The Most oft-Cited List of Cobain’s Top 50 Albums in the World…Ever! Part 1

I’ve gotten into a habit of just calling him ‘Cobain’ at the moment. When writing Dark Slivers I bounced appallingly between Kurt Cobain, Kurt and Cobain depending on topic, mood and inclination — it took hours during the review phase to try and make some kinda sense of it. Please bear with me as I work through my typing tics and foibles.

Hand’s in the air if you HAVEN’T seen the list of Kurt Cobain’s Top 50 Albums? Yep, as I suspected, it’s only those miners in Chile who were stuck underground. Alas, in this visual age, what I rarely see is any real discussion of it beyond using it as an excuse to link to pre-written reviews of some of the albums mentioned or to blurb about the bands on the list — it’s easy space-filling fodder.

What interests me about the list is two elements; the nature of the bands present and secondly the eras shown. To start with, here’s the original list of albums, with the years appended. Please note immediately that the list can be positively identified as having been written sometime after the release of PJ Harvey’s Dry in June 1992 making it a relatively good indicator of what Kurt viewed as his key albums looking back across his still-young life:

Top 50

Now, here’s the list rearranged chronologically from earliest to latest:

Top 50-Chronologically

There’s no way to definitively connect the year of an album’s release to the year Cobain first heard it, but there are definite peaks in the eras to which he looked for pleasure and felt worthy of note on his extensive list:

Top50_Years of Release(Graph)

Top50_Years of Release

It’s neatly poetic that the first phase of sustained musical interest commences the same year as Cobain’s parents divorced. I’m unsure, however and alas, whether I believe nine year old Kurt salved his woes in Aerosmith’s Rocks; it’s a possibility that the album marked a significant event, the Cobain family was certainly steeped in music as a mode of emotional expression, but it’s not definite.

Again, though it’s impossible to prove which years Cobain first listened to albums in, its notable that the peak of his preferences arise in the years immediately preceding and including 1983-84 when Buzz Osbourne was feeding Cobain the tapes of U.S. punk and underground music that Cobain describes as his epiphany. Even in 1992-1994, whenever he wrote this list, that period of music remains of critical importance to him with 1981-1984 yielding 19 of his favourite albums, well over a third of his entire list and matching precisely the most critical spell in the evolution of this teenager into a would be punk musician.

The lull from 1985 through 1987 could perhaps be put down to an absence of ground-breaking albums but it simply wouldn’t be true; numerous underground legends were kicking off in those years or burnishing their credentials so why the lull? To some extent I credit age and the inevitable aftermath of a revelation — after so many new discoveries its maybe inevitable that there might be a couple years where things felt a little ‘samey’ or more like reinforcement. Was 1986 really an off year for interesting music? All opinions welcomed on this point!

An alternative presents itself. I looked back to a previous piece from this site ( Essentially, while preceded by a long spell of dislocation and movement between family members, from April 1984 onward, 17-year-old Cobain’s life enters a truly rough spell punctuated by three spells of temporary homelessness, a brief return to his father and an extended period as a guest of the Reed family. Cobain had left school, he was in paid employment for certain lengths of time, those few years simply weren’t suited to get to grips with music or absorbing new discoveries.

Finally, in April 1987, Cobain benefitted from the longest period of stable home-life he had experienced in many a year and, in fact, the final time in his life he would spend a year in a single location ( From that month, he moved in with girlfriend Tracy Marander, living in the same block, though two different apartments, and with Dave Grohl after Tracy moved out, right the way through until July 1991.
This coincides with and perhaps is a key factor in the second spell of new discoveries with the years 1987-1990 yielding twelve further albums from the Cobain Top 50, plus the Leadbelly record too. It’s easy to point to these years as ones in which Cobain was surrounded by fellow music-lovers and able to cherry-pick new discoveries and new moments…

…One thing I’ve underrated, however, is simply the matter of age. Really all I’ve shown is that Cobain’s years of maturity from age fourteen to age twenty four saw the majority of his musical favourites, in other words, that he was a perfectly normal young man in terms of the time in his life when music really meant something to him.


Getting Back to When Nirvana was Just Another Band…


A year ago I purchased The Beatles box-set, the complete discography…Admittedly I don’t entirely remember ordering it, I may have had one or two drinks more than was mature and sensible, however, I don’t regret it at all. I’ll admit completely that I find the very early albums unlistenable, there’s something so alien to me about the dominant musical style of the early Sixties (“the Sixties” as clichéd era didn’t commence until into the middle of the decade as a chronological measure) that I find it hard if not impossible to entertain what sounds so cloying to ears that have been solidly wrecked by fifty years of musical evolution since 1963.

A friend of mine, who I really need to get on and lend this to, defines the problem as how to forget all the echoes and extrapolations and duplications that have occurred as a direct result of The Beatles and their ilk — it’s near impossible to hear such a theoretical concept as ‘the original’ as an aural quality with ears used to heightened volume, ever greater emphasis on bass, etc. The original often sounds weak, tame, unimportant compared to the sounds one is more naturally used to. When I listen to the early albums of The Beatles I’m struck by the relatively tinny sound, the skeletal quality, the harmony vocals, chord sequences and musical approaches drawn from formal dances…

Similarly, it’s hard to appreciate the truth of Nirvana’s status in 1992. An intellectual understanding that many other until then unknown bands achieved multi-platinum sales that year, that a large number of alternative bands emerged as rising stars in 1990-1991 and others would follow, that ultimately musical genius is relative, that for older fans Nirvana’s onstage antics and sound were reminiscent of the bands they had considered, in their youth, geniuses — none of it overwhelms that sense that the band was special, exceptional and different. It’s similarly easy to understand that Kurt Cobain’s death — exceptionally taking place at the height of his fame (or at least within very easy touching distance); not a common occurrence — prevented the band having to endure a more prosaic break-up, made them immune to the passing of generations and therefore the switching of taste that tends to come with it.

What’s harder to do is to truly set aside twenty years of hagiography, of positions in the regular top tens and top whatevers of music criticism and/or discussion, anniversary releases, the increasing reduction of interest down to a hardcore of fellow fanatics who are bound to confirm and re-confirm importance, significance and relevance.

That’s where this cartoon pleases me, it’s taken from an old VIZ annual and, beyond poking fun at the transience of teenage/student/young tastes (it started with a reference to The Happy Mondays), it opens two avenues for me. Firstly there’s the matter of the geographic significance of Nirvana. While the band did have a strong following in the U.K. and while Top of the Pops, The Word, various BBC sessions and Reading ’92 have welded Britain into the Nirvana story the local aspect of British taste is visible — while confirming that Nirvana were hot in Britain the comparisons made are to relatively local favourites, The Happy Mondays — a relatively brief flash in the pan who seem bigger and more significant in hindsight than the extent of their reign demands — and Curve — a band I can’t even remember now but who apparently stuck around until the middle of the last decade — are the acts chosen to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Nirvana. It simultaneously deems Nirvana to be no more than the equal of two bands that were barely known elsewhere and also robs Nirvana of the very American universe of comparisons in which they’re traditionally set; Guns n’ Roses, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and so forth.

Secondly, it shrinks Nirvana down significantly from this near untouchable position of power to a condition where they stand alongside a band that charted one album in five in the U.S. (in position 89) and a band that, again, barely charted outside of the U.K. and saw its albums march backwards from 22 in the chart, to 23, 103 and nowhere across its releases. This isn’t to denigrate either band; it’s to point out that Nirvana’s position in 1992 was as a stunning success but with no indication whether there was a longer-term significance. They weren’t exceptional.

On the other hand, it emphasises Nirvana’s international ubiquity by wedging Nirvana in as the international representative in between two local successes with a distinctly British accent. The sound of Nirvana has been picked over and either criticised or praised for drawing on mainstream hard rock, on Beatlesesque qualities, on punk, on underground flavours of the late Eighties and early Nineties as well. The company in which this cartoon places Nirvana suggests that the simplicity of Nirvana’s sound, built on a very strong awareness and knowledge of Anglo-American music trends of the era, allowed Nirvana to slip into the playlists of multiple audiences.

It also wedges Nirvana into the various worldwide alternative currents — for example, British guitar music went through a spell in which it was firmly wedded to the dance music scene that had spiralled out of rave in the late Eighties — and voids the mainstream/alternative argument to some extent. Nirvana slipped right in alongside U.K. ‘baggy’ culture and so forth. It was only in America, where the charts had never been dominated by an alternative to hard rock before (remember even The Sex Pistols didn’t hit platinum in America until 1992), that there was difficulty in judging the sound of Nirvana and emphasis was placed on what they shared with the mainstream tradition rather than what they shared with the underground.

…So, in conclusion, can you tell I sometimes think too much if I extrapolate all of that from a 1992 Student Grant cartoon in Britain’s premier adult-orientated comic? Do go read VIZ, it’s good for the soul.

Rereading Nirvana at 20/13 Distance

The political context to the release of Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are in 1993, a book I’ve lived with some twenty years, is well-established by now. Azerrad retained editorial independence yet the invitation for him to create the book in the first place was a consequence of the need to combat the negative publicity increasingly swirling around the band in mid-to-late 1992 as substantially accurate talk of extensive drug abuse, intra-band tension and so forth got going. The book remains the bible for Nirvana given the extensive cooperation provided by the band and the detailed personal information provided by Kurt Cobain. It’s now very possible to speculate, reasonably, about how honest Kurt was being, the extent to which he played up certain stories, whether he was playing to his image as the divorce-damaged teenage punk, the grunge monk, or whatever other pieces of his figurehead role he chose to parody.

One piece that isn’t commented on is, if you reread the book, ever noticed that it sticks so true to film plotting? We discussed a couple months back how, often, narrative structures taken from fiction funnel, package and guide the content of non-fiction works. Come as You Are is a perfect example of the ‘triumph of the will’ hero story. In the tale, the hero to be goes through a time of challenge that turns him into champion he must become. Having become that champion he proceeds to advance on his mission, defeating all enemies, overcoming all obstacles until eventually victory is achieved and, even if the peace is uncertain, the future is faced with a positive certainty that it will be valiantly conquered.

Ignoring my hyperbole, welcome to Come as You Are, a book in which the happy young adolescent is armed with the angst, the instrument and the mode through which he can win; in which drummers are discarded for a variety of sins and in which the book takes the time to say they were too uncommitted, limp-wristed and/or mediocre to serve the hero; in which family and social groups don’t match up to the Christ figure’s standards; in which everything falls into place and the final requirement — the magical incantation/powerful weapon, the Holy Grohl — is acquired and Nirvana almost unquestionably win because they simply must.

The Charles Cross biography published in the early 2000s has a similar background, equally well-known, in which Courtney Love chose to grant Cross access to Kurt’s materials, plus her personal cooperation, with him retaining editorial independence. This came in the midst the damaging saga of the Nirvana LLC battles and the mounting froth from the conspiratorial minded — another well-timed publication that, as far as I can see, can still be trusted but not without a question or two in mind.

This time, however, the story couldn’t just be a march to glory given the, now-known, tragic ending. But it didn’t require much tweaking to construct an equally serviceable plot, equally tried and tested in fictional productions, in which the hero triumphs but is defeated and laid-low by his own Achilles’ Heel, his particular fatal flaw. On this reading of the Kurt Cobain story (and yes, in each case we’re looking at storybooks) all the same people are discarded, the same battles and enemies summarily dealt with…And then the already long-known flaws conspire; depression, plus drugs, plus anti-industry urges, all bring ‘Camelot’ crashing to the ground in rubble.

In each case, what I’m saying is that the books neither leave interpretation of conflicts between individuals up to debate (they come down on the side of Kurt almost without question); they overestimate struggle while neglecting what was always in there favour (i.e., not to denigrant the achievement, but our hero’s band is best friends with a well-established band, Melvins, who get them access to the number one producer in town, Endino, who gets them access to the number one record label in town, Sub Pop, who support and sell them), overestimate individual achievements (Dave Grohl admits he played virtually all the drum parts laid down by Chad Channing earlier, so would Nevermind not have sold anyway no matter who was on drum stool?) and relies on anecdote rather than data to try to portray what happened. I’m not stating that they’re untrue, but I am saying reserved judgement and a healthy openness to other views may be beneficial — fiction can contain great truth but it can’t replace fact.

Anyways, just to complicate that commonly marketed cliché that there are only seven plots in any story:

Nirvana’s Release Schedule 1988-1993

Modern hip hop is remarkably business-driven and one element that’s particularly interesting is the knowledge that an artist needs to keep momentum with their audience which means regularly feeding the market with a release of some sort. The consequence is a veritable flood of single releases on iTunes, accompanied with the obligatory (and cheap) YouTube video, promoting a new mixtape being shoved out via download sites with a new one coming in four months time. Even if the official album release may take a lot longer there’s always product just out or just on the way permitting artwork releases, track listing releases, talk of collaborations and so on and so on – feeding the media.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, on my shelf I have The Beatles in Stereo boxset and it’s quite extraordinary thinking of the Sixties record industry where a band like The Beatles would still be required to hurl two albums out a year, plus a standalone double A-side single or two. Just like the modern hip hop label has adopted and updated the Motown model of inhouse production teams working day in, day out, to pass musical backing to the vocalists modern hip hop also adopted the approach to music releases and the concept that the audience must be fed almost constantly or many float away to the next ‘buzz’. Building the fanatical fanbase that is the bedrock of a long-term career, as well as taking advantage of the short-term broad-based peak of excitement that makes for multi-million sales, is the objective.

Intriguingly, there’s a suggestion that Nirvana may have been equally aware that succeeding meant keeping product in the market, keeping regular music releases out there to draw in fresh audiences and keep existing ones ‘warm’. Take a look at this graphic attempting to show the timeline of Nirvana releases (dark blue = compilation appearance, light blue = album):


Apologies for missing Sub Pop Rock City out (no confirmed month of release but sometime in 1989) and for placing Teriyaki Asthma in the wrong location. Essentially, for all the low amount of money available to Sub Pop the band’s only significant gap in the release schedule is from December 1989 to August 1990; eight months. There’s then a fairly steady drip of material emerging right through until another short gap from February to August 1993 in the run-up to In Utero.

It was already very clear that Nirvana’s record labels targetted specific markets — the Blew EP hitting the UK market to coincide with touring, the Hormoaning EP hitting the Pacific audience to coincide with touring. It’s also simple common practice to release a single to trail an album — Smells Like Teen Spirit for Nevermind, Heart Shaped Box for In Utero. In other words, it’s already clear that the timing of some Nirvana releases was dictated by commercial considerations whether regional or promotional; heck, Incesticide was their ‘Christmas album’. What interests me more is the way the gaps between albums are filled with regular releases, particularly on Geffen where there seems to be a sharp awareness of keeping music emerging. Certainly there was an awareness of the need for other outlets beyond the main singles and albums — In Utero was the first time Nirvana had staged an album session and made sure to record sufficient usable outtakes that they could fill other releases; Nevermind had relied on the remains from January 1991’s studio outing, plus live outtakes, but had still forced Nirvana back in studio in April 1992. For whatever reason, Nirvana’s method at Pachyderm Studios in February 1993 guaranteed they didn’t have to return to the studio anytime soon.

I’m not saying that the ‘master plan’ was flawlessly executed. Certain releases were delayed and so forth, decisions rested in the hands of a variety of record labels. But neither was the release schedule random given the significant investment to be made in pressing, promoting and distributing releases; the record labels didn’t pour out money purely for fun or without a desire to create an impact. Especially while on Geffen, there simply was never a gap of more than a few months.

About a Son Should Carry a Health Warning…

I tend to stay away from too heavy an emphasis on personal opinions…But.

I just finished watching the About a Son film — seen it? I admit I enjoyed the nature scenes, the urban imagery, it’s beautiful watching these places I’ve never been and gaining a few interior images of, what I assume, were former Cobain residents. And the visual choice, throughout much of the film, to only use imagery where the face of the key protagonists was concealed was superb. Likewise, hearing so much audio material of Kurt Cobain speaking about himself and it all being so familiar given I’ve been living with a copy of Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are since my mid-teens; hearing the source interviews was intriguing though I admit I’d always thought Michael would sound less geeky and far less sycophantically chirpy — but what the hey, being an interviewer must be a curious experience, wanting someone to keep speaking, say more.

What stuck with me, however, was how hard it was to carry a positive image of Kurt Cobain unfortunately; the film took me further away from the majesty and beauties of the music, it’s sympathetic impact, instead it dwelt so starkly on the negatives of his perception of the world, hauled out so many uncomfortable aspects of him as a person that I was left praying that I was listening to (a) Kurt Cobain messing with the interviewer and (b) an editor’s reemphasis of a particular image that the media landscape is now thoroughly invested in.

What stuck with me? Well, by 29 minutes in, we’ve learnt that Kurt’s mother was a goddess until the divorce then became just another stupid person who had to relearn how to live; that Kurt’s father was a harsh disciplinarian who beat him and bullied him and who forgot about him as soon as he remarried; that Kurt was the only unique person at his early schools and everyone else was stultifying boring and mediocre; that his favourite teachers were the one who would indulge him and listen to him talk and the one who glorified Kurt’s work and sent it to contests secretly; that Krist Novoselic was lazy and uninterested in music until Kurt finally got him to listen to the Fecal Matter demo…

…By an hour in we’ve learnt that Olympia was full of boring people who he didn’t like; that he had no interest in taking part in the collaborative underground scene there and that it wasn’t responsible for his flourishing; that Seattle was pretentious and middle class; that Tracy Marander was totally indulgent and would buy him everything and despite a four year relationship really he never felt he could bond with her creatively. Oh, and he’s not got a heroin problem and never did; it was a temporary thing.

And then, the chink of light…He simply states that he’s fine if people want to talk about his music…And it’s visible that in the past hour and fifteen there’s been not one moment where the editor has chosen to focus on music as opposed to soap opera, personal conflicts and bad experiences — it’s a remarkably concentrated distillation of all someone’s nasty thoughts. The narrative created is a one-dimensional slide from ‘idyllic childhood’ through brutal adulthood; a very specific plotline applied unrelentingly — a single model.

At one hour seventeen the most visible piece of editing occurs when whoever is in charge cuts together multiple different tapes of Kurt making aggressive statements about a particular set of journalists he felt were responsible for his newborn child being removed from his care; for very public criticism and hyperbolic unpleasantness from tabloids — it’s statements from various moments whittled together into a single clip of viciousness which, of course, makes it sound far more direct and far less flippant than it might be intended. The absence of the context (i.e., “my baby was taken from me; the papers claimed my baby was a junky; my wife was being called a whore, a druggy and a bad mother…”) leaves only the verbal aggression. A sad trick.

At one eighteen he remembers to say the one charitable thing permitted on the tape; that Michael Azerrad isn’t the kind of scumbag journalist he’s talking about; that one man isn’t the man he’s criticising when he talks about the intrusiveness, the manipulation and the abuse he feels he’s suffered. It’s telling that this one snippet is permitted a place on the audio track; remember everyone, he’s talking about everyone else, this one man is the good one.

It seems remarkable to create a film focused on an artist in any field and successfully ignore any mention of their creative process or endeavours; Kurt Cobain’s lyrics are reduced to a throw-away line about dealing with things that annoy him — it’s a tragedy when that’s all the film is willing to glean about over a decade of efforts that resonated so well with a wide populace that a number of songs have become ubiquitous.

It puts me in mind of the general media reaction to any criticism it receives. As examples from the U.K., recently an author called Hilary Mantel made some very coherent statements about the way the British media uses Kate Middleton as a kind of clothes horse and/or birthing engine — the media response was so brutal our Prime Minster felt moved to comment on how wrong-headed he felt her statements were…Despite having clearly neither read nor understood them. A similar case a long while back was the Paedophilia special of a satirical series called Brasseye (I swear to you, go watch this show, it was a true gem). The episode took aim at the confused, vicious and hysterical reaction of the media at the time which was conducting a witch-hunt and generally scaring up a storm. While watching Been a Son all I could think is “wow, if Rolling Stone magazine wanted to take posthumous revenge for Kurt Cobain’s comments on the magazine then this is perfect…”

An element that made me hopeful was a brief statement about how his jams with Courtney were leading to good songs…Oh boy…Don’t get my hopes up by making me think there really is a lot more to come than “Stinking of You.” Barring that…It just left me despondent sitting through a soap opera vision of the life of a significant musical artist, one in which music has been erased or lowered to the status of minor background noise…

Evolution — Circling Part Two

The history of popular music has not been written by musicologists, it has been written by English literature students. This has, on the one hand, gifted the world beautifully descriptive and emotive articles and musings on music — but it also means that reading about music is essentially a biographical and story-led experience, not one involving a deep knowledge or understanding of the mechanics and structures underlying the subject. It’s a bit like learning your history from Hollywood or your politics from the tabloid press; articulate and/or combustible commentary trumps detailed and learned knowledge.

Among the negative consequences is that most writing on music is written in the mode of literature. By this I mean that discussions of music are given a linear progression, a plot, in the same way that fiction would be. While this results in a smoother reading experience, what I take issue with is the idea of an artist ‘evolving’. Each musician is given an origin (setting the scene for the story about to ensue), then early flowerings (the discovery of the plot or dramatic scenario), next a triumphant realisation of their ambitions (the plot revealed awaiting resolution), followed by a development toward new desires (the wrapping up of the plot and tidying away of loose ends.) This linear evolution implies an accreting process with a forward momentum in which elements are built on top of one another to create something that is a descendent of what came before; it suggests something ‘more’ and potentially better in some sense.

I feel that the idea of evolution is a poor one through which to understand musicians. Creative musicians are not engaged in such a linear journey; they are not piling brick on brick to create a single unified product. Nor are they pressing toward a solution in which a musical choice can be seen as the logical end-point; there’s no such tidy resolution of creativity. Instead individuals motivated to create choose between different ways of satisfying the same base urge to express; the means used are incidental to the unvarying nature of the desire at work and therefore it’s the equivalent of, when writing, using a pen one day, a pencil the next, joined up hand writing one day, capitals the next, a laptop here, a text function on the phone there — it’s not a single journey toward “better writing”, it’s a range of options deployed as appropriate and by whim.

Those initial impulses guiding an individual to create are immutable even if what they wish to express does change; instead of a person on a journey imagine instead a person sat unmoving as different tools are placed around them in a circle — the individual selects a tool but the individual remains unchanged even if the modes of expression alter. By that same token, instead of seeing, for example, the switch from one sound or style of music to another, or from one grouping of collaborators to another, as a case of improving upon a prior approach or reaching some kind of higher level or more greatly desired condition — simply see them for what they are; an arbitrary choice, a hand outstretched to some new way of fulfilling a static drive. It relegates questions of better/worse to the realm of individual taste where they belong.

In the case of Nirvana, did Cobain’s music truly evolve between 1986 and 1994? I’m not saying that it did not change; I’m a great believer in Kurt’s impressive ability to adopt new models from within the punk milieu in which he was ‘birthed’ — what I’m suggesting is that the fact it changed did not necessarily mean it improved, advanced, moved forward. Erase the positivist conceptions and simply see change; an arbitrary process in which motion alters what was there before but does not necessarily create a more beneficial, desirable or higher state. The band Devo chose their name to acknowledge one variant of this line of thought; Devo were named for the concept of Devolution, that something can evolve into a less complex, less advanced entity.

As an early example, a long while back now there was scepticism that Spank Thru had indeed been a song on Kurt Cobain’s 1986 Fecal Matter demo. The song was believed to be too advanced for a young and inexperienced musician to have written and therefore it led to doubts whether it could ever have featured at so early a stage. This view has been proven incorrect. What was getting in the way was that people were acting on a gut belief in progress; despite having no evidence they instinctively felt Kurt Cobain must have become ‘better’ over time so he couldn’t possibly have emerged early on with relatively honed writing skills. In truth, and firstly, Kurt’s ‘learning’ is unavailable to us — Fecal Matter is the first available recording but the failings of the archive, the inability to see practices earlier than 1986, led many to position Fecal Matter as the ‘learning’ when in actual fact it was the end product resulting from a lengthier teenage striving to express musically.

As a second crucial falsehood, the kneejerk reaction was to believe that Fecal Matter could only be understood in relation to future music — that the record was incomplete in and of itself and so only had (and has) importance as a signpost on a journey to a supposedly superior future product. Instead, it’s better to think of Kurt Cobain creating precisely the music he was capable of and that suited the urge of the moment; what he wanted to write was relatively aggressive slowed down hardcore, grunge in essence, with lyrical snipes at the world around him. Instead of the shift to more new wave-orientated music and obscurist lyrics in 1987-1988, as seen on Side B of Incesticide, being an improvement, it was merely an alternative. This fact can be seen in the way that Nirvana’s sound in 1988 failed to develop further along that route and instead devolved back toward a sound on the Bleach LP of 1989 that was far closer to Fecal Matter than to the songs created in the gap in between (Polly, Beeswax, Mexican Seafood, etc.)

A similar unwillingness to see each creation in isolation and without the mental structure of ‘steps’ and progression has also damaged the reputation of Bleach. Kurt’s own words, that it was basically a grunge-by-numbers album, are used to legitimise the idea that it was a failed experiment when, in actual fact, it served Kurt’s then desires — to be recorded and have a music career of some form — perfectly acceptably. Commentators tend to highlight and praise two songs specifically because they were linear forbearers of future music; Love Buzz and About a Girl. This means ignoring the fact that Blew was the song from Bleach that appeared at the most concerts and persisted from 1988 until 1994.

Much nonsense is written about how About a Girl foreshadowed a Beatlesesque dimension, the pop aspect to Nirvana’s sound. I’d argue that About a Girl — written after Polly, after Don’t Want it All and Creation and the early version of Sappy — let the way to only two more songs with an acoustic vibe, Dumb (an extrapolation from Polly) and the minimalistic Something in the Way. By that reckoning there was far more to come from the pop punk vibe of Bleach than from the one-off About a Girl. Love Buzz does have a greater claim, it has the loud-soft Nirvana would eventually settle on briefly but again, claiming a direct connection from Love Buzz to Smells Like Teen Spirit et al. means skipping the musical explorations that took place in 1989-1990 in which songs continued to roar from beginning to end (Dive, early In Bloom, Breed, Stay Away) or in one or two cases started quiet then got louder (Sliver primarily plus the cover approaches to D7 and to Here She Comes Now.)

The entire intermediate period after Bleach, gathered up on Side A of Incesticide and on the Nevermind Deluxe Edition primarily, is written of as if there was a step-by-step motion connecting Bleach and Nevermind, as if a full two and a half years were simply a ‘warm up’ and practice session with Nevermind as an inevitable outcome; a force of nature that was bound to sweep though Nirvana’s music. This ignores Nirvana’s garage pop dalliances, doesn’t admit that there might have been any alternatives to the band being swept up on DGC and pumping out a commercial punk rock/pop rock album. This doesn’t permit Nevermind’s predominant styling to receive the credit it deserves as a relatively recent experiment for Nirvana.

Talk of evolution halts after Nevermind, instead the chosen narrative is the fall of the hero — In Utero is viewed only as a reaction to and consequence of Nevermind’s success, in plot terms it’s a fairly traditional ‘pride before a fall’, hubristic storyline in which someone is destroyed by their greatest achievement. Again, this coating of inevitability glosses over the extent to which a lot of In Utero had already been written and therefore was coterminous with, rather than a development from Nevermind. Similarly it doesn’t give Kurt Cobain a choice in his fate, nor does it give sufficient emphasis to the longer term reasons for his lack of desire for life. In Utero, in terms of the song forms on display, doesn’t fit any kind of evolution; the addition of more naturalistic recording techniques and rougher sound may be a change but it isn’t a progression or a development — it’s an alternative.

My point would simply be that the music of Nirvana deserves to be viewed more in terms of its overall coherence and unities, disunites and differences rather than as a set of distinct stages pasted over the top of events and tombstoned with an album in a way that doesn’t ever speak for the full range of songs that are meant to ‘fit’ in each component of that narrative. Kurt Cobain used a variety of styles — punk, grunge, hard rock, new wave, alt. rock, garage pop, electric blues, whatever you want to call them — depending on his collaborators at that point in time, or his instincts, or the technology and/or business surroundings acting upon him. A graph showing a simple rise then slight decline would be fine if discussing his commercial prospects but fits poorly to his musical activities.

What Have you got to be Sad About?

There’s always a divide in commentary on Kurt Cobain in which one side is sympathetic to the fact that his crisis had reached such extremes by early 1994 that he felt death was the only way out…And the other side where he’s simply another spoilt rich drug addict.

Speaking to a friend the other day, she pointed out that her periodic black moods had so little to do with the circumstance of her life, she complained that people regularly say to her; “you’re so beautiful, you’re rich, successful at your job…” then some variant on “we wish you were you” or “what have you got to be depressed about?”

I’m not stating that success, or lack thereof, in the various spheres of life (i.e., social, professional, creative, health/physical, spiritual) is unimportant. There’s a dividing line between handling the normal frustrations of life versus a genuine and deep episode of depression in which the entire perception of life has been skewed. The crucial point is that people tend to confuse the short-hand method by which we measure ourselves against others, with the actual substance of that other person’s existence. Ultimately success or failure isn’t an innate quality, it’s a comparative measure; if everyone has one million in any currency then they’re all millionaires but their buying power will therefore be comparable and only those who are super-wealthy will count as rich.

Confusing the observation “your life is great, you’re beautiful/rich/successful, etc.” with the genuine points of conflict within that person’s existence reduces everyone to a quick sketch, a paper-thin study of human nature. The opposite is true, of course, that examining a life and finding it wanting (i.e., “you’re poor/starving/oppressed/unhealthy, etc.) doesn’t automatically mean that life is devoid of smiles and pleasures — yes, we can find happiness in slavery. One of the ‘pop culture’ questions of history, applied to both U.S. slavery and to the Holocaust, was why these great tranches of humanity didn’t rebel against their enslavers. At the time, their oppressors stated that the absence of violent opposition meant their victims were sub-human, were passive/weak-minded/devoid of a ‘normal’ desire for freedom or dignity. In other words, Southern American slavers and Nazi guards, from their position of power, refused to gain a deeper understanding of their victims and instead reinforced their own sense of superiority by deciding that the fact they would hate being in their victims’ position.

In the case of Kurt Cobain, he had a very deep array of weaknesses and damaged circumstance lasting the vast majority of his twenty seven years. The expectation that two years of success tagged on the end of twenty five years of poverty, rejection and misery should be sufficient to solve everything — or that wealth and fame would remove obstacles — is a deeply unperceptive view of what makes and creates a fulfilled human being.

In fact, becoming famous added a vast array of new challenges to those already in existence. A very wounded adult was now beset by legal threats, by financial demands, by a vast sea of commentators, by management attempting to control his time and presentation, by the inability to have freedom given he was so recognizable… These were added to a man who had already experienced homeless, poverty, had ongoing health concerns, a major drug problem running from 1990 onward, a difficult marriage not helped by his own issues with family and intimacy. It’s no surprise that Kurt Cobain was an individual with a deeply set depression; and no surprise, sad though his choice was, that he didn’t necessarily see life as a positive outcome.

Judging the whole of a person by the shorthand categories we tend to use is the equivalent of relying on a 140 character Twitter statement to stand for our entire view of a film. The human experience of even the lives that appear either smallest or most blessed in these basic categories is in fact a deeper and broader tome requiring far more.

Sliver = Rug Burn: Nirvana and Renamed Songs

Credit for this post goes out to Adam Harding — a true gent. Having written to say he’d received his copy of Dark Slivers he took the time to drop me a line about a scanned newspaper article that can be seen in the Mudhoney Documentary “I’m Now.” The article basically suggests that a different name was publicised for Sliver prior to its release; Rug Burn. It’s also fascinating to see how, at twenty years distance, this spell of miscellaneous drummers and multiple options (Patty Schemel, J Mascis, Dan Peters…) now looks like just a ‘blip’, a pause before the arrival of Dave Grohl. The article gives a sense of confusion, of uncertainty, with Dan Peters genuinely under consideration for a longer stint.

The wider point that Nirvana songs existed under a multiplicity of working titles is old news. What intrigues me, however, is the window those working titles often gave onto what was on the mind. This song follows quite a regular pattern in terms of the shift in titles; from the specific to the generic. Rug Burn, as a title, has a very precise domesticity and childhood connection — Sliver could mean just about anything. Two other fair examples from the same phase were the shift from Immodium — a diarrhoea medicine, pointing to the on-the-road experience of Tad Doyle’s extreme stomach problems during the 1989 spell when the song was being written — to the universal Breed. Pay to Play also relates to touring experiences, the practice of bands being forced to buy tickets from a venue then sell them on in order to make any money, and changes to the generic Stay Away. Other examples would be Formula/Drain You, Memoria/Come as you Are. The key exception is New Complaint’s evolution into the highly personal Heart Shaped Box — it emphasises the love song aspect of it, the song as a gift to Courtney Love, named after one of the gifts they had given one another.

The following list, based on the information compiled at LiveNirvana (with thanks to what is an amazing website), lists all the known previous names:
Nirvana Songs_Name Changes

What the list emphasises is that Kurt Cobain did put thought into the details of his music, it wasn’t all just on-the-spot inspiration. It’s also interesting to see him regularly modifying his tendency to make lame quips, opting for more palatable, often more deftly and poetically phrased, titles. There are still further habits and tendencies present.

Firstly, a simple (and not uncommon approach) was to simply refer to a song by a line from its lyrics until it was fully formed; I Think I’m Dumb, New Complaint, Memoria, Knows Not What it Means — they’re all fairly obvious matches. With more visible evidence of the full evolution of songs from first demo to final recording it’s likely that a lot more songs traced this path from namelessness, to lyric-naming, to a final statement.

Naming a song after it’s sound, or feel, was another clear approach. My favourite example is Scentless Apprentice with its over-elaborate working titles mimicking the core riff beautifully. It’s a delightfully humorous example too, I mean, taking the time to write Buck Buck bo Buck, Banana Fanna fo Fuk — fun! There’s no other example as explicit as that one, where the title really is the tune, but, there are a few examples of naming the song after how it felt; All Apologies seems to align with the 1991 Nevermind sessions’ Song in D (this is unconfirmed as yet) then became La La La La which also fits the mood of the song.

As an aside, Dope Hippie/Hairspray Queen is an unusual switch — they’re not necessarily targeting the same audience unless my understanding of the U.S. rock scene is flawed and the last remnants of the Grateful Dead hippy crowd were morphing into the big-hair and androgynous glam metal crowds around Mӧtley Crüe and their ilk. The initial title reeks of Kurt’s later comment about “I wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed tee shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia.” The latter title seems to shift to a separate target of his ire. It’s a real one-off.

The rapid fire writing around the Rio de Janeiro recording sessions in January 1993 yields a spell of such titles with Very Ape simply being called Perky New Wave Number while I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’s heaviness fits the Two Bass Kid line well (with the later titles both being far better.) Scentless Apprentice only evolved in rehearsals at the end of 1992 so, again, a scribbled down name until it really has to be thought about in February. The nicest example is Tourette’s being listed as New Poopie; pure and simple, “new shit”, how much more blunt can you get? No time for naming, they knew they’d get round to it. In Utero was certainly the most visibly interesting spell of song renaming what with Sad/Sappy/Verse Chorus Verse making its long transition from 1988 acoustic demo name (Sad) describing its mood, to its mid-period shrug (Sappy) before finally pickpocketing from a now discarded song to take on its final glum, bored with standard pop trope, title (Verse Chorus Verse.)

The band’s final spell offered two fun cases. Firstly, You Know You’re Right seems to have never made it further than a tape marked Kurt’s Tune #1 — a total lack of involvement similar to the way Pennyroyal Tea was the first single since Smells Like Teen Spirit that had no Cobain involvement. On the other hand, the demo known on With the Lights Out as Do Re Mi, and potentially actually called Me and My IV or Dough, Ray and Me, has a different interest. In this case, all three potential names are equally normal Cobain naming approaches — a simple repeat of the chorus line, or rhymes based on the chorus line; or, again, a random snatch from the song or two personal references (Me and My IV a reference to increasing familiarity with hospital stays, the latter potentially about a real person according to that, if they followed the usual Cobain trend, would have been revised into something less personal.

Kurt Cobain: Hell (and a Happy New Year)


Written by James Joyce while at college:

“…never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage…ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of the dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony…”

Joyce was describing a visceral vision of Hell as a physical and simultaneously mental experience in which torture took place both upon the body and the mind.

Not that I’m becoming monomaniacal or anything — I’m starting to feel like a vicar on a Sunday morning beginning a sermon “…And THAT made me think of God/the Bible/blah blah blah…” in relation to any experience of life whatsoever — but I’d been trying for weeks to summarise how difficult Kurt Cobain’s life seems to have been. This quotation came closest.

Kurt’s life, by the end of 1993, involved physical pain (from an eternally undiagnosed stomach ailment) along with the damaging effects of persistent drug abuse including overdoses and what must have been regular (and uncomfortable) comedowns; he felt buffeted and lacking control over the persistent demands of music as a career — unable to find peace when called on by management, band, press, fans; he looked to the future with fears including whether his daughter would inherit his wounded nature, whether his marriage could survive, whether he had the money to avoid being flung back into penury and employment (he’d never enjoyed working for a living); as In Utero shows he was a very angry and frustrated man at this point, ferociously defending his family from the intrusions of muck-raking journalists, the authorities, in fact anyone who felt they could comment on his life — there’s a tiredness within In Utero, an exhaustion.

On top of this, his creative muse seems to have burnt itself out — this can’t have failed to escape his notice, that the crucial thing he had achieved in life had ceased to give him pleasure or to flow as naturally as it had until hitting age 25, he must have worried if he was done already. His friendship group, his social life, had shrunk away to nothing, core relationships (primarily with his band and wife) were troubled at best robbing him of a primary confidante and isolating him (semi-deliberately) from others.

A further issue with Kurt Cobain is the way he seems to have had a deeply active conscience ‘upbraiding him.’ His songs lavish nothing but blame and criticism upon his own shoulders; as the clearest cases he writes Lithium on Nevermind and All Apologies on In Utero calling down responsibility for his situation upon his own failings. His suicide note dwells on the same elements; he doesn’t lash out at the world, he simply cracks a sardonic half-smile and points out how useless he feels he is and how much of a danger to his daughter’s future happiness — that’s a phenomenally harsh thing to think of oneself, that one’s personality is so toxic it could pollute one’s child in such a way. There’s not much funny in his regular self-flagellation, no matter how sarcastically phrased — the same joke replayed year-after-year finding different ways to call himself a bad person; he doesn’t even blame anyone for it, not even his parents, he seems to feel that he was an unloved and unwanted child because he deserved it like the figure at the centre of Scentless Apprentice.

With all this going on, what aspects of Hell were not being visited upon him in his view? He had the physical pains, the conscience, the anger, the audiences he felt were gloating over his predicament, the absence of relief or visible hope. Whatever responsibility he bore for this perception of the world, it’s a brutal blend wrapped up in a slim frame and a lot for one being to carry day-after-day.

Too Many Books About Nirvana

The title paraphrases the most common reason I received for rejection by publishers over the course of 2012 when I submitted Dark Slivers. It’s actually a not unreasonable position to take given the pressures the literary sector is under.

Providing a similar perspective, here’s a quick look at my ‘Nirvana Shelf’, this doesn’t include general volumes on grunge, punk or alternative, also a couple of tab books are elsewhere:

Nirvana Books

Now, I was told in my youth that Napoleon Bonaparte is the most written about individual who has ever lived with several thousand volumes between his rise to power and the present day. I’m also aware that historians and other trustworthy professionals have come to accept that each generation emphasises and focuses upon different aspects of a subject thus reflecting the social mores and interests of whenever the present day happens to be. While this opens the door to saying that some topics have a universal and continuous relevance, it doesn’t mean that there’s an infinite amount that is worth saying on any topic.

As a personal choice, naturally I’ll continue to buy Nirvana books as they emerge — Gillan G. Gaar and Charles Cross are guarantees of quality reads. There’s no way I could have written Dark Slivers without the work done by these two, plus Michael Azerrad and others, in pinning down the story of Nirvana so thoroughly. I also relied on the work done at the Internet Nirvana Fan Club, LiveNirvana and the Nirvana Live Guide. Having absorbed all these volumes over the years I was focused, while writing, on trying to create something that had something different to say — hopefully you can tell from the blog.

What I want to look at here and find interesting is the publishing phenomenon that was Nirvana. The peak of the era has long since passed but if we examine by date:


Books Published 1992-2012

It’s wonderful how clear the pattern is. Until Kurt Cobain’s death Nirvana are simply another popular band hitting it big, with barely enough time for anyone to begin writing the tale. His death (and canonization as a fully fledged musical saint) leads to a flurry of publication between mid-1994 and 1998. The peak in 1997 is deceptive incidentally given three of those publications are James Adler’s slim volumes on the Nirvana studio albums. Things tail off until the greatest hits release in 2002 then With the Lights Out in 2004 spark things up again. Having product emerging around which one could tag a publication seems to have become a motivating factor for publishers to take a chance on an author over the past ten years.

I excluded more general studies of grunge from the graph just to give it a focus. It’s intriguing that it’s only from 2007, at twenty years distance, that grunge becomes a book subject with six published in the four years to end of 2011. I’d theorize that the release/imminent release of the twentieth anniversary edition of Bleach, then of Nevermind, sparked the refocus upon grunge given two volumes came out that year then a further three in 2011.

After the pause in 2005 the rest of the calendar belongs to a small set of trusted authors. Gillian G. Gaar alone releases four of the nine volumes singlehanded. Everett True took time for releases in both 2006 and 2007. Charles Cross returns for a single volume and Mat Snow edited compilation of press articles arrives in 2011. It’s still Gillian, however, who rules the roost with releases in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Having convinced publishers there was a definite market it seems it was just a case of having the hook or angle. The result, if we look at ‘type’, ends up as band bios, Kurt Cobain bios, song studies, essay/article compilations, photo studies, album studies and then the volume on legacy (which I admit I don’t recommend.) I’m sure there are more possibilities. It’s a shame so many have been repeats. Of course, with this quantity, it’s hard to argue for more.

Whether you, as a reader, find value in the idea of yet more Nirvana works depends on whether you feel that reading about Nirvana (or indeed any topic) is simply about establishing the facts then closing the book, or whether you feel that reading is just as much about the act of thinking and exploring in real-time, the reader’s experience, as it is about the subject under discussion.