Nirvana: The Biography
by Everett True
Nirvana: The Biography is not really a biography; in that respect, the cover is a total lie. It surely ain’t about a boy, it’s one Brit’s travelogue through the alternative landscape of late ’80s/’90s underground America, it’s a history of “grunge,” underground music in the Pacific Northwest, it’s an impassioned defense of Olympia’s insular DIY culture, it’s a pained indictment of the music and media industry, and so much more. That aforementioned Brit, the author of this tome, is Everett True, music journalist. Mainstay at U.K. weekly Melody Maker through the eighties and nineties, he championed all sorts of impassioned, independent and amateur music, while at the same time “going underground” and performing himself as the enigmatic Legend! – he also happened to be in on the ground floor during the grunge explosion and faithfully (and messily) chronicled it all for Melody Maker.
Do you wanna know why this is the best Nirvana bio you’re ever gonna read? Because True was truly there from the beginning (almost) AS A MUSIC LOVER and because he has nothing to gain nor lose from this endeavor. Ain’t no doors gonna open. Ain’t no doors gonna shut – that already haven’t. And he’s a fair man, tempering venom against Nirvana bigwig Danny Goldberg, and seemingly struggling on the very page with his conflicted feelings for his onetime crush, phone-buddy and co-conspirator in mayhem, Courtney Love.
See if this book is about Nirvana, it’s about Nirvana like… Do you remember those Warner Brothers cartoons where Daffy Duck would run through a wall and it would leave a perfectly duck-sized hole in the wall? That’s the way this book is about Nirvana, it doesn’t seek to get in their hearts or minds, but everything around them. The moment, the context, the insanity. And that’s cool, because we’ve seen the ones that are written from the inside (Azerrad, Cross) and they’re just not that good. Smells like teen propaganda.
The message to be gleaned from this book is a simple one and Everett lays it out in the very beginning, clear and true, just to make sure there’s no ambiguity. Don’t try to change the mainstream culture, it can’t be done, you’re going to fail, or you’re going to be co-opted. And then fail. Stay away from the madding crowd, stay away from record labels and the entertainment-industrial complex, form your own communities and make you own art. Sometimes the smallest shows are the most special. It’s a heartbreaking lesson, that it took this much pain to learn.
True revisits it all, starting with his first visit to Seattle to spread the Sub Pop gospel in the pages of the UK music weekly Melody Maker on the verge of the ’90s, hanging out with the strange urchins from Aberdeen on early tours, the thrill of watching your best friends make it, meeting an trainwreck-awesome woman (La Love) who makes you feel like you’re the Sid to her Nancy, introducing her to his good friend and watching them fall in love, days, nights, weeks, lost in alcoholic hazes, glorious nights onstage with Nirvana in his underground-hero alter ego The Legend!, watching your best friends be sucked up into a machine, and then watching the whole thing die. You can tell a lot of this is fresh remembrances and raw interview transcripts, as at one point True and members of Mudhoney wonder why Nirvana and Kurt didn’t take more pro-active steps to extricate themselves from the entertainment-industrial complex, when of all bands, fucking Pearl Jam did it.
The structure of the book seems to mirror every great night out you’ve ever had, the giddy anticipation for going out, meeting up with your best pals, raging and drinking, meeting a pretty girl, destroying things, more drinking, causing chaos, but the night drags on and the comedown is slow and torturous. Until the crash. And that’s where the cutesy metaphor stops dead, for it you know anything about the story of Nirvana than you know that it ends with the suicide of vocalist Kurt Cobain. And it’s really bad here. I’m not much for the whole “too fragile for this world” line (anymore), but the bleak picture painted here by friends and confidantes is that he was a man hurtling towards self-destruction, a mix of the pressures of fame, his own contradictory passive/aggressive nature, drugs and, ummm, love, let’s say.
And sure, maybe it’s the most non-fucking linear and messy biography you’ve ever read (so what, rock and roll is messy, go read Q if you want calm and quiet) but (a) True’s a brilliant goddamn writer and (b) no one can deny that the man did his research and dug deeper with interviews than any so-called Nirvana historian has. Finally, confidantes, inspirations and allies like Mark Arm, Toby Vail, Carrie Montgomery, Craig Montgomery, Earnie Bailiey, Jennifer Finch, Pavitt and Poneman from Sub Pop and Steve Turner get their say, without filters. A lot of space is also given to conversations with Frances Bean nanny and Cobain confidante/young drug buddy Michael “Cali” Dewitt and these talks go a long way towards fleshing out Kurt’s increasingly sad existence as success ground him down to nothing. And it ain’t all darkness and punk rock – there’re unbearably sweet and funny moments aplenty in this book – a Thrown-Ups concert over Christmas ends up looking like three Klansmen and a drunk Jesus trying to sodomize a sheep, Kurt being too starstruck to approach impossibly cool Breeders leader Kim Deal, anything involving Krist Novoselic and too much alcohol, drunken Queen karaoke with the band, crew and British journalists, early Sub Pop’s haphazard hype machine, the indomitable Tad Doyle, the “Bauhaus” rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit on Top of the Pops… man oh man, it’s enough to break your damn heart.
This book will make you want to dance. This book will make you want to pick up a guitar. This book will even make you want to buy records. Oddly, few of those CDs will be by Nirvana. They’ll probably be Beat Happening, Melvins, Bikini Kill, Earth, L7 or the band with the unfortunate distinction of being Single of the Week in Melody Maker the same week as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Some Velvet Sidewalk.
Lester Bangs, maybe you have a challenger. And yes, he has more than enough heart.
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