Dave Grohl and Songs for Nirvana

Much gratitude to the individual who posted this video, two very listenable interviews with Dave Grohl in which he comments on having shared music with Kurt Cobain, then later mentions the state of estrangement within Nirvana. If you can tolerate the tedium.

Dealing with the latter first, he’s fairly plain-speaking about the division in the band; “I don’t do drugs…There was, like, the people who did the drugs, then the people who didn’t do the drugs. I didn’t do the drugs so I was just out of that world you know? And if you’re in it, you’re in it, if you’re not, you’re out.” He then moves onto say, in response to a direct question about whether the band was breaking up, “it was important that we take a break. I think everyone felt that way, it was time to take a break.”

Certainly no criticism of Dave Grohl, but I admit I see this last comment as rather a salve for the soul rather than a fair representation of the position of Nirvana in early 1994. Why so? Well, Nirvana had already staged their break — Nirvana played not a single show for five months of 1992, a total of sixteen shows June-October but most of that in the June-July spell in Europe. 1993 was even more barren; five shows in nine months, only three after the duo in Brazil in January. And it wasn’t like the band were studiously practising either, Kurt joined them for a maximum of 21 days in studio for the entire two and a half years after Nevermind — and remember, at best estimate, the band played for six days at most of the twelve days at Pachyderm. I’ve already commented numerous times on the trend in Kurt Cobain’s song-writing also, in each previous year of Nirvana’s existence he’d brought six-twelve songs forward to the band; in the final year…Well, you all know the answer there.

Given the broken state of the band long before April 1994, it’s hard to see how anything other than the total dissolution of Nirvana would have solved whatever issue Kurt Cobain had with being part of the band as a business entity, as a musical vehicle, let alone as a functioning community of creative companions. I’ll admit that Dave Grohl’s comments here do remind me to place more emphasis than I sometimes do on the influence of the drug factor as a divider between Kurt Cobain’s cocoon and his band mates. Note made.

With regard to the initial comments, Dave’s comments are very clear indeed; Kurt was aware of two songs — Alone+Easy Target and Exhausted. This conforms to the best sources (basically check LiveNirvana, it rocks) but what interests me is the nature of his reaction to the songs. He loves the music for Exhausted but wants to use the music while remaining in control of the lyrical aspect of Nirvana. While he’s the known voice of Nirvana, while he’s rightly recognised as the key creative force, it makes it clear how much the band was a vehicle for his self-expression and, within that, how much emphasis he placed upon the words. Even with his own writer’s block in latter years it seems that sharing writing duties simply wasn’t going to happen. As an aside, for Alone+Easy Target it seems he wanted to snatch the chorus though whether that refers to the chorus line or the backing riff it’s unclear.

Kurt Cobain’s literary nature is underrated. His lyrics were not ad-libbed live, he wasn’t an improviser. Dave Grohl explains “he’d stay up late at night, for hours, with a notebook just writing and writing and writing…He enjoyed writing a lot.” Cobain’s closest connection to the blues came from the way the guitar was a way of accompanying words, not a raison d’être all its own. Cobain was brutally critical of his own guitar-playing skills and he was increasingly disparaging of the limitations of the instrument and its clichéd nature by the early Nineties. On top of that, in all the years the band was in existence, all the time they shared with true innovators of the guitar, like Sonic Youth, there’s no indication he ever actively sought to expand or advance his guitar vocabulary or to learn more about his instrument. The guitar was a functional object serving the song form and, in turn, the words.

The switch in Kurt Cobain’s lyric-writing, from early story songs and character sketches, toward a more impressionistic grab-bag sourced from his Journals, can be seen as a reaction to the increasingly hectic schedule of Nirvana as the time to whittle away at a single piece of WRITING (not just a song, true writing) fell away. Its notable that his most extensive phase of writing — winter 1990 through spring 1991 — coincided with a long period of relative quiet for Nirvana.


Axl Rose: The Alternative Way ‘Out’

I finally, at long last, finished reading the “Whatever Happened to the Alternative Nation?” articles yesterday:


In one piece, the very reasonable comparison is made between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain. The obvious comparisons – small town misfits, serious parental issues, physical similarities which is why they could both fit the required rock star mould of 1991-1992 – are made but the most crucial one is the yearning of each individual for control over their own creativity, a desire to be free of the constraints either of poverty or of management, fans, press and so forth. The crucial realisation, of course, is that a human personality is such a complex accretion of memories, moments and impulses that despite the similarities between the two individuals, an identical outcome couldn’t be guaranteed.

In the case of Axl Rose, aggression was always launched outward; violence toward girlfriends, trash-talking in the media, pointed and explicit lyrical tirades, a refusal to ever take public responsibility for anything that has ever been less than ideal at any point in a twenty-five year musical career. In the case of Kurt Cobain, the aggressive impulses within him were, near constantly, aimed inward; he would commence criticising his own music in public almost as soon as it arrived in the hands of the public, his lyrics dripped in disdain for his various supposed failings, he talked about himself in a persistently downbeat manner in interviews and in private with the hangdog style drawing understandable sympathy. Yet Kurt’s own record wasn’t devoid of violence or threats thereof; he readily admitted to the voicemails left for the two authors attempting to write a book on Nirvana in 1992; he cheerfully made threats related to the Vanity Fair article; domestic disputes did lead to police call-outs… Neither artist was devoid of minor sins; Axl was far more persistently hubristic about it all – Kurt was a sweeter creature when he wished.

Yet there are similarities in their reaction to audiences and the other demands of fame. Axl Rose’s crimes against courteous concert-hosting are well-known ranging from provoking a riot at the St Louis show, to more recently slow-clapping a fan out of the venue, to massive delays in shows, walk-offs and so forth – if it wasn’t Axl Rose involved some would consider it reasonable to walk off stage if things were thrown at a band. Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, had his own sins such as significant numbers of cancelled shows, responding to on-stage provocations by walking off (or in the case of one show peeing into a shoe that was thrown at him), more positively (in some ways) perceived acts of sexism by audience members were responded to with Nirvana halting shows and having a go at audience members. In each case, the band took it as their role to police the audience and react to what they didn’t like.

Yet Axl Rose represents something else within the Nirvana story; the way out. Axl Rose’s willingness to ignore the wishes, hopes and desires of all other individuals made him supremely able when it came to building a life outside of the spotlight. His sobriety, compared to the persistent drunkenness or drug issues of his band members, made him the only able to play dictator. Kurt, by contrast, was dictator of Nirvana yet increasingly was unable to steer the ship. Both men increasingly rejected contact with the press if they couldn’t control the nature of the dialogue, similarly time in the studio became a scarce commodity for each band; Kurt barely showed up for band sessions after Nevermind, Axl meanwhile did much of his work for Use Your Illusion separate to the band, then didn’t even appear in studio alongside them for the recording of The Spaghetti Incident? album. A significant area of contrast, at first glance, would be the difference between Nirvana’s relative retreat from live performance versus Guns n’ Roses embarking on mammoth world touring throughout 1992-1993. Yet looking a little further back, Guns n’ Roses gave only 21 concerts in 1989-1990, a wonderfully comparable situation to the 21 shows Nirvana managed between March 1992 until October 1993.

While Kurt Cobain’s control over his environment increasingly fell apart, Axl’s increased as he purchased the Guns n’ Roses brand, shed recalcitrant band members, dispensed with managers and girlfriends until eventually all that was left was Axl and his loyalists. Kurt went through a similar distancing from his former comrades, yet his retreat was toward the companionship of his wife and child on the one hand, and drug buddies on the other. The contrast between the chaos around Kurt and the increasing stillness around Axl is noteable. Axl’s decision was one Kurt Cobain would have envied. Axl never stopped his creative endeavours, this was a man who taught himself rhythm guitar in the early nineties purely to allow himself to more fully realise his own visions and to dictate directions to his band, yet one who simultaneously was willing and able to hook in a large number of collaborators to be spliced into the ever more gargantuan constructions he was trying to fashion. Axl simply stopped participating in the business of music; no press, no live performance, “no” to whatever management ever asked of him (including one alleged incident when apparently, having been pressured to finish some recordings, Axl drove an SUV over the CDs sent to him by his manager) – he refused to be made to treat his music as just a job, or to kowtow to any expectations.

It relied on a very visible rudeness and an unwillingness to please anyone except himself, it needed him to be free of any need to earn money – which was something Guns n’ Roses’ success had already earned him – but Axl Rose did make the great escape. It led to him being criticised rather than praised given he wasn’t playing the game, the music industry machine had been cheated of one of its biggest stars, but Axl Rose survived and made music the way he wanted to regardless of external pressures and now tours, pretty well, as and when he wants. Kurt Cobain rejected the performing, recording and talking aspects of his role, was towed back into it for the In Utero tour and once again ran from it. Yet he didn’t have the same cocoon ready to receive him; and his music hadn’t yet opened up to significant quantities of collaboration; the expression of his visions rested firmly in his own hands and he wasn’t used to letting others craft the sounds around his words or vice versa. He was early in a journey it took Axl Rose from 1987 until 1995 to execute; Kurt Cobain was barely two and a half years into his flight from the music industry.

That’s often how I look at the aged Axl Rose, not as a has-been or a man out of touch with the music world and begging to be let in. Axl Rose shows no interest in whether his record company makes money, there’s not been much mellowing in his refusenik attitude to the media, he still comes out to play as and when he darn well feels he’ll perform his best – it’s very easy to dislike his way of doing things but I think he’s a man who rose to the peak of the industry with all its necessary compromises and pressures, then found the strength and stubbornness to walk away. Kurt Cobain would have loved to take that same walk but had a conflicted desire to be decent to people and to fulfil his responsibilities that meant he couldn’t leave but nor could he stay.

Anyways, here’s Axl Rose on Jimmy Kimmel. Funny, and I want a Halloween tree:

Battle of the Birds: Kurt Cobain’s Girlfriends

An immediate apology for flippantly using the term ‘birds’ just to come up with a slightly more catchy title to what is a relatively flippant bit of data-play. As a proviso it’s safe to say that this post isn’t entirely serious — it’s merely a tumescent growth that arose from the work done this week on Kurt Cobain and the subject of his living arrangements. There’s a risk in the title, of course, of suggesting that one or another individual could be held ‘responsible’ for whatever peak or fall occurred in Kurt’s creativity — as I’ve made clear before (see the “www.nirvana-legacy.com/2012/11/20/if-she-floats-in-defense-of-courtney-love” post) I genuinely don’t believe anyone other Kurt Cobain was responsible for these trends.

Having looked at the matter of where Kurt was when he wrote the majority of his songs, I wanted to examine who was his key, official, partner during these periods of time. As a second disclaimer, I’m doing this because I’m feeling playful; as an exercise it’s a perfect example of how any data can be compared to any other data whatsoever without leading to enlightenment or meaning — why do it then? Sheer curiosity. Not everything has to lead somewhere or mean something to be worth taking a crack at.

Discounting Mary Lou Lord who apparently backed up Kurt’s statements that they had never been romantically involved, Kurt Cobain was attached to three individuals between early 1987 and his death; Tracy Marander, Tobi Vail and Courtney Love. In each case, the relationships have been reduced in the retelling — to dependence, one-way head-over-heels, to mutually destructive passion — which probably has nullified any sense of the enjoyment and pleasure taken from all three. That’s not uncommon, question most people about their ex-partners or judge the relationship in the rear-view mirror and they end up being judged by the outcome not the time-specific experience, which is a shame.

Tracy was Kurt’s first real girlfriend and lasted from around January 1987 until May 1990 — 41 months. Tobi was the whirlwind in the middle making it less than six months from May to November 1990. Courtney arrived as a permanent fixture in October 1991 — 30 months:

KC_Girlfriends_Time Spent

Now…What did Kurt Cobain do during those periods of time?

KC_Girlfriends_Songs Written

A solid victory for the time spent in Olympia with Tracy Marander but, as usual, fun to look at the percentages also:

KC_Girlfriends_Songs Per Month

Told you it was fun to look. Suddenly it seems that the periods of domestic stability didn’t come close to the rough n’ tumble of Tobi and her loss. So, if I felt like being cynical I’d say “guys, if you want to make things happen in life — ditch the comfy woman!” But I’m only teasing. The coincidence of Kurt Cobain’s freedom, solitude, non-drug addiction, favourite drummer, major label shot and so forth all made late 1990-early 1991 a massive time for Kurt Cobain. What we’re looking at is a flaw in the data; it’s unclear how many of the songs I’ve placed in the second half of 1990 were in fact created prior to Kurt being dumped by Tobi, just as it’s unclear how many of the songs written in the first half of 1991 were finalised before Courtney’s arrival.

Sighhhhh…All this work just to conclude that not everything gives a meaningful correlation and that statistics are indeed the playthings of the data devil. Oh, because my friend asked (thank you Josephine! This one’s for you!), here’s the full record of Kurt Cobain’s known dalliances with the female of the species, as noted in the book Heavier Than Heaven, just for her. And yes, it feels voyeuristic and intrusive listing all this but for the sake of completism:

KC_All Girlfriends and Female Encounters_Table

Addendum: Cheers to Selena for raising this. The summer 1983 incident is controversial. Buzz Osborne has suggested its completely untrue – meanwhile it’s been cited twice including a full audio recording of Cobain seen in Montage Of Heck. Unfortunately, despite the ‘story telling format’ of the audio recording, despite Buzz’s reservations regarding whether public shaming in school happened at all, it’s impossible to say to what extent it was just a bizarre fantasy by Cobain – or, alternately, based on some personal experience. There’s no evidence determining that Buzz’s word should be credited over and above Cobain’s voice. Either way it’s one heck of story and pretty disturbing if it’s an invented tale of sexual discomfort, manipulation, inability to perform, shame, etc.

Anyways, context: this was a throwaway post written in December 2013. It’s neither scientific nor particularly interesting. The core of this blog is about the music of Nirvana and that’s where the heart is.

Living Like a Rock Star

It seems that the idea of ‘a rock star’ has been whittled down to a final form easily recognised and described by everyone. It makes it hard, however, to recall how recent the clichés involved are. The entire industry of pop music, let alone rock music (a 1970s creation), didn’t exist until the mid-1950s. In retrospect the worship of Elvis, or the hysterical reactions to The Beatles seem hard to comprehend but in each case these artists were the first of their kind, there was no mould to be filled early in their careers and, afterwards, no template for what a mid-career music star should do or should behave. The association with sexuality (albeit a gentle sexuality at the time) began with Elvis; the drug connection (while quietly present within jazz) surfaced in The Beatles; the wildman image was already appealing and became a core part of the identity we’re describing here thanks to The Rolling Stones.

The Seventies solidified and deepened the ideal that had been forged. The drugs became omnipresent and almost celebrated as a sign of wealth and decadence. The sex became essentially a form of public display with groupies and orgies replacing the quieter awareness that flocks of girls were surrounding the stars. The bad boy image was fleshed out with destructive acts carried out on musical instruments or hotel rooms, flirtations with black magic or Satanism or whatever other flavour of the month would rile people. Again, while historical precedents can be found in the blues (whether Robert Johnson selling his soul or Lead Belly’s repeated arrests for violence) these elements only cemented into an identity at this point, one that would be worn like a uniform in the Eighties rock scene.

Punk stripped down the musical style and rejected the increasing move to omnipotent and untouchable rock god status — yet it did so by retaining the focus on certain core pieces of the, now established, identity; the violence, drugs, sex, the bad (and photogenic) behaviour all wrapped up in a package designed to appeal to an audience on lower budgets. Punk didn’t produce a brand new rock star image, it selectively embellished the existing one in the interests of accessibility – anyone could do it and it doesn’t take much effort to mimic something sordid. The same era also saw the question posed, for the first time, what does an aging star do? The answers were semi-retirement (Lennon), finding God (Dylan), vast over-indulgence (Elvis) or increasingly soft and friendly tunes and plenty of quality-lite collaboration with friends (Jagger, Bowie, McCartney) with the occasional death to spice it up and make it dangerous again.

The Eighties didn’t revolutionize this image; the Eighties were basically a blending of aspects of punk with the now stable vision of the rock stars. What occured instead was a constant escalation into cartoon realms; who could do what, with whom, who did the most – the image of the rock star reached its grand finale. With the mainstream model so rigidly defined, it was the first time there had truly been an underground bubbling away, an all-encompassing term for bands that departed from the image that would be promoted, funded, given access to recording facilities. A lot of the older generation, who had set the model, were now so firmly established that they were now core to the pop scene rather than living separately in a rock ghetto.

Nirvana’s ‘revolution’ was therefore less a case of a fundamental musical shift, it was about the change in the image. The music itself was a merging of existing styles, definitely radio-friendly, not that divorced from existing rock modes. But Nirvana explicitly rejected the rampant sexism, the charmless and nihilistic violence, the self-aggrandisement (marrying models, flagrant consumption, extroverted partying, fast cars…) It didn’t make them saints, or pure beings, but it was the first time a female-friendly, pro-gay rights, enlightened rock image had been projected in an uncompromised fashion since the age of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Nirvana knew it too, they spoke again and again about their opposition to, and difference from, the established view of what it meant to be a rock star, how it was the music that differentiated them from heavy metal, how bored and played out rock was. The glitch in what they were saying was, however, that their problem was not one of music — it was about the entire concept of what being a rock star was. Nirvana didn’t tear down rock music, they tore down the ROCKSTAR.

Having shown how false the image was, it was impossible to put the idea of the rock star back together again. Kurt Cobain personally killed the heroin chic that had ruled since the early 70s by being brought low and, in the eyes of many, destroyed by it all within barely two years of the early 1992 peak of fame. The decline was so fast it retained the ability to actually shock; from peak-to-trough it had never been so swift or so submerged in sordid detail — the junkie baby rumours were important for a much broader reason which is that it killed the sense of deviant fun that had somehow survived even Sid Vicious’ ending (at the time seen as an overdose.) There had been drug deaths before, there had been long declines, but there hadn’t been many deaths while still firmly in the spotlight, few cases in which the grossness of the experience had been so visible to the public eye and so indefensible. It was hard to celebrate the drugs.

Kurt simultaneously wrecked the idea of the all-conquering rock God by abdicating his throne; rock stars didn’t quit, they were immortals who could only be destroyed by outside forces. Kurt Cobain ruined the ideal of the rock star as the most fun a man (almost always a man up to that point) could have by never ceasing to show he despised it. Others had reacted to fame by retreated from the spotlight but it had seemed an affectation that could only be afforded by the very rich; one they’d repent when they needed the income or attention and in the meantime they’d sit very nicely in their penthouses drowning in entertainments. Kurt was the biggest rock star in the world and just at the crucial moment when everyone was looking his way…He laid waste to a few of the clichés. It was fitting that his suicide came with both heroin and a bullet; symbol of hedonism and metaphor of manliness forever stained all in one fell swoop.

There’s not really been much since. Billy Corgan was the last rock star of the old mould but only on record, in person he was very much the new generation intent on hauling down the idol of the ROCKSTAR. The components of the image — drugs, hedonism, sex, self-aggrandisement, destruction — are all still there but the arms race that had flowed from the fifties onwards had ceased when Kurt Cobain one-upped the entire world. There was no way to top what he did, nor to restore the pieces he showed were simply laughable. The baton passed to the world of hip hop which has been busy running through a remarkably similar and tired tale at high speed from initial revolution, through excess, into cartoon, division into mainstream and underground, finally coming ending up indistinguishable from pop music and certainly with not an ounce of rebellion left in it.

Its why the article below stirred a certain nostalgia in me; it fondly reminded me that revolutions rarely demolish what came before, they either adopt them or mutate them into tweaked shapes.

Alternative all-stars join the 25th anniversary of Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me

Rock star guests, casual collaborations among old friends who share vanity labels and private studios, tributes to their own history, the ability to toss half-baked projects out on name alone, diversions into other business ventures and kids kicking off their own bands…It may be enacted by bands I adore, but it all feels kinda familiar. And all with the same friendliness the Travelling Wilburys or Live Aid brought to a previous generation.

Death & Garbage: If She Floats Part II

Diving to the most horrendous and sick claim; the rumors of murder make little sense given a far easier route (less expenditure, less chance of being found out) would have been for Courtney to leave Kurt on the floor of a Rome hotel room barely four weeks before he took his own life. She could have simply said “I woke up, he was there.” She didn’t. She called for help. That’s a core reality of the situation. Just over thirty days before Kurt’s death Courtney Love saved his life regardless of whether what he had been doing that night was suicide or an accident.

Those wishing to claim murder have to concoct a scenario in which, having gone to all the trouble of persuading Kurt to enter rehab, she waits until he’s on the loose and no one is positive where he is or where he’s going. Then, once he turns up, the killer stages a suicide scene. Frankly, if Courtney Love wanted Kurt Cobain dead then she (and the hired killer) would be no more or less likely to be found out whether he was gunned down inside the house, in the driveway, in the downstairs of the garage. She also, despite having a killer looking for him, hires a private detective, and has the Police looking for him — again, there’s no need to, he’s an adult after all. It would have been far easier to just hush things up then say “oh no! I thought he just needed some time and he’d come back” when the body turned up. She doesn’t. She acts like a scared lover and is frantic trying to find him.

The killer also, for some reason, goes to all the trouble of injecting Kurt as well as blasting him with the shotgun when just one would do. It’s unlikely the killer was too worried about Kurt’s pain levels and having got Kurt all the way up to the garage room there’s no need to subdue him in such a way with a whacking massive overdose, how did he even know Kurt had that much heroin around? Another lucky guess huh? That missing guy no one can find is found so easy and happens to have a load of heroin on him — how lovely. And, of course, we must remember we’re now looking for a double murderer because this killer, despite leaving everything here to chance, is such a perfectionist he decides to kill his victim twice. It’s brilliant to have a murderer so convenient he only does something to leave a nice clue!

The killer also takes the time to stick a pen through the note and leaves it in the dirt of a plant pot. There’s much made of the claim that the note was a resignation letter not a suicide note but the key point is why bother taking it at all? Someone would have either had to sit and watch Cobain write it out like this was some kinda school detention, or would have had to notice the freshly written page and decide to take it with them (as well as fetching Kurt’s own gun, fetching Kurt’s own drug paraphernalia, as well as the towels, a can of root beer…Did no one notice the removals van pulling up?) It’s an interesting idea, a killer taking the time to walk their victim round the house window-shopping for death scene paraphenalia. Or, hang on, was Kurt already up in the garage room with a suicide scene laid out and the killer decided it was unfair for Kurt to go before he’d had the chance to kill him?

It’s just very silly basically. Yeah, that mercenary killer left the $120 that no one knew Kurt had in his wallet to cover getting the garage steam-cleaned. That’s funny given the killer supposedly used Kurt’s credit card — he shuffled the easy money out of the way to take the card? And then, while still unsure if they’ve gotten away clean, the killer decides to wave a great big red flag at the authorities and use the card? I’m unsure why the idea that the killer bizarrely took Kurt’s credit card and then was dumb enough to use it should get more credit than the idea that it was just a delay in the bank’s systems or a technical glitch — errors happen. It all seems to rely on having a killer so incredibly cunning that he can get Kurt from house to garage undetected, with no struggle or attempts at resistance at any point, while carrying handfuls of stuff with them, stage an over-elaborate and unnecessary death scene…And who is simultaneously dumb enough to use a stolen card.

I’m fairly sure that, given her own band’s album was due out the same week, maybe Courtney Love had other things on her mind than killing the father of her child. She could, after all, have chosen any time she wished so choosing to coordinate an assassination at the same time as an album release seems unlikely. Rather than benefitting her career, Kurt’s death prevented her band capitalizing on the release of their album. Kurt’s death was also directly responsible for her erratic performances over the next year and left her a single mother caring for a very young child. Yet her issues across that next year have been considered more as signs of instability rather than as indications of grief. Again, I’m not saying Courtney helps herself but she deserves more credit.

The real problem here is that, as with the demise of The Beatles, there’s an apparent unwillingness to criticize or believe bad things of heroes. Instead the myth of the devil woman comes into play. Even the fact that Kurt and Courtney may have ended up divorced, the fact that they had fights, doesn’t make them any more exceptional than millions of other couples in their twenties — it happens. That my hero (your hero) could be a bit of an asshole in person, one with a severely depressive side, one with extensive and well-documented problems psychologically, physically, professionally, doesn’t detract from the beauty I find in his life and works. For some it seems to be too much to believe that Kurt Cobain wanted to die.

Given Kurt Cobain’s obvious adoration of Courtney Love I find it sad that people can simultaneously claim to be Kurt’s fans while refusing to respect either his choice of partner, his statements on the subject, or even the fact that his band’s final studio album dripped with anger at how poorly she’d been treated. The fact ‘fans’ would continue that vendetta beyond his death is a tragedy. I’ll give the ultimate word to Kurt Cobain himself. “A big ‘fuck you’ to those of you who have the audacity to claim that I’m so naive and stupid that I would allow myself to be taken advantage of and manipulated.”

If She Floats: In Defense of Courtney Love

Having excoriated comments made by an associate of one of their favorite wicked witches, the media’s retraction of the bad vibes aimed at Courtney Love is barely visible:


Fairly typical really. Courtney can do no right in the eyes of many and a significant number of publications are happy to leap on her every misstep because they know there’s a ready audience prepared to hate her. For the sake of argument, I’m going to offer the opposing position that, to quote King Lear, she is “more sinn’d against than sinning.”

Courtney Love and Hole were responsible for three of the finest albums of the entire grunge era; 1992’s Pretty on the Inside, 1994’s Live Through This and 1998’s Celebrity Skin. Her band had already built a substantial underground following — yet the fact that Hole undoubtedly did benefit from her relationship with Kurt Cobain is deemed to be a Machiavellian scheme manipulating him for profit. That does mean ignoring her own history in music (she was in a number of punk bands prior to an early version of Babes in Toyland) and the fact that, in 1992-1993, her band were one of the few top-quality unsigned acts (Helmet?) A major was always going to sign them. And if she did benefit from a relationship with Kurt Cobain then hold on, Kurt gave far more visible and heavy support to other bands without there being accusations of cheating (The Vaselines’ reissues, The Raincoats’ reissues, opportunities for Shonen Knife…) Bands help loved ones, it happens, the entire grunge scene was built on mutual support.

Rumours and bitchy talk also held that Kurt wrote her music for her. The sum proof amounts to Kurt gifting her the song Old Age yet, comparing the three extant version (boom box demo, studio version, Kurt acoustic solo) it’s clear that Courtney heavily revised the words. Again, there’s nothing wrong with musical collaboration between married musicians. Courtney Love acted as an inspiration for a number of lyrics on In Utero while some of Kurt’s most amusing outbursts (The Word TV show; “we love you Courtney”; the Incesticide liner notes; Axl Rose at the 1992 MTV VMA’s…) wouldn’t have happened without her. We can thank her for parts of the story of Nirvana and for various lyrics from the artist we adore.

Courtney also gets no credit for her effect on Kurt. She didn’t get him hooked on heroin; he did that all himself. She made plentiful efforts in 1993 to get him into studios to try to restore his faded muse, she had him write playful efforts with her (the apocryphal Nighty Nite songs) — it was his own choice to evade studios and avoid his band, not her decision. She can also be thanked for helping persuade a frantic Kurt not to kill himself in the hospital at the time of their daughter’s birth. It’s difficult to imagine trying to raise a child and maintain one’s own creative interests with someone in tow who is chronically unable (and unwilling) to drop the drug habit. She also deserves credit for several occasions when he had to be rescued from overdoses. Like any responsible and loving partner it is well recorded that she put it all on the line with him at the drug intervention in 1994 just to try and get him back to rehab again; she was trying to get her husband off the drugs that were destroying him and seems to have had precious little help from numerous other individuals who could perhaps have been expected to offer more support.

Some part of the annoyance with Courtney focuses on her custodianship of the estate of Kurt Cobain. Yet, again, as the nonsense surrounding the rumours of a musical showed, there’s often little substance to the annoyance. The flow of fresh Nirvana material was interrupted by the legal spat between Courtney, Krist and Dave — unfortunately, though annoying, it’s fairly reasonable to seek a revision of terms if one feels misled. And legal matters take time regardless of the desires or otherwise of the people involved, it’s a process not a conversation. As soon as it was resolved the promised material appeared; there’s little evidence around that of Courtney doing anything untoward with Nirvana’s legacy, any weaknesses in post-millennium releases are as much down to Krist and Dave as to her and there have been few products or uses of Nirvana’s music that have stepped outside the bounds of taste.

Courtney’s reputation suffered in the Vanity Fair debacle, yet it’s clear Frances Bean Cobain was born a perfectly healthy baby and, as Courtney had always stated, she had stopped drugs as soon as she knew she was pregnant. Courtney certainly hasn’t helped herself by being more than happy to provoke journalists but predominantly her problem has been too much information and saying everything that comes into her head rather than fiendish secret evil. At the 1992 MTV VMAs Axl Rose’s then partner Stephanie Seymour asked Courtney “are you a model?” Courtney snapped back “are you a brain surgeon?” It sums it up really. There’s a comfy acceptance of rock stars going out with pretty models who know to keep their mouths shut. Yet, for Kurt Cobain, a star with a progressive attitude, to be attracted to a creative (and attractive) woman from a similar musical culture and background, one with a sharp sense of humour and no tolerance of fools — there’s no credit given. The gold-digger view gets more play than the idea that two young people felt a fierce attraction, loved one another and had plenty in common.

William S. Burroughs: Kurt’s Perfect Literary Idol Part. 2

Kurt’s key literary idol was William S. Burroughs and, as we began to explore in part one of this piece, there are clear reasons why the connection was made. Kurt’s teenage descriptions are of hanging out with a gay friend simply as a rebellion against the local rednecks; seeking out a fellow ‘reject’ to win freedom from their abuse and impositions.

William S. Burroughs had, by the Eighties, become the ultimate literary outlaw. Yet, increasingly downplayed was the importance of Burroughs’ homosexuality — even now, if you read his Wikipedia entry, it’s possible to see the drugs and guns and barely notice that he wrote book after book fixated on penises penetrated male anuses, it was gay fiction first and foremost. Most importantly, what Burroughs was attempting to write was the possibility of escape. Burroughs hated effeminate homosexuals and what he wanted to portray and elevate was the idea of the non-effeminate male homosexual; the result was, on the one hand, Burroughs’ own lifestyle with its guns, drugs, rock n’ roll and counter-culture vibe, and on the other hand a series of hero figures within his novels who were almost all explicitly gay while simultaneously being gun-toting, anti-authoritarian rebels, outlaws, gunslingers and warriors.

This was a surprisingly perfect fit to Kurt’s challenge. Kurt Cobain was seeking a concept, a belief, that would allow him to stop feeling un-manly and un-masculine without requiring him to be consumed by the traditional masculinity as emphasized by his father and by school bullies. William S. Burroughs was saying over and over again that a defiantly male identity was possible that didn’t need to rely ultimately on heterosexual coupling (Burroughs was a massive misogynist believing sex to be just another way society held back and retarded human potential.) He was also stating that the new male didn’t have to conform to the view prevalent in the mid-twentieth century that equated homosexuality with effeminacy and didn’t permit alternative visions of what a man could be.

Burroughs’ work therefore was surprisingly tightly linked to the conflicts portrayed in the music of Nirvana (Laminated Effect, Floyd the Barber, Even in his Youth, Stain, Been a Son, Rape Me’s first demo… Plus all the songs in which Kurt portrays himself as diseased or ‘wrong’) and was, most importantly, an escape route. To a young man with a wounded male identity, Burroughs showed that there didn’t have to be a direct tie between sexuality and identity, that identity was malleable and that Kurt’s artistic life was no more a preclusion to heterosexuality than Burroughs’ homosexuality precluded him from being a hard-living, gun-loving, aging redneck…Who happened to find sexual pleasure in other men. Sexuality didn’t dictate lifestyle.

Of course, the intellectual, spiritual escape didn’t wholly succeed. The nearest Kurt seems to have come to a resolution is in his very vocally expressed sexual adoration of Courtney Love; “the best fuck in the world.” The problem though is that his underlying psychological issue posited that the shedding of guilt and a move to ‘wholeness’ would result from his bonding with a woman. Discovering that even though it made him very happy, that expecting one’s partner to provide you absolute happiness is unrealistic; there are compromises involved in sharing a life with another human being and others can only help, they can’t ‘fix’ you entirely.

This makes Kurt’s desire to have Burroughs star in the Heart Shaped Box video an intriguing one. A song that was about his submission to his female love object, that explicitly uses imagery referring to her vagina, was going to feature a man who’s work was about freeing man from his enslavement to vaginal fixation, and from a sense of manliness reliant on acquisition and use of women. Far more than being simply a rich rock star trying to call in a personal idol, the participation of William S. Burroughs in the video would have lent even greater emphasis to the song’s entangled themes of love versus freedom, of the centrality of children whether as renewal (fetuses feeding the IV tubes of an old man) or as oppressor (KKK outfits) and the umbilical noose meaning one can’t escape one’s genetics.

William S. Burroughs: Kurt’s Perfect Literary Idol Part. 1

I’m instituting a week of more controversial topics I think…For argument’s sake.

Kurt Cobain’s musical career featured the work of, in essence, a nineteen to twenty-seven year old man. Yet, in a music industry that tends toward romance and excessive libido, these elements were almost absence from Kurt’s lyrics. On the other hand, there are multiple references to emasculation, numerous adoptions of the female role within a song, heck, there are more songs about rape than about consensual sex.

Kurt was not gay, there’s no evidence of that at all, but he did have a genuine challenge around gender identity. His father made clear to Kurt how disappointing his lack of interest in traditional signifiers of heterosexual masculinity was; a feeling of shame Kurt displayed in his songs years later. Being made to feel that he wasn’t a whole man seems a crucial factor in the emasculatory images used. Essentially his father’s staunchly ‘jock’ view of what being a man was left Kurt adrift once he rejected his father. The problem was that his father’s view of the world left Kurt with few alternatives; effeminacy or acceptance of homosexuality. The reinforcement given to this by school bullying, being labeled a “faggot”, led him to wear the identity just to be left alone.

The conflict is surprisingly undimmed years later in The Advocate interview; “I’m definitely gay in spirit, and I probably could be bisexual…I probably would have carried on with a bisexual life-style” he says. It’s a ludicrous but revealing quotation; Kurt Cobain was never bisexual, there’s evidence of a few girlfriends, of his heterosexual dalliances and experiments plus his head-over-heels passion for Courtney Love. There’s no evidence of a genuinely homosexual attraction to other men. By a bisexual lifestyle it’s unclear what he’s referring to bar his spells between girlfriends when he just seems to have been asexual and solitary. What it shows his how Kurt was unable to see that his creative, artistic, solitary tendencies were perfectly masculine — he’s still centred on the idea that as he wasn’t macho he therefore must be not fully heterosexual. He equates his lifestyle with non-heterosexuality by default not because it was bi-or-homosexual.

The song Laminated Effect from the Fecal Matter demo is a horrible indication of this conflict. The first verse shows the protagonist, Johnny, being raped by his father and as a consequence living an unhappy life that ends with him dying of AIDS in San Francisco. So, just to be clear, the only destiny for a male homosexual character was misery and death. The second verse meanwhile has a lesbian character being ‘cured’ as she finds out male-on-female vaginal penetration “it’s normal.” It’s not a nice song and on first reading could be taken as a simple, nasty, piece of teenage homophobia. As with most of Kurt’s lyrics, however, it’s far more about himself than any commentary on society or social groupings as a whole. It’s a song about the destruction set in motion by a father figure destroying the son and about life only being sustainable if tied to the female. It’s not a homophobic song, it’s not Kurt revealing an underlying hypocrisy in his later pro-homosexual leanings, it’s Kurt showing that he feels he’s doomed because his dad has robbed him of his manliness making him into something (“made not born” as the song’s outro claims) that can only mean a sad, unhealthy life and an undesirable end.

It’s the same conflict echoed in songs like Floyd the Barber, Been a Son, Stain, Even in his Youth, Beeswax, On a Plain (“neutered and spayed”), Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, the first demo of Rape Me…

Part Two Later Today.

King of the Nirvana Producers

The other week we examined Nirvana’s drummers and their participation in the band’s career. This week we move on to Nirvana’s producers — who did the most work with Nirvana? Who contributed most to the music we know and love?

These aren’t quite the same questions of course. When we look at how many studio sessions the band engaged in the stats are as follows:

Jack Endino, as expected, was that daddy of Nirvana recording sessions shepherding them through their first demo, first single session, first album session, two one song sessions in 1990 and finally the first demo session for In Utero. Yet, does the same hold true in terms of the band’s productivity in those sessions?

Again, Jack wins while Butch Vig’s two sessions with the band in April 1990 and May-June 1991 see him into second place. Nirvana’s soundman Craig Montgomery ends up in third place having recorded a range of material on January 1, 1991 and the Rio de Janeiro demos for In Utero. Its unusual thinking of Craig as the third most productive Nirvana collaborator when it came to production duties but understandable given the priority given to the albums:

It’s now that we can see the plaudits as they have been traditionally awarded with Jack, Butch and Steve Albini occupying the top ranks. Between 1988 and 1994 the ‘finished product’ emerged, primarily, at the hands of these three men making them the names most associated with Nirvana’s work despite the wealth of material since issued much of which was created with the support of others. It’s the focus on end product in the public domain, not necessarily overall work, that has been a key influence on the respect awarded producers…But it doesn’t erase the fact that Jack Endino is the uber-producer of Nirvana.

Drums, Drums, Drums – Part Three

How about performances on record? Again, there are a few ways of examining it. Looking first at the record of Nirvana studio recording sessions:

Aaron Burckhard and Dave Foster simply didn’t appear on any studio sessions with the band. Again, Dave Grohl comes out as the leader appearing on 59 songs across seven recording sessions. Chad Channing, however, isn’t far behind having recorded 35 songs in six sessions. Dale Crover drummed on the ten songs recorded at Nirvana’s first session while Dan Peters was the man with the magic sticks for Sliver.

If one considered Nirvana’s TV and radio appearances only three drummers appeared; Dave Grohl drummed on four of seven radio sessions, Chad on two then Aaron on Nirvana’s first ever radio performance in May 1987. Dave, of course, performed all the band’s TV engagements.

In terms of songs released during the band’s lifespan, once again, the stats assert Mr. Grohl’s absolute dominance of Nirvana — 35 songs released compared to 26 by all Nirvana’s other drummers put together:

In summary then, Dave Grohl; the uber-drummer of Nirvana with 35 songs released of 59 recorded, 207 live shows and 42 months in the band. A comprehensive win over his rivals: