Archive for the ‘Nick’s Philosophies on Nirvana’ Category

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.


“…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.

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.

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…

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.

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.

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.