Nirvana (2) – Well, Whatever

Pictured: Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Chad Channing, the drummer who played on their debut album, Bleach.

On hearing the song “Damaged II” by the Henry Rollins-fronted Black Flag, Kurt said, “It was like listening to something from another planet. I sensed that is was speaking more clearly and more realistically than the average rock and roll lyric.”

I think it’s pretty safe to say, no Kurt Cobain, no Nirvana. But I’ve discovered in my research that in every respect, the band’s success has as much to do with the undersung Krist Novoselic as it does with Cobain.

Krist was his musical soulmate, his partner, and co-shaper of the sound. (Dave Grohl didn’t join the band until 1990, almost three years after its inception. And much as we’ve all come to love him, he admits that he was playing the drum parts – and better, I think – of his predecessors and was “just the drummer.”)

Although Grohl was writing songs, this happened later and by his own admission, he was never really as much a creative force in Nirvana as the other two guys. My son’s theory is that if you’re writing songs in a band with the best songwriter of his generation, you might be a bit shy.

Krist had initially developed a taste for the usual hard rock bands (Aerosmith was a big one) but also got into punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and Ramones. The 6′ 7″ Krist, like Kurt, was somewhat of a misfit. He had lived in sunny California and wasn’t a big fan of Aberdeen. “It’s cloudy and rainy, there’s mud in the street from all the trucks. It’s like an East German town or something.” He thought that people there were judgmental and uptight.

Krist became a pretty heavy drinker and pot smoker. Cobain, of course, was no saint either, dabbling early on with heroin. What was difficult in reading the book about these guys is that other than music, neither of them seemed to really give a fuck about anything. Much of the time they just seemed to get shitfaced and act like jerks, whether because they were misfits or because they were jerks, I can’t say. (People who didn’t like either of these guys unfailingly thought Grohl was the nicer, cooler guy.)

Kurt had for some time been troubled by agonizing stomach pain that no one seemed to have an answer for. Buzz Osbourne, one of the founders of the Melvins says that was bullshit. “He made it up for sympathy and so he could use it as an excuse to stay loaded,” he explains. “Of course he was vomiting — that’s what people on heroin do, they vomit. It’s called ‘vomiting with a smile on your face.’”

I will say this, though, in their defense. Musically, they had tons and tons of integrity. These guys played what they liked, period, end of story. At no point were they catering to popular tastes. They liked it, their friends liked it, their fans liked it. And if you (or the record company) didn’t like it, fuck you. Cobain was even to somewhat regret the production of Nevermind, thinking it too commercial.

Krist had taken up the bass, citing as influences, Paul McCartney, Geezer Butler, John Entwistle, and Gene Simmons. Unlike the punks of the ’70’s, I never really had the sense that these guys rejected what came before, musically. If it “cranked his yank,” Krist liked it. And Kurt was practially a Beatlemaniac. 

There were a number of different bands and band names before we arrive at Nirvana. But the most significant of those was one that Kurt formed in early 1985 (pre-Krist), with the delightful “name-your-parents-would-hate” of Fecal Matter. They recorded thirteen original songs reflecting Cobain’s interest in Black Sabbath and Black Flag

You wonder what that sounds like? Wonder no more. Here’s “Spank Thru,” the song that (somehow) impressed Krist when Kurt gave him a copy.  If it sounds like it was recorded on a 4-track recorder in Kurt’s aunt’s house, well then, yes:

Cobain and Novoselic didn’t start out with their trademark sound but instead did interesting stuff like forming a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band! (I personally would pay a shitload of money to hear that.)

The guys seemed to have a lot of trouble either in finding a drummer or getting one who they thought really nailed it. Their first drummer was a guy named Aaron Burckhard, whose credibility was established in part by the fact that he’d been in a car which a friend drove through the window of a store causing $15,000 worth of damage.

Burckhard’s musical tastes didn’t really mesh with the other guys and he didn’t last a really long time. But according to the timeline on Nirvana’s own website:

“December 1987. Kurt, Krist, and drummer Aaron Burckhard form the original lineup of Nirvana in Aberdeen, Washington.”

Per Cobain, the name Nirvana was chosen because “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk like the Angry Samoans.”

The guys met drummer Chad Channing in 1988. After hooking up with local record label Sub Pop, in November 1988 they released their first single, “Love Buzz.” This was a cover of a song by a Dutch band named Shocking Blue. (I don’t remember that one but Shocking Blue had a pretty big pop hit with a catchy little tune called “Venus.”) “Love Buzz” was re-recorded for their first album, Bleach. Here’s the original:

After releasing “Love Buzz,” Nirvana started to get some all-important write-ups in the alternative press. In late 1988, they started recording their first album, Bleach. (The title refers to an ad that Kurt saw advising junkies to bleach their “works.”) Cost of recording the album (per the album sleeve) – $606.17.

For their efforts, they got an excellent record. I confess I hadn’t listened to it all the way through until recently but it definitely is true to their hard rock/hardcore/punk ethic. In picking a song to post, I decided to go with “About a Girl.” This because, not only is it a good song, but this information from Wikipedia is somewhat eye-opening, not only about Kurt’s influences but his internal conflict:

“About a Girl” was written after Kurt Cobain spent an entire afternoon listening to Meet the Beatles! repeatedly. At the time, Cobain was trying to conceal his pop songwriting instincts, and he was reluctant to include the song on Bleach for fear of alienating the band’s then-exclusively grunge fan base. “To put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record,” he told Rolling Stone, “in that scene, was risky.””

Somewhere around this time, Kurt discovered the Boston-based band, Pixies. He fell in love with their seminal album, Sister Rosa which sold, like, two copies. He especially loved the loud-quiet-loud dynamics that the band employed on songs such as “Gigantic.” 

Nirvana went on its first national one-month tour in June of 1989. Meanwhile, the all-important college radio circuit started to pick up on the band and the album sold steadily if not spectacularly.

In early 1990, the band started working on its new album, tentatively titled Sheep, with Madison, Wisconsin-based producer Butch Vig. (Vig, of course, went on to become the drummer for Garbage and produced everybody including Foo Fighters.) But Kurt and Krist became increasingly dissatisfied with Channing’s drumming. To their credit, they didn’t ask anyone from their label to fire him but did it themselves. “I felt like I’d just killed somebody,” said Kurt.

In late 1990, the guys played a gig in Seattle with fill-in drummer, Dan Peters of Mudhoney. Opening for them were the Melvins. And in the audience was a drummer from Washington, D.C. named Dave Grohl.

Next (and last) post – Dave and Courtney get sucked into the rolling clusterfuck Nirvana vortex. Nevermind, Frances Bean, MTV, fame, heroin, disillusion, death. Nirvana ride the starmaking machine and become world famous despite their best efforts to completely fuck everything up.  

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

11 thoughts on “Nirvana (2) – Well, Whatever

  1. Yeah, as frontmen often do, Kurt got the lion’s share of the attention. And then when Courtney came along, the media whores had found their John and Yoko or Sid and Nancy, call them what you will. And so they sucked all the oxygen out of the room. My guess is that Krist – not to mention Grohl – was very happy to take a back seat and say “good luck with all that.”

    As to “Spank Through,” yeah that would not have floated my boat. But Krist heard something in there, just enough to whet his appetite. I think Nirvana were better than any of their influences.

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  2. Great post! It’s always fascinated me how Nirvana was able to effectively synthesize a punk sound and ideal with early sixties influences. It was a perfect blend of a relatable punk attitude and ideology with a pop-influenced sound that was “easier” to listen to than most hardcore, and yet still incredibly original and with minimal commercial influence. Essentially, they were brilliant.

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  3. Yeah, thanks. I always liked them but probably underrated them. My son Nick has been instrumental in keeping them alive in my mind. And when I listen to them now almost 25 years later, their stuff still sounds fresh, new and relevant. And it wasn’t till I researched them that I realized how much they tried to mesh old and new sounds. And yet still managed to create something that spoke to that generation. And now, to other ones.

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  4. Excellent post. I don’t know how I missed the first one, WordPress’ Reader not the best but just caught up.
    I like Bleach (no mention of Jason Everman?) but I think I enjoy it more because I hear in it the seeds of what was to come, if that makes sense?
    Looking at your sources; have you read Everybody Loves Our Town?

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  5. Everman’s only real contribution – not insignificant – was to pay for the album. According to Wikipedia: “He is listed as being second guitarist on Nirvana’s Bleach and appears on the cover, but did not actually play on any of the tracks.” So, alas, he became one of those factoids I just could not squeeze into three posts. You should have seen all the stuff I put in then took out about Courtney/Kurt on post 3.

    I never heard of that book. But I tell you what, after the Come as You Are book, I’m totally grunged out. May read it some day but not any time soon. 🙂

    BTW, Part II is posted in case you haven’t seen it .The plot thickens.

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  6. I only got into Nirvana with Nevermind. They had to get a little more accessible before I could connect. I can admit that now I’m old, I no longer have to pretend I’m cool. I can just like what I like and if my choices make you turn your nose up I can just say, ‘fuck you’ and continue enjoying my life. It’s great.

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    1. Yes, one of the beautiful things about reaching a ‘certain age’ is that you do feel that way. I feel that way not only about music but pretty much everything. Being liked is not the bottom of my list but it’s pretty damn close. Very liberating.

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