Nirvana (1) – Come As You Are

Pictured: Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. 

I don’t know what Aberdeen, Washington is like today. But back when Kurt Cobain was growing up there in the ’60’s and ’70’s, it sounds as if its best years were behind it if in fact they ever even arrived. Wikipedia is informative: “By 1900, Aberdeen had many saloons, whorehouses, and gambling establishments populating the area. Aberdeen was nicknamed “The Hellhole of the Pacific”, or “The Port of Missing Men”, because of its high murder rate.

During the Great Depression, Aberdeen was hit hard, reducing the number of major sawmills from 37 to 9. The timber industry continued to boom, but by the late 1970’s, most of the timber had been logged. Most of the mills were closing down by the 1970’s and 1980’s.” So, one can fairly say, not a boom town and, minus even a mall or a pinball arcade, not much for disaffected teens to do (except to sing for a rock and roll band.)

Salvation for a young Cobain came in the fact that not only was there some musical talent in his family but in that he was also artistically inclined, drawing cartoon characters in his bedroom. According to Come As You Are, The Story of Nirvana, “Everybody thought Kurt’s drawings and paintings were great. Except for him.” His mother Wendy said, “Everybody was telling him how much they loved his art and he was never satisfied with it.”

A young Kurt got Beatles and Monkees records from his mother. He actually played drums before he took up the guitar. “I was an extremely happy child,” said Kurt. “I was constantly screaming and singing. I took play very seriously. I was just really happy.” And by all accounts, he was very close to his mother.

But in 1976 when he was nine, his parents divorced, turning a happy-go-lucky boy into a sullen, withdrawn kid. In fact, every member (but one) who has ever been in Nirvana came from a broken home.

Kurt didn’t much care for his stepfather and went to live for a while with his father Don in Don’s prefabricated house. “It wasn’t one of the more luxurious ones – the double-wide ones that the rich white trash get to live in,” Kurt advised. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Cobain was homeless for long stretches and even somewhat nomadic, sleeping where he could. Truthfully, he was a handful and nobody seemed to really want him.

But one thing Kurt did have access to was his father’s record collection which included bands such as Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. (Raise your hand if rock ‘n roll was your salvation.) And given the choice on his fourteenth birthday between a bicycle and a guitar, he chose the guitar.

He took lessons for one week, “just long enough to learn how to play “Back in Black.”” And he pretty quickly started writing songs. He heard punk rock and wanted to combine some of the riff-rock he heard with what he envisioned angry, alienated punk would or should sound like. (He didn’t think Sandinista was punk enough and declared the Sex Pistols 1,000,000 times more important than the Clash.)

“I had this feeling all the time – I always knew I was doing something that was special,” he said. “I knew I was better, even though I couldn’t prove it at the time. … I knew eventually I would have the opportunity to show people that I could write good songs – that I could contribute something musically to rock and roll.”

Kurt met a guy named Matt Lukin who was bass player in a local band called the Melvins and started to hang out at their rehearsals. The Melvins, far from being some forgotten “grunge” band from Washington State, are together to this very day. This band impressed Cobain as not only did he dig their hardcore sound, they actually had gigs! As far away as Seattle! (100 miles northeast.) Which, at that point, was about the limit of what Kurt saw as his own possibility for fame and fortune.

A little-known (outside of Washington) compilation album was released in 1986 which featured the then-burgeoning Seattle Scene. Deep Six featured not only the Melvins but also Soundgarden and Green River, some of whose members would go on to form Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. (If you are by now saying to yourself there was some real shit going on in the Pacific Northwest around this time, yes indeed.)

For the record, the term “grunge” as applied to Seattle-area music initially came from singer Mark Arm of Green River who – in a letter to a music zine – said their music was, “pure grunge! pure noise! pure shit!”

This is what Kurt would have heard and was unquestionably influencing him back in the mid-’80’s. This is the Melvins doing “Scared:”

By now, Cobain was looking for a kindred soul to form a band with. And in 1981, while in high school,  he met a California-raised guy who had just returned from a stint living in his parents’ home country of Croatia. His name was Krist Novoselic.

Next – a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, my own dim memory, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Michael Azerrad. Broadway Books, Montage of Heck (Kurt Cobain documentary).

32 thoughts on “Nirvana (1) – Come As You Are

  1. Great post. It is always interesting to read where the artist came from and what their life was like as it paints a picture of why their music is the way it is. I always like to know a band’s influences as well musically. The two together make you understand a little bit better. I have never been a huge Nirvana fan, but yet always intrigued by their story.

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  2. Thanks. The challenge with being a mini-biographer is to pick the key things from all the material about them that’s available and cramming it into three posts or about 3,000 words. So much left out. So I think I got the important points across (and saved you from reading their “challenging to read” biography.)

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  3. Like we talked about, always good bands like this breathing life into the rock n roll thing we like. Amazing how many good bands were kicking around Seattle at this time (or always). Loved this bands sound. ‘Montage of Heck’ is a really good doc on Kurt. Not the most up lifting feeling after watching it. At the end of the day it’s about the music and these guys were good. ‘Nevermind’ was an instant like for CB.

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      1. CB really likes to keep it positive but that women who he was hooked up with is a piece of work. I didn’t know anything about her. Thought it said a lot that Grohl didn’t comment in the movie. In the famous words of Billy Tully from ‘Fat City’ “Waste”. Like I said, bottom line these guys could cook.

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        1. Ir’s funny but for a guy (me) who had always preferred blues-based stuff, I really dug a non-blues/R&B-based band, Nirvana. But with a few exceptions, I could never really get into the Smiths. I always wondered what bands like them saw as influences. Who did they listen to?

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        2. Wow, really? Boy I don’t hear that at all. I keep wanting to go back and listen to the Smiths but it gets harder to find time. Bands have to grab me right away or I tend to move on.

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        3. Sometimes it’s just not meant for you, I guess. I think they would have felt they stood in antithesis to the blues tradition. They were very much a product of a particular time and place. They had a strong connection to the late 70s post punk stuff like Joy Division.
          The psychedelic influence was more Johnny Marr and I can certainly hear that in his guitar playing.
          Here’s a wiki take
          “Marr’s jangly guitar-playing was influenced by Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse, George Harrison (with The Beatles) and James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders. During his time in The Smiths, Marr often tuned his guitar up a full step to F-sharp to accommodate Morrissey’s vocal range, and also used open tunings. Citing producer Phil Spector as an influence, Marr said, “I like the idea of records, even those with plenty of space, that sound ‘symphonic’. I like the idea of all the players merging into one atmosphere”. Marr’s other favourite guitarists are James Williamson of The Stooges, Rory Gallagher, Pete Townshend of The Who, Nile Rodgers, Jimi Hendrix and John McGeoch of Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

          When forming The Smiths, The Velvet Underground was a key influence, along with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones.Marc Bolan of T. Rex also had a strong impact on him because of the groove and the sound that put the listener in a daze.Talking about his instrument, he explained : “I try to think about the guitar along the spectrum of James Williamson, who was in The Stooges during the Raw Power era, on the one hand to John McLaughlin and his solo record, My Goal’s Beyond. I like all the spectrum in between, and that might be – and is – Richard Lloyd of Television, John McGeoch from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nile Rodgers. To me these people are magicians and artists.”

          When performing with The Smiths, he wanted to play a music which was pop. “100pc of my focus was on providing interesting guitar hooks and putting some kind of space-age twist on the guitarist’s role. The pop guitarist crossed with the mad professor. That’s how I thought of myself.”

          When Marr started to sing as a solo artist in 2012, he explained his decision saying : “The frontmen I related to were Peter Perrett, Colin Newman, Pete Shelley, Siouxsie Sioux. They were singing from the mind and had integrity.”

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        4. Yeah, it doesn’t necessarily have to be blues to grab me. I dug the Clash, Police and Nirvana and none of them did any blues. But I never got that Manchester sound at all. Seemed cold and distant to me.

          I will admit, though, that in guitar, I much prefer a guy (or gal) who can shred. Guitarists who paint soundscapes like The Edge? Fits into their sound but I would never wanna play like that.

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        5. That ‘coldness’ was certainly a part of the eighties northern sound. I thought of it more as bright or brittle. It seemed more obvious to me at the time but these days I don’t even hear it. I guess the ear attunes to a degree.
          I’ve always liked the wit of the Smiths but that can tend to make you more of a ‘head’ band than a ‘gut’ band and that turns some people off.

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  4. Seriously? You really bought that? Wow, great. Yeah, a couple of things on that. Firstly, it was the last show of the North American tour so he pulled out all the stops. Secondly, the Philly-NY-NJ-Boston axis is home base for him. And when you’re settled in the US, you’ll find no more enthusiastic fans anywhere than the Northeast. (Outside of, say, Detroit). The fans bring it, too whether in music or sports. Crazed, but in a good way. JG can likely attest to that. So a lot of back-and-forth fan to band energy is created. You know what I mean.

    Lastly, was the fact that he did so much old stuff. I think he was jazzed by that and we were too. As I mentioned in my review, I expected ‘The River’ and he detoured. I have no idea why. A fantastic night indeed. That may well be my swan song for big shows (more small clubs lately) and I can’t think of a better way to go out. BTW, if you want a mental image, Foxborough had exactly the same look as your show with the big screens.

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  5. And to an earlier point you made, has Bruce ever done a bad show? Has he ever been “off?” Doubt it. How many bands can say that? I sometimes feel bad for people who say, “I’m not really into Springsteen.” They literally don’t know what they’re missing.

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      1. My stepmother is a great music lover (blues, Sinatra) but absolutely fucking hates rock n’ roll. On hearing Springsteen’s name, she’ll mock sing the “Born in the USA” lyric over and over again. That, of course, being the only song he ever did. 😀

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        1. My poor kids. Everything (movies, music, comedy, books) was better in “her day.” And it’s all gone to shit since then. She “reminds” them and they just roll their eyes.

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        1. Yeah, we Just missed the record. I think Philly was the US record by a couple minutes and maybe Finland (?) longest ever. The girl in front of me at his show was out of steam well before it ended. I was able to catch a second wind. 😀

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        2. Mine were only just over three hours and it went by way to fast for me. I hadn’t even begun to think about the end.
          BTW, I think your show may be the best Springsteen live download I’ve ever heard. What a killer show.

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    1. Yeah. I confess that as much as I like their music, I didn’t have a particular desire to see them live. Well, at least you can watch the MTV unplugged show online.

      Anyway, welcome to my corner of the blogosphere.

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