Here’s a fun one coming up – I’m looking forward to meeting Daniel Rachel, I bought his book Walls Come Tumbling Down ( at the Louder Than Words music literary festival last year – a great piece of work. Frankly, with the rise of so much insular nationalism and casual dismissal of equal rights for all, its felt like the time to hear about a previous era in which some decided it was time to stand up for something.

The conversation – over booze! Phew! Always the best way to let conversation flow – is focused on ‘collaboration’ in music and life in general. It’s pretty central to the entire ability to create oral history, that it involves a community being willing to participate; a shared experience to speak of; something that people made together – the alternative is merely autobiography and biography.


For “We Sing A New Language: The Oral Discography Of Thurston Moore”, I wanted to use the experiences and perspectives of the people who have played on the numerous records he’s featured on outside of Sonic Youth, to paint a picture of his development and his interests in music across the years. It’s notable how much of his energies, very early on, were on gaining this wider experience while – since the mid-Nineties – there’s a veritable explosion of effort devoted to other scenes which then feeds back into Sonic Youth in the form of the SYR records, releases with Mats Gustafsson, the presence of Borbetomagus on the Murray Street album, their choices of support acts when touring. There’s even a specific character to Moore’s efforts during Sonic Youth’s peak of commercial success in the early-to-mid-Nineties with Moore evangelising and paying tribute to the underground bands who he felt was important – so much of that era is spend on covers and tributes. It’s that kind of pattern that speaking to the people involved was able to tease out.

The book includes a comprehensive Contributors section in which each of the 170 people involved summarises their personal creative urges and expressions – the hope being that it gives the reader a sense of who they’re speaking to and a starting point for further exploration. Frankly, if you enjoy the work of Thurston Moore then there are a lot of people in here worth finding!

In first name alphabetical order:

Aaron Dilloway, Adam Golebiewski, Adam Kriney, Alan Bloor, Alan Licht, Alan Read (Krayon Recordings), Alex Ward, Amanda Kramer, Ambrose Bye (Fast Speaking Music), Andrew Clare, Andrew Kesin, Andrew MacGregor, Andrya Ambro, Andy Moor, Anne Waldman, Anne-James Chaton

Balazs Pandi, Benoit Bel (Mikrokosm Studios), Benoît Bourreau (Film Maker), Bill Nace, Brett Robinson, Brian Kinsman (Deathbomb Arc), Britt Brown, Bryn Harris, Byron Coley, Byron Westbrook

Campbell Kneale, Carlos Giffoni, Carlos van Hijfte (Tour Manager), Chris Corsano, Chris Gollon (artist), Chris Pottinger, Christian Marclay, Colin Langenus, Cory Rayborn (Three Lobed Recordings), Cris Deison, Cristiano Nunes (ZDB Venue)

Dagobert Sondervan, Daniel Sandor (Producer), Dave Keay, David Markey, David Newgarden (Manager to Yoko Ono), David S. Blanco (Blank Editions), Deb Goodge, DJ Spooky, Don Dietrich, Don Fleming. Dylan Nyoukis

Evan Parker, Frank Rosaly, Frans de Waard, Gene Moore, Giancarlo Schiaffini, Glenn Branca, Greg Vegas, Hal Rammel, Hanin Elias, Heath Moerland (Fag Tapes)

J.D. King, Jim Thirlwell, Jack Rabid, James Nares (Artist), James Sedward, James Toth, Jane Scarpantoni, Jean-Marc Montera, Jef Whitehead, Jeff Hartford (Bonescraper Recordings), Jeremy Miller, Jim Dunbar, Jim Sauter, Jim Sclavunos, Joe McPhee, Joe Tunis (Carbon Recordings), Johannes Buff (Mikrokosm), John Clement, John Corbett, John Howard, John Moloney, John Olson, John Russell, John Tye (Lo Recordings), John Wiese, Jon Forss (Lo Recordings), Josh Baer (White Columns), Justin Pizzoferrato (Sonelab)

Karl Hofstetter (Joyful Noise), Keith Wood, Kevin Crump (Wintage), Kim Rancourt, Kommissar Hjuler

Lasse Marhaug, Lea Cummings, Lee Ranaldo, Leslie Keffer, Lin Culbertson, Loren Connors, Lydia Lunch

Mani Mazinani, Manuel Mota, Marc Urselli, Marco Cazzella (My Dance The King), Marco Fusinato, Margarida Garcia, Martin Bisi (Producer), Massimo Pupillo, Mat Rademan (Breathmint), Mats Gustafsson, Matthew Saint-Germain (Freedom From), Maurizio Opalio (My Cat is an Alien), Michael Chapman, Michael Gira, Mike Gangloff, Mykel Board

Nathaniel Howdeshell (Fast Weapons), Neill Jameson, Nels Cline, Nolan Green, Pascal Hector, Patrick Best, Paul Flaherty, Paul Smith (Blast First), Pete Nolan, Phil Blankenship (Troniks), Phil X. Milstein

Rafael Toral, Rat Bastard, Rhys Chatham, Richard Hell, Richard Kern (Film Maker), Rob Hayler, Robert Meijer (En/Of), Robert Poss, Roberto Opalio (My Cat is an Alien), Ron Lessard (RRRecords)

Samara Lubelski, Sanford Parker, Sarah Register, Sérgio Hydalgo (ZDB), Shayna Dulberger, Sonny Vincent, Stavros Giannopoulos, Steve Lowenthal (Vin Du Select Qualitite), Stuart Braithwaite, Susan Stenger

T. Mortigan (Destructive Industries), Terri Kapsalis, The New Blockaders, Thurston Moore, Tim Foljahn, Tom Moore, Tom Smith, Tom Surgal, Toshi Makihara, Trumans Water

Venec Miller, Vice Cooler, Virginia Genta, Wally Shoup, Walter Prati, Warren Defever, Wharton Tiers, William Hooker, William Winant, Yoko Ono

“We Sing A New Language: The Oral Discography Of Thurston Moore” started, quite literally, right here on this blog. By early 2015, I’d been writing about Nirvana almost constantly, day-after-day, for three years: I needed a break. As an avid collector of the musical works of Sonic Youth and its individual members, I’d begun seeing interesting patterns, trends and connections within the 150+ Thurston Moore records I owed at the time (the collection has continued to swell since then) and so, as a diversion, as something different, as a chance to freshen up my mental landscape, I wrote a series of five lengthy posts gathering together and looking in depth at some of Moore’s works:

I was intending to keep on writing these but the run up to the release of ‘Cobain On Cobain’ began to fill the time so, beyond the notes and sketches I’d already made, January 2015 was as far as I got. Checking blog stats one day I was a bit surprised (to say the least) to see that instead of the regular 3-400 hundred hits, the previous day had peaked at several thousand visitors. What tha…?! Luckily for me, a friend wrote saying “hey, did you see Thurston Moore shared your post on his Facebook?” I looked and was rather delighted to see someone had sent the first piece to him – he’d just said “wild!” or something like that.

Across the next month or so the kernel of an idea popped in my head: I was sure, that with a discography this broad and deep, it would be possible to trace the musical development not just of Moore, but of the scenes he’d weaved in and out of, the sounds he’d been a part of. It made such logical sense to me that with several hundred records outside of Sonic Youth – with some years where releases were emerging at more than a dozen-a-year – that it was entirely possible to tell a coherent and cohesive story entirely through oral history and entirely through the records. I bit the bullet; made the connections; contacted the right people and was delighted to be put in touch with Thurston’s PA, Penny, who – for the next year and a half – would be a near constant presence in my life and a thoroughgoing saint when it came to advice, wisdom, contacts, ideas.

Doing something like this, looking in depth at someone, without their knowledge…It wouldn’t have seemed right to me. I was ready to go but until I knew that Moore was cool for me to do it – I couldn’t have started. I had the lists ready of who I wanted to go after; I had an ever-evolving discography spreadsheet which had initially started as something I had been using for a few years when planning music-shopping expeditions and online-purchasing, then became the guiding text of my existence throughout 2015-2016. Every time I turned around during those years, I would find yet another song contributed to a compilation; another collaboration; another record Moore had chipped into on some obscure label out there in the world. It was a source of constant wonder – and sometimes made me feel I was chasing a moving target.

That’s, luckily, where the logic of writing a book took over: there needed to be boundaries, it needed to have pace and readability, it needed to have repeating themes but also shift focus often enough it would keep interest, and it needed to end before it became repetitious. It felt right to stop when it did; to not cover certain songs or releases; to finally halt while the excitement involved in its creation was still so powerful the long nights felt like a pleasure.


From late 2016 onward I had the honour of receiving the permission of Thurston Moore to create an oral history detailing and describing his vast and extensive discography of collaborations, inspirations and creativity.

The book will be out on March 13 on Omnibus Press (with a U.S. specific edition released in August on Overlook in the U.S.)

The book is built on interviews with over 170 individuals who have recorded with or performed with Moore over the years – a story of the scenes and sounds he has been a part of, supported, forged and championed over the past three-and-a-half decades. The book is 336 pages including a comprehensive discography and a detailed section on the contributors also.

Over the next few weeks I’ll try to share what I can about the book, it’s content, the motivation behind it and so forth.

If you’re a Nirvana fan, you’ll know the name Dawn Anderson, you’ll recognise the line “Nirvana could become…Better than The Melvins!” Dawn was responsible for the article that appeared in Backlash magazine in the spring of 1988 marking the first interview with Kurt Cobain. If the piece – ‘It May Be The Devil And It May Be The Lord…But It Sure As Hell Ain’t Human’ – wasn’t already so well known it would have been my choice to open the Cobain On Cobain book last year (I wanted to use the word count for something else in the end.)

Dawn is currently in recovery from a run in with cancer. If you have spare change, a touch of cash, anything that might help her toward full health – the link is above and there’s some good to be done in the world.


In the literary world, it’s normal that a sophisticated writer’s output is dissected to indicate the structural, time-specific and/or constant features underpinning what they do. The world of popular music, however, often falls prey to anti-intellectualism: a common kneejerk reaction claiming that any deeper consideration either neuters the emotive force of music (answer: no, it doesn’t) is inappropriate to the form (answer: no, it isn’t) or is purely imaginary unless confirmed by an artist’s own statements (answer: entire industries are built on helping people understand themselves better – why should a zone as full of flakes, oddballs and exceptional cases as music is be the sole arena of human life where people are all-knowing with regard to their actions?) It’s a bizarre reaction in many ways: to be unable to accept music on a physical, emotional and intellectual level whether at separate times and locations, or intermingled.

In the case of Cobain, the 500 posts created from November 2012 to December 2016; over a million words; hundreds of tables/charts/graphics; indicate I feel there’s more to his work than just re-treading soap opera style biographical detail. The starkest example I can offer is the way in which is song-writing notably changes between 1986 and 1994. As a Christmas post I decided to enjoy showing why I think Cobain is such a good writer and sustains deeper assessment.

Think of any singer you wish: compare Beck to Axl Rose; compare Nineties Wu Tang Clan to the hashtag disorientation of mid-2000s Lil Wayne; whatever you wish. Every performer of words has a voice. There are a range of options: first person, third person, the story, interior monologues, direct address to an unknown audience, emotional sensation versus external reportage…Regardless of whether the individual concerned is a seasoned professional who readily and methodically selects different voices at different times, or a from-the-gut lyricist working on pure instinct rather than any formulated conception of their art, lyrics require a mode regardless of thought or forethought.

Cobain is an excellent subject to study in this regard: a concise selection of song lyrics to consider – well under one hundred – showing development across a tight eight year span. Some songs recorded for the Fecal Matter demo at Easter 1986 may have been around a long while but without further evidence it’s pure conjecture. In my opinion, given how fast Cobain wrote, used and discarded songs 1986-1990 I doubt he was re-using leftovers from his early-to-mid teens. I’m ignoring the material on Montage of Heck simply because there’s no data about when/where it was created and most of it didn’t come even close to any sense of complete form. Feel free to consider it in light of this discussion.

In essence, there are three clearly distinguishable threads to Cobain’s lyric writing – and they change significantly in terms of their presence and importance within his portfolio.

The first, is the ‘story’ – defined as a narrative scene/experience played out across an entire song. This approach takes a lot of work: essentially it means writing a short story, in a relatively limited number of words, while making it work as a vocal piece. ‘Paper Cuts’ from the Bleach album is a great example: “When I’m feeling tired / she pushed food through the door / and I crawl toward the crack of light / sometimes I can’t find my way / newspapers spread around / soaking all that they can / a cleaning is due again / a good hosing down.” The first evidence of Cobain using this mode of writing comes on Fecal Matter in 1988 with the track ‘Insurance’ (a court scene) and it’s very understandable why it never becomes a dominant component of his writing – it’s difficult and time-consuming! The next example is ready a year later by the time of Nirvana’s first show: ‘Mexican Seafood’, a slightly feverish sequence in which he winds up focusing on the state of the bathroom floor and the toilet bowl (I felt this song more deeply after a food poisoning episode.) 1987 is the big year for story songs: Cobain has the time and freedom to work on them so by the January 1988 studio session at Reciprocal he’s worked up ‘Floyd The Barber’ and ‘Paper Cuts’ with ‘Polly’ likely already in hand given the song is based on a 1987 news story.

This song form dies entirely. The final two examples are written in May-July of 1990 (‘Sliver’) and the autumn of that year (‘Something in the Way’.) Story songs, in summary, make up 6 of the 68 songs with lyrics released during Nirvana’s lifetime or on the Greatest Hits/With The Lights Out packages in 2002-2004. One is based on a news story (‘Polly’), one on an incident that happened to a local kid (‘Paper Cuts’), one is a fictitious grotesque based on a TV show (‘Floyd The Barber’), three are embellished autobiography (‘Mexican Seafood’, ‘Sliver’, ‘Something in the Way’.) The way in which, between 1988 and1990, he moves toward autobiography is reinforced by other trends in his writing.

The second form is even more prominent in Cobain early work: the ‘character sketch’. This differs from the story song in being a recitation of an individual’s static being, character or circumstance. The Fecal Matter demo is a point of origin in two respects: firstly, Cobain is still finding his own voice so it’s significant how often he speaks ‘as other people’ on the record – note the bizarre put-on voices throughout the demo (an affectation still prominent in the unusual voices on the January 1988 songs later seen on Incesticide.) Secondly, this seeking out of identities is also lyrical: ‘Laminated Effect’ is the only time Cobain sketches named characters (Johnny and Lucy respectively), while ‘Buffy’s Pregnant’ marries his vocal impersonations to stereotypical dialogue of the types of individual he’s representing. ‘Mrs. Butterworth’, in which he hashes out a would-be homemade folk-art entrepreneur’s future plans, continues this lyrical approach in which he visibly speaks ‘as’ another person. He gives up on vocal impersonations very swiftly and very soon it becomes less obvious he’s speaking as a character or autobiographically.

The b-side to Nirvana’s first single, ‘Big Cheese’, had started life as a tale of management at a fast food joint (see the early version played live in Spring 1988) then evolved into a comment on the management at Sub Pop; there’d also been ‘Hairspray Queen’ and ‘If You Must’ (the latter a quintessential ‘writing’ song) recorded that January; while ‘Sappy’ was demo’ed in 1988. The peak for the character sketch though was its dominance on Bleach which contained ‘About A Girl’, ‘School’, ‘Negative Creep’, ‘Scoff’, ‘Swap Meet’ and ‘Mr Moustache’. A division was emerging within this song form quick sketches of characters he observed around him – like the redneck or the couple making a living at garage/car-boot sales – or songs based around his own life and mood (i.e., pressures from management, pressures from girlfriend, his own negativity.)

Things had visibly changed by the time of Nevermind: just as the story song had dwindled to a single song (‘Something in the Way’), there were only two character sketches (‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’) both of which could be read as autobiographical.  That’s not to say, however, that Cobain hadn’t persisted with this mode of writing. ‘Stain’, ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Even in his Youth’ were all written in a flurry around summer-autumn 1989; then, in 1990, Cobain also created ‘Dumb’, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and ‘Oh The Guilt’ – early versions of ‘Rape Me’ were also far more extensive than what would ultimately emerge in 1993.

I’ve said it a lot of times, of course, that so few Cobain compositions are written after Nevermind that it’s hard to draw big conclusions but – by the end of his life, as far as we can see, the only additions to this form were ‘Curmudgeon’ (written sometime in 1991), then ‘Very Ape’ and ‘Scentless Apprentice.’ A form that had taken up over half of Nirvana’s first album remained as a full four songs on Nirvana’s final album, but made up only two of the dozen compositions he’s known to have written in the last two-and-a-half years of his life. Still, it’s a significant batch of Cobain’s productivity: 23 of the 68 songs taken into account in this assessment.

The curious part, however, is seeing the rise of the third song form Cobain used. Bleach was made up of one cover song, two story songs leftover from the January 1988 session, six character sketches, then just two songs in the mode for which Cobain would become best known and that would dominate his later writing. ‘Blew’ and ‘Sifting’ are forged from lines that sound good together, related words, brief images, lines addressed to an unknown audience – there’s no central narrative and no singular character here. I refer to these as the ‘abstract address’: detached images, opinions, feelings combined into songs (hence why looking for a single ‘meaning’ for this type of song has always been so silly.)

‘Downer’ s the nearest Fecal Matter came to this though there was a central theme at play. Note, by the way, that Downer starts with an anonymous narration then breaks into the first person. Cobain would do the same thing on Spank Thru, Mexican Seafood, Big Long Now, Dive, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Drain You, Scentless Apprentice and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter – opening lines in one mode, the rest in another. Oddly ‘Downer’, ‘Aero Zeppelin’ and ‘Sifting’ would be the last songs Cobain wrote that are entirely anonymous with no ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’ involved. Just another small evolution in his style.

‘Spank Thru’ was the next form in this mode, followed in early 1988 by ‘Blew’ and ‘Sifting’ which each evolved new lines and different parts across 1988. Increasingly this is how Cobain would come to write: lines taken from different journals, or scribbled out relatively close to the time of recording, tagged onto core lines and ideas he’d kept or mused on for a while, or words that stayed in his mind. If you look at something like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ideas barely linger longer than a couple of lines. Elsewhere, try ‘In Bloom’ with its chorus refrain existing entirely separately from the verse themes (which are themselves fairly diffuse – “Sell the kids for food / weather changes moods / spring is here again / reproductive glands”). On Nevermind, there were two story songs (‘Polly’ and ‘Something in the Way’), then two character sketches (‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’) then the rest of the album consisted of these abstracts. In Utero, again, would divide up relatively cleanly: no story songs, four character sketches, the rest abstract.

The abstract was, by its very nature, a highly adaptable form: note the change between Nevermind’s unspecific combination of broad statements of opinion and imagery versus In Utero’s targeted clusters of autobiographical reference. Cobain’s fixation on the media echoing through words and titles on In Utero in real contrast to the relative anonymity and veiled biography of Nirvana’s earlier songs: a stark turn toward self-reporting. It isn’t uncommon either for fame to impose a certain introversion on lyrics: essentially, once all an artist sees is hotel rooms, stages and business meetings it’s hard for them to say much about the world. Think of Axl Rose moving from the grime of Appetite For Destruction to the love songs and psychological dissections (and aggression) on Use Your Illusion I and II – or even more specifically compare that to Chinese Democracy after a decade stuck in a mansion. Recently The Weeknd’s new album was filled with the least interesting, specific and developed writing of his career.

In conversation the other week someone drew my eye to ‘Do Re Mi’ and pointed to it as a quintessential heroin song comparable to the narcotised drift of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ or Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ – this air of blissed out warm nothingness to it all (and, having been hooked on the spirit and sung along a million times, people still shake their heads and wonder what heroin’s appeal is…) It reminded me, again, that there’s more than meets the eye inside the music of Kurt Cobain and so – at Christmas – I wanted to sign the blog off for a couple weeks with this remembrance of what an awesome musical force he was.

Anyone who has read any of my ramblings these past years will know that I incredible respect for LiveNirvana and for the Nirvana Live Guide. Whenever I’ve been asked what fandom looks like at its best I think of these sites and the work they’ve done sourcing lost, unknown, different recording of Nirvana shows and sessions; compiling accurate data and sifting myth from reality; bringing together information on Nirvana concerts and shows including photos and set-lists…

It’s amazing what they’ve achieved. Anyone can ‘comment’, anyone can write a thought-piece, but it takes a special dedication to do what these two sites have done. Hunting down and locating evidence of house parties in the far north west of America in the pre-internet late eighties, finding cassettes hoarded by people who attended and taped shows a lifetime ago, persuading people to let them safeguard, protect and share material that would otherwise deteriorate and disappear forever. Any of the analytical pieces I ever did relied on the bedrock that the people at these two sites created.

So, I was delighted to hear that the Nirvana Live Guide will now be migrating to and integrated with the resources at LiveNirvana: a single uber-source for anyone interested in where, what and with who Nirvana played over the years that band was together.

My absolute best wishes to all concerned and anyone out there with information regarding lost Nirvana shows, stuff they might have taped long ago, anything they can contribute to the knowledge placed their for fans – go see these guys!