April 26, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Cobain on Cobain's collection of interviews forms a fascinating oral history of the life of Kurt Cobain and career of Nirvana.
Gillian G. Gaar wrote of the book:
"This fascinating collection offers you a front-row seat to Nirvana's stunning rise and tragic fall. Before the biographies, before the revisionism, before the mythologies, Nirvana's story is revealed by Cobain and his bandmates as it unfolds, without the benefit of hindsight. Cobain on Cobain is the closest you can get to a Kurt Cobain autobiography."
An individual's significance breeds words. Soon those words become so numerous it's hard to see the real person at their root. Either sooner or later that person departs the world at which point the words take over. This isn't a claim that words are useless; it's simply that any writer choosing to engage with a historical personality must struggle diligently to tether their words as close as possible to the human reality.
The preparation of Cobain on Cobain overlapped with another work of mine, I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana. The motivations and crucial moments, for me, were similar. Losing my grandfather, my father, my godfather in quick succession across 2013-2014 made me deeply aware of loss, of the messiness and inadequacy of any human encounter with death. To be in a state of grief was, perhaps, for the best when these two works brought me into direct contact with friends of Kurt Cobain's who still feel shocked, saddened, disappointed by his fate. My desire became to use oral history to tell the tale in such a way that one shared the sense of being an observer at shows during the long pre-fame years then the short flash of fame; then to create a volume of interviews that allowed a reader to see Cobain and his comrades, caught as close to the critical events as possible, responding in the moment without reflection.
An entire generation has grown to adulthood in the two decades since Cobain's death – I can understand people being tired of reading articles stripped wholly from "Kurt Cobain 101", the morass of hackneyed tributes, canned applause lines and tedious 'voice of a generation' clichés that have swallowed the man whole. As far as the music…I've lived inside it 23 years – it's Ground Zero for my tastes – I can hear the notes in my head whenever I choose. My choices below can't replace anyone's personal path through sound, but maybe they'll bring a different light to songs long since grown familiar.
Sleeper Cell 'Sky Blue Eye'
In September 2013 I sat in the basement with John, Bob and Pat – Sleeper Cell – as they cranked out vocal harmonies, raw rock and meditational grooves in a sound-proofed basement. I felt privileged, lucky, that people would be willing to share their creativity and talent with me. There's a late 1988 video of Nirvana rehearsing in a box-room and it's no different to this; the superstars could be up the road from you right now – go see. Making something that had become untouchable seem tangible once more, as real as three guys playing together for fun, what more could I want to achieve when writing of Nirvana?
Kurt Cobain 'Burn the Rain'
It was amazing watching the fury provoked in some quarters by the Montage of Heck: the Home Recordings archive release in 2015. At times it was as if people only had room in their minds for one version of Cobain; the pop-punk singer-songwriter of Nevermind. Instead the record placed Cobain in the company of lo-fi audio-pranksters and sonic collagists like Calvin Johnson, the Feederz (originators of Cobain's famous 'Graffitti: Beautiful as a Rock in a Cop's Face' sticker), Butthole Surfers, or Lou Barlow. It showed his goofy humour, his desire to toy with sound, it even showed off his literary poetic pretensions – I was thrilled. This more expansive and nuanced Cobain was a true artist - a richer figure than rock labels ever let him be. That's all I could hope for, to add complexity to what had become a card-cut-out icon.
Soundgarden 'Hunted Down'
Many veterans like to say that the Seattle scene was over by 1986 before Sub Pop (let alone Nirvana) even arrived. Soundgarden are a perfect representative of Seattle's first wave; they started the Sub Pop phenomenon, welded punk texture to, wailing hard rock vibes then hopped onto a major label as part of a wave of oddball rock/metal including Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More – alongside Seattle bands like the Posies, Mother Love Bone and Alice in Chains. All of this has been forgotten, it's like the deification of Nirvana erased memories of major labels signing underground bands pre-Nirvana, Seattle ones to boot. The tidy vision of Eighties hard rock (bad) being replaced by Nineties grunge (good) is far too simplistic. I like life messy, noisy, jumbled – real. It's hard sometimes to remember that in 1992 almost nobody had heard anything Nirvana did pre-Nevermind. It was Soundgarden who looked like the Seattle band most likely to make it big.
Nirvana 'Love Buzz'
In Cobain on Cobain, Nirvana have to comment on this song for most of 1989-1990 – Cobain boldly points out "We made a mistake with 'Love Buzz' because it's our best song as far as I'm concerned." Turning a Sixties pop song into a driving heavy punk tune was a brilliant move – Nirvana's first single, the song they had to play at every show for years. It's also a foreshadowing of much of what Nirvana would come to do; the earworm intro riff, the (relatively) quiet verses allowing the vocals to stand out, the crashing chorus – this song was tailor-made for sing-along crowds. Just by reflecting on their own work here Nirvana could find a formula that would give them fame in 1991.
Dinosaur Jr 'Freak Scene'
Across the course of the Eighties, Punk had given ground to hardcore then to a proliferation of weird takes on the template. Cobain absorbed them all whether Butthole Surfers' screwball psychedelia, Black Flag's expansive take on hardcore, Big Black's tinnitus-inducing clatter, Sonic Youth's textured washes of sound. The groundwork for Nirvana's success, however, was being set as certain bands began to ally underground values to hard rock amp-worship. Dinosaur Jr's 'Freak Scene' was the first true rock anthem of the Eighties U.S. underground. By 1991 Nirvana would be one of a dozen underground bands embedded at major labels, they'd support Dinosaur Jr for a few shows that year when being Dinosaur Jr, or being Sonic Youth, was the highest status any underground band could dream of. In their interviews Nirvana spent more time namechecking and evangelising for favourite bands than any other single topic.
Nirvana 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'
In an interview taking place as late as August 24, 1991 with James Sherry of the U.K.'s Metal Hammer magazine, Dave Grohl only goes as far as to say that the song that would become one of the rock music's most beloved "seems like — it's got that heat." They're talking about how ironic and funny it would be to tour with Guns 'n Roses, while saying it'll never happen – but within months Axl Rose would be wearing a Nirvana cap on a Guns 'n Roses video and asking the band to perform at his birthday. That's what I adored about going back to the band members' original words; the utter innocence on display. They're ready to have a song in the charts, they're happy to see their music achieve a degree of commercial success so they can at least stop living hand-to-mouth…It's enthralling seeing how clueless they are regarding what was to come. Through long overexposure and relentless praise too, people have become a bit numb to this song – in the same way that they've forgotten at times what a surprise it was in 1991 when the underground finally cracked the mainstream wide open.
Sebadoh 'Beauty of the Ride'
The impact of music is all about the moment in one's personal history; when fans contact me it's amazing how often they turn out to be roughly my age, to have had a comparable moment of enlightenment when first encountering Nirvana. I started writing about Nirvana simply because I'm a fan – who happens to enjoy writing. It's been a privilege to share some small part of the life and times of fans, journalists, musicians the world over who – like me – feel something for Nirvana. This song is here simply as an example of what Nirvana did to my tastes. Nirvana in 1993, led to Rage Against the Machine, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden in 1994. By 1996 I'd started to leave the mainstream and one discovery that sticks in mind was picking up this single, with its innocent 'boy and horse' image on the front cover, in the Leicester branch of HMV while visiting my father in hospital after his first heart attack. I still sing this song when times are hard because the bad moments in life are as precious as the good, "it's just the beauty of the ride…"
Nirvana 'Heart Shaped Box'
In 1993 I watched an MTV Wayne's World special in which Mike Myers and Dana Carvey - in their guises as perennial stoner youths Wayne and Garth - poked irreverent humour at a selection of rock videos of the moment. Nirvana didn't have a halo over their output – it didn't feel so serious. "Hey, is he saying 'hey Wayne'…?" they asked of the chorus ("Hey! Wait! I've got a new complaint,") before suggesting Cobain just give them a call if he had a problem to raise. In early 1994 I bought a copy of MAD magazine on a family trip to Florida which suggested "teach more singers to mumble like Kurt Cobain so there are fewer ridiculous lyrics to memorize." There was still a joke to be had back then – something posthumous tributes never quite capture because they're always written in light of Cobain's death and the band's demise. How can one restore that humour? The closest I felt one could come was to re-read the band's interviews from the era and see the mutual amusement interviewers and band took from one another.
Nirvana 'Endless Nameless' (on MTV Live and Loud)
A 15 minute-long noise thrash and a firmly held middle-digit to the mainstream product urges of MTV. While working on Cobain on Cobain, the longest negotiation I took part in was to try to persuade MTV to permit the inclusion of one of their interviews with Cobain. I could understand their discomfort. After fame hit, Cobain dropped most media engagements but felt he had to take MTV. He refused to do any additional takes on Nirvana's first appearance; barely spoke during his first interview with the channel; refused their wish that he play more hits on MTV Unplugged (as well as insisting on bringing underground band, the Meat Puppets); then cut 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' from the Live and Loud performance. This finale was Cobain at his most anarchic, harassing cameras, knocking over equipment, feedback uber alles, all rounded off with sarcastic applause to the audience. He was famous but it didn't mean he had to play nice.
Adam Harding (feat. Dane Certificate) 'Do Re Mi'
In my view, this is one of tantalisingly few covers of Kurt Cobain's music to rise beyond tribute. 'Do Re Mi' was, as far as is known, the last full song Cobain readied prior to his death – even its name is conjectural. With death comes uncertainty, a door wedged permanently open to possibility – we'll never know Cobain's true intentions for this song or whether the known demos come even close to what he might have made of it. Adam Harding wrenches the song into the pop realm, draws these beautiful melodies into stark relief, turns up the joyfulness previously buried under static, a cracking voice and mournful falsetto. As I worked this song reminded me that it was possible to sidestep predictability and to create something fresh, new, different from something one has heard many times before.
Nick Soulsby and Cobain on Cobain: Interviews and Encounters links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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