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 Everett True

In Search of Nirvana: Why Nirvana: The True Story Could Never Be ‘True’

In Search of Nirvana: Why Nirvana: The True Story Could Never Be ‘True’
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In my book Nirvana: The True Story (2006), I undertake an autoethnographical approach to biography, attempting to impart an understanding of my chosen subjectthe rock band Nirvana—via discussion of my own experiences. On numerous occasions, I veer off into tangential asides, frequently using extensive footnotes to explain obscure musical references. Personal anecdotes are juxtaposed with ‘insider’ information; at crucial points in the story (notable concerts, the first meeting of singer Kurt Cobain with his future wife Courtney Love, the news of Cobain’s suicide), the linear thread of the narrative spills over into a multi-faceted approach, with several different (and sometimes opposing) voices given equal prominence. Despite my first-hand experience of the band, however, Nirvana: The True Story is not considered authoritative, even within its own field. This articles considers the reasons why this may be the case.

The Researcher as Participant/Observer

Working under my nom de plume Everett True, I have a 30-year track record as a prominent music critic, being held responsible for the discovery of several critically acclaimed and lucrative musical genres (‘grunge,’ ‘cutie,’ ‘C86’), and I have published and edited several prominent music publications, primarily U.K.-based (Plan B Magazine, Careless Talk Costs Lives, Melody Maker, VOX, et al.) that have served as breeding grounds for other music critics. I am an active blogger, publish a music criticism website, and am regularly quoted in publications—both academic and online—as a respected source. I often focus upon my own experiences while acting as a critic in an attempt to reach a deeper understanding of my subjects. In this, my professional writing style is similar to that of the autoethnographical approach undertaken by academic researchers. I am subjective in my opinions, but—as a primary source—objective in my observations.

Autoethnography is a form of writing that places emphasis on the researcher’s own experiences and treats them as an area of investigation, rather than rely on disembodied observation. Brisbane-based academic Mike Howlett summarizes it thus:

Autoethnography is an autobiographical or narrative genre of writing that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural. It asks readers (and author) to feel the truthfulness or worthwhileness of its accounts and to become co-participants, engaging with the storyline and its phenomena morally, emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually. (3)

 

My primary motivation for writing about music is to make sense of my own life, and so when I write rock biographies—I have written several—I utilize a form of writing that is part-memoir, part-archivist, and part-music journalism. I insert myself into the story where I feel it is appropriate to do so, to help to illuminate a particular anecdote. I feel that to do otherwise would be ‘inauthentic’ or dishonest, particularly when the story involves events of which I have first-hand experience. I acknowledge that by doing so I am relying upon anecdotal evidence—my own memories shared with others—but I am also aware that all biographies ultimately rely upon such evidence, whether experienced first-hand or collated together at a later point. I undertake this autoethnographical approach because I believe it allows me to utilize my own personal narrative to give a deeper and broader insight into the wider narrative of the band whose story I am telling. By doing so, I am following a timeworn path for rock writers—from Lester Bangs and the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson onwards—one that places value on empathy for its subject rather than on a dispassionate (or sensationalist) presentation of the ‘facts.’ It is important to realize that I, Bangs and Thompson, are not as concerned with assembling a factually correct linear narrative (which we feel cannot be assembled anyway), as getting the story across. For, as academic Marc Brennan argues, “Music journalism’s textual feature is less about truth than it is about trust” (12).

Popular music commentator Simon Frith writes, “In rock biographies we see not the stars at work but the star makers, the fans and journalists and critics through whose mediations musical lives are continually being defined and measured and made meaningful” (277). Although I have never thought of my role as a music critic in these particular words before, I acknowledge the truth in them—particularly when it comes to the pivotal role I played in regards to both Nirvana and ‘grunge’.

Everett True was without question the key journalist who documented the rising Seattle music scene of the late 80’s/early 90’s. In fact, his articulate, enthusiastic support for Nirvana and other Seattle groups on the Sub Pop label helped to propel the culture to international prominence. Furthermore, Everett not only extensively interviewed and documented Nirvana throughout their career, he even performed with them onstage, and introduced the singer Kurt Cobain to his future wife Courtney Love. As such, he worked as both an insider and an observer, both documenting history, and facilitating in its unfoldment. (Personal correspondence with Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Records, 2014)

Nirvana: The True StoryTrue, but not ‘True’?

What is it with English rock journalists? Just from the title (Nirvana: The True Story—geddit?) I should have known—this is another self-promotional exercise a la Nick Kent[1], in which the writer attempts to convince us that he’s as important as his ostensible subjects … being a friend of the band does not qualify you to write their biography—it qualifies you to be interviewed by a real biographer. (Winch)

It has long puzzled me why scholars of popular music and fans of Nirvana do not treat my book Nirvana: The True Story, published by Omnibus Press in the U.K. in 2006 (and reprinted by Da Capo in the U.S. in 2007 as Nirvana: The Biography) with more respect—why it is not placed on an equal standing with the other two ‘big’ Nirvana biographies, Seattle music journalist Charles Cross’s (made-for-Hollywood, Courtney Love-approved) Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, and Rolling Stone writer Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana (1993), the ‘official’ biography, written with the band’s approval and input, and published before singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. It is a matter of record that I conducted several keynote interviews with the Olympia, WA, band[2] during their lifetime, that I performed on stage with the band on a number of occasions, and that I was responsible for bringing to the public consciousness the musical movement with which they were associated—grunge.[3] I have been credited with introducing their singer Kurt Cobain to his wife Courtney Love,[4] and Nirvana: The True Story[5]  has been translated into over a dozen languages. In other words, what the above quote from a disgruntled reader fails to address is that I was both a ‘friend’ of the band and a writer.

Although influence can be problematic to determine, it is possible to at least partly quantify the lack of regard for Nirvana: The Biography through use of web stats. For example, on Google Scholar—a resource used by academics to help verify the authority of books and academic papers through the number of citations listed—we find the following:

Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, cited by 53 (Google Scholar, 16 Jan. 2014)
Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, cited by 56 (Google Scholar, 16 Jan. 2014)
Nirvana: The Biography, cited by 4 (Google Scholar, 16 Jan. 2014)

 

Even an anthology like Gina Arnold’s Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana—so tagged (with the band’s name in the title) to cash in on the popularity of Nirvana—has been cited 40 times.[6] At Goodreads.com—a popular book recommendation website fuelled by user-generated content—it is apparent that weight of numbers alone negates any chance Nirvana: The Biography has of being considered authoritative. In the context of this essay, we will take ‘authoritative’ to mean respected, trusted as a reliable source and accorded due respect, and hence quoted widely by both fans and students of the band:

Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, 3,675 ratings (16 Jan. 2014)
Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, 10,985 ratings (16 Jan. 2014)
Nirvana: The Biography, 438 ratings (16 Jan. 2014)

To examine why the book has not been given the same attention as others (both on a public and scholarly level) it is helpful to reflect on the process of its production as, primarily, a fan-based work, written by someone who identifies himself as a committed Nirvana fan. Simon Frith argues that, “rock biographies are most commonly written by rock fans. They start from the author’s own commitment to an artist” (272-73). I am a biographer who prefers to connect the personal to the cultural, and, as Mike Howlett puts it, “engage with the readers as co-participants, engaging with the storyline morally, emotionally, aesthetically and intellectually” (3). This is how I establish authenticity within my accounts of times past. As both a fan of Nirvana and a biographer who favors an autoethnographical approach, it is difficult for me to understand how Charles Cross—someone I believe didn’t even like the band during their brief lifespan[7]—can be responsible for their best-selling biography; someone who was so clearly (in my mind) out of step with the band and the musical movement that spawned them. Throughout Heavier Than Heaven, Cross makes clear his irritation that much of the early dialogue around Sub Pop Records and Nirvana is self-mythologizing while simultaneously drawing upon it to help craft his biography and give his version of events—events of which he has no first-hand experience, despite being a Seattle music journalist—an ‘authentic’ feel.

Charles absolutely misses the entire point. The whole point about Sub Pop early on was it was a lot of fun: that’s why we made up all those stories. You might as well create your own myth, because if you don’t, somebody like Charles Cross is gonna come along and create his own myth, and it’s gonna be a lot more tedious … What’s that whole chapter [Cross wrote] detailing what Kurt was thinking when he killed himself? What’s that if not mythologizing? (True in Yarm 192).

What I am discussing here is differing approaches to writing rock biographies. For me, it is not enough for the writer to just document the ‘facts.’ As many commentators have argued, facts are not so crucial in biographies—a literary form that is grounded in memory. Memory can be unreliable. Postmodernists have long argued that history is a series of convergent perspectives. Both Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov and Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes discuss the distortions of memory and consider how it is impossible for someone who was ‘there’—even the subject themselves—to give an accurate account of the subject’s life or motivations. Scholars such as Roy Pascal, Mark Freeman, and Laura Marcus make a distinction between autobiographical “truth” (as always inaccessible, subject to the pitfalls of memory and processes of mediation) and “truthfulness” (which means that the autobiographical comes across as credible, and believable even though it is a textual/literary construct). Discussing the “unstable boundary” between fact and fiction in literary biography, Emma Short writes, “What makes a good biography, many suggest, is a compelling story that will engage readers and hold their interest throughout” (Cooper and Short 44). Norman Denzin states further:

There is no clear window into the inner life of a person, for any window is always filtered through the glaze of language, signs, and the process of signification. And language, in both its written and spoken forms, is always inherently unstable, in flux, and made up of the traces of other signs and symbolic statements. Hence there can never be a clear, unambiguous statement of anything, including an intention or a meaning. (14)

It is instructive to read what Denzin has to say about the mutable lines surrounding the differing forms of ‘truth’ in autobiography, for these lines help us to differentiate and understand varying autobiographical approaches.

More is at issue than just different types of truth. The problem involves facts, facticities, and fiction. Facts refer to events that are believed to have occurred or will occur, i.e. the date today is July 27, 1988. Facticities describe how those facts were lived and experienced by interacting individuals. Fiction is a narrative (story, account) which deals with real or imagined facts and facticities. Truth, in the present context, refers to statements that are in agreement with facts and facticities as they are known and commonly understood “within a community of minds”. Reality consists of the “objects, qualities or events to which true ideas are” directed. There are, then, true and false fictions; that is, fictions that are in accord with facts and facticities as they are known or have been experienced, and fictions that distort or misrepresent these understandings. A truthful fiction (narrative) is faithful to facticities and facts. It creates verisimilitude, or what are for the reader believable experiences. (23)

In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, author David Shields states that the distinction between memoir and fiction is mostly imaginary—writers of fiction draw upon their own experience, and memoir writers rely heavily upon memories that can be distorted. Shields writes that trying to ascertain whether a biography contains the correct ‘facts’ or not is not the way to judge its value. “Anything processed by memory is fiction,” he states (57).

In “Witness or False Witness,” a paper that discusses the truthfulness of first-hand accounts, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson argue that witness narratives project an aura of authenticity through varying metrics (593-94), including the “‘you-are-there’ sense of immediacy” and “affirmation of the duty to narrate a collective story.” As a participant/observer, what is most important to me is that the biography reads ‘true.’ Authenticity is more important than ‘the facts,’ and so I place myself in the story, a stylistic device that has caused some commentators to term my biographical writing “semi-memoir” (True, Gillian Gaar and Tim Footman). In this, I am following a well-worn route, for as Simon Frith argues, “A good rock biography would treat the myth at the heart of the life (and not just the life at the heart of the myth), and this task, to celebrate, expose and use a myth all at once, is not easily done in the chronological confines of a biography” (276-77). Even more forcefully, Frith quotes Bangs at the essay’s outset as saying, “I have always believed that rock’n’roll comes down to myth. There are no ‘facts’” (271). As Simon Reynolds argues,

Biographers often list the number of people interviewed or hours spent interviewing in their indexes, as if it increases the authenticity of the story, but is this even relevant? Maybe it is better to approach all biographies artistically, as a story shape—similar to what Nik Cohn did with Awopbopaloobop. I don’t think he was sitting there with a bunch of cuttings and old newspapers, it was all plucked out of his head, recent memory, from  living through rock’n’roll and the early to mid-Sixties, and written fast, the overriding concern to be as entertaining as possible. (Personal correspondence 2014)

 

Nirvana: The Biography serves as a biographical account of Nirvana while not shying away from the contradiction that is at the heart of biographical writing—the fact that fact and fiction is blurred. Why then is the book not considered as authoritative (reliable, truthful) as its peers? Seattle music critic Gillian G Gaar speculates:

One, Azerrad was first and it’s the only authorized bio; CRC [C.R. Cross] had access to Kurt’s personal effects, and it was an NY Times best seller so that adds ‘credibility’; yours is part memoir, or that’s how it feels to me, maybe that makes people discount it.[8] Perhaps they don’t realize that you were the journalist that spoke to them the most (not counting Azerrad, and that was for the bio). And saw so much of the band’s development, not reported on it in hindsight. (Not that I think that’s bad; not being there doesn’t mean you can’t write a good story, any more than being there means you will write a better story). I actually like getting different perspectives, and I think of yours, Azerrad’s and CRC’s Nirvana books as being the ‘Big 3.’ (True, Gillian Gaar and Tim Footman)

Authenticity within Rock Biography

Hans Weisethaunet and Ulf Lindberg argue that the definition of authenticity as applied to popular music is problematically vague. To illustrate their argument, they break authenticity down into several sub-categories, for example “Folkloric ‘Authenticity,’” “‘Authenticity’ as Self-Expression,” “‘Authenticity’ as Negation,” “‘Authentic Inauthenticity,’” “Body ‘Authenticity,’” and so on (469-76). While this serves as a good indication of the definitional confusion that faces any scholar attempting to discuss authenticity within rock music, it is not necessarily useful to us here. For the sake of this essay, let us hypothesize that three main types of authenticity exist within the biographical form and that each of the aforementioned Nirvana biographies falls into one of these categories.

The first is the “I was there” in the anthropological sense of authenticity, as typified by the Michael Azerrad book, written while the band was still around. Many documentaries take this form, although one could argue that all documentaries (and biographies) are edited, selected, skewed. In the documentary film work of Nick Broomfield, for example, where the filmmaker inserts himself directly into the filmed action, we see a clear bias towards the storyteller even while the storyteller is purporting to give an ‘authentic’ account of events. Respected author and popular music commentator Simon Reynolds argues:

Given the contrived nature of the interview situation—the contingent nature of what’s asked, what’s withheld, the chemistry between the participants or the absence thereof, how people felt a certain day—plus the way that interviewees necessarily storify what they tell the interviewer, unconsciously or deliberately forgetting certain things and over-emphasise others, making conjecture etc etc—the actual value of the interview as a mechanism for finding out ‘what really happened’ is arguable. (Personal correspondence 2014)

The second is a personal/idiosyncratic/subjective type of authenticity: ‘this is how I see it, my biased but honest view’—relating to the Lester Bangs idea of myth-making, a sort of “honest lie”: Truth as perspectival, partisan. Nirvana: The Biography is an example of this. I am a descendant of Tom Wolfe’s “new journalism” and Bangs, both of whom believed in participatory commentary coupled with observation and that to ‘get’ the story one has to first immerse oneself in the story (253-256). This ‘gonzo’ approach to writing, with the emphasis on entertainment and empathy rather than information, runs contrary to what many academics and readers of music writing have been taught to expect from ‘good’ journalism.[9] Unless, of course, it is written by Lester Bangs.

The final category is authentic as in ‘authenticated’ (the academic approach)—reported, verified, researched, and fact-checked. None of the books specifically fall under this category—academics would never allow author Charles Cross a stylistic device like the chapter where he makes up the thoughts running through Kurt Cobain’s head just before he kills himself (Cross 338-42)—but the Cross book at least aspires to this status. The fact that it does not reach it, at least not in the strict academic sense, is more a reflection on the differences between music journalism, and specifically music biography writing, than a failing on the author’s part. Academics place great store in triangulation, a similar process of verification to that of ‘news’ journalism, where secondary quotes and counter-balancing voices are required and outside pundits are brought in to comment or pontificate. This is, by and large, the opposite of how the U.K. and U.S. music press traditionally operates (Atton). Each book draws what it needs from each definition, however: some more knowingly than others.

Cross confuses memory for fact. Using Denzin’s definition of interpretative biographies, Heavier Than Heaven can be termed a fiction (narrative), one that could be both true and false. Cross believes it to be true, but his narrative often reads false to anyone who was there when the ‘events’ took place. In several places within Nirvana: The Biography, I take issue with the way his biography presents memory as fact (most crucially in the book’s vivid introduction; also in its account of how Kurt Cobain met Courtney Love and the singer’s first use of heroin; and in its detailing of the thoughts running through Cobain’s head shortly before he killed himself). The following is a passage from the book where I directly address this:

In Charles Cross’ biography, the Seattle journalist paints a powerful picture of Kurt OD-ing a few hours after the SNL performance. Courtney woke up at seven am to find the other half of the bed empty and her lover sprawled out on the floor, his skin a pallid green, not breathing. If she’d woken up minutes later, he’d have been dead. She revived him by throwing water over his face and punching him in the solar plexus. Poignancy is added to the incident by the fact Nevermind was due to hit Number One the very next week. By now, the album had sold two million copies. Here Kurt was at the very pinnacle of his success, and here he was lying dead on the floor.

The writer takes great pains to describe the scene of depravity and squalor: “Half-eaten rolls and rancid slices of cheese littered the tray tops,” he writes, allowing perhaps for some artistic licence. “A handful of fruit flies hovered over some wilted lettuce.” How very touching and ironic—especially the timing of the incident.

The only problem is: I don’t think any of this actually happened—certainly not at the point when Courtney claimed it did. The reason I think Courtney told Charles that it did occur the evening of SNL is partly for dramatic effect and partly for the same reason she told Michael that she and Kurt met earlier than they actually did—to remove her culpability from the situation. If Kurt really did OD that early into their relationship, then it meant it had little to do with her influence—it’s just because that’s the way he was.

And in the same way Courtney lifted the actual details of her first meeting with Kurt to a fake, earlier time to lend the incident authenticity, so she has with this reported OD—probably from the time of Nirvana’s Roseland Ballroom appearance in 1993, where I can recall Courtney telling me, almost word-for-word, of a similar occurrence.

“Technically, it’s possible,” says Lavine, who took the Sassy cover photographs later the same day, “but they seemed fine when they showed up, if a little fried. I also think the incident happened at the Roseland show.”

I interviewed Kurt (by phone) the day of the Sassy photo shoot—he was in an excitable mood, telling me how he’d switched on MTV News, only to find them announcing his engagement to Courtney, and that Nirvana had just recorded a live version of ‘Territorial Pissings’, with the express intention of getting it on heavy rotation on 120 Minutes. “How does it feel to be Number One on Billboard?” Kurt repeated my question, laconically. “It’s like being Number 16, only even more people kiss your ass.” He was playful, friendly. He certainly wasn’t behaving like someone who’d been technically dead only a few hours before. (353-54)

Azerrad’s book too is problematic as a ‘factual’ account of history. It might read as an ‘authentic’ account (not least because the narrative’s main voice is that of the band’s singer Kurt Cobain), but it also relies heavily upon Cobain’s skewed perspective of events. And Cobain was not above distorting history and making up brand-new versions when he felt the situation merited it. Back in 1992, I can recall plotting with the singer to disrupt interviews with Azerrad for Come as You Are—Cobain objected to the idea of a stranger writing about his private life, and neither of us set much store in conventional approaches to writing about rock music. (The singer famously wore a “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” T-shirt for the front cover of Rolling Stone #628 in April 1992.) In the event, I suspect that Azerrad, an accomplished and personable music journalist, got far more out of Cobain than was intended—and that any ‘myths’ that made it into the final account merely served a wider story.

I do not think either Charles Cross or Michael Azerrad were deliberately distorting the truth—nor, necessarily, were their sources, beyond Cobain himself (although one would have to question the veracity of such an acclaimed media manipulator as Courtney Love, Cross’s primary source). Cobain instinctively understood that rock and roll is concerned with myth-making and that he might as well be responsible for his own myth as an ‘outsider.’ Rock journalism, too, is a continuous struggle to establish both symbolic and cultural capital, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu, and is an ongoing process of positioning. The autoethnographical approach is just one of many ways of establishing cultural capital.

Nirvana: An ‘Authentic’ Band

Academic Steve Jones, quoting David Sanjek’s essay “Pleasure and Principles” on issues of authenticity surrounding rock and roll, argues that “authenticity is critical to the discourse surrounding popular music” (104) while noting that, “In Nirvana’s case, authenticity was determined in several ways, but largely solidified by Cobain’s suicide … Their own history, beginning as they did in obscurity, releasing records on independent labels, hauling their own sound equipment, also established them as ‘the real thing’” (105). He emphasizes further: “The narratives that formed in the wake of Cobain’s suicide were themselves part and parcel of that mythology. They focused around authenticity, and served to solidify and stabilize Cobain’s and Nirvana’s place in the continuum of popular music’s history” (108).

What Jones misses here is that Cobain’s suicide was only one part of a larger authenticity that had already been established before the singer’s death in 1994 through the writings of myself and others—in particular, Michael Azerrad’s biography. It is true that any biographer wishing to appeal to Nirvana’s fan base needs to acknowledge and reinforce their authenticity. Azerrad does so through continual reference to the band’s ‘punk rock’ roots—the term is referenced 56 terms in his book (3, 4, 6, 31, 32, 36, et passim). Cross achieves this in a different way—emphasizing the band’s (supposed) rags-to-riches story, sensationalizing events in Kurt Cobain’s life, focusing on the (supposed) squalor of the singer’s pre-fame existence, and especially during the hypothetical chapter where he details the thoughts running through Cobain’s head in the minutes before he killed himself (348–42).[10]

Eight years after Cobain had killed himself, his wife Courtney Love took it upon herself to publish extracts from his journals. As I believe that Cobain did not want his diaries to be made available to the public—a belief formed from first-hand observations made at the time[11]—I have not viewed them to this day. However, many commentators—doubtless led by the PR line fed to them by Journals publisher, Riverhead Books—have remarked upon similar lines to the idea that the Journals “remain a good complement to Charles R. Cross’s Heavier than Heaven, which references the notebooks” (Collins), and so they merit a mention. Academic Jessica L. Wood, in an essay entitled “Pained Expression: Metaphors of Sickness and Signs of ‘Authenticity’ in Kurt Cobain’s Journals,” argues that, “for Cobain, hardship, intensity and risk comprised an ideal of ‘authenticity’—an ideal that shaped his approach to politics as well as aesthetic forms” (332). The Journals have been edited to emphasize this authenticity—what could be more ‘real’ than pages torn (almost literally) from an artist’s personal journal, filled with self-doubt and confusion, littered with references to sickness, and peppered throughout with references to obscure, ‘real’ musicians on independent labels (for example, the U.K.’s proto-feminist punk band The Raincoats, and Jad Fair’s atonal, inspirational Half Japanese)?

Nirvana: The Biography, however, while acknowledging and embracing Cobain’s love for ‘authentic’ music—a love which has its roots in the makeshift DIY Olympia scene, as typified by the charismatic musician and K Records label boss Calvin Johnson and evidenced by the K Records tattoo on Cobain’s arm—refuses to admit that Nirvana were any more special than hundreds of other (great) rock bands:

Some guy took drugs and killed himself. Some guy began looking outside the rock arena for fulfilment and moved into politics. Some guy fell in love with rock’n’roll and there he remains. Some guy never left home and is still on an island with his wife and kid, building studios in the air. (xvii)

This conscious attempt to resist rock hero mythology might be a reason why the book is not considered as authoritative as the other two biographies. Ultimately, rock fans want to believe in the myths that surround their stars.

Establishing Authority in Popular Music Criticism

So how does one establish authority in rock writing? Simon Reynolds told one academic, “It’s about rhetoric and the art of ‘suasion. There’s skill and tricks but there is also, as with a rapper, just confidence, the arrogance to make a categorical statement about an artist or genre’s worth” (qtd. in Hearsum 113). The problem is that language is not universal and that tropes which might have worked well on one generation of readers might not translate to a different time. As Bethany Klein observes:

Lacking the formal training characteristic of higher critics, popular music critics must establish their cultural authority by consistently displaying their qualifications — proficiency as a writer, breadth of knowledge, and studied judgment regardless of personal preferences—through their work. (1)

Often, readers want an easily manageable ‘consumer guide’ in the style of Robert Christgau when it comes to music criticism, not a participatory perspective. Combine this with the natural disbelief many fans feel when presented with first-hand accounts of events that took place involving their heroes (“how could such an un-famous person have been present?”), and one begins to understand why so many Nirvana fans—American particularly (from a culture alien to the one that spawned the U.K. rock press)—are keen to dismiss my book.

If, as academic Rob Strachan argues, “the biographer’s project necessitates the construction of a biographical authority which is achieved through the use of certain techniques and tropes,” the fact that I often presented two or three—sometimes more—differing perspectives at crucial points in my Nirvana biography is problematic. My belief that history is composed of a series of personal perspectives—which often contradict each other—can be confusing to readers who are looking for a definitive version of history.[12] As Nirvana: The Biography states:

So… did any of this stuff even happen? You begin to wonder; you read so many accounts that fail to capture the excitement, the sheer thrill, that block off whole tours and unique shows. Did I even get up on stage with Nirvana to scream the encore on several occasions? Not according to any of the books I’ve read. Was Nirvana an exhilarating, mind-bending band with an appetite for destruction or was Kurt [Cobain] just a sad junkie with a big mate who looked after him? I know which version I experienced, but you do start to question your own memory. (163)

Rock stars themselves frequently tamper with their histories, to increase what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms ‘cultural capital’—the notion that taste classifies and it classifies the classifier—and what is commonly referred to in rock and roll terms as ‘cool.’ As that ultimate arbiter of culture capital within rock music, Lester Bangs, once commented, “rock’n’roll is about reinventing yourself” (qtd. in Frith 277). Cobain biographer Charles Cross argues that Kurt Cobain does precisely that with his story of regularly sleeping under a bridge in his hometown of Aberdeen, which first appeared in Michael Azerrad’s ‘authorized’ biography Come as You Are (Cross 56–57; Azerrad 37). The White Stripes front-man Jack White famously made up a story about how he was married to his sister and band-mate Meg White,[13] and both John Lennon and Bob Dylan were known to reinvent their past (Strachan). So it’s OK if the rock star creates the mythology, but not the biographer (or, in Simon Frith’s words, “the star-maker”)?

To distrust rock biographers because they admit to contributing to the mythology around the music runs counter-intuitive to what is at the heart of much great rock music itself, but rock music is a different media to the printed word. Yet why should fiction be less acceptable in biographical writing around rock and roll then in rock music itself?[14]

 

Works Cited

Arnold, Gina. Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.

Atton, Chris. “The British Alternative Press in the 1990s: Aims, Organisation, Production and ‘Writing’ on the Social Margins.” Diss. Napier University of Edinburgh, 1998.

Azerrad, Michael. Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. New York: Main Street, 1993.

Baker, Danny. Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography. London: Hachette UK, 2012.

Bangs, Lester. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: An Anthology. Ed. Greil Marcus. New York: Afred A. Knopf, 1987.

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes. London: Macmillan, 1995.

Bell, Thomas. “Why Seattle? An examination of an alternative rock culture hearth.” Journal of Cultural Geography 18.1 (1998): 35-47.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge, 1989.

Brennan, Marc. “Writing to Reach You: The Consumer Music Press and Music Journalism in the Uk and Australia.” Diss. Queensland University of Technology, 2005.

Cobain, Kurt. Journals. London and New York: Penguin, 2002.

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Cooper, Katherine, and Emma Short. The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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Notes

[1] Nick Kent is a notorious NME writer of the late Seventies, known for his hard-living and association with ‘punk rock.’ Marcia, the NME’s receptionist of the time, used to tell a story of how Kent would show up to the music paper’s offices with his cock hanging out of his trousers—a story later verified by U.K. entertainer Danny Baker in his autobiography Going to Sea in a Sieve.

[2] The popular conception of Nirvana is that of a band from Seattle, because its first record company, Sub Pop Records—the iconoclastic record company credited with inventing grunge, the musical movement with which Nirvana became associated—was based in the city. However, some rock historians have argued that Seattle’s neighboring city Olympia, WA, has more of a claim on the band. It was the place that the band’s singer Kurt Cobain chose to move to once he left his birthplace of Aberdeen, WA. He lived there throughout the writing and recording of the band’s pivotal first two albums, Bleach and Nevermind. It was only after Nevermind reached Number One on Billboard in December 1991 that he moved to Seattle; even then, he only lived there for a total period of less than two years, also living in LA for a time.

[3] In 1992, Entertainment Weekly called me “the man who invented grunge.”

[4] A surprisingly difficult fact to prove. There are several varying accounts as to when the couple met: many contain similar elements (for example, the couple wrestled on the floor) but differ in location and year. My claim is backed up by anecdotal observation at the time –the couple often referred to the fact that I was “in [Kurt Cobain’s] will” because I’d introduced them, a joke that later got reprinted as possible fact in the U.K. music magazine Select following Cobain’s death. In 1993, following a notorious Vanity Fair article, in which a heavily pregnant Courtney Love was pictured smoking a cigarette, the couple agreed to a series of three joint interviews (including one to me at Melody Maker) as an exercise in damage limitation. During the third of them, published in New York-based teen girl magazine Sassy, the married couple make reference to the concert where they met (i.e., when I introduced them). The reason for the disparity was because they did not want Courtney to be seen as a ‘gold digger,’ becoming pregnant so soon after they met, so they invented an earlier meeting.

[5] When Nirvana: The True Story was published in U.S. in 2007, it was retitled Nirvana: The Biography to avoid confusing American readers who, it was felt, might not appreciate the play on words in the title of the U.K. edition. (The True Story was originally chosen to reflect both the fallacious disclaimer many films and books utilize— “based upon a true story”—and my pen name.) As the American edition of the book is the best-known of the 13 or so editions to date—the book has been translated into several different languages, including Japanese, Russian, Polish, and German—it is this edition that will be referenced in this essay.

[6] In a 1995 paper, academic Steve Jones quotes extensively from the music paper of which I was then Assistant Editor—Melody Maker—but fails to reference my work. A surprising oversight, bearing in mind my position as “the man who invented grunge” and well-known confidante of the band. Other academic papers from the Nineties follow Jones’s example. For example, both Bell and Shevory fail to cite my writing, even though the former’s paper is entitled “Why Seattle? An Examination of an Alternative Rock Culture Hearth,” and there is a plaque set in the wall of the Sub Pop Records building in Seattle that credits me with ‘breaking’ grunge (and, by extension, Seattle) to the outside world.

[7] I have never sought to have this belief verified—it is an impression based on anecdotal evidence given to me by musicians and record company people in Seattle who were around during the late Eighties/early Nineties, when Nirvana were in the ascendency, and when Cross was a local music journalist and publisher of local music magazine The Rocket. The ‘insiders’ felt that Cross looked abroad for content for his publication, only featuring grunge grudgingly after it became well-known in the U.K. and elsewhere. Of course, these being local music industry people, they would have had a skewed perspective that would naturally have downplayed Cross’s interest in the Seattle ‘scene.’ Perhaps I am wrong about Cross’s ‘commitment’ to Nirvana. The general tone of Heavier Than Heaven makes me think not, though. Of course, whether being a fan of the band affects a writer’s ability to produce a good biography of the band in question is another argument altogether.

[8] False assumptions, then. I had access to people crucial to the Nirvana story—for example, Tobi Vail (the girl who supposedly ‘broke’ Cobain’s heart); the heads of Sub Pop Records; nanny/drug buddy Cali DeWitt—to whom no other writers had access. These figures crucial to the Nirvana story trust me because I was there. I did not parade my ‘credibility’ within the book because I felt it was self-evident.

[9] Nietzsche argues that strong cultures will create these stories about themselves, whereas the mark of a declining civilization is when it starts to stand outside its own perspective, historicizes its own viewpoint, become relativistic. Nietzsche talks about a will to stupidity, or will to ignorance, behind every truth—and he thinks that is a good thing, better than a sort of enfeebled ironic detachment.

[10] For someone who did not even know Cobain, you might consider this quite some conceit—that Cross made these assumptions about a stranger’s motivations—but no one has seemed unduly worried by the chapter. This, as Marcus argues in Auto/biographical Discourses, is how biographers behave. They create their own myths.

[11] I can recall a few specific incidents—in the couple’s home in LA and on tour in Oslo—where Courtney Love (as my particular friend) suggested to Kurt that I read some of his journals. Both suggestions received short shrift. Kurt emphasized he did not want his private thoughts read by the public.

[12] It’s also easy to write people important to the story out of it by excluding information. All three Nirvana biographies under discussion here are guilty of doing that.

[13] The original press release for my 2004 book The White Stripes and the Sound of Mutant Blues referred to Jack and Meg White as “siblings.”

[14] As part of my preparation for this essay, I asked the following question on Facebook: “Why is my Nirvana biography not considered as authoritative as some of the other Nirvana books?” The responses I received surprised me, although perhaps they should not have, considering the skewed perspective of any circle of people who choose to follow even a minor public figure on a social media network. Most felt that my book is considered an authority. These two comments from Facebook ‘friends’ were atypical: “I didn’t know this and [I] think it’s bullshit. You were actually friends with Kurt and knew him as a person so I would think yours would be more believable than most that are out there” (True, Gillian Gaar and Tim Footman); “I would have thought the first-hand element would have made it more credible. The usual whine about rock bios (on message boards, Amazon, at least) is ‘why should I care what some critic says about Kurt/Elvis/Justin? I only care what the star himself thinks.’ As if the star’s analysis of his/her own life and/or work is by definition more valid than anyone else’s” (True, Gillian Gaar and Tim Footman). Others suggested that it was because the book was published after the other two, and it has never been as widely available. Gaar—author of several Nirvana books herself (she also served as a project consultant on the Nirvana box-set, 2004’s With the Lights Out)—wanted to know how I had formed the impression. It’s a fair question. I have attempted to address it within this essay.

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Popular Music And Society on 14 January 2015, available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/03007766.2014.994326

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