Have I said this already somewhere? Over the past two years as I’ve paid out my evenings in endless Nirvana working – the 50 hour working week followed by 20-30 Nirvana hours – I’ve found myself asking daily whether all this work is an exploitation of something I love or a celebration? Have I stayed on the right side of the line, behaved with integrity, fairness, honesty, decency? I’m fully aware that ultimately others decide that – it’s why I’m so pleased in one sense when people call me out on something, challenge me, argue against me – if people didn’t do so I fear becoming immune to reality, unable to even consider that I might be screwing up. Of course it’s pretty crucial in life that one put away the questions ultimately and make a leap into action – without justifying amorality or a refusal to recognise the moral consequence of a choice.
Given that awkward combination I’d have to say I adore the artwork Soul Jazz have chosen for the “No Seattle” compilation. Why? Well, genuinely, I had nothing whatsoever to do with it so it came as a surprise to me – it’s intelligent, nuanced, affectionate, funny, vicious…What a combination – complexity writ large as the packaging to a compilation that I’ve said all along is about restoring a bit of complexity to the overly simplistic picture that claims all the late Eighties-early Nineties in State of Washington was about is Grunge. Each image introduces something new.
So. I felt uncomfortable when I first saw the front cover – and that’s a true compliment given I’m rarely moved by album art. The cover brought me face-to-face with my dilemma; when is doing honour to a memory taking advantage of it? The cover is, of course, a parody of the long-since clichéd and over-used “Nevermind” cover. But no…It’s more. It’s a raspberry being blown underwater by a puffy cheeked youngster. For a start it’s funny – it’s said in many a book that people underrated how funny grunge was, how funny the bands involved were and how much fun and humour there was in that scene. The photo foregrounds that more casual fun right there on the cover. Nice to see some irreverence rather than the po-faced and funereal weight that period often comes attached to (mea culpa, I’m as guilty as anyone on that score.) Of course, look closer and you’ll see sweet young thing ain’t sweet no more – touch of stubble maybe? Acne perhaps? Freckles for sure… Awww, the smooth-skinned lil’ blonde is long long gone…Time has moved on and we’re looking back at something warts n’ all. Idea shown in an image – I’m the inferior in trying to tell you about something that a single picture captured so well.
That raspberry fits the image for the whole release – “Forgotten Sounds of the North West Grunge Era” – raspberry blown at the whole damned cultural baggage wrapped around it, an expelling of the near-religious veneration of a long dead man of just 27 years of age, moving on, moving on, celebrating what else was there – a pool party, something entertaining. Going deeper under the surface – finding what else lies there. In the case of the Pacific North West – a ton of really good bands like Thrillhammer, Shug, Machine or Kill Sybil. It’s appropriate and using an image that has been cheapened by magazines and media with not even the slightly respect for the North West music scene…It’s nice to bring it on home to people who deserve it.
The back cover contains a visible camera lens – a mouth swallowing the image. Yeah, I’m thinking too much maybe but there’s a reason that image is there; someone at Soul Jazz decided that what we were trying to escape was the over-sold banner of “grunge” so chose an image that suggests it was less a musical reality and far more a well-marketed convenience, a media lens not a god-honest-truth we were receiving undiluted and uncontrolled. The black surround blots out everything except what the photographer has chosen to focus on – now tell me that’s not the entire tale of North West guitar music in its media heyday? The reality eaten by an open mouth devouring all – the selective truth that was stuck in front of the camera and snapped until it drowned. Again, “No Seattle” was a release Stuart and Steve at Soul Jazz spoke of as trying to capture what else was going on, drawing in the lost and forgotten – that back image sums up “No Seattle” not in the central picture but in the black surround – it’s that blackness we’re looking to see what bands were there, what fun songs and tunes to be discovered.
The couple on the back cover though, again, another contrast with the original underwater picture anyone who knows anything about Nineties music can conjure inside their head in a heart-beat – go on, you know the one, baby – fish hook – dollar – dick. Here, it’s suddenly clear that far from repeating Spencer Elden’s immortalised penis, his foregrounded and clear masculinity, we’re looking at a girl. More so, far from 1991’s innocent and exposed nakedness, this child covers up, protected with goggles, hair net – there’s no innocence now, Seattle-Grunge is it even possible to mention the words without ending up hooked to the cavalcade of sales and marketing that spewed out during those years? Again, I’m brought back to my own self-criticism; I am fully aware that acknowledging the legacy and exposure Nirvana has given to an entire scene makes it easy for kneejerk accusations of taking advantage to be made. They’re unavoidable. Well, I’ve got my swimwear on, ear plugs-and-goggles, I’m ready to hear those who want to call bullshit. And I’m ready to defend too; there are twenty-three bands here who were kicking out a joyous noise to the heavens back when I was a pre-teen soaking up my Transformers the Movie Official Soundtrack – that’s what this release is celebrating, a fertile and lost web of creativity from which certain individuals were snatched and well done to them!
The thumbs up intrigued me…Again, I think it’s a wise choice. Even on the surface detail – it’s a positive, warm and celebratory gesture rekindling the happiness of the North West scene where all these friends and colleagues mingled, partied, played, collaborated. The release at least catches a sliver of that – I think it’s possible to link near every band on the release and usually not just through the Nirvana lens acknowledged in the middle. The big thumbs up carried a darker thought for me – again, a reason why I’m impressed with the art – in that I think it clearly said shows neither participant in the photo unaware of the moment in the way the baby was in 1991. Let’s face it, the underground sold up two decades back, we’re all here in 2014, some twenty-three years later and there isn’t much more than a pretence of resistance to the dollar on a fish-hook. The mainstream music culture reverted to type and now doesn’t care about questions of integrity so long as everyone claims they’re having a good time, shouts about a party over and over to numbness – the point of the cover of “Nevermind” wasn’t that the baby was going to refuse the dollar, it was just how deep was that hook going to go when the baby caught hold? The two figures bend their knees in submission to something that’s pretty inevitable – we live in a culture with money as the medium of exchange and we all need a bit of it to live and to create. The compromise, the bent knee, is not something resisted, it’s just something where we choice how low we bow, what for and when. The child grew up so self-aware; thumb raised in acknowledgement that we should worry, it’s a choice and she knows what she’s doing. Again, kudos Soul Jazz for making me think about the artwork so well – and heck, I darn hope the release sells because I think they do great work which deserves supporting and I think the bands deserve a day in the sun too! I reckon it’s worth more than a few dollars.
I think it means something that the child is accompanied by an adult by the way – this is all the music people made in their wild youth and now they mostly have kids of their own, people to care for. That’s no disgrace, it’s a glory – everyone gets a few second lives, a few repeats and new beginnings. And it doesn’t have to be a conflict, sometimes it’s a pleasure. That’s a happy photo on the back of two people safe n’ happy. Must be a lot of people these same bands inspired in the past to copy their “hell yeah!” thumbs up and just play, make some noise! Do something! The adults on this release can look back with pride on their own youth and simultaneously have a few art babies copying their gestures too.
The image on the CD and inside the back cover took my breath away. The light, shade, turquoise water, crystal eyes and blonde hair – it’s a simply beautiful photo. No qualifications for once, no deeper thought – it’s just beautiful. In amid the thoughtfulness, the knowingness, the sarcasm and parody there’s something of beauty. Darn straight! It’s called the music – and here it is as an image. For all the observation, the looking at the outside all I’d say is it’s about overcoming doubt and qualification and opening this up to see what’s on the inside – and I see beauty in the music on this release. I’m so glad they chose to use such a variety of participants for this release. The child is near androgynous beauty – no gender, I think a girl which would be another neat lil’ kicker in that it’s concealed on the back to some degree and exposed inside. I think there was a sore gender imbalance in what the mainstream bought from Seattle and the North West. For a scene that contained so many kick-ass girls and female-fronted bands and female participants it’s a tragedy record companies only bought the boys with the lank hair…There wasn’t a quota to the release, no ‘gender bar’, but I was satisfied with the way the end line-up shared a lot more space boy-friends, girl-friends, just FRIENDS! Everyone in together – good. Now that is a far more truthful picture than was ever drawn.
Then again, there’s one last trick isn’t there? Oh the horror, the horror…Could they have chosen a child that looked any more like a young Kurt Cobain? So, returning to the daily question I shared at the start of this night time composed ramble…I think work inspired by the love of music that Nirvana gifted to me so many years ago, I tend to come back to a few lines of a song. I like the lines for not denying compromise, failure, the need to constantly and repeatedly re-examine and re-judge oneself but for clenching teeth and finding the courage to go forward though I wince at the accusatory last line unless aiming it at myself. Minor Threat “In My Eyes” is one heck of a call-to-arms:
“You tell me that nothing matters / You’re just fucking scared…You tell me that I make no difference / Well at least I’m fucking trying / What the fuck have you done?”