Tuesday 12 March 2013

Walking in Nirvana

I like to think of myself as being well versed in music, it doesn't matter when the music is from or what genre it is; I can enjoy it, and since getting a spotify subscription a few years ago I've been digging into the darkest depths of music history to find both the established classics and the hidden gems. Yet Nirvana has stuck with me all the way through, its my go to answer whenever anyone asks me what my favorite band is, and despite being the band that really got me into rock, nay, good music in general, I still listen to them regularly. I thought about what my first real blog post could be and this was really the only option. I suppose I would hope to interest other Nirvana fans with this post, yet I'd love it if someone who didn't like Nirvana (or had somehow never even heard of them) stumbled across it and had a new found interest in them.

From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
Nirvana was formed in the 80s by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novelistic after many failed attempts to form a band in the past. All of these failed startups had terrible names, ranging from Pen Cap Chew and Skid Row to Ted Ed Fred. In 1986 cobain formed (and in the same year left) the band Fecal Matter, which he formed with Dale Crover from The Melvins. Soon after Fecal Matter fell apart Cobain and Krist formed Nirvana (Cobain came up with the name, wanting it to sound more beautiful and harmonic than the names of other underground bands at the time). The band went through multiple drummers during its early years, most notably Chad Channing who played on their first album. 

An early Nirvana lineup from 1987
The band came from Seattle where a new wave of underground music was brewing, with other bands like Alice in Chains, Sonic Youth and SoundGarden all starting up at about this time as well. After officially forming in 1987 they spent the next two years touring, trying hard to get a record contract before eventually signing to Sub-Pop Records, a small indie label that wanted to release there first album through a unique subscription system, something that the band worked very hard to stop.

There first album: Bleach, was released in 1989. A down-and-dirty garage record if there ever was one, it was extremely far from mainstream and for anyone who only knows Nirvana through their major hits, there won't be much you'll recognize here. Although it has become unanimously agreed upon by fans as their worst album it still holds up decently today. While Cobain's lyrics would become more refined and memorable over the years, they would never be as dark and disturbing as they are on bleach, while some songs stand out as excellent works of pure not-trying-to-please-anyone, going for broke grundge: there first single "Love Buzz", Cobain's dig at his horrible time in school in "School", a horrifying tale of murder in "Floyd the Barber". Although the undisputed highlight of the album is "About a Girl" sounding like a jacked up Beatles tune, it was about his at the time girlfriend Tracy and his trouble in balancing his time with her and his time with the band. Although my personal favorite song from this time is on the Bleach: Deluxe Edition where "Sappy" comes across as an early sign of genius from the band.

Jesus Doesn't want Me For a Sunbeam 
I suppose I should write a bit about Kurt Cobain here. Many people called him "the voice of a generation" and since then it wouldn't exactly be crazy to believe in the title of "the last rockstar" and I admit that despite his tragic end I always looked up to the guy as a kid and I still think of him as being probably the figure who most shaped my young, influential mind. Although for anyone who throws themselves into such extremes that Cobain did is always going to warrant strong opinions, and I'm well aware that theres those that think the exact opposite of what I think of him.

Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington in 1967. His parents divorced when he was 8, having a very damaging effect on the young Cobain, who later said "I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that." Cobain was kicked out of home by his mother as a teenager, and spent most of this time up until Nirvana's success sleeping at friends houses and renting out apartments. 

Cobain was a creative guy, creating short films as a child with mangled dolls he created (inspired by Spielberg's "Close Encounters" and Kubrick's "The Shining") as well as keeping his journal updated for most of his life (which to the dismay of some fans can now be bought in stores). Although he was always deeply troubled, as a child he told a school friend he would one day become a famous rockstar and kill himself at the age of 27 (a reference to the infamous 27 club: an age many famous rockstars have died). I also find it worthy of note that at the time both him (and everyone else) thought that Jimi Hendrix had killed himself at 27, although it was later found out to be from an accidental drug overdose. 

Cobain has now become well known as a very contradictory character. For most of his life he tried to talk his friends out of taking drugs, and he himself was afraid of needles. Although towards the later end of the 80s he started to experiment with different drugs, and as the 90s dawned he fell into full on-drug addiction. He tried to quit multiple times, only later to find his way back to the drugs. Many believe Cobain suffered a life-long case of undiagnosed depression, and it's became generally excepted by many (although never proven) that Cobain had Bi-Polar disorder. Contradictions can also be found in the way Cobain talked about becoming famous his whole life, yet he seemed damaged by fame once he got it, seemingly unable to cope with the constant media attention and expectations put upon him. 

"Kurt Cobain Smells like Teen Spirit"
Spray painted onto Cobain's wall by a friend, here was the ticket to the big leagues for Nirvana. In 1990 Dave Grohl joined the band, becoming the official drummer of Nirvana. Throughout 1990/91 the band toured extensively and managed to build up a surprising legion of fans the old fashion way: through determination and good word of mouth.

To understand the success of Nirvana you have to understand the state of the music industry at that point. The world had just been through the 80s, a time when pop-divas like Michael Jackson and Prince had became kings of the music industry and the rock community had became so desperate that Jon Bon Jovi was actually considered a rockstar. The only other band to bite into the mainstream at that time were Guns'n'Roses, a great band, but one that never managed to reach the success of its first release, not to mention being a very "Gun-Ho" type of rockband in the vein of Aerosmith, nothing like the things Nirvana was aiming for.

And the rest is rock history... Nirvana released their second album: Nevermind, which was instantly showered with good reviews and got off to surprisingly good sales (publisher DGC hadn't even made enough copies to meet the high demand, meaning the album was sold out everywhere for weeks). The album would go onto sell 30 million copies, becoming one of the bestselling albums ever and sending Nirvana straight to the top of the music industry (not to mention throwing Cobain into some much unwanted megastardom).

Although the most important track on Nirvana was Smells Like Teen Spirit. I see it as a bit of poetic justice that SLTS knocked Michael Jackson's Bad from the tops of the charts, instantly signaling a change from the glitzy glam-rock of the 80s, to the dirty, grundgy style of the 90s, a time when, at least in some cases, indie bands took over the charts and the big music corporations had to completely rethink themselves. Smells Like Teen Spirit sold 8 million copies and became the sound of the slacker generation.

Also on the album was a number of Nirvana's best tracks: the darkly sarcastic yet crowd friendly "Lithium", the all-out anger of "Lounge act" the satirical "in bloom", the slow and harmonic story of rape in "Polly" and the almost scary riffs of "Come as You Are" with a chorus that contains Cobain's biggest (likely unintentional) joke on the mainstream: his much repeated line "and I swear I don't have a gun".

Feels Like the First Time
It's became a popular myth that Nirvana invented grundge. This is a lie. Or at the very least the well-intentioned information of someone who doesn't know what they're talking about. Grundge had been around for a long time before Nirvana, although up to that point it had been segregated to the 80s underground rock scene. Just go and listen to 80s band Husker D.U. and you'll hear a lot of Nirvana in them, although it's clear that Cobain and the others didn't just use this formula as it was, they built on it, and one way they did this was make it more radio-friendly. Nirvana never openly invited the mainstream, and I don't think anybody could call them "sell-outs" but they clearly had a big pop influence.

Cobain himself was a big Beatles fan, and the band's manager said he would sometimes hear Cobain playing some of John Lennon's solo stuff in the studio (possibly pointing to Cobain's own ambitions to be a solo artist one day?) The influence The Beatles had on the band might not be immediately clear but it all comes to down to the fact that both bands liked simplicity (or at-least songs that appeared simple/easy to play) Cobain had Lennon's talent for creating great hooks, and for writing very personal lyrics, yet both were of course very different artists; Lennon sang songs in the hope of creating peace and unity, while Kurt made music that expressed his inner emotions, polar opposites really, but both were people who made great pop songs disguised as deeper works of art.

There are obviously lots of other bands that influenced them along the way; those simplistic riffs and want for teenage rebellion can clearly be heard in the Sex Pistols, while the more artsy side of the Velvet Underground can also be heard in Nirvana (they even did a cover of VU's "Here She Comes Now"), while the "Vaselines" also had a big influence on Nirvana: both Krist and Kurt said they were their favorite band, and they covered multiple of their songs including "Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam" and "Molly's Lips".

I also want to note that while Nirvana's studio recordings are great, listening to some of their live recordings is where you'll hear some of the best versions of their songs. I like almost all of the bands songs, but some really stuck out for me (and not in a good way) "Tourette's", "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" and "Spank Thru" sounded terrible on there studio versions, but when I heard those songs on some of the live CDs which have been released it changed my whole opinion of them, it's like I just finally "got" what they were going for with these songs that the studio versions just couldn't get across.

"When I get what I want, and I never want it again" 
After the success of Nevermind things started to move very fast for Nirvana. In 1992 Cobain married the lead woman of Hole: Courtney Love, and that same year the couples daughter: Frances Bean Cobain, was born.

Yet despite this it wasn't a happy year for the band. Kurt's now raging heroin addiction became known to the public, meanwhile behind closed doors the band started to break apart, leading to the band temporarily breaking up for a few months (as Krist and Kurt had an argument, mostly revolving around Courtney). The mini-breakup might not have became know to the public, but it meant that for months the band did no concerts.

Worse still, Vanity Fair published a cover of Kurt, Courtney, and Frances with drugs photoshopped into their hands. As you might expect after such an accusation, Frances was taken away from her parents and the Cobains spent most of 1992 in a court battle, eventually getting her back in 93, but on the condition that Courtney's sister was around too.

The band managed to settle their differences and get back to touring by the end of the year, and to counter the lack of releases that year they released Incesticide, a collection of B-Sides, previously unreleased tracks and the recordings the band did for the BBC in 1990.

After that the band seemed to get back on track, although Cobain's heavy drug addiction continued, and the relationship of the three in the band started to become more of a working relationship and less a friendship.

In the meantime Love's band Hole started to take off, with Live Through This becoming a big success on its release in 1994, while it is still debated how much involvement Kurt had in that album. At the same time, many noted that Cobains own songwriting was improving (some claim partly due to Courtney) his normally satirical and sarcastic lyrics started to become darker and more personal, while the songs themselves became more structured.

In 1993 the band released their third and final studio album: In Utero, a title taken from one of Courtney's poems (after the band members talked Cobain out of using the title "I hate myself and want to die", Cobain's sarcastic response when people asked him how he was) Although Nevermind is the popular pick for Nirvana's best album, I will always consider In Utero their peak. It contains Cobain's most personal lyrics such as in the fiery and menacing "Frances Farmer will have her revenge in Seattle" a song with obvious connections to Cobain's daughter and the Vanity Fair article, yet it also shows sides of the band that nevermind never even hinted to, most notably in the beautiful and harmonic (yet tortured) "Pennyroyal Tea" and the heavenly "All Apologies"(the last track on the CD, and a perfect ending to the Nirvana story), yet also in the Bluesy centerpiece of the album "Heart Shaped Box", as well as featuring the only song were Grohl and Novelistic also got involved in the songwriting as well in "Scentless apprentice", not to mention the bands most controversial song in the form of "Rape Me" which might sound like a clear plea for attention but has since become one of their most loved songs.

The Man Who Sold the World
The bands success only continued with In Utero, with Heart Shaped Box becoming a big hit, but Cobain's addiction had become very prevalent. He became very tired of touring, and wanted to stop the tour early, but the publishers made it clear that-that was only going to lead to the band getting sued.

Cobain also wanted to take the band in a different direction, and its likely any later albums would have mimicked the style of Pennyroyal Tea and All Apologies and not there more hard rock songs. Cobain even wrote about his wish to make a rock opera as the bands next album, wanting to call it "Cobain's Disease" a jab at the chronic stomach pains which plagued him all of his life.

The band did continue to tour into early 1994, with the most famous of these gigs being there show on MTV: Unplugged. Later released as a CD, it has went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed albums the band would ever put out, focusing on the lighter side of the band with an all acoustic performance, which bravely featured none of the bands major hits, which meant no "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a song that Cobain had long since bored of performing. Unplugged stands as a testament to how varied a band Nirvana really was, and points to what the band could have become. It featured great versions of "About a Girl", "Polly", "Dumb" and "Something in the Way" among others, but the real highlight of the show is the covers the band does. It features three Meat Puppets (who were also performing with them) covers; the best being "Oh Me", while the bands version of "The Man Who Sold the World" has became more famous than the David Bowie original, and the shows final song, the haunting "Where did you sleep last night" both shows Cobains torment and possibly his hopes for where the band would go next.

"I miss the comfort in being sad"
In February 1994 Kurt Cobain turned 27, the oldest he would ever be. Its almost impossible to know the truth about what he was planning at that point: some claim he wanted to break up the band and its said after one gig he said "I should be doin this solo", while theres also claims that he was planning to divorce Courtney Love. Who knows whats true here, and even if he did say/attempt these things, who's to say he wasn't just building up his own legend, something he had always been trying to do.

It was also at this time when the band recorded their final song "You Know Your Right" the lyrics clearly show Cobains troubles, yet its a great rock record none the less, and was finally released in 2002 at the end of a court-case between the remaining Nirvana members and Courtney Love.

In March Kurt traveled to Rome to see Courtney during a break from touring. Paparazzi caught pictures of him going onto the airplane, some of the last know pictures of Kurt alive. Kurt's first suicide attempt came here as he swallowed over 50 pills in the couples bedroom while Courtney was sleeping. Cobain was quickly rushed to hospital and the whole situation became international news (although was dismissed as an accidental overdose) with Cobain eventually being transported back to the US and making a recovery, despite the doctors early worries he might stay in a coma or have brain damage.

Through March and April Cobain's drug addiction continued, mostly due to the fact that the friends who supplied him with the drugs were never notified of the suicide attempt, all believing it to be an overdose: something that had become very frequent for Cobain to the point that not even his wife became worried at the sigh of her husband overdosing, she calmly injecting him with Valium to bring him back.

In April 1994 Courtney and Kurt were both admitted to separate drug rehabilitation facilities. Cobain only stayed for a few days before jumping the fence (despite knowing full well the door was wide open) and flying back to Seattle. Exact dates aren't known after that, but Cobains body was found by an electrician on April 8th, dead due to a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

One of the last know pictures of Kurt alive, as he heads to Rome
"What else should I be? All Apologies"
Since then Cobain's legend has only grown. Theres been endless releases of Nirvana. The good being that of the Unplugged gig, as well as a truly classic gig in the form of "Live in Reading" which was released just a few years ago. Theres also been the "Silver: Best of the box" which includes tons of unreleased material and early versions of their tracks. yet theres also been some releases which could easily be called cash-ins, the Greatest hits simply titled Nirvana could be seen that way (but then again, its what got me into the band, and its a nice little way to sum up the band), but other releases like the "Icon: Greatest hits" and the pointless live CD "Feels like the First Time" don't add anything new to Nirvana's cataloge, and in a way they show a wanting from fans and music executives for more Nirvana, something they can never. Despite this Nirvana's legacy has been pretty good, for many (including me) they've already been excepted into the all time greats of rock'n'roll.

I know some might not like there music, but there influence on the musical landscape is undeniable, and while Cobain was never the most technically skilled guitarist, he did create some of the most memorable guitar riffs of the last 20 years and his twisted, unique lyrical style certifies him as a genius in my book.

Kurt Cobain's life might have ended too soon but his music will live on forever.

Above: Artists impression of the infamous 27 club
Below: Foo Fighter's song"Friend of Friend" which Dave Grohl wrote about Cobain

No comments:

Post a Comment