We talk with the author of a compelling new
biography that takes a fresh look at the grunge icons’ pre-superstar years.
BY FRED MILLS
If you are reading this
publication odds are that you own at least one book about Nirvana or Kurt
Cobain. The Seattle band’s tale, with all its myriad twists, turns and
tragedies, is sufficiently embedded in music lore to ensure a thriving and
ongoing Nirvana cottage industry re: the literary world – the group’s artistic
output and longevity, relative to such bookshelf perennials as the Beatles, Bob
Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, notwithstanding. Not that all rock books
are created equal, mind you, or that you necessarily need to direct your investigations
much beyond, say, Michael Azerrad’s 1993 bio Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana or 2002 bible Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt
Cobain by Charles R. Cross.
With that duly noted,
however, I have no qualms over recommending Entertain
Us: The Rise of Nirvana (Jawbone Books), by Seattle-based author/journalist
(and, full disclosure, occasional BLURT contributor) Gillian G. Gaar, who has
also penned well-received titles on Green Day and Elvis Presley plus the
pioneering collection She’s A Rebel: The
History of Women in Rock and Roll. It’s a book that’s simultaneously an
engaging, fast-paced read and an essential compendium of details and
reflections that get to the core of what makes a Nirvana fan’s pulse quicken.
Some of this is strategic; as you’ll read in the interview below, in an effort
not to retread overly familiar ground, Gaar focuses primarily on Nirvana’s
pre-fame period leading up to the recording and release of ’89 Sub Pop long-playing
debut Bleach, with the superstar era,
the Cobain suicide, the posthumous releases, etc. receiving a brief (though
insightful) summary in final chapter
“Nirvana In Its Afterlife.”
The rest is down to Gaar’s
situational proximity and journalistic savvy: being a resident of the Northwest
during the grunge era – not to mention
being a writer for Seattle music paper The
Rocket – meant that she had
firsthand knowledge of and access to the events and personalities discussed in
her book; plus, she’s a solid, diligent reporter additionally gifted with the
intuition of a lifelong student of rock, allowing her to marry objective detail
to empathetic description, such as
with the following passage discussing Cobain’s iconic vocal in “Smells Like
“It’s Kurt’s voice that
gives the song its character, and stamps it most firmly with his personality.
His almost languorous drawl during the verses is as enigmatic as the lyrics; he
could be world-weary, introspective, or disinterested. But his full-throated
delivery in the choruses is scorching, tapping into an unexpected well of
emotion… At the song’s end, after the last time through the chorus, the band
pushes themselves even harder, Kurt’s repeated cries of ‘A
denial!’ ringing out with unmistakable fury, although it’s never clear
what’s driving his frustration or what it is he’s raging against. It’s a
question that’s left hanging, unanswered, as Kurt’s voice and guitar finally
mesh together at the song’s end, and the final chord slowly dies away.”
Most of the major players
agreed to be interviewed for the book, among them bassist Krist Novoselic,
early drummer Chad Channing, Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman and producers Butch Vig
and Jack Endino, along with a slew of friends, associates and local
personalities. Secondary sources yield additional interview material where
appropriate, and thankfully Courtney Love’s name only pops up a couple of
times, primarily in the final chapter.
Throughout, the recollections and anecdotes are clear and deployed judiciously
to serve the larger narrative (something any aficionado of music biographies
knows is not always the case, with far too many authors apparently feeling that
endless or multiple quotes are crucial for making their cases).
Rounding out Entertain Us is an endnotes appendix
detailing Gaar’s chapter-by-chapter source material along with an appendix listing
selected recordings and live performances. There’s also a nice 11-page gallery
of photos, many of them quite candid or otherwise obscure.
Gaar agreed to field some
email queries about her book for BLURT. Although, it should be noted, the
burning one that still persists to this day – “Who REALLY killed Kurt Cobain?”
– elicited a modest demurral from our favorite Nirvana authority, who wisely
chose not to wade into the Courtney Love/El Duce/et al dogpile: “A question I don’t like to address!” Fair enough,
Gillian. Entertain us, then…
BLURT: The most obvious question is: Does the world
really need another Nirvana book, and what do you think sets yours apart from
the numerous others that have preceded it?
GILLIAN G. GAAR: It was
actually easy to decide to do this book. There had been a book on the making of
Nirvana’s Nevermind. There was also a
book on the making of In Utero (I did
that one). So it was only a matter of time before someone did a book on Bleach. That was what I told the
publisher; someone will do it eventually, so why not us?
But it was to be more than just a look
at Bleach. It was going to cover that
whole pre-fame period. When I sat down to start on it, I did think, how will
this be different? Then I had it: the music. I would be focusing on the music,
every recording session, every radio session, and the “video” session at
Evergreen. No other book has looked at that stuff in a narrative context. Plus,
I had good quotes from the key players, as well as looking at other things like
photo sessions, record cover design, shows, etc.
Take us back to the first time you heard and saw
Nirvana: what was your reaction, both as a journalist and music fan? Did you
have any moment of prescience regarding what might be to come?
It’s funny. I wasn’t
paying attention at first. I got Sub Pop
200 to review for [Seattle
music publication] The Rocket for the
December 1988 issue. It’s a compilation album and one of the tracks I didn’t
write about was Nirvana. The track was “Spank Thru” and it’s still not a
favorite song of mine. The time I paid attention was when I reviewed Bleach a few months later, also for The Rocket. I liked the diversity of the
music, and the pop edge was always in there; I think it kept the music from being too metal/hard rock. So I
guess that’s why I liked it better! But no, never had any thoughts of possible
Given your resume and background in all things Nirvana
[among them, the 33 1/3 Nirvana’s In
Utero and The Rough Guide To Nirvana books and liner notes for the Nirvana box
set With the Lights Out] what – if any – big surprises or revelations did
you come across during the interviews and research?
Working on this really
reaffirmed how strong the bond between Kurt and Krist was. I think every other
musician that was in the band felt like an outsider to some extent, even Dave
The first confirmed Seattle date was April 24 at the Vogue; I was
surprised to see that Kurt had submitted a Musicians Wanted ad to The Rocket to find a new drummer a week
before that show, meaning his unhappiness with Dave Foster as drummer was
Perhaps the biggest surprise was
finally figuring out when the Fecal Matter demo had been recorded. It was
always said to be December 1985. While getting a preview of the Nirvana
exhibition at the Experience Music Project, the curator showed me a letter Buzz
Osborne had written to Krist, then living in Arizona, in 1986. He mentioned the tape, and
coupled with an EMP interview Kurt’s aunt Mari where she said she recalled the
session as being around spring break, we now know the session was really around
Easter. Well, it was big news to me!
And it was funny to learn that the Oct 30,
1988 show wasn’t taped because the taper was too drunk to realize he hadn’t put
a video in the camera!
Who, if anyone, was on your short list of
must-interviews but proved to be elusive or simply unresponsive, and why do you
think they wouldn’t cooperate? Conversely, over the years was there anyone who
seemed particularly open and genuine and not necessarily agenda-driven where it
came to setting the record straight about Kurt and Nirvana?
I’ve gotten so many requests
re: interviewees I didn’t get for this book… and I think it focuses too much on
the negative! I’d rather think about the great people I did work with, getting
Chad Channing and Jack Endino to talk again. Kurt Danielson (of TAD) was great,
as was Earnie Bailey; we had long long conversations. I’m glad Dan Peters
agreed and that Jason Everman responded to my requests. I’m glad to everybody
of course, especially people I spoke with before who gladly opened up again
(Steve Fisk is another one).
The Nirvana Industry: how well do you think the
legacy has been curated to date? Has the marketing of the band been done
tastefully or cynically? And to what degree have the personal sideshows such as
the Courtney-Grohl feud overshadowed the music?
They seem to be taking slow
and steady as far as music and DVDs [are concerned]. I think they could be
doing more (see below). I think things were definitely taken slow so as to not
appear to be exploitative and cynical. I think in part what delays things is
that everyone is living in different places and doing different things, so it’s
harder to take time out and focus on another project. I think it’s less
anything between Courtney and Dave thing and more that Dave is generally pretty
busy. I don’t think there’s that much out there, really.
What else is in the vaults, and what’s on your
personal wish list you’d like to see rescued from the bootleg graveyard and put
into official release?
Well, it would be nice if
someone went through all the studio tapes, a
la Mark Lewisohn with The Beatles
Recording Sessions book, and nail down exactly what’s there. Ditto those
120 cassettes or whatever that Courtney had. Who knows what that might turn up?
Also, have everyone look in their own archives to see if they have long
forgotten cassettes of rehearsals, etc. There could certainly be things there. There
are many things that could be released; there still isn’t an official release
of all the radio tracks, for example. Then there’s live stuff, both audio and
video. Maybe a few select commercial releases – the MTV performances for
example – then everything else could be available on an as-ordered basis via a
website. I would curate and write liner notes for everything of course…
Here’s a kind of “WTF?” question: just before your
book was published, another one with a painfully similar title (and, to a
degree, theme) appeared: Entertain Us:
The Rise of Alternative Rock in the Nineties by Craig Shuftan, published
digitally by ABC/Harper Collins. The
term “entertain us” is part of the rock lexicon, of course, but I’m wondering
why that author co-opted it – and if that bugs you.
I didn’t know about this
book until I found it doing an Amazon search at the time my book came! So it
was too late to do anything about it. As my book was up long before his was
listed, I wonder why he didn’t change
his title. Not having a Kindle – or
any kind of e-reader – I guess I’ll never read it….
A version of this article also appears in issue #13
of BLURT magazine.