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Posts Tagged ‘Nirvana’

Front cover of Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick WallBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

The big three of British hard rock are Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. The difference between the first two and the third is simple: Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple have influenced individual bands, whereas Black Sabbath have inspired entire genres. Rock history would probably look very different without them: various trends would have started later, slower or not at all. Or without three-quarters of Black Sabbath, anyway: in descending order of importance, the guitarist Tony Iommi, the bassist Geezer Butler and the drummer Bill Ward. The vocalist Ozzy Osbourne is more like a mascot, in my opinion. He isn’t a good singer and I’d like to re-run Black Sabbath’s early days with someone else from the Black Country on vox: Sean Harris of Diamond Head.

But Harris was too young for that: all four original members of Black Sabbath were born in 1948 and seemed destined for the same circumscribed lives as their parents and grandparents. Then rock’n’roll came along and gave them a chance to escape boring factory jobs or careers as petty criminals in Birmingham. But with money and fame came drugs, alcohol and the chance to misbehave in much more spectacular ways. Not that they made as much money as they should: they were promoted on their first American tour as “Louder Than Led Zeppelin” (ch. 3, “Bringers of War”, pg. 72), but they definitely weren’t as well-managed. Or as well-received: despite creating much more interesting and innovative music, Black Sabbath didn’t receive the respect or critical attention they deserved until long after Led Zeppelin.

Mick Wall was one of those who gave Led Zeppelin that attention, in When Giants Walked the Earth (2009). He’s also written biographies of Metallica, AC/DC, Guns’n’Roses and Iron Maiden, so he’s well able to give Sabbath the credit (or blame) for their central role in heavy metal. Unfortunately, he’s also fond of rock journalese, hyperbole and mixed metaphors. This book has a nice cover, so it’s a shame about some of the prose:

Twenty years later groups like Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and, in particular, Nirvana, would excavate the same heaving-lung sound to delineate their own scorched-earth policy to a music scene even more elaborately formulaic than the heavy rock scene of the early Seventies – and be rewarded with critical garlands, heralding a new genre they called ‘grunge’. In 1971, however, Sabbath and their new, planet-heavy sound were simply dismissed as dimwitted, offensive and beyond redemption. (ch. 4, “Pope on a Rope”, pg. 81)

But that second sentence is okay and a good summary of how Black Sabbath were treated by the rock press. They were a bad joke for decades. Not that they helped themselves, at times: Ozzy says that he didn’t find Spinal Tap funny because it was too close to the real thing. And it was partly inspired by Black Sabbath, who also went on the road with a Stonehenge stage-set. A very big one, with a performing midget. However, Wall doesn’t manage to mine much of the comedy in the Sabbath story. There’s a lot there, both intentional and unintentional, but Tony Iommi’s ghosted autobiography Iron Man (2011) is both funnier and better-written than this book. Iron Man isn’t as detailed or as objective, though: Wall knows how important Black Sabbath are, but he praises them only when they deserve it. They’ve recorded some bad albums too and Wall describes in detail how and why they went astray in the 1980s.

Re-uniting to play Live Aid in 1985 was a one mistake, for example, but I like the commemoratory photo, which is included in the last of the three photo-sections here. It’s one of their unintentionally humorous moments: Ozzy is harking back to his “Homo in a Kimono” get-up on the cover of Sabotage; Geezer is wearing red trousers and pointy red shoes; Tony is in shades and black-leather-with-dangly-bits; and Bill is looking like a rock-goblin, complete with beer belly, bandana and dirty red baseball boots.

I like that in a rock star, but I wouldn’t like to have been anywhere near him on one of his drinking-bouts: I’d prefer not to have read the story of a plumber turning up to Bill’s Parisian hotel-suite in 1980 to clear drains “clogged with his vomit” (ch. 7, “Neon Nights”, pg. 165). And I wouldn’t want to be near Ozzy whether he’s drunk or sober, stoned or straight. He’s entertaining and endearing, but I assume that he’s best appreciated at a distance. He departs Black Sabbath part-way through the book, but Wall stays with him and tells the story of his solo career, including the tragic death of his guitarist Randy Rhoades in a plane-crash. Wall also describes the success of Ozzy’s reality TV show, The Osbournes, and his various returns to the Black Sabbath fold, in between Ronnie Dio, Ian Gillan and the other vocalists whom Tony has recruited down the decades.

They have their stories told too, as do the Sabbath manager Don Arden and his daughter Sharon. Black Sabbath have had a long history, have crossed paths with a lot of other musicians and have influenced even more, from Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, as Wall notes, to the Melvins and Sunn O))), as Wall doesn’t note. The respect they now enjoy is a fitting tribute to their talent and their originality. This book could have been much funnier and easier-to-read, but it’s a detailed guide to an important band by a journalist who has known them – and even worked for them – since the 1980s. And it’s got an index, which is good. But a discography would have been good too.

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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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