Over the years, I’ve read every major book published about Kurt Cobain. As time has gone on, it’s felt like there was nothing new to be said about him; but in the past year I’ve encountered two remarkable pieces of writing.
Emma Frankland’s zine, All Apologies, which is based on her stage show, claims Kurt as a trans woman. It’s audacious and thrilling, and made me excited about listening to Nirvana again.
A more conventional work is Nicholas Soulsby’s Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide. I first learned of the book from Danny Goldberg’s biography Serving the Servant. An entire book on Incesticide sounded like a waste of time – I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to the record all the way through. But I downloaded the Kindle sample, checked it out, and quickly bought the full thing.
The book sets out a case for taking Incesticide seriously – incredibly seriously, in fact – and not just as a filler designed to attract the 1992 Christmas market. Soulsby has thought very carefully about Nirvana. He has tables and maps to track the evidence. Very early in the book he had made some points that I’d missed:
- “Incesticide was the only Nirvana album that didn’t come stamped with Kurt Cobain’s seal of disapproval”. – Soulsby quotes Cobain dismissing Bleach (“too boring”), Nevermind (“sell-out”) and In Utero (“I wasn’t really interested in listening to it). The idea of Incesticide as a ‘true version of Nirvana’ is an interesting one.
- Soulsby emphasises the scale of Nirvana’s success as a punk band – none of the bands that inspired Nirvana came close to their sales. – “Even Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols took a decade to reach Gold and didn’t hit Platinum until 1992”
- In a fascinating piece of research, Soulsby shows that, in the last two and a half years of his life, ”Cobain’s… productivity amounted to just fourteen songs wholly written after the release of Nevermind”. Indeed, “80-90% of Kurt’s known songs were written by September 1991”. It’s interesting to see how long the gestation period for some of the later songs was; and tragic to see how creatively exhausted Cobain was compared to his earlier work-rate.
The most important thing in Soulsby’s book is his analysis of the contradiction between Cobain’s punk ethics and his commercial drives. Cobain spoke frequently about punk ethics in his interviews while some of the decisions he made undermined this (examples being signing to Geffen, his relationship with MTV, and the handling of the band’s publishing royalties).
Soulsby argues that Cobain was most interested in being left alone, and that his compromises with the mainstream were about finding security for himself, and later for his family. He provides examples from early in Cobain’s career where he struggled to be undisturbed while working on his art and music. Soulsby suggests that the impossibility of finding peace was what drove Cobain to his tragic ending. There is a lot of subtlety to Soulsby’s arguments, but he’s the first writer who has explained Cobain’s contradictions without undermining his commitment to punk ethics.
I still can’t really get into Incesticide. For me, Nirvana’s great album was In Utero. But by looking into what I always saw as a marginal work, Soulsby has produced some amazing insights into Nirvana’s career.If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list