Memory Lane: Nirvana Exhibition London 2011

A year ago Brick Lane, London hosted a really neatly done exhibition consisting of relics from the sainted Kurt Cobain, photographs, a showing of the (then) not-quite-released Live at the Paramount film and even an anorak/hoody that used to belong to the man.

I made a special trip across town to catch it (and foolishly ended up sinking cash in the record shop across the street too) and strolled a while. It was a moderate sized gallery space with an upper mezzanine floor. Very classy, typical Brick Lane combination of trash/flash.

My major problem was knowing how to react to it all. Standing in front of Kurt Cobain’s hoody I wondered if I was meant to feel a proximity to the man himself, or to appreciate his ordinariness, or take it as a clear statement that he was gone and these remnants were in some way feeble. A shard from a guitar made me think of medieval pilgrims travelling miles to touch alleged chunks of Christ’s cross. The organizers had done a great job, the back room was packed with people watching the concert on a big screen, people meandered studying the photos…

…And I left. The problem was me. I admired the photography, it was nice to see the posters and other pieces…I still felt like I often do at art exhibitions, slightly blank. I seem to need a story line presented, a context given underneath/alongside an image or sculpted item before I can connect.


Break In at Frances Bean Cobain’s Home

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana used their fame to fight sexism, racism and homophobia. They berated audience members who would grope girls in concert; they kissed live on one of America’s biggest TV shows; they gave performances in support of these causes; he gave an exclusive interview to The Advocate magazine and was delighted by Pansy Division’s affectionate cover Smells Like Queer Spirit. This was a band determined to tell people that no one has the right to invade another’s right to privacy or to use fear and intimidation to impose one’s will upon them.

Which is why the news of a break-in at the home of Frances Bean Cobain is so disturbing:

It’s a horrendous incident; the invasion of one’s home, of one’s place of safety is deeply traumatic for anyone. The added elements, the potential murder plot plus the link to a father one last seen when not even aged two, makes it worse.

Yet one thing that is clear, no one who had absorbed the music of Nirvana and had any respect for the band’s social/political opinions would believe they had the right to commit such an act. This man was sick, psychologically disturbed, dangerous…But not a Nirvana fan. The definition of a fan is (variously) “a devotee”, “a supporter”, “an admirer” — for someone to claim an identification with Kurt Cobain or Nirvana and then to act so much against the spirit of the individuals concerned refuses him entry to the community of fans.

As a wider question, there’s always an unsettling relationship between bands and their audiences. The (excellent) Nirvana Live Guide website records numerous incidents during the 1993 In Utero tour of Nirvana stopping shows to prevent male audience members groping unwilling girls in the crowd. Nirvana were certainly sensitive to this issue, look at the liner notes from Incesticide in which Kurt Cobain demands that anyone homophobic, sexist or racist “leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

But a band doesn’t get to dictate who likes its music. An audience does get to declare a band’s behavior beyond the pale via its power to give or withhold support. It’s also good that fans don’t slavishly follow the often dim-witted and thoughtless behavior of artists. Maybe the answer is to separate being a fan of a band or an individual from being a fan of their music? Declaring oneself a fan of Nirvana’s music means one likes the music. Declaring oneself a fan of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana means one shares many of their views and identifies with their positions. If one wants to be a true fan of Nirvana, not just a consumer of their catchy tunes, then there must be actions to back it up. Words are not enough.

As a final comment on the incident at Frances Bean Cobain’s home I’ll turn to an old Calvin n’ Hobbes cartoon: “a man’s home is his castle, it shouldn’t have to be a fortress.” The same goes for the home of any woman.

Nirvana Reunion?

It’s always been a pleasure noting that the end of Nirvana didn’t sever the friendship between its surviving members. Over recent years Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl have been spending musical time in one another’s company while Pat Smear (Nirvana’s second guitarist during the In Utero tours) rejoined Foo Fighters on a permanent basis.

Things like this have led to rumors of, and calls for, a ‘reunion’ of Nirvana. I use the quote marks deliberately because with a project so centered around the output of a single individual there’s no way some kind of performance could qualify as a reunion.

I’d be perfectly happy to hear the band back together pumping out the music — for two generations of fans it’d be the closest we could come to experiencing Nirvana and the appeal is obvious. But I’m not sure I can see anyone taking over Cobain’s vocals. It isn’t that there aren’t candidates who could mimic the style; and it isn’t that there aren’t individuals who would have a certain legitimacy in the role…

…But that’s the point. It’d be a role, theatre not authenticity. To take songs as loaded with personal pain and experience as the catalogue of Nirvana and replay them as pantomime, no matter how skilled the performer, would be hard to swallow. Kurt Cobain was a singer who used to shred his voice on stage as he tried to push as much power and emotion out as he could. For anyone else to take his words, even if willing to put in that same all-out spirit, it’d only be mimicry. Losing your voice for someone else’s song would make it a quality rendition, a heartfelt effort at showing respect, but still just a good cover of the original. In the context of a performance draped in the identity of a long dead band no amount of effort would allow the performer to truly possess the song — it’d always be a tribute and a facsimile and nothing more.

Foo Fighters performing Nirvana songs or some regrouping of Nirvana’s survivors would be worth a watch. Also these guys — consummate performers one and all — have a legitimate right to perform the songs they helped create and bring to the world. But a piece is missing. It’d still lose the earnest emotion at its centre. Best to adopt a different name, make it something independent and different, to be enjoyed without the feeling that it’s a cash in on an identity. It would also clear up any questions if they could simply say “we’re not Nirvana, we’ll never be Nirvana again…But we love these songs, they’re a part of us and we wanted to perform them again.” That’s not unreasonable and it’d be a pleasure to listen.

Heart Shaped Box: The Musical Kurt and Courtney

This week Courtney Love’s co-manager revealed, under oath during a lawsuit, that Courtney is considering a musical of her life with Kurt Cobain. The immediate reaction from the world media was a combination of disbelief and yet more commentary on Courtney’s eccentricity. In the interests of playing Devil’s advocate, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad?
Taking their tale apart there’s certainly a substantial quantity of drama that could be woven into a stage production — first meetings, drug bonding, beach wedding, Vanity Fair controversy, Kurt Cobain’s suicide threat at the time of Frances Bean’s birth, fights in Rio, all the way to Rome, Police attending the couple in Seattle, the drug intervention, last call and curtain close. A writer of quality would need to work out how to organize this into a properly structured plot but that’s a minor item to overcome. Likewise perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard to soundtrack each spell of their existence to a Nirvana tune — so long as one didn’t rely on lyrics matching on-stage action. Perhaps this combination of music and events could work?
Ugh…Who am I kidding? Yes, something could be done, but only in the sense that any idea could theoretically happen with money and will behind it. That still doesn’t make the idea of Kurt n’ Courtney: The Musical (A.K.A. Heart Shaped Box: The Musical) one that appeals. Green Day’s musical production of American Idiot gained credibility due to the band’s direct involvement. It also helped that it wasn’t tackling a true-life event that still carries emotional weight. Green Day have a playful, non-serious reputation also that meant critics and fans alike gave them the benefit of the doubt when the idea first emerged — it sounded like fun.
The musical life and death of the Cobain marriage really doesn’t appeal. It’s a plot arc retold only as a tragedy, one not lending itself to the fluffy uplifting style of a musical. The intended audience also seems unclear; if aimed at serious Nirvana fans then it fails to account for how horrified most Nirvana fans will be to see the band taken so lightly; if aimed at the average lover of musicals then is the unpretentious, un-melodramatic and unglamorous music of Kurt Cobain really what they would want to see? It seems a risky commercial proposition.
To emphasize, the only audience that would care about the life of Kurt and Courtney are precisely the audience who would find the topic far too sensitive a subject to be treated as a musical. I admire originality, of course, there’s not been a musical rendition of Elvis, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix — but sometimes maybe the reason something hasn’t happened is for very good reasons.
I would happily read a Courtney Love memoir, her interviews and public statements have always been entertaining, intelligent, edgy and sharp. I can’t conceive of feeling the same sympathy if the tale was presented as a grunge Grease. A simple play, rather than a musical, might feel a little more appropriate — perhaps that’s all that’s meant by ‘a musical’? The music of Kurt Cobain would drift in the background as the story played out; no need for the cast to batter anyone with lung power.
There’s no denying there’s a story worth telling; it’s all a question of how. I don’t see evidence of Courtney having committed many sins against the memory of Nirvana. As a result I have faith that this will all turn out to be a lot of media foaming concealing a far less egregious truth.