Do You Believe In The Power Of Rock & Roll?
By John Robb
A high-octane first-person history of the last 40 years of rock music
Fudge packing, crack smoking, satan worshipping, mother fuckers...
New York City summer 1989. A young band has just played one of the most intense rock gigs I've ever seen.
The vocalist's slight frame and lank hair belies a stunning power, shredding his throat as he sings amazing, melodic anthems that are at once euphoric and melancholic. The band is Nirvana and they are playing at Maxwell's in Hobokon just over the river from Manhattan. There is just a handful of people watching - a typical night on the rock n roll circuit where genius doesn't always mean popularity. At this point Nirvana are just another bunch of mad-eyed hopefuls crammed into the back of a van looking for escape from their dull lives.
The listless audience, numbering no more than ten people, are far from captivated. Just me, the photographer Ian Tilton, the band's press agent Anton Brookes and a woman from a French record label who is raving about the band, stay for the whole set. You can feel the frustration leaking from the band's pores when suddenly the set ends. The bass player shoves his bass guitar through the venue's roof, the vocalist dives backwards through the drums, the kit collapses and the drummer looks nervous. The amps get pushed over and the guitars are mashed into the floor. It's either a thrilling moment of pop art auto-destruction or the instinctive act of a band that is genuinely walking along the edge.
The preceding year I had picked up the band's debut single Love Buzz a couple of weeks before release, and made it single of the week in Sounds. There was something captivating about Love Buzz. I'd always loved the song, originally released by Dutch band Shocking Blue in 1969, and Kurt had one of those voices, like John Lennon’s, that was so full of raw emotion and power that it went straight to your soul.
I followed up the single of the week with a phone interview speaking to a tired sounding Kurt Cobain at his home in Aberdeen, Washington state. I still have the number somewhere. It's not a very in-depth interview and it was just an intro piece on a new band that, at the time, I felt only a handful of people would ever like. A few months later I got a trip out to New York for the New Music Seminar to write a double headed feature on Tad and Nirvana who where touring together.
Being Sounds we didn't have the cache of the NME so there were no five star hotels. We were staying on Avenue B in Alphabet City in the tiny flat of Janet Billig (who went on to work closely with Kurt and his future wife Courtney Love). The flat was the on-the-road crash pad for Tad and Nirvana. It was sweltering hot and we slept on the floor with no bedding - using our rucksacks as pillows. Being big fellas Tad took up most of the space and snored like wounded bears whilst, the four members of Nirvana were squashed up at the other end of the room. Kurt was curled up in ball in the corner most of the time and seemed worn out by something which we guessed was tour fatigue.
They had driven across the USA for the gig - enough to wear anyone out - and were staying in NYC for a week before leaving on the 15th to drive up the road to a gig at Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts which I had played the year before with my band the Membranes - so I filled them in on some local knowledge. The band was already weary of the road and each other: the two extra members, guitarist Jason Everman and drummer Chad Channing got kicked out within weeks of this trip.
I spent most nights at the music conference running around gigs or sitting on the steps of the Lower East Side apartment - hanging out with a crack dealer who was selling his wares to huge limos that would turn up every hour or so. He had a gun shoved down his sock but was quite cheerful and kept asking about the queen and if I knew her, before going down to the window of the next limo and doing his business.
It was a long and wild trip that ended up with photographer Ian Tilton getting run over by a bus in one of those neo-tropical rain storms that New York seems to have from time to time. The bus missed me by an inch and I can remember Tilton flying through the air clutching his camera bag like it was the most important thing in the world before being carted off to hospital with a broken leg. The doctor patched him up and called us a cab because there were no spare beds and we had to lay him out on the floor of the tiny flat and ferry in sarnies from the Puerto Rican corner shop.
At Maxwell's I did the interview, firstly with the Sub Pop label head honchos Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, who were convinced that Nirvana were going to be the biggest band in the world. It sounded like the usual label hokum but these were cool guys and they knew what they were talking about and were convincing in their enthusiasm. We sat at the table of the coffee bar section of Maxwell's as they explained earnestly how this band, that was drawing a handful of people to this show, were going to take the world. I figured they meant as big as Sonic Youth because that was about as big as alternative bands got in those days.
This interview caught the band when they were fresh, young and still craving the addictive Love Buzz of rock n roll.
N.B. with the original name spellings they were using at the time)
Nirvana are the natural descendants of Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr. Their debut album Bleach which scorched the tail end of the summer has collected some salivating press commentary. And now they're on tour with a helluva chance of making up some spectacular ground. The band have the teen beat at their feet, their overt pop ethic is married to mad dog guitar antics; a rowdy burn-out that's featured on the band's new four-track 12-inch Blew released in the UK on the Tupelo label.
The three, formerly four, piece literally explode onstage, their enthusiastic energy burns- resulting in a trail of smashed gear and highly charged anthems. Offstage, the small town band are quiet and affable, with only seven-foot bass pulper, Chris Novoselic, and former guitar vandal Jason Everman chewing the social cud with any vengeance whilst the other two members opt for the Lennon/Ono approved, 'bed in' method.
Nirvana did their teenage thing in the wilds of smalltown USA in the Washington state backwater town of Aberdeen. Kurdt Kobain, the band's songwriter, vocalist and guitar player, scratches the mouldy bumfluff on his pixie skull and picks up the tale.
"Chris and me are from Aberdeen, which is a really dead logging town on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The nearest town was Olympia, about 50 miles away, which is where we've moved to."
Chris, the bass beanpole, cuts in. "It's a logging town - they want to cut all the trees down that are left in the state, you know. You could say that they are at loggerheads with the environmentalists..."
Touring has provided Nirvana with a welcome escape from the smalltown hell. Kurdt is animated with road fever.
"I'm seeing America for, like, free and only having to work for two hours a day. It's weird though, I'm not homesick yet. If we hadn't done this band thing, we would have been doing what everyone else does back home, which is chopping down trees, drinking, having sex and drinking, talking about sex and drinking some more..."
Which is a lifestyle not totally at odds with the band's slogan, "Fudge Packing, crack smoking, satan worshipping, mother fuckers", which is sprawled rather rudely across their t-shirts.
This small town suffocation inspired the first bunch of songs Kobain ever came up with and still fires the mood.
"The early songs were really angry," explains Kobain. "But as time goes on the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I get happier and happier. The songs are now about conflicts in relationships, emotional things with other human beings.
When I write a song the lyrics are the least important subject. I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all."
Kurdt's still not totally comfortable with his new upbeat mood though.
“Sometimes I try to make things harder for myself, just to try to make myself a bit more angry. I try out a few subconscious things I suppose, like conflicts with other people. But most of the lyrics on the Bleach album are about life in Aberdeen."
Kurdt had been writing songs in his bedroom for years until finally deciding to lay down some demos with the help of Novoselic, a first generation Yugoslav. The drummer on these sessions was Del Crover, who's also played for the only other band in town, The Melvins, a seminal outfit on the development of Nirvana. The demo was laid down in a studio belonging to Jack Endino, an old chum of the dudes at Sub Pop Records and a guitar player with the crucial Skinyard outfit. Endino tipped off Sub Pop about this amazing band he was working with and the connection was made.
One phone call later and Sub Pop were marvelling at what they call the "beautiful yet horrifying voice" of the kid that looked like a garage attendant: Kurdt Kobain.
The final connection with the rest of the world must have been a relief.
"We'd been revolving around in bands for years," explains Kurdt. "I'd been writing songs since I was about 13. I'd never heard of Sub Pop before, although I suppose we didn't exist in a total backwater, we had the Melvins in our town and we used to go and listen to them rehearse all the time."
The resulting debut single was a classic 7-inch; the seesaw-riff, garage punk cover of the Screaming Blues' late '60s slice of psychodrama, 'Love Buzz'. The future now looked promising and was fulfilled by the Bleach album, a 12-inch platter which saw Nirvana taking the opportunity to cover several bases at once.
From the lighter pop dynamics of About A Girl, an uptempo melodic rush - and an indication of the band's future development - through to the heavier post-Killing Joke grind of the intense Paper Guts. the album thrives on gristly hooks onto which Kobain grapples his scarred, world weary howl, sounding like a thousand years of life trapped in his young larynx.\
The live destruct and the album's full bodied sound was enhanced by the heroic, hair-throwing antics of the band's fourth member, Jason Everman. Having seemingly been ditched by the remaining three, he's now taken up the bass in the gloriously ascendant Seattle rockers, Soundgarden.
Even at the time of the interview, Jason seemed to be orbiting on the outside, a key yet somehow peripheral component. It would be interesting to see how they fare as a three-piece, although label boss Jonathan claims that the already gigged trio are rocking harder then ever and with Cobain's voice and song writing skill they have a good chance.
Nirvana's live action is a dangerous burn out. At one of the gigs in New York, Novoselic, in a rush of Balkan blood, threw himself into the ground, seconds later the whole band hit auto destruct and emulated The Who's early '60s guitar antics.
Bit of a Townshend vibe going on here, Chris?
"Yeah, it's a nice feeling, it's something that needs to be done at least twice a week. It seems to becoming more common at our gigs. The more people screaming at you the more you are into smashing everything up. It's definitely not a contrived thing. We don't smash the gear up on purpose, we're not trying to impress or anything."
Scrawny bar-chord operatives, Nirvana are the small town kids let loose in the middle-aged music biz grind. Their onstage, guerrilla insurrections and scuzzed pop punk anthems are just about heroic enough to push through the Nirvana-as-Sub-Pop's-trump card prediction made by some old fool a couple months back
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