A few years ago, VH1, MTV's attempt at a music channel of record, decided Seattle's short-lived, if hugely influential "grunge" explosion of the late 1980s and early 1990s deserved recognition. The ensuing documentary reduced a once vivid scene to a line-up of four bands, the major label metal heroics of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the amazingly average Alice in Chains, and as an afterthought, Nirvana. Yet Nirvana not only had all the talent, they had the best story too.
Depressive perfectionist Kurt Cobain and his galumphing buddy Krist Novoselic escaped the run-down lumber town of Aberdeen to conquer the world before Cobain decided that rock fame could never match up to the high standards he had expected and shot himself, his body lying undiscovered for several days. This resonant tale has inspired a whole Nirvana industry. Its grim conclusion was re-enacted by Gus Van Sant in his overlooked movie Last Days, while ever heftier tomes promise to come closer to revealing what drove Cobain to such extremes (in fact, the three aitches - heroin, heredity and a harridan - pretty much cover it).
The subtitle of the latest contribution to this sub-genre is no accident. These 600 pages (!) are as much about the author as his subject, something of a blessing as he doesn't describe music too well. At one point he mocks a broadsheet critic for (accurately) using technical terms.
True - real name Jerry Thackray - swiped his pseudonym from a WC Fields-esque American cartoon character known for dealing brusquely with mountebanks. A former associate of Alan McGee, he was scraping a living on the music weeklies when offered a trip to Seattle by the burgeoning Sub Pop label in 1989. His excitable, occasionally accurate features in Melody Maker helped expose the likes of Mudhoney, Nirvana and, later, Hole to the British public. Even during Nirvana's final US tour in 1993 he was still close enough to the band to join in during encores, a connection to simpler times before the band became a moneymaking machine. But his real claim to fame is introducing Kurt Cobain to Courtney Love (or so they believed), with consequences as auspicious as the meetings of John and Yoko or George Best and lager.
Pop writers always struggle with the fact that their job is little more than a poorly rewarded adjunct to the PR industry. Help someone along and you might eventually receive an official platinum disc (even I have one hanging in my cludgy). But no matter how well you get along, your relationship will forever after be unbalanced.
So it's unsurprising that Thackray aims to reclaim Cobain from the industry which continues to exploit his memory (pot calling Mr Kettle) and return him to the state of innocence, the wobbly, heartfelt sounds that both adored. (Although Cobain's own music owed more to classic radio rock.) As he points out, none of the band even lived in Seattle Grunge City until success came. Instead, based in the college town of Olympia, they watched and played parties with "project" bands, shambling ad hoc collaborations of local musicians. Thanks to the efforts of the college radio station and several deeply motivated fans, the place was a nationally known stronghold of underground music.
Success may have disagreed with him, but the talented Cobain at least had the chance to reject fame. His Olympia contemporaries, about as likely to sell a million copies of their dissertations as their recordings, would never face that dilemma. Despite Thackray's assertions, he was clearly ambitious from the off. In the words of his veteran manager Danny Goldberg, "He wanted to reach a big audience. There was no ambiguity." Of course there wasn't. Previously impoverished working-class men who sign up to major corporations don't expect to fail. It didn't take long for him to start behaving like a rock pig either. His mooching off his girlfriend had already been noted in politically correct Olympia. Once Nirvana hit big with 1991's Nevermind he reneged on a previously agreed deal to claim two-thirds of publishing (half as lyricist, and one third of the music), and made bandmates Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl pay back most of their already limited share. (Incidentally, the long- lived REM and U2 split their publishing equally, while credited sole writers like Blur's Damon Albarn often share their copyright.) From someone who paid lip service to punk rock ethics and moaned about unreconstructed headbangers in his audience, this hardly sat well.
He was too uptight to even enjoy his good fortune. Monks have had wilder times on pilgrimage. Once he fell in with the fantastic, monstrous Courtney Love, his fate was sealed. The account of the Kurtney era, when Thackray was out and smack was in, is bleakly funny, especially when a pregnant Love revealed too much about her drug use to Vanity Fair. They did not sue.
Previously Cobain's supposed $400 a day skag habit had unwittingly sustained the actual $100 habits of him and three other users. Now he simply stayed in his grubby mansion, nodding out and worrying about his millions. At one point the paranoid star enlisted his mercurial drug buddy Dylan Carlson to check his royalty accounts.
"That was the funnest [sic] thing about Kurt - he liked to break stuff," recalls one old chum, making it abundantly clear that poor old Kurt wasn't much fun at all. In the 1960s, Pete Townshend quoted his art school tutor Gustav Metzger's theories of auto-destruction to justify his rampant guitar smashing. Cobain was merely a Who fan. (Such dilution is commonplace in rock culture. Cobain once lived under a bridge. His Australian copyist, the Vines' Craig Nicholls, lived with his mum.)
Ultimately Cobain was neither the first or last of his family to take his own life, just the most famous. He left behind a clutch of great records and memories and a life story that could be a handbook for aspiring stars of how not to do it. It's not much of a legacy really, yet he married Courtney Love so no one else had to. That was heroic.
This solidly entertaining book, gossipy and trivial by turns, should be the last word on a great band, led by a weak man.Reuse content