It’s All (NOT) About the Music: Nirvana as Image

When chatting on in the pub I used to present the following theory; every successful musician exists only to write that one tune everyone agrees is a classic and they should give up there because they will write another song that everyone loves – no matter how many other good songs you write, no matter how long your career, there’ll be the one song that breaks into the popular imagination and then the moment is gone. That’s it, no more. That doesn’t mean that there an individual can’t like or even prefer other songs by that artist, but there’ll always be that one song everyone agrees is special and can compromise on.

As examples; Guns n’ Roses? Sweet Child of Mine. Nirvana? Smells Like Teen Spirit. Madonna? Like a Virgin. Queen? Bohemian Rhapsody. Pulp? Common People. Rolling Stones? Satisfaction. Aqua? Barbie Girl. Tchaikovsky? That one with the cannons.

Now, the best thing about saying something like that in the pub is that its always easy to identify a band’s peak moment – what’s harder to notice is I’m stating a self-fulfilling prophecy because what we’re discussing is not the quality of the music, nor the best representation of an artist’s aesthetic, nor their most personal, or meaningful work. All I’m stating is “everyone has one song that gains the greatest publicity and you can tell it’s ‘the one’ because all people know it or know of it.” Circular argument but good fun – the only band I’ve given up on trying this for is The Beatles.

Now, shifting direction, this article in The Economist points out that a lot of the judgement made on music, defining whether people think it’s a classic performance or not, comes not from the sounds created, not from the music, but from what wraps around the sounds. The article focuses just on one element, the movements an artist makes. The critical quotation is “what they seemed to be picking up on were gestures that they thought conveyed passion.” Music cannot be reduced down to sound and the impact and impression it makes comes from the human connection. A true artist is someone who can, like an actor, perform something over and over again and mimic endless emotion so that those watching can feel and share in some kind of internal response.

A comparison would be that, despite the existence of those ‘universal classics’, when we think of a band or a musician, what we would often describe if trying to explain the artist to someone else would be the image of the band, not the sounds they make. As an example, in the case of Nirvana, it was the goofing for the camera, the more active elements of their live performance (equipment smashing, guitar played lying on back, etc.), the persona of being a fun band. In the case of other artists its moments like The Who windmill action on the guitar, Hendrix setting it on fire, Johnny Rotten’s mad stare, Tupac’s middle digit…


Kurt Cobain and the Atlas of the World’s Worst Natural Disasters

Presently been reading The Atlas of the World’s Worst Natural Disasters which concludes with what you’d imagine is a very handy section. The section in question consists of a set of regional maps. On each map are plotted the crucial natural disasters known to have hit that particular region. By looking at the preponderance one can basically work out which areas have a propensity for a particular type of disaster to hit.

The devil is in the detail, however. As a comparison, a couple months back I mentioned a study linking incident of childhood traumas (as identified via a widely used and accepted psychological test) as a predictor of adult difficulties including drug or alcohol abuse, a conviction for a criminal act, depression or psychological difficulties. The stand-out statistic was one stating that, among the test group – music stars of the last fifty years – possessing four or more of the eight key childhood traumas meant an individual was 80% more likely to endure adult difficulties; a compelling sound-bite. The obvious lesson to take was that kids having to endure bad things made them more likely to turn out badly. Again, let’s hold on.

In the case of the maps of world natural disasters, the addition of further information and detail complicates the simplicity of the map. As an example, the thousands of volcanoes worldwide are not necessarily a threat; the majority are dormant – but that doesn’t mean ‘dead’, it means resting. Therefore a decision about location based on volcano location has to accept that during the course of one’s own lifetime the chances of the volcano exploding beneath you are limited. Similarly, locating away from a volcano doesn’t necessarily mean being immune to their effects; an 1815 eruption of volcano Tambora destroyed marine life killing 80,000 from famine hundreds of miles away – the damage is often something that extends further than the reach of the visible danger. Similarly, how does one locate to evade the massive potential danger posed by outbreaks of disease – 90% of the former population of America was killed by Old World germs after the ‘discovery’; cholera originating in India in 1817 killed millions across the next twenty years including 100,000 in Hungary, 10,000 each in Stockholm and Paris, the 7,000 in London; Spanish Flu managed 22 million worldwide in 1918-1919? Simultaneously what would one have to give up in order to establish safety? No, instead, on a day-to-day basis we prioritise small securities on an ad-hoc and often ludicrously non-evidential basis traded off against convenience, social pressure and a sense of fitting-in.

On that level we don’t consider the silliness of repeatedly encasing ourselves in metal and glass boxes then hurtling ourselves along restricted passages at speeds the human body will have difficulty surviving if anything goes wrong with our decisions or, more importantly, with the hundreds of other decision-making entities (i.e., other people) each of which impacts our existence. Instead, we value the benefits that experience brings and then pinpoint other particular bogie-men to over-emphasise and fear.

And is this in anyway relevant to discussion of Kurt Cobain? Well, I’d argue what’s shared is a desire to reduce the world down to simple messages. Cobain’s life is written as a morality tale in which everyone has their “ah HA!” moment pointing toward a fatalistic and inevitable ending. It’s a statement of belief in destiny essentially to claim that Cobain’s fate was set by anyone element or by decisions often long previous to his ending. The culprits, ad infinitum, are parental break-up, unsettled youth, genetic predisposition to depression, the money and the fame, the choice of wife, the pressure, the drugs.

There is truth and responsibility in many of these elements, no dispute, but not one of them is an inevitability. In the case of life on the side of a volcano, all the joys and sadnesses of life proceed for whatever period of time, numerous deaths and injuries take place in numbers that, the majority of the time, outweigh any foreseeable eruption. Therefore, while drawing lessons from Cobain’s life, there’s a tendency to overlook the more likely endings — death in a car accident, eventually death from a medical condition, years of coping with depression — that outweigh the oft-pointed culprits in his life and to focus too heavily on the eventual spectacular.

As a fair example, Cobain is long held up as an example of the dangers of drugs and he successfully killed heroin-chic stone-dead. It’s extremely fair to point out the risks with that particular drug and that there are very fair public-health reasons to maintain its illegality regardless of statistics about the damage wrought by cigarettes and alcohol — yes, many risks should be up to informed individuals to choose for themselves but that’s no reason for governments to devolve all responsibility for their people to the mantra of ‘choice’ which has become a great way of doing nothing. But what is overlooked is that Cobain did not die as an accidental drug overdose, nor is it provable that the impact of drugs on his mental state is primarily responsible for his decision to commit suicide.
There’s also no definitive statement showing how much of his decline as an active song-writer was due to drugs, how much was due to the breakdown of his relationship with his band mates, how much was because of the work required for parenthood and so forth. Suggesting that is was a factor is not the same as declaring it the volcano that eliminated Kurt Cobain and we should be more cautious of such absolutist answers.

J’Accuse…The Father

There’s also a kneejerk resort to the ready and popular warnings when it comes to Kurt Cobain. Drugs, femme fatale, bad parenting, the pressures of fame, genetic predisposition to depression — everyone knows what they hold most responsible for his sad ending. While recognising truth in all these options I’d say that often the reasons upon which people focus are more about social acceptability and the position of the onlooker than they are about Cobain’s fate.

To suggest something different, I’d suggest that in the case of Kurt Cobain it could just as well be said that having a baby was the primary act that contributed to his decision to kill himself — he even says it in his suicide note. Don’t allow a positive phrasing to remove responsibility from a crucial issue.

To see parenthood as something other than a positive, however, is a rarely held social position despite the fact that, in this case, it can be deemed to bear significant responsibility for the late 1992 crises that stressed and affected Cobain for most of the rest of his life. This one act brought his drug issue into the open, forcing something that perhaps would have petered out of its own accord, something that wasn’t a risk to anyone and that had stayed private until then, into public view where the pressure applied by external agencies and by friends — thanks to the presence of a baby — backed Cobain into a corner. At the final attempt at an intervention by his friends, Courtney Love tells him “you have to be a good daddy,” and directly threatens the withdrawal of access to his daughter. The baby, while not culpable for his suicide, was a primary cause and motivation of his increasingly desperate actions.

As that final intervention showed, the baby had also loaded his relationship with Courtney Love with a further level of tensions; two young rock stars now trying to simultaneously have a loving relationship, while permanently under observation, while fighting drug issues, while coping with sudden and shocking fame, are also trying to preserve sufficient normality to raise a child. Even for the most middle-class and suburban of parents children bring unbelievable workload and stress (as well, I know, was much joy) — even in those far simpler circumstances relationships break down, children suffer and happy endings aren’t guaranteed. Adding a child to the situation faced in 1992-1994 was another straw cracking the camel’s back clean in two.

The baby also brought Cobain face-to-face with his own fears regarding his suitability as a parent and his own knowledge of the damage of wrought by parents, usually unwittingly. He was very much an exponent of Philip Larkin’s view on parents expressed in This Be the Verse — look it up if you don’t know the poem I’m referring to — and believed that biology could dictate a person, hence his talk of “suicide genes” and his reiteration of parental blame for what he felt he’d become. For a guy with significant self-esteem issues adding a further risk, now to his child not just to himself, if he screwed up was bound to have consequences.

The desire to ‘do better than ones parents’ is sometimes a driver to parenthood. What it meant for Kurt Cobain was that his relationship with Courtney Love was now piled high with disturbing reminders of his parents’ divorce and the impact it had upon him. A young couple divorcing, big deal, a couple with a child divorcing, much bigger deal — the decisions related to their relationship now had another dimension to consider and one that echoed the event he pointed to as a source of substantial pain in his own life. He was now faced with staying in the relationship or not just leaving it, but risking hurting his child too. Again, though a positive, sweet and caring impulse the existence of Frances Bean Cobain was as much a factor in the crises of 1994 as any other single matter — it’s just we don’t like to think of kids as an impersonal object carrying consequences rather than as blameless innocents who float free of such burdens.

With parenthood having forced the drugs issue to suddenly move from being a private matter to a crisis; with a baby becoming a part of the tug-of-war in the relationship with his wife; being sucked into ‘history repeating itself’ with the extensive guilt and reawakened trauma that brought; with the inability to make the decision that was best for him without now having to consider this child — Cobain was trapped. He recognised it too but people like to gloss over how clear-eyed he was about the choices facing him.

His suicide note has been well dissected but for some reason everything is held up to view except the fact that he devotes a full paragraph to declaring the insurmountable challenge his child has become, how she; “…reminds me too much of what I used to be, full of love and joy, kissing every person she meets because everyone is good and will do her no harm. And that terrifies me to the point to where I can barely function. I can’t stand the thought of Frances becoming the miserable, self-destructive, death rocker that I’ve become.” The guilt and incapacitating damage created by having a child, by playing out his parents own role, reduces him to a barely functioning state. In a letter that repeatedly resorts to child metaphors and self-identification as a child, the significance of the child has been erased because its easier to think of Cobain’s role as a loving father, which he was, as a positive than as the source of massive disturbance it was.

Anyways, as I was saying, in general humanity dislikes viewing its warm n’ fuzzy positives as potential sources of destruction.

Victory and the Damage Done Part 2: The End of the Rock Star

In a culture that venerates success, there’s a tendency to underrate the destruction it wreaks upon the victor. Similarly, the fact that a victory does not halt time at the pristine pinnacle of success — that life goes on — leads to disillusionment and disparagement when ongoing reality refuses to stay still. 1989-1991 was an era of victory and all the consequent worries, woes and uncertainties that comes with it — a powerful sense of “what next?”

The Sex Pistols had certainly dug a hole in the U.K.’s consensus — exposing and parodying its vile edge in which there’s nothing more than what you can grab from those who will buy — but only in the context of a wider economic malaise and the ongoing decline of Britain from an imperial peak which now made the U.S. the self-confident and true home of rock. While the U.S. embraced some fragments of punk squalor it was primarily theatrical and integrated well into the existing superhero template — Motley Crue, Ted Nugent, Guns n’ Roses; these were the nearest the mainstream came to punk until Nirvana.

The U.K. and Europe similarly possessed genuine socialist parties which acted as strong forces with an influence on the direction of national politics. In the U.S. this simply didn’t exist; open espousal of socialism let alone communism was a severely suppressed thread in politics. While in the U.K. and Europe feminism, gay rights, vegetarianism, anti-war protests and so forth were part of both the mainstream political mix and popular mass causes — in the U.S. these were viewed as left-wing, politically suspect and only of interest to non-mainstream activists and extremists.

The impact of this exclusion was to add these causes to the realm of deviance and non-mainstream interests in which U.S. punk fermented; all were minority activities focused around tiny self-defined communities of ‘outcasts’ and increasingly, as the Eighties went on, the punk scene fused with a strong political edge whether openly critical of the current political mainstream, or of law enforcement, or in favour of pro-gay rights, or of feminist politics. It was the same rooting around in the underground that led some to latch onto extreme racist nationalism, the other side of the coin to punk’s quest for rebel yells outside the vision presented by militaristic, flag-waving, ‘us uber alles’ supermen who infested the mainstream.

Nirvana’s rise didn’t take place in a vacuum; it coincided with the entire political order of the West shifting. Nirvana’s first European tour coincided with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact with the Berlin Wall commencing its fall on November 9, 1989 and Nirvana arriving in the city two days later as people continued tearing at the symbol of the entire post-war reality. Finally, following the attempted coup in August 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist on December 26, 1991 — just as Nirvana was exploding into mass consciousness.

The colossal weight of what was occurring was amplified and enhanced by the reality that this was the first global shift of the mass media era. The absence of the unifying enemy who had tethered U.S. culture for decades was a grave concern among governing circles after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the end of the last substantial external threat to capitalism. Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and The Last Man expanded was built on a 1989 article and essentially suggested that progress and time had now halted — that’s how deeply the narrative of Cold War had infected perceptions of reality and how hard it was to envisage a life without it. Fukuyama’s book has been long-criticised but its key point that the last fully functioning alternative to capitalism (in whatever gradation) had ceased and a single economic system now ruled almost the entire dialogue of world civilisation.

The shock of Nirvana’s emergence was so powerful within the U.S. not because of the music itself — debates over its originality and universal popularity are missing the point. Nirvana were the crest of a wave that had travelled far and was now breaking in so many directions. On the one hand, the extreme solipsism and air of defensiveness, indifference, negativity that many saw in Nirvana was an articulation of a new insecurity, a new vulnerability that arose because no one now knew who or where the enemy was. Simultaneously, the music acknowledged and empowered feelings that hadn’t been permitted under the old regime governed by the indestructible ‘rock star’; the need for the strong had gone away and Nirvana helped make it look ridiculous. Instead the marginalised could emerge blinking into daylight and with them all the causes that had been bred into the underground’s rising stars during the previous decade.

The switch in the music culture had been prefaced by an expanding roster of alternative bands on major labels prior to Nirvana’s emergence, there had been bands originating in the indie scene who had made the jump to major label record deals — but success was varied. Among the mainstream survivors, Metallica incorporated a touch more brooding into their major crossover success, Guns n’ Roses acknowledged the turn away from chest-thumping rock only in Axl Rose’s more solitary and sombre meditations, Nine Inch Nails were still to push the dial all the way to The Downward Spiral — while the move toward Cobain’s insularity had been foreshadowed by all this activity, there still wasn’t a superstar until his arrival who looked so firmly inward.

A similar explosion at that time was the twisted tale of the Black Metal scene in Scandinavia and particularly in Norway. Between 1991 and 1995, with a very young coterie of individuals egging each other on to ever more extreme and grim acts, the early scene erupted with over twenty churches burned, suicide, murder, general mayhem. In the book ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness” there’s a quotation from one figure in the scene stating “it is interesting that Black Metal exploded in Norway immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and the final demise of the idea that fighting against the bourgeoisie and capitalist conservatives, including Christianity, could be defeated by revolutionary socialism…It’s all part of an escape from reality.”

The Norwegian scene couldn’t follow the U.S. simply because Norway was never as fully integrated into the confrontational West versus East face-off. Socialism was a well-represented presence and a successful component of the governing mix within Norwegian politics bringing with it the kinds of policies that the U.S. alternative scene was then busy trying to articulate. The Black Metal scene was forced into a different reaction of similar extremity to the Nirvana effect. A core of individuals substituted a new overarching narrative and competition, one pitching Nordic (white) paganism against other races which were deemed to be diluting strong blood and simultaneously against Christianity on the basis that it had feminised national cultures, another reason why the scene was also homophobic, a further effeminate weakening influence.

Of course it was nonsense, but no more nonsensical than Ted Nugent, AC/DC or the trappings of cock rock that had achieved two decades of dominance in the U.S. It took the world to change for the rock star to die whether in Nirvana’s rain of sardonic laughter (“hi Axl! Hi Axl!”) or Norway’s reign of blood and fire.

Victory and the Damage Done: The Shift in U.S. Rock Music

“Is there a clean white shirt ready for the bomb?”

This film will make more sense to those who are aware of a film called The Snowman — it’s a Christmas tradition in U.K., a whimsical and nostalgic piece in which a young boy enters his garden on Christmas Eve to find his snowman has come to life. The piece is wordless, story conveyed in drawn figures and landscapes and a swooning soundtrack; a warm dream. The piece above is by the same author/artist, Raymond Briggs, very familiar drawing style, childhood associations…And naturally disturbing because of the sheer Englishness of the characters’ responses and discussion — the myth of ‘the last war’ circles through the entire piece. The serious point being that in 1983-1984 the Soviet leadership was genuinely of the view that NATO was preparing a strike against the Soviet Union. Rhetoric from the west was sparking a reaction and that, in turn, led to escalating responses. The Able Archer exercise in November 1983 ( was the closest the world had come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Russians genuinely believing the war games were our cover for a pre-emptive strike.

Direct cause-and-effect relationships are hard to find when tracing the interaction of the background scenarios that rule over the lives of entire societies and the cultural outbursts those societies then enact. Musical motion arises on the back of and in relation or reaction to previous music; technological shifts drive changes in instrumentation, sound, style and approach; musicians arise from familial, comradely, educational and psychological advantages, pressures or drivers; scenes arise supported by the emergence of supporting infrastructure whether broadcasting media, means of production, venues for dissemination. Music doesn’t, however, float free of the politics or economics that drive a society and that are so intimately intertwined.

In the glow of victory, and contrary to what one might expect, the crime rate in the U.K. and U.S. after World War Two increased — the Golden Age of Bank Robbery was over the next two decades as demobbed soldiers, trained in the use of weapons and explosives, lucratively deployed their talents. While prefabricated homes spread home ownership across the U.S. and suburbia became a new reality, war industry used to churning out metal was retooled to churning out cars. The massive organisation of society that had arisen as a consequence of war never went away, it shifted objectives, names changes but the new institutions and the accepted levels of their intrusion into the daily lives of people had simply become accepted.

(Threads — 1984)

Rock n’ Roll, then whatever it was that was started by The Beatles in the Sixties and evolved into hard rock, heavy metal, punk and so forth tended toward less emotionally revealing lyrics — artful phrasings or vagueness substituted for stark self-examination. This evolved throughout the seventies and eighties, until the heart of mainstream rock music was a macho, dominant, hyper-masculinity that matched the defiant sense of ‘them and us’ that ruled everyday reality — in the U.S. punk barely made a dent on the mainstream leaving the Seventies rock motif to live on. Remember this was a society living under the very real threat of genuine annihilation not by zombies (heh!) but by nuclear weaponry that would halt real life in its tracks with a four minute warning for the U.K. and not much more for the U.S. The renewal of the core rock image, the penis-centric God figure, fitted like tight blue jeans to the early Eighties when figures within the U.S. military scene, in concert with the conservative figures around Ronald Reagan began focusing not on the megadeath perspective of mutual destruction, but on a belief that even amidst the graves of hundreds of millions, there was such a thing as victory in a nuclear future. There was no reason to relinquish the externally directed aggression inherent in the rock star image when there was a vast existential enemy always present.

(The Day After — 1983)

Nirvana lived out their entire youth in a world where everything was about to be blown to smithereens at any moment. By 1987 when Nirvana became a reality, nothing had yet changed. The Pacific North-West was potentially one of the few places where at least some portion of the outlying population might have made it through — a survivalist community did exist in State of Washington — but the background reality of atomic decimation and the collapse of organised society walked in step with a music culture that leaned toward Superman with a pumped up and screaming wild edge that was simply a demonstration that the superheroes of rock music were meant to show we could survive any excess, any destructive act. The drugs, the sex, the lunacy of the mainstream rock scene was part of showing that America was indomitable, indestructible — its denizens did not die when famous, when centre stage, when flaunting their power before the world. This would change.

Not Everyone has to Love Nirvana for it to be Classic

A carrot is the nearest a rabbit will ever get to a diamond. The fact monkeys fall asleep easiest when listening to Metallica contains no value judgment on the monkey’s part. While music, or structured sound if you prefer, may be intrinsically human, relying as it does on the ability to make sound deliberately and then to edit, tweak and position that sound according to a background meta-narrative of internal deliberations, it doesn’t make it something ‘natural.’ No piece of music is bestowed with an intrinsic value decreed by nature; its value is defined and judged by human observation and criticism. The value of a piece of music can be altered by time, geography, culture in which consumed, purpose/functional context — the same data (i.e., the specific locations and relationships of the sound being listened to) takes on a different value along a sliding scale from priceless to worthless.

In the case of the music of Kurt Cobain, death at close to his peak of success essentially lent his music an exceptional quality; the creation of scarcity enhanced the value to the market. If the zeitgeist had been allowed to pass just another couple of years, the impact of Kurt Cobain’s passing would have been significantly lessened — look at Layne Staley. Similarly, if Nirvana had openly ceased to exist prior to the death of Kurt Cobain, or if it had been the drummer (no offence Dave!) who had died, then the band would be respected but, again, it’s less likely they’d be sainted.

A crucial factor is also age. The other week I pointed out that the five year age difference between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain (1962 and 1967 babies respectively) meant one experienced his teenage musical renaissance in the peak of Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Queen, just prior to the rise of punk; while the other’s self-discovery coincided with the bizarre second wave of punk in the U.S. Music will never mean what it does at first listen, the unveiling of something fresh and new at the precise moment someone has no considered preconception to influence its reception. The passing from one generation to another tends to kill the momentum of a band or artist and their persistence and recognised greatness relies on them sticking around until there’s another generational shift — it’s good to wait ten years. The long gap between the first proper and worthy archive release in 1994 (MTV Unplugged) then the barely interrupted gap until 2002’s greatest hits and 2004’s With the Lights Out allowed the Nu-Metal generation to pass and a new tranche of fans to discover an acknowledged greats.

It was also a good time for a truly shocking rock death; Elvis, Lennon, Vicious — none of these had been artists at their peak and the memories had faded by the mid-nineties. Ian Curtis or Dead from Black Metal band Mayhem had been big figures but only in a relatively minor sub-culture and fan-base. Cobain rightly pointed to Freddie Mercury in his suicide note because Mercury was the only recent rock star death of any significant scale but, again, this was a band past its peak and into ‘institution’ territory while the manner of his death — complications from AIDS resulting from unprotected homosexual activity — hardly lent itself to deification.

Accidents and disease don’t really have any kind of glamour (for want of a better word). A juicy murder or an equally rare suicide — now that has an unnatural quality that lends itself to mystique and curiosity. It helped that Cobain was photogenic too and lent himself to those wide-eyed portraits that became so ubiquitous. The same occurred to Tupac Shakur, the hip hop generation, the non-rock audience, required its eternal image of tragic loss but Eazy-E’s death from AIDS didn’t match up — a dramatic shooting on a crowded main strip in Las Vegas did.

In terms of the music, however, the posthumous reputation of an artist doesn’t necessarily mean hearing genius bound intrinsically within its tune, melody, rhythm or riffs. The significance of music is as much about the listener, about the cultural moment, about what that music was a figurehead for or represented. Don’t expect to love every ‘classic’.

Cobain and Secular Idolatry

Simone Weill stated “one has only the choice between God and idolatry.” Strangely I actually agree with the statement; the absence of religious belief doesn’t lead to a void of central meaning, it replaces it with a different basis for belief within which people choose to venerate and devote their lives to things other than a religious entity. Naturally I feel equally happy to sneer at that quest for meaning within career, home, love, parenthood as I do at religion. The core point though is that it isn’t a choice between God and nothing.

The question has been asked many times whether Kurt Cobain’s teenage dalliances with religion, which went as far as Kurt accepting baptism, extended into a mature faith in God. I’m less concerned with that given, if he did possess such faith, then a significant sum of his actions as an adult won’t exactly get him much sympathy at the Last Judgment. What intrigues me more is that his life does possess a genuine quest to restore a central meaning to his activity — Weill would rephrase that as an idolatry.

The most obvious answer that could be given is that Cobain idolised music, but I would state it was a deeper urge. The component he emphasised was, firstly, his words rather than his instrumental expression — he strongly dismissed his skills as a guitarist, little of his music exists without the intention being to cloak it with lyrics. Likewise, even if his self-criticism was overstated he was no guitar worshipper, no untrammelled explorer of the instrument’s possibilities, nor a player overawed by its history — he was dismissive not just of his skills with it but also of the instrument and its tiredness. His words clearly took significant work with his crucial spells of song-writing all coinciding with significant time alone to draft on paper — more so, he was a committed journal-writer throughout his adulthood with his writing activity extending far beyond music. Added to this is his extensive artistic efforts, a further expressive medium he stretched in various directions out as far as video efforts same as he took his musical efforts beyond the guitar onto drums and across various tape experiments.

My argument would be that the expression of self was Cobain’s primary purpose and the form of idolatry was therefore the internal drives and wishes that demanded self-expression uber-alles. I see no evidence of a genuine religious belief in the actions of Cobain but, to be fair, I’m based in the basically non-religious U.K. where church attendance, formal church allegiance and formal belief have all given way to a more generic pick-n’-choose spirituality and a vague belief in ‘something out there’ unaccompanied by impositions on the physical individual in the here-and-now. There’s no specific evidence of Cobain’s genuine beliefs one way or the other beyond the adolescent ‘trying on’ of identities that might have helped him fit in with where he was at that time.

As a sidebar I saw this beautiful post in which the writer states “his suicide note states at the beginning ‘dear Buddha’”. Wonderful. And whether that’s accurate or not I do believe the world can always do with more laughing with, not at:

So, what’s your chosen idolatry? Mine appears to be information, constant consumption of information at the expense of financial wisdom, time to contemplate, social stuff, etc.

For the Weekend: Cuthbert was Bored by Uli Meyer

Cuthbert was Bored

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” perennial cheerful soul Tennessee Williams had a way with good lines. At the commencement of Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Slivers of Incesticide it was just me, alone, working away to put together the notes to convince myself I had enough of value to make myself want to write more. From very early on, however, it relied not just on a touch of courage and desire, but on the willingness of a number of people to take a look at a few questions, to help me consider title, to do ALL the design work, to assist with publishing contacts, to offer feedback, to help promote, to consider or review.

Naturally it left me in a mood to show similar support of others, whether local musicians, distant musicians, those making their own writing efforts. One item spotted via a friend was a gentleman called Uli Meyer who was using KickStarter to get his first children’s book into print:

If you take a moment to trace back through the updates you’ll see a remarkable amount of solo energy and effort going into this endeavour — take a look at update 15 from February, at the evolution of the owl from one set of initial drawings to a more recent version requiring a look back and update of past drafts. The constant reiteration, review, amendment, replacement is a core part of any such endeavour, in my case, reviewing and re-reviewing 72,000 words, in the case of Mr. Meyer, endless versions of the pictures in addition to the whittling down of the words to a core spine — the difficulty of reduction is oft-underestimated.

There’s a mass propaganda campaign around the ‘do it yourself’ value of modern technology; a way of selling more stuff via exploitation of individuals’ desire to create. It doesn’t ever dwell on the hard work involved in a do it yourself effort whether promoting a band, or in the case of Cuthbert was Bored, mailing out a couple hundred copies of a book by hand, extensive work even after the pleasurable part (drawing, painting, playing, writing, whatever…) is done. The costs too are underrated, the very pleasant letter from Uli that accompanies my copy of the book (plus calendar and postcards!) adds up Scanning Artwork (£1,250), printing costs (£6,400), KickStarter fee plus Amazon fees (£1,215), shipping to backers (£1,200), book designer (£1,000) on top of several other smaller sums resulting in a total of £12,165. Incredible.

There’s a significant degree of worship paid to ‘the ones who make it’; far less to the purer energy of those who maybe won’t sell a million or have a name in lights but who strive for something because they can (and there really is no reason anyone can’t.) On that level, I’d like to salute and simultaneously toast Mr. Uli Meyer for his work on Cuthbert was Bored and, if I may, I’d like to urge you to consider contributing to him via KickStarter or by buying a copy of the book on Amazon — I have my copy here on my desk, I think it’s beautifully prepared and I can see the work that has gone into this and it’ll keep me company for a while on a grey day in London, something whimsical and skilful to while away time.

Here’s my copy of the book — and strewth, it really is beautifully produced and the artwork is stunningly detailed, just been flicking through, love the cover inside with the pencil (ink?) outlines of Cuthbert — plus my calendar and cards all on my desk this evening. Thanks Uli, we’ve never met but I think you know my friend Inga, and you’ve just made my weekend better.

Doesn’t matter what it is, put some blood into each day. Do something.


Music Lovers and Musical Tastes

Phew, one heck of a day…

Just a gentle muse for a mellow Friday afternoon…We’re all aware of the relatively tightly bound and specific tastes of Mr. Kurt Cobain. His music adopted and abandoned multiple styles over the years but all from a relatively limited range stretching across various modes of alternative rock music with a few token representatives from other genres (The Beatles, Lead Belly) standing out for actually being exceptional (though integral) to his taste. At the core of his professed taste in the latter years of his life stood the kinds of bands who, like his own music, were straddling the boundary between the alternative and the mainstream; The Breeders and PJ Harvey for example. He never abandoned his commitment, however, to the bands who had accompanied his rise – Melvins, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth – or the K Records style of ramshackle pop he had grown to love apparently in his Olympia years.

I’m fairly sensitive to the cliches of everyday life. One of my favourites is when people state “I’m a little bit crazy,” which is truly about the most ordinary, average and utterly typical statement ever made – I hear it at least once a month. All it reflects is that everyone, at some point, feels there’s a disconnect between some part of the massively diverse and intrusive reality around us and their personal beliefs, perceptions and desires. Anyone sane enough to claim the “I’m a bit crazy” tag is totally normal. Be more worried about the people who clearly don’t realise there’s something unusual about them.

A second cliche I enjoy, an equally common one, is the empty sentence “I have pretty wide taste in music.” Again, anyone making that claim in a public forum is presenting the idea that they are open-minded and willing to try new things. The problem being that the statement is a way of being non-confrontational, of avoiding pledging to a specific direction or style. It’s not actually a statement of taste, it’s a statement of social politeness – a subject Kurt Cobain took significant issue with and presented in songs such as Blew (“if you wouldn’t mind”/”if you wouldn’t care”) or Come as you Are (“come as you are, as you were”/”take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, don’t be late”).

By making such a clear statement of lack of commitment and unwillingness to engage in anything that might be seen as a critical or thoughtful judgement on the topic, if someone says it to you then you can be sure that the person in front of you isn’t actually interested in music. The development of musical taste, the discovery of music new to the individual requires a deeper probing and a greater commitment to uncovering music. It’s rare I’ve met someone who would make such a facile comment as “I have wide taste in music” without discovering that what they mean is “my taste ranges between whatever’s in the top 40 and/or popular at the moment.” It’s a statement that they will listen to anything because everything they hear is just ‘musical wallpaper’, a shifting of tone, texture and hue that hangs in the background without intruding on them enough to make a choice or to focus in any direction.

While trying not to confuse personal experience with scientific fact, most music-lovers do have a core to their interests, a location from which they reach out to new places while staying grounded. In the case of Kurt Cobain, while his pre-teenage years were a typical child’s mash-up of rock, metal, pop, whatever; his teenage tastes solidified around the early 1980s evolutions of punk erupting out of small U.S. scenes and that formed the focus for the 13-14 years that followed. To use Metallica as an example, the bonding that led to the band was around the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands – again, a core commitment was the driver.

To borrow a concept from work I’d suggest the T-shaped music lover; a deep focus in a particular area with a wide awareness and cherry-picking of other genres – lose one or the other and the result is either a stick or just a thin coating…Similarly, within each genre, I’d propose my favourite concentric ring model. At the core of each genre are those who create and define it, the rare geniuses who forged the path and made a particular sound into an identifiable genre – whether one likes the genre or not it’s usually possible to accept the talent of those individuals. If one likes that genre then there’s always a second wave of bands, talented, committed and popular without ever crashing over the barriers into the combination of mass acceptance AND critical reputation and recognition that defines the core bands – one might like one or other of these bands but only a fanatic will know and love all of them. Beyond that lies the outer ring of lesser lights, spin-offs, forgotten heroes, local favourites and post-hoc torch-carriers who might have worked for years or may linger forever without ever being more than a derivation of the core sound (therefore not receiving critical acclaim) and always too early, too late, or simply not good enough (thus not gaining the popular acclaim) to cross over into the inner circles. I’ve done it as a graphic for fun…

Genre Breakdown

Anyways…I digress. My tastes? Oh definitely cored. My pre-1993 tastes are a combination of Prince, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Vanilla Ice and The Transformers The Movie soundtrack with a chunk of Elvis plus my favourite song was Centerfold by the J. Geils Band (found it on a compilation from my aunt who was a key funnel for music.) Nirvana really did act as Ground Zero leading onto Sonic Youth and Swans and outward toward industrial, noise, experimental avant garde stuff while a separate strand (via Rage Against the Machine and Beck) was taking me over to hip hop and then recombined with Throbbing Gristle to open the door to various electronic avenues culminating in Coil and old British 1960s-70s TV electronica and library musics. The core is still there, however, the ramshackle, aggressive, loud, fast, hard (or even aggressively quiet) edge holds it all together neatly. I made small walks into jazz without ever enjoying much of it, I still can’t stand dance music or foregrounded electronic drums even if Burial is indeed wicked, pure blues really bores me, most old style rock n’ roll and most massed orchestral music leaves me cold. It’s hard to be diverse and a true music lover; if one walks too far dilettantism awaits. I’ll never love country n’ western music but most of the non-U.S. world is with me on that one.

Personal Responsibility and the Circle of Associates

My Friends

Apparently, when I was about four years old and attended a first nursery school somewhere near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a teacher saw me stood alone on my first day looking around the playground at break. She asked me if I was OK, I replied “I’m deciding who are the good kids and who are the bad ones.” I’ve no idea if this is apocryphal or not but it’s just background.

Forty-fifty years ago, when modern communication networks weren’t in place and the modern economy wasn’t driving most people to crisscross the country (or indeed countries) in search of work, peoples’ primary connections were to family because one could live one’s whole life within a mere few miles, less than fifty miles from home forever. Accidental or temporary connections were rarer than they are today — which is neither a good nor a bad thing — fewer individuals were itinerant, organisations were smaller and more localised, one’s own contact with other regions was restricted. At that time, the circles above would change in size, the inner circles expanding, the outer circle contracting.

The diagram isn’t complex or stunning — I took the idea a lot of years ago from Geography lessons discussing core/periphery in terms of countries and the economic centralisation around a capital city that tends to occur; outer rings contribute ever less significant to the overall entity. This is how I visualise the human relationships around me. At the centre, the most solid block of colour, this is the core; in my case there’s a very strong family group there, reinforced by a very powerful group of friends. There’s research about the number of truly important relationships that human beings can maintain so this circle will always be the smallest, tightest unit; the people one has the deepest contact with, who are the strongest support, sometimes the biggest pain (depth isn’t just a source of the positive.)

The second circle is the wider grouping of intermediates; the quotation I’d use here is the one about “some people are here for a day, others a season, some for a lifetime”, the point being that one should appreciate, honour and love the experience of those people for whatever it’s allotted time is rather than despising or dishonouring those connections for not becoming more. The people here may once have been part of the core, they were those one shared each day with, past loves, all the people one meets through school, university, work, interests with whom one develops a deeper interest and association.

The final circle is the majority of everyday contacts; the work mates one will never know deeper, the friends of friends, the people at bus stop or shop counter one sees regularly and acknowledges, the passing complexions of life. My first manager, a man of 32 which at the time seemed so old, said to me, “Nick, you’ll get used to the fact that the people you met at school and university are the people you’ll have for life but you’ll start seeing less of them. You’ll fill the gap with the people you meet in work but a lot less of those people will cross the line into being true friends once you don’t have work to talk about. Just remember to be able to tell the difference.” So far, his statement remains true. Acquaintances is my word for people I wish the best to, I think well of, but won’t necessarily be sharing my deepest wishes and fears with, nor making extra effort to draw tight to my life.

The trick in life, I believe, is to hold on tight to those people in the core, work hard for them regardless of immediate rewards or otherwise, to give the friends a chance to become the core but appreciate them regardless whether or not the bond loosens as circumstance changes, and to welcome the acquaintances without ever mistaking them for friends or core with whom one should expose one’s secrets, give away too much ‘skin’, or blow too much of value.

So! After the massive preamble…A further preamble. I’m reading a book called Jimi Hendrix FAQ by Gary J. Jucha — a bloke who definitely and decisively knows his stuff. One tiny thing that irks me , however, is that several sections basically consist of calling out the damaging individuals in Hendrix’s life for various misdemeanours, whether business related or sexual. On the one hand, the validity of including comments on these people is absolute — they were and are a part of the story. On the other hand, my objection is that there’s a small tendency to devolve responsibility for the consequences of their presence from the individual who kept them close — Jimi Hendrix — to the agents of harm. It’s a difference of tone rather than a complaint; acknowledging the selfish and venal nature of this cluster of people is worthwhile, but a deeper criticism of Hendrix would be reasonable and right.

The nature of a professional musician’s life naturally expands the transient nature of human connection; the individuals with whom I, by necessity, must make contact with each day for work purposes is far larger than that of my forefathers (miners, dockworkers, etc.) but far smaller than that of a professional musician playing shows in multiple locations, with multiple bands, staying in multiple temporary residences night-by-night… The reaction of most musicians to this burgeoning number of contacts seems to be to build and lockdown a fresh core — the siege mentality many bands and musicians describe is a consequence, the ‘us against them’.

The problem is, however, that this rebuilding of community in the maelstrom of fame relies on a strong ability to distinguish friend, foe and one’s own self-indulgent self-destruction. Hendrix wrote song after song regarding his loosely tied nature and his perception of life as a series of transient connections — Crosstown Traffic, Highway Chile, Stone Free, Castles Made of Sand. His reaction to a damaged childhood was to retreat from closeness into an embrace of temporary warmth. He deliberately created the harem of groupies, the endless “good bye girls”, the invitations back to the studio for whole posses of club buddies — that this environment was wearing, dangerous and interfered with his more overt and less psychological desires in life was something he ultimately recognised. At the time of his death Hendrix was speaking of leaving New York and returning to his community of friends in London, of returning to his manager Chas Chandler, had brought Billy Cox a long-time friend on board — a core was being sought.

In the case of Cobain, a similarly (if not more) disrupted youth and family destroyed the core. Cobain, however, sought permanency in a small number of tight relationships — he was never the social butterfly nor the promiscuous presence that Hendrix was — whether the four years with his first real girlfriend, the regular presence of Melvins throughout his career, Krist Novoselic. Post-fame, he tried to reconstitute a core around Courtney Love, around family, something Hendrix rejected as a restriction. Cobain, however, suffered the same unwillingness to confront his own destructive elements that meant, while rejecting his band mates and other former friends, he retained drug buddies, struck up new drug connections and left the door open to them; the ultimate indication of the appalling nature of his connections is the tale in Charles Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven in which his new key associates drag an overdosing Kurt Cobain out into his car because they don’t want him found dead on their property, he isn’t even dead yet and already the commercial and parasitic nature of the connection is clear. Hendrix, for all his ‘safety moves’ always left the door open to sexual temps.

In Hendrix’s case there’s the, very common, inability to tell the difference between people who might be fun for a drink, for a single night out, but who will absorb energy, distract from one’s ambitions and desires, drag one into their business rather than helping you with yours — Hendrix seemed unable to recognise the need for a core and deserves criticism for it. Cobain, by contrast, was more in tune with a conservative desire to rebuild ‘home’ but, crucially, did so around people who were more attuned to his worst habit (drugs) than his best (creativity) — again, he deserves a touch of censure for it.

On a regular basis, I see people upset by people who should never have been more than casual acquaintances, sharing personal information or access with those who are great fun to be around but shouldn’t be trusted with the substance of life — heck, I’ve seen thefts, pregnancies, the odd act of violence, general tears and mayhem on this basis. It’s nothing special. But if you look at your life and can’t see the three tiers of contact then it’s very hard to let the right ones in or keep the wrong ones out…

…Addendum. This isn’t a manifesto for distrust or mistrust. It’s a suggestion that clear sight, a degree of actual thought about one’s connections, should enrich and reinforce one’s significant ties. Can one tell in advance which are which? I’d suggest it depends on one’s own intentions to some degree, but if you’re looking for people who are going to be good to you, yup, I’m pretty sure there are pointers — just always be ready to be surprised for good or ill.