When you read an oral history, you can almost feel the pages fanning you as they fly past. They are a wonderful way to absorb information while being entertained by the many contributing voices. And if you really get caught up in the story, you begin to ignore the names in front of the quotations. In this light, everyone’s voice is calibrated to an equal weight and you are left with nothing but the key components of the past.
Oral histories are great signposts for the arts, especially rock ‘n’ roll biographies, where everyone’s memory tends to get distorted through the lenses of youthful idealism and excessive drug use. Nirvana scholar Nick Soulsby shifts everyone’s gaze to alternative music wunderkinds Nirvana, probably knowing full well that he’s risking comparisons to other recently published grunge oral histories like Mark Yarm’s exhaustive Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge (which I have read) and Greg Prato’s Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music (which I have not read). By comparison, Soulsby’s book is singular to fault. Kurt Cobain’s brief rivalry with Pearl Jam and Tad Doyle’s scuffle with Courtney Love seem to be peripherals not worth mentioning here, as if including them would risk giving those other bands too much ink. The perspective of I Found My Friends is pared down to the people who were right alongside Cobain and his band from their first gig to their last. As narrow as that scope is, it still makes an engaging read.
The list of people Soulsby interviewed for the book is enormous (they are all listened in alphabetical order according their band in the acknowledgments). The accompanying press release brags that Soulsby gets first-person accounts from members of Hole, Mudhoney, Meat Puppets, Butthole Surfers, and The Jesus Lizard. Impressive, yes, but the voices that represent these bands are the small minority. The larger portion of these stories come from the small fry Seattle, Olympia, and Tacoma bands that only got a quick taste of the big time, if ever at all. As Nirvana’s fame exploded, their peers ceased to be their peers almost overnight.
Nirvana’s place in the music world at large doesn’t really get the explanation it deserves in I Found My Friends. Hardly anyone talks about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the gigantic fault line that it was in pop music. Instead, the interviewees will recall being fans of Nirvana prior to Nevermind, getting advance copies of Nevermind and thinking that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a great song. The fact that the song and the album caught on unlike anything that anyone had expected doesn’t get put into context. It could be that Soulsby thinks that we’ve heard it all before and that it’s time for a different take. As the press release frankly puts it, “Soulsby removes the posthumous halo from the brow of Kurt Cobain and travels back through time to observe one of rock and roll’s most critical bands as no one has ever seen them before.” In other words, quit elevating Cobain above criticism! Let’s turn back the clock to a time when his band was called Skid Row. Yes, Skid Row.
Nirvana went through a variety of names, actually. They existed as Skid Row, Bliss, Pen Cap Chew, and (shudder) Fecal Matter before settling on some obscure in-joke for guys whose parents dabbled in Buddhism. Selecting the right name for the band was crucial to Cobain, which was probably wise, since early accounts of live shows by Skid Row were anything but auspicious.
When it comes to personal interactions with Cobain and bassist Krist Novaselic, the stories are unsurprisingly consistent. My next door neighbor owned a rock club in the late ’80s/early ’90s and his recollection of meeting Nirvana was exactly same as what everyone else told Soulsby; Novaselic was the friendly, chatty extrovert and Cobain was the shy introvert.
Nirvana had numerous drummers during their short time together and the impressions they left with witnesses were a little uneven. Dave Foster seemed to be known more for his drum kit and musical professionalism than his personality. Likewise, Bleach drummer Chad Channing drew glances due to his young age. Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s last drummer and founder of the Foo Fighters, rounded out the rhythm section’s goofy charm.
Later stories of Nirvana find Grohl and Novaselic on the same page in both humor and temperament. Cobain’s timid nature, however, made him an easy target for the musician business hype machine. The more he was taken advantage of, the less likely it seemed that he was going to put his foot down. There is a sad slice of celebrity reality offered by Melvin’s producer, Jonathan Burnside, who found himself written out of the credits of the band’s Houdini album. The reason? Cobain was at the sessions and the very power of his name alone would boost the Melvins’ presence on Atlantic. In reality, Cobain was a zombie at this time, offering no suggestions and barely contributing anything to the overall sessions. As the relations between Burnside and the Melvins crumbled, Cobain seemed to checked out to realize that he was just a pawn in the whole mess.
There are a handful of glossy photos in the center of the book. The Houdini sessions photo, courtesy of Burnside, is one of the few photos taken after Nirvana’s explosion and it is truly sad. Cobain’s face doesn’t seem to register a thing. Photos taken prior to 1991 show a reserved yet jolly Cobain enjoying moments with friends and bandmates. If one photo foreshadows the grunge explosion, it’s of Cobain lying face-down on a couch after the Bleach tour. A hectic set of gigs and radio appearances began to wear down on the band. The year 1990 was the time when, if you saw Nirvana, you apparently saw them at their most exhausted. This affected their mood and how they interacted with strangers. Even the gregarious Krist Novaselic would sometimes be at a loss when trying to connect with people.
One thing that Soulsby is able to highlight in I Found My Friends is just how eager Cobain and Nirvana were to give a hand up to more obscure bands. Caught up in the guilt of being an almost overnight success, Cobain assuaged those feelings by giving some of his favorite bands a shot at the big time right alongside Nirvana. For bands like the Meat Puppets and the Breeders, this was a tremendous shot in the arm for their careers. For a band like Calamity Jane, who flew down to Buenos Aires on Nirvana’s dime to open for them, it was a fish-out-water experience that drove the last nail in their coffin.
Generally speaking, the underdogs do pretty well for themselves by the book’s end. The In Utero tour appeared hectic yet fun for these transplants. Troy Von Balthazar of Chokebore lays it out sincerely on page 291: “Playing ten shows with Nirvana on their final American tour was really a thrill. Something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Given the narrow path that I Found My Friends treads, Soulsby takes it upon himself once in a while to nurse the story along, should a gap appear in the narrative. The passages he writes between quotations will find him wandering away from the impartial third-person observer, inching closer to someone with a closely guarded sense of clairvoyance. “The clothing was as far as the stagecraft went, but it still represented a band figuring out how to stand out” (page 15), and “This generation had issue with the ’80s manifestation of hard rock, not the ’70s originals” (page 43) are the kinds of sentences that don’t need to be included.
When Soulsby isn’t spooning out plain history, his blurbs can be succinct yet redundant. He inserts himself into a quotation only once, and it’s harmlessly for a fanboy’s sake. Gilly Ann Hanner of Calamity Jane said she first saw Nirvana play on her birthday, at her very own house. Between pages 45 and 46, Soulsby unashamedly writes “I’m still in awe of this” in brackets before letting her continue to tell the story.
As anyone can suspect, this book doesn’t have a rosy ending. Stories of loss and missed opportunities plague the end of Nirvana’s existence. One of the last great underground undertakings that the band pulled off was a benefit show to hire a private investigator to solve the case of the Gits lead singer Mia Zappata’s murder. During an impromptu photo shoot with photographer Youri Lenquette in the middle of Nirvana’s final tour, she gains insight into Cobain’s desperate need to break away from the endless touring schedule. A fantasy trip to Cambodia never gets to go beyond chit chat between Cobain and Lenquette. Cobain also confided in Come guitarist Chris Brokaw that it got awfully lonely in his dressing room (according to more than one account, Love did her best to keep Cobain away from other musicians on big tours). Brokaw’s hindsight and corresponding regret are heartbreaking, realizing now that, as shy as Cobain was, the poster boy for Seattle grunge just needed someone to hang with.
The last two pages covering oral history relate more stories of grunge casualties, as if to remind us that the swift rise and fall of Cobain is nothing out of the ordinary. Sadly, the narrative of the self-destructive artist is something that probably won’t fall out of fashion anytime soon and I Found My Friends won’t give too many insights into Cobain’s mind. The reading goes by so fast that you forget that it’s built only from observations, albeit observations of a singer/songwriter who kept his guard up most of the time. Due to its limited content, the subtitle should probably be An Oral History of Nirvana. I feel that the definite article, grammatically speaking, can be applied to another book that has yet to appear. Until that day arrives, I Found My Friends is still a page-turner.