Archive for the ‘Other Bands and Nirvana’ Category

This piece came to me via a gentleman called Shane Tutmarc – great-grandson of a gentleman who is both a significant part of music history AND of Seattle music history simultaneously, Paul Tutmarc (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tutmarc). It’s a quite dramatic reworking of Aneurysm on which he plays all the instruments. I think it’s a brilliant move the way the song commences with what sounds like an old school blues rhythm, the kinda thing Jessica Rabbit might croon over only to open it up rapidly to a far tenser and uncomfortable build made up first of just an omninous bass, then the minor key strings before eventually roaring into the Aneurysm chorus which, despite the lighter tone of the backing, is impossible to detach from the surrounding creepy elements. Stabbing piano keys and the rising strings give that sense that a climax is being reached, it’s the point where the axe might come through the door or the shadow is traced on the shower curtain.

The treated vocals continue this uncanniness. I wondered at first if it was a remix of Cobain’s own vocals but recognise now it isn’t. The uncanny, a core horror concept (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny) is centred on the idea of things that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar which is why the subtle deviation from the original vocals is such an effective touch.

Aneurysm was built on rock and roll cliches (“come on over and do the twist,” “love you so much,” etc.) but the cleverest touch was the way it then warped each one (“…overdo it and have a fit,” “…it makes me sick…”) turning it into a joke, a refusal, a sardonic parody. The song’s other great strength (I think it’s one of Cobain’s finest lyrical efforts) is the way it turns every emotional statement into a physical symptom – whether love meaning he brings up his guts, keeps his heart pumping – and each act into a biological concept – dancing leads to a epileptic episode, even the use of the cliche “shoot the shit” looks deliberate given it ends with the human physical output – shit. For such a short, mantra like and repetitious song, it was clogged with cleverness. As has been pointed out a million times, yes, the ‘she’ of the song and an awful lot of the phrasing could be considered as heroin references. This kinda multi-layered composition, conducted in a song with really only six different lines to it, is a great case for Cobain was an astronomically good writer.

This revision of the song is remarkably true to the original in these respects. Stripping it even further to a smaller cluster of repetitions is effective. Altering the voice remains true to the sense of human physicality derailed. Also, while Cobain’s lyrics walked a careful line between rock n’ roll cliche and impassioned believer statements – this song does it musically. The musical choices shift between night club tunes and modern ecstasy while soundtracking an uncomfortable tale of heroin, physical collapse, love and discomfort. The video is crucial here, this isn’t just a film soundtrack, but the film and the interpretation are so well integrated – the film brings the physical concept to the fore, it brings the ‘horror’ element to the fore, it has a physicality that a cartoon or modern CGI effort couldn’t match – the jerky quality of this work benefits the overall unsettled emotion and bodies.

I think musically it’s managed the impressive feat of taking the song in an apparently fundamentally different direction while remaining surprisingly true to the original warping of potentially traditional themes; visually it’s hammered in the crucial kinetic element of the original; and Shane’s managed – overall – to combine the elements present in a remarkably strong way where each reinforces and is mutually dependent on the others to create the overall effect. Impressive.

Anyways, enough of my prattling. Shane kindly gave me some time to describe a little more of his work and what was done here so I’ll let him speak for himself:

“I come from a very musical family going back to my great-grandfather, Paul Tutmarc, who has been credited with inventing the electric guitar. His son, my grandfather Bud Tutmarc, was a well-known Hawaiian Steel Guitar player, and both my parents played music around the house growing up. My favorite movie in kindergarten was Amadeus, so music was always a big part of my life. I remember singing melodies to my mom around that age to have her notate on sheet music so she could play it back to me. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making some sort of music. After discovering Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, I immediately started a band. There was something about Kurt’s music and attitude that made me feel I could do it too. Looking back, I feel so lucky that I was able to grow up in Seattle during that pivotal time in music.

I’ve explored so many different avenues over the years, and each release becomes the “highlight” of each era. From 2001 – 2005, I released five experimental pop records under the moniker Dolour. After a short sabbatical from music, I dug into American roots, country and blues, with Shane Tutmarc & the Traveling Mercies, releasing two albums back-to-back. I went even further down that path with my first solo album, Shouting At A Silent Sky in 2009. Since moving to Nashville in 2010 I’ve worked on a number of projects, including last year’s trio of covers, which includes Aneurysm. I wanted to choose a song that was slightly off the beaten path. I’ve always loved the tongue-in-cheek humor in the lyrics, “Come on over and do the twist,” and the very-Cobain line, “I love you so much it makes me sick.” I started messing around with the arrangement using only midi sounds. There are no real instruments on the recording. The intro has a very Twin Peaks vibe. I was re-watching the show at the time, and the soundtrack definitely crept into the arrangement. And I went with a sort of Michael Jackson Thriller groove on the verses. I made the connection with the background vocals being “beat it, beat it.” Growing up in Seattle, people rarely covered Nirvana songs, it felt too sacred, or it carried too much baggage. But with this cover, it was a joy to take the song completely out of its original context, and reintroduce it in a fresh way.

I don’t remember how I first saw the short film, I used to work at a record store and was always taking home weird art DVDs, and that’s probably where I first came across it. In any case, I remembered it once I had the song finished, and I tracked it down again, and it was a perfect fit. It reminded me a lot of Kurt’s style of art, like the Incestiside album cover.

I sent the video to my brother, with extensive notes of where to make the cuts, and I’m really happy with what we ended up with. My brother Brandon and I have always collaborated. He’s been involved with my web and design projects since my early days with Dolour. He did the artwork for Dolour’s 3rd album, New Old Friends, and has had a hand in every project I’ve done since then. He’s just so fast and easy to work with. I’m sure it helps that we know each other so well, and know the same references. You can see more of his work at his website:

http://www.brandontutmarc.com

Living in such an active music city as Nashville, I’ve been able to get involved in so many different areas of music – from playing shows, co-writing, producing other artists, playing with other artists, etc. Currently I’m finishing up producing a record for Tanya Montana Coe, which should be released later this year. And I plan to start recording a new album of my own in the next month.
To keep up with me, check:

http://www.facebook.com/ShaneTutmarc
http://www.shanetutmarc.com

Advertisements

Gosh, has it really been a month since I was working on this? Darn…Sorry…Sorry…

A diversion today though, wanted to look at Melvins’ Houdini record. I’d always noticed that commentary on Cobain’s involvement with the album is focused on his role/non-role on the production side with barely a mention made of the part he played as a musician on the release. I couldn’t help but want to satisfy my curiosity by grabbing a copy of the album and finding out why…

…Oh dear…It’s pretty obvious. The real story of Houdini, the real fun and drama, come from discussing the record company’s cynical behaviour – their determination to have the name ‘Kurt Cobain’ written on the record by any means necessary and to see if Melvins’ association with Nirvana could be turned, at the peak of Nirvana’s fame, into success for their own artist. I’d have to admit though that a lot of albums never make money I can understand a label executive wanting to exploit the very clear and visible connection between their ‘token grunge band’ and the world’s biggest group – it’s logical, it’s sensible, it’s helpful. Melvins’ status at the time is also fascinating, this was a pretty drug-addled time and examining the album, it’s not bad but there’s definite filler compared to their most glorious excursions. Thing is, for Cobain’s name to be exploited in this way he had to agree to it – his instinct to support his friends, coupled with the fact that it’s fair to say that in the early days he’d made use of his Melvins’ connections and owed them to some extent for early breaks, meant he was happy to involve himself despite there being no apparent evidence of him being interested before in the mechanics of recording beyond asking for a particular sound and a producer fulfilling the desire as best they could. Similarly the mood is visible in the way the relationship between Melvins and the production staff broke down a touch, you can see it in the way that Jonathan Burnside – an experienced producer who’d worked on several other Melvins’ albums and releases – was relegated to ‘engineer’ in the credits when it’s become very obvious that Cobain certainly was not producing in any active sense. Melvins also had to join in with the urge to use Cobain’s presence for commercial purposes. Buzz Osbourne has stated he wanted Cobain there for inspirational purposes and so forth – yeah? Let’s just check, Kurt Cobain had been a presence in the life of Melvins for some ten years by that point but suddenly he was wanted as a collaborator? Alas, hate to say it, but I think it’s more likely that just as Melvins’ arrival on a major label was tied directly to Nevermind’s explosion, the arrival of Cobain in an amorphous and vague role on Melvins’ first major label record was simply a knowing desire to try to keep the label happy and gain some commercial glitter. Nothing wrong with that, useful to have a rock star friend.

Did I say filler earlier? That’s where the Cobain contributions come in; Cobain is given a credit for playing on two songs – Spread Eagle Beagle and Sky Pup. What that involvement amounts to is participation in Melvins’ very own Moby Dick (a la Led Zeppelin.) Spread Eagle Beagle is a lengthy percussion piece that doesn’t feel the desire to go anywhere in a hurry. Lulls at about five minutes and ten minutes – where the drums give way to the light rumbling of what sounds like a steel sheet then the patter of drum sticks being rubbed – almost count as moments of tension simply because so little happens. I’m a fanatic for unusual noise records, for a certain quantity of extremity, but this doesn’t have the same momentum Melvins lent to something like their collaboration with Lustmord – it’s just ten minutes of relatively static thudding, little intricacy or drama. On live bootlegs of Nirvana sometimes you’ll hear for a few seconds the drummer warming up, clattering a few drums before the start of an actual song, just setting the beat and waiting for his comrades to join in…This feels like Melvins playing those few seconds ad infinitum, over and over, while everyone else is too busy nodding out to join in. It could be a joke – that they’ve tagged this nothingness onto the end of a real record in which case it’s a bit sad because Melvins have always managed to be whimsical, experimental, out for just trying things and seeing what might happen – without creating ‘nothing.’

There are several sources within the song. First, a drum kit keeping up a solid heavy thump in the middle, a consistent zing of bent metal that echoes accentuates or follows certain moments in the main rhythm, a separate and far lighter set of accents is being added by a separate drum kit occasionally echoing the main rhythm while a further piece of equipment producing something like the sound of a light switch or thin stick being hit on the edge of a drum – a whip sound – sometimes intervenes. The rhythm is fairly unvarying – the pauses give me the impression of active improvisors pausing to look one another in the eye before a change of direction…Except the direction doesn’t change. The ‘song’ pauses then simply proceeds in pretty much the same manner as it had been. There’s a change up at about six minutes in to a far denser drumming with each instrument gradually rising up for the next couple minutes and the pace picking up while still amounting to little more than a swifter clatter.

For evidence of Cobain’s continued collaborative or creative impulses in the 1993-1994 period Spread Eagle Beagle isn’t the place to go. It’s impossible to tell what contribution he made, there’s no way of teasing out a signature sound or anything identifiably Cobain-esque. In a way that’s perhaps what makes me smile widest because, if I was being generous and clever-clever, I’d suggest that the anonymity of Cobain’s presence is precisely the point. The album’s own merits were being overshadowed by the mere presence of an (unwilling) global superstar. Whatever Melvins did on the album, the label were far more concerned with just plastering Cobain’s name on it. Cobain himself undoubtedly knew that he was helping friends but simultaneously that he was being exploited due to his fame and that it wasn’t just ‘helping friends’, it was also supporting the label people suggesting and coaxing them into it…These are musicians, while most people simply say what they feel is wrong/right, musicians can comment via music, via performance. What Melvins create at the end of the album, was a graffitti track stating “yes, Kurt woz ‘ere” at the same time as it makes him completely invisible, a cipher, a name, nothing more. They’d erased him from the track even as they satisfied their bosses that they’d included him. Great! Doesn’t mean I necessarily am going to listen to the track often even if it potentially says much about the circumstances of the album. Buzz Osbourne’s apparent resentment/irritation with Cobain’s posthumous status perhaps has roots in this kind of moment where Melvins’ own achievements are pushed to one side in favour of their friend’s commercial cachet. Understandably annoying.

So what of Sky Pup where Cobain was coaxed into handling a guitar? Hmm. Perhaps this feels disrespectful but in the songs four minute duration the usual heavyweight chug of Melvins at full pelt is stripped back to a pretty jazzy bass/drums duet which works neatly, but the guitar is missing in action. Oh, no wait! There it is. There’s a repeating sequence during the early minute or so of the song – I was aware that this was Cobain on a right-handed guitar with Buzz Osbourne manipulating the peddles but then it dissolves to a low-in-the-mix watery sounding diarrhea that eventually becomes nothing more than drain noises for the rest of the song matched against some vocal chokes and coughs and ad-libbed squarks. I was hoping to say more about it but there really isn’t anything there to comment on. Apparently Cobain handed the guitar back as rapidly as possible – there’s no indication that this was a live jam, it sounds like a recording of the guitar was mixed in later with the rest of the band playing over the top. I wouldn’t even be surprised if that introductory semi-riff was looped after the fact or if the same minute or two was reused throughout most of the song. There’s some kind of a solo from about 1.50 through around 2.30 then a skeletal 25 seconds in which the finger positions move back-and-forth a couple of times without achieving anything much. There’s a hint of Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol’s spindly moments at that point but it makes the latter Nirvana jam look like gold-dust by comparison (I really like Gallons I admit.)

The most crucial reason that the two Cobain contributions stand out is simply that everything else on the album actually sounds like a Melvins’ song. This is a cohesive and coherent album if one erases Sky Pup and deletes the ten minute marathon finale. That final track simply feels like a band low on inspiration needing to get the song up to some kinda contractually mandated run-time though, in tone, it at least feels consistent with the album as a whole. Sky Pup is a mid-album interlude adding neither a pause for breath nor an intriguing switch to leftfield – it doesn’t sound like it belongs on the same album as the other tracks. It’s a remarkable commentary really – to make the interloper stand out so prominently on the album that it’s clearly the thing that simply didn’t fit into what the Melvins were doing with the Houdini album prior to the intervention of major labels and the potential cash bonanza.

Anyways, a good album…If one deletes Sky Pup and Spread Eagle Beagle.

Let’s get the easy bit out of the way straight-up; I’m not speaking about comparing the ethics of either band, I’m not running back over the points of comparison between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain as products of the white rock-loving underclass nor as enemies of industry business-as-usual. I feel there are interesting ways to look at the two bands as rock industry phenomena.

Guns n’ Roses back catalogue has been kept trimmed to the bone; outside of the core four albums there’s the lean eight track stop-gap Lies from 1989, there’s 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident? covers compilation, after that we’re onto the record label desperately trying to claw money out of the band via the Live Era ’87-’93 release and the inevitable Greatest Hits. Digging around on the official single releases yields a cover of Whole Lotta Rosie, a live cover of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a demo of Don’t Cry, Shadow of your Love and some live tracks. Similarly, on bootlegs, on YouTube, there’s barely a shred left of the original band; a lot of live covers, some appalling recordings like That’s Something, Crash Diet, Cornshucker, Just Another Sunday…A few more pieces from the last decade and a half edition…Then some early demos that all sound like they were recording from beneath a duvet.

That’s not necessarily a criticism. If audio fidelity and quality are the issues that the Nirvana camp circa-1995 to 2013 have specified then they must envy the sheer force of will Axl Rose exercises in his unwillingness for anything that isn’t polished within an inch of its life to be seen. The Guns n’ Roses back catalogue has been sternly curated with no clutter of anniversary editions, bonus live discs, demo discs, single-gathering compilations or outtake sets. The point, however, is that the reality seems to be that there simply isn’t anything left to find from the 1985-1995 edition of Guns n’ Roses bar the most minor of scraps — they make Nirvana look profligate in terms of the amount of material that never made it onto a core release.

The second crucial point is that the relatively pristine nature of their back-catalogue, unlike that of The Stooges which we looked at yesterday, has mattered not a jot to the critical reputation of the band. It’s extremely hard, post-Nirvana, to find any great appreciation for the work of Guns n’ Roses. There’s plenty of kudos, particularly in hard rock magazines for Appetite for Destruction, but this never translates from a liking for the album into a liking for the band. There’s virtually no one willing to stand-up for the world-bestriding colossi status of Use Your Illusion I and II with their packed-to-the-gills approach — the most that gets said is a whiny regret that Guns n’ Roses didn’t release Appetite for Destruction Part Two. What matters is that by the time the latter two albums made it out in 1991, Guns n’ Roses had muddied their reputation, had been absent long years, had lost the pop market by showing themselves to be anything but. The nail in the coffin was then Nirvana declaring a band barely half a decade older to already be the sound of the reactionary past.

In terms of live activity, the table below shows the live statistics for Guns n’ Roses 1985-1994 iteration versus the path forged by Nirvana:

Comparison-Nirvana_vs_GnR

I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a similar collapse in performances the year after success had been achieved. It does put Nirvana’s fall into perspective — regardless of reasons, maybe it isn’t that unusual for a band to reach a peak of intensity and then retreat. Of course, if record labels were calling the shots then that’s precisely the point at which they would likely be trying to get bands out on the road for promotional reasons — these two bands did the opposite.

A further point of comparison is that there’s a similar pattern of releases which suggests a specific strategy at DGC when it came to wayward stars. In each case, the runaway success first major label album — Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind — was followed by the gap-filling b-side and extras compilation — Lies, Incesticide. It’s notable also that both those stop-gap releases specifically took aim at media interventions and criticisms of the bands and band members — at the very least it could be said that both bands hated scrutiny, however warranted or unwarranted. The overall approach though suggests a shrewd desire to buy time and/or take advantage of maximum point of success in the case of each act; perhaps DGC saw two bands who they weren’t entirely sure were going to survive long enough for a follow-up album?

A band who, tragically, have lost a lot of respect through the release schedule of the past thirty-five years is the Sex Pistols. The undeniable brilliance of their one and only album, the fact they defined punk and their lead singer was a figure of genuine originality who went on, with Public Image Limited, to bind together three albums that kicked-off and defined the post-punk era, none of it can overlook the discomfort when studying how they’ve approached music releases.

The damage commenced early thanks to Malcolm McClaren-fuelled randomness, with Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Sid Vicious cheerily going along with it all. The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, the associated singles (none of which feature anything interesting to a rarities collector), the Flogging a Dead Horse set, Some Product (consisting of interview snippets and adverts), Sex Pack (another re-compilation), — for at least the next decade and a half after the Sex Pistols’ demise the majority of associated releases were intermittently interesting at best.

That spell could have been forgotten given the legal situations and the open hatred among the surviving band members provided a legitimate reason to ‘start over’in the Nineties. The only problem being that the feeling of repetition set in fast. The Kiss This compilation succeeded only in scraping in a few of the single b-sides on top of the regular candidates. The Filthy Lucre Live tour of 1996 was a worthy venture but the audio document, like most live albums, wasn’t not of long-lasting entertainment value. Regular reissues of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols had already become a tradition every five years, the Jubilee set in 2002 was essentially worthless, the three-disc box-set that same year was pretty well the first and only truly essential post-break-up compendium of the band’s material. The thirty-fifth anniversary brought a listenable remaster, a few slivers of outtakes and a grand total of one unheard studio track; a Denmark Street rendition of Belsen Was a Gas with Johnny Rotten on vocals.

Around that, the flood of semi-official releases, the live bootlegs of variable to atrocious quality usually packaged with all the aplomb of cut-price supermarket own-brand soup. Essentially the waver-thin quantity of the Sex Pistols’ output left the 2002 box and the latest Super-Deluxe of Never Mind as the two sources covering everything the Sex Pistols laid to tape. Everything else is ephemera at best unless well-drilled but fuzzy repetitions of live hits keeps you entertained.

A further key issue was that the Sex Pistols’ knowing critique of music as commercial product, the repetition of a thirty-five year old joke about openly seeking to fleece the public and others, was a case of the skit, the story, forming the reality. It became hard not to see the entire Sex Pistols’ enterprise, post 1978, as a rip-off. Even the two well-intentioned releases mentioned above were hard not to look at with a cynical eye.

Nirvana certainly can be admired for avoiding what has been a fairly bargain-basin release schedule. Likewise, they’ve left a more substantial reservoir of leftovers than I’ve probably given them credit for given previous comparisons I’ve made have been to The Stooges and Jimi Hendrix — both apparently incontinent studio players. But then, the Sex Pistols were barely a band for more than two maniacal years, Nirvana kept it together a full seven. While I’ve certainly advocated further Nirvana outtake releases I’m certainly not desirous of seeing a lightly tweaked Nevermind emerging every half a decade. What I’d be interested in is the kinds of outtakes, alternative takes, early versions and test-runs that make up the majority of the material on the two major Sex Pistols post-death boxes.

This week I’ve been thinking about the bands who triumphed in the grunge wave. Essentially it was Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Hole who made it through before the door closed but the latter three bands have all had to deal in some way with the primacy and power of the first. It was only Hole, however, who deliberately and/or naively bonded their own efforts to that of Nirvana, the other two carved their own path and were unwillingly subjugated to the storyline of Nirvana as the uber-grunge band and the unwilling mainstream rockers.

The issue with Hole was always the same; Hole were whatever the underground zeitgeist said they should be but never at the right time. Their early recordings positioned them in the lineage of avant-rock/noise-rock bands with prominent female members (think Lydia Lunch, think Kim Gordon), but their high point, Live Through This, moved them into the alternative rock domain shared by their lead singer’s husband’s band, while their post-grunge album sidled ever closer to straight ahead shiny hard rock. The real flaw, however, was that they were permanently poor at hitting that zeitgeist at its peak potential. In their first incarnation they were too late for the Eighties noise-rock scene, the next wave of bands on the up were more closely embracing hard rock and the mainstream; Hole learnt and shifted focus but their 1994 identity (and the genuinely near perfect album they released in that guise) only hit at the moment when the grunge balloon was deflating; then in 1998 they went to the trouble of enlisting Smashing Pumpkins style rock just at the point where the Smashing Pumpkins were about to fall off into irrelevance – Hole were always one step too late.

Leaving aside questions around how much a role Nirvana/Kurt Cobain played in getting Hole signed to DGC, the more crucial component for this week’s discussion is that by becoming such a visible (and vocal) presence alongside Kurt Cobain, there was no way of separating from his achievements, from comparison to him and from a constant sharing of whatever limelight strayed their way. It’s another fair point of comparison that in the case of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, involvement with John totally obscured the fact that Yoko was a long established and significant presence in her own right within the avant garde art and music scenes. In the case of Courtney Love, she had paid her dues in various bands, learnt well, formed a quality band…And couldn’t ever speak of it without talk of ‘him.’

The merging of Kurt/Courtney/Hole was certainly something encouraged at the time; Courtney’s presence at Nirvana’s October 1992 Word of Mouth sessions, the partial-Hole presence at the January 1993 Brazil sessions, Courtney’s brief appearance at Pachyderm Studios in February 1993, Kurt joining Hole during their October 1993 recording sessions for Live Through This, Courtney’s presence at the MTV Unplugged show…They may have shared stages on only a few occasions but in terms of recording and making music it was Hole/Courtney all the way. Media appearances too changed, the Kurt/Courtney pairing was, from 1992, just as likely to appear in interview as any other combination of Nirvana (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/11/22/killing-nirvana-part-2/). It was this piece, speaking as a couple to those who broadcast and decide on the story, that turned Kurt and Courtney into a clichéd phrase and bonded them irrevocably in the public eye.

The years since the initial collapse of Hole have helped to reinforce this because Courtney’s musical inactivity led to her being known simply for being Courtney Love – the name always coming with the prefix/suffix “widow of Kurt Cobain/former wife of Kurt Cobain”. She’s lived her life since her late twenties as an appendage to a dead rock star. Just as Nirvana was, at its core, Kurt Cobain’s vehicle, Hole was Courtney’s and therefore, when she linked herself personally to him, it was impossible not to irrevocably tie the band to him too. It’s visible in the way the front cover of Hit So Hard, a documentary about Hole’s drummer, has a front cover where ‘Hole’ at the top and ‘Kurt Cobain’ at the bottom top and tail the list of key participants and where his name takes the most visible bottom-right corner position in huge letters.

While the bonding with Nirvana brought benefits – a lot of publicity and visibility that undoubtedly did play a role in influencing the bidding wars and high advances for Hole to join a major label – it meant ceding a degree of independence and it is that loss of freedom that is the ongoing fate of Hole; they’ll never be appreciated without reference to Nirvana, they’ll never be examined or remembered without a mention of Kurt Cobain, there’s no legacy of the band or place they’ve earned in rock history in which they’re not part of someone else’s story. That’s independent of having released three excellent albums one after the other.

It was remarkably indicative of the tight bond between Hole’s status circa 1994 and Kurt Cobain that Live Through This, an album that really did deserve its platinum sales and should be remembered as a triumph, came out on April 12, 1994. It therefore remains smudged in an indelible pall of crematoria smoke and psychic discomfort arising from his absent body. It’s how it should be, the band was bound to the fate of Kurt Cobain so the album by necessity should be stamped with his presence/absence. But for a band wanting to be recognised on its own merits this is the danger that results from riding the dominant storyline of an era; when it falls, so do you. Hole had sacrificed their own momentum to get a ride on the rocket to the top and it crashed down into the dirt before they had a chance to climb off and find their own way to stay aloft.

Hit so Hard

Tuesday we discussed Soundgarden, a band that was extracted from Seattle and inserted itself into the Californian alternative scene. Today we’re talking about Pearl Jam, a band that transplanted a California scene vocalist into a solidly Seattle band. In both cases, it wasn’t just Nirvana’s commercial success that impacted the trajectory and achievement of each band, it was the way Nirvana came to own a substantial part of the storyline of grunge and the North-West scene. With Soundgarden it was simply that the history of grunge became synonymous with the story of Nirvana so there was less space for a band that had left the grunge scene behind before Nirvana began their rise. With Pearl Jam their position became partly defined by the storyline announced by Nirvana’s leader himself.

The first time I listened to Pearl Jam must have been prior to July 1994 when I moved to Lincolnshire. A school friend, whose name quite escapes me now, was determined in his belief that Pearl Jam were Nirvana’s superior and lent me a double cassette bootleg of them live, I believe somewhere in Britain, sometime in the year/two years beforehand. I can still recall Even Flow making an impact, Jeremy, Alive…I remember nothing else; I stayed Nirvana side and we had an occasional play fight over the issue. Sometime between 1994 and 1998 someone lent me that collaboration with Neil Young the band did; I couldn’t take it. About ten years later I took a shot on the Rear View Mirror two CD greatest hits collection and traded it in having realised I liked the three songs mentioned earlier plus Spin the Black Circle. Yet this is a band I innately respect. They’ve walked a path away from fame and back into the underground, wilfully so and without regret. They’ve never let the twists of popular taste impact their specific musical inclination, a quality also present in Mudhoney. But, like Radiohead, they’re a band I can’t love, I can’t fall for.

Despite my personal tastes, however, and despite the plain (and well-attested) truth that Kurt Cobain didn’t like Pearl Jam, neither of those issues translates into genuinely believing Kurt’s more cruel statements about his rivals. Pearl Jam, again like Soundgarden, had extremely solid roots within grunge, far exceeding Kurt Cobain’s distant involvement; members of the band had helped initiate grunge via Green River, had been on the Deep Six compilation in 1986, on Sub Pop 200, were part of Mother Love Bone then the Temple of the Dog side-project – their credentials within grunge are impeccable and the primary influence they always claimed was fully paid-up awkward rocker Neil Young. Yet the way Kurt Cobain positioned them was as sell-outs, phoneys and fakes. Heck, according to Jeff Ament, a lover of basketball, “Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love talked trash about the fact that I hooped” – the guy couldn’t even play sport without being seen as the enemy.

It’s certainly true that the breach in Green River emerged due to the desire of the future Pearl Jammers to pursue a major label deal and Pearl Jam dived onto Epic at the end of 1990 with unseemly haste – but being caught up in the wave of alternative rock signings that commenced in 1988-1989 and became a flood in 1990-1991 doesn’t make Pearl Jam any different from numerous others…Including Nirvana. It’s that single point of comparison that seems most crucial.

The bands Kurt Cobain took issue with, Pearl Jam and Guns n’ Roses, were used as the representatives of two specific types of enemy; the macho opposition (i.e., sexist, racist, homophobic hair metal rock dudes) and the internal traitor (i.e., those who would sell out or mimic alternative rock sounds or styles for profit.) It’s a duality that clearly stuck in his mind because in the liner notes to Incesticide it’s the same combination he uses when he vents at “ the threatened man…traitor women”. In the case of Pearl Jam, however, without particularly enjoying their music I can’t see any great sign of the individuals concerned having committed any greater compromise with the corporate rock behemoths than Nirvana themselves though I can certainly acknowledge that Cobain associated sport with the macho jock types he hated also and that some of that personal dislike bled over into his attitude to Pearl Jam. In fact, what’s most plain about the comparison is that both accusations, that Pearl Jam were just traditional mainstream rock and/or that they’d sold out or taken advantage of an indie movement, were accusations that could be levelled at Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain, on a regular basis, tended to state the negatives about his own work, about his band and so forth as a defensive mechanism so that no one could voice a criticism without him being able to shrug and say “I already said that.” Being fair though, he was in an exceptional situation, one he had reached it within an unbelievably short space of time in terms of the rise from borderline-poverty to superstardom. It’s understandable that he required defences and ways of protecting himself – most of us aren’t asked, having compromised ourselves knowingly or unknowingly, to then speak to representatives of the media every few days or to then have our contradictions repeated back to us for analysis.

His reaction was certainly exceptional, for all his negativity about individuals who had harmed him personally – ranging from parents, to schoolmates and onwards – picking verbal battles with other musicians wasn’t a common move for Cobain. What I believe we’re seeing in his treatment of Pearl Jam in particular (as well as Guns n’Roses) is Kurt displaying a very ordinary rhetorical trick used by people to shield themselves from damage. Regularly, when people wish to deny the moral ambiguities they themselves recognise in their day-to-day living, will construct a sentence along the lines of “well it’s not like I’m/we’re dealing drugs/murdering people/abusing kids…” By setting up an absurd comparison while turning the gaze outward toward someone or something else, they nullify the chance to intellectually engage with the accusation they feel is being made and also escape having to make any honest and revealing commentary on their actions – the irrelevance of that other entity’s actions to discussion of their own (commenting on someone else’s sin doesn’t make one’s own sin lesser) doesn’t stop people needing the protection it affords to their sense of self.

This decision to avoid questions about his own band’s decision to play the corporate rock game, the choice to point accusingly at another band and state that they weren’t playing it honestly or with respectable intentions, dragged in fans and media creating a low key inquisition in which allegiances had to be pledged and Pearl Jam’s success became open to questions about its legitimacy, questions that were rarely asked of bands outside of the Milli Vanilli/Vanilla Ice categories of musician. Kurt Cobain’s access to the media and ability to make a story was so powerful that even in Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary celebration releases there was a need to address the controversy, it had become so major a piece of Pearl Jam’s history – all thanks to the word of one man.

Did he come to recognise that he had illegitimately harmed others for selfish reasons? Possibly. The Pearl Jam 20 material does focus on the happy endings, on Kurt and Eddie Vedder slow-dancing at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, on Kurt and Eddie in interviews declaring their respect for one another, on Eddie’s April 8, 1994 statement about how crucial Kurt Cobain had been to the new generation of musicians and their fans – in another source Kurt stated plainly “I’m not going to do that anymore…It hurts Eddie and he’s a good guy…He didn’t ask for this.” At the least he did manage to separate his disdain for the band’s music from personal attacks on the individuals involved but, again, as in the case of Soundgarden, the importance of Nirvana and/or the word of Nirvana influenced another band and how they are remembered. Such power…

Soundgarden are the grunge band that never really fit into the tales of late Eighties Seattle as it was written from the very late Eighties onward. It’s strange trying to wedge them in alongside Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Nirvana, et al., they don’t belong to the same wave of music philosophies or sounds. Yet this was a band recording demos in Bruce Pavitt’s basement as early as April 1985; who shoved three songs out on the 1986 Deep Six compilation alongside all the grunge originators; who managed a single and two EPs on Sub Pop (including two of the earliest catalog numbers in the Sub Pop discography); who contributed Sub Pop Rock City to the Sub Pop 200 compilation and, as late as 1991, kickstarted the Temple of the Dog tribute to the late legend Andrew Wood. They were grunge to the bone but at the peak of their fame were never really associated with that lineage; it was Nirvana who were the figure head for grunge, with Soundgarden therefore written up as a deviant strain of heavy metal.

This didn’t mean that straddling the lines didn’t win Soundgarden their successes; along with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, they’re one of the trio of Seattle/State of Washington bands who parlayed their way to multi-platinum sales. Yet it was very visible that this was a band who didn’t get nominated for the rock awards their colleagues were put in for. Instead they were nominated for a Grammy award for Best Metal Performance as early as 1990, again in 1992, again in 1995. It was only at this point in their history, with the grunge bubble firmly burst, that they finally managed to soften sufficiently (or the world had hardened enough) for a Best Hard Rock Performance nomination too to come their way.

That’s part of why the Nirvana/Soundgarden/late Eighties Seattle mix has felt so uncomfortable. Soundgarden toppled over from the garage rock and punk styling of bands like Mudhoney or early Nirvana right into the metal end of the spectrum; until the emergence of Earth as a force in avant-garde metal there isn’t another significant Seattle band who tilted so far that way. The band, despite its heritage, despite the many quirky and off-kilter aspects of its sound and identity and lyrical concerns, made its home in the metal world whereas the bands that followed and overtook them never went that far.

In terms of their sound, the band certainly drew far more firmly than their Seattle peers from the vocabulary of Seventies hard rock. For all the comparisons, none of the other bands had the technical ability to really pull off a Black Sabbath, let alone a Led Zeppelin, tribute barring the downtuning. Alongside that, while a lot of the Seattle crowd drew their vocal heritage from the likes of Iggy Pop and David Yow, Soundgarden had Chris Cornell channeling Robert Plant’s high-pitched vocalizing, a move straight out of the Eighties metal handbook. On both levels, despite the more graveled sound, Soundgarden acted as a musical bridge to the Guns n’ Roses of that world; later sharing a stage with them as a short-lived support act made a theoretical musical sense. Again, the vocals scored Soundgarden as different to their growling peers.

The band also, to some extent, blotted their reputation when it came to applying for entry to the ever-so-slightly holier-than-thou right-on politics of the early Nineties alternative rock boom. Soundgarden could perhaps be accused of having been a bit too clever, their parodying of mainstream rock clichés ended up sounding precisely like mainstream rock to those not looking deeply at the band’s attitudes and public statements. As examples, plans to call their first A&M album (Louder than Love) Louder than Fuck were well known at the time; a promo release (Louder than Live) featured the band playing Spinal Tap’s Big Bottom; while Big Dumb Sex just ended up sounding like a big dumb sex song; Full on Kevin’s Mum didn’t help — it all reinforced the mistaken vibe that this was just another swaggering rock band, even blatant jokes like having songs called 665 and 667 that could be played backwards to find a song about Santa as a parody of Christian fears about concealed messages on rock albums didn’t play so well.

Soundgarden’s parallel path can partially be explained by the reality that the narrative of grunge in popular literature and journalism was tied firmly to the story of Nirvana. While the two bands did share a stage once in 1988, the deep local heritage of Soundgarden still didn’t win them more than a tangential mention in the Nirvana tale. Soundgarden were grunge’s history by mid-to-late 1989 when grunge became something anyone in the world was mentioning. By 1992 they had moved far beyond it when the resurgence of interest in grunge took place with Nirvana’s smiley face stamped over the top.

That issue with the available accounts warping the perceived historical reality has continued; the medium rewrote the memory. The flurry of Nirvana tomes in the late nineties, the regular release schedule ever afterwards, these tales had little reason to acknowledge a band who had gone by the time the ‘heroes’ of the tale were on the rise. Soundgarden certainly had a place in the burst of grunge histories that started emerging around the end of the last decade but it was still Nirvana’s late appearance in the story of grunge that made for the cover images — book after book with a Nirvana/Kurt front cover despite the band’s rather late, and rather dilettantish, relationship with the grunge sound.

The timeline certainly makes a crucial difference. As Soundgarden had departed Seattle prior to Sub Pop’s brainwave of inviting over Everett True to report on the local scene, the band didn’t benefit from the wave of publicity and exposure in the British music press that formed some of the earliest readily available writing on grunge; Soundgarden had stopped being grunge just before the media started discovering grunge even existed. Similarly, their move away from the Seattle labels and onto SST, then all the way out to a major label, A&M, by end of 1988 divorced them from the premier purveyor of grunge right before Sub Pop began to truly gain exposure and notice — a commodity whose worth can be overstated given Sub Pop was nearly bankrupt until the Nirvana money began to flow.

By being on a major label from 1988, Soundgarden aligned themselves with the generation of alternative musicians who started to emerge prior to the explosion provoked by Nirvana’s Nevermind; Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers even (and yes, all owing a debt to the skuzzy vibe Guns n’ Roses had inaugurated). There was a geographic difference here too with Soundgarden rising in what was a wave of bands dominated by the State of California, not State of Washington. It’s no surprise that in joining the late Eighties version of the alternative Soundgarden lost a good chunk of the indie audience defining the agenda in Seattle at that point, and were never in step with the new alternative, a more explicitly punk-aligned alternative, that came of age just a couple of years later.

By 1994, in an interview with Metal Hammer magazine, father of the alternative nation, Thurston Moore, could chuckle and refer to Soundgarden as “just a bunch of noise”. It was because the band he was referring to had left grunge behind in 1988 and continued on into a sound and vibe that meshed too closely to the heritage of Seventies and Eighties metal to be a ready fit for the punk sound and vibe of the Nineties new wave.

…But still…Badmotorfinger…Superunknown…Bad ass and almighty rock albums; no denying.