combination of anonymity and recognisability – it’s a great identity shot and Sub Pop aligned brand image. The final point is served by the concert shots of Nirvana on stage and, of course, is most meaningful for those who were at a particular occasion – a personal memory. For those who weren’t ever physically present it hints and tantalises at the visual component of the live experience; video may more accurately capture a dynamic occasion but it erases a lot of the imaginative potential of listening to a recording and studying photos then filling the gap with what the mind conjures. People underestimate how much the photographic image is a physical spur to fantasy – frankly I don’t think we like to admit how much of day to day life is about reacting to imagined and potential realities and futures.

It’s why I find ‘selfies’ so tedious. They’re the equivalent of the grating barking of a dog, an endless declaration of “I’m here!” “I’m here!” “I am here!” Humans with so little to do they’re reduced to endless repetition of content-less presence; mannequins. Fake people.