Saturday, April 05, 2014

Kurt Cobain Was My Elvis

(Rather than be a downer on this rather unpleasant anniversary, I thought I'd open this entry with a Kurt Cobain moment that always makes me laugh)
In April 2011, on the last day of tracking Paint's Where We Are Today record, producer Ian Smith and I went to see the Pixies on the Doolittle tour at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener. Before the show we caught up with a friend of Ian's named Norman Blake. Yes, that Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub. With the charisma of a wise elder and the kinetic energy and animation of a hyperactive child, Norman recounted the time Frank Black tracked him down at a Teenage Fanclub show in Scotland during the Pixies' 1993 supporting run on U2's ZOO TV Tour, confiding in him that at the end of the tour he was going to break up the Pixies.

Norman then made the most convincing case for a reunion tour I've heard: he pointed out that the Pixies weren't as appreciated while they were a band the first time around as they came to be after the fact, and that touring now was more a victory lap where Frank, Joey Santiago, Kim Deal, and David Lovering could actually perform for audiences who loved them, and experience just how influential their music and legacy have become firsthand.

A big part of The Pixies' filtering into mainstream consciousness came when Kurt Cobain claimed that all he was trying to do with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was rip off the Pixies -- and extended to working with producer Steve Albini, who recorded the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, on Nirvana's abrasive masterpiece In Utero. Of course, as bashful as he is, Norman didn't bring up the fact that Kurt Cobain had also cited Teenage Fanclub as one of the world's best bands.

So there I am in the Pixies' dressing room after the show sitting with Frank Black and Norman Blake, catching up on life, their families, and travels -- and it dawns upon me that I'm with the two guys Kurt Cobain cited as his biggest influences. This is music history right here. Never mind (no pun intended), for a moment, what Nirvana did; in the beginning, there was Teenage Fanclub and the Pixies.

My cultural awakening to music, which was discussed in a previous journal entry called "On Freddie Mercury and the Empowerment of Indians (From India)," came from the likes of Living Colour (as a person of colour facing a dominantly white playing field of rock 'n' roll) but my punk aesthetic and grassroots awakening to music -- the idea that it's a medium accessible to anyone with something to say regardless of your accessibility to formal training -- came solely, and entirely, from Nirvana. Some of the first songs I attempted to learn on guitar were Nirvana songs. I still can't play them properly.

I was lucky. I hit my formative years during a stitch in time when mainstream radio was being infiltrated by underground music; when Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous out of the number one spot on the Billboard 200 chart. I didn't realize at the time that this was out of the ordinary; that the pop charts were no place for the destructive beauty of punk rock or anything remotely imaginative. But I came to expect -- and on more inspired days, demand -- that popular music not pander to patronizing notions that the audience is beneath its own intelligence, but has the capability to challenge the audience with art that appreciates and gives credit to the intelligence it has (harking back on my paraphrasing of Morrissey shared in Paint: Where The Fans Are Alright). Even though Nirvana on Top of the Pops may have been the exception to the rule, it set a standard for me right from the start that better was possible, and to strive for nothing less.

Instead of seeing The Beebs pacifying me on TV as a kid, I got my mind (and ears) blown by performances like this:

Being in grade school when Nirvana made their assault into mainstream society may have been what it felt like when the Beatles came out -- except Nirvana had two decades of anger and alienation built up over what had happened to music since the Beatles broke up. It all just poured out through their music in its dissonant ragged glory. And we all heard it. We needed to. It lifted us. It gave us hope. It spoke to us. It spoke for us. But it also gave us all the tools and the will to want to speak. Louder.

As Eddie Vedder so eloquently put all of our thoughts into words from the stage on April 8th, 1994, the day the news broke that Kurt Cobain had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head three days prior:
"Sometimes people elevate you whether you like it or not. And it's real easy to fall. I don't think any of us would be in this room here tonight if it weren't for Kurt Cobain."
I'm sure I speak for many when I say: Kurt Cobain was my Elvis.

Today, on the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, I'm left, despite this entry, with nothing to say but make a little room for kindness. Choose your words carefully because they can be weapons. Hug a stranger.

Or just crank "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" as loud as you can.