Review: Nick Soulsby – “I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana”

I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana by Nick Soulsby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But Kurt was super-quiet … He was just one of those guys who would walk by and you just wouldn’t notice him right off the bat. One day in school he passed up a note to the girl behind me; she passed it to me and it said, “Will you teach me to play guitar?” I told him, “Yeah, no problem.” But it never happened.

This is really a whole lot of quotes from a lot of different people, bundled together in chapters, all about Nirvana, collected from the beginning until the end (i.e. after Cobain’s life ended, up until the recent re-release of “In Utero”).

There are a lot of sweet anecdotes from people who actually knew the band.

GILLY ANN HANNER, Sister Skelter/Calamity Jane: I first saw Nirvana when they played my house for my birthday party.

RYAN AIGNER: You’ve seen the “Love Buzz”/“Big Cheese” single? Have you noticed the inscription on the vinyl? Around the label it says “Why don’t you trade those guitars for shovels?” That quote happened during a rehearsal with Robert Novoselic, myself, and a friend called Brett Walker. We were at Krist’s house; we’d gotten together after school … trying to rehearse and learn some cover songs. Krist came home, came upstairs, listened to what we doing, and gave us his opinion about what was going on, helped us out—showed us some guitar leads he knew—then Krist and Robert’s father came home. He was a construction worker and he wasn’t happy about this noise, so he came upstairs to the boys’ bedroom, forced the door open. He was yelling. Krist was yelling back, “Aw, leave them alone! They’re just kids, you know!” Finally they let him in. We didn’t know him well; we introduced ourselves and let him know who we were. And he says with a frown on his face, “You kids, why don’t you kids go sell those goddamn guitars and buy something useful like shovels or something?” That’s where the quote came from—many years later, the story had a mythological life-span and kept coming up. They found it pretty funny so they had it engraved.

LEIGHTON BEEZER: I was invited to play by default, I guess, since it was a record-release party and all the bands were on the bill. But from here on out it’s hard for me to give an accurate answer, since I got very seriously drunk that night and my memory is a little fuzzy … They were really just another band among equals at the time … But here’s what I do remember. Kurt and I used to occasionally have a beer together before he played. He used to stink for some reason … like, really bad BO. And so, one night, as a joke, I brought along a roll of my girlfriend’s deodorant and gave it to Kurt before he took the stage that night. He laughed, and then quickly disappeared. The next thing I knew, I saw Kurt onstage with Nirvana, rolling some of this stuff on, like, in the middle of a song … I can’t remember which one. He then picked it up and showed it to the crowd. The band stopped playing, looking kind of bewildered. Kurt held up the deodorant, Teen Spirit, and said something like, “Leighton Beezer said I stink and gave me this. Now I smell like Teen Spirit.” … A couple of weeks before the Sub 200 show, Kurt stopped by my house on the Hill, just to shoot the shit. He picked up my guitar, a Squire Jagmaster, as I recall, and played these four chords for me. He said he’d been listening a lot to the first Boston album and wanted to use those chords in a new song he’d been working on. I said, “But you’re ripping off ‘More Than a Feeling,’ dude.” He smiled and said nothing.

Also, don’t tell me Cobain didn’t put his money where his mouth was:

I remember Kurt saying that they wanted to leave Sub-Pop because “they’re sexist.”

Cobain was a feminist, which means he’s for equality between genders. The man really was, through and through. Thank Bog.

Nirvana lent weight whenever asked. Cobain dueted with Courtney Love at a Rock Against Rape event. The band played Rock for Choice, contributed to the Home Alive compilation, invited female-fronted bands on tour, and on occasion would chastise male members of their own audience if they spotted them molesting girls in the crowd.

GILLY ANN HANNER: We played West Coast dates, including some in L.A. that were filmed by Lisa Rose Apramian for her rockumentary Not Bad for a Girl, featuring Hole, L7, Babes in Toyland, and dozens of other female musicians. The film was released in 1995, and Kurt and Courtney ended up partially funding it.

ROD STEPHEN, Björn Again: We were doing a concert in Melbourne and Nirvana were playing down the road. They were looking for something to do afterward and stumbled upon our gig. We didn’t know they were there; we were onstage.

Then after, our guy who was selling the T-shirts—I don’t know how many we had, twenty-five or something—and the guys from Nirvana bought the whole lot and told him how much they loved the gig before they left. Our guy ran upstairs saying, “You’ll never believe who just bought all our T-shirts!” … Next thing we know, there’s a phone call through promoters and agents saying we’ve been asked to play at the Reading Festival. We knew the nature of it and though Björn Again had always had this Spinal Tap–meets–ABBA vibe in some regards, we were nervous if we were right for the festival.

Ultimately, though, we understood it was more or less on Kurt Cobain’s insistence that we were being asked, so we thought, Let’s do it!… I positioned “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at about the twenty-minute mark just to establish Björn Again and our identity … I thought we needed something to nail the last ten minutes of the show and that guitar riff was the perfect thing. We launched into it and the crowd moshed like you wouldn’t believe—going mental. Absolute candy … Prior to the gig I’d spoken to Dave Grohl about us doing our version … Ordinarily you wouldn’t dream of doing a song when the main act is going to do it later on. He said, “No, no! You’ve got to do it! It’ll be great!” So we went ahead and it really capped off the performance.

Krist was down in the pit with his camera, people could see him taking photos of us. In context, it was great light and shade for the day … the crowd made the connection to the three guys from Nirvana who, by the end, were almost onstage with us showing it was all right and they were having fun here. I was pleased to see Kurt doing that because before the gig when I went up to talk to them it was noticeable that Kurt was in the dressing room but there was this sense that he didn’t want to talk—nothing was said, but I didn’t wade on in there.

Dave and Krist came out and I think they were kind of putting a bit of a protective layer between anyone else and Kurt. They were chatty, told us they wanted us to be there, but it wasn’t Kurt bouncing out. I didn’t ask about it, but I got that feeling things were going on. To me it felt like shyness. I know that he wanted Björn Again to be there but maybe he would have felt a bit uncomfortable chatting. He must have been bombarded with people just wanting to talk, people wanting information. Maybe part of the problem, he felt he had to be on full form to deal with people at all hours of the day … Kurt mentioned us on the liner notes of Incesticide; he says something about how he realized he’d reached “wunderkind” status when he had the power to bring Björn Again to Reading.

Everybody who’s interviewed keeps coming back to how uncomfortable the band were with their extreme success, especially Kurt. All the while, they would wield their power in good ways.

Nirvana broke again from the corporate plan, canceling their November US tour. Instead, they were motivated to make their first mainland US appearances since the New Year by their opposition to an anti-gay-rights ballot measure in Oregon and to the Erotic Music Law in Washington. Neither was a topic that endeared them to mainstream audiences, but Nirvana saw fame as valuable only if it stood for something.

JON GINOLI: The only communication we had with Nirvana at the time was through Jello Biafra, who was a fan of ours. He was at the No On 9 benefit that Nirvana played in Portland against an anti-gay measure on the Oregon state ballot. I thought, Wow, how cool! Guns N’ Roses would never do that—a popular rock band had never taken such a pro-gay stand at that point in time. Jello told us he was going to emcee the show, and I asked him to ask Nirvana if they minded us doing a gay version of their song as “Smells Like Queer Spirit.” He said he spoke with all three of them together, and said they were cool with it … We did the song the way we did it for several reasons. Nevermind did not come with a lyric sheet; we couldn’t tell what half the lyrics were. We thought, what if the lyrics were slurred and indecipherable because they were all about being gay? That’s when I came up with the title “Smells Like Queer Spirit” … One reason we wanted to do the song was that even though we loved it, it was so ubiquitous that we were getting sick of it. Cobain spoke of the Pansy Division cover as a real pleasure; his band had been baiting homophobes all year.

Cobain and Nirvana made repeated statements, whether subtle or otherwise, regarding the issue of gay rights; Cobain appeared on MTV in a ballroom gown, Novoselic French-kissed him on Saturday Night Live, the “In Bloom” video dissolved into cross-dressing hilarity, and Cobain accused Axl Rose of sexism, homophobia, and racism … Nirvana helped to bring a downplayed strand of the underground to the fore.

Even further, as a comment to Guns ‘n’ Roses and the likes:

JON GINOLI: People noticed all right. It was a big middle finger to hard-rock stupidity. Rock stars were not supposed to make fun of themselves and not take their image seriously. They got away with it because they were huge. I remember too when they wore dresses for the “In Bloom” video—that was a gesture that had major impact, to so blatantly fuck with gender. It wasn’t about rock-star cool … Kurt sang, “God is gay” and “Everyone is gay.” Axl sang “Immigrants and faggots, they make no sense to me,” and that they “spread some fucking disease” … I don’t think much pro-gay sentiment was happening in rock until the ’90s—punk rock got more macho as times went on. Originally punk could be aggressive without being macho. Part of the homophobia stemmed from the idea that people thought gays weren’t making or listening to that kind of music, because almost no one playing it was out of the closet. Part of the reason I formed Pansy Division was that I knew that wasn’t true. Our mere presence (along with queer peers like Tribe 8 and Team Dresch) forced the issue out into the open the same way that Bikini Kill did for women and feminism … Someone told me that Maximum Rocknroll magazine were afraid to give us bad reviews because they didn’t want to look homophobic, but because they were the home of hardcore they were never too enthusiastic, either.

GARY FLOYD: If I had just been singing about gay issues only, I would have been pegged as more of a “gay singer” than I am. I think I was more “a singer that was gay” than “a gay singer.” My songs were multi-issue … I’m happy Kurt felt gay topics were part of what was going on. I loved him for that. However, most punks could not care less that Bad Brains did some despicable homophobic bullshit … Never apologized … Never said “We are sorry,” anti-“bloodclot faggot,” crap … They do not care a fucking thing; maybe Kurt did … Most so-called punks don’t give a shit. I didn’t get shit because I didn’t take shit.

Somehow, I get the feeling that Cobain felt isolated. From the book, anyway.

CHRIS BROKAW: I was walking down the hallway and Kurt came up and was saying how we should come to their backstage room more often. He was saying, “You guys should come and hang out with us before shows … it gets so lonely back there.” When he said that, he was looking into my eyes. He looked so sad, and suddenly a group of people came rushing down the hall at us and mobbed him screaming for autographs and trying to touch him. There was this circle of people swarming around him and he was still just looking into my eyes. He looked so alone, so small and lost. He was a sweet person but his fame seemed overwhelming. I just backed up slowly. It was a scary moment. He was surrounded.

About the death:

PAUL LEARY: Dark days that I do not miss … I remember the day I heard on the news that Kurt had died. I was with Daniel Johnston [founder of K Records] in the living room of his parents’ house watching the news. When it was announced, I said, “Oh my God.” Daniel’s mother asked who that was, and Daniel said, “That’s the guy who wore my [HI, HOW ARE YOU] T-shirt.”

At the end, the book itself says what it is:

This book serves as a celebration of Nirvana, but it is as much about the many musicians who made the underground into the home that the superstars never wished to leave. This book is a tribute to what was created and to the people who are still making it what it is.

It’s a laudable book, and should be read by anybody not only interested in the band, but in the music business at large, and anthropologically, by anyone interested in seeing how money changes everything. A very human take on the story of a band, well collated by Soulsby.

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