Nirvana’s Legacy

The website name had stuck in the head in the couple days before I got round to having to pick one. There was something punchy about it and I can admit it might be a steal from the title of Mick Wall and Malcolm Dome’s book Nirvana: The Legacy. I found the idea of that book inspiring but the content barely moved me being little more than a rehash of band bios of the time, an insipid quick dash over the top of the musical landscape of 1994-1997. The question remains valid, however; what has been the legacy of Nirvana?

Many people argue that nothing changed, that many of the old names stuck around, that the indie revolution never happened as expected and the charts remained flooded with manufactured product. Certainly grunge was the last gasp of rock as simultaneously a mass market phenomenon and a vital creative force — just as jazz ceded its position to pop and rock, rock was succeeded by hip hop fuelled R n’ B. That doesn’t mean that there was no legacy for Nirvana, it simply means that the market and industry changed fundamentally and that legacy wasn’t the multi-million selling multi-band phenomenon/movement they were looking for.

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the hype around ‘alternative’ music was a gamble made by major label record companies who, deceived by the success of a small coterie of bands, were under the mistaken impression that a substantial market existed for punk-inspired or derived bands and therefore plunged energy into promoting the idea of the ‘alternative nation’. What they’d overlooked was that the triumph of Nirvana, Hole, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam was a victory for the bands possessing a sound close enough to existing mainstream rock to sell well. Most of the bands that made it onto majors simply weren’t even close to pop of the stadium-filling U2 et al. variety.

On the other hand, while acknowledging the points around the ‘death’ of rock, hype and compromise, I’d argue that the quest to find direct musical heirs has led to the tangible evidence of Nirvana’s influence being overlooked. Direct musical heirs are an exceedingly rare phenomenon; popular culture may echo but it rarely repeats. The greatest artists are so inimitable that those who do follow their template precisely are never anything more than pale copies; that’s the category into which the saleable but critically distained bands that followed the grunge ROCK template in the late nineties (i.e., Creed) fell into. The zeitgeist had moved on.

Usually what happens is a degree of inspiration, an element of the sound is taken. As an example, the successors to Jimi Hendrix were arguably the axe-worshipping legends Steve Vai and Joe Satriani — the fact that each of those artists moved in very different circles to Hendrix’s increasingly funk influenced last recordings and were more enamoured of his soloing side than his abilities with the brief quality pop mode, obscured the link. Guns n’ Roses meanwhile owed much to both the Rolling Stones and to Led Zeppelin while also tacking on aspects of punk. There are plenty of arguable relationships but in bands of top quality the relationship doesn’t mean cloning; even Oasis were never identical to their worn-on-sleeve influences.

So, when looking for the legacy of Nirvana, simply demanding a carbon copy is a quest bound only for disappointment. The influence of Nirvana is of a different quality. Firstly, the wave of which Nirvana was the foremost exponent, hard-wired punk into the DNA of every key rock band that has come since. The solo-worshipping, high-note-busting style of rock that dominated the Seventies and Eighties was wiped from the mainstream map. Instead the high-achieving rock bands have spanned from Green Day, to My Chemical Romance, through Limp Bizkit (yes), to Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead and even Muse. Unless you want to try and argue the case of novelty band The Darkness, there hasn’t been a truly successful band mimicking the hard rock sound in over two decades. What died altogether was hard rock, that combination of pop production and slickness with the metal-edged volume and bombast.
Secondly, Nirvana ushered in a new emotionally detailed vocabulary for mainstream rock stars; Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins certainly showed that there was a trend toward focused depression at the time of which Nirvana, arguably, was a part. Now, in the form of (oft-maligned) Emo, and with significant credit going to Weezer and The Descendants, there’s a greater openness to expressions of male emotional pain, a broadening of expression. Again, it’s not that Nirvana deserve the sole-credit for this but they showed it had arrived.

Thirdly, the sexism departed from the guitar-led musical world. The leather trousers, groupies and uber-mensch look shuffled from centre stage — it’s now such an oddity it even receives a defined sub-genre label, Sleaze Rock, when in the Eighties the rock world was dominated by this form. While the punk world in general had an openness to counter-cultural currents — hence queercore, Riot Grrl, straightedge, outright Marxism and even Bad Brains’ spirituality could all coexist — it was Nirvana who stated openly, over and over again, how ridiculous and retarded the sexism of rock had become. Again, the alternative nation did birth something.

Fourth and finally, Nirvana showed that there was finally an infrastructure that could give underground bands a sustainable means of living. The much vaunted Eighties underground scene had died a death — a bare handful of bands lived through it intact simply because there weren’t enough venues, enough music sales, enough fans, enough coverage to sustain them. Sonic Youth have stated that one of the best things about Daydream Nation as an album was that it meant they could finally give up having day jobs.
The four shifts in rock music that occurred in the early-to-mid-nineties are underrated because they’re impossible to pin to a single instigator alone; it’s hard to say Nirvana were wholly responsible, of course they weren’t, they were simply a defining part and the most important figurehead signalling the shift. So, if one is looking for a musical legacy, one that isn’t a parody, or that wasn’t a broad social force, what’s left?

The answer struck me most forcibly over the past three months as I’ve corresponded with numerous individuals worldwide about the book, the blog, Nirvana, life in general. Kurt Cobain was pure punk in that he wasn’t a guitar-worshipper, the music was a way of channelling emotion, spirit, fire, energy — whatever you want to call it. Krist Novoselic said in his eulogy on April 10, 1994 “…if you’ve got a guitar and a lot of soul just bang something out and mean it. You’re the superstar. Plugged in the tones and rhythms that are uniquely and universally human: music. Heck… use your guitar as a drum, just catch the groove and let it flow out of your heart.” This could serve as a rallying cry for any part of the diversified rock-influenced world from the indie end of the spectrum out to the wildest noise or drone. There are a vast number of musicians working today, rarely the famous, who were simply inspired by Nirvana to try something new, different. They may not sound too much like Nirvana but how are they not the heirs to Nirvana when there’s such a joyful racket being made as a consequence of that band’s short fire?

Below is my copy of the Fuck Brett birthday LP courtesy of Feeding Tube Records — the eponymous Brett is a huge Nirvana fanatic and musical creator. On the shelf behind me is Nerd Table’s Chasing the Bronco CD, Adam Casto, leading light of the band, told me specifically that his way of creating something personally positive from the demise of Nirvana was to seek out every former member of Nirvana he could and try to collaborate with them; again, beautiful. A fellow called Adam Harding has shared a demo — you’ll have to wait and see — that wears his early Nineties alternative nation vibe loud and proud while taking it a step forward. There’s an artist I’m in touch with in Scotland, hi Marcus(!), with an intriguing Cobain-related project. I even heard from a member of Trampled by Turtles (http://trampledbyturtles.com/) the other day — so many Nirvana fans doing creative stuff, that’s the legacy. Heck, ever since Nirvana, and despite a complete lack of ability, I’ve always held up creative action as the highest form of human activity and life.

There’s a lot going on out there even if the media would prefer straight lines, clear quotes and family ties. Will there be another Nirvana? It’s hard to find likely candidates given the most crucial elements of Nirvana were unpredictability and a soul-deep amount of damage residing inside…But keep looking.

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Embryonic, Proterozoic, Larval Damage: Nirvana Jams

http://music.thedigitalfix.com/content/feature/15412/nirvana-live-tonight-on-tape-.html

This neat article by Brett Anderson of band Eggs, Eggs dwells on remaining worthy moments in the increasingly stripped bare record of Nirvana. It’s a great selection — I headed off immediately and listened/re-listened to all of them — yet noticeably fleshed out with a number of live jams. I’m not saying those jams aren’t each of interest, but they do lay bare the increasing absence of interesting, and glossier, leftovers as well as the minimal evidence of Nirvana’s improvisations evolving into full songs.

The primary evidence of the band’s talent as improvisers rests on only a smattering of officially released studio efforts. Endless Nameless constitutes the core item; it’s a performance so powerful that it churns on for its seven minute running time (nine minutes on the equally genius radio version) with permanent drama and interest, never outstaying its welcome. Later In Utero’s bonus track, Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip, alongside The Other Improv piece captured on With the Lights Out, both display an ability to pull together loose, but workable, pieces based around reasonably worked out Cobain monologues and screams.

Around those efforts the only other remains from Nirvana’s studio sessions are the longer slices, clipped from jams taking place on October 26, 1992 and January 30, 1994 respectively, featured on the With the Lights Out DVD’s title menus — and the first shot at Scentless Apprentice which we’ll mention in a moment. The jams are certainly energetic, fired up guitar-throttling but, though interesting, nothing really marks itself out as a product of genius. The only other notable studio piece lies in the bootleg domain with the track known variously as Horrified or Crisco (among other titles) from the VPRO Radio performance in November 1991. The band all changed instruments and it doesn’t exactly glisten with quality but it still shows the band pulling together something from nothing much, regardless of the fact that the end product still doesn’t add up to something much.

Sonic Youth’s deluxe reissues of Goo and Dirty (plus their rarities release The Destroyed Room) demonstrated the band’s extensive use of rehearsal jams to hone the structure of a song, to par multiple competing ideas down to core lines; a group of musicians working in unison to fashion the ideas each one brought to the table. With Nirvana, the rarest piece available is the demo take of Scentless Apprentice on With the Lights Out which shows Nirvana performing a similar process of familiarisation and then amendment. Unfortunately, as so little Nirvana rehearsal material is available, there’s no way of seeing how often this kind of group activity was enacted. That’s where the primary gap lies; while other bands have let their rehearsal space try-outs escape into the world, whatever remains of Nirvana’s are under lock-and-key.

There’s a reason, however, to believe that improvisation wasn’t the norm at all. The renegotiation of Nirvana’s publishing royalties in 1992 left Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Chad Channing with a percentage interest in only a dozen songs — it suggests they had a minimal involvement in writing or introducing musical elements. Instead, if one wishes to observe Nirvana’s process of construction, it’s the acoustic demos that are the Ur-text of Nirvana’s songs. Essentially they show Kurt Cobain had already plotted, in ragged form, the structure he intended each song to have. There was room for an on-the-spot solo, for bass and drum flourishes, but essentially he knew what was wanted to the extent of instructing Dave and Chad on how he wanted the drums. I suspect that the reason not much rehearsal material showcasing recognisable Nirvana compositions has been released, bar that one song, is because there isn’t much that became a part of their more formal legacy.

Positively, however, having laid down a song in pretty solidly concluded form, the live arena saw the band occasionally taking a song and dismantling it, using its components within wider compositions. Readily available examples are a jam from on-stage in Australia in 1992 where the band shoved Hairspray Queen into the colander sound of a ten minute session, or alternatively the revised version of Vendetagainst that sometimes goes under the name of Come On Death taken from a late September 1991 gig in New York. The latter sounds like a late attempt to wring fresh life into the tune, to make something of a song he seemed unsure of; it’s a shame there’s not more evidence of this destructive creativity in relation to other neglected Nirvana songs; he clearly had a good knowledge of what was left in the archive given the long gaps between appearances by certain songs. On the other hand, to be fair, besides echoes in the half-visible vocals, it’s the bass rhythm that is most clearly cribbed from Vendetagainst so there’s a chance credit should go to Krist Novoselic not Kurt for its reintroduction.

Alas, checking the readily available selection of live jams present on YouTube, it seems clear that, in the live arena, the always engaging noise breaks and finales were off-the-cuff disposables. There’s no evidence this was a band that sat checking its live outtakes to see if there were neat accidents that could be reused…But. Very late in the day, there’s the intriguing case of the December 1993 jams. On both November 12 and December 29, 1993 Nirvana closed out the set with a typical round of destruction, but in the midst of it wedged a recurring piece, with lyrics, that seems to be at least the fledgling beginnings of a song. Similarly, on November 10, 1993 Kurt inserted the riff from You Know You’re Right. While the link from that song’s late October unveiling, through that single stolen jam-piece, to the January 1994 session is self-evident, an intriguing rumour states that the Nov/Dec unknown piece resurfaces in the tiny snippet of Nirvana’s January jams present on the With the Lights Out DVD. It’s at least pleasing, if accurate, to see a hint of further musical thoughts at that late stage, a piece of potential circling in the Cobain mind. It also appears to indicate that, far from heading in an acoustic direction, Nirvana was still roaring into the louder, harsher, nastier sound seen at the Rio sessions back in January 1993.

But it’s just a hint. Ultimately we’re still left feeling that more evidence of Nirvana’s rehearsal work, of the progress of songs from first thought to final concept, would be welcomed.

As a post-script, it was pointed out to me yesterday that Kurt actually jammed briefly on the Black & White Blues tune at a show in 1990 (February 14, 1990 – San Francisco, Kennel Club) as seen here – thanks to David Willhauk on LiveNirvana for this information:

Which can be compared to the demo outtake of Black & White Blues seen here:

Ownership of Nirvana Part Two

Kurt’s death set in motion the next spell of Nirvana as a legal entity rather than a living band; the Nirvana Limited Liability Company. Krist’s response to the law suit brought by Courtney Love in May 2001 stated that it took three years to negotiate the precise legal status of Nirvana L.L.C. and that Courtney retained full control over Kurt Cobain’s publishing share alongside use of his image and name. In amidst this, on July 2, 1996 an amendment to Nirvana’s contract with DGC came into effect requiring them to handover a Nirvana archive box set by June 2001.

June arrived…And with it, the infamous court case with Courtney asking that Nirvana L.L.C. be dissolved claiming that Dave and Krist were repeatedly block-voting against her in all matters related to Nirvana; that she’d been railroaded into the arrangement; and that You Know You’re Right shouldn’t be included on the planned box set. She received an injunction preventing that song’s release by the end of the month. A further effort in October to gain full control for the estate of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana’s masters led to Dave and Krist counter-suing in December — which led to Cobain’s mother weighing in on Courtney’s side of the debate. A ruling in April 2002 refused Krist and Dave’s request that Courtney undergo psychiatric evaluation and everything rolled toward the December court date…And was resolved in September.

On the record company side, the DGC label was folded into the reorganisation of Universal Music Group from 1999 with its autonomous status removed. Geffen and A&M became part of Interscope and its subsequent travails are beyond the scope of this chat. At the turn of the millennium though the status of the label was unclear, personnel were shifting so relationships were lost — Courtney Love’s legal case was fair in stating things were uncertain.

Nirvana’s story became increasingly entangled with larger wars. Courtney was involved in a case accusing Universal of corrupt business practices in tying artists to contracts longer than those signed by other employees. That was part of a wider effort known as the Recording Artists Coalition to try to overturn these kinds of contracts. She was simultaneously being sued by Universal from 2000 onward for failure to deliver the required five Hole albums and had countersued in March 2001 claiming that Universal had defrauded Hole. It concluded with the label agreeing to free Hole from their contract, to return rights to unreleased Hole music to her. In return she agreed to give Universal a cut of revenue from subsequent releases, removed restrictions on reissuing previously released Hole material…And let Universal release the subsequent Nirvana archive projects as part of the Nirvana L.L.C. settlement.

Since then, things have become ever more tangled and ever more arcane.

Courtney’s control over Kurt Cobain’s publishing rights meant she was entitled to go ahead, in April 2006, with the sale of 25% of those rights to Primary Wave Music Publishing, who would seek out potential uses of Kurt Cobain’s music (that figure subsequently seems to have hit 50% either through a further agreement or initial misreporting.) The deal also included complete rights to distribute Nirvana’s music. A court case in 2008 included a document stating the sale was for $19.5m not the wild estimates ranging up to $50m. The results weren’t great for Primary Wave with estimates in early 2009 being that use of Nirvana’s music had resulted in only $2.3m in royalties at that point in time. It doesn’t seem an entirely happy marriage given the 2012 spat over Courtney’s annoyance at Smells Like Teen Spirit being used in The Muppets’ new movie — something agreed by Primary Wave and approved by Dave and Krist. Courtney subsequently claimed she hadn’t signed over ‘synchronisation rights’ —money paid related to the combination of music with visual images (i.e., film, TV, computer games.)

Courtney received a substantial advance on the Nirvana greatest hits release in 2002 and also on the publication of Kurt Cobain’s Journals — then was subsequently sued by the law firm who had represented her to secure this. Hendricks & Lewis demanded $340K in unpaid fees on top of the cool $1.15m they’d earned representing Courtney throughout the earlier Nirvana disputes. This case was settled in Autumn of 2007. A further law suit was settled in late 2010 related to the rights to Cobain’s music. The accounting firm, London & Co. claimed at the start of their case in July 2008 Courtney had agreed to pay them 5% of any earnings from The End of Music LLC and therefore claimed a share of the sale to Primary Wave.

The next twist came this year as it turned out that from sometime in 2010 Courtney handed over control of her share of Kurt Cobain’s estate to Frances Bean Cobain in return for a loan from the money that had accrued in Frances’ trust fund; this came after a turbulent time in which Frances got a restraining order against her mum and had Kurt’s mother and sister named her legal guardians until she reached age eighteen. As far as can be told this hasn’t made any waves in terms of new releases or deviations from established anniversary plans.

Meanwhile, in late 2012, control over Virgin Music Publishing passed to BMG. Sony bought EMI Music Publishing but was made to sell various catalogues of songs as a condition of the sale. Again, it makes little difference beyond being another piece of the endless folding and unfurling of music companies, legal ownership, percentage shares and business obscurity building up around the band as it moves further and further away from a living breathing entity and deeper into the realm of paper concepts.

Ownership of Nirvana Part One

Nirvana as a business, as a commercial product, has been quite a saga in itself. The first time the whole subject reared its head was right back in 1992 with a significant argument between Cobain and his partners in the band. The royalties and money due to the band consisted of a direct percentage of sales, then an additional percentage consisting of the publishing royalties.

The band’s contract with Sub Pop, signed in early 1989, was a fairly basic effort offering $6,000 in 1989, $12,000 in 1990 and $24,000 in 1991…To be split between the three band members. The band relied on their cut of sales plus touring income (the band’s descriptions suggest that even in 1990 the latter amounted to only a few hundred dollars each at the end of a couple months of touring.) Sonic Youth talk about how it was only the success of Daydream Nation, eight years into their career, that allowed them to quit their day jobs — Nirvana in 1989-1990 were living barely above the poverty line and only a relatively ascetic life made this liveable.

The contract signing with DGC sometime around April 30, 1991 certainly made life a lot more comfortable. The band described speculation about the size of their advance as “journalism through hearsay…The numbers kept getting bigger so that a lot of people believed that we were signing for a million dollars.” The amount they actually signed for, an advance of $287,000 split between the three of them and spread over two albums, was certainly a huge step up on their previous situation but, on the other hand, hardly immeasurable wealth; circa $95,700 each. The money was also whittled down by the 20-25% that had to go to their management company amid other expenditures including a group accountant from the firm Voldal-Wartelle & Co. In terms of the benefit to Sub Pop, there was a payment of $75,000 made, but an equally useful stream of secured revenue via two percent on Nevermind’s sales and then on Incesticide’s.

In a smart move, however, the band decided to take a higher percentage of sales rather than a higher advance. Subsequent successes made this a substantial money-spinner, enough to earn the band comfort but at the time the band still needed to repay the advance before they’d make any further money from this source — there was also the matter of taxes being due on all this. Money from merchandise would also be of surging importance for Nirvana though the sums earned are unknown. Revenue from live performance was a further source, the festival appearances in 1992-1993 undoubtedly netted the band above average sums for one-off shows helping to explain their ability to stay off the road for most of a year and a half.

Separately there was the matter of publishing royalties. The deal is that the record company pays for making a copy of the recording of the published music which is why publishing is significant. Nirvana received a reduced rate consisting of 75% of the compulsory publishing royalty rate, and only on ten songs on each album, because as they were the recording group as well as the songwriters they were deemed to have control over the length of recording (meaning otherwise they could inflate the royalties due by including more or longer material.)The publishing company’s duty was to chase payments due from use, performance or broadcast of Nirvana’s music, to maintain the full accounts of the money due and received, and, having taken their percentage (in the 30% region) to pay the band. 1991 saw Cobain set up ‘The End of Music’ under Virgin Publishing with each member receiving $1,000 a month on top of the advance — again, good money, not regal sums of stacked cash. The even division of royalties from this source was because, with the sales figures the band expected (remember DGC only printed 50,000 copies of the album initially), and given they had to repay their advance, it was the publishing that was expected to be their main source of income. This sum formed an additional percentage on top of the direct amount the record company would pay the band on each sale — again, minus management fees, taxes, and so forth.
The brawl in 1992 related entirely to this amount. The ill-tempered result was that Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl receive a cut on only eleven Nirvana songs including 12.5% each on Smells Like Teen Spirit — Kurt receiving the remaining 75% on those songs, plus 100% of those deemed to be entirely is creation.

An amount went to Chad Channing for his involvement in Polly and some songs on Incesticide. This made Krist and Dave entirely dependent on their direct cut of record sales plus live performance and merchandise sales. It’s easy to look back and think “wow, but they were on the road to being millionaires!” At the time, in mid-1992, it was impossible to know how high Nevermind would rise, whether they’d have worthwhile income in two, three years time. In a career path that doesn’t come with a regular salary, to have someone bite the lion’s share of that publishing royalty was understandably unnerving.

Nirvana Live: Missing From Action Part Two

It’ll be no surprise to learn that a lot of Incesticide’s early material suffers from the limitations of our vision at twenty years distance. Yet, what is noticeable is more the centrality of some songs to Nirvana’s live identity in the early days. Mexican Seafood is remarkable, it’s present in every fully known set-list from March 1987 when the band first perform, until February 1989 just days before the band departs for their first gigs in California. Hairspray Queen and Aero Zeppelin have a similar dependability which elevates these three songs above the rarities described in Part One of this piece, as well as above a number of the dashed off last-minute additions to Bleach. It certainly looks like these three songs were held in higher affection than the barely performed Scoff or Swap Meet.

As an aside on those two songs, it’s fascinating how deep Nirvana’s collective memory was; they seem never to banish a song from mind; Scoff and Swap Meet are reprised in September 1991 and June 1992 respectively as cases in point. It’s a fascinating working practice specifically related to the way they play their live performances; songs are stashed away, like Vendetagainst, then after a year, two years, out of favour, they’re given an airing. It suggests that, at least from 1987-1992, there was substantial practice going on behind the scene to keep a solid grip on the lesser songs. On the one hand, it gives credibility to the rumours about songs like Clean Up Before She Comes, Opinion and Talk to Me springing to life in the Cobain basement in 1994 — no song seems to have been forgotten if there was any use that could be made of it. On the other hand, it makes one wonder why Mrs. Butterworth, utterly unseen, invisible, unknown (and actually unnamed) until the With the Lights Out box-set was erased so thoroughly alongside, according to Gillian G. Gaar, two other 1987 compositions. The song stands alongside Big Long Now as a genuine ghost in the catalogue; a song with a murky past, a gossamer thin presence, and no future.

Similarly, Beeswax looks ever more like a lucky addition to the January 23, 1988 session and doubly-lucky to still merit a place on Incesticide. The song receives just two work-outs in 1988 with only one intervening show at which its presence is therefore likely. This is a no more impressive record than Annorexorcist or Rauchola, Downer, If You Must and Pen Cap Chew are all given more visible shots as part of the Nirvana live experience.

While all of Nevermind gets its day on stage, the higher percentage of available set-lists makes the rapid fall off in appearances from certain songs at least noteworthy. Lounge Act is the very last of the Nevermind tracks to make it on stage and the quickest to depart; after that one show in Ireland it crops up just once more that year, returning only in 1992 to make inconsistent appearances in sets throughout the year.

When it comes to In Utero, the drawn out nature of the album’s creation is the greatest point of note. The first appearances of Milk It in January, plus Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol’s only known appearance, is slightly misleading given it was only a soundcheck appearance, it’s April before the band really give it a full live shot. There’s still an ‘outlier’, however, on the album just as Scoff and Swap Meet were on Bleach, just as Lounge Act was on Nevermind. Very Ape doesn’t make an appearance until late July, it serves a purpose on the album but fades from the live set only to be brought back in to pep things up for 1994. It’s curious that the song should follow the exact same trajectory as Lounge Act, again, it’s a positive feature that even on the In Utero tour there was some apparent desire to add at least some freshness to playing, the reappearance of Sappy after a long absence also bearing this out.

There is a persistent tendency to trial songs live, for a month, two months, at a time then move on. Thus tracks like Curmudgeon, Sappy, Talk to Me, Oh The Guilt, Verse Chorus Verse receive brief flurries of activity then either vanish permanently, or vanish until the next time the band are considering the need for songs for future releases. This fits with Kurt Cobain’s method of writing; most lyrics seem to be written in a flurry of inspiration, tweaked for a short period, then concluded – potentially with later rewriting before a recording session. He never seems to have mused on a song for lengthy periods (six months, a year…) even if a song remained unused for that long. Thus the appearances and disappearances mark renewed enthusiasm, keeping a song in mind, then putting it away again. He doesn’t seem to have ever wholly forgotten many songs though, especially after 1989.

On the other hand, in the late spell, the enthusiasm for working songs over seems to vanish. As someone commented the other week, there’s a rumour that I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, but no definitive confirmed sighting in 1993-94. You Know You’re Right appears once in full form (plus its main riff appears in an on stage noise jam), M.V. doesn’t appear at all, Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol makes it into a soundcheck apparently but that’s it. These songs were functional items fulfilling a need for extra material to be used wherever. Their absence from setlists simply confirms there B-Side status.

Nirvana Live: Missing From Action Part One

There were clear gaps in the live record, songs that showed up far later than seems realistic or that simply don’t show up at all. This post is just a brief look at those two circumstances.

The early days of the band were deservedly the core of Gillian G. Gaar’s latest book Entertain Us. Beyond the reprised tale of rags to riches, the early days retain a mystery. The band’s rising status and ‘most likely crossover success’ status in 1990 owed a lot to Sub Pop’s success at shoving a low-selling strictly local scene onto a global stage — in 1987-1988 this was just one band in a field of thousands. The live stats support this with just 7 of 30 set-lists known:

Set Lists 1987-1994

Understandably this leads to a raft of suggestive stats. As a first example, the fact that Annorexorcist appears in the set-list in mid-1987 and then again six months later in January 1988 suggests it likely featured at two further intervening shows. Likewise, given it was a leftover from Fecal Matter, there’s a possibility it may have appeared at the two shows prior to its May 1987 appearances. Raunchola (A.K.A. Erectum) flops into the territory of God knows — a first appearance in January 1988, a last appearance in March with just one intermediate show, yet then a space of sixteen performances until the next fully revealed set. There’s simply no way of knowing when either song died out. There is, however, good reason to believe there was more live life to them than there strictly limited edition status. Pen Cap Chew and If You Must also have a chequered history; they appear at the start of 1987, are excluded from the May gig (though Pen Cap Chew did make the KAOS Radio performance), then reappear in January-March 1988. In conversation with Jack Endino early in 2012 he stated, with regard to If You Must “…at the time we recorded it (Jan 88), they were opening their set with it. Much later he decided he didn’t like it, who knows why.” There’s a good chance that he’s correct and that both songs featured in the final two gigs of 1987 but then hard to discern if the January 23, 1988 appearance was their final showing or if they made some brief resurrection later in the year.

We’re looking at the gap between reality and posthumous truth. Vendetagainst (A.K.A. Help Me, I’m Hungry) exists for a brief appearance in 1987…Then a gap of 83 shows and 29 months until it pops up twice; November 5 and 8 with a gap of one show. Blandest, only ever seen on June 11, 1988 in studio, likewise appears for two shows in July. Blandest may have been present at the eight ‘ghost’ shows between March and that date, or the show a week later in Ellensburg. It’s also hard to believe that the song wasn’t featured at all earlier.

On a related note, it isn’t a surprise Chad Channing knowing Blandest, but it’s unusual that he would be aware of Vendetagainst, a song recorded a full year before his arrival in the band. I’m speculating but, in the month pause between their show in August 1989 and the commencement of touring in late September, the band seems to have decided to take stock of the songs they had left in reserve and trained up on them. During this phase the band are varying elements of their set almost nightly, it’s as if they’re keeping material alive with new releases in mind. The set is knee-deep in, as yet, unreleased songs; Token Eastern Song, Dive, Polly, Even in His Youth, Breed, Vendetagainst, Sappy, even a jam on Hairspray Queen. Nirvana were a very smart unit, already one eye to the future and a range of possibilities.

While unsurprising that the rarities are conspicuous by their relative absence from the live record, it’s fun to consider the fate of a certain portion of Bleach. Essentially the gaps in the known set-lists cast a veil over the likely presence of some songs. Blew, Mr. Moustache and Sifting were all given a first airing in June 1988 in studio, but eight set-lists are unknown meaning it’s October 30, 1988 before the songs are first seen. Likewise, it’s unlikely that Negative Creep and Scoff were first performed when they’re first ‘visible’ to us twenty years later, in April and May 1989 respectively given they were definitely finalised and recorded by the start of the year and there are ten shows leading up to the known displays.

The most remarkable disappearances from the Bleach sessions are Big Long Now (I dissect it’s likely performance in the Songs The Lord Taught Us chapter of the Dark Slivers book) and the way Swap Meet doesn’t appear at all until November 1990 — that gap for the latter just doesn’t ring true. A further curious feature is that, with the exception of Blew, the ‘late arrivals’ from Bleach into the Nirvana live record are all clustered toward the back-end of the album. Apparently Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman were involved in deciding how to sequence Bleach and it’s quite intriguing that those songs that were rushed into place to fill out the album, that weren’t ready for live performance until late 1988 or even later in 1989, were all shoved to the rear. The first side of Bleach places some of the band’s earlier recorded works (Floyd the Barber, Love Buzz, Paper Cuts) to the front of the album so it seems Sub Pop were aware at the time that certain songs were rush-jobs.

Preferred Remembrance Part II

So what could I imagine being worthy future Nirvana releases?

Well, OK, clearing away what is already known to be on the way — Autumn 2013 will see the Super-Deluxe edition of In Utero which presumably will include the Rio De Janeiro and Word of Mouth outtakes, plus the unmixed versions and leftovers from Pachyderm Studios in February. It’d be nice to see some of the earlier versions of In Utero material also. In some ways, given the drawn out origins of In Utero, with some songs dating back to 1990, there’s potential for quite a span of material to be incorporated.

Moving beyond that, there are enough alternative takes left from studio sessions, plus radio session tracks and TV performances to make for a solid CD (or two) along the lines already provided by With the Lights Out; the outtakes from June 1988, the unreleased Sappy take, the jam performed on Dutch radio in late 1991 alongside takes of Here She Comes Now and Where Did You Sleep Last Night, the audio of Seasons in the Sun seen on the With the Lights Out DVD, the jams from January 1994…There’s enough.

For the anniversary of his death coming up in 2014, however, it would be great to see a Kurt Cobain collection. This would naturally have to, finally, feature an officially approved release of the Fecal Matter demo of Easter 1986 (see Gillian G. Gaar’s book Entertain Us for a really well-argued explanation of why this recording took place later than was thought), could feature more of the radio session with Calvin Johnson from 1990, could finally spit the 1994 basement demos out (and stop teasing everyone with their existence) and could gather up some of Kurt’s wider musical experiments which run into far more unusual terrain than anything seen on Incesticide. I can’t imagine Montage of Heck ever seeing official release but some of the other scraps would be good to hear cleaned up. Such a release could also hoover up some of Kurt’s collaborative work; The Go Team single, the two tracks performed with Earth, Mark Lanegan. In some miraculous future maybe someone will have found the 1982 Cobain demos too…Let’s dream.

Either in combination with that, or as a separate release in its own right, I’d very merrily listen to a two CD set of Kurt’s acoustic (or electric if they exist) home demos. While it’s fair to say that the pieces seen so far aren’t exactly musical triumphs on the guitar front, they do possess a desirability simply because there’s so little material where Kurt’s voice is laid so bare, so stark.

Likewise, there are enough unusual live renditions available that a fully-polished and mastered major label disc would be of genuine interest despite the stirling work done by the fan community. The unusual 1991 take of Vendetagainst (A.K.A. Help Me I’m Hungry) often referred to as Come On Death would be great to hear in better fidelity; the opening jam from the Rio de Janeiro concert would be worthwhile; Curmudgeon, Oh The Guilt, variations on some of the early Nirvana songs likewise; and of course the various songs with alternative lyrics in their initial iterations — a release bringing these together would garner much goodwill from a fan base fed up of hearing yet another carbon-copy edition of Been a Son.

A similar project could gather together at least some portion of the many live covers Nirvana performed over the years. I’ve always adored the version of My Sharona from 1994; Bad Moon Rising and Run Rabbit Run from 1988 are both quality, Krist’s version of The End is great… There’s enough material out there and with a half competent mixing it’d be possible to use the shorter scraps and quotations Nirvana used live to segue between the more fully fleshed out songs. It’d be nice to see post-hoc mixing that actually does expand on the audio experience rather than just being used as a way of punching the listener in the head with VOLUME. It’d be lovely to have a covers collection.

The only other place I can imagine Nirvana going on record (not including endless reissues of full live shows on CD and/or DVD) would certainly be one for the hardcore only…Maybe that would preclude it receiving official support, but who does anyone imagine is forking out for vinyl reissues of Incesticide or scraps of extra Nevermind material anyway? J Mascis recently released an album with his friends under the name Heavy Blanket consisting of a short selection of studio jams. Nirvana’s live jams are intriguing, varied, interesting for refocusing on the musical talents of these individuals — the Nirvana: Live, Tonight, On Tape article by Brett Robinson I shared on Facebook and Twitter yesterday points to a couple of good examples. A single disc selection wouldn’t outstay its welcome, at least not with fans whose ears are open to feedback and raucous sprawls of sound.

That’d be the barrel fully scraped I believe – nothing left. The Swans official website (www.swans.pair.com) has always run an intriguing project offering CD-R issues of a vast number of the band’s performances. If Universal had the patience then a custom-built website offering similar access to the live archive (whether as downloads or with a CD ordering option) would appeal. Beyond that…My imagination runs dry.

…Unless…Unless someone loses their mind and goes down the road of Having Fun With Elvis on Stage — this is worth a look if one wishes to see how bad posthumous recordings can be:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Having_Fun_with_Elvis_on_Stage

Other bright ideas for Nirvana recordings welcomed!

Preferred Remembrance

Yet another Jimi Hendrix album on the way but at least nothing more from Tupac:

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2012/11/new-jimi-hendrix-album-to-feature-12-previously-un.html

Oh…Hold up. Nothing more since October I mean:

http://www.taletela.com/news/20481/listen-tupacs-last-ever-track-lets-get-it-on-leaks

Anyways, the point here is about the kind of legacy we wish an artist to leave behind. In the case of Jimi Hendrix his death was followed by a raft of albums across the next decade, of varied quality to say the least, including overdubbed session musicians and a lot of unstructured jamming. Tupac’s death resulted in a similar flood of material ranging from early demos verging on beat poetry, to bawled out live tracks, unnecessary remixes, and lots of soul-heavy production and ill-matched collabos.

In each case, the artist concerned had a tendency toward incontinent recording with every last thought or improvisation committed to tape to be sifted at a later date for lines worth tweaking and guitar parts worth reprising. By contrast The Notorious B.I.G. left nothing more than a few stray verses and sketches requiring substantial ‘heavy lifting’ by other artists to create anything approaching song length. The Beatles’ vast six disc, three volume Anthology project laid bare a paucity of genuinely unheard originals but at least an awful lot of practice covers and variations.

Nirvana could never leave an archive like the former examples; prior to fame they didn’t have the money to spend lengthy sessions in studio and post-fame they didn’t want to do so. The resource that could, potentially, be delved into in more detail would consist of any surviving rehearsal tapes (so expect Boombox Demo sound quality and clarity) or remaining home demos of which there’s little proof any exist after 1992 that are anything other than alternatives to known renditions. In a post a few weeks back I pointed to ‘The Empty Cupboard’; a studio archive with a few alternative takes and a few jams left to go. Meanwhile the only visible hint at rehearsal material is With the Lights Out’s first shot at Scentless Apprentice indicating there’s worthwhile In Utero era demos and Gillian G. Gaar’s comment that a couple of brief shreds from a 1987 rehearsal are still unreleased. As far as home demos go, well, there are a number of more experimental pieces still to emerge officially but well bootlegged — I discuss these in more detail in the Post-Mersh chapter of Dark Slivers. Then finally there’s the rumoured 1994 demos described in the Dry as a Bone chapter released as a sample on here the other week.

So what we’re seeing instead is a continued discography bearing greatest similarity to The Beatles’ treatment. The custodianship of the Nirvana legacy, I would argue, has actually been in relatively good hands — there have been no ludicrous attempts to ‘improve’ (i.e., corrupt) the remaining recordings with unnecessary guest appearances, remixes, artificially created acapella or instrumental renditions. The most that has happened is some typical modern day remastering work involving compressing everything at the expense of dynamic range and beauty. Some complaints were aimed at the one disc Sliver release with three new tracks slammed on to sweeten the compilation but that release did have a purpose for those unwilling to sift the entire box set and, so far, that approach hasn’t been reprised.

What it does mean, however, is that the kind of jumbled releases seen thirty years after The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix ceased to be (e.g., Anthology, West Coast Seattle Boy) are actually what we’ve already seen in the form of With the Lights Out. They’re also what we’re more likely to see in future. The absence of a strong studio archive leaves it more likely that future releases will rely on effective gathering of live material (we’re seeing it already with the Live at Reading, Live at the Paramount releases) to create something approximating an official equivalent to Outcesticide.

…But at least we won’t see that bloody awful Duets album that they put together for Notorious B.I.G. It’s my vote for the worst album I’ve ever heard. I whipped it out of the laptop, slotted it back in the case, walked out into the cafeteria area at work and began offering it to passersby. Nirvana’s post-finale releases may not have scaled the heights at all times but at least they haven’t been an open insult to fans and to the artists concerned. We should be grateful they haven’t plumbed these depths…

If Kurt Cobain had Lived…

Let’s pose a counterfactual; instead of committing suicide in April 1994, Kurt Cobain had survived — what might we expect his life to have looked like since then?

Looking at the most likely scenario, the answer, tragically, is “dead of an overdose.” Kurt Cobain overdosed on numerous recorded occasions, his addiction seems to have reached extreme levels and — as shown by his reaction to the intervention his loved ones staged in March — he had no desire to quit whatsoever.

So we need to make another assumption, that Kurt had either solved or at least been able to manage his drug addiction — what next? Firstly, it’s hard to see Nirvana continuing given the actions Kurt had taken that year with tours abandoned, Lollapalooza refused, barely showing up to the band’s last recording session and making no effort to collaborate with Krist or Dave. It’s impossible to tell if the name Nirvana would have continued in the absence of two of its core members, the Guns n’ Roses approach, or if we would have seen a solo Cobain. As a side-note that would make it likely that the Foo Fighters would never have written My Hero either — a genuine loss to the roll-call of Foo Fighters’ highlights. I have no doubt Dave would have proceeded onto his own impressive career.

As for his musical direction, Kurt gave statements about his future sound at the end of Azerrad’s Come as you Are. While most assume that we were about to see an acoustic statement of some kind I think it’s more likely we would have seen an even noisier, less mainstream Cobain moving away from the verse-chorus-verse model. The man was chronically nervous regarding his guitar playing (read Charles Cross’ account of the Unplugged performance) and it’s unlikely he would have been willing to be seen musically naked. Remember after all that you can count acoustic songs on Nirvana’s albums on one hand — it seems an unlikely approach, or at least not without the protection of a full band. The band had been creating noisier punk compositions in every session after Nevermind (the quiet moments; All Apologies, Pennyroyal Tea and Dumb were all written before Nevermind came out) so it’s about whether that trajectory would have continued. The 1994 demos that apparently exist are a poor indicator given all the evidence of Cobain turning his acoustic homework into electric efforts.

Certainly it’s unlikely Kurt would have been touring much at least for a while. 1992-1994 had been Nirvana’s quietest years since 1988 in terms of live shows — it doesn’t look like something he had any interest in doing at that point. With no financial impetus pushing him onto the road there seems little reason for him to put himself through it. We might be looking at a spell akin to John Lennon’s retirement from music during the 1970s or Axl Rose’s retreat into private studio experiments from the mid-nineties onward. That’s certainly a possibility; a quiet Cobain life trying to mend things with his wife, painting, ignoring the press and his own management — most of 1992 all over again in other words.

The next Nirvana releases don’t seem in much doubt. Pennyroyal Tea would have come out as planned in April and wouldn’t be commanding the stratospheric prices it does today. Kurt Cobain had initiated work on Live! Tonight! Sold Out! Some sort of video release would have been likely if he ever finished the work required. I can imagine pressure from the record label to release the Unplugged performance but whether Kurt would have permitted a record with the MTV name front and centre…It’s uncertain. With no Lollapalooza tour it’s unlikely we would have seen the mooted supporting EP.

One direction regularly pointed out is the potential for collaborations with other artists — Mike Stipe being the name that comes up regularly. There was indeed a real possibility of Kurt sitting in on R.E.M’s session for the Monster LP. Then again, he’d already rejected the opportunity in March so, for it to happen, would have required a persistent and patient Mr. Stipe and a changed attitude from Mr. Cobain. In a future post we’ll look more closely at collaborations but for now let’s simply note that a spell of exploration and learning in the company of others could have provided the new paths Kurt seemed to desire. Again, there’s no evidence.

It’s also highly likely that Kurt would not have been immune to the tail-off in rock music as the nineties progressed. As a wider background trend the music world was about to enter a phase of worshipping DJs prior to hip hop establishing universal dominance of music charts. Whatever career Kurt/Nirvana had forged beyond 1994 is unlikely to have maintained the multi-million sales they’d enjoyed briefly. As a comparison, remember how big Pearl Jam were. Pearl Jam outsold Nirvana in the mid-nineties then increasingly vanished despite being one of the big survivors of that era. Hole, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Soundgarden — they all saw declining interest and disrupted times. Kurt Cobain was a superstar but he wasn’t God and he wouldn’t have been immune to what was happening around him.

The hope would have been, however, that Kurt persisted with music and became one of the small core of elder statesmen able to have careers through several decades; think Neil Young, Bob Dylan, David Bowie. All had to weather a spell in which they were out of favor before returning to a state of grace. Music seems to be a generational thing with one age group reacting against that which came before. Hard as it is to imagine, Kurt would have lost his halo and it would have required some above average work at ten, twenty years distance to spark the ‘return to form’ headlines.

What can certainly be said is that a major spell of song-writing was needed. In Utero had used up most of Kurt Cobain’s leftovers (as well as Dumb, All Apologies and Pennyroyal Tea it’s also possible to say Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, Tourette’s and Sappy were all pre-September 1991 songs.) There’s talk that he reprised Opinion and Talk to Me in 1994 but no evidence. Some new versions of unreleased old songs may have filled the gap for a while but as far as can be told Kurt wrote only two songs in 1993-early 1994. He would have needed far more.

The key issue with this kind of thinking is that past trends do not indicate future events. Kurt Cobain left few indications of future plans, perhaps because he simply didn’t see one. Fun to consider though isn’t it? One definite prediction is that Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t have as many Cobain or Nirvana profiles; without the tragic ending there wouldn’t be the same urge to commemorate and also our idol would have failed, at some point, he would have failed. It’s easy to worship a man who never grew old or un-photogenic. It’s rare to see as much attention given to a man in his forties with an expanding waistline, first wrinkles, drug-user damage visible on the face.