ONLY NOISE: In the Wake of Kurt’s Suicide, Courtney Love Changed My Life

Courtney spent her career living in the shadow of Kurt Cobain, despite her own brilliant talent.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, legendary ROCKRGRL editor Carla Black remembers how her sympathy for a grieving Courtney Love in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death twenty-five years ago sparked a decade-long journey to bring gender parity to modern rock.

Like most people of a certain generation, I remember exactly where I was on April 8th, 1994, when the news broke that Kurt Cobain had ended his own life three days before. My son David had just turned six; the previous weekend, I’d slipped the organist at Pizza and Pipes an extra twenty to play a hilariously church-like version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the giant pipe organ at his birthday party. It was his favorite song. As a part time bassist in an all-female ‘60s cover band, I wouldn’t dream of subjecting him to kid music as insulting to his intelligence as Barney the Dinosaur. Nirvana’s 1991 breakout hit, a paean to disaffected youth with its quiet verses, angry chorus, and video set in a flaming high school gym, had catapulted mysterious and shy Kurt into the spotlight. Fans and critics alike had already proclaimed him “the voice of his generation.” Now, I was hearing about his senseless death from an aid at my son’s school as I left the parking lot.

It was shocking, but not completely. Only a month before, Kurt had overdosed in Rome, reportedly an accident. Every station – not just MTV – covered Kurt’s suicide. He had shot himself in the greenhouse of the Seattle home that he and his wife, fellow grunge rocker Courtney Love, had only moved into a few months before with their infant daughter Frances Bean. Photos from the old-money neighborhood of Denny-Blaine splashed onto the screen. Kurt’s unkempt hair and facial scruff cut a stark contrast to the well-dressed, clean-shaven looks of the anchors that reported it. Grunge pilgrims flocked to tiny Viretta Park, the lot next to their home, etching goodbyes into the park bench with Sharpies and Swiss army knives. Courtney emerged from behind the gate and joined them in mourning.

As a newly single mother myself, I struggled to explain the death of David’s favorite rock star. I remember standing in front of the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble. It was Courtney, not Kurt, who graced the covers of most of the music magazines. Coincidentally – or maybe not – Live Through This, the major label debut album with her band Hole, was released the same week as Kurt’s death, and had already been getting significant airplay. I bought every one the magazines I found with her picture on the cover and pored through them, hoping to find an answer to explain Kurt’s passing to my young son.

Rock star deaths at age 27 were not uncommon. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison – “the stupid club,” as Kurt’s mother had dubbed them – perished at the same age. But those deaths were overdoses. While Kurt and Courtney were both known to use hard drugs, it was still unfathomable to think how someone at the apex of their music career could take his own life. It wasn’t long before the conspiracy theories began to emerge. Maybe he wasn’t really dead after all. He could be flipping burgers somewhere with Elvis. But the most distressing of all theories, to me at least, was the suggestion that Courtney orchestrated his death. It was sexist, trite and cruel. Kurt was endlessly portrayed as a tragic angel, taken down by a demon wife. I found every bit of it disgusting.

As I learned more about Kurt’s widow, I discovered a parallel geography I shared with her. We both lived in Eugene, Oregon and the Bay Area at the same time. And in 1987 she had the lead role in a quirky indie film called Straight To Hell in which Dan Wool, a fellow student in my voice class in the mid-’80s, was the music supervisor. I remember hearing updates about the film from Dan, which notched up my remote feeling of kinship with Courtney. But while my upbringing was conventional, hers was not.

Both Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain each grew up in what used to be known as “a broken home.” After her parents’ divorce, Courtney’s mother took everyone in the family but Courtney to New Zealand to live. She spent time in reform school, was emancipated by age 16, and worked as a stripper to make ends meet. As legend has it, Kurt lived under a bridge after his parents’ split. Kurt and Courtney were two people on their own before they should have been, bonding over a voracious passion for music and a deep need to survive. By the time of Kurt’s death, the couple were a household name, and now that he was gone, Courtney bore the full brunt of Nirvana fans’ anger and disbelief.

Every evening, after David’s bedtime, I read whatever I could find about Kurt and Courtney and his mysterious death on America Online (AOL), which, in 1994, was how most of us discovered the strange new world of the Internet. It was riveting, and I found myself defending Courtney on AOL’s music message boards from what I perceived as blatant sexism. How inhumane, I thought, to anonymously lash out at someone who was suffering and so obviously in pain. He wrote her songs, they claimed. She was on drugs when she was pregnant, they said. She was a bad mom, they wrote. But I saw a vulnerable side of Courtney I found charming, intelligent, and even funny; this put me squarely in the minority. I loved the way she turned the only two existing female musical archetypes – waif folk singer and brash rocker – on their ear. She always spoke her mind, regardless of the consequences.

I was deeply offended by many – but not all – criticisms of her. Why was Kurt deified and Courtney vilified? Sure, she was outspoken, but weren’t rock stars supposed to be? The music world only embraced conventionally beautiful women as stars; men could be as ugly as Axl Rose. What about the rest of us? Didn’t we have anything important to add? It is an artist’s job to distill pain, and Courtney was the patron saint of the marginalized female, often giving away a guitar to a girl at her shows. I thought it sad how she was mocked by the press and Nirvana fans, but she seemed to be unfazed by it. I admired that greatly.

One night I logged on and was shocked to see posts from Courtney herself. The typing was challenging to decipher, but her stream-of-consciousness thoughts reflected an extremely high intelligence. She was pissed and had found a place to vent her frustrations. Initially her targets were indie musicians and record label executives I hadn’t heard of. But after finding the online world cathartic, she became a regular fixture – one of the first artists to actually participate with their fans virtually, not simply lurk.

I watched the daily drama unfold from the hulking desktop PC in my living room, and reached out to her in an email. After noticing I was one of her few adult defenders, Courtney and I became online friends. AOL charged by the hour in those days and the significant amount of time we spent messaging each other online racked up some hefty bills. Sometimes she’d call and we’d talk through the night. There was no such thing as a brief conversation with Courtney or an hour too late to call. When David went to bed, this was my entertainment: single mom by day, rock star confidante by night.

Soon I was adept at deciphering Courtney’s inimitable style. Threads I had been a part of began to appear in magazines, like Newsweek and Time. It was a heady experience to have access to such an important artist, and I took my role as “den mother of the Hole folder” seriously. With news spreading that its subject was a regular participant, the folder was the most highly trafficked on AOL.

I finally got the chance to see Hole and meet Courtney in person that fall when they performed in San Francisco. Courtney’s tour manager offered me comps and a backstage pass. “She wants to meet you,” he said. The performance was heartbreaking, emotional and sad. Throughout the set she looked up to the sky and yelled to Kurt, demanding to know why he left. Once the show was over, in the hallowed halls of Hole’s green room, the tour manager walked me over to Courtney to make the introduction. Tall and charismatic, she was covered in glitter makeup and still damp from the performance. “This is ROCKRGRL,” he said, referring to my screen name, which was more widely known than my given one. Courtney’s face lit up with instant recognition; our unlikely friendship was real after all. Following a long and awkward hug, she grabbed my arm and led me to an area far from the crowd so we could talk alone. But like a cocktail party on The Bachelor, the moment was short-lived and we were quickly interrupted by other admirers. She disappeared into the night.

That big moment may have been brief, but our enduring camaraderie created opportunities that changed the trajectory of my life. Inspired by her, but seeing a greater need, I created a magazine to build a community for female musicians that had never existed before. I named the magazine for my AOL screen name and the people I enlisted to write and do layout were my AOL friends. Journalists who also frequented AOL wrote about my plans – the first appearing in the Sunday LA Times – and many of those writers became contributors, too. I quit my typing job at a law firm to devote to the magazine full time.

I wasn’t exactly getting rich off my venture, but my little star was on the rise, becoming one of a handful of “go-to” experts on the topic of women in rock. I appeared on television, including VH1’s Behind the Music as a talking head, and a judge on a local singing talent competition alongside Sir Mix-A-Lot, Reggie Watts and Washington State Governor, Gary Locke. I booked gigs speaking to young women at colleges across the country and on panels at music conferences. I even reviewed the kick-off of Hole’s infamous Beautiful Monsters tour co-headlining with Marilyn Manson for Rolling Stone – the issue with Britney and Teletubbies on the cover. Without any financial backing, ROCKRGRL stood on its own as an influential publication, helping a generation of women find their artistic voice.

The magazine ran for 10 years and 57 issues, shutting its doors at the end of 2005. It can still be found in the libraries of many universities throughout the country. The archive was acquired by Schlesinger Library at Harvard (Radcliffe Institute) as part of their collection on American Women’s History in 2008. It still gets name-checked as an influence every once in awhile by a new female artist and that always makes my heart swell with pride.

Through the years, Courtney was a frequent contributor to ROCKRGRL. Whether it was a top ten album of the year list, kicking off a scandal about groupie abuse by all-male metal bands, or allowing me to interview her, Courtney brought positive attention to ROCKRGRL without ever overshadowing it. To me, this was what women helping each other was always supposed to look like. It was a shame Kurt’s death overshadowed her achievements.

In November of 2000, five years after the start of ROCKRGRL, I put together a conference in Seattle to discuss the state of women in music. We had panels, a trade show, and 250 female artists in all genres of music from all over the world performing throughout downtown Seattle. It took more than a year of planning, especially since I had no experience doing anything quite as daunting. I reached out to Courtney a few times to ask if she would participate but got no response. So I was surprised when, the night before the conference began, I got a phone call. “I’m coming,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”

What I had really wanted was for her to have told me this a month earlier. The staff jumped through every imaginable hoop – which included supplying her with a list of journalists in the room and creating a bag of questions she could pick through to answer. In the end, she gave a brilliant, funny and provocative Q&A to a ballroom of a few hundred female musicians, anxious to know the secrets of success, for more than two hours. Attendees got incredible advice and gossip – always a bonus – about Limp Bizkit, Stevie Nicks, Eve, Kelis and Jimmy Iovine. Courtney stayed to answer questions and sign autographs. It was sisterly, unpretentious girl talk of the highest order and an unforgettable experience for anyone lucky enough to have been there. And yes, she was completely sober for it! Her presence catapulted the conference from a cool Seattle event to an internationally recognized one (a friend vacationing in Bali said he even read about it there). But the best moment for me was her acknowledgement from the stage of my hard work, very much inspired by her.

“I had always planned to come,” she told the crowd, “But I wanted the conference to have a chance to build on its own, without it being all about a really famous person.” Then she turned to me and said the kindest thing ever, drawing tears to my eyes: “I’m really proud of what you have accomplished on your own.”

Maybe not totally on my own – I had the help of my fairy grunge mother. But twenty-five years ago, in a school parking lot, reeling from the news of rock’s biggest icon’s suicide, I never could have imagined his equally iconic widow would influence my future in such a profound way. I am forever grateful.

NEWS ROUNDUP: International Women’s Day, Leaving Neverland, and MORE

Maggie Rogers, Mavis Staples, Phoebe Bridgers and Brandi Carlile meet at Newport Music Fest. Photo by Danny Clinch. The artists shared this photo along with messages of empowerment for International Women’s Day via Twitter.

It’s International Women’s Day!

Though some form of International Women’s Day has been around since 1909, the holiday celebrating women around the world has really gained traction over the last decade. This year’s theme was #BalanceForBetter, seeking to promote a more gender balanced world. Here’s how our favorite ladies in the music world celebrated.

  • Cardi B made a playlist on Apple Music for the occasion, featuring visionary women (including Grace Jones, Madonna, Tina Turner, and Solange).
  • Sharon Van Etten and Courtney Barnett both appeared as a guest curators for Amazon’s music streaming platform.
  • Ariana Grande tweeted a short video by director Hanna Lux Davis, reminding everyone a few tweets later “it ain’t feminism if it ain’t intersectional.”

  • Rihanna looked powerful in a black blazer.

  • Miley Cyrus shouted out some of her favorite bad ass bitches:

  • … while Lady Gaga paid tribute to her mama.

  • Maggie Rogers and Mavis Staples both reminisced via this photo with Phoebe Bridgers and Brandi Carlile.

  • Dua Lipa had some tea for those who fall short of protecting human rights.

  • And Micropixie released a video for Como Mínimo (#YesIsTheMinimum), from her upcoming LP Dark Sight of the Moon, out April 9.

The Fallout of Leaving Neverland

The explosive HBO Documentary about Michael Jackson’s alleged child abuse, Leaving Neverland, aired last weekend, and unsurprisingly, folks are divided on its message. Though the allegations are nothing new (Jackson settled a child abuse case out of court in 1994, and was acquitted in a similar case with a different victim in 2005) the harrowing testimonies of two men who say they were abused by Jackson when they were 7 and 10 are hard to dismiss. Radio stations have pulled Jackson’s enduring pop hits,  The Simpsons producers have pulled iconic episode “Stark Raving Dad” from the syndication due to Jackson’s guest voice over, and a Chicago run of biographical jukebox musical “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was cancelled, though its team said this occurred due to scheduling difficulties and that they’ve set their sights on Broadway in 2020. Jackson’s daughter, Paris, seemed unfazed in a series of tweets in which she told folks to “chillax” – implying that even if Jackson’s legacy took a huge hit, his $500 million estate would ultimately be unaffected by the doc (though they’d previously filed a lawsuit to block it from airing). Meanwhile, debate continues to rage regarding blame placed on the victims’ parents, the degree to which Joe Jackson’s horrific behavior absolves his son’s various issues (including the alleged child abuse) and, of course, the idea that Jackson himself is an innocent victim of a slanderous campaign. One thing is certain: Jackson’s story is ultimately one of the saddest in pop music history, taking into account his tarnished childhood, various tabloid scandals, untimely death due to physician-sanctioned drug abuse – and it’s only compounded by the suffering of his alleged victims.

That New New

Solange has blessed the world with the (semi) surprise release of When I Get Home, her follow-up to 2016’s show-stopping A Seat at the Table.

Cementing their legacy as Jersey’s favorite pop punks, The Bouncing Souls released the second single from their forthcoming 30th anniversary EP Crucial Moments, out March 15. Their massive tour kicks off the next day at Jersey City’s White Eagle Hall.

Vampire Weekend have shared two new tracks from their upcoming Father of the Bride LP, out in May

Mac DeMarco announced his next record Here Comes the Cowboy with a single called “Nobody,” giving Mitski fans a little déjà vu; both artists (and their shared PR team) say it’s just a coincidence.

Bedouine is back with a one-off single that reflects on the aftermath of her gorgeous 2017 self-titled debut.

SOAK has released another lovely singled from April 26 release Grim Town., announcing some US tour dates (including two at SXSW) to go with it.

Alan Vega’s final recordings have been released to benefit the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, which provides teaching materials to educators seeking to engage students by teaching pop music history. The Suicide co-founder passed away in 2016.

Everyone loves a corgi – and that includes illuminati hotties, who are very honest about the fact that sometimes doggos are are the only thing keeping us in a mediocre relationship. They’ll be in Austin next week for SXSW.

Stef Chura has announced her sophomore record Midnight with its lead single “Method Man.”

Blushh shared a one-off single to get folks pumped for their upcoming SXSW dates as well.

Toronto punks Greys have announced third LP Age Hasn’t Spoiled You, out May 10, sharing its first single “These Things Happen.”

Rick from Pile remains the biggest babe in all of DIY indie rock; this week the band released their latest single and announced forthcoming LP Green and Gray, out May 3.

In other DIY news, Patio ready themselves for the April 5 release of Essentials with their latest track, “New Reality.”

NOTS have seemingly recovered from their recent lineup changes and shared the first single from their upcoming LP 3, out May 10. Two of its members are also releasing an LP this year as Hash Redactor.

The National have announced a new collaborative project with director Mike Mills entitled I Am Easy To Find. It’s essentially an hour-long companion album to a 24-minute short film of the same name starring Alicia Vikander. The first track on the album, “You Had Your Soul With You,” has some guest stars as well – Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables of This Is the Kit, The Brooklyn Youth Choir, and longtime David Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey lend vocals. The band have announced a bunch of tour dates with Courtney Barnett and Alvvays supporting.

Local Natives released two videos this week, one of which stars Kate Mara. Both will appear on the April 26 release of Violet Street, a follow-up to 2016’s Sunlit Youth; they’ve previously announced a slew of tour dates.

Sky Blue, a posthumous collection of unreleased material from celebrated singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, arrived March 7 to commemorate what would’ve been his 75th birthday.

Kishi Bashi returns with new LP Omoiyari on May 31, and has released the album’s first single, “Summer of ’42”.

Charly Bliss have shared a video for “Chatroom,” the second single from their upcoming record Young Enough, out May 10.

CupcakKe keeps it topical with a new single entitled “Bird Box,” referencing the recent Netflix horror movie and the Jussie Smollett controversy alike.

Having penned Grammy-nominated hits for Ariana Grande and Janelle Monae, Tayla Parx is poised to break out on her own with a highly anticipated solo debut on Atlantic Records, We Need to Talk, out April 5. Her latest video for “I Want You” follows earlier singles “Slow Dancing” and “Me vs. Us.”

Christian Fennesz, who records electronic music under his last name, returns to basics with a new 12-minute track called “In My Room,” from forthcoming 4-song LP Agora, out March 29.

Ahead of the April 12 release of No Geography, The Chemical Brothers share a video for “We’ve Got To Try.”

Festival faves Marshmello and CHVRCHES have collaborated on a sugary new single titled “Here With Me.”

Dido’s first record since 2013, Still on My Mind, is out today; her first tour in fifteen years hits the US in June.

End Notes

  • The Prodigy singer Keith Flint was found dead of apparent suicide at the age of 49.
  • I would unironically love to attend one of these West Coast Man Man shows featuring “Friday” singer Rebecca Black.
  • Gayle King interviewed R. Kelly for CBS regarding the sexual abuse allegations against him, prompting an explosive on-camera outburst from the singer that has been widely discussed. We’re so tired.
  • Swedish black metal band Watain have been banned from performing in Singapore due to their “history of denigrating religions and promoting violence.”
  • NYC concert-goers spontaneously burst into song on the ACE platform following a sold-out Robyn show at MSG.
  • Speaking of Robyn, she’s been announced as one of the headliners for Pitchfork Music Festival, which takes place in Chicago from July 19-21. HAIM and the Isley Brothers top Friday and Saturday’s bills respectively, with Stereolab, Mavis Staples, Belle & Sebastian, Earl Sweatshirt, Pusha T, Tirzah, Kurt Vile, Low, Julia Holter, Rico Nasty, Neneh Cherry, Snail Mail, Khruangbin, Soccer Mommy, Amber Mark, CHAI, and more set to play as well.
  • While we’re on the subject of festivals, Variety has leaked a potential lineup for Woodstock 50 and it’s not exactly overflowing with “heritage” acts; Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper, and Black Keys look like likely headliners.
  • Elton John tweeted an definite release date in October 2019 for his upcoming memoir.
  • Massive Attack have rescheduled some of the North American Mezzanine reunion tour dates due to illness.
  • You can buy the hospital gown that Kurt Cobain wore during a legendary 1992 Reading Festival Nirvana performance for a mere $50,000.
  • L7’s Donita Sparks emerged as a hero when, in true punk fashion, Marky Ramone and Johnny Rotten nearly came to blows at a panel discussion on upcoming John Varvatos and Iggy Pop-produced Epix docu-series Punk.
  • Morrissey is taking his upcoming covers record California Sun to Broadway.
  • Taylor Swift stalker Roger Alvarado was arrested for breaking into the pop star’s home again, fresh off of a stint in jail for the same charge (bringing his Swift-related arrest total to three).
  • Arcade Fire will reportedly cover “Baby Mine” in Tim Burton’s live-action Dumbo remake, and it’s a real family affair.
  • Mark your sundials – Red Hot Chili Peppers will stream a live concert from the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt on March 15.

ONLY NOISE: Nevermind Nirvana


I’m getting a lot of funny looks on the train these days. It might be because protruding from the sleeves of my tiny motorcycle jacket are two hands, holding a book. A book with Céline Dion on the cover. Perhaps my fellow commuters are confused as to why a young, angry looking woman is reading an actual piece of literature about the Quebec chanteuse everybody loves to hate.

The paperback in question is Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by critic extraordinaire Carl Wilson. It is part of the acclaimed 33 1/3 series, in which musicians, journalists and the like write a smallish book about one specific album, in whatever style they desire. While so many of these books have been penned about canonized works – Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, David Bowie’s Low, etc. – Carl Wilson chose to invert the model by writing about something he…hated. But here you won’t find reckless diatribe. Instead of mindlessly spouting insults, Wilson steps back and asks: ‘why do I hate Céline Dion?’ What evidence can support the squirming reaction upon hearing her voice when she is literally loved by millions?

For music makers, critics, and enthusiasts, there is often an invisible and ever-changing list of what is cool to love. But there is a sister list for the opposite – what’s cool to hate. It sounds juvenile but one of the things I’m learning from Wilson’s book is that much of what makes up taste politics is just as juvenile as a high school cafeteria.

The book goes into far denser socioeconomic arguments for the origins of taste – which I won’t attempt to replicate as it’d be a tall order to do Wilson’s writing justice. But one thing I will recycle is this question: why do I hate ____________? And furthermore, what’s it like to be allergic not to schmaltzy pop that all of your friends hate along with you, but something everyone you know adores?

Ok. Here goes. Get the wood for my crucifixion. Tell my family I love them. If Carl Wilson had an advice column tending to the ambivalence of blind dislike – dislike you can’t always explain, I would write to him:

Dear Carl,

Why do I hate Nirvana?

-The Guilty Washingtonian.

One thing Wilson and I have in common is not only that we strongly dislike a commercially successful, wildly popular artist, but also that we both hail from their place of origin: Wilson from Quebec, and I from Washington State. I don’t doubt that this affects the perception of said recording artists. When inundated with something for years on end, you have one of two options – embrace it or run for cover. There is rarely an in between, especially for the likes of Dion and Nirvana, both extremes on opposite sides of the musical spectrum. Does anyone ever say, “Oh, yeah, Céline Dion, she’s alright. I won’t put it on, but I won’t turn it off either?” No. Likely this could be said for Nirvana as well, a band whose zenith was a worldwide phenomenon, but also a local victory for the Pacific North West. And that last factor makes me feel like an enemy on home turf. The visiting team…but hey, I’m from here!

I’ve tried to like Nirvana, believe me. I assumed I would. I don’t even remember how I heard of them, and this is coming from someone whose weekly column is practically a temple to remembering the exact moment you first hear a band. I just remember…knowing. Like their names and story and that album cover had been taught to me in daycare before I could form cognitive boxes to put things in. Nirvana was in the water growing up. It still amazes me that Seattle hasn’t erected some statue of Kurt Cobain right next to the one of Jimi Hendrix on Capitol Hill.

When did my knowledge of Nirvana go from intrinsic local legend to awareness of their sound? Likely it was when a combination of curiosity, perceived coolness associated with the wearers of their t-shirts, and the CD subscription club collided. Remember that staple of music consumption in the 90s and 00s? Those chintzy catalogs filled with mostly awful but some classic albums. The promise of “10 CDs FOR 99 CENTS!!!” (And then canceling immediately upon receiving those 10 picks).

So it was through a CD club that I first acquired – of course – Nevermind. I could finally investigate what all the fuss was about. I slipped the disk in. I slipped into that cerulean pool with that money hungry baby. And I felt nothing. Not just nothing, but unmoved. Even agitated, which I guess is something. But it wasn’t an invigorating agitation that some music inspires, just a rash. I couldn’t stand it. You can imagine the kind of confusion this might stoke in a 12-year-old eager to embrace the musical heritage of her region.

Disliking a deeply loved and influential band can’t be so bad, right? These days it’s common parlance to not be that into The Beatles, citing more obscure products of the 1960s instead. But this is not the case with Nirvana, at least not in my experience. I wonder if it’s because the people that grew up with them, that remember and lived in their heyday are now the tastemakers. I’m not sure. What I do know is I’ve never been met with so much adversity when discussing musical taste as when I say that I don’t like this band. It cuts people directly to the quick.

The opinion is seemingly so offensive to Nirvana fans that they attempt to find a manifesto as to why I feel this way. They insist that that my taste is not genuine, and rather born of some pathetic desire to be “cool” or “different.” But I gave up those hopes and dreams when I started listening to The Smiths like everyone else after years of steady resistance. It’s also not the common accusation of regional rebellion, allegedly serving the same purpose of setting myself apart from the masses. The fact of the matter is, disliking Nirvana does absolutely nothing for – as Wilson and Pierre Bourdieu. would say – increasing my “cultural capital.” If anything, it is a detriment to my social interactions when it comes up. I would love nothing more than to stop constantly pissing people off by answering a question honestly. What is that like? Tell me, because I will never know.

One of the things I strive to do as a music writer is really analyze why I’m reacting a certain way to something. Is it because of a sound, or a symbol? Because I was told to, or a genuine sentiment? Often I will listen to bands I can’t stand repeatedly, just to make sure I know where I’m at. I once cycled through all of my mom’s Genesis records just to make sure I wasn’t missing something – that I was an educated Genesis hater at the very least. It reminds me of taste buds: how with age they gradually change (well, die) and often people’s food preferences become less rigid over time. For this reason, I make an annual effort to give my most loathed food, the banana, another try. And though it becomes a teensy bit easier year by year, it still makes me gag every time.

So here I sit, listening to all three Nirvana LPs as an attack on my own ego, hoping that I will eventually enjoy them. But they are still mushy bananas to me. My inability to convince people of my honest opinion has been met with such opposition that once an ex-boyfriend casually put on Bleach to see if I would joyfully ask, “ooh! Who is this?!” But it bristled against me like steel wool, and I of course, knew who it was.

To make matters worse for my Nirvana-obsessed friends: I love Hole. That’s like saying you can’t stand John Lennon but you really dig Yoko Ono records, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not something people like to hear…especially when there is a whole camp of conspiracy theorists who think Courtney Love killed Kurt. It’s like ripping open a scab and packing it with fine salt. But my love of Hole has taught me something about my aversion to Nirvana…that maybe my relationship with the band isn’t so complicated and mysterious after all. I’ve never said Nirvana were a bad band, or bad songwriters. I can appreciate and admit that quite the opposite is true. So if the songs are good, what is it?

It’s just that voice.

Kurt Cobain’s voice alone is what makes my skin crawl. I hate it. And it’s not like I listen exclusively to Chris Isaak and Cher. I completely dig on fucked up, pitchy, gravelly, “bad” singers. Just not this one. I’ll probably never be able to explain exactly why.

I find it hilarious that it has taken me so many years to arrive at such a simple, even boring resolution. No one can really debate vocal preference, right? Every once in a while, it’s kind of nice when a convoluted question can be reduced to a crude, shallow answer. I just don’t like the way it sounds. I just don’t like the way it tastes.

Void of philosophy or agenda I can say: I just don’t like bananas.  For now.

(Maybe I kinda dig this, just a little:)

APPROVAL MATRIX: 2/16/14 thru 2/22/14

Kurt Cobain Statue

Here’s our take on the best and worst in music this week.



[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_2″][box type=”shadow”]William Corgan Teacup

Mark your calendars: on 2/28, Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman William Corgan (as he’s billed himself for this event) is improvising an 8 to 9 hour ambient musical interpretation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha at Madame ZuZu’s, a tea-shop he opened outside of Chicago last year.  Your soul is the whole world, which is a vampire.[/box][/fusion_builder_column] [fusion_builder_column type=”1_2″_last][box type=”shadow”]

Fiona Apple Bio-Frau

Fiona Apple will appear in a French Sci-Fi spoof called H-Man as Bio-Frau, an environmental activist held captive in a German power plant.  It’s highbrow because it’s French.[/box][/one_half_last]

DESPICABLE <<—————————————————————————– >>BRILLIANT

[fusion_builder_row_inner][fusion_builder_column_inner type=”1_2″][/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][box type=”shadow”]Kurt Cobain Weeping Statue

Bill Simpson, Mayor of the City of Aberdeen, has unveiled a controversial statue of Kurt Cobain in the grunge star’s hometown (a place he hated, BTW) and it’s so embarrassingly rendered that even the statue is weeping.[/box][/fusion_builder_column_inner] [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_2″_last][box type=”shadow”]Coachwhips Seance

After announcing the indefinite hiatus of Thee Oh Sees a few months ago, frontman John Dwyer is scheduled to re-unite his old band Coachwhips for some SXSW appearances.  Can we get in line tomorrow?[/box][/one_half_last]




MOVIE REVIEW: Hit So Hard (The Life and Near-Death Story of Patty Schemel)

I’ve been on a bit of a grunge binge lately. It could be that the onset of certain anniversaries, observed by nearly everyone who cared about music in the mid-nineties, turns collective thought to the anti-heroes of the genre who destroyed themselves in the process of creating it. But for all the stars that burn out, there are some who reticently fade away – at least, until now. One of those stars is Patty Schemel, drummer of Hole. I was lucky enough to meet Patty (along with bassist Melissa Auf der Mar and guitarist Eric Erlandson) at a book signing just a few weeks ago, and it was there I became aware of another Hole-related project – a documentary entitled Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel.

Hit So Hard is certainly unique in its focus. Though a drummer’s playing is the heartbeat that propels any song, drummers are so often pushed to the back of the stage, hidden behind a shiny kit, while more prominent players soak up the spotlight. Renowned in Seattle circles for her powerful drumming long before becoming a part of Hole, Patty Schemel struggled with alcohol abuse while exploring her sexual identity, and with that came a deep pain that made her work as a musician that much more honest and immediate. With very few female role models in her situation (the handful of them, including Alice de Buhl of Fanny, Debbie Peterson of the Bangles, Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s, and Kate Schellenbach of Lucious Jackson, are interviewed in the film), Patty fearlessly blazed new trails with each twirl and flourish of the sticks. But as Hole began their meteoric rise to rock stardom, that very trail became a treacherous one, filled with tragic death and out-of-control addictions.

Schemel’s story packs a huge punch, but filmmakers David Ebersole and Todd Hughes don’t present it with a flow that’s concise enough, fidgeting around from subject to subject with jolting affect. Schemel’s extraordinary life is offered in dissected segments which fail to render her life cohesively. The sophomoric use of hot-pink title cards in punk-rock fonts are intensely grating and make the whole film feel like a series of movie trailers for a documentary that never happens.

That being said, the doc has two things going for it. First, the breadth of interviews with those who were closest to Schemel is commendable, including her bandmates from Hole (even Courtney Love appears in all her plasticized “glory”), friends from the Seattle music scene, and some very candid commentary from her family members. Secondly, parts of the documentary focused on the most nostalgic era of grunge are culled from personal footage that Schemel captured with a camcorder she was given while on tour. But the footage she captured is not just tour footage – there are hours of heart-rending home videos of Kurt and Courtney just after the birth of their daughter, Frances Bean, filmed when Patty lived with them in Seattle. We see the fragility of this family unit, knowing the future in a way the subjects could not when the footage was shot. It is equal parts beautiful and tragic, and serves as a reminder of how integral Schemel was to the drama that would later play out.

And while most can give at least a brief summary of the somber fate of Kurt Cobain, original Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, or many of the other heroin casualties of that era, Schemel’s story has been obscured for years. Hole’s popularity went through a resurgence after the release of 1998’s Celebrity Skin, and while Schemel was featured in promotional photos from the era, punishing producer Michael Beinhorn took the drum parts she had written and replaced her recordings with those of session drummer Deen Castronovo.  Understandably, this sent Schemel into a spiral of self-doubt resulting in her departure from the band, followed tragically by relapse, homelessness and prostitution. As someone who idolized this band, listened to that album on repeat, and never knew that Schemel had been replaced by a hired gun, this was the one thing that was extremely shocking to me – I’d always thought I was listening to Schemel on the record, not some beefed-up jock completely unconnected to the compositions or the group dynamic. I felt almost ashamed that I hadn’t even noticed the awkward doppelgangers standing in for Schemel in music videos, and was appalled that none  of her bandmates stepped into help her while she was living on the streets and Hole was living it up.

But Schemel’s story ends on a happier note; these days she passes on her drumming skills as a music teacher (several of her students are interviewed, which is kind of mind-blowing) and rehabilitating stray dogs. She’s survived the storm of making it big in a heroin-addled rock band and lived to tell the tale. Even if her story is presented in a somewhat sloppily cobbled package courtesy of the filmmakers, it is still a compelling piece of rock-n-roll history well worth telling.

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Taking a Look at Jesse Frohman’s Photos of Kurt Cobain

Because he was a photographer and not a psychic, Jesse Frohman had no way of knowing that his now-iconic pictures of grunge idol Kurt Cobain would be some of the last ever shot. But judging by the Nirvana frontman’s erratic behavior both leading up to and during the session, originally commissioned as a feature for the Sunday Observer, it wasn’t hard to see Cobain’s demise on the horizon. By the time Frohman met Cobain in November 1993, he’d overdosed once and been through several stints in rehab. He famously appeared for the shoot three hours late, strung out, and introduced himself to the photographer by asking for a bucket he could puke in.
The Morrison Hotel Gallery in Soho is showing the series of photographs for the first time as a collection. They were shot over the course of just that one meeting, in the New York City hotel where Nirvana was staying when they played a show at Roseland Ballroom. There are some live shots from the show that night and a few taken with Krist Novaselic and Dave Grohl as well. Most of what is on display at the Morrison are straightforward portraits of Cobain against a neutral background. He is dressed eccentrically in a tattered leopard print coat, Jackie-O style bug-eyed sunglasses, and an aviator cap, with a shabby tee and jeans underneath. Chipping red nailpolish adorns his fingertips; in some pictures he is seen with a cigarette, smoke trickling from his mouth, in others he swigs a bottle of Evian as though it were Jack Daniels. The images are nothing if not captivating, in spite of (and perhaps moreso?) their repetitive quality when presented side-by-side, on a scale literally larger-than-life.
© Jesse Frohman/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
© Jesse Frohman/
courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
As a whole, it’s hard to tell how much of these photos represent a Kurt that is real but coming unhinged, and how much is Cobain simply playing the part of “rock star” – an image that he felt was forced upon him in the wake of Nirvana’s insane successes. By the time these photos were taken, Kurt had publicly expressed his disdain for the media, and in many ways, his flagrant disregard for Frohman’s schedule, paired with his apathetic demeanor appearing in one shot to the next, is indicative of that. While Frohman has said that during the shoot Cobain was easily molded into poses and could be very dramatic in his gestures, he refused to remove the trademark white-framed sunglasses, adding another layer of mystery and alienation from the viewer. Interestingly enough, they do provide the viewer with a unique insight into the artifice of the image – you can see lighting set-ups and even the photographer himself reflected in Kurt’s lenses – and while I’m sure that was not a meditated action taken by the subject, the fact remains that what we are seeing are not candid shots. They are in some regard meticulous, despite Kurt’s attempt to sabotage the shoot as Frohman planned it. Very few people really knew Kurt Cobain without the media filter either building him into a God or shaking their worried heads at his drug-addled antics, and as such, these images are part of that machine. Without expressly turning his middle finger skyward for the camera, Cobain seems flippant, defiant, aware of the fact that everyone is watching.
On the other hand, if Kurt was as strung out as all accounts (including Frohman himself) claim, and taken in context with what would transpire mere months later, it is possible that these really are images of a man with his guard down and his back against the wall. As with any life ended in suicide, it’s natural to look back to that person’s actions leading up to their demise and pick each moment apart to try to discern just what went wrong. Kurt Cobain had everything, and the eyes of the world were upon him. While that pressure has been cited as a key factor in his coming unhinged, there’s really no way to know why someone so talented and vital – or why anyone, really – would put a shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger as if that wouldn’t have an impact on his legacy or the world at large. It’s possible that suicide was the furthest thing from his mind in November when Frohman and Cobain crossed paths, a camera between them. But it doesn’t really matter; at that point, Kurt Cobain’s fate as one of the most iconic musicians in rock-n-roll history was already cemented, with or without his indelible image burned into silver emulsion.
Kurt Cobain: Photographs by Jesse Frohman is on exhibit at The Morrison Hotel Gallery, 124 Prince Street, NYC through April 23rd.

Hole’s Eric Erlandson Talks “Letters To Kurt”

There is one question that every music connoisseur dreads, and though it is often innocently asked, can be astoundingly difficult to answer. It might happen at a party or an intimate dinner gathering, on a first date, or on the fiftieth. But inevitably, as a means of qualifying your musical tastes, future, past, or present, it’s perfectly natural for a friend or acquaintance or romantic interest to casually wonder “What’s your favorite band?”

 For some, the question doesn’t invoke a desperate clamor or sheepish backstory; the answer is permanent and enduring and needs no defense whatsoever. For others, such as myself, it can be a bit more tricky. It’s not that I’d deny my sonic proclivities, but my musical obsessions have been known to shift from one moment to the next. That doesn’t necessarily make my love for any of these acts less deep, but I do end up with a quite a long list of sometimes obscure material that sort of leaves the original query unanswered.
Throughout most of my life, I’ve sort of maintained a Top Three essential acts that I feel provide a definite framework from which most of my musical interests can be gleaned; with these, I try not to mention anything too obscure or recent so as not to alienate anyone or pigeonhole myself. Typically, one or two of these might rotate, but for the last several years my go-tos have included Caribou and Animal Collective, which I don’t think are really much of a stretch in terms of their similarities to one another, and pretty representative of the sort of genres I tend to explore nowadays.
And then there’s my longtime, all time, most favorite band ever, which isn’t like either of the others. As my interests in music have evolved, there’s one constant which so completely informs so many aspects of my personality and my past that it will never be ousted by any other act, no matter how experimental, challenging, or prolific they seem at the time. That band is Hole.
Now, I am fully aware that Hole’s early and mid-nineties contemporaries offered far more in terms of innovation and contribution to the history of what was to become alternative rock, a genre that I hold responsible for my eventual introduction into independent music. But I look to their presence in that movement as a whole to act as a sort of stand-in for so much of what was important to me at that time. They existed at the confluence of grunge and riotgrrl, two forces that offered me a precise blueprint for the way I would form my opinions, express my emotions, and live my life from that time forward; the center of the wheel from which all spokes of my being would radiate. If you think I’m exaggerating, I assure you, I am not. Even my aesthetics as a young artistic hopeful were indelibly shaped by what these bands, and Hole in particular, offered to the world at large.
She warned me it would be this way; I remember the specific moment I heard Courtney’s gravelly premonition: “Someday you will ache like I ache.” I saw her black-and-white heartbreak over the loss of husband and rock idol Kurt Cobain, writhing in crumpled bedsheets each time MTV aired the video that accompanied “Dollparts”. My bad skin thankfully wouldn’t last for the rest of my life, but it ensured I’d never be the prom queen on the cover of Live Through This, an album so blistering and beautiful it felt like the truest thing in my life.
I felt a kinship to Courtney Love, an ugly-ish girl obsessed with vanity and needing to be heard, to be appreciated, to be loved, and able to see the loveliness lurking in hidden, sometimes unattractive places. I watched her trashy glamour transform into Celebrity Skin, a glittering piece of pop-rock perfection with just a bit of a bitter underside. It arrived in an era where girls my age were pimped for Total Request Live, their bare bellies and pouty lips so far from anything I was interested in being or seeing, their horrible songs the last thing I wanted to hear. Instead I pumped “Awful” with a knowing smirk, in on the joke even if no one else laughed with me. Courtney’s impeccable aestheticism in film, music, literature and fashion felt specifically curated for me alone, and it was with her recommendations that I explored cultural boundaries not typically tested by other girls my age.
But I don’t often go into these lurid details when someone asks about my favorite band, for it seems too detailed an explanation. If I align myself with what Courtney once was, I feel I have to amend it these days; she’s become a sad, drug-addled train wreck incapable of her former brilliance as a lyricist, performer, or songwriter, her tastes questionable though at one time I saw her stamp of approval as essential. And I’ve grown out of the need for an idol, especially when that idol has grown into a joke.
One of my biggest regrets is never getting to see the band perform live, never standing before Courtney with her leg propped on the monitors, her skirt hiked up and her guitar swinging brazenly. Her solo releases were kind of pathetic, and last year when she revived the Hole moniker as a desperate means of selling records and concert tickets I only briefly contemplated buying in. It would simply not be the same without Eric Erlandson’s prolific guitar or Patty Schemel’s thunderous drumming, and though she wasn’t an original member, Melissa Auf der Maur’s angelic backup a deft bass seemed essential to the equation as well.
On the eighteenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, I realized how truly essential these people were. Though I’ve made a pact with myself never to patronize evil bookselling empire Barnes & Noble, I had to make an exception that evening – Eric Erlandson was releasing his book of prose poems, Letters To Kurt, and would be joined in conversation with Melissa Auf der Mar. The discussion was warmly and expertly led by journalist Katherine Lanpher, and I was pleased as punch that Patty Schemel was also in attendance. Through the course of the evening, Erlandson fielded questions pertaining to his writing methods, the hardships he had been through both during his time in Hole and the period after they’d disbanded, and even touched on the state of American economics, politics, and music. The conversation was punctuated by both musical performances from Melissa and Eric as a duet, and readings from Letters to Kurt.
Eric opened with a shimmering banjo solo, joking that Hole had been known for their use of “traditional” instruments; his picking became more urgent and darkly tinged as Melissa introduced and began singing “My Foggy Notion”, a track from her first solo album, Auf der Mar. For later numbers, they would cover Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribund” (better known as “Seasons In The Sun”) and close with The Smiths’ “Paint A Vulgar Picture”, songs chosen for references that had been casually inserted into Eric’s writing but also for the relevancy to the somber anniversary at hand. When Patty Schemel joined the group on stage, the three of them shared memories of the impact of Kurt’s death, and Patty related a beautiful story about the first anniversary of his passing, in which Hole was on tour in Europe. A Parisian youth was waving a fanzine around desperately trying to get the band to read Kurt’s interview within, and Melissa had to translate it from French. It turned out to be a blurb about how much Kurt had loved Hole, foundLive Through This to be a brilliant record, and thought Patty to be an exceptional drummer.
That’s the thing that made the evening (and the work presented) less salacious and more authentic than one might expect – it seems impossible, almost unreal, but these people were there, as an integral part, of music history in its making. They had a hand in writing some of the most dramatic, chaotic and prolific chapters in the story of rock music. But until now, their voices had been drowned out by the loudest, proudest widow of the bunch, who wore her pain on the sleeves of her babydoll dress. Almost two decades later, Erlandson has presented a body of prose work that attempts to approach and possibly relieve the pain that surrounded him and his band, and reproach the mistakes made not only by his muse, but those made by himself as well.
Which brings us to the “letters” contained in Erlandson’s book. They are seething & surreal, hallucinatory free-associations densely packed with metaphor and memory, lifting references from pop culture and self-help manifestos, as incantatory as spells that threaten to rouse old ghosts. He delivered these pieces with a sarcastic snarl, but in reading each short chapter it’s apparent that anger is not the only emotion he is attempting to excise and examine – there is suffering, empathy, sadness, love, wonder, admiration, envy, bitterness – each present in varying hues to different degrees. They feel like relics from another era, and it’s true that not everyone will grasp each inside joke or obscure reference, but that is hardly the point.
Erlandson was handed, by his own admission, two things by Courtney – one that would kill him and one that would save him. The latter refers to his own dark experimentations with drugs, and the former to the Buddhist path he has followed since becoming clean and staying sober. More than anything, Letters To Kurtpresents us with a portrait not of the titular muse but of Erlandson himself and the journey he has been on in the aftermath of rock stardom. The book is evidence of whatever peace he has reluctantly reached, snapshots taken from the path he is still on as a means of coming to terms with the past and meeting the future head-on. He’s finally stepped into the spotlight, however reluctantly, and raised his voice, and the results are captivating.
Like Erlandson, Auf der Mar and Schemel have moved on from Hole but have respects to pay to this period of their lives; Schemel documentary Hit So Hardopens in New York on April 13th, comprised mostly of material shot while touring in the mid-late nineties, and Auf der Mar has recorded a new solo record and is heavily involved in the renovation and reopening of arts and performance space Basilica Hudson in Hudson, NY.
For all the time I spent idolizing Courtney Love, attempting to justify her antics to her detractors and to myself, emulating her bravado and feeling her pain as though it were my own, I realized on this night that so much of what really and truly resonated with me was not her histrionics, but the music itself. That truth had been obscured by her blazing star, and only now, long after that comet trail has faded into oblivion, I was able to see the earnest and authentic people responsible for the true magic which still captivates me to this day. While the front-woman who led them to fame and ultimately destroyed the band was trying to be larger than life, there were always three other band members with their feet on the ground, diligently playing with skill and grace, waiting for a time when their own brilliance would become apparent. I can no longer deny their place in my own journey, but I can thank them for shaping me, and I can share in the pride of their survivals and successes.
You can download my full recording of the conversation HERE.