Chapter Twenty-One: “Rat House”


i saw Kurt when he first busted up his guitar. It was at Union Station and the show was Blood Circus, Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers, October 28 1988. They were plagued with sound problems and that pissed Kurt off. Union Station is tiled, like a bathroom, and has a curved ceiling. The speakers were facing those tiles and the sound kept echoing back and forth. It was great for the Butthole Surfers sound, which is full of reverb anyway, but for Blood Circus and Nirvana it was torture. That’s why Kurt kept smashing his guitar against a seam in the stage that slowly separated under his feet.

Sub Pop 200 was the album that showcased “The Seattle Sound”. It was the showcase of a certain kind of music that One Hand Clapping didn’t play and I was jealous we weren’t on it.

What is history? Being in the right place at the right time? That was us, but we didn’t make history, we only watched it happen. We were a side note, a misunderstanding, a joke. History is something to be reflected on, not something to dwell on. You don’t know it’s being made, you were just stopping off to kill some time, to see a show, to waste your life, to be entertained, then 20 years later you look back and see you were on the cusp of greatness. You can see exactly where and how it was made. There’s a small amount of pride having participated, however small that contribution was, yet there’s a yearning for more, to do it again, to be a part of a larger event. Politicians talk about the right side and the wrong side of history. There’s no such thing as right and wrong, it’s just history, a group experience. Seeing Soundgarden for $1 at the Central becomes just as important as graduating college, to have done it is historical and innovative because you were there when the seed burst forth, then it was you and a hundred other people, and that grew to a thousand people, then ten thousand, then you lament how the band has sold out, how the arena shows aren’t as much fun as the Central. You start staking a claim on history. You grow up, you grow old, you have your memories and then you have nostalgia, which isn’t history, it is myth and legend.

So, when I say I saw Mudhoney at the HUB, or Nirvana at some small party, it’s not bragging, it’s a kind of remorse for not knowing it was history in the making. When One Hand Clapping played the Central it doesn’t matter that the show was good or bad, it was part of a greater whole, a whole of A&R reps running around with contracts signing anyone on Sub Pop and ignoring the larger scene, except for the Posies. Shit, even the Young Fresh Fellows, a staple of Seattle music didn’t do shit until R.E.M. moved to town and sucked them up for backing musicians.

Imagine you’re in Hamburg in 1961 and you wander into the Star Club and the Beatles are playing. You’re unimpressed, just another slovenly dressed rock and roll band playing covers and trying to get laid. Then, imagine your surprise when you see them on television, The Ed Sullivan Show, all cleaned up and wearing suits, playing their own compositions to hundreds of screaming girls. History!

Nirvana was just Chad, Krist, and Kurt making a lot of noise wearing the same army boots and flannel shirts that the rest of Seattle wore, that Howard, Bill and Buzz wore, that even I wore when it was cold out. You can’t judge a book by its cover.

I also knew that when Nirvana signed they’d either stink or become huge, there was no in-between. And they dragged every other band, like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden right along with them. Shit, even Alice in Chains, who used to play proms in Bellevue, became stars. Then there are the rest of us….

I used to wear yellow and orange and bright green to gigs because everyone wore black or flannel. It was to say, I’m different, but you don’t win fans by being different from them, you win them by being them only even MORE than them, like double consommé, it’s still soup, but stronger tasting. You have to cater to your audience if you want to get famous in music, but the true artist can give a rat’s ass about fans, they just want to communicate their ideas, whether successful or not.

That’s the irony of Kurt, he chose the one art form where you can’t be different than your audience and he suffered for it. He grew apart from his audience. He should have taken up painting, or been a poet, instead of the voice of his generation. There’s a better chance of longevity if you drive a truck for the Salvation Army than being an artist, creativity crowds out all other thoughts and eats away at your mind, just as sure as a straight regular job kills the artist and murders the soul. There is no answer but enlightenment, that state where you realize you can’t win, where winning doesn’t mean anything. It’s the man who jumps off the cliff with a tiger above and the tiger below yet has time to enjoy a strawberry.

Kurt couldn’t sustain, success only fueled his own destruction. Would Nirvana have had the ability to last twenty or thirty years? Would he have had anything to say to his generation as they grew older, raised children, bought homes, took jobs, started careers? The answer remains unknown.


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