FEELING STUPID & CONTAGIOUS The Kurt Cobain Demos Hoax

About our so-called
Nirvana news. Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bum.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

A wise man once proposed that you can fool some of the
people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. In the case of
Nirvana fans, however, it turns out you can fool nearly all of them all of the
time. Even if the date on the calendar reads April 1.

 

Let’s be honest: at this stage in the evolution of the
internet it’s pretty safe to assume that each year, when the calendar rolls
over from March 31, bullshit will rise like the tides over the course of the
next 24 hours. All across the pop culture landscape, jokes and pranks are
rolled out with such unselfconscious glee you’d think the date was an
international religious holiday. The fact that major web institutions like
Google and YouTube have also been getting into the act of late (remember
YouTube’s upside-down “New Viewing Experience” last year?) means that for
netizens, on April 1, incredulity – and a healthy sense of humor – is the order
of the day. (PCWorld.com has a nice roundup of its “Top 10 April Fool’s Day
News Items” for both 2009 and 2010; this year’s “TEXTp” prank was particularly
sweet.)

 

Hell, it’s not even that the internet is the root cause;
it’s merely an enabler and accelerator. April Fool’s Day goofs and gags have
been part of the social fabric since cavemen were doing pull-my-finger jokes on
each other; my dear old granny, who was actually born on April 1 and therefore knew a thing or two about pranking
and being pranked, used to regale me with choice anecdotes from her childhood. So
woe is he or she who, in 2010, doesn’t approach that golden date with at least
a modicum of squint-eyed suspicion and a grain or two of salt, and those who
feel chapped when they do fall prey to a well-laid prank probably get what they
deserve. Never forget: humor will pull you through times of no money better than
money will pull you through times of no humor. Or something like that.

 

Naturally, then, BLURT has indulged our inner bullshit
artist in the two years we’ve been publishing (and before that, when we were
known as Harp magazine), along with
hundreds if not thousands of other music-related websites and blogs. Among the
various bogus news items that have appeared at BLURT bearing the April 1
dateline was this year’s “Early Kurt Cobain Demos Unearthed” in which we
faithfully reported on (well, “faithfully” in the sense of being faithful to
the spirit of April Fool’s Day…) the unearthing of “a trove of dusty Phillips
cassettes purchased by a self-styled ‘junker’ at an Aberdeen, Wash., garage
sale” that turned out to be childhood recordings made by Kurt Cobain.

 

Hey, it could happen! According to the news item, some 30
tapes with the initials “KDC” (for “Kurt Donald Cobain”) were subsequently
verified by experts like Butch Vig and Jack Endino as being the work of Cobain,
and the individual who discovered them at the garage sale was now in
negotiations with the Cobain estate and Nirvana’s record label to sell them
and, ultimately, have them officially released in some format. Like I said – it
could happen.

 

Of course, once the reader stopped hyperventilating from
this momentous slice of Nirvana-dom (“…earliest known Cobain material in
existence… [valued in] the seven figure range…”) and got into the meat of the
article, a few big hints, to say the least, were dropped regarding the story’s dubious
authenticity. Nevermind (sorry) the 04/01/2010 date prominently displayed under
the headline. What to make of passages like this:

 

Several of the song
titles focus on people and events circa 1974-75: “Nixon Must Die (Or
Resign)”; “I Wanna Be Just Like a Weatherman”; “Carlos the
Jackal”; “Shazam!”; and the collection’s lone cover, a ukulele
version of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.”

 

Or this:

 

“It is worth noting that even at that
age you could hear the initial stirrings of his trademark rasp – kinda like any
kid sounds after he’s been punched in the throat a couple of times, actually. A
few recurring lyrical motifs, somewhat precocious on one level and disturbing
on another, do provide ad hoc foreshadowing… such as in ‘…Weatherman’ where
he sings in a kind of taunting tone of voice, ‘You’ll wish you were dead/ When
I point my gun at your head.’ That’s followed by the popping sound of a kid’s
cap gun.”

 

Or this:

 

As Cobain’s mother, Wendy, told a
Seattle newspaper reporter, “Kurt really was a surly, unpleasant child to
be around, and while he’s been characterized as being the type of musician who
didn’t like to play with just anyone, it was actually the other way around –
nobody wanted to play with
him.

 

That crackling noise in the ears? It’s the sound of a low-wattage lightbulb
over your head dimly flickering and coming to life.

 

***

 

Well, not everywhere it seems. We got a number of emails and postings on our
Facebook wall about the story, most of them from folks who’d spotted it on the
BLURT site and had figured it out; each time we confirmed that it was in fact a
joke. But after we put the link out via our Twitter feed, the Cobain story
slowly started hitting the web – and getting reported as genuine news.

 

For example, the following morning, Friday, April 2, The Music Industry Report posted a capsule version (along with a
link back to BLURT) that read thusly:

 

30-track collection reportedly dates
back to the Nirvana frontman’s childhood; estimated as being worth “seven
figures” or more. A trove of dusty Phillips cassettes purchased by a
self-styled “junker” at an Aberdeen, Wash., garage sale have turned out to be
early demo recordings by the late Kurt Cobain. It marks the first time since
the 2004 Nirvana box set
With the Lights Out that heretofore unheard Cobain material has surfaced, and Nirvana
experts are hailing the 30-plus tracks – some of them full songs, others just
“sketches” – as likely representing the earliest known Cobain material in
existence…..

 

Scattered other websites and blogs posted in similar fashion that day and into
the weekend, sometimes linking back to the original story and sometimes not (or
sometimes linking to another site that had linked to BLURT). Then on Monday, a
perfect storm arrived: April 5 was the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide,
which ensured that of any day out of
the entire year, music fans deploying the internet search terms “Kurt Cobain”
or “Nirvana” would be out in full force, combing the web for stories about
their fallen hero. The uptick in web traffic at BLURT, and in particular the number
of hits on the page for the Cobain article, was dramatic; we’ve rarely had a
feature, review, blog or news item draw as many eyes in a small amount of time
as “Early Kurt Cobain Demos Unearthed.” We subsequently tweeted about the matter,
hinting broadly that people should check the date of the original story, but
the tweet apparently went ignored.

 

Over the next 24 hours scores of music- or entertainment-related outlets picked
up the Cobain piece. KROQ-FM in Los
Angeles broadcast a short newsclip during one of their
music talk segments, while among the more prominent publications to cover it
was Spin with a lengthy account containing
a link back to BLURT. After a day or so, someone at the magazine apparently
realized it was fake so they took it down off their site, but as of this
writing the text is still cached on the web. Compare it to the original BLURT
version
and notice how diligently the Spin reporter rewrote it in order to not commit plagiarism:

 

Kurt Cobain’s Childhood Demos Unearthed: A box of cassette tapes, unearthed by
an anonymous collector at an Aberdeen,
Wash., garage sale, might prove
to be the earliest known home recordings by a pre-teen Kurt Cobain. According to Blurt, The KDC Tapes — named after the
magic marker scrawlings of the singer’s initials on each cassette — feature a
grade school aged Cobain singing
original songs with titles like “Nixon Must Die (Or Resign),” “I
Wanna Be Just Like a Weatherman,” and a cover of Steve Miller Band’s
“The Joker,” with accompanying ukelele. [sic]

     
Through an attorney, the individual that discovered the tapes has
contacted the Cobain estate, and the recordings’ authenticity has been verified by producers Butch
Vig and Jack Endino, both of whom worked with Nirvana. Now, the collector is
reportedly in negotiations to sell the tapes to the late icon’s estate and his
record label.

     
So what do the bedroom jams of an eight- or nine-year-old Cobain sound like? “There’s
nothing there that would really give a blindfold test listener the sense that Cobain would go on to form
one of the biggest bands on the planet, although it is worth nothing that even
at that age you could hear the initial stirrings of his trademark rasp,” a
source who’s heard the tapes told Blurt. “At least three songs contain the
word ‘vagina,’ each part of some childlike rhyming scheme, one of them being
‘your mama,'” the source continued. “[T]here’s an unusual fixation on
firearms too, such as in ‘Weatherman’ where he sings in a kind of taunting tone
of voice, ‘You’ll wish you were dead / When I point my gun at your head.’
That’s followed by the popping sound of a kid’s cap gun.”

     
It’s an eerie association, especially today, on the 16th anniversary of
Cobain’s 1994 suicide in Seattle.

 

Right after the story was posted, Spin put it out on their Twitter feed (Kurt Cobain’s childhood demos unearthed + a
look back at Nirvana’s first SPIN cover story in ’92. http://bit.ly/9F5Uen
12:18 PM Apr 5th via TweetDeck), and that, along with
other sites’ retweets and tweets about their own stories, prompted a kind of Kurt
Cobain Demos mini-feeding frenzy, as this Twitter queue (abbreviated; it
originally ran in excess of 100 tweets) amply demonstrates.

 

By April 10 there were so many versions of the story on the web, quite a few
in foreign languages, that we gave up counting ‘em. At this point most accounts
were linking back to one of the April 5/6 stories and not to BLURT – if they
bothered to link back at all. (Apparently “modern journalism” for the web translates
as “stealing is okay as long as you call it ‘aggregating’,” or, “Attribution?
How do you spell that?”) You can readily imagine how the whole deal spiraled
out of control once the story became untethered both temporally and proximately
from its original source. Try Googling the search term “Kurt Cobain demos” or a
variation thereof and see for yourself.

 

Ironically, in the middle of all this, a rumor hit the entertainment world
that Twilight hunk Robert Pattinson
had been tapped to play Cobain
in an upcoming biopic, with many of the same websites
who posted the Cobain demos story reporting on the rumor. It was quickly
debunked, however, and those sites just as quickly posted the updated
information. Meanwhile, however, our bogus story continued its wobbly
trajectory across the web, unchallenged.

 

Actually, along the way a few (I stress “few”) writers and editors plus the
administrator of a Nirvana fan site, no doubt each experiencing a case of
Raised Eyebrow Syndrome, contacted BLURT about the story, and each time we filled
them in as to was going on. In some instances, websites added updates or
disclaimers to indicate they now knew or suspected it was an April Fool’s joke.
Doh! A blogger for highly respected
online magazine Crawdaddy!, for
example, took it all in the spirit in which it was originally offered, writing,
Damned April Fools Day! We posted this bulletin when we originally spotted
the news on Friday, 4/2, but at that point we couldn’t shake the feeling that
we’d been duped. I mean, the statement from the anonymous source is pretty
ridiculous, and there were plenty of shenanigans going around. But now
Spin and other blogs and sites have corroborated, so, here’s what we
said about it Friday….”

 

Others, sad to
say, not only took our story at face value but refused to believe they might
have been fooled even after their own readers expressed doubts. A blogger
posting as the “Generation X Examiner” for Examiner.com, really went above and
beyond in rewriting the original piece – pay close attention to the embellishments
designed to liven up the text and provide additional gravitas:

 

Earliest known Kurt Cobain demo tapes
found at garage sale:
One lucky man
in Kurt Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen,
Washington went to a garage sale
and wound up buying some of Kurt Cobain’s earliest demo tapes.

     
The 30-plus music tracks are thought to be some of the
earliest known Kurt Cobain material in existence. The lucky guy bought a bunch
of Phillips cassette tapes with the initials KDC marked on them in a black
marker. The “KDC” is what got the garage sale buyer
interested. KDC likely stands for Kurt Donald Cobain.

     
When the buyer got home and listened to the tapes, he was certain he was
listening to a young Kurt Cobain’s music, so he contacted a music industry
lawyer. That lawyer got in contact with Cobain’s record label and estate.
Eventually the cassettes were verified as legitimate by music
producers Butch Vig and Jack Endino. The lucky garage sale finder is now set to
make a huge figure, potentially a million dollars or more, for the sale of
those Cobain cassette tapes.

     
Here’s the deal, according to blurt-online.com,
the cassette tapes are actually from around 1975 when Kurt
Cobain was just 8-9 years old. The songs feature Cobain playing acoustic guitar
and the ukulele while singing. Someone is playing some sort of drums, though no
one knows who that person is. Apparently there are a few songs that focus on
guns and some of Cobain’s childhood lyrics are, “You’ll wish you were dead, when I point my gun at your head.” Unfortunately Cobain died the same way he sang about as a child, by a gunshot
to the head.

     
Due to the fact that Nirvana’s music is still popular today, and the
legend of Kurt Cobain has continued to live on, the cassette tapes will
eventually be heard by fans. Cobain’s label is trying to purchase the tapes
from the garage sale buyer and it’s likely at least parts of the songs will be
used to create another way to make money off Kurt Cobain’s memory. Cobain
died 16 years ago as of Monday.

 

Apparently
common sense died on Monday, April 5, 2010 too. As you can see in the comments
section of the Examiner.com story, a couple of sharp-eyed readers realized it
was an April Fool’s gag but the blogger wasn’t having nothin’ of that,
retorting huffily, “Just
because something was written on April 1 does not make it an April Fools [sic]
joke. There is nothing on the original site that says it is or was a joke and I
am not the only writer to cover it… Responsible journalists don’t put up prank
articles, otherwise they have no journalistic integrity. Bringing a story to
light for those interested in the story, is what goes on every day online and
in print media and on the 10 o’clock news. You will note that I let my readers
know where I got my info and provided a link to their site, that’s what I do.”

 

Yow. That’s a pretty scary position to take, for a writer presumably charged
with getting the facts straight before reporting on a story. The voice of sanity
finally prevailed when an Examiner.com reader posted a comment that actually gets
to the heart of the matter at hand:

 

Of course there would be nothing in
the story saying it was an April Fools [sic] joke; that would defeat the
purpose wouldn’t it? The same site also had another news story that day about
an equally unlikely Capt Beefheart tour…
The story was really not “covered on other sites.” All those
sites did was regurgitate the Blurt story. You’ll note that no one added any
new information. If it had a [sic] been a real story, another outlet would’ve
followed it up and tried to get more quotes. Other sites have now realized the
story was a joke and taken it down (like Spin). There’s been no new coverage. It
was a great prank though.

 

Hmmm. Dunno if the prank was “great,” as we just pulled it out of thin air
in about ten minutes one ultra-caffeinated morning, but thanks for the kudos.
More important, however, thanks for underscoring a point I’m trying to make.
Away from the safe haven of April 1, I’m certain I’ve been guilty of slapping
up onto our site my own share of half-assed, poorly-sourced music news, and as
recently as last October I fell for that notorious Chuck Biscuits Death Hoax and
posted it (then followed up when I realized I’d been duped along with plenty
others). Other times I’ve copied and pasted text straight from p.r. news
releases, a practice which for better or for worse appears to be common on the
web.

 

But I’m still troubled by so-called journalists and bloggers who in their manic
rush to generate content for their sites and blogs (not to mention their drive to
“be on top of a story” while it’s breaking across the web) are too lazy to
question the content they are aggregating or regurgitating, regardless of how
patently ridiculous it might be, like the Cobain yarn. No wonder the public’s
faith in journalism is at an all time low.

 

This all means that in the long run, the joke is actually on the readers, only they ain’t laughing, and neither
am I. It’s enough to make you lose faith in the sanctity of April Fool’s Day, because
on the internet, it seems, it’s April Fool’s Day every day. As of this day, April 14, only a handful of the pundits who “reported” on the Cobain demos
story have amended their reports to reflect the fact that it was erroneous,
which suggests that someone who comes across it a month or a year or five years
from now just might take it at face value.

 

As a wise man once proposed, a sucker is born every minute. Stupid and
contagious, indeed.

 

[Photo Credit: from Nirvana MTV Unplugged]

 

 

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