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Of Grunge and Government: Let’s Fix this Broken Democracy!

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Founding member of world-famous rock band Nirvana offers a personal and political memoir.

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Excerpt from Of Grunge and Government

Chapter 1: Music Must Change

Society offers many labels for people who run against the grain. But it’s the people on the so-called fringes who actually bring change. Without rebels, rabble-rousers, malcontents, or whatever label we choose to apply, the culture would remain static.

Look around the world at cultures that squash expression—their resistance to change has left them stuck in the 19th century. And while many in our nation disparage those who diverge from the status quo, it’s people who made their own way that created the United States. Our founders refused a monarchy whose power was derived from heredity. The notion of a republic of the people, by the people, and for the people shattered the old paradigm. The new republic, the United States of America, acknowledged freedom as a basic tenet of human experience. Independence in the U.S. guarantees individuals the right to speak. But independence must also speak to us.

It was in 1983 that I walked into a bookstore in Seattle’s University District asking for anything by Jack Kerouac. The clerk, with a broad grin, walked over to a shelf and handed me The Dharma Bums. Reading Kerouac confirmed the sense of independence I have always felt. The Dharma Bums is about the journey of life and meaningful connection with people. The story culminates in the classic journey to the mountain, where the protagonist, Japhy, ends up in a fire lookout tower in Washington State. A Zen hermit experience is conveyed in quintessential beat prose; there, alone, he transcends time and self in an exploration of inner-space. Every moment is savored, every simple action a meaningful experience. It’s as if he is living his last days on earth. In his subsequent work, Kerouac left the isolation of the mountain to return to society. His world was not confined to the tailfins and poodle-skirts of 1950s popular culture. He lived in the subterranean realm of the beat generation. Subcultures are where many people who are not inclined to adhere to conformity connect with others of the same ilk. Independence is not isolation.

I grew up in Aberdeen, Washington in the early 1980s and had a lot of fun there. But eventually I began to grow away from the party crowd that made up my social life. In the mid-1960s, smoking marijuana was a political statement, the counterculture’s answer to the mainstream martini crowd. But by the time it hit my scene, pot was a cliché icon, something fundamental to the identity of people referred to as “stoners.” There is a certain comradery that manifests itself in the course of passing a joint around; unlike sharing a beer, the illegal act of smoking pot demonstrates actual humanity in the face of abstract prohibitions. But to many stoners, marijuana was more about escapism than real liberation. If anything, “drop out” was the only relevant term left of Timothy Leary’s famous axiom, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” The stoner message was: “Don’t expect anything from me.” It was antiestablishment, and petty resistance was sometimes acted out in the world of traffic court, with stoners (like many others) subject to a seemingly endless cycle of DUI and wrong-turn tickets and fines paid on installment. Stoners were in a lower economic strata, locked in a punitive relationship with their government based on issues regarding the secondary task of transportation. It was token rebellion against the forces that threatened a Saturday night party. “Stoner” was a counterculture without a mission. As far as the music of that scene went, the slick, canned sounds of mainstream heavy metal didn’t appeal to me. In 1980, I lived in what was then Yugoslavia for a year. A lot of music came down from London; I heard punk rock and caught much of the ska scene of the time. Yugoslavia also had a homegrown scene with good, diverse music. But when I returned to the U.S., I found that it was hard for punk to make its way to Aberdeen because of its geographic isolation. Still, it trickled in the best it could. I watched New Wave Theatre on the U.S.A. Network or heard punk on Sunday night specialty shows on FM radio stations. Gradually, here and there, I picked up on a style of music I knew was controversial. It eventually gained a foothold, thanks to the efforts of some truly independent young minds.

I met Buzz Osborne and Matt Lukin while working after school in a fast-food restaurant. These fellows were in an actual punk band, the Melvins! And Buzz was not only up on the music, he also had an excellent grasp of the whole ethic of punk subculture. I needed a breath of fresh air and was immediately intrigued. These new sounds were raw and vital. I started buying the music emanating from underground scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other places. Punks were also connected through do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing. Fanzines were the blogs of the early ’80s. Anything went with the zines; they not only covered music, there was a heavy dose of politics as well. Of course they were antiestablishment, and most were left-wing, promoting vegetarianism, drug-free living, and anticorporatism. They were truly independent and decentralized, in stark contrast to the mainstream media I was used to. They were part of an alternative economy promoting small, independent business. For me, punk wasn’t a fad; it offered meaning in a society that didn’t offer enough.

Punk rejected the mainstream—which was just as well, because the mainstream rejected punk. Safety pins through the nose, loud clothing, and spiked hair scared most people. Too many associated self-destructive violence with punk. Punk was supposed to annoy and antagonize society, and indeed it did. In the early ’80s, punk rockers were despised and ridiculed by their peers in the stoner crowd; the spiked growl of punk upset the soft feathers of Camaro hairstyles. One time, while standing in front of a club with some friends, we got hit by eggs tossed out of a passing muscle car. Laughing, we wiped away the egg on our tattered flannel with the same hands we used to wash away society’s conformity. Self-assured in our personal liberation, ridicule from conformists couldn’t upset true punks.

I started shopping for clothes at the Salvation Army in an attempt to subvert consumerism (I had little money anyway). In 1983, cool clothing from the ’50s and ’60s really wasn’t that old; this was right before the vintage/collectable industry started scooping things up. As a badge of my independence, I dressed differently from the status quo, and, unlike some punks, I didn’t dress dangerously. I didn’t have a mohawk or a studded leather jacket. I didn’t throw away my Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin records either. I’d hear punks refuting the old guard—they cast ’70s rock bands away as though they were false prophets; those who followed old-school rock ran the risk of being taunted by these self-appointed guardians of the new order. This was simply pop music turning through its cycle of reinvention, but with a big dose of ideology mixed in. Some fanzines were very dogmatic, demanding a purity of ethic. Even though I was a believer in punk, how could I reject the music that gave me so much joy? Where would the world be without Black Sabbath? If punk was about freedom, why conform to some kind of molded identity? If I wanted to wear a uniform, I’d join the military. I believe that punk is a state of mind. It’s about making your own way. And regardless of orthodoxy, I felt punk was messianic. In a lot of ways it did save me. An alternative vision didn’t have to be stuck in the hippy 1960s—it was reborn through punk! A new generation was offered the promise of liberation from the status quo. And we were given community to boot.

In 1984 I traveled with Buzz and Matt to Walla Walla, Washington to see Black Flag perform. We drove across the state in a 1968 VW van painted like a zebra. Black Flag was on a mission to bring punk to the hinterlands, going out of their way to play small towns off the beaten path. Lead singer Henry Rollins sang of alienation with lyrics like, “Swimming in the mainstream/Is such a lame dream.” Their music was slow and sludgy at that point, closer musically to Black Sabbath than the Sex Pistols. But it was also free of the boundaries of genre and era. It was real, and that’s all that really mattered. There must have been a few dozen kids in the large community center that held the show. But as far as the mainstream media went, the tour wasn’t swimming at all because, like the Sex Pistols, Black Flag was too dangerous. The Melvins were looking for a new drummer, so I introduced Matt and Buzz to thundering teen drummer Dale Crover. They started practicing at Dale’s house, and soon the Crovers’s back porch and yard became a local hangout. American hardcore/punk was known for its blistering speed, but by ’84 this was changing. Buzz started writing slow and heavy riffs. This dirge-like music was the genesis of Northwest Grunge.

This is around the time I met this person named Kurt Cobain. If I am to speak about independence, I need to mention one of the most independent people I’ve ever met. Kurt was a completely creative person—a true artist. He had just got a job and found his own place. What a den of art/insanity that was! He tried to make his own lava lamp out of wax and vegetable oil (it didn’t work). He sketched very obscene Scooby-Doo cartoons all over his apartment building hallways (they were done very well). He made wild sound montages from obscure records. He sculpted clay into scary spirit people writhing in agony. He played guitar, sang, and wrote great tunes that were kind of off-kilter. Punk, pop, or whatever, it was raw creativity. Kurt held a skeptical perspective toward the world. He’d create video montages as well that were scathing testimonies about popular culture, compiled from hours and hours of watching television. I look back on those tapes as a shattered mirror reflecting the absurd reality of commercial television—perhaps even the world. This wasn’t someone who had a hyperactive finger on the record button; those video montages were surreal sociology.

Needless to say, because of his murals, the upset landlady eventually kicked him out. But, even better, he then found a house to live in. This place couldn’t have been bigger than 700 square feet. One thing led to another, and Kurt and I started jamming. I had been playing guitar for a few years but had never been in a band. To get things moving, I picked up the bass and played through an amplifier called a PMS, of all things. It was the label on the amp, and to this day I don’t know what those initials stand for with regard to musical equipment.

We found a drummer, Aaron Burckhart, and began playing constantly in that little house. We had the most intense jams. We’d simultaneously orbit inner and outer space. It was so serious, if we felt we sucked at rehearsal we were disappointed and we’d sit around bummed out after. It must have been about transcendence. If we didn’t get that rush, that otherworldly sense of liberation, we were let down; it’s hard to lose God after you’ve experienced it. These were not cover-song sessions or protracted blues jams. These were manifestations of a psychic dissonance. For all its beauty, I see that dark thread through most of Kurt’s creativity.

Songs started coming out of these rehearsals, and we built up a good set list. Aberdeen lacked the venues and the social network to sustain our needs as a creative entity, so we were drawn to the vitality of neighboring Olympia (Washington’s state capital), home to the progressive Evergreen State College. Kurt eventually moved to Olympia proper, working nights as a janitor. Though he didn’t attend school, Kurt fell in with the liberal-arts students that dominated that town. The school was a magnet for creative people. The music scene in Olympia was fiercely independent. KAOS radio played local and national underground music, and K Records held a stable of original bands. There were all kinds of events, ideas, and people, and a very leftist political element that permeated the scene.

I started working as an industrial painter and moved to Tacoma to be closer to work. Tacoma is a blue-collar town located between Olympia and Seattle. I was painting aircraft factories, aluminum and paper mills, and I joined the union doing the apprentice program. By this time the band wasn’t playing much, and Kurt and I decided to ramp things up again. We found Chad Channing to join the band on drums. We built a practice studio in the basement of my rented house with discarded materials from construction sites. This was a very productive time, and the songs for our first album, Bleach, were coming together very well. The scene in Seattle was starting to take off too. There were shows with Mudhoney, Soundgarden, TAD, and others on the Seattle-based Sub Pop label happening all the time. Grungy guitars, sweat, and gallons of beer converged at clubs like the Vogue and the Central. The scene held together with a spirit of camaraderie, and bands were very supportive of each other. The vitality of this world contrasted sharply with the grind of working in mills. I picked up the book On the Road and sure enough, Kerouac struck again. I had made enough money to buy a good van; I figured that all I really needed in life was a bass guitar and the promise of the open road.

I quit my job to be a full-time starving musician. Our band was now called Nirvana and we were starting to make a name for ourselves locally and nationally. Our first album, Bleach, was released in June of 1989. We toured constantly, driving all over North America, playing from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, Mexico, Montreal to Florida, Texas to Nebraska, gigging at dozens of little hole-in-the-wall clubs. I really enjoyed seeing our vast land, playing shows one town and one night at a time. Small clubs were where people on the outside of the mainstream converged. In 1989, it was inconceivable for a band like ours to be on mainstream radio—and forget about television! But there was an alternative universe, and we found it alive and well in most corners of the U.S. That fall, we toured Europe with our label-mates TAD. Europe has its differences from the U.S., but my experience proved that music is an international language—people like to rock out wherever you go. We found ourselves in Berlin the day after the wall fell. We counted a column of little Trabant cars, twenty-seven kilometers long, on the Eastern side, waiting to enter the West. The emotion of history-in-the-making was in the air. The West had much to offer and this wasn’t lost on me when I noticed all of the Trabants parked on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s notorious avenue of booze and sex.

In late 1990, Dave Grohl joined as our drummer. His contribution transformed us into a force of nature. Nirvana was now a beast that walked the earth. We toured the United Kingdom as a headliner, drawing good-sized crowds. The press started to write about us more and more. We returned to Washington for another creative and prolific period. We’d rehearse almost every night getting the material together for our second album. We were now at a point where we were selling out every venue in Seattle. And major labels were beginning to sign bands from the underground; every week brought news of another group going with the big labels. Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. had been signed up, along with most of the leaders in the underground scene, as the majors scooped up the cream of the crop. Word of quarter-million-dollar contracts was common. It was a time of optimism in the music business. New technologies were embraced. The transition from vinyl to compact discs was well under way. Labels were flush with the sales of back-catalog artists in the new digital format.

It was the promise of getting paid a decent amount of money and the belief that life would be easier that motivated us to sign a major label deal. The alternative was to slog it out in the same old club scene, and the freshness and romance of that reality was starting to wear thin. We could have ramped up an independent business with all of the elements needed for a DIY operation, but we were better musicians than businessmen. We had to move forward.

In January of 1992, our second album, Nevermind, hit number one on the charts. This was totally unexpected. The label initially printed 50,000 copies of the record—that was supposed to last us for the next year or so. As a result of the sudden success, you couldn’t find the album in any stores, but that just added to the mystique. Nirvana was truly a phenomenon. We virtually came out of nowhere and found ourselves plopped in the middle of popular culture. The album broke through with the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It turned into an anti-anthem that rallied the disaffected. I’ve always felt that the song was an observation of a culture mired in boredom amidst relative luxury. In other words, many have the means to make their own way but choose not to do so. The lyrics don’t convey a literal message guiding people toward a sense of liberation. It’s simply a comment on a condition.

Rock music of the late ’80s had been very predictable. In 1990 no rock record had even made the top ten. Nevermind was the right record at the right time. Great original rock bands like R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction had previously blazed a trail to the top of the pop charts but Nevermind really announced the arrival of new régime. The era of the big-hair bands was over. The old bands touted merely a token rebellion; their symbols of rock ‘n’ roll like bandanas, whiskey bottles, and motorcycles were clichés that only created an image of nonconformity. The new guard held the skeptical sensibilities of the subculture along with the inherent rebellion of it all. It was real. The new guard offered meaningful rebellion, and the seismic shift that occurred in rock revealed a public that was hungry for it. It took awhile, but no longer was punk to be despised—it had landed in the mainstream, albeit neutralized by a clever use of semantics. Seattle music was referred to as “grunge,” but on a national level the new movement was pigeonholed as “alternative music.” I know we came out of the alternative world, but I believe the moniker of “alt-rock” was a trap set early on to control the impact of a new breed of rock ‘n’ roll. This way, the new music couldn’t displace the status quo—it was simply labeled an alternative to it. The term alternative as a name for a genre of music was an instant anachronism; the name cancelled itself out. By the time alternative landed in the mainstream, the old guard had run its course, and there was no real alternative except stasis.

But the new order wasn’t just about fresh music; it was also supported by the ideals and values cultivated from the punk rock world. In many ways, the grunge/alternative revolution of the early ’90s was a call to consciousness. A lot of musicians really cared about equality and human rights. The old guard of big-hair bands touted a macho swagger packaged in a soft feminine look. Grunge was its symmetrical opposite. It broke through with sensitive introspection wrapped in aggression and facial hair. The revolution was inclusive, with women musicians a vital component of the scene. Feminist ideals fit naturally with the new sensibility. Political information booths became common at concerts. Bands played benefits and didn’t shy from talking about issues.

In 1991, the first war with Iraq broke out. I recall being so disgusted with the whole affair. War is the most horrific of human endeavors and I’ve never comprehended its glorification; watching society cheer it on like a football game affirmed my status as an outsider. Odds are, the average person had never even heard of Iraq, but how quickly they lined up to join the parade of death and destruction toward an obscure, faraway nation. From the luxury of distance, war was waged to the schlager tune of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,” a song for the troops so far from home. The phrase “We Support Our Troops” appeared on thousands of car bumpers. It was not lost on me that these vehicles needed to burn Kuwaiti oil to get down the road. I resented the notion that if you didn’t support the war you didn’t support the troops. I have always supported working people, and I didn’t need big bellicose oil men trying to paint me into a rhetorical corner. I marched against the war with zeal, and Nirvana played a benefit concert opposing it, but the public fervor was too strong to gain any sense of balance. The enduringly nasty nuances of American foreign policy didn’t matter. It was war season, and time to get on board. I was in a music store in Olympia buying some bass strings when a man in a military uniform started to make nasty jokes about Iraqi women. He was quite jovial because Hussein had been driven out of Kuwait that day. I remember glaring at him and feeling quite livid. It would probably be the same revulsion I’d have if I were forced to witness necrophilia. Thank God I had my own home and way of life for shelter from the madness.

In the spring of 1992, I was invited to a rally in Olympia. The occasion was the passage of a censorship law, and I knew the rally’s organizers, leaders of an organization called the Washington Music Industry Coalition (WMIC). I showed up a little after the rally started. With the intention of just letting the organizers do their thing, I didn’t plan on speaking. But being in a band with a hit record makes blending into a crowd hard. Immediately upon my arrival, reporters approached me and started asking about the law. I was startled. I must have said that I was for freedom of speech (or something like that), but otherwise I was totally unprepared. So much for just being there! I was merely the bass player in a rock band—wouldn’t the press be better off talking to the people who organized the event? The organizers were way more informed on the issue than I was. Why was my opinion so important? The answer is: People were already listening to my music so naturally they wanted to know more about me. There was a real connection. People look for meaning in their music and their politics.

The November 1992 election resulted in the largest youth vote since 1971, the year the 26th Amendment was ratified. Youth culture, especially music media outlets like MTV and the organization Rock the Vote, served as a conduit promoting civic participation. The 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to eighteen, was a direct product of the role played by youth in the enduring social changes of the 1960s. We caught an echo of that populism, and in 1992 youth were credited with electing the first Democrat in twelve years. Nirvana was keenly interested in the election, beginning with the primaries. I remember admonishing Kurt for sending $200 to the Jerry Brown presidential campaign. As a rule, Brown accepted only contributions no greater than $100, so I felt anything over that would violate his ethic. Kurt just shrugged, and indeed the Brown campaign never sent the money back. In Oregon that year, Ballot Measure 9 proposed institutionalizing discrimination against gays and lesbians; Nirvana headlined a fundraiser opposing it in September 1992. We also organized a benefit in April 1993 to bring attention to the plight of women in the Balkan conflicts of the time. We used our stature for what we thought was right. In concert or on TV, we wore T-shirts of our favorite bands, hoping that the power of music would steer people toward independence. Robert Fripp of King Crimson once told me that in the late ’60s, many thought music was going to save the world.

Personally and socially, things had changed in a big way for me, some for better, some for worse. It was like the whole world came knocking. I was used to stepping out into the world, but now the world wanted to come in. This didn’t help the situation with Nirvana. There were many internal and external pressures. It was difficult to reconcile with the mainstream world. The change was so big and so fast. When I look back at those two and a half years of meteoric fame, it feels like it was a span of ten years. Things were so intense, so compressed. Everyone in the band dealt with the changes in his own way. In hindsight, there was a lack of skills needed to cope with the situation. Applying some kind of metaphor regarding carrying “the weight of the world” is easily overstated. I want to keep a distance from that sentiment, but as far as the music world went, there was a New Messiah. Kurt couldn’t bear that, at least not alone, and in April of 1994 he killed himself.

Kurt’s death was a giant media affair. Someone remarked that it was like the Kennedy assassination, but with MTV News anchor Kurt Loder in the Walter Cronkite role. The international media descended upon Seattle to report on the death of this “Spokesperson of a Generation.” If he was a spokesperson, Kurt gained his mandate through an economic democracy—it’s as if every album sold was a vote for Nirvana. Tragically, he picked the wrong way to resign from the position he was thrust into. A person passing away is a supernatural event. Mix this with the cultural impact of someone whose words touched so many, and you have the recipe for deity. Kurt joined the pantheon of musicians who died at their prime. All movements have their icons. Alberto Corda photographed Che Guevara in 1960 in what would become one of the most reproduced images of the 20th century. As Guevara entered the mythos of revolution, Kurt Cobain did the same for thoughtful rock ‘n’ roll.

The end of the band left a vacuum in the music world. Nirvana had been like an art book with bands cutting out clippings, and it didn’t take long for the fickle music industry to start whining again for a new messiah. In 1997 and ’98 the music business was poised for some kind of electronica/pop hybrid to usher in a new era. It never happened. Saviors are a phenomenon. They don’t just materialize for the sake of moving merchandise. There is always that anticipation for the next big thing. Never mind attempting to make it happen for yourself, or making your own way. Salvation is a good thing if you can get it, and more importantly if you can hold onto it. I have learned to separate Kurt Cobain the person from Kurt Cobain the deity. There is a heavy place in my heart for the person I knew. The deity part is not my concern; that’s for people who need the mystique. But watching the “deity phenomenon” at close hand has given me a greater insight into it, and this makes me ponder the human side of history’s legendary people.

Whenever I’m out in public I get recognized as the “bass player of Nirvana.” I am very proud of this and try to be gracious to people who approach me. So many tell me how Nirvana has changed their lives. It’s heavy. I understand because I have been there. As a musician and a fan, I’ve experienced the power of music. Music was always there when I needed it. Nirvana, by definition, means freedom. There is no manifesto, ideology, or method to offer. I believe salvation is a personal affair. It’s up to each of us to get what we want or need from it. That is why freedom of religion is so important in our nation. We have freedom from religion in the U.S. too. And for good reason; it prevents the overbearing from bludgeoning the sublime.



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