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Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Cobain’

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2012)

It’s not bad going to have been central to two of the biggest and most important bands in British musical history. This is the autobiography of a man who achieved exactly that: Peter Hook, who was bassist first in Joy Division and then in New Order. If I were a fan of either of those bands, I’d’ve liked the book even more. I’m not, but I can see their importance.

I can also see that Peter Hook was not one of the two “thick bastards” in Joy Division. That’s what he calls himself and Bernard Sumner, the guitarist who accompanied him into New Order. It’s not true. Hook doesn’t acknowledge a co-writer on this book and although it sometimes reads as though it’s transcribed from a session down the pub, it reads well too and is full of intelligent commentary on Joy Division’s music. Okay, the singer Ian Curtis might have been the most intelligent and creative member of Joy Division. He was certainly the best-looking, most charismatic and attention-grabbing, first because of his epilepsy and then because of his suicide.

But he was also the sort of person who would say “in terms of”. Peter Hook wasn’t and I hope he still isn’t.* He didn’t have the background for it or acquire the artistic pretensions when he was growing up. His background was rough: he was born Peter Woodhead in Salford in 1956. Then his parents divorced and he acquired a stepfather called William Hook, who took his new family off to Jamaica, where Hook Snr had found work as an engineer in a glass-works. Jamaica was quite a contrast with dour, drab, drizzly Manchester. As Peter Hook says: “You know how I said that life in Salford had been in black and white? Well in Jamaica it was definitely in colour.” (pg. 7)

That’s in chapter one, which is entitled: “For seventeen days that’s all we had, chicken and chips.” That’s a reference to what they ate on the boat over to Jamaica, because Hook’s mother, like many working-class Brits, was resolutely unadventurous in her gustatory habits: “She could hardly bear to eat anything that came from south of Salford.” (pg. 5) She passed that conservatism onto her son and he wouldn’t lose it until he was in his twenties and, inter alia, tried a curry being eaten by a member of Cabaret Voltaire (pg. 239). He’d probably have lost it sooner if he’d stayed in Jamaica. And who knows where he’d be today if he had?

But he didn’t. His mother got homesick and the family came back to the black-and-white of Salford. That was one of Hook’s early lessons in the what-might-have-beens of life. If he’d stayed in Jamaica, he might still have become a famous and successful musician. But he wouldn’t have been playing anything like the music of Joy Division. Maybe only Mancunians could have produced that and maybe only Mancunians born in the 1950s.

One thing is certain: they had to be intelligent Mancunians and Hook was intelligent enough to pass his Eleven Plus and win a place at Salford Grammar School. He gives the credit for that to his time in a more demanding Jamaican school and maybe that was part of it. But a school can demand and not get if the pupil isn’t bright enough. Hook was. So was Bernard Sumner, who was also born in 1956 in Salford and who also passed his Eleven Plus. That’s how he and Hook began their long but sometimes prickly friendship: “I met Barney in that first year at Salford Grammar. He still gets really annoyed when I call him Barney.” (pg. 10)

He is probably also annoyed by chapter headings like “Barney would always eat on his own or in the bath” and by the descriptions of his “infamous sleeping bag”. Hook is undoubtedly mythologizing, telling in-jokes and taking the piss at times, because a book like this has two audiences. Insiders and outsiders, or people who were there at the time and people who weren’t. Either way, they’ll interested to hear Hook’s side of the story. And he emphasizes that it is always his side of the story. Other people remember things differently. And they’re not necessarily wrong to do so: Hook says that Ian Curtis is remembered in very different ways because he was a “chameleon” could put on very different characters depending on who he was with. (pg. 235)

But that’s much later in the book. Before then, Hook had to live through his time as a lazy schoolboy who became a thieving Salford skinhead and scally, then his time as a local government clerk and chalet-worker. As for the working-class boys of Black Sabbath, music was his way out. And the Sex Pistols were the sign-post. Hook and Sumner were among the fifty or so who attended the now-legendary Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 4th June 1976. Tickets were 50p, the support was Solstice, and the impact of the headliners was life-transforming. The Sex Pistols came, were seen, and conquered. Hook describes them like this:

What made them special, without a shadow of a doubt, was Johnny Rotten. The tunes were only part of the package – and probably the least important part of it, if I’m honest. Close your eyes and like I say you had a conventional pub-rock band with a soundman who either didn’t have a clue or was being very clever indeed. But who was going to close their eyes when he, Johnny Rotten, was standing there? (“Normal band, normal night, few people watching”, pg. 38)

Hook and Sumner were immediately inspired to form their own band. They had the usual trouble with finding and keeping a good drummer, then had the luck to pick up a singer who could rival Johnny Rotten for charisma and intelligence. But in a very different way: Ian Curtis was literary and “arty” in a way that John Lydon wasn’t. For example, he was a fan of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, as Joy Division’s song-titles and lyrics would show. But writers like that meant nothing to Hook and he says he didn’t pay proper attention to Curtis’s lyrics until after the suicide.

That doesn’t mean he was a passenger on the S.S. Joy Division. His bass was central to their sound and his appearance was central to their gigs. I got the impression that he was very tall because he carried his bass very low. But he wasn’t. He says he was inspired to use a “long strap” by Paul Simonon of The Clash (pg. 111), but:

Sound-wise I was most influenced by Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers. I used to listen to his bass on “Peaches” and “Five Minutes” and think, That’s how I want to sound. When I went to see them at the Bingley Hall in Stafford I wrote down his equipment, a Vox 2×15 cab and Hi-Watt head, then went out and bought the lot, and it was magnificent, sounded wonderful. So, I got my sound from Jean-Jacques and my strap from Paul Simonon. I’m so pleased I never got into Level 42. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 112)

I laughed at that last line, because I’m old enough to know about Level 42. But you won’t need to know about bands or anything else from that time and place to find this book very funny in places:

That was when we discovered that it was easier to give drink away than it was to get people to pay for it – an important lesson, that, and one we made great use of during the Haçienda years. (“Timeline Four: January-December 1979”, pg. 232)

Hook has a sly and sardonic wit. He and Barney enjoyed playing practical jokes on other band-members and on other bands (Barney “can’t take them, mind, as you’ll discover”). But he says that he wishes he’d spent less time doing that and more time paying attention to the problems Ian Curtis was having. Most readers won’t have heard of one of those problems before:

Having piles was a feature of being in Joy Division. Ian got them from sitting on the heater at T.J. Davidson’s [a cold rehearsal studio] and both Twinny [a roadie] and I got them from the van during the European tour in 1980. [JD’s manager] Terry Mason’s would regularly explode. But you know what? As far as I know, Bernard never had piles, just a sore arse. (“Timeline Two: June 1976-December 1977”, pg. 90)

Hook isn’t a hagiographer and Curtis wasn’t hagiographable. Like Kurt Cobain’s, his suicide starts to look more and more inevitable in hindsight. And there were big similarities between Cobain and Curtis: both were highly intelligent and autodidactic, both had tortured, introspective psychologies and serious chronic illnesses, both had troubled relationships with their wives and friends. They left “young and good-looking corpses” by different means, Curtis with a rope and Cobain with a shot-gun, but that reflects the nations they lived in. Not that their corpses were good-looking, of course. It was the photographs and films taken before then that were good-looking.

Image is an essential part of rock music. But Joy Division had much more of a hinterland than Nirvana, I’d say. They were more innovative and original in their music, more intelligent in their lyrics, more eclectic in their influences. The “thick bastard” Peter Hook can claim a lot of credit for the musical innovation and originality. So can his fellow thickie Bernard Sumner, whose obsession with the Second World War influenced the image and designs that helped the band to fame. Those designs included the picture of a “Hitler Youth banging a drum” on their Ideal for Living EP.

But it was Ian Curtis who took the name “Joy Division” from the supposed Holocaust-memoir House of Dolls (1955), where it was given to women working as prostitutes in a concentration camp. Joy Division would have been a good sardonic name if it had been invented from nothing. Alas for Hooky and Co, it wasn’t. The source of their name and the drumming Hitler-Youth inspired the first of the “Are you Nazis?” questions that would haunt the band for the rest of their career. That’s why Hook ends his autobiography with these words, describing how the remaining members of Joy Division decided to carry on after Ian Curtis’s suicide:

Then there was the business of finding a new name. We sat down one day to come up with one, thinking that we were going to learn our lesson this time, and that whatever name we came up with wouldn’t be anything even vaguely Nazi-sounding.

No way, we thought. No fucking way were we going to make that mistake again. (“Epilogue”, pg. 274)

They did make that mistake again, of course. Only it can’t really have been a mistake. They were being sardonic again. And stubborn. It was northern bloody-mindedness. But although Hook often refers to the north and being northern, he doesn’t have the northern inferiority-complex you can see in his fellow Mancunian’s Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God (1986). As a self-proclaimed “thick bastard”, he doesn’t mind being inferior.

Only Hook isn’t a Mancunian: he’s a Salfordian. The late great Tony Wilson introduced Joy Division’s first TV appearance like this: “They’re a Manchester band, with the exception of the guitarist, who comes from Salford – very important difference.” Hook reacted like this:

Fucking tosser – “the guitarist who comes from Salford”? Two of us came from Salford. I was really annoyed. I was proud of my roots, whereas Bernard always played them down. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 110)

“Fucking tosser” is how many people reacted to Tony Wilson, but Wilson didn’t mind. Like Ian Curtis, he was the kind of person who would say “in terms of”; unlike Ian Curtis, the phrase suited him. He and his Factory label are central to the story of Joy Division and New Order, and he maybe doesn’t get the space he deserves here. He certainly wouldn’t think so and he was certainly an interesting character: flamboyant, narcissistic, publicity-hungry, and Svengali-esque. Or so he no doubt liked to think of himself. As Hook writes: “One of Tony’s favourite sayings was: ‘Always keep your bands poor. That way they make great music.’” (pg. 245)

Hook thinks he was right. Being poor and literally hungry has been responsible for a lot of great music. Joy Division are one example and if you’re a fan you should definitely read this book. It doesn’t have any hot groupie-action, but it has a lot more that you don’t usually find in a rock autobiography, like Hook’s encounter with some huge, home-invading Jamaican spiders and the time he was questioned by the police as a possible Yorkshire Ripper. That was because his van had been spotted regularly in the red-light districts of “Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds, Moss Side…” (pg. 118) He explained to the police that he was playing clubs there in a band called Joy Division. The police “had never heard of them.” Hook comments: “Probably Level 42 fans.”

A few years later, though, the same policemen might well have been New Order fans. Hook writes about New Order in a later autobiography and I’d definitely like to read that after finishing this. I’d also like to read Hook’s The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club (2010). If it’s funnier than this book, and it probably is, then it must be very funny.


*Oh noes — I’ve spotted an ito in the book: “…looking at it in terms of the whole Joy Division story” (part 4, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, pg. 189). But it might not be by Hook.

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Nick Drake Dreaming England by Nathan Trowse-WisemanNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reverb/Reaktion Books 2013)

I picked this book up thinking that it was another biography of Nick Drake. Wrong: it’s a critical study of his music instead. I wasn’t pleased. It’s irritating when interesting topics are slathered in pretentious jargon: terms like “locus”, “hybridization”, “performance of class”, “articulations of authenticity” and “musico-topographical features” do not go well with Drake’s delicate and melancholic music. To use the same jargon: they don’t “resonate”. Or rather, they do: jarringly and crudely. Putting cultural theory to work on Nick Drake is like driving through a bluebell wood in a tank.

A rusty, badly maintained tank. Exhaust fuming, gears grinding, driver drunk, unshaven and unkempt. But this book could have been much worse and if Drake can survive having some of his songs covered by Elton John, he can probably survive cultural theory. The topics remain interesting despite the jargon: Englishness, pastoralism, nostalgia, modernity, the end of empire, the continuing appeal of a singer who died young and a failure. Or so he must have thought. But it was a good career move: Drake died young and became very famous. If he’d lived and got old, he might now be almost unknown. Lots of good musicians never get what they deserve, just as lots of bad musicians get what they don’t.

I’d prefer Nathan Wiseman-Trowse, a “Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture” at the University of Northampton, to have examined that side of Drake’s story in greater detail. His early death, probably by suicide, is central to his cult. And cult is an appropriate word: mythical figures like Adonis and Hyacinth prove the psychological power of handsome youths who go before their time. So do Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. But those two were thunderous musicians, playing rock and filling arenas. Drake’s music was quiet and introspective: acoustic, not amplified; English, not American; for the countryside, not the town. But he was influenced by American music and “Eastern mysticism” and he lived in a very big city while he tried to make his name. That’s where Wiseman-Trowse comes in, trying to unpick the paradoxes, classify the hybridities and problematicize the construction of Drake as quintessentially English.

As he might have put it somewhere. But he puts other things better, as in the chapter on “Melancholia and Loss”, where he discusses Peter Akroyd’s book Albion and its “exploration of English culture”:

For Akroyd, the melancholic strain is to be found in the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, focussing on transience, decay, desolation and dustsceawung, or the “contemplation of dust”. It manifests itself through the elegy, the lament and the dirge. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meditates on the passing of all things, while melancholic themes run throughout the work of John Donne, Thomas Browne and Samuel Johnson to the more contemporary poetry of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. (ch. 4, “Melancholia and Loss”, pg. 96)

Dustsceawung is a beautiful word and I’m glad to have discovered it here. But words, concepts and speculation are all you’ll get from a book like this: I didn’t need to spot an occasional “in terms of” to be sure that Wiseman-Trowse is a dedicated Guardianista. This means that he will regard biological explanations for English character and culture as unacceptable and appalling. Race doesn’t exist, after all. We’re all the same under the skin. Except that it does exist and we aren’t the same. Those old ideas about the English weather influencing the English mind are not ridiculous. The brain did not stop evolving when human beings left Africa and the new environments found by the migrants re-shaped their psychology and sharpened their intellect. Higher intelligence was useful in colder climates and so was neuroticism: people who didn’t worry about the approach of winter were less likely to survive it.

So Nick Drake will eventually be explained by biology and brain-science, not by cultural theory. Will that unweave the rainbow and empty the gnomèd mine? Perhaps it will, but it will also end the ugly jargon and the pseudo-profundity. And Drake himself is beyond caring. That’s part of his appeal and his appeal can’t be killed by cultural theory. Indeed, it’s an important fact about Drake that his music attracts cultural theorists, even as it evades their apparatus. I’d have preferred less jargon and no “in terms of” in this book, but you could see them as a contrast with the subtlety and beauty of its subject. Either way, Dreaming England contains some good photos and some interesting ideas about the music, the man and the myth. It isn’t a biography but there is a lot about Drake’s life here, with a detailed timeline and a discography. It has a good title and index too.

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Front cover of Conan the Indomitable by Robert E. HowardConan the Indomitable, Robert E. Howard (Orion Books 2011)

This collection contains probably the best Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel”, and certainly the longest, The Hour of the Dragon. It was also one of the last: the Texan Robert E. Howard would kill himself a few months after the final part appeared in the April 1936 issue of Weird Tales. He was only thirty, which means that he may one day have had more readers than he lived seconds (60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 30 = 946,080,000). If re-readers count towards the total, he’ll get there a lot quicker: Howard is a writer you can return to again and again. He’s one of the Weird Tales Big Three with H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He’s the least intelligent and imaginative of the three, but he’s a better writer than HPL and a more stirring writer than CAS:

“Again, nay!” snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed coldly. “Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?”

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence, holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword hovering on high.

“I offer you life, Conan,” said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice.

“I give you death, wizard,” snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha’s lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan’s left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (“The Scarlet Citadel”, 1933)

Like Alistair MacLean, Howard is good at describing violent action and at painting powerful word-pictures. The wizard’s full name is Tsotha-lanti, which is an unusual invention for Howard: unlike CAS and HPL, he usually drew on real history and mythology for his names. This is part of why “The Scarlet Citadel” is probably the best Conan story: its wizard really seems part of a mysterious ancient world, many thousands of years before the present. It’s a pity the story contains borrowed names too: Set, Ishtar, Rinaldo, Pelias and so on. “Conan” itself is taken from Irish history, for example, in tribute to part of Howard’s own ancestry. Like his talent, his early suicide and his popular appeal, Howard’s ancestry links him to Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist in the band Nirvana. And would Howard have been a rock-musician if he’d been born later in the twentieth century? Maybe. He’s certainly contributed to rock music: by helping to shape sword-and-sorcery, he influenced heavy metal and its imagery.

His stories have the incongruity of heavy metal too: heavy metal uses advanced technology to sing about sword-and-sorcery, Howard used modern English to write about sword-and-sorcery. His archaic vocabulary is decorative, not fundamental, and his prose is too direct and efficient to truly evoke otherwhen and elsewhere:

Through the black arch of a door four gaunt, black-robed shapes had filed into the great hall. Their faces were dim yellow ovals in the shadows of their hoods.

“Who are you?” ejaculated Thutothmes in a voice as pregnant with danger as the hiss of a cobra. “Are you mad, to invade the holy shrine of Set?”

The tallest of the strangers spoke, and his voice was toneless as a Khitan temple bell.

“We follow Conan of Aquilonia.”

“He is not here,” answered Thutothmes, shaking back his mantle from his right hand with a curious menacing gesture, like a panther unsheathing his talons.

“You lie. He is in this temple. We tracked him from a corpse behind the bronze door of the outer portal through a maze of corridors. We were following his devious trail when we became aware of this conclave. We go now to take it up again. But first give us the Heart of Ahriman.”

“Death is the portion of madmen,” murmured Thutothmes, moving nearer the speaker. His priests closed in on catlike feet, but the strangers did not appear to heed.

“Who can look upon it without desire?” said the Khitan. “In Khitai we have heard of it. It will give us power over the people which cast us out. Glory and wonder dream in its crimson deeps. Give it to us, before we slay you.” (The Hour of the Dragon, 1935)

The Hour of the Dragon would make a good computer-game: it’s a detailed but fast-moving quest-story, with Conan pursuing the great gem that has resurrected an evil wizard from the far past. But if it were made into a computer-game, I wouldn’t want to play it. Writing is still the strangest and most mysterious of the arts: black marks on white paper can conjure an infinite variety of sights, sensations and emotions. Hour isn’t concentrated Conan like “The Scarlet Citadel”, but it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it every time I re-read it. Howard doesn’t transcend his genre, so he can’t be placed at the level of Clark Ashton Smith. And he didn’t have Lovecraft’s subtlety, invention or sly humour, so he never wrote anything to match “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. But he deserves to be one of the Weird Tales Big Three and this collection proves it.

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Brought to BookA Book of English Essays, selected by W.E. Williams (Pelican 1942)

GlamourdämmerungTreasures of Nirvana, Gillian G. Gaar (Carlton 2011)

Highway to Hell – The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Solids and ShadowsAn Adventure in Multidimensional Space: The Art and Geometry of Polygons, Polyhedra, and Polytopes, Koji Miyazaki (Wiley-Interscience 1987) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Magna Mater MarinaThe Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Marine Fish and Sea Creatures, Amy-Jane Beer and Derek Hall (Lorenz Books 2007) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Treasures of Nirvana by Gillian G. GaarTreasures of Nirvana, Gillian G. Gaar (Carlton 2011)

A boxed book with “facsimiles of rare material” and a good guide to why Nirvana became so successful. I like their music, but it wasn’t enough on its own to take them right to the top. Successful bands have to appeal to the eye as well as the ear.* Mudhoney and the Melvins appeal to the latter, but not the former. Nirvana appealed to both. Like Jim Morrison before him, Kurt Cobain looked very good on camera. Even his flying hair did. He’s an eye-magnet in almost every photo here and would be even if you didn’t know who he was. But very few people will look at this book without knowing who he was and what happened to him, so his magnetism merely increases. Krist Noveselic and Dave Grohl look ordinary: Kurt looks special. And he’s sealed special for ever, because he died before he got old, just like Jim Morrison.

There’s a glamour to going before your time and Kurt went well before his. Seventy or eighty years too soon, or maybe much longer. Unless something big gets in the way, science and technology will extend the human life-span indefinitely for people who were, like him, born in and after the 1960s. But humans will stop being human in the process: man, as Nietzsche pointed out long ago, is something to be surpassed. The Deus Ex Machina is on his way: the electronically enhanced super-human who will have vastly increased powers of mind, memory and body. I don’t think Nirvana’s music will interest the D.E.M. much, but that’s one of the things that are still interesting about Nirvana. They’re the last of the real rockers. They grew up without the internet and came to fame while it didn’t matter much. That was part of their appeal: Washington State and Seattle were isolated places, lost in obscurity, far from the spotlights focussed on New York and Los Angeles. It wasn’t easy to learn about them. And there was more. Kurt and Krist came from an isolated part of Washington: Aberdeen, on the muddy banks of the Wishkah.

Treasures of Nirvana by Gillian G. Gaar (back cover)

The grungy design of this book tries to capture that distance and difficulty, using a lot of blur, smear and shadow. Kurt stayed in the shadow and stayed in Nirvana, young for ever. Krist and Dave have an afterlife and the book follows them there: Krist gets bald and Dave loses the scared-kid look he had in Nirvana and becomes the confident leader of Foo Fighters. The other big figure in the Nirvana story, Courtney Love, doesn’t develop at all here, because she gets only one photo, grinning a sharkish grin at the MTV Awards. That was enough for me, just as I assume it was for Gillian Gaar: marrying Courtney was one of the two big mistakes Kurt made in life. The other was becoming a heroin addict. But if his stomach problems were as bad as he said they were, maybe heroin extended his life rather than shortening it. His stomach problems are something else that seals him into the old days. I don’t think they were psychosomatic and even if they were, they were a sign of something badly wrong with his body. The brain is part of the body, after all. Kurt, like most people then and now, didn’t have much control over his brain. Drugs like lithium are a crude way of adjusting the way brains work.

Much stronger methods of adjustment and improvement are on their way. When they arrive, the human race will follow Kurt into history. Nirvana’s music used technology to sing about human flesh and its woes. When flesh combines with technology, Nirvana’s music probably won’t matter any more: the clamour-glamour of rock will be gone. I don’t think Kurt would mind. After all, he ended his life playing unplugged and looking back to the Middle Ages, not forward to the Deus Ex Machina. But there was also something medieval about the importance of paper in Nirvana’s story. Fans got real letters from bands and record companies in Nirvana’s day, not emails or tweets. The facsimiles here try to capture the way physical things mattered more back then: tickets, posters, flyers. So this book is about two vanishing things: flesh and paper. It’s not long and detailed like some Nirvana/Cobain biographies, but it’s worth a look while Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are still glamorous.


*Yes, apart from Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones looked odd or ugly, but that still appealed to their fans, because of its contrast with the Beatles.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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