Tag Archives: Kurt Cobain

I’m not like them but I can pretend

You will have your own opinion, no doubt, of Kurt Cobain. I’ve heard most of them before – the range running from “spokesman (or person as he would surely have preferred) for his generation” through to “junkie loser”. Now he seems to just be a face on a tee shirt, like Che Guevara is a face on a tee shirt, an icon or emblem of something (rock and roll ? suicide ? disaffected alienation ?) that’s disconnected from the person.

Twenty years ago today was probably the day he died, his body found three days later on April 8th, 1994. I was in my final year at University and heard the news as I lay in bed listening to the radio. I’m still not entirely sure why but it definitely affected me at the time; it was troubling and shocking and sad. In retrospect my “tribute”, which involved daubing his name on the back of a white football shirt for a 5-a-side tournament I was about to play in, doesn’t seem desperately respectful. But then, it was playful I guess, and perhaps he would have liked that.

I was first aware of Nirvana from my frequent visits to the Kandi Klub in Bristol in the late 80s and early 90s. I don’t remember it exactly but I imagine “Sliver” was probably my introductory point. They made a bigger impression at the Reading Festival in ’91 – about a month before “Teen Spirit” was released – playing a set in the middle of the afternoon that had the site buzzing for the rest of the weekend. Not, mind you, that any of us thought they were about to have a no.1 album in the States – they were just one of “our” bands that had played a great set. Mudhoney played an equally enjoyable set that day and some of the smart money was on them breaking through if anyone was going to.

After success happened Cobain never seemed to satisfactorily reconcile art and commerce for himself; desperate not to “sell out” on the one hand but making choices that left himself open to the charge on the other (major label, the production on “Nevermind”, the video for “Teen Spirit”). It’s frightening how much changed for the band in the space of a year. They were back at Reading in ’92 but this time as headliners amid wild speculation about the state of Cobain’s health (which he lampooned by being pushed out on stage in a wheelchair dressed in a surgical gown). Their performance was good – I don’t have many “I was there” stories but Nirvana at Reading ’91 and ’92 is one of them – but there’s more cynicism. It’s worth listening to and comparing the frenetic run through of “Teen Spirit” from the ’91 set (at about 9 mins in here) to the deliberately mangled take from ’92 (here) when Cobain, at least, was evidently pretty sick of playing that song. The nod to the Boston “More Than A Feeling” steal at the start is still pretty funny though.

It had felt like a victory when “Nevermind” broke, a validation if you felt like you were on the margins of mainstream culture. It’s okay, that victory said, it’s okay to feel a little lost and a little alone and a little like you don’t know what your life is going to be. It’s okay to be vulnerable. He was never a “spokesperson” for me or for anyone I knew but he was someone I could identify with, from the goofing around with his friends to the pain you heard every time he opened out that cracked and ragged voice to sing. And make no mistake, Cobain was a brilliant, brilliant singer if the point of singing is to articulate and express aspects of the human condition. Catharsis is usually the word that gets bandied around when people talk about his vocals; cathartic for us maybe but evidently in the end not for him.

So inevitably it felt like a defeat when he died. Not just died but took his own life (I don’t buy any of the conspiracy theories). He was living in a lot of pain by all accounts and trying to numb it with whatever he could; heroin and, ultimately, a shot gun. Here was one of the guys that had made you feel a little better about being on the outside and he’d not been able to cope. Maybe everything wasn’t going to be okay ?

I don’t, and won’t, glorify his death nor his drug taking but neither will I judge him by those acts alone. I admired his sense of humour, how he took his work seriously but not the stuff around it, his sense of melody married to noise, and the way that he could produce sounds with his voice that spoke to how I felt, even (especially) when I felt pretty dark. I wish he’d been free of pain, free of his mental demons, free to find a way to continue to make music, and free to be with his daughter. I will raise a cup of lemsip (I am currently sick – it seems fitting) in his honour today.

The way I will always remember him is splayed out amongst Dave Grohl’s drums at the end of that ’91 Reading set having launched himself into it as a finale. Kinda cool. Kinda stupid. But happy and alive. Not just a face on a tee shirt. He got up, gave us a grin and a wave, and was gone.

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Here we are now, entertain us

23. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (The Spam Ducks / Brian Clough)

I know, I know. Too obvious, right ? Well, I kind of agree but it’s not on the list, not entirely at least, for the obvious reasons. It’s here as much for the, ahem, spirited cover version of it that I was once involved in as it is for kicking in the door to the mainstream for a slew of US alternative bands in the early 90s.

There’s a whole host of musical “scenes” that I could lay claim to have been part of. Part of in the sense of associating with, using as a badge of identity, rather than literally being part of obviously – there isn’t about to be a big reveal wherein I announce that I was actually the bassist in Buffalo Tom. Any of the following would have just about fallen into my later formative years:  Madchester, acid house, the tail end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (sort of), glam / hair metal, and stretching it a bit, C86 if I’d started early and Britpop if I’d started late. Whilst there were bits in all of those that I loved at various stages, including a long infatuation with Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” which baffles me now, I never really felt like I belonged to any of them. For me it was all about the explosion of primarily American bands that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s playing, for want of a better term, alternative rock. Key reference points would include Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Buffalo Tom, and Pavement, as well as people like Teenage Fanclub, Ride, and The Wedding Present from the UK.

At around the same time – 1990 to be precise – I began to learn to play the guitar. Play probably isn’t the right verb. Work would be closer, for both me and anyone unfortunate enough to be listening. I learned – in those heady days before any of us had the internet – via correspondence with a friend who used to send me little chord diagrams in the post, gradually progressing to a sort of rudimentary tablature. He’d gone on to University, along with most of my school friends, whilst I waited another year to do fun things like retake a couple of exams and have knee surgery. That year did give me the time and inclination to pick up the guitar though so perhaps these things happen for a reason.

I think the first song I could vaguely bash my way through was “My Favourite Dress” by The Wedding Present but playing guitar also meant that I could begin to relieve myself of vocal duties in the finest band ever to emerge from the villages of the South Gloucestershire area. I’ve relived the glory days of The Muppets elsewhere in this blog but they were not the first band I was a part of. No, that honour belongs to The Spam Ducks who later morphed into Brian Clough. Not literally.

The Ducks / Clough had various line ups over a period of a couple of years but was principally the result of the friendship between three of us – Ian, Russ and myself. Those are their real names. I feel they should shoulder as much responsibility for this as me. The band was an excuse for us to mess around and entertain our friends – we would periodically put on a show at a local village hall. On very, very rare occasions we convinced ourselves that we sounded okay. We had a certain ramshackle charm perhaps, often depending on who we’d persuaded to play drums (never underestimate the power of a good drummer to make a bad band sound okay). I think we mainly did it to make each other laugh and, on that score, we were the greatest band in rock history.

As none of us could really play that well we ended up having more of our own songs than covers; we usually couldn’t play the covers. Song writing involved someone coming up with three chords – some variation on D C G proving especially popular – and someone else turning up with a set of lyrics. I say lyrics… Quite often I think a good idea for a song title arising from something we found funny was then stretched out beyond the point of absurdity. So our set typically included: “Washing Machine On My Mind” (it’s tough on dirt, it’s not kind), “Soap On A Rope” (sitting in my bathtub, it’s not a tin one), “Fishfinger” (genuinely with no adolescent sex-gag connotations – it was about fishfingers that you, you know, eat), and “Alan” (Alan, I’d rather drink a gallon… of beer… than have you near…). “Soap On A Rope” was actually a pretty good little punk song.

When we did venture into cover versions it was typically something by The Wedding Present which was helpful in that a) most of the songs were three chords, b) the vocals don’t require much by way of singing ability, and c) no one in the audience really knew the songs anyway. That all changed when we decided to take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, one of the biggest songs of 1991 and so called anthem for Generation X. So how did we approach Kurt Cobain’s sarcastic, contradictory call for teenage revolution ?

We did it sat in large, high backed armchairs with Ian reciting the lyrics in a bluff Northern accent (part Mark E Smith, part Python Four Yorkshireman sketch). There may have been an odd call and response element to the “hello” “hello” bit leading into the chorus involving waving. It is fair to say that we made the song our own. I think Kurt would have approved. If Bill Drummond had done it people would have called it art.

That was one of our last performances and who knows what we might have gone on to accomplish ? We were definitely branching out into experimental territory – we had supported ourselves at that gig as The Living Carpets (stolen entirely from Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer) and performed the theme song to children’s TV show “Heathcliff” with large pieces of carpet taped around our heads. I guess to an outsider it would have looked like kids making a godawful racket, full of in jokes and nonsense but for us it was just hugely fun. Part of the point, as well, was to provide some entertainment for our friends – even if sometimes they got to laugh at us rather than with us – and hopefully we managed a little of that too.

I don’t listen to “Teen Spirit” very often anymore. Don’t listen to “Nevermind” much to be honest – time hasn’t been kind to the production and I think “In Utero” is a far superior record. For a long time though Nirvana were really important to me. It sounds kind of sad but I can strongly recall hearing the news about Cobain’s death and I was affected by it. That was still no excuse for spending a couple of years trying unsuccessfully to ape his hairstyle though. To everyone that witnessed it: I am truly sorry.

When I do listen to “Teen Spirit” now I tend to remember Russ struggling to switch his distortion pedal off, hear Ian bellowing “hello hello” like he’s Graham Chapman at the start of the Spanish Inquisition skit, and see a group of old school friends staring at us in a mixture of amusement and bemusement. It makes me smile.