Archive for the ‘Overarching Nirvana Trends 1987-1994’ Category

From the self-mocking double entendre in the title, its very clear that the finest of Nirvana’s video/DVD releases had the hands of Kurt Cobain all over it.

It’s never been clear precisely how much work was still required in the hands of Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic but they certainly acted as fair stewards of their erstwhile comrade’s vision. So many of the elements of the video tie back to previous desires of his work. Cobain’s Journals contain brown sample pages from a ring-bound journal; there are several pages of description for each In Utero song including a future tense in the description of Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, “boy, this will really get the A&R man’s blood boiling” that seems to date these pages to somewhere between Pachyderm and In Utero’s release, mid 1993 efforts – there’s no proof this is accurate, however there’s no footage used from after January 1993 and barely any time in 1994 for this to have been a major focus. A page onward and there’s a letter to Kevin Kerslake describing a treatment of “the long form” listing footage he wants using. The mention of Kerslake also appears to mesh with his early role in preparing treatments for Heart Shaped Box in mid-1993 prior to leaving that project and subsequently suing the band.

Certainly the treatment described in the Journals differs from the final result; why would be a matter of speculation but it certainly avoids some royalty problems by not dipping back beyond the Grohl years (i.e., not using the Rhino Records in-store footage with Jason Everman and Chad Channing) and not featuring other musicians and their songs (the desire to have Molly’s Lips performed with Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines from Reading).

Certain ideas are already clearly in place, however. Firstly, the use of jumbled non-song footage is in place with his notes describing having Dave talking about bands, Kurt asking the director to “start my rant just as I say Black Flag, Flipper…” Likewise a demand for visual distractions is added at the foot of the page consisting of “the scene where I hand the guitar to the audience” and continuing by asking for the scene where he harassed the cameramen in Rio by spitting on cameras and waving his penis in front of the lens. He asks for the word ‘Bronchitis’ to be flashing on screen throughout Aneurysm but instead has to settle on the final rendering for a substantial quantity of foreign subtitling throughout the video that ultimately serves no function bar defacement.

The interest in slicing one performance into another is also in place and not a new Cobain technique. The Montage of Heck was built around such cuts between related and unrelated material and looking back at the Nirvana In Bloom video the visual drama is created by the break-away from the clean-cut image into the dress-wearing, stage-wrecking conclusion. Cobain links explicitly to the latter by asking for it to be included in this video and replaying the precise same cut by asking for the juxtaposition of the Top of the Pops (“equivalent of US’s American Bandstand”) performance with the In Bloom video which parodied American Bandstand. It went further in the precision of his vision; he asked for the Top of the Pops performance, the parodic ‘straight’ miming the band did that evening with Cobain virtually swallowing the mic, to replace the ‘straight’ half of the In Bloom video with only the back-half, the dresses and destruction piece, to feature. The curtailed and restricted real-life performance would replace the curtailed and restricted homage component.

The cutting between statements and musical realities seen on Montage of Heck is best exemplified by Come as You Are. In the Journals Cobain already notes “Rock Star Lesson: when your guitar is out of tune, sing out of tune along with it” – in the video his last statement in interview before they cut into the song reiterates “play whatever you want, as sloppy as you want, so long as its good and has passion.” The subsequent song rendition is snarled, roared, ruined…Beautifully so. One of Nirvana’s known ‘soft’ songs is turned into a feedback n’ scream fest.

The song cuts are apparently already planned if the “keep Amsterdam audio when first change happens” statement in Journals clearly refers to the movement between the intro of Reading ’92, then the performance in Amsterdam – with the statement ‘first change’ implying he’s already clear that there’ll be a further cut which fits the move to the Rio performance.

The undermining of Nirvana’s media image is a given throughout the video; the constant presence of the subtitles emphasises that all the interviews used are media productions and trustworthy/untrustworthy on that basis, they’re product, not necessarily honest conversation. Having emphasised the artificiality of the interview portions, Cobain and the band insist on using the most overt confrontation between camera and band with the spitting and flashing from Rio. The ‘blinding’ of the all-seeing cameras, the chasing of cameramen who are normally chasing him, the deliberate unveiling of that which the cameras will not show even though the media considers every other element of his life fair game…It’s a series of serious games each of which has a point. The band even wraps its other most flagrant media confrontation – the opening of Reading ’92 when the rumours about the band and Cobain’s health were at their worst and Nirvana responded with one of their longest and most impressive shows. The visual joke of Cobain shrouded in a wheelchair is the most obvious but alongside that he chose to sing a sliver of The Rose from the Bette Middler film of the same name which is about the self-destruction of a media star under the pressures of fame.

The video, therefore, continues Cobain’s fixation on the media, his long-held liking for wedging different elements together and the desire to evade and damage the rock star macho image by ensuring the footage of Nirvana in lingerie appears within five minutes of the start and reoccurs later. I have great difficulty believing that the insertion of the version of Love Buzz from Dallas, Texas that ends in a fight with a bouncer isn’t another case of Cobain pulling surprises and adding another uncomfortable moment to a brilliant video collage.

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A couple weeks back I was examining the table of Nirvana songs showing the songs we can demonstrate were played the most/least. One category that I didn’t get to was the matter of songs for which we have no evidence at all that they were played — though I like to believe in miracles I genuinely believe there’s a number where there’s next to no chance of there being lost Nirvana shows where they were unveiled:

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One could also point to Beans and Escalator to Hell but realistically they are all tape/home studio experiments making little sense to even attempt live. The sliver of music known as The Landlord (or “The Landlord is a Piece of Sh** from Hell” to give it the full line) falls into the realm of Krist Novoselic fronted joke-songs so while, theoretically, it could have been worked up for a stage performance its unlikely to have had much time or commitment expended on it barring what might well have been an ad-libbed, improvised piece during an early practice session.

The most surprising songs on the list are slap-bang in the middle of it; Opinion and Old Age. In the case of the former, the song seemed well-evolved and well-worked by the time it appeared on Calvin Johnson’s radio show in September 1990 but this is belied by Cobain’s statement that “I just wrote most of the lyrics this evening.” While that may have been an exaggeration it’s unlikely to be too far from the truth given the utter absence of any sign of the song in any other form during the preceding months. Nirvana had barely been playing or practising given the temporary nature of their drummers since Chad Channing’s departure in a few months earlier; there was the short tour in August with Dale Crover, then the one-off show with Dan Peter’s three days before Calvin Johnson’s show but otherwise plenty of time for Cobain to prepare the music and tweak, re-tweak and re-write the lyrics. Old Age meanwhile seems to have been at a very early stage of gestation during the Nevermind studio sessions — another period with relatively few live shows taking place — then ignored during the craziness of the end-of-year tours and Nevermind’s explosion. What’s unusual about those two songs is that they’re they only songs between Big Long Now (January 1989) and the In Utero leftovers (Jan-Feb 1993) to not end up road-tested live at some point. Nirvana had reached their live peak, they were able to tweak set-lists and toss in songs in a wild fashion night-by-night, yet neither song seems to have been well-liked enough to be given an unveiling; a bit of a commentary on the status of each song and perhaps making it understandable why Cobain would give one of them away.

The Fecal Matter songs are a curiosity as it’s probable that at least some of them were played in amid the smattering of pre-Nirvana shows (three.) The discarding of identities in the early years of Nirvana was a crucial feature and, just as the new wave styling would hit the rubbish bin almost as soon as Sub Pop brought the band on board, so the garage punk version of Kurt Cobain’s music, the most overtly Melvins material he ever wrote, was a face he was fed up with in the two years before he properly took to the stage. Mrs Butterworth sits in the realms of “God Knows what happened” but if I was theorising the song belongs more to the Fecal Matter era than the Nirvana age. It’s quite similar to Downer in terms of the fairly ‘square’ structure, the relatively uncomplicated guitar riffs and the wordy approach — but, like a lot of the material recorded later in January 1988 it features experimental elements (most specifically the spoken-word interruption) so the song feels like a half-way house. The problem with it is that Cobain was already writing far more complex and interesting songs and it sounds more like a training exercise by comparison to Aero Zeppelin and such like.

Opinion should perhaps be considered primarily alongside Cobain’s experimental material from the 1988-1990 period. People forget that acoustic guitars were one form of experiment to a player who hadn’t spent much time with one and wouldn’t use one in a studio until the April 1990 version of Lithium, let alone on stage. In this category we can rank the song now known as Creation (still wrong but what the hey), Clean up Before She Comes, Opinion, Don’t Want it All and even Beans too (I’m ignoring Black and White Blues which sounds like a technical exercise or piece of whimsy) — Polly made it into the live arena because it was easily electrified as was Dumb (note first appearance in Nov 1990: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_EQsUqlqno). Very few acoustic tracks made it into full Nirvana performances or onto albums — the MTV Unplugged performance has warped the view people have of Nirvana when really acoustic guitar was the realm of practices and messing about but rarely of ‘real’ songs.

This leaves the In Utero era foursome; is it strange that these four songs never made it onto the stage at any point? I think it says much about the way the songs were created. Again, like most of these songs we’re discussing, there’s very little evidence of extensive work on these tracks, at least two (Gallons and The Other) are an improvisation around pre-prepared slivers of lyrics, the other two sound like they were jammed together by Nirvana during or just before the January 1993 practice session with little more than riff and a few ideas from Cobain to work around. All four songs, despite their rough edged charm and original features, seem unloved fillers at best, songs that aren’t necessarily needed but might come in handy. Nirvana’s high standards are clear in the way that even some of the songs that made it onto In Utero itself didn’t receive many airings — with so many songs to choose from, and relatively static set-lists during the 1993-1994 touring, it was rare for any rarities to make it on let-alone these half-formed songs. Perhaps if there had been more touring then we might have seen something more but it’s unlikely. The rumours of a sound-check performance of Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol may be true (or maybe not) but I can’t imagine it being a word perfect rendition — more a loose jam around the theme perhaps?

If you look back across my two-part/three-part chats you’ll often see that I spend the second half cutting my own argument from part one to pieces. I’m not going so far today, given I successfully demonstrated Cobain’s completely normal musical taste yesterday, but I’ll still pick at a few stray threads.

Top 50

I pointed to Cobain’s peak spells of musical inspiration, in fact, I think there are three; 1976-79, 1981-1984, 1987-1990. The peaks simply coincide with the primary phases of inspiration and development in the genre Cobain was devoted to; punk rock. What’s interesting is how thoroughly Cobain ignores the deeper American lineage of mid-Seventies punk rock — the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Johnny Thunders, the whole No-Wave spell. Instead, the line goes the hard rock route via Iggy and the Stooges and the Aerosmith. This is understandable, American punk made hardly a dent on public consciousness. Cobain’s own journey picks up the tale in 1979 with, on the one hand, The Knack reinforcing his new wave tendency (i.e., watered down and more pop-orientated punk) while Greg Sage and the Wipers lead into the deeper pool of U.S. punk-influenced music of the 1980s.

The 1981-1984 spell, again, simply reinforces Cobain’s strong attachment to a specific facet of music. In those years U.S. punk morphed into hardcore and a dozen other inclinations and Cobain was well-aware of all of them whether Black Flag, Flipper, the critical Void/Faith split, Swans, Bad Brains, Butthole Surfers, M.D.C. or Scratch Acid — there are few key names he misses out. It’s clear though that Cobain’s interests remained in a fairly narrow channel. There’s no room here for any of the electronic-infused material coming out of what would come to be known as industrial; similarly that one Swans record is as avant-garde as he gets; there’s nothing until Public Enemy in 1988 from any genre that isn’t (white) Anglo-Saxon guitar music so no jazz, no funk, no soul, just that one old blues record long sanitised by Sixties white-boy blues guitarists — this isn’t a racial point, it’s a music culture point; he doesn’t delve too far into hardcore (a fairly shallow pool of inspiration); and he erases any hint of mainstream taste altogether.

The final spell he captures, 1987-1990, is actually two-fold. Firstly, these years did see a number of genuine classics which he could hardly fail to be aware of — R.E.M’s Green, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Mudhoney’s quintessential grunge album, Pixies and so forth. Cobain, really, was just showing his awareness of the albums that stood out and gained greatest acceptance as stand-out releases. On the other hand, however, he was demonstrating his allegiance to a very specific strand of indie music that was rising at that point. Beat Happening, Half Japanese, Mazzy Star, The Vaselines, Shonen Knife, Daniel Johnson — running back through the Eighties was a lineage of whimsical, playful music that Cobain adored and that reached its full flourishing in that late Eighties phase. The list captures both his more muscular punk taste and this separate, gentler side; both often equally in love with lo-fi fuzz and an embrace of amateurism as a defence against the sheen of corporate enslavement.

Separately, Cobain’s female-orientated side emerges and also seems to take over; the most recent three albums on his Top 50 — Mazzy Star, the Breeders and PJ Harvey — are all female-fronted bands. His choice of album by The Frogs is also a curious one; that album was a parody record pretending to be out-gay and caused wilful offence among conservative groups — again, it seems to be a push toward his interest in femininity. Other candidates more likely acquired in this late Eighties-early Nineties spell rather than at the time of their release are Kleenex, Slits, Marine Girls and The Raincoats (the Incesticide liner notes make clear he was running around in mid-1992 trying to find this album he cites — also, he met The Frogs sometime in 1993 which may or may not push back the date when he wrote this list if that meeting links to the acquisition of their album and the desire to include them.) It combines with the almost total absence of anything that could be deemed mainstream rock to present Cobain’s tastes as firmly on the side of progressive values and the underground which had a powerful openness to women long before Riot Grrl made it explicit.

That’s not to say that much of this list is overtly political. There’s nothing like Crass or the anarcho-punk scene; there’s nothing that foregrounded a political opinion. That suited Cobain’s belief that music should be music first and a gateway to wider socio-political thinking not something subsumed by a cause and a demand that someone listen.

Returning to a point made earlier, note the absence of anything truly mainstream other than Aerosmith’s Rocks; note the complete absence of anything even arguably mainstream until the very end of the Eighties. At first its fair enough given his oft-expressed hatred of most of what rock became in the Eighties. But then recall that Cobain was endlessly aware of audiences and not above tweaking reality to fit the right storyline. In the case of his musical tastes, it’s well-known that he was a big fan of Metallica — Metallica themselves remember meeting him sometime in the late Eighties and him explaining how much he loved Kill ‘Em All — similarly his inclusion of Iron Maiden’s Run to the Hills within the Montage of Heck suggests he knew a little of one of the most unavoidable rock bands of the Eighties (also note the depth of his Metallica knowledge given he plucked a hidden parody they performed of said Iron Maiden song from a not particularly easily found EP). He loved Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin enough to name a song after the two bands, played Led Zeppelin songs fairly regularly with Nirvana, but eliminated them from this list altogether.

The list, overall, is a neat document capturing a combination of personal taste, wavering life circumstances (for example, his well-publicized boredom with guitar-based music in the Nineties doesn’t leave him many places to go given all but one of his favourite albums is in that arena), independent trends in the music scene, and potentially a mild touch of deception. As usual with Kurt Cobain, there’s always more to be teased out.

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 (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/28/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-1/). 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 (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/29/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-2/.) 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.

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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.

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: http://www.ipl.org/div/farq/plotFARQ.html

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):

Picture1

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.