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.

Break In at Frances Bean Cobain’s Home

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana used their fame to fight sexism, racism and homophobia. They berated audience members who would grope girls in concert; they kissed live on one of America’s biggest TV shows; they gave performances in support of these causes; he gave an exclusive interview to The Advocate magazine and was delighted by Pansy Division’s affectionate cover Smells Like Queer Spirit. This was a band determined to tell people that no one has the right to invade another’s right to privacy or to use fear and intimidation to impose one’s will upon them.

Which is why the news of a break-in at the home of Frances Bean Cobain is so disturbing:

http://audioinkradio.com/2012/10/frances-bean-cobain-rabid-nirvana-fan-broke-home-had-murder-objective/

It’s a horrendous incident; the invasion of one’s home, of one’s place of safety is deeply traumatic for anyone. The added elements, the potential murder plot plus the link to a father one last seen when not even aged two, makes it worse.

Yet one thing that is clear, no one who had absorbed the music of Nirvana and had any respect for the band’s social/political opinions would believe they had the right to commit such an act. This man was sick, psychologically disturbed, dangerous…But not a Nirvana fan. The definition of a fan is (variously) “a devotee”, “a supporter”, “an admirer” — for someone to claim an identification with Kurt Cobain or Nirvana and then to act so much against the spirit of the individuals concerned refuses him entry to the community of fans.

As a wider question, there’s always an unsettling relationship between bands and their audiences. The (excellent) Nirvana Live Guide website records numerous incidents during the 1993 In Utero tour of Nirvana stopping shows to prevent male audience members groping unwilling girls in the crowd. Nirvana were certainly sensitive to this issue, look at the liner notes from Incesticide in which Kurt Cobain demands that anyone homophobic, sexist or racist “leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

But a band doesn’t get to dictate who likes its music. An audience does get to declare a band’s behavior beyond the pale via its power to give or withhold support. It’s also good that fans don’t slavishly follow the often dim-witted and thoughtless behavior of artists. Maybe the answer is to separate being a fan of a band or an individual from being a fan of their music? Declaring oneself a fan of Nirvana’s music means one likes the music. Declaring oneself a fan of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana means one shares many of their views and identifies with their positions. If one wants to be a true fan of Nirvana, not just a consumer of their catchy tunes, then there must be actions to back it up. Words are not enough.

As a final comment on the incident at Frances Bean Cobain’s home I’ll turn to an old Calvin n’ Hobbes cartoon: “a man’s home is his castle, it shouldn’t have to be a fortress.” The same goes for the home of any woman.

Why I Wrote Dark Slivers

This project has consumed evenings and weekends around my real life for so long…I’ve been sunk into Nirvana so deeply that I admit I can’t quite remember how I filled time before it. But I do remember doubts ganging up on me when I started. It would have been all too easy to say “write? I don’t have the right.”

I wrote this book because I was inspired by Nirvana in a literal sense. 1986-1990 they were just a cluster of poor boys in the back end of nowhere making barely a penny and with only the slimmest scraps of hope. The sour jokes they (and their associates at Sub Pop) made about impending success betrayed how few chances they saw, how little they could imagine what was going to happen. But, because they loved what they were doing, they kept on finding the time, the resources, the opportunities to keep music in their lives. Even with no hope beyond “maybe then I can get off this piss-stained mattress I’ve been sleeping on” they focused not on mythical end goals but on taking pleasure and triumph from their immediate actions; from doing something in the here and now.

My best day was realising that life will never slow down, will never wait for me or pause to let me package the day-to-day up neatly before I begin. I realised it was on me, regardless of what I had to do out of practical necessity, to focus myself on the people and on the things I love. It occured to me that these are the pieces that couldn’t be taken away; something you create then you hold it in your gut.

The story of Nirvana, for me, is a story about miracles occuring. The image stuck in my mind all year, the vision that drove me, was the picture of Kurt Cobain sat in a car, by a phone booth, refusing to move in case the radio lost its signal, waiting twenty minutes to hear the station play Nirvana’s first single having called in and requested it. He’s quoted saying something about it feeling like a bigger triumph than he had ever imagined. I love that idea of the future superstar, sat like an excited kid, stunned by his own creation and not caring at that moment whether he was the only person asking for it. There have been nights, after a moment of revelation while writing, that I’ve been too excited to sleep. It’s unlikely I’ll make back the money I’m investing in the preparation of the book, but what thrills me is the idea of holding something I created, the physical object, in my hands in a few weeks. Life’s little victories in bloom.
Nirvana taught me you need to start doing what you love before life gets so full that you can’t even remember what it was that made life feel good in the first place. While writing Dark Slivers, each time I’ve fulfilled my desire to write something I’m sure is original, new thinking on Nirvana, I’ve felt fire inside. That’s how it should feel when we do what we adore; the love buzz.

I think the important things in life are those we do, not because they’re what we have to do in order to live, but because they’re what we have to do in order to be alive. Everything else is barren necessity – the void.

Nirvana Reunion?

It’s always been a pleasure noting that the end of Nirvana didn’t sever the friendship between its surviving members. Over recent years Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl have been spending musical time in one another’s company while Pat Smear (Nirvana’s second guitarist during the In Utero tours) rejoined Foo Fighters on a permanent basis.

http://loudwire.com/nirvana-bassist-krist-novoselic-secretive-musical-project-dave-grohl/

Things like this have led to rumors of, and calls for, a ‘reunion’ of Nirvana. I use the quote marks deliberately because with a project so centered around the output of a single individual there’s no way some kind of performance could qualify as a reunion.

I’d be perfectly happy to hear the band back together pumping out the music — for two generations of fans it’d be the closest we could come to experiencing Nirvana and the appeal is obvious. But I’m not sure I can see anyone taking over Cobain’s vocals. It isn’t that there aren’t candidates who could mimic the style; and it isn’t that there aren’t individuals who would have a certain legitimacy in the role…

…But that’s the point. It’d be a role, theatre not authenticity. To take songs as loaded with personal pain and experience as the catalogue of Nirvana and replay them as pantomime, no matter how skilled the performer, would be hard to swallow. Kurt Cobain was a singer who used to shred his voice on stage as he tried to push as much power and emotion out as he could. For anyone else to take his words, even if willing to put in that same all-out spirit, it’d only be mimicry. Losing your voice for someone else’s song would make it a quality rendition, a heartfelt effort at showing respect, but still just a good cover of the original. In the context of a performance draped in the identity of a long dead band no amount of effort would allow the performer to truly possess the song — it’d always be a tribute and a facsimile and nothing more.

Foo Fighters performing Nirvana songs or some regrouping of Nirvana’s survivors would be worth a watch. Also these guys — consummate performers one and all — have a legitimate right to perform the songs they helped create and bring to the world. But a piece is missing. It’d still lose the earnest emotion at its centre. Best to adopt a different name, make it something independent and different, to be enjoyed without the feeling that it’s a cash in on an identity. It would also clear up any questions if they could simply say “we’re not Nirvana, we’ll never be Nirvana again…But we love these songs, they’re a part of us and we wanted to perform them again.” That’s not unreasonable and it’d be a pleasure to listen.

The Return of Grunge?

History doesn’t repeat itself but the world of music certainly seems to. British newspaper The Independent featured an article on Saturday October 27, describing bands like Yuck, Splashh, Big Deal, Scott & Charlene’s Wedding and Cloud Nothings as the successors to grunge.

It seems about time. Music is generational and seems to work at a twenty year distance. With a lot of music so far this millennium harking back to the Eighties perhaps it’s time the Nineties got its say as the young children of the 1990s get to try and recapture the sounds of their first musical memories. One thing I’d point to is that publications related to grunge and its history exploded between 2007 and 2011; I count six different volumes about the history of grunge after a decade and a half gap in which no such treatments had existed or been attempted.

The article correctly points out the nostalgia trip going on in the music scene at present as a factor. Again, this isn’t uncommon. The existence of working musicians is, despite the stereotypes, rarely one in which money rains from the skies. Many bands find themselves back out on the road in their forties as the chance to capture new fans offers a last, oft overdue, payday. With so many bands from the late Eighties and early Nineties reemerging it’s understandable that attention is refocused on the musical period in which they worked.

I’d argue that the Nirvana anniversaries have been a factor too. The release of You Know You’re Right in 2002, then With the Lights Out in 2004 (the biggest selling box set of all time) showed everyone that fans still existed and there was still a market for alternative rock. Those bands who went away long enough for people to miss them had a second chance, those who wished they’d seen them got the answer to their wishes and that includes label heads who were able to resurrect their old favorites.

Perhaps its equivalent to the success of the two Expendables’ films. As there hasn’t been any major successor to the Eighties/early Nineties style action hero personified by Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger there was an easy space to be filled. In the case of grunge, there hasn’t really been an equivalent arising to replace it.

Will new talent channeling the grunge period benefit from all this attention? It’s a question of whether old fans are looking for new thrills or just the old safe ones repackaged and reissued. Audiences are smaller these days though (while more global than ever) so it’s unlikely there’ll be another explosion. Similarly it’s hard to spark a revolution on repetition — nostalgia doesn’t lend itself to ‘great leaps forward’ but if the twist these new bands give to their sound makes it something new altogether…Well then there’s a chance.

Anyways, here’s the article link (working as of November 2012):

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/smells-like-teen-spirit-all-over-again-8226824.html

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:

Tale of Six Drummers: Part Two

In terms of live shows, however, the picture changes even further in Dave Grohl’s favour. Dave put in a massive 207 shows compared to 165 in total for all Nirvana’s other drummers put together. Again, Chad Channing is second with 140 shows but then Dale Crover is in third with nine shows (one in 1988, eight in 1990) followed by Dave Foster with eight shows (a busy period belying his short tenure in the band.) Aaron only played seven shows in what was a very quiet 1987 while Dan Peters only played one:

The Hammer Party: Nirvana’s Drummers

Ask most people to name Nirvana’s drummer and they’ll come back with an enthusiastic “Dave Grohl!” (A.K.A. The Nicest Rock Star in the World.) As the band’s drummer on their two most popular studio albums (and on MTV Unplugged in New York) and the band member who has subsequently gone on to independent success in the music world, it’s understandable.

It’s interesting though to examine Nirvana’s drummers statistically, to understand further the contribution they made to the band’s career. The ‘Time in Band’ chart indicates length of tenure in the band commencing at the top in February 1987 then proceeding clockwise until April 1994.

Dave Grohl emerges the clear victor serving slightly longer than all Nirvana’s other drummers put together and the single longest tenure. Chad Channing, unsurprisingly is in second place but intriguingly it’s the overlooked figure of Aaron Burckhard in third.

Song Reconsidered: Sliver

Sliver was banged out in mid-1990 with a single one hour studio session plus one more session for rerecording the vocals. It was invented in a rehearsal session bare weeks before so it’s a remarkable product of a very specific period of time.

In terms of Nirvana’s musical direction, Sliver represents either the start of the Pixies influenced mode  (guitar quiet, voice lead verses, then all out roaring choruses) or, alternatively, an abandoned direction the band was experimenting with.

Slilver was something different. As discussed in the book Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide, the song was a penultimate effort at a lyrical writing mode soon abandoned. Musically its approach was to start with no guitar, roar in for the first chorus, then keep the peddle to the floor right through to the end of the song. This was unusual. It doesn’t have a stereotypical Nirvana verse/chorus/verse approach. Instead the amplification comes on and stays on.

There are two songs to which it should be compared; Here She Comes Now, recorded shortly before Sliver, and the cover of D7 recorded soon after.

In all three cases the approach is the same, the song reaches a chorus, stamps the effects pedal and never takes the foot off. Kurt had long been a fan of the Wipers so it’s no surprise he would cover one of their songs. The Velvet Underground cover though came about only the request of a record label that Nirvana didn’t want to turn down – potential publicity and new fans not being so common at that time. Nirvana weren’t ruling the world just yet, they barely made any money.

Nirvana didn’t perform D7 in concert until late 1990, prior to its recording for the BBC. Here She Comes Now, however, was performed in concert in May 1990 making it the last NEW song to appear before Sliver was created. It seems possible therefore that Here She Comes Now influenced the creation of Sliver. Curiously, following Sliver, there aren’t many other songs that sound much like it. It would imply that Sliver’s place on Incesticide, a compilation showcasing abandoned approaches, was partly because it really was an experiment the band never followed up on.