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Six Degrees of Kurt Cobain: Seeking Outer Nirvana

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    This year – 2011, if you forgot – marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. As with all such moments, reissues, tributes, and all kinds of analysis and discussion will spring from the well. I don’t recall this much fuss when The White Album turned 20.

    I am not here to fellate Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, or their legacy, nor am I here to kick them in the balls. Let me say for the record that I do like Nirvana. I was just never one of those kids who obsessed over them. I was almost 21 when the band released its second album, so I was very much aware of the state of music and the effect that Nirvana had – much more so than say when punk broke. (I was only six.) I don’t even own a copy of Nevermind. I never needed to. Almost every person I have lived with since the album dropped has owned a copy. I believed in 1991 and am still convinced that if it wasn’t Nirvana, it would have been the Pixies.

    Yes, Nirvana was a good band, and there is no denying the impact the band had on the medium and the industry. Cobain’s principle strength was not in his guitar playing but his songwriting, exposing his soul to his audience in ways few rock stars (or any celebrity) would feel comfortable doing. His rawness and honesty were embraced by fans who in turn trusted him. Cobain’s celebrity, commercial success as an artist, and perhaps even a genuine likability enabled him to champion other artists, often lost to time, overlooked by the industry, or as with the Jesus Lizard or William Burroughs, perhaps just a bit too far off the familiar path. In my opinion, this is one of Cobain’s greatest contributions to music.

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    The Vaselines

    His promotion of artists like The Raincoats and The Vaselines not only revived the careers of these bands but also exposed them to a far greater audience than they ever would have reached on their own. He managed to get The Vaselines to briefly re-form and open for Nirvana when the band came through Edinburgh in 1990 – before Nevermind. In 1992, Cobain managed to convince his former label Sub Pop to release The Vaselines’ entire catalog on The Way of the Vaselines. Nirvana would eventually cover three Vaselines songs: “Son of a Gun”, “Molly’s Lips”, and “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam”, which Cobain retitled “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam” for the famed Unplugged performance.

    The Raincoats

    In late 1993, he did the same thing for one of his personal favorite bands, The Raincoats, getting DGC and Rough Trade to release The Raincoats’ first three albums – complete with Cobain and Kim Gordon-penned liner notes. Cobain’s love of The Raincoats and an encounter with band founder Ana da Silva in a London antique shop were documented in his liner notes for the Incesticide album. The success of the reissues prompted The Raincoats to re-form in celebration. After recording a session for John Peel on BBC1, Cobain asked them to play on tour with Nirvana as the band toured the UK in April of 1994. A week before the tour was to begin, Cobain died.

    William S. Burroughs

    Between Nevermind and the release of its follow-up, In Utero, Cobain collaborated with poet and author William S. Burroughs on the author’s piece “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”. Recorded separately in two sessions in the fall of ’92, Cobain played dissonant guitar overdubbed on Burroughs reading. Not only does the collaboration lead one to pause, but upon researching what Cobain is playing, a whole new appreciation for the artist may be warranted. His music is based off elements of “Silent Night” and a theme called “To Anacreon in Heaven”, parts of which were used to write the “Star-Spangled Banner” – a far cry from smelling of teen spirit.

    The Jesus Lizard

    Other than what may have been played on college radio, my first exposure to the Jesus Lizard came when Nirvana put out the split cd single “Puss / Oh, the Guilt” in February 1993. The pairing made sense because both bands have similar sonic elements and abrasive styles, and it showed Cobain and Nirvana putting out music with artists whom they wanted to work with and not because they could simply use a “team up” as a means to sell a lot of records.

    Leadbelly & The Meat Puppets

    This whole attitude and approach to playing music and exposing music to people was successfully put to the test when Nirvana recorded MTV Unplugged in New York in November 1993. Dave Grohl said, “We’d seen other Unpluggeds and didn’t like many of them. [Bands] would play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars.” Wanting to create something different, the band approached their performance using Mark Lanegan’s solo debut, The Winding Sheet, as inspiration (itself a departure from Lanegan’s Screaming Trees sound).

    During this set of mostly non-hits, Nirvana included cover songs by David Bowie, The Vaselines, Leadbelly, and the Meat Puppets, the latter of whom also appeared as special guests, to the dismay of MTV producers who had foolishly hoped for a big name like Eddie Vedder. Of all the covers performed, perhaps the most surprising at the time was ending with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” by Leadbelly. Cobain discovered Leadbelly through an interview with Burroughs, where the author chimed, “These new rock ‘n roll kids should just throw away their guitars and listen to something with real soul, like Leadbelly.” Cobain took that as a call to discover Leadbelly, who would go on to become Cobain’s “absolute favorite of all time in music.”

    So, at this time, as the world celebrates Nirvana’s Nevermind and Cobain’s effect on the music world, I would just like to say, “Thank you Kurt.” Thank you for turning me on to The Vaselines. Thank you for saying, “Fuck You” to MTV and putting the Meat Puppets on the air. And thank you for sharing with us the music you made and the music that made you.

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