Gary James' Interview With The Author Of
Entertain Us: The Rise Of Nirvana
Gillian G. Gaar
She was there when the Seattle Sound or "Grunge" as it's come to be known, was breaking. She saw all the bands, including the most famous of them all, Nirvana. In 2012 Jawbone Press published her book, Entertain Us: The Rise Of Nirvana. We spoke to author Gillian G. Gaar about that time in music history and all things Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.
Q - Gillian, this whole Grunge music scene that just exploding around Seattle in the late 1980s, early 1990s, was really a moment in time that most likely will never be repeated. It's just like the British Invasion of the 1960s or the popularity of Southern music in the early to mid-1970s. Would agree with that?
A - Yeah, I would probably say that about not only Seattle but the world. I think things are too fragmented now. Certainly the internet had not taken over the entertainment industry as it has now or not just the entertainment industry of course. I don't know if you can have a movement like that again really. Things are too fragmented. Record sales. Just look at that. It's a completely different landscape.
Q - Right. Some of these record companies exist because of the re-issue of some of their biggest hits.
A - Well, you'd know that given the name of the website.
Q - Right. Classicbands.com
A - (laughs) Or think about the time Pearl Jam released their second album, I think it was "Vs" and I think their first week sales were nearly a million copies. It entered the charts at number one and sales were nearly a million, 950,000. Something like that. These days you look at a record that enters the charts at number one, the sales are just a fraction of that. Nowhere close to a million.
Q - Back in the late 1970s if a group sold 100,000 records that was considered a dud. They'd drop you from the label.
A - (laughs)
Q - So when Kurt Cobain died, did Grunge die then?
A - People liked to say that at the time. I think it faded in importance, but I don't think it ever really went away. Even in the '90s as things began to fade, Soundgarden broke up and Alice In Chains basically stopped performing. They weren't an active band from the late '90s on. I think it was '99 that they they were going to appear at Woodstock and they didn't. That was it for them. And they never did anything again. So they weren't technically broken up, but they certainly didn't do anything. It seemed like it had gone, but of course you still had Pearl Jam carrying the banner and even then I noticed wherever you went you'd always see some kid in a Nirvana t-shirt. So, there was still this interest out there. I think what's interesting is the great resurgence of interest. I guess it was Alice In Chains that came back first. I guess it was a benefit for the tsunami in the Philippines. They appeared at that show and then just went on and became a band again. Then Soundgarden got together again. (laughs) And Nirvana is in the Hall Of Fame. And now Pearl Jam is going to be in the Hall Of Fame. So, it receded, but I think it's come back in a big way.
Q - Is there still a Grunge scene in Seattle? Are there bands in Seattle that have picked up where Kurt Cobain and Nirvana left off?
A - Well, that's another question. I'm not really sure you'd say that. I'm not sure about the influence. Maybe here there's not necessarily Grunge, but there's certainly bands still out there. I don't get out as much as I used to I must say. A couple of the local bands I listened to recently are nothing like Grunge.
Q - I know Jimi Hendrix was from Seattle and Heart was from Seattle, but they never referred to them as the Seattle Sound. So, why did Grunge take off in Seattle? What was there about that city?
A - With Jimi it was more like he was born here and that was it. He was never part of the Seattle music scene. Even Heart was more part of the scene than Jimi was because he left after dropping out of high school. So that was it. He wasn't playing the clubs here in bands and rising that way. He was an itinerant musician really for the next couple of years until he was brought over to England. So, that's his connection with Seattle. And who knows, Heart might have been more part of the music scene except some of the guys wanted to avoid the draft. So, that's why they relocated to Canada, but they certainly played in clubs and bars here. I remember seeing their name on The Aquarius Tavern, which was out in my neighborhood. I was too young to go, but I'd see their name there as I'd drive by. So, they left too. They did kind of start pulling the spotlight to Seattle though because after their success they moved back to this area. The thing to do then when you made it big was to move to one of the big music centers like L.A. or New York and they never did that. They remained here in the Northwest. So in a way they kind of laid the groundwork for something going on in the future. When we skip forward a decade to the late '80s Seattle was pretty isolated. It seems odd to think of now where people think of Seattle and Amazon and Microsoft being in the area and now Google has moved here and you think of it as being this big, high tech driven city, but in the '80s it was really considered more of a backwater. There were maybe times when a major act would be on tour and they wouldn't even come to Seattle. They'd probably play in L.A. or San Francisco and then maybe they'd go up to Vancouver, B.C. but they'd miss Seattle completely. That would actually happen. So you felt isolated, but I think for musicians certainly it was kind of freeing because you weren't trying to emulate whatever the big thing that was going on that you might have in Los Angeles. You'd say, "What's this band doing? I'm going to try and do something like that." Seattle was more individualized. You didn't expect success so you didn't worry about it. I think that helped the individuality. People weren't doing these things 'cause they were trying to be number one. I know that in Kurt's journals he wrote about that. He kind of tried to disparage success when he had it, but certainly he thought about it. I think every band thinks about it. Oh yeah, I'd love to be number one, top of the charts, but you don't really expect that to happen. I'm not even sure that Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman expected the big success. They did think their bands could be bigger than just the Seattle scene. Again they hyped it up so much because it was very tongue-in-cheek. Oh, look at us. We're world domination.
Q - Kurt once said, "If only Nirvana could be as big as Mudhoney." And then according to the Reelz Network, Nirvana was not an overnight success. They worked for five years playing thousands of shows all over the world. So clearly Kurt and company wanted to be successful. That's what they were aiming for. Kurt wanted to be famous.
A - Oh yeah, certainly for him because that was really all he had in his life. At least Krist Novoselic had day jobs and Kurt had a few on occasion, but basically not. He just wanted to do his music. He was lucky in that the first girl he moved in with basically more by default agreed to carry him and pay the rent and see that there was food there because he wasn't interested in that. It was pretty much the only thing that he could do. I remember thinking at the time Mudhoney was special and I thought they would be the band to break through and I don't mean break through to the charts because that was impossible. I thought maybe they could be as successful as Sonic Youth. You thought that would be a great level of success because Sonic Youth was signed to a major label and when they came to Seattle they didn't play clubs, they could play a place like The Paramount, which is a theatre. They made their music their way and obviously a record company liked them enough to keep giving 'em money to put out new ones and that seemed like a pretty good level of success. A nice level of success without the additional pressures, but superstardom, I didn't envision that or see what that would be like. I write about this in my book and cover it more in the last chapter, where Kurt would say, "Oh yeah, we're writing these Pop songs now and we want to get out there and we do want to be famous," and suddenly they were famous. So now he had to disparage it. "Oh, well no, I didn't really mean I liked it that much." But it was awkward. It was an awkward position to be in when that happens to you. It's true that they weren't an overnight success. They got together in '87 and we'll say from there to '91 when "Nevermind" came out. That's a couple of years. They hadn't quite played all over the world yet. They actually didn't play that many shows when you think about it, partly because Kurt always had trouble being on the road for a long time. He'd start getting ill. His stomach would act up. This is nothing to do with drug related. This is before that even happened.
Q - Towards the end of his life his stomach problem was under control.
A - Well, I've read conflicting things. I know they said it was a pinched nerve and that's been taken care of now. I think in Charlie's book
(Charles Cross) it says something else.
Q - You saw Kurt in concert several times, but you never did interview him, or did you?
A - No, I never did. I interviewed briefly Krist Novocelic. This is when Nirvana was going on. I've interviewed him post Nirvana. The only time was in '93 and Entertainment Weekly wanted me to write about Nirvana's New Year's Eve Show they were filming for MTV. They were filming it Seattle. Not on New Year's Eve, but on December 13th. They were going to film it and then broadcast it on New Year's Eve. So, that helped me get into the show. They ended up not using the article, which I didn't care about that much because I just wanted to get into the show (laughs) which was a great show. They called it "Live And Loved" performance. It was great being there at the show to see the entire thing 'cause when they broadcast it on MTV it was only about half the concert you saw. It's since come out on DVD, the entire thing. They let them do a longer set because Pearl Jam was also going to be on the show, but they bailed or Eddie didn't show up or something. So then they gave Nirvana a longer time to perform. Backstage, this other reporter and I ran into Krist and just nabbed him for an interview. They were promising, "Oh, yeah. We'll get them to sit down with you," and then it doesn't happen. You keep getting the run around.
Q - You were writing for Rocket?
A - Yeah. I was a Senior Editor at Rocket. I did a couple of big Nirvana stories for Goldmine. The first big one I did was around the time "In Utero" came out. That was when I finally did ask for an interview, but I didn't get it. I just went on and wrote the story anyway. It was a big career overview. I think before that I didn't think of it that much. When "Nevermind" came out, The Rocket did an interview, a piece with an interview. But after that we never got another interview with them. They were just too big.
Q - And most likely MTV got 'em and Rolling Stone magazine.
A - Yeah. It all became a sort of little, minor drama going on. In early '94 I was trying to set up an interview with Hole because their album was coming out. I think I called about it and they said, "Oh, the guy handling it is in Seattle now setting up interviews." So I called him and they were setting up interviews with the big, national publications. They said we could do an interview, but it just seemed impossible to try and set up. Of course then in March what happened was Kurt and his overdose. So then the interview was pushed back. They kept saying it was going to happen. In fact, as late as April 5th, that interview was supposed to happen, but it didn't because of all the backstage drama going on which we didn't know about. I don't know why they didn't just cancel the interview. They didn't have to have a reason. They just say, "Oh, we're not available."
Q - The first time you saw Nirvana was August 25th, 1989 in Seattle, but you don't remember anything about that show. I'm trying to figure out what that means. Were you preoccupied with something else at the time or Nirvana just didn't make an impression on you?
A - It's embarrassing, but I might not have stayed for their performance. I wanted to see Mudhoney. It was the first time I'd seen Mudhoney because to me they were a bigger band. When I looked back at that show later I thought well, Nirvana must have played before them because Nirvana wasn't as big as Mudhoney. But a fellow who took photos at the show, that I know, I looked at his contact sheet and it looks like Nirvana played after. So I think I might've left. They played at the Center Of Contemporary Art, which was a hipster art gallery. I was working at the bar because that was a way to get into the show. Instead of being on the guest list you volunteer to do something and I could do the bar because I was twenty-one. I remember seeing Cat Butt. They were the first band. Then I saw Mudhoney and I remember telling Jonathan Pameman (Sub Pop Records) it was the first time I'd seen them and he was surprised. He said, "Really, it is?" I thought I should have seen them before. I felt like I'd made this horrible faux pas. (laughs)
Q - You saw Nirvana again in September, 1992. What did you hear then? How did you feel about the group?
A - Well, I remember more of the whole experience and not just the band. When they came on, I was sitting in the stands and it just looked like the whole floor which was general admission people, standing, it was this huge mosh pit. It was just amazing. I'd never seen a local band play on that scale where you'd fill an arena and it was just this wild celebratory atmosphere. I remember the self-depreciating jokes. Before they were well known the band attended a show where Sonic Youth opened for Neil Young and Krist got so obnoxious he was kicked out of the backstage area. They taped his picture up backstage and said, "This guy can never come backstage again!" So, there they were doing this show. When they'd been backstage earlier in the day they found the photo still taped up. (laughs) So, they were laughing about that in just friendly, good spirits. I remember thinking, gosh, it would've been great to have seen them in a club. I missed out on all those times I could have seen them. But then a couple of weeks later I did get to see them at a small club when they opened for Mudhoney at a secret show at The Crocodile and that was great. I came kind of late to the party, but then I saw a number of good shows. I saw that one and the Mia Zapata show in '93 at The King Theatre and then I saw "Unplugged" as well.
Q - I'm going to ask about that in a minute. You feel that their 1990- 1991 concerts were their best. So, what do you think happened to them in 1993 and 1994? Were they just burned out by that time?
A - It seemed like Kurt was burned out. You look at their career up to "Nevermind" topping the charts and then afterwards. Gosh, "Nevermind" topped the charts and they're the biggest band in the world at that point and yet in '92 they barely did any 'live' shows. You count the number of shows they did before and the number they did after. You'd think you'd be doing more shows when you're a big band, right? You don't have to fight to get bookings. You look at the number of songs Kurt wrote after "Nevermind". He hardly wrote anything. There are a number of tracks on "In Utero" that were written before "Nevermind". "Rape Me" was one for example. So, he was the creative force and I put that down more to him than the rest of the band perhaps. In my book, and it's also in the last chapter, one of their sound guys, Craig Montgomery, he talks about how frustrating that was. Here they were, this big band but then suddenly there's all this drama and these problems and they're not touring so he doesn't get to go out on tour and work with a big band on the road. He wasn't happy that he didn't get to do that. You look at it, in '92 Kurt's drug problem began to take over and that was really what happened. There was some high points as well. It was obviously this ongoing issue. I don't know if this is in the book, but I've mentioned it in other interviews; in the Fall of '92 they went to do demos for "In Utero" with Jack Endino. It wasn't called "Reciprocal" anymore. They changed the name, but they went to do demos and Jack had worked with Nirvana a couple of times before. He just said this time was so different because before they were always on time and ready to work and they worked, but now this time they waited hours for Kurt to show up. The other guys were obviously unhappy about that. It was just a different, strained atmosphere that Jack didn't like. He said he was glad that he didn't work more on "In Utero" because it wasn't the same band he had worked with.
Q - You worked at the taping of "Nirvana Unplugged". They were really good then!
A - Yeah. I'd never been to an unplugged. I guess it was different from some of the others in that they didn't re-take anything. This was more like seeing a show 'cause they just went straight through, although there were pauses in-between. It wasn't quite like a regular show where they kind of keep the pace going. In-between they pause and joke with the audience. Again, it seemed very laid back. You would never have known, as we learned in Charlie's book, that that day Kurt had sent someone out to try and get some kind of drugs for him before the broadcast. I don't think I talked to Krist about this much, but I did talk to Lori Goldston, the cello player, and she said despite what you see they were all kind of nervous about it and it was odd seeing the camera sweeping around. It's odd when you're on the other side of that and the camera is swooping around you. That was a little nerve-racking. She thought they would do some things again, but they didn't. Obviously they just went straight through.
Q - What was the mood in the office of Rocket on April 8th, 1994? Did people believe Kurt Cobain had committed suicide or did they believe it was murder?
A - Oh, there was no thought about it being murder then at all. None of that. It was kind of a frantic, busy day. I remember being there and my interview with Courtney hadn't happened, so I was still irritated about that. Then people started calling the office because they heard the news about a body being found at the Cobain house. So, I overheard people mentioning that in the office. We didn't know anything about it then, but then my mother called me and she said she'd heard this report on the radio. That's when I thought there's something different here because my mother wasn't sitting around listening to Rock radio. She's be listening to an Adult Talk radio station. So that meant the story had jumped from the Rock radio station to another kind of station and I thought maybe something's up here. Charlie (Cross) had some contact at the scene who had unofficially confirmed to him that it was Kurt. So we knew about noon. It's kind of an eerie story. I put this in my book. I'm so glad to finally get it in there. That book just didn't get the exposure it should have. It's one of my favorites. Our ad manager at the time was also named Courtney, which added to some confusion about things. Earlier, a couple of years before, she had been dating this medical student. He was actually born in England, but he was over here. She met him when they were at college in Idaho and they moved to Seattle. They had broken up, but they remained in touch. He did his residency in California and then he came back up here to Seattle. It was Nicholas Hartshorne, and he got a job at the Medical Examiners office. Courtney Miller, like me, had been overhearing things about people calling saying someone had been found at Kurt's house. Then she said she went out to lunch or do an errand. When she came back there was a message slip on her desk that said Nicholas called. As soon as she saw that she said I knew then it was Kurt because there was no other reason that he would've been calling her, as indeed it was. She said how weird that was to then watch the news and see him coming out of the house. He had bushy hair so she could recognize him. That was all very weird. When we knew it was Kurt we were going to press that day. That's why it was busy in the office anyway. So we decided we had to do something and luckily I managed to snag the position of writing sort of a memorial piece. So I went home to write it because the phones were just ringing. As the news spread, people were calling us, especially because the record companies weren't saying anything. No one at Sub Pop wanted to do interviews. So, I thought I got to get out of here and get where it's a little more quiet. So I went home to write the piece. We were using computers by then. After I finished it I put it on a floppy disc and carried it back to the office. (laughs) These days I might've just sent it via e-mail. I knew everyone wanted to talk to Charlie that day, the editor. Some local news crew just insisted they do something and wanted to come over and film him in the office and he said, "No. We're on a deadline. We're busy running around here." He did the interview in the stairwell of the building and that satisfied them.
Q - I want you to comment on some things Rush Limbaugh said on his television show about Kurt shortly after he died. First up, "He sings songs no one can understand." Did you ever have trouble understanding what Kurt was singing?
A - It depends. I'd say yes. It didn't necessarily bother me. A lot of songs are like that. That's why I like lyric sheets. Some of course are pretty easy to understand. You look at the song "School". That's pretty clear. Of course that was a joke about "Teen Spirit", wasn't it? People weren't sure what he was saying and (Weird Al) Yankovic got his video up, kind of sending that point up, which the band liked. As I say, they didn't take themselves too seriously. They thought it was funny. They were pleased that Yankovic was doing a parody video of them.
Q - "I do not believe he was a spokesman for his generation." He never said he was. He was a spokesman to his generation. Big difference.
A - He didn't want to be a spokesman for his generation. Of course that's often conferred upon you. You don't go out and get that yourself. I think that was the one troubling thing about fans for him and gosh the media wasn't half as bad as they are now. This idea that everything you say and do, people look at and pick at and reinterpret in ways that perhaps are nothing to do with what you meant. He did find that frustrating.
Q - "He was trying to kill himself for twelve years." Is that true?
A - He did talk about doing something like that, but I just always wondered if he exaggerated. He said he laid down on a train track. He said he was going to be run over by a train, but the train went by on a different track, which you know is a dramatic story, but even at the time I thought, well... (laughs). He said he first used drugs when he was living in Aberdeen and that he didn't get addicted 'cause he didn't have the money for it. Charlie's book really did research his early years quite thoroughly and it's unlikely that he used heroin at all in Aberdeen. He exaggerated. I think you could say he suffered from depression for twelve years. Rush's comments seem to exaggerate about that.
Q - "The guy was simply not there." I don't even know what that means.
A - Yeah. I'm not quite sure. Maybe he meant he was not mentally right.
Q - "He achieved some level of fame he doesn't deserve." He had fans, so somebody thought he was good.
A - Yeah. (laughs)
Q - "He looks filthy and rotten." I remember bringing this up to the person who cuts my hair and was told that Kurt Cobain's hair looked like it was styled.
A - You look at early '92 when he was on Saturday Night Live, he dyed his hair with Kool-Aid. (laughs)
Q - So the idea that he had his hair styled is wrong. That's just the way he looked then.
A - Yeah. I'm not saying that he never had a nice haircut, but certainly cleanliness over the years was not the way he lived. He always ended up in this squalor and messiness. At the end of '92 when they were trying to clean up their image and say the drug use is in the past and all that, he got his hair cut quite short. So, it wasn't hanging in his face and you could see how attractive he was. He could have the long hair and maybe some growth of beard, but then when he was trying to look clean-cut, he looked very fresh faced. I'm thinking when he was on the MTV Awards in 1992.
Q - Have you seen this film Soaked In Bleach?
A - I'm not one for conspiracy theories. I used to read them because I thought it was interesting that people need conspiracy theories and then I decided it was just a waste of time to spend your time with all that. One thing I was disappointed in with Soaked In Bleach was I thought they'd have more new information. The murder theory about Kurt has been around practically since he died. I thought maybe they'd have some new evidence, new stories, some new something. If you're not familiar with all the different theories then seeing that film would get you up to speed on them, but if you are familiar it was just kind of the same old stuff.
Q - The cast of experts that are paraded across the screen in Soaked In Bleach make a convincing argument that something is very wrong with the official explanation in the death of Kurt Cobain. The case should be reopened, but who knows if that will ever happen.
A - The thing is, people get so hung up on it being a conspiracy that it doesn't matter what you say. You could have a video tape of the entire case saying it was a suicide and they'd still say that's wrong. So, there's just no point. People build these molehills into mountains when I don't really think it's justified. It's really odd with Kurt's death. It seems as cut and dried as you can get. I don't understand why people keep insisting it's a murder when it's so obvious to me that it wasn't.
Q - I keep hearing Kurt could never have killed himself with that shotgun after injecting that much heroin.
A - A friend of mine argued convincingly about the heroin, but I don't remember the exact argument. Anyway, it persuaded me. He was quoting other experts. He's not the expert himself. He and I are of a similar mind. Someone was saying I don't know what it would take to get the people who believe suicide to think otherwise. I said, "Well, hard evidence." There's none. There's absolutely no hard evidence.
Q - I would like to see Tom Grant get the answers to the questions he raised for all these years.
A - I think Tom Grant has set about to make himself feel better about blowing the biggest case of his life. That's my theory. He had the case of his life drop into his lap and he blew it. He was supposed to find Kurt and he didn't.
Q - He did bring Dylan Carlson with him to the Cobain residence and didn't find Kurt. It was raining and before leaving he turned to Dylan and said, "Did we search everywhere?" He did not see the room above the garage because it was raining so hard.
A - His excuse there was he didn't know there was a room up there because it was at night. He now thinks Dylan dissuaded him from searching there. "They just keep lumber in there or something." You see, that's where he lost me. If it's you or I searching, that might be an acceptable response, but he's supposed to be a professional detective. I thought that showed dereliction of duty, especially in this case because Kurt wasn't missing in the sense that he'd been kidnapped or was being held against his will. He dropped out of sight and no one knew where he was. I mean he was hiding in a sense, right? So, if a person is going out of their way to not letting you be in touch with them then perhaps they're not going to be hanging out in their home. One of the Seattle police at the time, he had a comment like that which I thought was very astute, because there was that Missing Persons report made and the officer or detective said, "He wasn't so much a missing person as a person who didn't want to be found." That's the key. Anyway, when I read that from Grant, I thought he doesn't even know what he's doing. He lost credibility with me there.
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