up until my family moved to NIGERIA when i was 12, we basically never went on trips. the two exceptions to that was a basketball camp i went to in ARIZONA and a memorable road trip to SAN FRANCISCO that included stays in MONTERREY, SOLVANG and SAN SIMEON. its funny because since our big move in 1996, ive now been to somewhere north of 60 countries in the past 25 years. which i admit is insane. but that trip north was a pretty big deal for me.
it was also the trip i got NIRVANA's last record IN UTERO (DGC, 1991) along with its predecessor NEVERMIND (DGC, 1991) at the former TOWER RECORDS in near FISHERMAN's WHARF on columbus avenue and bay street in SAN FRANCISCO. years later after graduating high school i got TRICKY's MAXINQUAYE (FOURTH AND BROADWAY, 1995) at that same store.
anyway, like most fans of INDIE ROCK, PUNK ROCK and ALTERNATIVE ROCK, for me NIRVANA was an important band. by the time i got the STEVE ALBINI recorded / produced IN UTERO, frontman KURT COBAIN had been deceased for a few months. what struck me about the record at the time was how raw it was compared to NEVERMIND, which stunned me. COBAIN is obviously celebrated for his preternatural sense of melody and opaque lyrics, but as a 12 year old that was beyond me at that point. really i fed off the aggression and sense of pain in his voice. specifically i am referring to songs like "TOURETTE'S", "RADIO FRIENDLY UNIT SHIFTER," "VERY APE," "SCENTLESS APPRENTICE" and especially "RAPE ME." to me that is the real power of NIRVANA in general. just that vibe of being dissatisfied with the world / yourself. in essence IN UTERO has been the soundtrack to me youth, from moving to AFRICA and visiting places like SPAIN, GHANA, ITALY and COTE D'IVOIRE. i hear the songs and i am snapped back to those trips with my family. alienation is a universal experience, but being a THIRD CULTURE KID really puts that sense of disconnect in perspective. at some point you come to feel comfortable in unfamiliar settings.
in some ways that is how i look at IN UTERO as an adult. COBAIN at that point in his life was at a point of great transition in his life, becoming a father, a generational icon and a hardcore drug addict. all that is reflected in his lyrics which i would argue the most poetic and meaningful of his career, due undoubtedly to the influence of his criminally underrated wife COURTNEY LOVE. dont believe me? read her lyrics from HOLE albums of the period and tell me they are not superior. i think it is beyond doubt that her influence, for good or ill, is indelibly reflected throughout IN UTERO. songs dealing with themes of childbirth, death and reproduction as well as the guilt, shame and lack of control associated with emotional dependence and drug addiction. i cant even begin to imagine the disorientation associated with becoming a media sensation in your mid-20s, especially given his isolated biography and inward artistic leanings. then again he feverishly chased that attention so at the very least the dude was a deeply conflicted and endlessly fascinating figure. with IN UTERO you are given a sense of his mindset post-fame with songs like "DUMB," "PENNYROYAL TEA," "HEART-SHAPED BOX" and "ALL APOLOGIES" being both intimate as well as caustically sardonic and self-lacerating. it really is quite the achievement.
this is one of those records that i feel strongly shaped my identity, worldview and even sense of masculinity from a pretty early age. because of that it is difficult for me to separate it from my own lived experience. it is easily one of my favorite records from the period, only SOUNDGARDEN's SUPERUNKNOWN (A&M, 1993), TOOL's ÆNIMA (ZOO, 1996), RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE's RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE (EPIC, 1992) and ALICE IN CHAINS' DIRT (COLUMBIA, 1992) are in the same ballpark in my opinion. culturally IN UTERO and NIRVANA in general represent the last impactful movement in ROCK AND ROLL.
its been 30 years and we're still waiting for someone to match it. still. waiting.
SING BACKWARDS AND WEEP (HATCHETTE, 2020) is probably one of the more harrowing memoirs i have ever come across. its author MARK LANEGAN, gifted singer/songwriter and former frontman of SEATTLE ALTERNATIVE ROCK icons SCREAMING TREES, recounts an drug-addled existence that ranged from the 1980s through his final successful rehab stint in the early 2000s. and that addiction literally cost him everything he valued: relationships, collaborations, touring opportunities, friends, love, money. the list goes on and it is brutal.
there is no doubt that many who investigate this book are interested in the PACIFIC NORTHWEST INDIE/PUNK music scene that exploded in the early 1990s, of which LANEGAN was a central figure within. there is some ink here dedicated to his relationships with other participants such as KURT COBAIN (NIRVANA) and LAYNE STALEY (ALICE IN CHAINS), but the real dominant actor here is DRUGS. and by that i mean literally every make and stripe. COBAIN, STALEY as well as numerous other victims such as KRISTEN PFAFF (HOLE) and JEFFREY LEE PIERCE (THE GUN CLUB) are integral to his narrative in that they exemplify the cost of participation in this downward spiral of needless suffering.
LANEGAN is unflinching in his account and i have no doubt that writing this must have been cathartic. it also no doubt took courage to look at himself and unshrinkingly scrutinize his life's decisions and make them public without being patronizing or worse glorifying said behavior. he seems to be a reliable narrator as he relates how the ever-present threat of dope-sickness and withdrawal effectively corrupted his moral compass and led to a never ending search for a fix to maintain his equilibrium and all its attendant decisions that resulted in the suffering of others.
in HUBERT SELBY JR novels there is often an inverse character arc at play whereby as the individual descends into MADNESS, it is their affliction (FAME, POWER, DRUGS, etc.) that prevails in equivalent fashion. for me that is the feeling i get when considering the SEATTLE drug scene and its effect on several key participants in this book, COBAIN and STALEY being the prime examples.
there is a light and that is the MUSICIANS' ASSISTANCE PROGRAM that effectively saved LANEGAN's life. that and his ability to forgive himself and the capacity for other addicts to enable each other in recovery, here COURTNEY LOVE (HOLE) and DUFF MCKAGAN (GUNS N' ROSES) being such examples. you get the sense that despite the absolute depths of DEPRAVITY that drug addicts wade through, that there is an opportunity for RESTORATION. that we can always be REHABILITATED, RECONSTRUCTED and REINVIGORATED by our choices and actions moving forward.
contrary to what others may read into this memoir, i found it inspiring, compassionate and intensely optimistic. maybe this book is his way of paying it forward.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
this is pretty cool.
the MUSEUM OF POP CULTURE in SEATTLE recently did their annual fundraiser for local music education and community engagement initiatives by celebrating the work of regional favorite sons ALICE IN CHAINS. aside from their performance at the event, there were also performances both on-site and via video submissions by various peers and artists, many of the METAL and ALTERNATIVE ROCK persuasion.
while i am pretty on the fence about music-related museums in general (in my mind movements are only truly dead once you can visit an exhibit), these performances by the likes of MARK LANEGAN of SCREAMING TREES, MASTODON, HEART, FISHBONE, KORN, SOUNDGARDEN, TAD DOYLE of TAD, KRIST NOVOSELIC of NIRVANA, DAVE NAVARRO of JANE'S ADDICTION, COREY TAYLOR of SLIPKNOT, METALLICA, BILLY CORGAN of THE SMASHING PUMPKINS, TAYLOR HAWKINS of the FOO FIGHTERS are amazing and serve of evidence of the cultural impact ALICE IN CHAINS had on their peers and the next generation of musicians.
makes me miss LAYNE STALEY and MIKE STARR all the more deeply. not to mention their fallen peers in CHRIS CORNELL and KURT COBAIN. rest in peace brothers.
much like his later JIMI HENDRIX biography ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS (SCEPTRE, 2005) which we reviewed (linked HERE), CHARLES R. CROSS in HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN (HYPERION, 2001) arguably provides a definitive account of another troubled SEATTLE musical icon, KURT COBAIN of NIRVANA.
and i don't think that is an irrelevant connection to make. aside from both being part of the bullshit "27 Club," they both navigated multiple worlds and transcended less than hospitable family situations. HENDRIX dealt with issues related to RACISM and VIETNAM, as well as dealing with fame that came from his genius remolding of BLUES and ROCK traditions and bending them to his singular artistic will, essentially defining his era. COBAIN similarly reinterpreted INDIE ROCK and HARDCORE punk culture into what later was termed GRUNGE and ALTERNATIVE ROCK and effectively transformed 90s culture in his image.
both in my opinion dug from a deep well of pain that was rooted in isolation (HENDRIX being an army brat and COBAIN the forgotten, neglected son of a painful divorce) and their gifts were transmitting that depth of feeling into music that touched the world.
HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN is a well-researched, dry affair that relies on public records, published interviews and background info from COBAIN's family and former bandmates and peers. you get the sense from reading it that CROSS strove to create a definitive document and it reads as such. that choice has its pros and cons as there are moments when as a reader i do not feel that COBAIN was in his right mind and could be counted on for accurate information. case in point: his excuses of stomach pain necessitating his abuse of heroin. seems like an excuse to a layman, but i understand CROSS' dilemma. bullshit excuse or not, that was the logic that informed his decision so he needs to report it. i just wish junkie excuses like that would have been given some context by professionally as, no doubt, there are people out there that will mimic such in their misguided fealty to COBAIN as some type of doomed demigod or divine messenger. people are crazy and the story of COBAIN seems to be a teachable moment as any to provide the proper support needed to readers dealing with issues of drug abuse or mental illness.
or maybe that isn't the job of the author. i don't know.
well-researched and expertly written in an almost academic way with little flair. a must for any fan of COBAIN, NIRVANA and the 90s ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene in general.